Flying With Firearms

By Craig Boddington

Our group of six converged in Tajikistan for an ibex hunt earlier this year. We were four hunters from the United States, all with firearms. There was also a cameraman from the U.K. with all manner of photographic gear, plus an interpreter joining us from Moscow. It was midwinter in Central Asia, with potential weather issues, and the post-pandemic period, fraught with flights cancelled and delayed for various mysterious reasons. Amazingly, almost miraculously, we all got in with all our guns and gear. After a week’s hunt, we all got home with all our stuff.

Let’s face it, with fewer flights, COVID testing requirements and many mask mandates still in place, air travel hasn’t gotten easier. With a large group on that Tajik hunt, I would have bet money that somebody’s gear would be delayed or just wouldn’t make it. This particular situation was especially worrisome because most flights into Dushanbe aren’t daily. Sure, we got lucky, but we did one very smart thing. We gathered in Istanbul a day early, just in case. Old friend Hakan Ozsala arranged for the airport police to secure our gun cases overnight, so we got a good night’s sleep in Istanbul, and Hakan’s team took us on a wonderful day of touring in Istanbul. Then, the next evening we boarded the twice-weekly overnight flight to Dushanbe, everyone and all gear accounted for.

Yeah, I get it, time is of the essence and time is money. I’ve been in a hurry to get places my whole life. My travel usually has a purpose — like a long-planned hunt — so want to get there and get down to business. Genuine leisure travel is almost unknown to me. However, delayed and canceled flights are reality and that’s the worst time-suck of all. The best hedge against getting stuck is to allow plenty of time and avoid tight connections like the plague. This means long, boring hours sitting in airports and often the extra time and expense of a possibly unnecessary overnight along the way. But it beats alternatives.

 Just last week, I joined a group on a black bear hunt near High Level, Alberta. This was a 2020 hunt sponsored by Mossberg, Hornady and Swarovski. It was canceled due to COVID, but rescheduled, so everybody excited and happy we could finally go. Except in the wake of the “dread virus,” Central Mountain Air was only flying Edmonton-to-High Level once a week, not daily like they used to. Mossberg’s Linda Powell set the trip up. Just in case, she arranged for us to gather and overnight at the airport hotel in Edmonton. This turned out to be exceptionally wise. I got into Edmonton late, absent duffel and gun case, both stuck in Vancouver. Fellow gunwriter Mike Dickerson had it worse. A delayed flight caused him to miss his connection; he spent the night in a chair in the Calgary airport. The other five in our group were having breakfast at the hotel when Dickerson, bleary-eyed, came in with all his gear. As promised by WestJet, my gear came in on the first flight from Vancouver.

So, we all made the once-weekly flight to High Level — with all our gear. On the ground, Wally Mack’s W&L Guide Service showed us the best black bear hunt I’ve ever been on. Six hunters, 11 good bears, and we were back on the weekly flight seven days later. The next group wasn’t quite so lucky. A hunter missed his connection and had little choice but to wave off and return home. Nobody hates wasting time more than I do but, these days, not allowing a generous measure of extra time is penny wise and dollar foolish.

That applies to all travel today, but travel with firearms is getting ever more difficult and complicated. Expect extra fees. The magic number seems to be “50” (in whatever currency). This is actually fine with me, because firearms do receive special handling. Excess or overweight baggage can be much more. With ammunition, maximum of 5 kilos or 11 pounds, “in original factory containers,” seems universal. However, exactly how that ammunition is carried varies with airlines and destinations. “European rules,” adhered to in South Africa, are that ammunition is checked separately in its own locked container. Within the U.S., ammunition is usually put within a separate checked bag. For some years, I’ve hedged my bets: I put ammo in a lockable hard plastic box inside my main bag with TSA-approved locks inside the box. That way, I can carry and check the ammo any way the ticket agent or local security wants me to.

If the ammo box must be checked separately you may, or may not, be charged more. It depends on the airline and the agent.

This is a common instance of the real problem in traveling with firearms and ammunition. The ticket agents don’t know their own rules. Try to glean the rules from the airline web sites, print them out and bring them with you. You can, and should, use a hunting-savvy travel agent.

Do Not (foot-stomping point) book travel with firearms on cut-rate websites!

Today, some airlines simply won’t carry firearms. Others won’t check them to certain destinations, or won’t forward them to “non-partner” airlines. Recently, a hunting-clueless agent suggested a really good deal, American Airlines through London. American does carry firearms and, under certain circumstances, it’s not impossible to transit (or visit) the UK with a rifle or shotgun. However, the fine print in the American Airlines website is very clear: They will not check firearms of any type through London. Therefore, it wasn’t a really good deal at all, try something else.  

Even armed with experience and knowledge, occasional problems will be encountered. Last year, traveling to Mozambique on Qatar (great airline!), all my ammunition, securely checked in my locked box, was confiscated when I changed planes in Doha. The young ticket agent at the San Francisco airport was very nice but didn’t know the rules. When she filled out the forms to telex ahead to Doha, advising them of firearms on the plane, she failed to include ammunition. The Doha police were also very nice, but wouldn’t budge. Abandon the ammo and proceed or return home. Another foot-stomping point: Even if you know you’re right, the days are long past when we can argue! Be polite and keep smiling. Heck, I knew the young lady in San Francisco wasn’t right, but we reached the point where all I could say was “Yes, ma’am.” I wasn’t surprised when I was called into the bowels of the Doha airport. I was already texting outfitter Mark Haldane to tell him I was probably arriving without ammo.

It’s essential to do our best to make sure we know the rules as well as possible. Serious problems have been rare, and actually losing firearms in transit is almost unheard of. Today, I think even more unusual because, in our justifiably paranoid world, firearms do receive special treatment. Bag delays are commonplace, but actual permanent losses very rare. However, mostly for peace of mind, I carry insurance (available through SCI) just in case.

Tonight, I’m headed to South Africa. Gun case and ammo are packed. Bolts are removed and padded. All-important U.S. Customs Form 4457s are current, original with my passport, copy in the gun case, along with copies of passport and itinerary. Gun case is locked (one matching TSA lock in each lock-hole). The airline was long since notified. Since I’m going Air France, I expect to check the ammo separately in its locked case. What will actually happen, we will see. Writing this column is pretty much the last item on my “to do” list before departure.

Since South Africa is the destination, I have printed and filled out form SAPS 520, the South African application for a temporary gun permit. Now, I could have contacted any one of several gun permit services in Johannesburg and done this in advance. If I had, then I’d be met with an unsigned application, just whip around to the police kiosk (around and to the right after exiting customs). The permit service will usually get their customers to the head of the permit line, saving more time.

If I’d never hunted South Africa, or if I had less than three hours to make a connection, I would have done this. However, I have six hours in O.R. Tambo airport, more than plenty of time, even if I’m last in line. I’ve done this many times, and I have no fear of walking the permit through myself. In some places, the process is even simpler; in others more complex. Often, your outfitter will handle this stuff for you. But never leave traveling with firearms to chance. Ask the questions, make sure you know what to do and what to expect. And, at every step along the way, allow plenty of time!

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