Pistol Modifications – What’s Worth Doing?

Grab any modern pistol, right out of the box, and you’ve got a decent firearm. Today’s firearms manufacturers have refined their designs and manufacturing techniques to the point where even the “cheaper” brands provide good quality and accuracy. But is that enough? Should we be satisfied with how our guns come, out of the box?

Most gun owners leave their pistols just as they come from the factory. There’s actually nothing wrong with that; most guns are not only well-made, but come out of the factory accurized, with the sights dead on. Probably one of the biggest mistakes any of us can make is to mess with the sights, before becoming proficient in the use of that gun. More than likely, we’ll adjust the sights off and end up having to readjust them later.

Personally, I’m not one to leave my guns as they come from the factory. I feel there’s a very good reason for this. That is, guns come from the factory prepared for general shooting use; in other words, plinking or going to the range for sport shooting. They probably do not have the accessories needed to make them ideal for competition or self-defense. Therefore, it only makes sense to add these accessories, personalizing your pistol and preparing it for what you intend to use it for.

True competitive shooters tend to do this; but those of us who carry for self-defense don’t. At the most, we’ll do a little bit of cosmetic customization to our guns. But as far as I’m concerned, those cosmetic modifications are unnecessary. I’d rather put my money into making my gun ready for use.

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Modifying Your Own Guns
One question that many people might have is whether or not they can modify their own guns or they need to hire a gunsmith to do so for them. That’s a good question. A lot depends on your personal ability to work on mechanical devices and what tools you have available to you. Most modifications merely require changing out parts. So, if you have a decent workshop and some decent ability to work with hand tools, there is no reason why you can’t make these modifications yourself.

That’s not to say that they will all be easy. Some are easier than others, and the same modification which is easy on one gun, can be extremely difficult on another. Changing the sights on a Springfield XD or XDS can be extremely difficult, even though the procedure is essentially the same as changing them on a Glock.

The difference comes from the fact that the dovetail slot on the Springfield is machined a touch tighter than that of the Glock. But this difference is significant enough, that you will not succeed in changing the sights on a Springfield, unless you put the gun into a solidly mounted vice to drive out the existing sights.

You can find a lot of videos available online, showing how to make the changes we’re going to talk about in this article. I would recommend watching more than one, as each instructor has their own slant on things and one might give you some insight into the process that another might leave out. The more information you have, the easier it will be to make any of these changes.

Competition or Self-Defense?
Before you go anywhere in modifying any gun, you have to decide what purpose you are customizing it for. Generally speaking, there are two basic modes you might consider; self-defense or competition. While there are others, such as to be a survival gun, that’s really still a self-defense issue.

There are some modifications that you might want to do for either case; but most modifications fall into one or the other. Take optics, for example. There is absolutely no need for tritium sights in a gun range. But there is a huge need for them in self-defense situations, many of which happen around twilight, when it’s difficult to see the iron sights on a gun.

Can you set up a gun for both purposes? Yes… and no. Yes, you can set it up in such a way that it would be useable for both competitive shooting and self-defense. It comes from the factory that way, to some extent. But no, it will not be ideal for either situation. That’s the key; we’re talking about optimizing the gun for a particular purpose, not just making it usable for those modifications.

Start with the Right Gun
Modifying a pistol to make it more usable has to start with the purchase of the right gun. Not all handguns lend themselves to modification. This isn’t so much due to the design of the gun itself, but rather, the availability of aftermarket parts. Some gun platforms are more popular, giving rise to a greater number of aftermarket parts manufacturers providing parts for them, than others.

A little bit of time online, researching the availability of parts for a particular firearm, will tell you everything you want to know. Start out by making a list of every modification that you think you might want to do to that gun, and then look to see if parts are available. If they aren’t, then you have to decide if that modification is important to you or not.

The two handgun platforms for which you can find the widest range of parts availability are the Glock and the Colt 1911. Glocks are particularly easy to find parts for, because all of their pistols are designed off of a common platform. Couple that with their popularity, both in civilian and law-enforcement circles, and you have a sure formula for parts manufacturers.

Cosmetic Alterations
This report isn’t about cosmetic alterations and I’m basically going to ignore them. There’s nothing wrong with customizing the look of your favorite pistol, if that’s what you want to do. But those changes aren’t going to make it any more usable or accurate. So as far as I’m concerned, they are unnecessary. You don’t need my advice as to whether you should have your pistol refinished with Cerakote or need a custom-engraved slide cover plate.

