Flying with firearms


Flying with Firearms

By Peter Burlingame

ff airport

It is not only possible, but fairly easy to travel by plane with your firearms. This article will outline how to do it safely and smoothly.

Your primary concern is that you obey all laws. Because you are traveling from one location to another location, likely in a different jurisdiction, you need to know and follow the laws where you start and finish your trip. If you have a layover and take possession of your luggage during this period, you must be in compliance with the laws in that locale also.

A good place to start is the website, Also check out this book, “The Traveler’s Guide to the Firearms Laws of the Fifty States”. These two resources will give you useful information on the state laws pertaining to gun ownership and transportation.  Realize that laws and regulations change so check to see when the information provided was last updated.

A little preparation will make flying with your firearms easy. Basically, your firearm must be unloaded, in a locked case in your checked in luggage, and you must declare it to the ticket agent when you check in. These are some tips that I have learned over the last 2 decades of flying with my guns that I’ll share with you.

When I’m packing the firearm into its case, I not only unload it, I disassemble it. I’ll pull the


Disassemble your firearm to make it obviously safe. Photo courtesy Peter Burlingame.

bolt out of my rifles and the slides or cylinders off of my pistols. The firearm is then more noticeably ‘empty’ to anyone looking. I can be certain there won’t be an accidental discharge. I put the bolt/barrel/cylinder in another part of my luggage, so that if my gun does get stolen, the thieves don’t have a complete, usable firearm.

Your firearm must be in a locked hard shell case. This case can be checked in by itself, but I think it is better to put it into another piece of luggage. This is easy to do with a small pistol case, but more difficult with a large rifle or shotgun case. Even a long gun case can sometimes be slipped into a large duffel bag.

I do this is so that it is not readily apparent that there is a case containing a firearm. This reduces the temptation for theft.

The case that the guns are in must be locked. You must be the only one with access to the key or combination to those locks. For this reason, you should not use the TSA locks. If you put the gun case inside another piece of luggage, that suitcase can have TSA locks on it. The idea is that once your gun has been certified to be empty, no one should have access to it.

I have a hard shell piece of luggage that I have dedicated for use in transporting pistols. I


Drawer handle attached to inside of suitcase. Photo courtesy Peter Burlingame

modified this dedicated suitcase by  gluing and riveting a drawer handle inside it. I then use a cable lock to secure my pistol case to this handle, so that it can’t ‘accidentally fall out’  of my luggage during a TSA inspection. I secure other important things to this handle via cable ties for the same reason.

The next part of being prepared is to have an old ‘UNLOADED FIREARM’ card with you.  Always keep your old ones for this purpose. If you don’t have one, you can print a copy of one of mine. This card must signed and dated and placed inside the case that contains your firearms. This is to signify that you guns have been checked and are certified to be unloaded.

When I check in with the ticket agent, I hand them my ID and this card. This accomplishes several important things. It lets the ticket agent know that I am checking in a firearm, without me having to say out loud “I have a gun”.  Something I try to avoid doing in public these days. If the ticket agent has never dealt with this before, it reassures them that there is a process for dealing with it. Every airline has their own card, and I try to use that airline’s card when I’m traveling. That way the American/USAIR/Delta agent knows that THEIR company is OK with this. If the ticket agent needs to see a manager or supervisor for help, they can show them the card and the supervisor will know exactly what is required.  Lastly, presenting this card informs the agent that I have done this before and am familiar with the procedure.  This one thing has made traveling with firearms much smoother for me over the last 20 years.

ff unloadedVarious airports have differing ways of checking that your firearm is unloaded. I’ve had ticket agents have me open my luggage right there at the counter, including the gun case, for everyone to see. This is obviously my least favorite method. But I’m ready for it. My clothing is packed so that won’t fall out on the floor, and I position the lid of the suitcase so it blocks the view from the public. In my experience, the  majority of ticket agents won’t know how to verify that the gun is empty. Which is another good reason to disassemble your gun so a quick glance shows that it is ‘safe’.

I much prefer it when I am directed to room where we can examine my guns in private. Sometimes the airline sets this up, and sometimes it is TSA. Being ready for any of these situations makes them go better and helps you to maintain a friendly attitude, something else that goes a long way to smoothing out the process.

TSA doesn’t care how much ammo you pack, but it must be in the factory original containers, or other containers that are meant to safely hold cartridges. The ammunition can go in the same luggage as the firearms. The cartridges can’t be loose, so even though it is a ‘factory original container’, I would stay away from bulk packs of ammo.  You can leave ammo in your magazines, as long as they aren’t in the gun, and the top of the magazine is contained. Pistol magazines in their pouches is an example. P-Mags with their covers are another.

While TSA only cares about how you transporting ammunition, the various airlines have limits on how much you can carry. This is typically done by weight. Several of the major airlines that I fly frequently, allow 11 pounds of ammo.  Before traveling, you should consult your airline’s website to learn their rules and regulations.

To recap, flying with firearms is legal and fairly easy with some preparation on your part. Know the laws, rules, and regulations, have your luggage set up properly, have a copy of the ‘Unloaded Firearm card, and above all have a friendly attitude.

Some helpful links. It’s a good idea to print them out and bring them with you:

Peter Burlingame is a nationally recognized gunfighting instructor, teaching  civilians, security, law enforcement, and military personnel all around the U.S. He offers classes from beginner to instructor levels. Visit his Youtube channel to watch his instructional videos.


About Author

Lee Williams can’t remember a time in his life when he wasn’t shooting. Before becoming a journalist, Lee served in the Army and worked as a police officer. He’s earned more than a dozen journalism awards as a reporter, and three medals of valor as a cop. He is an NRA-certified law enforcement firearms instructor, an avid tactical shooter and a training junkie. When he’s not busy as a senior investigative reporter, he is usually shooting his AKs, XDs and CZs. If you don’t run into him at a local gun range, you can reach him at 941.284.8553, by email, or by regular mail to 1777 Main St., Sarasota, FL 34236. You can follow him on Twitter: @HT_GunWriter and on Facebook @The Gun Writer.


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  4. Law of Self Defense on

    FYI, when flying out of Jacksonville FL recently the ticket agent gave me a hard time about my hard pistol case because it was possible to unsnap the latches and pry open the case a bit more than 1/4″ even with the lock on it (in fairness, I had simply locked it with a pair of cuffs). Fortunately, I had a cable lock with me, and wrapped that around the split handle and that closed the case up tighter. I now have padlocks that are appropriately sized to keep the case relatively tightly closed even if the snaps are undone.

    Also, I recently had a ticket agent ask me if my ammo was packed in factory boxes, and when I replied that they were she asked me if they’d ever been opened. First time I’d ever heard that one.

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