A traveling hunter’s case can be too heavy or too large, but never too strong.
By Jon R. Sundra
Sitting in a window seat on a 737 jet, I casually watched two luggage tractors heading toward the plane, each pulling a wagon loaded with duffle bags and suitcases from various connecting flights. Suddenly, a gun case that had been teetering atop the mound of luggage fell about 7 feet to the tarmac, bounced a few times and skidded to a halt. The second tractor, traveling closely behind, swerved and ran over it. It was deliberate.
I’ve often thought about that incident, which took place in the Johannesburg, South Africa, airport. Whoever owned that rifle, like me, was headed for a safari somewhere in Zambia, and I can only imagine what went through his mind when he claimed his gun case upon our arrival.
Another time, I was in the Pittsburgh airport waiting for my luggage after returning from a hunt. My rifle, a Ruger No. 1, was traveling in one of those generic aluminum gun cases.
You know the kind I’m talking about — a sharp-cornered, rectangular box of welded aircraft-grade aluminum with locking hasps secured with padlocks. They’re far from elegant, but that’s not what you want in a gun case. You need it to be strong, which this type of case generally is.
Except this time. When I saw my gun case emerge on the belt, I couldn’t believe my eyes. One end of it was crushed like it had gone through one of those machines that reduce junked cars to the size of a coffee table. The force required to crush a case of this kind had to be tremendous, so it didn’t take long for me to piece together what must have happened.
I’d arrived at this airport on a DC-10. Luggage is raised to the cargo compartment with hydraulic lifts. The case likely shifted and got caught in the lift mechanism. Miraculously, only the muzzle end of the case was damaged, and my rifle came through without a scratch. Had it been on the other end, that gun would have been toast.
Yet another time, I saw a plastic gun case come off a carousel with a rifle muzzle protruding about 2 inches from a neat round hole it had punched. The only way that can happen is if the case travels at a fairly high rate of speed and comes to an abrupt halt. If the rifle isn’t held securely enough inside, its momentum allows it to continue forward. There’s even enough force to put bulges in the ends of the heavy-aluminum cases. I know, because every one of mine has at least one I’ve hammered out.
I can relate several more horror stories, but I think you get the picture: Air travel can be hazardous to the health of one’s guns.
I stopped using full-length cases long ago. Those meant to hold two scoped rifles can be the size of a Buick. All too often, when traveling with one of those cases, my duffle bag would make the connecting flight, but the gun case wouldn’t. That’s because outsized luggage like skis, surfboards and gun cases are often handled differently than regular luggage and given less priority on tight connections.
So after just a few years of such frustration, I decided to travel with my rifle taken down and packed in a shotgun-type case 34 to 36 inches long.
If you’re worried about losing your finely tuned zero by taking your rifle apart, don’t. You should always check the zero before going hunting, anyway, so if there’s a slight change, it’s not a problem. Besides, I’ve found that, upon reassembling my rifles, I rarely had to make any adjustments to the scopes. I will say, though, that all of my personal rifles sit in laminated wood or laid-up fiberglass stocks that have been glass-bedded. They hold their zero remarkably well through disassembly and reassembly. And if I’m traveling with a Ruger No. 1 or a Marlin lever action, I just remove the buttstock.
If you’re traveling with two scoped rifles, then it’s probably a wash, because the necessary width of the case negates most of its advantages. But if I’m traveling with only one rifle, there’s a tremendous difference in the size of the case required, not to mention weight. This can be an important consideration these days with steep overweight baggage charges. I’ve seen guys charged as much as $10 per each overweight pound in some African countries.
I’m not here to sell any particular make of gun case, but to give you some insight regarding what to look for in a traveling gun case.
There is no type of gun case that can better protect its contents than the molded fiberglass-type clamshell case, but there’s nothing heavier. The several manufacturers of such cases make the mistake - because of the expense of the mold required - of making each model large enough to accommodate every conceivable rifle, regardless of barrel length and the size of the scope. The result is a coffin-size affair that generally weighs twice that of the rifle inside. Couple that with the revised weight limit on international flights, and you’ve got enough remaining weight allowance for one change of underwear and a handkerchief.
After trying them all, I’ve got to go with the heliarc welded aluminum boxes. They can be solid-aluminum or aluminum-framed with polymer side panels. The features you want to look for are: 1) A full-length piano-style hinge connecting the two halves, or at least three (on a short case, four on a full-length one) individual hinges. 2) Resting feet that are secured with other than a single pop rivet. 3) Flush-locking hasps. Any protruding “ears” to accommodate a common locking rod or individual padlocks invariably get bent and don’t allow the hasp to be opened without pliers of some sort. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to open my gun case for customs inspection or whatever, and at least one ear was bent. And now with the airlines not letting you carry even a blunt-nosed pliers in your carry-on, this can be a problem. 4) Rounded steel caps to protect the sharp corners of the welded cases and facilitate movement when slid amongst other luggage. 5) A really secure carrying handle, one that’s not just pop-riveted, unless there’s at least 8 of them. 6) Avoid any case that’s more than 2 inches in length or width than needed. A typical bolt-action rifle with a 24-inch barrel will fit in a 46-inch case, and, if taken down, a 34-inch one.
There are two ways of protecting a gun inside the case. One is soft foam that grips whatever is sandwiched between the top and bottom layers. With such an arrangement, however, it’s a good idea to sandwich blocks of Ethafoam between the barreled action and stock and the case’s inner walls. An even better solution is the rigid Ethafoam liner that can be cut out to match the exact silhouette of whatever gun it’s protecting. The only problem with the latter is that you need different liners for different guns.
That’s about it. The following list of gun case manufacturers offer some or all of the features I’ve just described. All have established sizes but will make cases to customer specs, which is what I recommend.
Bear Track Cases
Reprinted from the August 2007 issue of Buckmasters GunHunter Magazine. Subscribe today to have GunHunter delivered to your home.