I’ve seen some cosmetic alterations to guns that I really liked; they made the guns look good. But I’ve never spent even one dollar on doing any cosmetic alterations to any of my guns. I’m much more interested in how well my guns do what I need them to do. Maybe someday I’ll have enough extra cash lying around that I’ll change my tune on that. But for now, I’m more interested in functional changes.

Perhaps the single most important modification you can make to any pistol is the trigger, specifically the trigger pull weight. It is a commonly accepted fact that a lighter trigger pull helps increase accuracy. That lighter trigger helps with trigger control, reducing the chances of pushing the pistol off target, while pulling the trigger.

Please note that a lighter trigger pull will not eliminate problems such as jerking the trigger or anticipating recoil. All it can do is help with the amount of force needed to get the trigger to break, which in turn makes it harder to “push” the gun off target by pushing the trigger too hard.

Trigger modifications are common for target pistols, with some competitive pistols having trigger pull weights as low as 0.5 lbs. However, this is not a common modification on guns carried for self-defense. Most people who carry for self-defense are afraid to carry a gun with a light trigger pull, because they are concerned about firing prematurely. There’s a simple solution to eliminate that risk though; don’t put your finger on the trigger or even within the trigger guard, until you are ready to fire. Keep it alongside the trigger guard until that time.

I have modified both my Glock 17 and my Springfield XDS (my carry gun), giving them lighter trigger pull. The Glock now has a 3.5 lb. trigger pull and the Springfield has a 4.5 lb. In both cases, that single change improved my accuracy, without sacrificing any safety. The only reason I have not done that modification to other pistols I own is that I have not found the appropriate spring kit yet.

There are some pistols for which you can modify the spring weight, without having to change out the springs. Specifically, the Colt 1911 sear spring can be adjusted to lighten the trigger weight, simply by bending the sear spring, which is located inside the back of the handle, underneath the main spring housing and backstrap safety.

Originally, the Colt 1911 specification called for a minimum 5 lb. trigger weight. This was the required minimum weight for those used in military pistol competitions. However, by adjusting the curvature of the spring, something that can be done by hand, that trigger weight can be dropped down to give you a 3 to 4 pound trigger pull.

There are also replacement triggers that you can get, with either provide a larger trigger surface or a smoother trigger action. Both are worthwhile, as they make it easier to get a consistent, accurate shot.

Not all pistols have replaceable grips. Specifically, the modern polymer framed guns are unlikely to be designed in such a way as to allow the grips to be changed. I can’t change them on either my Glock or my Springfield. I’m stuck with what came from the factory.

However, my trusty Colt 1911 is a metal-framed pistol. The original grips on it are installed with screws, making them easy to remove and replace. I’m not sure of the original material, but it was something like phenolic (a resin-based plastic). I’ve replaced my grips with rubber ones, which provide me with a much more secure grip on the gun.

Most of the grips available for the 1911 are cosmetic only, which really doesn’t matter. If you want to change them, then go ahead and do so. On the other hand, changing the grips for something that improves your ability to hold onto the gun, like rubber, is valuable.

This change is especially valuable on smaller-framed guns, which are much harder to hold onto. The Ruger LCP, a .380 caliber picket gun is designed to be a pocket gun, easily hidden in the front pocket of a pair of trousers. Even though it only fires a .380 cartridge, which many people feel is underpowered for a self-defense gun, the light weight of the gun makes it tend to try and jump out of your hand from the recoil. If it were possible to put rubberized grips on the LCP, it would be worth it.

Oversized Controls
While pistols are precision devices, they really have very few controls. Basically, all you’re going to find on any pistol are:

•    Trigger
•    Hammer
•    Slide lock
•    Magazine release
•    Safety

Actually, you’re not going to find all those controls on all pistols. Glocks, for example, don’t have a hammer. Revolvers in general aren’t going to have slide locks and magazine releases. Nevertheless, this is the maximum number of controls you can expect to find.

Typically, firearms manufacturers design their products with relatively small controls on them, going for a more streamlined design, which is unlikely to catch on clothing and holsters. That makes sense. At the same time, those smaller controls are harder to operate, especially in the heat of an active shooter situation, where your fine motor skills will be reduced by the adrenalin coursing through your system.

