Gun Case Buyer's Guide
Author: Derrek Sigler
We all know what a gun case is and the basic function. What you may not know are the many features of different case designs, the advantages of them and some tips on choosing the case for your needs. Whether your case will put on more air miles than a duck in fall as you travel to hunting destinations, or if it slides around in the back of your truck during a November deer season, you’ll want to protect your gun the best you can.
Most people think of gun cases as being either a soft case, or a hard case. This is accurate to an extent. There are, however, many differences in style and function.
Soft-sided cases are quite versatile and have many uses. They are made of a range of fabrics from nylon to neoprene to leather. They have their faults, the biggest being they don’t offer the same amount of protection as a hard-sided case.
The flip side is the benefits of a soft-sided case. They are usually quiet, lightweight and easy to manage. Waterfowlers use floating soft-sided cases frequently as they offer many benefits. A duck hunter’s gun case is usually waterproof, to keep spray from soaking his or her gun down. They are also usually camouflaged and will disappear when the ducks are overhead. Many waterfowl-specific cases also float. In case something happens it will keep your new Benelli from becoming the home for a walleye. An added bonus is the case often doubles as a seat cushion or a pillow when not in use as a gun case.
Many hunters will use a soft case or even a gun sock, when traveling, as a second case. If you fly to a destination and then spend hunting days traveling to and fro in the outfitter’s truck, you may want a lighter, less bulky case for this purpose.
Hard-sided cases offer the most protection for your firearm. As the name implies, they have a hard exterior that protects your gun from outside forces. These cases feature foam padding to protect your gun from impacts as well as keep them secured and in place. Different cases have different foam densities. A lower-end case might have thick foam or it may be so thin you can feel your gun shift as soon as you pick the case up. You will want good, dense foam to keep your firearm secured. Some cases even have firearm model-specific foam or foam that you customize to your firearm, making for the ultimate fit. Movement within the case is very undesirable.
Hard cases are made from many different types of materials that determine the strength and weight of the case.
Aluminum is a standard metal for making tough durable cases. In many instances cases made from other materials are trimmed with aluminum for solid latching capabilities and tight seems. Aluminum can take a great deal of abuse while still protecting the contents inside the case. It is also lightweight. The ratio of strength to weight allows for an extremely tough case that will still be within weight restrictions for traveling.
Wood is one material that is used in many cases because of the classic look. Cases made from wood products feature leather or tweed coverings for that classic look so many of us love.
A downfall to wood is weight versus strength. For a wood case to be as strong as a composite or aluminum case, it would be massive and totally impractical. Plus, wood cases will not likely meet airline standards and you’d most likely not want to use one if it did.
Composite materials such as plastic and fiber-reinforced compounds have much to offer in weight reduction and durability. These are the types of cases the military uses to transport firearms in tough, combat-type situations. Ok, not every plastic case is military-spec, but top-shelf composite cases offer incredible strength with relatively low weight. A good composite case will also disperse impacts do to the nature of the material.
The range of composite cases is amazing. It’s up to you to decide the level of protection you want and the price range you’re willing to endure. When looking at composite cases, you’ll see the entire range of prices and features. Some will just meet the basic requirements, while others will provide an amazing level of protection.
One thing to look at with composite construction is the form. You will see most composite cases formed with a ribbed pattern. This has two solid benefits. The first being structural integrity. Think of a floor in a house. If you had just a flat surface with no support beams under it, it would sag and eventually give. By placing support, the integrity of the surface is greatly increased because the flat surface areas are greatly decreased. A composite case with ribbed construction will have very little flex. The greater the ribbing, the more support. The second benefit has to do with resistance to impacts. Think of the ribs as bumpers such as the one on your truck. If you back into a post, the bumper takes the hit instead of your fragile headlight. Anytime you can put a little more material between your firearm and an impact, the better.
There are pro’s and con’s to a waterproof hard case. If you’re planning to be out in the elements, then by all means you’ll want a waterproof case. It just makes sense to keep your valuable firearm protected from getting wet. It is all too often that moisture gets inside of a case and does great damage, especially if you have a wooden stock and a blued barrel.
A slight downside to a waterproof case is entirely your fault. All right, maybe not yours, but if you have this type of experience, it will be your fault. If you have a waterproof case that seals moisture out, it can also seal it in. You must be sure to wipe every bit of moisture off your gun before it goes near the case.
