Gear, tips and secrets for transporting firearms from a vagabond rifleman.
The essentials for transporting firearms:
- Airline Approved Gun Case
- TSA-approved combination locks (more than one)
- Lockable ammunition box
- Proof of firearm ownership (international travel)
- Permits or licenses for destination country
- A firm understading of your destination's rules and regulations
Livingstone, Zambia, September 2011. We stood in the queue at the airport, waiting to meet our host for a 3-day visit to Victoria Falls. I collected the baggage — including my rifle case — and greeted the lady who would house us while we visited one of the wonders of the world.
“You have a firearm?!?” I knew immediately this wasn’t going to go well, as she was obviously of the anti-gun mindset, not to mention anti-hunting, and we were just off a 7-day buffalo safari. “Yes, and all the correlative paperwork,” I explained, showing her the large packet of forms and necessary documents. “Still, we’re going to have to store that with the local police,” she insisted. Here we go …
The “local police” didn’t exactly look as official as I’d have preferred, and they insisted I keep my .416 in the “armory.” When I asked if I could see the armory, the emphatic “no” didn’t engender any confidence, and when they brought out the dirty notebook that served as the official log, all the red flags in the world were raised in my head. Some folks make life harder than it has to be.
Using a mixture of Nyanja and Swahili, I explained that all my papers were in order, and that there was no reason not to let me take my rifle with me. It finally took a cell call to my PH to have him sort the “officials” out, but I carried the Model 70 out of the station that day.
Traveling with a firearm — especially when traveling to foreign countries — can be a hassle at best, and sometimes can pose serious legal problems if you don’t have your ducks in a row. I absolutely love hunting trips to far-off destinations; they are full of exotic experiences, unfamiliar landscapes and comprise some of my fondest hunting memories. But it requires a different level of attention, especially to the small details that can help things run smoothly, as opposed to sitting in a small room for hours, explaining to the local authorities what has transpired.
Here’s some advice, based upon both the good and bad experiences I’ve had around the globe.
The Gun Case
This is where it will all begin. Your gun case needs to be rock-solid, as more often than not the airline employees will perform a torture test that even the manufacturers cannot replicate. I’ve used several models, including a heavy-duty aluminum model from Randolph, and one of Pelican’s cases, while some friends swear by a Tuff-Pak. I also have an SKB case for double rifles and shotguns that can be broken down.
Brand choice aside, you’ll need a case that’s airline approved and will stand up to the rigors of travel. The various luggage belts in airports will squeeze and twist your case, and I’ve been pulled off an airplane to rearrange my rifle case once it was given a thorough beating.
The Pelican cases offer a foam insert that can be cut out for an exact fit for your particular rifle or rifles, and that certainly works, but I go a different route. I remove the uppermost layer of foam so that I can place my gun in a soft case — which I’ll need to bring along anyhow — and I put that in the Pelican, killing two birds with one stone and making some room in my luggage.
More Information For Transporting Firearms Check out:
- Concealed Carry And Traveling Armed
- Considerations for Traveling with Firearms
- Transporting Guns with Nanuk Protective Cases
- Why You Need A Vehicle Gun Safe
Underneath the foam, I keep a copy of my passport, the applicable Form 4457 (more about that in a bit) and copies of other pertinent paperwork. I lock the rifle case with the TSA-approved combination locks that you can buy at any box store, and I throw a half-dozen more of them in my carryon luggage — they will, invariably, be broken off at some point in your journey, and should an official need to open the case, they will do less damage with the smaller locks than with the large padlocks. And believe me, if they want in, they’re gonna get in.
I use a simple little Plano lockable ammo box to keep all my ammunition in, and that goes in my checked suitcase. It’s a requirement for bringing ammo to Australia, but I use it all the time now, keeping my ammo organized and well protected. It seems to be a hit with the customs officials as well, and that’s never a bad thing.
When presenting your rifle case at the luggage counter, I use the following phrase: “Hello, I’ll need you to contact TSA, as I’m traveling with an unloaded and disassembled hunting firearm.” Only once, on my first safari, have I had a ticket agent lose their mind. She was obviously new and acted as if I were trying to check a nuclear warhead. I remained calm and politely instructed her to contact TSA and the police. All went well, and we both learned something that morning.
Which brings us to the packing of your firearm: This is one point to which you want to pay strict attention. Double and triple check to be sure that no ammunition — not even empty cases — is in your gun case. An argument with TSA Agents is one you’re not going to win, and one that doesn’t need to happen. Render the firearm inoperable if possible, removing the bolt on a bolt-action rifle, lock the action open on autoloaders, remove the magazine if possible, drop the lever on single shots and lever guns. In other words, let the agents know you’re responsible when opening your case for inspection.
Paperwork — Lots Of It
Domestic flights won’t require paperwork, but any international travel most definitely will. Start with Form 4457, as this is the proof you’ll need that you owned the firearm here in the United States. You’ll most definitely need it for re-entry. A simple appointment with U.S. Customs and Border Patrol — and I highly suggest you call ahead — will garner the form, signed by a Customs Officer, and is good for life.
You will, however, need one for every firearm you intend to take abroad. It will contain make, model, serial number and caliber, and I usually throw the make and model of the optics on there just to avoid any complications. I keep the original on my person, and I make copies for both my luggage and my gun case. If I lose the original, the agents can always look up the certificate with a clear copy.
Depending upon your destination, there will be varying permits, forms and/or licenses required to temporarily import a firearm. Many of these forms can be found online, and if you can have them filled out ahead of time, I highly recommend that you do so. Some countries, such as Australia, require an exorbitant amount of paperwork to be filled out far in advance. Canada will allow you to obtain an import upon entry, as will South Africa, but it will go much smoother if you have your paperwork already filled out.
