Have Gun[s], Will Travel [By Air]

Step 1: Check the local laws for where you are going and make sure you are 100% in compliance.

If you don’t follow their rules, whether out of ignorance or otherwise, at a minimum you would be risking a significant and probably awkward delay. Worse, you might lose your guns for a significant period of time and cost yourself a lot of money attempting to recover them, and that effort might fail and then your expensive guns would be gone. And worst, you could be locked up, charged with a criminal offense, tried, found guilty, fined and even sent to prison. You don’t want to do that. (And please don’t email me claiming that innocent people don’t get wrongly convicted. If you’re that naive, you shouldn’t be handling firearms.)

So check the laws where you are going and make absolutely certain you follow all the rules to the letter.

With that warning, now we can look at what’s involved in travelling by air to Bullseye competitions.

Note that I’m going to present things in what some might call a reverse-chronological manner. This is because I’ve learned a lot of this “the hard way” and often found myself going backward to redo something before going forward to the next step.

So we start this at the baggage check-in where you are going to turn over your unloaded guns and equipment to the airline.

First, some of what you need won’t be packed. You’ll need it in your pockets to use or show at the ticket counter and/or at the checked-luggage security station – you may have to hand these to someone who then manipulates the locks outside of your presence:

  • Keys for padlocks, if any; and
  • Written note with lock combination(s) for numbered locks, if any.

At the luggage check-in, you will say something like, “Hi, I need an ‘unloaded firearms’ tag.” The agent will provide one, partially filled in, which you will complete and sign.

Ask them where the tag should go. Although the rules state the tag should go inside the locked case with the guns, I had one agent insist it belonged on top of the locked case. When I tried to show her the printed rules from her own airline, she called over her supervisor who got real snippy. “Do it like we said or leave the airport.” (I did as they insisted.)

Most of the time, the airline wants me to stay with the luggage until after it has passed through TSA security. I say “most of the time” because more than once, they pitched my now closed (with gun cases locked) suitcase onto the luggage belt and away it went. When I asked what they would do if the TSA wanted to inspect the insides, they said, “We’ll page you or something.” Both times this happened, I found a seat close by and waited fifteen minutes before going on to passenger security and getting my own self through and onto the plane. And yes, my suitcase and guns always made it through OK.

At another airport, I walked with the ticket agent and my suitcase to the TSA luggage inspection station with my keys and combination ready. (TSA unlocks and inspects my guns about 50% of the time.) But on this occasion, the TSA agent picked up my bag, walked around the X-ray machine bypassing it completely and put it on the luggage belt for the airplane. As I stood there wondering what to do, the airline ticket agent came back and asked if my bag had been X-rayed yet. I told her what had happened and her eyes opened real wide!

“What does it look like?” she asked in a rush.

I described the bag and she took off at a run. Five minutes later she was back with the bag and, from her posture, it was clear she on the war path. She found the TSA supervisor, read him the riot act, and then stood there, hands on hips, and watched them run my bag through the X-ray machine. The TSA did not ask to unlock my gun case this time. I guess they figured the sooner me and my bag and the angry ticket agent were gone, then all the better.

When the bag was gone (again), the agent turned to leave and walking past me she said, “Thank you for having an easy to spot bag.” Then, looking angrily back at the TSA agents, she muttered the name of an anatomical feature we all have, except she used the plural form.

But I digress. Back to how to pack things.

All items go inside locked containers which, in turn, go inside “well travelled” (but secure) suitcases. The goal is to not attract attention, especially at the luggage carousel where it is possible, but admittedly unlikely, that your suitcases will come sliding out for public grabbing well before you get there. If that happens, you don’t want someone mistaking your bag for theirs and walking away with your guns.

Put big, obvious markings on your suitcases to individualize them. This will prevent someone grabbing one of your suitcases mistakenly thinking it is theirs. In this regard, I firmly believe that “ugly is better”. Although my wife hates my black suitcase with spray painted safety-yellow spots, the fact remains that no one has *ever* taken it off the luggage carousel by mistake. On the other hand, I’ve had plain black suitcases that were “lost” for 24 hours or more after my arrival, more than once, probably because someone took it by mistake but didn’t discover their error until reaching their hotel miles from the airport while leaving me at the “lost luggage” counter with no change of clothes until the next day.

Remember: Unique, ugly and worthless is a good look. People don’t take bums home for that reason, and they probably won’t pick up your crappy-looking suitcase.

Next, guns and ammunition should go in two different locked containers. Although most states don’t require this, for the few that do (and also while locked in the trunk of your rental car), always using two containers just makes it easier to remember what goes where. (The Republic of Kalifornia is one such place.)

When packing the gun box, put everything else in first, then the guns last. That way, the guns will be on top when the case is opened. The ticket counter agent may (or may not!) want to visually verify that the guns are unloaded. And the checked-luggage security station may want to do it again. One TSA agent in Phoenix, after inspecting my guns, came out to ask if they were target pistols. I ended up giving him a five minute introduction to Bullseye at the end of which he seemed interested so I invited him to the Phoenix club for the regular Tuesday night league. You never know where you might make a convert!

Depending on the competition, I will take either of two “kits”, minimal or maximum. (The minimal kit is shown above.)