With that in mind, adding oversize or extended controls to your handgun makes sense. These oversized controls are easier to use and allow for faster manipulation of the firearm, most specifically faster magazine changes. These are fairly easy and inexpensive modifications to make, usually requiring nothing more than removing a pin and changing out the part.

Changing the barrel of a firearm has long been part of the accurizing process, especially for competition firearms. Competition or match grade barrels are machined to a higher tolerance than factory originals. Making barrels out of stainless steel or chrome plating the bore are other methods used to maintain the accuracy and consistency of these barrels.

While these sorts of changes might make a difference for those who are looking to make a smaller than one-inch group, it really doesn’t make much difference for those who are shooting for self-defense. I typically shoot a one-inch group with my personal Glock, which still has the factory barrel. Most self-defense shooting is not done at a distance where this is going to make much of a difference.

Along with the barrel, some competitive shooters go for an after-market slide. There might be several reasons for this, such as ventilation slots cut into the barrel or better grips on the barrel for racking the slide. A lot depends on the specific slide that you are looking at.

Ventilation slots are cut into the slide to allow the barrel to cool quicker. This is important if you are putting a lot of rounds downrange in a short amount of time. Twenty rounds, fired in rapid fire, will generate enough heat to cause the barrel to expand, thereby affecting its accuracy. This can be an issue for some types of competitive shooting, as well as in a self-defense situation where you find yourself in a prolonged battle.

However, most self-defense situations are three rounds, fired in three seconds. That’s it. With that being the case, the ventilated barrel really isn’t accomplishing much. Nor is the idea of having a slide with special grips machined into it, allowing you to rack the slide easier. Unless your gun jams, you shouldn’t have to rack the slide at all.

Magazine Well Adapter
Competitive shooters often install a magazine well adapter to the handle of semi-automatic pistols. This is a flared piece, intended to mount to the bottom of the handle, providing a guide for inserting magazines into the gun. Designed for quicker magazine changes in competitive shooting, it is fairly common amongst those who do tactical shooting, as fast magazine changes are a part of that type of competition.

But is this a useful or necessary modification for real-world tactical shooting? That depends a lot on the shooter. I have not installed one of these on any of my pistols and I don’t have any problem making fast magazine changes. But then, I’ve done a lot of dry-fire practice in making those changes, usually while watching a movie, so that my mind is on other things.

The only thing I can see wrong with this modification, is that it makes it harder to conceal a pistol, as it makes the butt of the pistol’s handle larger. That’s the big reason why I haven’t made this change. However, this is very much a situation where personal opinion and personal ability come to play. If you can change your magazine faster with a well adapter and you can still conceal it under your clothing, then by all means, install one.

Deciding on the optics you want for your pistol is probably the single most complex decision you’ll make in modifying your pistol for use. Typically, handguns come with iron sights. More and more are coming with white dots painted on the sights, making them somewhat more visible, especially when shooting at a dark colored target.

But that doesn’t really help at night, or even at dusk, when lower light levels may not reflect off of the white-painted dots, especially if you are facing into the sunset, rather than away from it. At those times, something more is needed. Considering that a large number of crimes are committed at dusk, when the lighting is low, changing to sights that can be used in low light is one of the most important modifications you can make to your carry pistol.

Fiber-Optic Sights
Fiber-optic sights are designed to absorb the ambient light and direct it to the ends of the fiber; one of which is pointing back at the shooter, replacing the white painted dot I just mentioned. As such, they provide much greater visibility in low light, specifically at twilight, than normal iron sights or even iron sights with white dots painted on them.

Typically, these sights will be made with a different color dot for the front sight, than for two dots used on the rear sight. That is a distinct advantage, as it provides a ready reference while brining the gun in line to shoot. There is no way to accidentally misidentify the dots and have the front sight off to one side, rather than between the rear sights.

However, fiber-optic sights are limited, in that they need ambient light to work. While it can be argued that you shouldn’t shoot, if you can’t see, the reality is that they are somewhat limited in situations where you might use a tactical light in conjunction with the gun.

Tritium Sights
Tritium sights employ tritium, which is a radioactive gas, in tiny glass vials, rather than the fiber-optics just discussed. This provides clear visibility of the dots, even in full darkness. However, the tritium sights are all one color, not the opposing colors of fiber-optics.

