Fear of flying doubles when your flying partner is your favorite hunting rifle. But relax. Flying firearms to Africa is easier than you might imagine.
Flying Firearms Warning!
WARNING: This is no “fluff and stuff” blog. It’s an in-depth, informative report designed to help you to smoothly and successfully fly on commercial airlines with firearms. It’s based on 35 years of international hunting travel and 14 African safaris. I’m going to provide the “straight scoop” details on flying firearms around the world, but specifically to southern Africa.
Flying Firearms Starts With Paperwork (of course)
In general, transporting your hunting rifles to most southern African countries requires recording the Make, Model, Caliber and Serial Number of each with U.S. Customs. This is your proof you own them. This used to be a simple matter of showing your guns to a U.S. Customs agent at any airport office, recording the information on a 4457 form, (download it here) and keeping that form with you. The 4457 is your proof of ownership so you don’t have to pay import fees when you bring it back into the U.S. It’s valid for as long as you possess it and the guns listed on it but… South Africa Customs/Police are now requiring all 4457s be dated for the current calendar year. In other words, you’ll have to go through the hassle of getting a new 4457 each year you want to hunt Africa. Not a huge deal, but essential to know before you go. Don’t get your 4457 in December of 2017 and try using on a safari in 2018.
One other piece of paperwork you’ll usually need is a letter from your Professional Hunter/Host/Outfitter inviting you to the country to hunt. This apparently assures Customs and Police that you aren’t flying firearms in to start a one-man or woman insurrection. Your PH will probably email you the letter and you can print it. Make back-up copies of this, your 4457 and all paperwork and keep them in two different places as you travel, just in case. Keep digital copies, too. (I just photograph each with my smartphone and email them to my PH, my wife and myself.)
From Paper to Plastic — Hard Plastic for Flying Firearms
With 4457 papers in hand, you pack corresponding gun(s) in a lockable hard case per your airline’s rules as posted on its website and check them as baggage. Yup. The gun case flies with you same as your other checked bags. Some airlines allow ammo to be packed with guns, some do not, but most countries do not, so plan to pack ammo apart from guns. This means ammo would go into a small, locked hard case of its own and then into one of your regular bags with your clothes. Be aware that some African countries/airlines will insist your ammo box be pulled out of any other bag to fly as its own checked bag for any in-country flights. Make sure the box is sturdy enough to handle this.
Flying Firearms Gets Off the Ground at Your Home Airport
Of course you have to declare to the check-in agent that you’re shipping a firearm (two to as many as you want can be included in one case depending on the airline.) You’ll sign a paper or card saying they are unloaded and place this in the case and securely lock said case (Find details on locks farther down in this report.) TSA will then inspect it (chemical swap or X-ray or hand check.) If it passes muster, the case goes into the regular baggage system. You’ll see it again at your destination.
Now, to grease the skids and smooth everything along, it’s smart to break down the gun or at least remove the bolt and slap a trigger lock on. Non-firearms people love seeing trigger locks, imagining them all powerful. Some countries mandate these, so don’t take any chances. I like a combination lock so I don’t have to worry about losing a key.
Regulations Governing Flying Firearms Can Change
Because national politics, laws and rules change on a whim, you should always get the latest details from your outfitter/PH or a travel agent specializing in hunting travel. (Gracytravel.com is one such. More on them later.) If there are any special laws, tricks or hoops you must jump through, these experts should be able to guide you. Usually you need to pre-register the make, caliber/gauge and serial number of your rifle(s) with authorities at your destination country by filling out forms and submitting them well before your trip. Often you must also specify the exact number of cartridges you are bringing. Their headstamps must match the caliber roll-stamped on your rifle. So don’t take a 270 Winchester rifle and handloads you made from 30-06 brass. Each country specifies maximum numbers of cartridges you may import, usually around 60 to 80 — more than plenty for a competent hunter.