Now that you’ve decided on the materials you’d like in a case, what next? How big of a case do you need? That depends on your firearms. Will you be transporting one long gun, two, more? Do you want to store accessories with your gun? Does it have a scope? Do you need to carry it on your ATV?
Many of the same characteristics in rifle cases apply to pistol cases as well. Due to the size of most pistols, most cases available will transport more than one. Many pistol cases are designed to be custom fit to a particular pistol and hold the accessories such as spare magazines and cylinders.
The single gun case is designed to protect a single rifle or shotgun. They are the light, more compact, and easier to transport. Usually they accommodate a rifle with scope, but make sure the fit is right.
The two-gun case can just as easily carry that single gun, plus has lots of room for some accessory items. When the time comes to transport two guns, rifles, shotguns or a combination, you’ll already have a case that can handle the chore. Again, if you have two scoped guns be sure the case can accommodate both firearms. If you’re planning on traveling, you may want to get a case larger than what you need. For example, if you’re taking one gun on a trip to Alaska for caribou, you might want a double case. The airlines allow one case as a checked bag so you can put optics and other items in your case to save room and weight in your other baggage. Several companies also produce cases designed to accept both a rifle and a bow. This would be very handy on a hunt where you’d like to try for that trophy with a bow, but want to switch to a rifle if things just don’t work in your favor.
ATV specific cases are also available that fit into mounts on your machine. They allow you to have your gun securely fastened to your ATV while you travel to and from your hunting destination. Most of these are made from high-impact plastic to fend off damage from tree branches and other mishaps along the trail. Of course, if you flip or roll the machine, you’re in trouble. But at the point, you’d better worry about your own damage.
If you’re planning on traveling with your case, you may just want to look into a model that has wheels. This is especially true if you’re going to bring more than one firearm, or have your case full of extra items to bring it up to the weight limit. How much fun would it be to lug around a 50-pound case? Wheels make it much easier to transport and some models even feature built in luggage racks for you to secure the rest of your baggage to, making travel that much easier.
Flying with Firearms
It would be nice if we could all just drive down a road a ways to get to every type of hunting we’d like to do. Unfortunately, reality doesn’t allow that and many of us have to fly to locations for hunting adventures. With things the way they are, you need to pay very careful attention to how you prepare to fly when traveling with your firearm. The most important thing to remember is to check with the airline in advance to know exactly what procedures to follow. The Transportation Security Authority (TSA) has very strict guidelines when it comes to these matters.
Here is a summary of key regulatory requirements to transport firearms, firearm parts or ammunition in checked baggage on most airlines:
- All firearms must be declared to the air carrier during check-in at the ticket counter.
- The firearm must be unloaded.
- The firearm must be carried in a locked, hard-sided container.
- It is preferred that you provide the key or combination to the screener if it is necessary to open the case, and then remain present during screening to take back possession of the key after the case is cleared. If you are not present and the screener must open your case, the TSA and/or airline will make a reasonable attempt to contact you. If this is unsuccessful, the case will not be placed on the plane since unlocked gun cases (or cases with broken locks) are not permitted on aircraft due to Federal regulations. This shouldn’t be the case, however, because you must accompany your firearm to screening.
- Any ammunition transported must be securely packed in plastic, wood or metal boxes or other packaging specifically designed to carry small amounts of ammunition such as cardboard. Most airlines will accept the original box the ammunition was purchased in. (Check before you fly).
- Firearm magazines/clips do not satisfy the packaging requirement unless they provide a complete and secure enclosure of the ammunition.
- The ammunition may also be located in the same locked, hard-sided case as the firearm, as long as it is properly packed as described above. Again, check before you fly though, as some airlines will insist ammunition travel in separate baggage.
- Powder/propellant and percussion caps used with black-powder type firearms are not permitted in carry-on or checked baggage.
Some airlines, as private businesses, have imposed additional restrictions or requirements, such as limiting the number of guns that can be transported in a single case, or providing different standards under which gun cases may or may not be exempt from excess baggage limitations. Especially for international flights, many airlines follow industry guidelines that limit ammunition to 11 lbs. per passenger; however, some airlines will allow as much as 50 pounds of ammo. Under TSA regulations, ammunition may be packed in the same locked container as the unloaded firearm, but airline rules may differ. It is a good idea to check out airline guidelines as much as several weeks in advance to allow time to prepare for delays.