I personally have tritium sights on all of the handguns I might use as carry guns, if they are designed with the ability to change sights in mind. The Ruger LCP I mentioned earlier doesn’t allow for this, as well as many other compact or subcompact gun designs. The difference in cost between fiber-optic and tritium is small enough, that I feel it is worth paying the extra for tritium.

There is one disadvantage to tritium, which must be taken into consideration. The tritium itself has a limited life. Tritium has a half-life of 12 years. So, after 12 years the sights will be half as bright as they are new. After another 12 years they will be one-fourth as bright. So, they should probably be changed sometime between 12 and 20 years after installation.

Reflex Sights
Reflex sights, otherwise known as “red dot” sights, gained in popularity when the military started installing them on the M4 infantry rifle. It is a very common to find these installed on AR-15s; at least for those who can afford them.

While not common, these reflex sights do exist for pistols as well. I’ve seen them mounted on both Glocks and 1911s, and I’m pretty sure that they are available for a number of other common pistol models. They can even be installed on guns which aren’t designed to have replaceable sights, but that requires drilling and tapping holes into the slide.

While a reflex sight is extremely easy to use, especially when trying to acquire multiple targets quickly, they are generally worthless in low-light situations. So, while I would love to use one for competitive shooting, I’m not so sure I’d like to have it on my carry gun.

Laser Sights
There’s a lot of controversy about laser sights for a defensive gun, with most firearms instructors coming down on the side of being against them. Their basic complaint is a valid one – what do you do if the battery dies? You will suddenly be without the ability to accurately aim your gun, because you’re dependent on a piece of technology that failed.

The simple solution is that if you’re going to use laser sights, you need to practice both with the laser sights and with the iron sights (better yet, tritium sights). That way, you’re able to continue shooting accurately, even if your laser sight fails.

The other complaint against laser sights is that they provide the bad guys with the information that you’re pointing a gun at them, even farther away than the sights help you aim, just like a flashlight will. This is also true, as anyone seeing a red or green dot of laser light show up on or near them in going to instantly know what it is. That probably won’t scare them off, but it will make them seek cover.

Proponents of laser sights say that they allow you to keep your eyes focused downrange, where the action is happening in front of you. That’s valuable as well, as one of the things you have to do accurately is identify friend from foe, so that you can make sure you shoot at the right target.

I have laser sights on all of the pistols I regularly use, along with the tritium sights. But I do it for a totally different reason. I do it because my eyes aren’t all that good. Unless I am wearing my computer glasses, I can’t focus my eyes on the front sights of my pistol, with the pistol at arm’s length. So, if I am wearing my outdoor glasses, having a laser sight provides me with a means of aiming my pistols accurately, although I mostly wear my computer glasses and use the tritium sights.

One thing I would highly recommend, if you are thinking of putting a laser sight on your pistol; that’s to get one that is grip activated. What that means is that there is a small switch for the laser, which is activated when you grip your gun normally. This will change your grip slightly; so it will take some getting used to. But it will eliminate the extra step of having to turn on your laser sight. In an active shooting situation, that couple of seconds could be critical.

Tactical Lights
The last accessory I’d like to mention is tactical lights. You see these more and more in cop shows and action movies. Many of the more modern pistols are designed with a rail below the barrel and in front of the trigger guard, for the installation of such a light. So, the question naturally arises, should you put a tactical light on your pistol?

The problem with using any tactical light is that they allow the bad guys to know about your presence, long before they allow you to see the bad guys. So, while it might be necessary to use the light in order to find the bad guys, your light might attract their fire as well.

There is a solution to this problem… or at least a partial solution. That’s to only use the light intermittently and then immediately move, before they can shoot at your light. This requires a light with a momentary switch, located where you can reach it with your support hand, while still holding your pistol correctly. That’s better than using a separate tactical light, as you will have a better grip on your pistol, improving your shooting.

So, I’m personally in favor of tactical lights; but I caution about learning to use them judiciously. Don’t just turn it on and use it to search for the bad guys. Merely turn it on momentarily and move quickly, in case you draw fire. Use what you saw in the “snapshot” while it was on to plan your next move, whether that it to take a shot or move to another vantage point to take another look.