The traveling hunter: Flying with firearms

I've done some hunting-related travel by air over the years; not in the league of Jim Shockey or any of those guys, for sure, but enough to pick up a few tips of what works and what doesn't when it comes to checking in firearms or archery equipment.

Most folks today have done enough air travel to dispel the myth that flying is glamorous. It's not, but it usually beats the option of driving, if nothing more than to save time. Hunters have learned, too, that things rarely go entirely smoothly when it comes to travel with firearms – or any other type of baggage, when you think about it.

That said, I've been pretty fortunate along the way, my trips to Wyoming, Kansas, South Dakota, Florida, Colorado and Nebraska toting guns or bows relatively uneventful. It just takes a bit of extra planning and, at times, a tone firm enough to get your message across but not so firm you end up face-planted on the tarmac.

Have I ever had a gun lost or a firearm delayed? Lost? No, but delayed once. Fortunately, that was on a return trip from a Florida hunt, and by then my Mossberg 835 had already done its job on an Osceola longbeard. The real problem arose when the courier casually drove from Albany to Elizabethtown, up our 100-yard Adirondack driveway at 2:30 a.m. to deliver it. He learned I had more than the gun he was delivering, and I advised him he shouldn't make any middle-of-the-night deliveries in the 'Dacks.

Most airlines – and I know some hunters prefer some over others and flat-out won't fly specific airlines – are used to dealing with hunters and don't bat an eyelash when you show up with a hard gun case.

But it helps if you announce, "I have a firearm to check in," instead of saying, simply, "I have a gun." (See previous tarmac faceplant note.) Sometimes it even gets you moved to the front of the line.

Guns and bows fall under the airline baggage category of "sports equipment," and there are typically several basic regulations to follow to have them checked in smoothly (NOT as carry-on baggage, obviously):

  • firearms must be packed in a hard-sided case with a lock, and should be locked when presented to the airline for check-in. They'll ask you to unlock it for inspection, then re-lock it. It helps if you have the key or combination to the lock when you get to your hunting destination. I haven't made that mistake – yet.
  • some airlines allow you to pack your ammo – up to 11 pounds in most cases – in the same case. I generally take the cautious route and separate them, carrying the ammo in my checked-in luggage in its original container or another package of some type.
  • while my hard gun case is probably in the area of being labeled as "oversized," I've never been hit with an overside baggage fee. I might lobby my case – literally – if an airline tried to slap me with that charge, but not too vociferously (see previous tarmac faceplant notes).
  • a word about archery equipment. It's not treated quite as rigidly as firearms by most airlines, but I always request my bow be treated as a firearm, which allows me to lock things up after an inspection. That way no one is opening my case and then trying to jam my tight-fitting Mathews Z7 back into the case. No telling what might happen then. I've only had one agent balk at my request, and I think it was simply a product of laziness. He simply said, "they (TSA agents) won't open it." Fortunately, another airline worker quickly countered with, "Yes they will" and we got things resolved.

So I really don't have any horror stories when it comes to flying with firearms in tow. Maybe I've been lucky – and I'm jinxing myself ahead of a Kansas turkey hunting trip in April – or maybe it's been a product of planning and preparation. But half the time I get a casual question or two about where I'm headed and what I'm hunting or, on my return trip, whether I had any luck.

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