Traveling With Firearms? Fill The Holes With Locks!

Traveling with sporting firearms isn’t getting easier. Part of that could be intentional, but part of the problem is that many ticket agents aren’t sure of the rules and sometimes the folks enforcing the rules, from TSA to Customs officers, also aren’t always sure of their own rules.

Some time back, coming into the U.S. in Newark, Donna got a Customs agent who absolutely insisted she needed to show her “firearms registration” paperwork. The guy simply wasn’t willing to accept that we don’t have firearms registration across the United States. It took a supervisor and a mad dash to the plane to sort it out. Obviously, it’s a really bad idea to argue with these folks, but it helps a lot if you know the rules.

When checking in for a flight, I lead with my chin. It’s almost a litany: “I have sporting firearms in this case…I have ammunition in this bag…less than five kilograms (11 pounds)…in original factory container (whew)!” That usually gets things off on a good footing. In the U.S., airlines generally want ammo to be separate from the firearms—even though TSA’s rules say it can be together—but can be in checked baggage (original factory containers; less than 11 pounds).

According to TSA inspectors in a major airport, as of January 1st they expect all lock-holes in gun cases to be filled with locks. So far, this is not a written rule, but it’s not worth arguing about. This Pelican case, as is common, has holes for four locks, two on each end.
According to TSA inspectors in a major airport, as of January 1st they expect all lock-holes in gun cases to be filled with locks. So far, this is not a written rule, but it’s not worth arguing about. This Pelican case, as is common, has holes for four locks, two on each end.

It’s a bit different overseas. In Europe and South Africa, for instance, the ammo generally needs to be in its own separate locked container, and in Europe you can expect to pay a separate fee for your gun case. Today I always put my ammunition in a lockable container in my duffel—I use a plastic box with a hasp. I have a lock and key inside it, but I don’t lock it unless asked to. I used to, but after several locks got cut during inspection, I got the message.

Exactly what locks should be used is open to debate. I’ve tried the “TSA” locks, but they seem flimsy and, in any case, TSA doesn’t always have the keys and these locks are not (yet) required. I use padlocks with keys, others use combinations, and every airport has a different protocol. Sometimes the ticket agent escorts you to TSA, sometimes you take it yourself, sometimes it goes down the chute and you wait around for a few minutes in case they need keys or combinations to look inside. Just don’t walk away until you’re sure it’s cleared!

Although we don’t have general firearms registration in this country, there is one little piece of paper that is absolutely essential when taking firearms out of (and back into) the U.S. It’s our U.S. Customs Form 4457. This is an amazingly useless (and useful) piece of paper. It’s the same form really organized people use to record valuable items such as camera and jewelry that they’re taking out of the country to prove they had it when they left and thus avoid paying duty upon return. Record is the proper word, not register, because U.S. Customs keeps no record of this document. It takes about three minutes to get one at any Customs office (just bring the firearms in unloaded and cased). I’m about three hours from the nearest U.S. Customs office so I’ve blustered my way through without a 4457 many times. Theoretically a bill of sale will suffice, but I don’t do that anymore! These days we are routinely expected to produce it when coming back through. Though not 100 percent, this is normal and it’s a whole lot simpler and quicker if you have it! Also, that little 4457, unrecorded though it is, serves as a “U.S. gun permit” in most countries throughout the world.

The actual gun case we use these days requires discussion. This has been the only source of difficulty I’ve had in recent years. TSA’s wording is “completely secure”—but that’s open to local interpretation. I go through a hard gun case every couple of years—the professional baggage smashers at the airlines are hard on them. I had one that had seen too many trips and was cracked on one corner, and I barely got through. Another time I had long-shank locks on a gun case, and the TSA folks thought there was too much play…it wasn’t “secure.” This could have been a major problem, but a kind TSA officer had some locks lying in a drawer. Most of them really are pretty good folks just trying to do their jobs.

Another time we had a Blaser taken down in its attaché-style luggage case with three combination locks. That, too, was judged “insecure.” Supervisor time. We got through it, but in the future I think I’ll stick with standard hard gun cases! Which brand doesn’t matter, so long as it’s fully lockable.

