Any firearm must be in an airline-approved hard case (most any durable, lockable case will do), and it must be locked. The lock(s) must prevent the case from being opened, and that includes prying it open.
"TSA locks" (special locks which TSA personnel can open) are taboo. Whoever checks the gun case (and claims it after the flight) must be the only person with a key to the lock(s).
All firearms must be unloaded, and must be declared when you check your baggage - and you must check it as baggage, because gun cases aren't allowed as carry-on items.
Ammunition may be transported in checked baggage, and while TSA regulations allow it to be transported in the same locked hard case as your gun, some airlines do not. American Airlines has its own restrictions on ammo, and while they did not specify that ammo must be in a separate bag, I put it in my suitcase.
Black powder and percussion caps are prohibited.
If you're traveling to another country, make sure you know its laws and be certain to comply with them.
I used a Pelican 1750 gun case containing two bolt-action rifles and related items (BoreSnakes, sling, empty spare magazine, screwdriver, wiping rag, etc), locked with a pair of keyed-alike Master padlocks.
When you check your bags, there will be procedures to follow. When I flew with American, it went smoothly and well. I can't attest to any other airline.
Each time I checked the case and declared the guns, the airline employee produced a card for me to sign, declaring the guns unloaded. I then unlocked and opened the case to allow her to look inside and verify that there were two rifles inside. The card I'd signed was placed inside; then I closed, latched, and locked the case.
I was not asked to demonstrate that the guns were unloaded, but was prepared to do so if asked.
Keep the key or combination to the lock(s) handy, because you may need it even after you've gone through the above routine.
In Tampa, I was asked about ammunition. American Airlines says "ammunition must be packed in its original packaging." TSA puts it more reasonably by allowing "packaging that is specifically designed to carry small amounts of ammunition" (FYI, TSA specifically outlaws ammo stored in magazines). I had brought two boxes of ammunition, packed in their original factory boxes. The gal asked whether the ammo exceeded 11 pounds (no ma'am), and whether it was in its original packaging (yes ma'am).
In Denver, no questions were asked about ammunition, and I volunteered no information about it.
In Tampa, I walked a short distance with an airline employee to the TSA area. There, I was told to wait outside until one of the TSA employees waved that everything was okay. After delivering the case, the American Airlines fellow headed back to the bag check area.
I stood there while my gun case was put through an X-ray machine. I was paid so little attention that I was starting to wonder if the baggage guy had been correct about the waving thing, but then one of the bored-looking folks looked over and waved, and away I went in search of my flight.
After checking my bags in Denver, my gun case was put on a cart by a young male airline employee, and we took a walk. It was a good ways over to the TSA area, where once again I was instructed to remain outside an open doorway. This time, the airline employee stood with me while a female TSA employee (the only one in evidence) put my case through an X-ray machine.
While I stood there, I heard a mechanical voice announce over the PA system that the "Homeland Security Threat Level" had been raised to orange, and to watch out for abandoned bags, etc. Just my luck, I thought. I'll be branded a terrorist for sure.
After a few minutes, the gal brought the case over, put it on a table near the doorway, and asked me to unlock it. This I did, holding on to the padlocks per her instructions. Then I followed her instruction to step back a pace or two while she eyeballed inside the case. After a short perusal, she laid another piece of paper inside the case and asked me to close and lock it, which I did.
The case was then released from TSA's custody into the care of the airline employee, and he wheeled it away on his cart, at which point I entrusted it to the airline and ceased to follow it around.
The way you reclaim your gun case can vary. When I arrived in Denver, I stood by the conveyor and got my suitcase, but the gun case did not show up. An announcement over the PA said they had bulky items for claim in the office. While Wayne and I stood there wondering if a gun case was considered bulky, the announcement was repeated - but this time, they said they had gun cases in the office.
I looked around and spotted an anxious-looking young lady peering out an open door, so I headed that way. She asked me if I had come for the gun case, I said, "Yes," she asked for ID, I produced it for her examination, and then I was on my way.
When I got to Tampa, my gun case came out on the conveyor just like the suitcases. One of the latches was hanging open, but it was undamaged and the case was not open. I was once again happy that I hadn't used a lower-quality case.
As I write this, I've flown with a gun on just two commercial flights. It went smoothly in both cases, and didn't add more than five or ten minutes to my travel time.
Take the time to learn about TSA and airline requirements, and be prepared to spend a few extra minutes when you fly with a gun. And it might not be a bad idea to carry a printout of TSA firearms & ammunition regulations, just in case you run across someone who doesn't know the rules they're supposed to be following.
- Russ Chastain