How to ship guns & ammo

by Jim Supica

Copyright, Jim Supica - used by permission.  Opinions are those of the author and not necessarily those of NRA or the National Firearms Museum.  Originally published in Standard Catalog of Firearms.

Over the past decade, more and more shooters and collectors are buying and selling guns over the internet or by other methods that require shipment of guns from the seller to the buyer.  Shipping a gun across the country can seem like a daunting task if you've never done it before, and, in truth, there are a number of laws, regulations, and shipper requirements that apply to firearms shipment.  First time shippers are also often worried about loss or damage.

It's far from an impossible task, however, and is really quite reliable once you understand how to do it. 

CAVEAT: This is not legal advice.  It's my best layman's understanding of the rules and regs covering firearms shipment, based on my experiences.  This covers only Federal law, and there may be additional state or local laws that apply.  This information is a generalization, and there are specialized exceptions.  This information should be considered a general guide only to allow you to do the research to confirm that you are shipping or receiving in a legal manner.

The recommendations I make are based on what I found worked best when I was in the business of buying and selling collectible firearms.  You may find that local variations in common carrier services or post offices make a different approach work better for you.

There are four factors that cover how a gun may be shipped:

  1. Who is sending the gun.
  2. Who is receiving the gun.
  3. What kind of gun it is.
  4. Method of shipment

SENDER and RECEIVER. The sender and receiver will each fall into one of the following groups:

  1. Private individual. This is someone who does not have any type of Federal Firearms License.  He's just a guy wanting to buy or sell or otherwise send or receive a gun.  The federal regs call him a "non-licensee."  Remember that it is illegal for anyone to transfer a modern gun to someone who is a felon, or otherwise not legally eligible to possess a firearm.
  2. Licensed FFL Dealer. This is someone in the business of buying & selling firearms to make a profit.  To do this, you must have a Federal Firearms License ("FFL").
  3. Licensed FFL Collector. There is also a type of FFL for an individual collector to make it easier for him to buy certain special types of guns called "Curios & Relics" (C&Rs) only.

TYPES OF GUNS. Whether a gun is a handgun (pistol or revolver) or a long gun (rifle or shotgun) can make a difference in how it can be shipped.  It also makes a difference whether a gun is an antique (made before 1899) or modern (made after 1898).  For the purposes of shipping to an FFL Collector only, it matters whether a modern gun is a curio & relic. The definition of C&R is a bit outside the scope of this article, but licensed collectors will be familiar with the term and (rather complicated) definition.

METHOD OF SHIPMENT. Usually this will be either by the mail (i.e., the U.S. Postal Service), or by a common carrier (such as FedEx or UPS).

The following table explains how I used to ship guns when I was in that business.  It's organized by who is sending the gun:

If SENDER is a PRIVATE INDIVIDUAL (non-licensee):

If SENDER is a licensed FFL DEALER:

If SENDER is a licensed FFL C&R COLLECTOR:




Is he really an FFL Dealer?  Use E-Z Check  -- A private individual does not necessarily have to have a copy of the dealer's FFL to ship to him. Some dealers will not want to send you a signed copy of their FFL.  That's a legitimate concern for them, as they may not want copies floating around that could be used to make fraudulent purchases at gun shows or other dealer's premises.

However, they should be willing to tell you their 15-digit FFL license number.  You can then go to the ATF's online FFL E-Z Check system at  Enter the FFL number, and the site will show you the dealer's name ane the address of their licensed premise.  If you've been given a different address to ship to, a red flag should go up.

You cannot check licensed collectors on the E-Z Check system.  This is the reason a careful shipper may want to have a copy of the receiving collector's FFL before shipping.

Insurance - I recommend that any firearm shipment be insured for the full amount.  Your existing insurance may provide some coverage, check your policy or with your agent.  If a gun is damaged in shipment, expect a hassle trying to collect on the insurance from a common carrier.  Many times the claim will be initially denied on the vague explanation of "inadequate packaging".  If you are persistent in challenging this decision, you will usually get a favorable result eventually.

Declaration of contents -- Most gun shipments require that the contents be revealed to the shipper.  Do this at the time of shipping, but do NOT label the exterior of the package as containing a gun.  If the gun is an antique, you'll probably want to specify that on the declaration.

Adult signature -- Most firearms shipments require an adult signature by the recipient.  Some of the methods listed above automatically have that requirement.  I suggest always marking any type of gun or ammunition shipment ADULT SIGNATURE REQUIRED, even if not required.

Packing techniques -- We wrap the gun in bubble wrap, and then pack it in a sturdy cardboard box with tightly packed styrofoam peanuts, firmly taped shut.   This or similar packing will work for most guns.

Most problem areas in packing are with long guns.  Finding a box can be a problem for a one time shipper.  A good solution for a valuable long gun is to buy a cheap hard plastic gun case at one of the big MartMart type stores, and ship in that.  All long guns, and especially old thin-stocked muzzle loaders such as Kentucky rifles, are prone to stock breakage at the wrist during shipment.  It's worthwhile to reinforce the wrist by tightly taping a board or the barrel of another long gun to span the area.

Sights, hammer spurs, muzzles, and bolt handles can poke through the packaging of long guns if not carefully packed.  Taping sturdy cardboard over these problem areas can help prevent damage in shipment.

Presentation cases, especially older ones, are also a special concern.  A heavy gun & accessories rattling around in an old case can break out partitions or otherwise damage the case.  The best solution is to wrap gun & case separately, although with proper padding they can be put in the same shipping box.  This also applies to rare original cardboard boxes, if they have some value in their own.  In that case, it's a good idea to put filling in the empty cardboard box to prevent crushing.

Actual shipment - In most cases you will need to physically deliver the packed gun & paperwork to the Post Office or common carrier office for acceptance.  You can't drop it in a mail box, have it picked up from your home mail box, or ship via a packing & shipping store in most cases.

Sometimes you'll run into shipping company employees who don't know the laws and regulations.  If they are preventing you from making a permissible shipment, get what you need through polite persistence and asking to speak to a supervisor and working up the chain until you find someone who actually knows the rules.  If they're allowing you to do something that you know is against the law or regs, and you go ahead, you'll be doing it at your own risk.  You can still be penalized on the basis of the actual law, plus I suspect insurance claims on illegal shipments would be looked at with a jaundiced eye.

From The Blue Book of Gun Values


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