For a minimal kit, I take only my 22 and ball guns, and both with just iron sights. I can shoot a full 2700 and leg match with just those, albeit with less than stellar scores – but it *is* good practice, you know? These two guns and the associated “stuff” will all fit (barely!) into a Pelican 1400 case. I can pack that and the ammunition case and also a couple of days of clothing into the suitcase. (It is a tight fit and may push the suitcase weight limit – you’ll want to check the weight on your bathroom scale so you know what to expect at the airport. [Ticket counter agents do occasionally seem to forget to check the suitcase’s weight when they have to do the unloaded firearm thing but you don’t want to rely on that oversight.])

Note, however, there will be a minimum of padding in this “cramming”. If your guns are pretty, you may want a bigger case. My guns aren’t. They just shoot real good. (But I do fit scraps of padding around the guns where there is metal-to-metal contact [but which is not shown above].)

And when packing the suitcase, put your clothes on the bottom and the gun cases on top so they can be opened easily for the required inspections at the airport.

While a Pelican 1400 is good for one or two guns without red dots, for a “maximum kit” with four guns, some of which may have red dots, a Pelican 1550 case is required. (And you’ll need a whole suitcase just to conceal the Pelican 1550 case with the ammo case going in a second case inside a second suitcase. As I said, most of the time I travel with the “minimal” kit and now you can probably understand why.)

Here is a detailed list of what I take in each of the two locked cases.

Locking case #1 (Pelican 1400 or 1550, for the “minimal” or “maximum” kit respectively) contains the following:

  • Business or personal identification card (inside this container);

  • Copy of the competition bulletin or program for which you are taking your guns (added 06/17/2009);

  • 22 handgun as follows:

  • S&W Model 41 (with/without red dot);

  • Folded zip-lock baggie large enough to contain S&W model 41 (in case of rain);

  • Empty chamber indicator in place in S&W model 41;

  • Two (2) magazines for S&W model 41;

  • [Maximum configuration only] CF handgun as follows:

  • Center fire handgun with red dot;

  • Folded zip-lock baggie large enough to contain wad gun (in case of rain);

  • Empty chamber indicator in place in wad gun;

  • Two (2) magazines for CF gun;

  • [Maximum configuration only] 45 “wad” handgun as follows:

  • SA “Wadder” with red dot;

  • Folded zip-lock baggie large enough to contain wad gun (in case of rain);

  • Empty chamber indicator in place in wad gun;

  • Two (2) magazines for wad gun;

  • Ball handgun as follows:

  • Ball gun;

  • Folded zip-lock baggie large enough to contain ball gun (in case of rain);

  • Empty Chamber Indicator in place in ball gun;

  • Two (2) magazines for ball gun;

  • Two (2) spare batteries for red dots;

  • 22, CF and 45 snakes;

  • Scoring overlays;

  • 22 chamber brush (25 cal brush with right-angle bend);

  • Ear plugs (custom or “foamies”);

  • Clip-board for score sheet;

  • Roll of buff pasters;

  • Personal score/training log book;

  • Baseball cap;

  • Clip-on, flip-down eye occluder;

  • Spotting scope [NG 20-33] with eyepiece and primary lense covers in place;

  • Legs for spotting scope;

  • Pedestal for spotting scope;

  • Shooting glasses;

  • Toothpicks (for S&W model 41 bolt-face cleaning after the NMC);

  • Stopwatch;

  • Staplegun;

  • Refill staples for staplegun;

  • Small screwdriver to adjust sights (check fit to adjustment screws on all guns listed above);

  • Tightly-closed bottle of gun oil; and

  • Padlocks and key(s) or combination [with which to lock this case].

Locking case #2, the ammunition box, contains the following [Winchester Pistol Case WGS-7701 with most of the foam removed]:

  • Business or personal identification card (inside this container);
  • Copy of the competition bulletin or program for which you are taking your guns (added 06/17/2009);
  • Dillon hearing protectors and 4 replacement AAA batteries;
  • 100 rounds of 22 ammunition in factory-original packaging;
  • 100 rounds of CF ammunition in plastic reloading boxes;
  • 100 rounds of 45 ACP “wad” ammunition in plastic reloading boxes;
  • 50 rounds of 45 ACP “ball” ammunition in plastic reloading boxes; and
  • Padlocks and key(s) or combination [with which to lock this case].

NOTE: This quantity of ammunition gets very close to the airline limit of eleven (11) pounds. Check the weight of the ammunition before leaving home and make any necessary sacrifices. You may be able to purchase the 22 ammo there but, if you’re shooting something exotic, line up your source before going.

In summary, I usually travel with the minimal kit and shoot iron sights only. With the 22 and the ball guns in that configuration, I can shoot a full 2700 and a leg match. Ammunition goes in a second, locked case, and both locked cases (guns and ammo) then go inside (on top of clothes, etc.) an ugly, unique-looking suitcase.

When I open the suitcase, the gun and ammo boxes are on top. And when I open the gun box, the guns are, again, on top.

I’ve travelled on business trips and, on my own time, competed at local events while “out” quite a few times. I’ve always had a wonderful time. Bullseye shooters are always pleased to have someone from out of town. They know you’ve made an effort to be there and they appreciate it. They will want to see what you’ve got, talk about how things work at different clubs, ask if you’re going to Perry or not this year, and on and on and on.

And here’s one final tip: Keep a couple of hours open in your schedule for after the competition. I often find that’s the most memorable time. I can remember some really nice times in Massachusetts, California, Texas and Florida that all took place after the guns were packed and we drove a couple of miles to a different place to relax. And I regret not having that same extra time to relax with the Bullseye shooters in Georgia and Illinois because I had to fly out right after the match.

I call the time after a 2700 and a ball match, “the 31st target.”

Make time for that “31st target”. It just may be the best part of your next business trip.


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