There is a new wrinkle that theoretically went into force on January 1st, 2017. Most hard gun cases have matching holes for at least four locks. I’ve never used more than two, on the outermost holes. With a gun case in good condition and tight-fitting locks, I’ve never been questioned. However, daughter Brittany got turned away in an airport earlier this year because her case had places for four locks and she only had two. They told her it was a new “policy.” I asked my TSA friends at our airport and they knew nothing about it—yet. However, on my last trip with a firearm, just before Christmas, the TSA folks in the Atlanta airport told me flatly: “Starting January 1st ‘they’ want all holes on a gun case to be filled with locks.” They didn’t tell me who ‘they’ were, but their instructions were crystal clear.

I doubt if you’ll find that as a written rule—as of January 27 it is not. TSA’s website continues to say: “The container must completely secure the firearm from being accessed.” So there’s no official change, but this may well be a new interpretation. I’m not certain that every TSA office in every airport will get the word. However, TSA has the last say on what “secure” means. So here’s my New Year’s Resolution: When I travel with firearms all the lock holes on my gun case will be filled with locks!–Craig Boddington


9 thoughts on “Traveling With Firearms? Fill The Holes With Locks!”

  1. I traveled to South Africa in November, and Delta required that all of the lock holes be filled, luckily I had extra locks with me and was able to comply. As for the locks, I asked the TSA supervisor at the Atlanta airport about what kind of lock could be used and his reply was “use any lock that will keep the case secure because if we have to open your case for some reason you are going to be there when we do it”.

  2. Great article, good information. As a former LEO, it is always best to explain what you know of the law to the officer in a manner that will be well received. You never know who you may run into and even if you are correct, they can make life hard.

  3. The regs state that the gun owner is the only one who is to be in possession of a key or combination for the locks which would mean TSA locks are not approved. I also like to remove my optics from my firearms when traveling and carry them in my carry on baggage but have one TSA agent complain that the optics should have been left on the firearms. He did not stop me when I quoted him the applicable regs and offered to produce a copy for him to read. It is not a bad idea to have copies of applicable regs if questioned so I often carry a copy.

  4. In your article you state that the U.S. Customs 4457 form is an” amazingly useless piece of paper”. This 4457 form proves that you had the firearm before you left the U.S.A.. If you come back without proof, then the ATF may get involved and they can seize your firearm. Take the time to get your firearms on the 4457. The form is good for as long as you own the firearm. This little useless piece of paper will help your international hunting safari less stressful. US Customs Officer Dale Leatham, Casper, Wyoming.

  5. I have traveled many times w/my old aluminum Cabelas 2 gun case. Used a heavy duty TSA lock and checked ammo. Traveling out of MI the check in folks have never even looked up. Maybe the difference traveling from the West coast (Mr Boddinigton) and from the midwest.

    Safe travels

  6. As a FYI I always have at least 4 locks as spares in both Ammo and Gun Cases In case of Inspection requests While Traveling

  7. Not sure but I think the bolt has to be removed from the firearm and coming into Canada, it might not be regulation, but I suggest a trigger lock as well. You can go to which is the Canada Firearms Centre website and download the NON-RESIDENT Firearm Declaration Form CAFC 909 EF Complete it and hand to Canadian Customs…. it simple to fill in, pretty much another government money-grab. If you have problems with the form give them a call at 1-800-731-4000 in Canada and 1-506-624-5380 from the US

  8. Hey Craig, great advice. Thanks, all my guns stay in Africa, that really saves a lot of problems. The best gun case is the TuffPac, with a lock on the top, I have used one for 50 plus trips and it works perfectly. My last trip to Africa, I carried a 28 gauge over under to my buddy as a present, I used a cheap plastic gun case for one way trip with four lockable holes, two had locks and the other two had plastic zip ties. No problem with Emirates, TSA, or South Africa Police using zip ties. Zip ties work well with my other luggage as well.

  9. I used to travel with firearms very often within the United States as part of my job. Rifles, pistols, machine guns, suppressors; I hauled them all and I agree with everything in this story. What I did was make sure I knew EVERYTHING better than any TSA agent, cop, or airline official. I had a 3-ring binder that contained: Published TSA rules, each airline’s written policy, every state’s rules (transport, carry) that I would be working in or transitioning. All information was easily found on the internet, just make sure you getting the information strait from the source (example: each state’s DPS site). That little binder saved me much time, educated several officials, and building and maintaining it kept me up to date and informed.

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