Whether You’re Far Afield, Out Of State Or Abroad,
There Are Certain Things To Look For In A “Travel Rifle”
By John Barsness
While some hunters never leave their home state or even their home county, many eventually succumb to the Boone Syndrome. While some Daniel Boone stories are myth, he apparently really was somewhat restless, not only jump-starting the movement of American settlers over the Appalachian Mountains, but eventually ending up in what’s now Missouri.
Similarly, some hunters dream of distant lands. While I really like hunting my native Montana, even as a kid I dreamed of hunting Alaska and Africa, and eventually did, finding that traveling to hunt created as much wonder and excitement as my first hunts as a kid near home. Believe me, the Animal Channel can’t adequately convey the feeling of standing on a tundra ridge, glassing migrating caribou, or stalking Cape buffalo along a river filled with crocodiles.
When restless big game hunters decide to see what’s beyond their state’s border or an ocean, they normally want to take their own rifle. In the last 30-some years I’ve not only hunted in 28 US states, but a dozen other countries. While this isn’t nearly as much travel as many other Boone Syndrome victims, I’ve hunted seven provinces and territories in Canada, several European countries, and southern Africa from east to west coasts, and the equator to its southern tip. I’ve also hunted some of those states and countries more than once—South Africa five times, Texas around 20.
John’s 7×57 often goes to Africa, both because it works and
because ammunition can easily be found over there.
The .375 H&H is the most common all-around rifle for hunting Africa,
and most professional hunters even have some spare ammo on hand.
The Red Tape Factor
While travel’s not as difficult as many stay-at-home hunters think, it’s become more problematic over those decades, especially outside the US. My first foreign hunt was a drive-up trip to Alberta, Canada, just north of Montana, back when Americans didn’t need a passport to cross the border. The Canadian customs officer didn’t even wear a handgun, and when informed I was heading north to hunt stood next to my pickup while I showed him my rifle. This took a little while, but only because he wanted to talk hunting (I don’t remember having to fill out a form, but may have).
In the fall of 2015 my wife and I hunted together in Alberta for the fifth time, entering through the same border station. These days you pay $25 to bring in up to three firearms, and fill out a form listing every one, including serial number, chambering, action type and barrel length. We obtained the forms ahead of time, filling them out except for our signatures, which must be witnessed by a Canadian customs agent. The first agent greeted us from a bulletproof booth, wearing a handgun and body armor, and he checked our passports on a computer before telling us to come inside, where two other agents took half an hour to recheck our passports, check our firearms against the form, and take our money.
My first trip to the Republic of South Africa, 25 years ago, was also relatively hassle-free. Anybody entering RSA with firearms must register them with the South African Police Service (SAPS), and upon arrival in Johannesburg a SAPS agent stood at the end of the customs line. He wrote out a “form” for my .375 H&H on a receipt pad kept in his shirt pocket, and I was on my way.
Today SAPS has a separate office far from the customs area. If you attempt to register your firearms on your own it may take hours, because the process requires a team of officers and helpers, and at least one will probably ask for a little something (preferably American dollars) to speed things up.
Which is why hunters usually engage one of several companies offering “meet and greet” services, where a travel agency employee not only leads you from customs to the SAPS office but pre-greases the police with a little something, shortening the process considerably. (In much of the world “a little something” for minor officials is standard procedure, mostly because their pay is lousy. It’s kind of like tipping waitresses in the US).
A meet-and-greet service may cost a little more than doing it yourself, but will certainly save lots of time and hassle, especially if you’re staying overnight in Johannesburg, the primary airline hub of southern Africa, before heading out on the rest of your trip, whether in South Africa or some other country. Personally, I always use the services of a travel agent experienced in serving hunters when heading to any foreign country other than Canada. Usually they save you enough money on other expenses to pay for dealing with permits.
Such a travel agent will also know the rules about which firearms are legal in that country. It’s common for American hunters to be stopped when driving across the Canadian border because they have a handgun or two, which can’t be brought into Canada. There are also Canadian regulations about barrel length and how many shells a semi-auto can hold.
