Updated information about flying with firearms located here:
As part of my job, I fly with guns and ammo about twice a month. Taking a single handgun to an industry expo is a piece of cake compared to the logistics involved in getting all your gear to a major 3-gun match, so the approach differs according to the event. As with most things in life, there's a right way, a wrong way and the army way of doing things, so I figured I'd take this opportunity to share what works for me and how to make the experience as hassle-free as possible. I can't claim to be an expert on air travel and I'd love to hear your stories, good, bad or nightmarish.
My guns are usually transported in a Pelican hard case. I use the 1720 model, which you can order with no foam insert for around $160. Into this goes a Brownells 3-gun soft case, which provides adequate cushioning while still fitting inside the Pelican. This also solves the problem of how to schlep your gear around the stages when you reach the match, and still leaves a little room for ammo or accessories. A couple of keyed-alike, short shackle padlocks secure the contents from sticky fingers, though there's nothing to prevent someone walking off with the whole shebang. I'd like to see someone come out with a version in screaming yellow or Kawasaki green, so it would be noticeable from across an airport concourse, but you could always employ a couple of rattle cans to achieve the same effect.
Pistol and rifle ammo goes in the bottom of my (second) checked bag, along with a few shotgun slugs or buckshot rounds due to the ammunition weight limit of 5kg or 11lb. Cheap birdshot is usually readily available without restriction at just about any Wally World -- 9mm major, not so much. Magazines, holster, pouches, cleaning kit, etc., also go in with the ammo.
My range bag is employed as a carry-on. There's an obvious danger in employing it thusly, so I take extra care to search every pouch and pocket for live ammo or empty cases. Having attracted the attention of the TSA before, and having the fine to prove it, I can't stress enough how important this is. If you have kids, get them to go through it as well -- with Christmas coming up, they'll be highly attuned to searching for presents, so you might as well make use of the little buggers.
There are a ton of articles out there on the web and in print as to the procedures involved when you actually get to the airport, so I won't labor the subject here, especially as each facility seems to have its own riff on the same tune. Suffice to say, declare your guns and ammo at the check-in counter and be prepared to hang around while the cases are swabbed for explosives. When you arrive at your final destination, grab an airport employee at the baggage carousel -- should one be available -- and find out where your guns will appear. In some airports, they'll be spat out on the same conveyor belt as your checked bag. In others, you'll have to go track them down at the baggage office.
So there you have it: A quick and dirty guide to a subject that is often shrouded in mystery. But once you get used to the procedures, they shouldn't inhibit you from traveling to participate in events across the country. Any of you guys have any tips you'd like to share?