There’s Help for Flying Firearms
Don’t freak out about this bureaucratic red tape. While all the “i”s must be dotted and the “t”s crossed, once that is completed you’re free to go. If your PH does not provide you with this paperwork and help you prepare it, you can hire a traveller’s service such as Gracy Travel in Texas. This is the easiest route. I’ve used Gracy Travel many times. They are always up-to-date on the latest red tape and they handle it with aplomb. They also handle VISAs, identify needed vaccines (few or none for SA and Namibia) and are available via emergency phone 24/7 should any problems arise. They can even book the best flights for you. In addition, they offer a Meet & Greet staff member in Johannesburg (Joburg — the initial landing city for most southern Africa trips.) This person is kind of an airport tour guide who’ll usher you smoothly through everything from registering your guns and finding your next flight to converting dollars to local tender. We’ve appreciated these services from friendly Bruce, Lucky and Chris many times.
As of this writing Namibia does not require firearms pre-registration. You merely fly into Windhoek, the capital city, declare your firearms with the police at the airport, and register them on the spot. You can apply for the South African firearm permit in the OR Tambo airport on arrival in Joburg, too, but it’s faster to apply in advance. You’ll want to check for the latest regulations in Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Zambia.
Let’s Take a Dry Run
Let me give you an idea of how all of this “goes down.” After an overnight flight (about 16-hours) from Atlanta, NYC, or Washington, D.C., you land in Joburg just about when the sun is setting. It’s autumn or winter down there during hunting season, so it’ll be around 6 PM. You might book a flight over that lands earlier, giving you time to transfer to your next flight, if one is needed.
You then follow the signs or the crowd off the plane and through the airport to Customs where you present your U.S.A. passport, get your picture taken, receive your stamps or tourist entry permit and proceed to baggage claim. After the typical long delay, your bags will roll down the carousel. Grab them and head toward the exit. Sometimes a Customs official will search your bags; sometimes they’ll just wave you through. Depends on how suspicious or guilty you look. Smile kindly and try to look harmless. Exit the doors to the Arrival Hall.
This is a big, modern airport. Here you’ll see the usual crowd of friends, agents, drivers and family awaiting their travelers. If you’re hunting near Joburg, your PH will likely meet you and take control. If you’re traveling farther in country or out and you’ve booked with an agency like Gracy, your Meet and Greet agent will be waiting for you, probably with a sign bearing your name. You’ll follow him or her to the airport police/gun registration office, claim your gun case (they’ll have gotten it off the plane,) and open it for inspection. Officials will check serial numbers, ammo, etc., stamp your papers and send you on your way. That’s really about all there is to it.
Flying Firearms Become Wheeling Firearms
You are now schlepping through the airport with all your bags and locked gun case. If you’re going on to Namibia, Zimbabwe, Zambia or Mozambique, your travel agent will take you to your connecting flight and make sure you get your boarding passes and luggage tags. Then you roll to another firearms check station to have your guns and paperwork checked for your next flight. Hey, as far as those folks know, you’ve been in the country for days or weeks and are exporting a firearm. Papers, please. If all the numbers match up, you wheel your gun case to the luggage drop off, then to your gate for your next flight.
If your flying schedule means you must overnight in Joburg, you’ll push your overloaded luggage trolley through the airport to the elevator that takes you up to the attached City Hotel. You could stay elsewhere, but City is attached to the terminal. It’s a clean, modern, safe hotel with friendly staff, quiet rooms and a massive breakfast buffet that’s included in the room fee. Easy peasy. After a fitful night’s sleep (your timing will be waaay off,) enjoy that big breakfast and waddle off to your next flight. Bruce, Chris or Lucky will be there to guide you.
If You’re Flying to Additional Countries…
All other southern Africa airports are much smaller than Joburg’s, but the gun importing process is similar. Look for the sign or ask someone where the firearms registration office is. Most likely your PH or one of his agents will be there to help with this. Collect your luggage and proceed to the gun registration. In most countries your guns will go directly there rather than roll off the baggage carousel. Unlock, do the paperwork, match the numbers and you’re off to camp. By the way, double check the numbers the agents write down on your paperwork. Make sure they get all the numbers correct and legibly written. A single digit that’s recorded wrong or out of order (a hasty 6 looking like a sloppy 0 or an 8 like a 3) could cause headaches later when you leave.
Guard these gun papers with your life. Make copies if possible. (Photograph with smart phone) You’ll need to show them to authorities on your way out. Other than that, subsequent travel and gun handling will be much like at home. You’ll keep the gun locked as you travel to camp, but there you’ll follow the policy of your PH. Most let you keep the gun in your room, but some might insist, for everyone’s safety, that your rifles and shotguns be locked in a safe or closet overnight. You never know. I’ve twice been in camps where experienced world hunters had “accidental” discharges indoors. Don’t be that guy (Knock on wood.) Practice diligent gun safety at all times. You’re representing all hunters. The life you save could be my own!