Using a common cartridge can be a good idea when traveling, just in
case something happens to your own ammo. That’s why John has taken
this New Ultra Light Arms .30-06 more places than any other rifle.
When hunting outside the US, it’s a good idea to make copies of any
important travel documents, including the photo page of your passport
and any firearms papers.
I once had to sit in line at the Johannesburg SAPS office for close to an hour because some American ahead of me decided to bring a pump-action rifle on his safari. Pumps aren’t allowed in South Africa, something he’d have known if he’d done some Internet research, or hired a travel agent. His rifle was confiscated, and he may not have gotten it back upon leaving. As far as I know, bolt-action rifles and single-shots are legal in any country that allows the temporary import of firearms, one reason I usually take bolts, though single-shots have also gone with me to both Canada and Africa.
Many countries, and sometimes states and provinces within countries, also have rules about minimum cartridges for certain kinds of game. In Africa these rules are rather flexible, depending both on the officer in charge (if any) and other factors. But in other countries they’re very firm, especially those outlawing certain “military” cartridges—which may include the .308 Winchester (apparently the .30-06 was decommissioned so long ago it’s not a problem). A few countries, and even parts of the US, may also require “non-toxic” bullets made without any lead.
If you’ve prepared correctly, crossing foreign borders with a rifle normally requires at most an hour, and even without a rifle can take that long anyway. If you like to travel, the privilege of spending a week or two in Canada, the Czech Republic, New Zealand or any African country is well worth 60 minutes.
Many experienced travelers suggest taking a rifle in a common hunting chambering, just in case you need more ammunition. This most frequently occurs because of a scope going out of zero, but sometimes happens because your ammo gets lost along the way.
The last may seem a remote possibility, but believe it or not, airline luggage is delayed—even lost—now and then! Also, some airlines and even some countries don’t allow ammo to be packed inside the rifle case. Instead it must be in your other luggage. Sometimes this regulation changes during the same trip due to switching airlines and can result in ammo being confiscated.
Single-shot rifles are legal for hunting in any country. This Merkel
.308 is easily disassembled, and leaves plenty of room for a few tools,
even in a takedown case. A soft case has been substituted for one of
the foam pads.
This Browning Bruiser takedown case has traveled to dozens
of states and countries, outlasting a couple of aluminum cases.
Sometimes a hunter may even need more ammo when driving to another state. In the American West, hunting is still considered socially normal yet many small towns offer a very limited variety of ammunition. I have two friends who, due to circumstances beyond their control, ended up searching less-populated parts of Idaho and Montana for .280 Remington ammo—and failing. Afterward both traded off their .280’s for .270 Winchesters.
I’ve generally followed the advice about using common cartridges, having taken a .30-06 on more of my travel hunts than any other cartridge—and of course it’s worked fine on game from whitetails to red stag to kudu. Close behind have been other worldwide standards such as the 7×57 Mauser, .300 and .338 Winchester Magnums and .375 H&H. (While 7×57 ammo can be scarce in the US and Canada, it’s not in Africa and Europe.) On other occasions, however, I’ve used uncommon cartridges such as the .280 Remington and .358 Winchester, and a couple of times my own wildcat—the 9.3 Barsness-Sisk, which is a .350 Remington Magnum necked up to .366 caliber.
Luckily, my ammo has never been “lost” by any airline, but it’s happened to more than one hunting companion. On a black bear hunt in Saskatchewan my partner brought a rifle for a .338-caliber wildcat. His rifle case showed up at the Saskatoon airport, but his duffel bag and the ammo inside didn’t. Luckily the outfitter had a spare rifle and some extra clothes, but after hunting with borrowed stuff for a day, my friend’s luggage finally showed up. If you do choose to hunt with a rifle chambered for an uncommon round, it’s a good idea to make sure you can borrow a rifle where you’re headed, just in case.