The Air Transport Association (ATA) of America issued specifications for the packaging of airline cargo, designated ATA Specification 300. The objective is to establish standards for a case that would hold up for a minimum of 100 roundtrip airline flights. The detailed specifications involve design, material content and environmental tolerance characteristics.
What does having an ATA case designation mean? This means the hardware, such as handles, latches and locks, can withstand abuse and mishandling without danger of breakage. The case will withstand a drop on to concrete from 36" without the case popping open due to a malfunctioning latch. It generally means you can ship an ATA-approved case by airline without concern about the security of the case.
Does ATA case approval mean the airlines will automatically accept the case? No. Size and weight restrictions still govern the acceptance of checked luggage. The ATA designation only refers to the durability of the case.
Do all ATA-approved cases meet the weight and size requirements of most airlines? Again, no. Weight and size limitations vary by airline. The specifications only refer to the amount of abuse the case will take.
One thing you’ll notice though when you watch a hunting show on television is the host usually referring to checking his or her rifle or bow when the destination has been reached to ensure that nothing took place during travel to alter the firearm or bow’s sight system. Just because the case can take the abuse of 100 flights, that doesn’t mean the items inside will go completely undamaged. The higher the quality of the case, however, the less chance there is of this occurring.
Locks and Safety
You’ll have to present your gun and case for inspection after check-in when flying. At this point you’ll be required to lock the case with a lock of some sort, whether that be a padlock, a built-in lock, or a TSA-approved lock that you may purchase prior to screening. You can buy one of these locks during travel but as one seasoned traveler put it after returning from a recent trip, "I bought four TSA-approved locks at the start of the trip and all four broke. Buy a better lock."
The key safety feature to look for is a lockable case. A lockable case makes it easy for you to control who handles your firearm. This goes a long way toward securing it from curious children in the home. You should be able to safely and easily secure it through a built-in key lock, and/or the ability to padlock through built-in holes. Some cases even allow multiple locks to be used.
Another thing to think about when traveling is keeping your gun in your possession. How many times have you flown? On those occasions, how many of those wheeled suitcases do you see around the airport? Everyone has them, right? Think about traveling to a hunting location in the fall. It can seem like everyone on the plane is traveling with a firearm. It might be a good idea, whether it is a sticker or something, to make your case easily identifiable from the half dozen other cases that look identical all piled up.
Legal Issues Aside
Many states require you to case your firearm for any form of transport. Depending on where you live, this could include a simple gun sleeve or sock. You may also be required to have the case securely closed or latched before the vehicle moves. You’ll want to look into these things when selecting a case and heading into the field. If you’re heading to another state or province for your excursion, be sure to check all the regulations. You can search the Internet for information, or check here on Cabelas.com under the State-By-State pages in our Outdoor Info area.
Cleaning and Storage Tips
Before storing any firearm, first make sure it is unloaded. Always make sure you point the barrel in a safe direction when checking to see that it is unloaded. Never take anyone else’s word; always check yourself.
When storing cleaned and oiled firearms for a short time in a hard-shell case, simply insert and close the case. You should check for moisture too.
When storing a bow or firearm for an extended period of time, it is recommended that you first make sure the foam is completely dry. Make sure the firearm is completely cleaned, especially the barrel, which should be free of all lead and copper residue, then coated with good gun oil, preferable long-lasting penetrating oil. If possible, place the firearm into a gun sleeve before closing the case for long-term storage. There are also rust-inhibiting inserts you can buy to cut down on the chances of corrosion.
If you live in an area with an average high humidity, or if you run a humidifier, you may want to only store guns in a waterproof case. The case’s seal will keep moisture out of the case and off of your firearm. It also helps to keep out anything unexpected, such as if a chemical of some sort were to accidentally spill on your case.
Cleaning Your Protective Case
Cleaning the exterior of any quality gun case is easy. First, remove the foam lining from the case. The foam can and will absorb moisture and retain it when case is closed causing rust in and on most firearms. Set it aside where it can air out and the moisture can evaporate. Wash the outer shell with a mild soap or detergent solution and rinse with clean water. Keeping the case clean will help keep you and your rifle clean.
A group of friends just returned from an epic and extensive adventure to hunt high in the arctic of Alaska. I asked them what they looked for in a case for the trip, and they all said the same thing. The best advice they could give for anyone looking at a gun case is to get the absolute best case you can afford. To keep your expensive rifle or shotgun safe and undamaged, that sounds like pretty good advice.
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