Back to Australia: There is a strict licensing system, which requires the licensee to apply well head of time in order to receive the Police Department’s approval, and to have on your person at all times, including when entering the country. There is, in addition to the approved paper forms, a credit card-sized ID/license, replete with your photo and reasons for the firearm permit.
When Things Go Wrong
I had a nightmarish travel scenario when I went to Australia. The Australian governmental officials were most helpful, but it was a glaring example of Murphy’s Law. I was headed to hunt the Northern Territory, and my itinerary was Albany, New York, to Charlotte, North Carolina, and on to Dallas, Texas, where I was to meet up with Chris Sells of Heym USA — from there we were headed to Sydney, onto Darwin and then a charter into the bush.
Sells was bringing a Heym 89B double in .470 NE, and I was bringing my Heym Express .404 Jeffery for backup. I should’ve known the trip had a hex on it when I got to Albany, and some pie-faced ticket agent adamantly insisted that Qantas (the international carrier) would absolutely not allow firearms on their flight. Showing him all the licenses and proper paperwork, and in a state of frustration, I politely insisted that Mr. Moonpie call Qantas, and I reveled in his apology when he found out I was right. My bags were checked all the way to Sydney, and I was underway.
I landed in Charlotte, boarded the connector to Dallas, and watched the blue skies turn apocalyptic. Two-and-a-half hours later, still on the tarmac, I was texting Chris to keep him apprised of the situation. Finally, we took off, and I knew it’d be super tight connection. As we hit the runway in Dallas, Chris sent me a message that they were pulling away from the gate. Wonderful, just wonderful. So, I’d be 24 hours behind the group — no problem.
I spent the night in Dallas, was rerouted through Los Angeles to Brisbane, and then to Darwin. As I boarded in Dallas, and again in Los Angeles, I asked the ticket agent to verify that my luggage and rifle were on board. “Oh, yes!” I was assured, but as you can guess, I arrived exhausted in Brisbane, Australia, to find that I had only my carry-on. No rifle, no suitcase (like an idiot I packed almost all of the essentials), no nothin’. How do you clear customs with a firearm that isn’t there?
I went to the nearest Customs agent and explained my horrific dilemma. She was an absolute sweetheart, understanding to my plight and willing to do whatever she could to assist. Her supervisor came over, and between them they tracked down my bags and rifle — they took a wonderful trip direct from Dallas to Sydney. They called the Sydney Customs office and both coordinated a plan. To be brief, they reunited me with my gear at the Darwin airport 2 days later. It’s the only time I’ve had a rifle clear customs without being in my presence, and the Australian Customs crew was incredibly accommodating.
You’re Not Alone
My friend Steve Turner owns Travel With Guns, a travel agency that specializes in making a hunter’s life easier. He and his team are intimately familiar with global travel and the legal ramifications involved, even if you’re simply traveling through a country. KLM airlines — the Dutch Airline that’s a popular hub for African hunters — charges a fee for traveling through Holland with a firearm. British Airways can be a problem when flying through London because if you need to claim your luggage and switch airports, which is a common occurrence, you may not legally possess your firearm in Great Britain.
Travel with Guns will help avoid these issues, as well as provide you with the necessary forms and procedures for getting your guns into your destination country. Yes, they charge a fee, but when you’re going through customs seamlessly and you see the poor soul who doesn’t have their ducks in a row, it’s a worthy investment. Travel With Guns books your airfare, and presents you with an informative bound packet that will come in very handy, as it includes local customs, maps and other useful tidbits. Travel with Guns isn’t the only company out there, but I’ve used them often and feel very comfortable with their staff.
Tips And Tidbits
Ammunition can sometimes be a surprise, as some countries will charge you a fee for every round you shoot. Mozambique counted the amount of ammunition I had coming in country, and there was a $1 fee for every cartridge fired. There is an airline imposed limit of five kilograms (11 pounds) of ammo, so if you’re shooting a big-bore with a heavy bullet, be sure and weigh your ammo before you go. For an average safari, 40 rounds for your heavy rifle, and 60 for your light rifle, should be plenty and make the weight limit.
If you’re headed to South Africa, you are prohibited from bringing two rifles of the same caliber, and I’d had friends get hung up over this. One more interesting note about South Africa: You must be 21 years of age to possess and/or import a firearm.
As many gun cases can look the same — especially at the height of hunting/safari season — I make sure and mark my case with my name in bold letters so I end up with my own rifles and not someone else’s, and vice versa. More often than not, your rifle case will not come out on the normal luggage belt; it will be in the oversized baggage claim. I’ve had to show proper identification on numerous occasions to claim my rifle case from the oversize baggage department.
I also know that even driving through some U.S. cities with a firearm could potentially cause a legal issue. No matter what your GPS indicates as the fastest route, I’d avoid Washington D.C., Chicago, New York City and the like. I routinely have to fly out of JFK International Airport for hunting trips, and there’s no way to get there without bringing a firearm through the City, but it’s a concern every time. I understand there’s a legal provision for traveling through these difficult places, but again, I do my best to avoid conflict, and I always keep the outfitter’s name and phone number handy in case I have to explain and verify my destination.
It’s a sad state of affairs, but this is the world we live in. Many of the situations I’ve described herein are the reason some hunters either ship their rifles (domestically) to the hunting lodge, or arrange for a rented firearm at the destination. On some European hunts I’ve used borrowed rifles because the logistics of bringing my own gun along simply wasn’t worth the hassle. Do your research, brush up on the local laws as best as possible, and you should be making memories in no time.