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How To Fly With A Firearm in 2023 thumbnail image

How To Fly With A Firearm in 2023

80 Percent Arms   |   Jan 13th 2023

With the New Year in full swing we wanted to share what we learned when we traveled with our guns recently during the holidays. The TSA has issued new policies and certain airlines will vary on their rules with how they allow passengers to check in their guns in luggages. 

Unfortunately, there is no single answer that covers every airline since they all have their own regulations. If you are planning a trip that requires you to fly it is extremely important to do your research well in advance of your trip, even if you have before check again since regulations are subject to change. If you want to call ahead with the airline you can certainly try but your experience is really going to come down to the person at the ticketing counter. Below is our best advice that will give you the highest chance for success and ease for having an uneventful experience when flying with your guns. 

Flying with Firearms Key Advice

rifle case air travel

The TSA has had a reputation in the past for confiscating items, especially firearms and even pocket knives. No one wants to lose their precious AR-15. So here are a few key rules and notes to follow if you're going to travel with your guns by air.

  • Declare any firearm in checked baggage at the ticket counter.
  • Firearms must be unloaded and locked in a hard-sided case, only in checked baggage, and you must retain the key or combination. (Do not use TSA locks)
  • For peace of mind, make sure you choose a case that has 2 to 4 points for attaching individual locks.
  • Rifle parts, including magazines and firing pins, are prohibited from carry-on luggage.
  • Ammunition may not exceed 11 pounds total, when being checked in it must be in its original packaging.
  • They prohibit ammunition in carry-on luggage.
  • Avoid packing anything firearms related, even accessories or tools in your carry on bags. 
  • If you’re flying to a different state, make sure to check their state laws. i.e. if you’re flying to New York, don’t bring the gun altogether to avoid risk of gun confiscation or unconstitutional jail time.
  • Expect a brief inspection with your gun case by an officer or TSA agent before you go through the security checkpoint.
  • Never use curbside check-in, do it yourself to personally confirm the case being checked in. Look for the FULL SERVICE line. 

Step 1: Picking the Right Case and Locks

One major requirement that is relevant throughout all airlines that allow firearms to travel with you is the type of storage container you use for your firearm. A hard sided case with more than one point to secure a lock, such as a Pelican Vault Case will always be acceptable by the FAA regulations. Additionally, the firearm must be unloaded, and the ammunition must be stored in its original packaging, though it can be in the same case as your firearm. In fact ammunition can even be stored in your normal checked-in bags. But more on that below.

Step 2: Checking In Your Bags

This is always the most nerve wracking part.

The fear most travelers have is whether or not the ticketing agent is going to freak out or overreact upon you letting them know that you need to check in a firearm. So here's our best advice based on years of flying with guns.

These days, most airlines force you to use a kiosk to get your baggage tags first. We recommend you still do this, select the correct number of baggages you'll be checking in - your case carrying the firearm(s) counts as one. 

Then, if your airline has a "Full Service" line that is open use that line to finish the check in process. When you get to the counter, tell the airline employee that you'd like to check in or declare a firearm. 

It helps to look like you know what you're doing so that others aren't nervous so check in your normal bags first and do your firearm case last. Once you're ready to check in the firearm case, ask if it's okay that you unlock the case and open it. The airline employee will have you fill out a card with your personal information such as your home address, phone number, flight information and require your signature. This card is placed in your firearm case. There may or may not be a visual inspection at this point where you are asked if all guns are unloaded. 

Once they tell you you're good, you can close the case and lock it back up. If you are using a longer or rifle length pelican they'll take it and put it on the moving belt so that it can go for an x-ray scan and or additional inspection by TSA. 

Depending on the airline, if you are using a smaller pistol sized Pelican style case, they may even force you to place your case within your normal baggage. This happened to us with Sun Country Airlines. The airline that we received the least amount of hassle was with Southwest Airlines. Other airlines that should also be familiar and comfortable with the firearm checking in process in our experience have included United, American Airlines, Delta and even Allegiant. This is why it's best to travel with rifle length or large Pelican style cases so that they don't end up on the baggage claim carousel for someone else to take accidentally or steal. 

Step 3: TSA or Law Enforcement Inspection

Every airport and airline will differ in this area but generally speaking this is a simple process so it only happens one of a couple different ways.

Sometimes a law enforcement officer will called over to the ticketing counter to make a visual inspection of your gun case to make sure everything is unloaded and that if you are carrying ammo it's all in original packaging - loose ammo in zip lock bags for example is not allowed. 

If that doesn't happen, what's most common is that after your suitcases and gun case have been checked in they'll asked you to wait 10-15 minutes at the side. If your name is not called over for the PA that means your gun case has gone through the x-ray scan without incident. There have been times when we were at our gate already and we were called back due to an issue with what the TSA saw in their x-ray scans. But this rarely happens. 

Once the 10-15 minutes are up, go ahead and head to the TSA security checkpoint to get to your gate.

Step 4: TSA Security Checkpoint

If you're avid gun enthusiasts like us, make sure you check all your carry on bags before you get to this point to make sure you don't have any loose ammo or firearm accessories, parts or gear. Even though you may be allowed, technically, to bring some of that through we've been hassled by TSA before for even having a Maglula speed loader before. Better to just not take your chances and give a TSA agent an opportunity to hold you up. We also highly recommend getting TSA pre-check so that you fly through the line and avoid missing your flight. 

Step 5: Picking Up Your Firearm at Baggage Claim

So far, we’ve never had any firearm misplaced so fingers crossed to continue that trend. When you step off your flight, head to baggage claim as quickly as you can and look for the nearest airline office. There, you’ll inform an airline employee that you’re there to pick up your firearm. Give them a few moments and someone from the back, sometimes an officer, will personally hand you your firearm. It’s a pretty secure process.

However, policies have now changed for most airlines and typically what happens is that your rifle case will be delivered to a "large or oversized items" area where other travelers will collect their musical instruments, golf clubs, strollers or surf boards. We like to hover in an area between the baggage carousel and this area so that we can see what is coming out simultaneously. 

What you don't want to happen is for your rifle or pistol case to accidentally come out on the carousel without your knowing. Once you see your case come out, just let the airline employee know, they'll ask to see your ID to match it with your baggage tags. 

Travel Safely With 80 Percent Arms

Before you leave the airport, make sure your rifle and any other gear or ammunition is still in the case. It is not entirely uncommon for airline attendees to pilfer checked baggage goods. Better safe than sorry! Getting a feel for the weight of your case may help so you can generally know whether or not if something feels off. If you absolutely have to just don't open it wide open, all you have to do is crack a peak but safer to do this in the car after you've been picked up so as to not alert others and freak bystanders or airport law enforcement out. 

No one likes the idea of losing their beloved rifle, especially one you built yourself using an  80% lower. Follow the guidelines above when traveling with a firearm, DIY or not, and you’ll be fine.