Flying Firearms Ammunition
There are a few rules governing flying ammunition, too. All cartridges must be secured in factory boxes or aftermarket boxes (plastic, fiberboard, wood) that isolate each cartridge. Loose cartridges in a bag aren’t allowed. They don’t want sharp bullet tips impacting primers. Rough handling can shake cartridges right out of fiberboard boxes, so I tape mine thoroughly with clear packaging tape. Each box then goes into a plastic, hard-sided, lockable case that then fits inside my clothing bag. Double-check airlines and destination country regulations on this. A few countries are insisting the ammo box stay out and count as its own bag. This is supremely foolish as all it does it increase your baggage fees and make it easier for thieves to spot and steal the ammo, but hey — bureaucrats.
I usually take 30 to 40 rounds for each rifle, but you might need 60 to 80 for a cull hunt. Often ammo can be purchased locally, but it might not be your favorite. Ask your PH what he can get. Figure on leaving any unfired rounds behind for your PH and/or any future clients who might lose theirs or run out. This possibility, by the way, is a good reason for shooting a common, popular caliber. You aren’t likely to find 270 WSM or 338 Federal loads in Grootfontein, Namibia.
Hard Cases — Lock ‘Em Up When Flying Firearms
Certain delinquents and criminals are hard cases, but we’re talking about hard-sided, lockable gun cases here. These are required for airline travel and recommended for protecting your guns from baggage handler abuse as well as theft. A hard case can be stiff plastic/polymer or aluminum. The harder and stiffer the better to prevent internal breakage. Make sure hinges are strong, too. And tamperproof. Ideally they’ll be internal. Corners should be extra thick and reinforced. Latches should be thick and strong too and protected within fins or reinforced projections that minimize contact with anything that might catch and tear them off. The less flex in a case, the better.
Hard case walls, top and bottom, should not be too flexible, either. You don’t want another heavy case dropped atop yours to crush a scope or binocular within. Crushing threat can be minimized by internal padding, but this, too must be thick and strong enough to resist undue compression. Thin, soft foam tops and bottoms probably aren’t sufficient. Denser, laser cut foam that perfectly fits rifle, scope, binocular, spare scope, etc. is the better option.
I like to fit my rifles in a typical soft case before putting it into my hard case. This way I get additional protection, can include two, sometimes three guns, and not worry about them abrading one another. I add coats, pants, shirts and the like for additional protection. Hey, if you’re paying to ship a case, you might as well fill it.
I used to cut case corners, so to speak, by choosing lightweight cases, but that can be false economy. It’s pretty hard to find a lightweight gun case strong enough to protect your firearms while staying under the typical baggage weight limit of 50 pounds per bag. The excellent Pelican Storm iM3300 case, for instance, weighs 23 pounds empty. Ditto the Explorer Cases 13513, but that one includes a padded soft case with zippered pockets for additional gear and enough internal space for coats and similar padding. The problem is weight. A 23-pound case leaves you just 27-pounds for rifles, scopes, binoculars, bipods, etc.
One exception to the heavy case problem is the Tuffpak, a six-sided, vertical, wheeled polyethylene case loaded through a top lid. It looks like something you’d ship golf clubs in. Slide your guns into a thick soft case and slide those into the Tuffpak. Add boots, clothing, etc. to fill the 50-pound weight limit. (I stop a 48 pounds in case the airline scale has been fudged a bit.) A Tuffpak 1050 large enough to haul three soft-cased rifles or five shotguns weighs just 18 pounds. Smaller models for break-down guns weigh as little as 10 pounds, yet they do an excellent job of protecting ingredients. I’ve flown with a Tuffpak dozens of times with nary a loss or break of anything, including flyrods.
Don’t put your home address on your case. That only tells potential burglars where to attack while you’re gone! Instead write on the case and on tags tied to it your destination address and cell phone number plus a few email addresses for you and your PH/outfitter.