Occasionally I bring two rifles, but a hunting writer is obliged to try as much stuff as possible. One is far less hassle, though on at least three occasions it’s been good to have a spare, including once when my hunting companion’s rifle spent 10 days in Washington, D.C. instead of flying to Africa, and another occasion when the scope on another friend’s rifle went bonkers.
Except for occasional iron-sight hunts, I always bring a spare scope. Actually those iron-sight hunts have been more relaxing because I didn’t worry about scopes breaking—whether on their own, because I fell, or my horse decided to audition for the National Finals Rodeo.
But usually the spare scope’s set up in an identical pair of detachable rings and already sighted-in. But if that setup’s not possible, I bring the tools necessary to switch scopes. I’ve had to use the spare myself on two occasions, and once I loaned it to a companion whose scope went sproing. (Interestingly, it’s worth noting that none of the scopes I’ve seen break on a trip cost less than $500, and more than one cost over $1,000.)
When hunting in remote areas, far from any gunsmith, I’ve often taken a rifle with a standard Mauser 98 action because the essential working parts can be so easily replaced. The spare parts kit includes an extractor, ejector, firing pin and spring and a military trigger. However, as with ammo I’ve also been lucky with rifles—and have even occasionally hunted in really remote areas with a Remington 700 or another “modern” push-feed bolt action. Some hunters claim the 700 is particularly prone to breakdowns, including frozen triggers, broken extractors and bolt handles coming off. I must be lucky there, too, because after firing hundreds of thousands of rounds from various Remington 700’s over 40-plus years, none of those things ever occurred.
Float planes are a common form of hunting transport in northern
North America, but space is limited. A compact hard case (below)
plus a soft case can make things easier.
For some hunters, Cape buffalo in Africa is a life-long dream—and
relatively easy to do with today’s jet travel and some knowledge
of firearms regulations.
After traveling for a few years I eventually decided a takedown case is far less hassle than the typical 4-footer used by most hunters. A long and clumsy case is easy in large airports, where baggage carts and skyhops are common. But things are different anywhere you have to personally pack the case a considerable distance.
Long cases are even less handy when they have to be squeezed into float planes, the small vehicles common in many foreign countries, or even a 3/4-ton pickup carrying several hunters and a week’s worth of camp groceries. Even very large float planes can become crowded when returning from a hunt with a bunch of caribou meat.
My present case is a Browning Bruiser, made of high-impact plastic with wheels on one end for easy dragging. It’s outlasted two previous aluminum take-down cases by several years, and is large enough to accommodate simple tools and a pair of shooting sticks.
Unbolting the stock from a typical bolt-action allows it to fit in a take-down case, and even rifles with 2-piece stocks will fit if the buttstock’s removed, often a simple matter of unscrewing the recoil pad and the through-bolt holding the stock. I’ve done both dozens of times, but on a few occasions have also taken break-action guns that take down easily like a double-barreled shotgun. In fact the most practical travel “rifle” for many trips is a combination gun such as a drilling.
You’ll need proof of previously owning your firearm upon returning to the US. The standard advice is to visit the nearest American customs office and fill out a copy of US Customs form 4457, Certificate of Registration for Personal Effects Taken Abroad. This remains valid as long as you own the firearm, and supposedly it’s also a good idea to list other items subject to import duty, such as foreign-made binoculars and cameras. However, I’ve never encountered any customs agent who expressed any interest in binoculars and cameras when I’ve showed up with a gun case. (Recently the Obama administration attempted to force hunters traveling outside the US to register as “exporters” of firearms, a major hassle, but apparently that was squashed by the NRA and other organizations.)
But other proof of previous ownership is also valid, one reason I ask for written receipts when purchasing firearms. Once this caused a young customs agent in Atlanta to comment, “You got a great deal on that Ruger Number One!” Part of the fun of hunting travel is meeting other hunters, even in unexpected places.
One Browning Place
Morgan, UT 84050
Gracy Travel International, Inc.
6865 Camp Bullis Rd.
San Antonio, TX 78256