Locks and Latches for Flying Firearms
A gun case is only as secure as it’s locks and latches. Some case include integral key or combination locks, but the toughest seem to be set up for padlocks. Those seem the most secure to me because you can seal cases with two to four locks. And you can quickly and easily replace padlocks. Once an integral latch/lock is broken, you’re screwed. Latches should be protected within frames of case material that cover their edges as much as possible. There should be an adequately sized hole for the padlock bolt and plenty of solid material surrounding it to discourage cutting through. Two locks should be near each end of the case. This prevents prying open a case to draw stuff from it. One or two latches near the center of a long lid offers additional security. You might even want to duct tape over latches for further protection against accidental opening. You’ll have to carry a small roll of duct tape for doing this after TSA agents clear the case.
The locks themselves should not open with a TSA universal key. You and you alone should have the key to your firearms case. That way, once it’s been cleared for shipment, only you can easily open it; no nefarious baggage handlers, no would-be terrorists or light-fingered TSA agents, if there are any. In the past some cities have been hot beds for airlines gun thefts, but I think that’s been largely stymied. Big, heavy cases are difficult to sneak out of an airport, and tough, well-locked cases are difficult to break into. Knock on wood, but I’ve not yet had any flying firearms stolen or even lost. They’ve been delayed and misplaced a time or two, but then so have I.
Disguise Flying Firearms
Call me paranoid, but hear me out first: you can camouflage your flying firearms cases to further protect from sticky fingers, curious pilferers and anti-gun/anti-hunting sabotage. Flying firearms cases in the US are, by law, NOT to be labeled as containing firearms. This is a sensible idea. Why advertise to would be thieves? The airlines and TSA agents have checked and cleared the guns for safe shipping. What can a big GUNS IN HERE sticker do to improve that?
Nonetheless, gun cases do tend to look like gun cases. But there’s a chance they could contain guitars, electronic keyboards, hockey sticks, tripods, light stands, golf clubs, maybe even tennis rackets and tubas. Well, probably not tubas, but you get my drift. So why not enhance this misperception with a few deceptive labels? An expensive guitar brand might inspire as much theft as a firearms brand, but who’s going to drool over the opportunity to lift a case labeled “Nursery Tree Stock: Water and Plant Quickly.” Or “Hollywood Video Lights.” How about “TipTop Tripods. Stabilizing the World for 50 Years.” Be creative. Print up something boring and plaster your gun case with camouflaging posters and slogans that have nothing to do with firearms.
Grab Flying Firearms From Baggage Immediately
One of the weak links in the entire flying firearms process is baggage claim. Usually you wait 15 to 30 minutes by the carousels for your baggage to finally come round, but sometimes you get delayed as you deplane and your bags go round and round before you get there to grab them. What’s to say someone else won’t? The better airports release what appear to be gun cases only to persons with matching baggage claim tags, but many still allow gun cases to ride the carousel until someone lifts them and departs. I haven’t seen this in southern Africa, but I’ve seen it in the U.S. Make it a point to hustle off your flight and down to baggage. Ask an attendant where oversized luggage or firearms cases will appear and wait there.
Avoid Scams to Squeeze “Tips” from Flying Firearms Owners
Print and carry with you regulations for flying firearms from your airline and any countries you’ll fly through. Here’s why: Bureaucrats, officials and airport employees in some countries often try subtle threats to extract “tips” from obvious pilgrims new in the area. I haven’t suffered this but once or twice in southern Africa, and both times my PH was there to spot and diffuse the scam. Tread carefully here, but stand tall and confident when confronting graft and petty extortion. If an agent or bureaucrat threatens you over something silly like finding a binocular or bipod in a gun case, question him politely on that call. Tell him you’ve read the airline’s and his country’s regulations and they don’t exclude other items except ammunition from gun cases. Show him the printout if necessary. Insist on speaking with his superior or manager if he doesn’t acquiesce. Do so politely but firmly with a smile. That will usually end the matter. If the gun/case is to go out of your control after that, smooth things over by continuing to be friendly. Thank him for his excellent service and offer a small tip before leaving. This could reinforce proper behavior and prevent any behind-the-scenes reprisals from the would-be extortionist.
Final Tips for Flying Firearms
To minimize problems with lost keys or locks, give a spare key to your partner to carry. Or mail one ahead to your outfitter. Pack an additional lock or two unless your PH assures you you can find some there.
International traveler and hunter Ron Spomer hates to fly oversees these days, but admits it beats walking — and is a lot faster than sailing. So up, up and away…!