***DISCLAIMER: This article is not to be treated as a recommendation or instructions to install, modify or remove any component of any firearm. The author is not a gunsmith. Neither survivalsullivan.com, its principals, owners, operators, contractors or employees, or the author of this article, claim any criminal or civil liability resulting from injury, death or legal action resulting from the use or misuse of the information contained in this article. The reader should hire and consult with a competent gunsmith as part of your preparation to install or remove any part from a firearm. ***
Any gun owner is today confronted with a bewildering array of accessories, parts and enhancements to choose from. Flipping through any magazine, parts catalog or Instagram feed will give you dozens, even hundreds of examples of pistols, rifles and shotguns so thoroughly modified that they are barely recognizable.
Is any of it worth the investment? What is gained by adding to or modifying a host firearm? What accessories are viable for defense or duty use and not just “gamer gear?” In this article I will list and assess the pros and cons of most of the popular parts and modifications, as well as discuss where and when you should spend your money on a given gun upgrade.
Some additions or modifications are so important they are essentially required, some may yield an instant improvement to capability or ease of use, and others may only provide a marginal benefit. We’ll examine them all.
A Word on Priorities
The idea of modifying a firearm, specifically one for self defense, is contentious for a couple of reasons. Some people believe that you shouldn’t modify a defensive or duty gun because it is “Gucci” or “gamer” crap that won’t make a difference in a real fight, or that it somehow hobbles you if you ever don’t have access to your hot-rodded personalized guns. Others will posit that you should not waste time or money on upgrades, saving both for training and practice.
A few people still worry over how any enhancements like an improved trigger or muzzle device will look to a jury or authorities in the event that gun is used in a shooting. There are some valid points throughout these criticisms, and I’ll do my best to address them here before we begin.
Pertaining to those that decry and modification or enhancement as “gamer parts” or worthless, I will counter with the objectivist viewpoint: a quantifiable enhancement, defined as something that improves upon innate capability or efficacy, is always an improvement.
Take a trigger as an example: a 6 or 7 lb., slightly creepy, spongy stock trigger may be entirely adequate for the task, but a 4 lb., crisp, clean trigger is an improvement, owing to it being easier to manipulate effectively, and making it easier for the shooter to achieve the precision the gun is capable of. Stock may be terrible, acceptable, or even excellent, but better is always better. Just be sure you can define what “better” is for your situation.
For those that caution against buying parts and goodies ahead of training and practice, they have a more substantiated point: Americans in particular are notorious for trying to buy skill. “If I dress, use and equip a gun like the pros do, I will shoot like the pros and celebrity shooters do.” Not without the practice and training you won’t, and what’s worse, the pros equipment is dictated by their mission.
Considering yours is likely different, you may be wasting money on additions that will not make a difference for your situation. If you only have the cash for a class or a batch of upgrades, choose the class.
For the last point about enhancements making you look bad in the aftermath of a deadly force situation, I am unconvinced, and unmoved. I have yet to find one example, or have one shown to me, of a self-defense trial case where a modification to an otherwise legal gun has resulted in an otherwise clean shoot resulting in a guilty verdict against the victim.
If you have not compromised any safety systems on the gun, or done anything that could result in a negligently dangerous condition, then lethal force is lethal force. The weapon in question, if legal, should not make any difference, and expert witness testimony will dismantle the assertions of any weasely prosecutor’s claims.
Regarding this, many will bring up the case of the Mesa, AZ cop from December of last year, who had modified his AR-15 patrol rifle (against department policy) with a replacement ejection port door with a vulgar statement on the inside. Detractors to weapon modifications point to this instance as their prime consideration.
Go examine the results of the case: not only is that a poor example, considering that the offending component was not admissible or germane to the case, but it is also a shining example of what not to do. We are discussing performance and safety enhancements, not juvenile, vulgar slogans or etchings.
With all this in mind, you can go too far in pursuit of “improvement.” An upgrade that compromises reliability, or creates a condition for unintended function is never worth it. An example could be radical cuts or windows cut into a slide, or an oversized magazine release that is too easily depressed unintentionally. Relegate such things to fun guns, or ones solely for competition.
Before deciding to pursue a given modification, ask yourself, “What is the biggest shortcoming of this gun?” If it is one that is easily remedied by an item or two on this list, drive on. If it is not, you may be better off looking to upgrade to a better gun entirely. And before we proceed, define your mission, then upgrade accordingly.
ACCESSORIES / PARTS
In this section you will find enhancements that will typically bolt-up or attach to the gun with little if any modification. Other enhancements will require direct altering of the guns components, and I have grouped them together later in their own section.
Enhanced iron sights are one of the most common upgrades on a defensive gun, and are relevant to all pistols, rifles and shotguns. Typically, users will purchase sights with the intent of improving both visibility and adjustment capability, the latter being particularly important for long guns.
The current paradigm for iron sights on handguns is a thin, ultra-visible front sight, either painted or fiber optic, with a blacked-out rear notch to reduce distractions for the eye. Rifles and shotguns still see the post and aperture (or ghost ring) arrangement as best, and front sights will typically be high visibility like on handguns.
For a handgun, permutations could be taller sights for use over a suppressor or co-witnessed to a miniature red-dot sight, or ruggedized adjustable sights that allow simple, precise zeroing and are still tough enough for a fighting gun.
Rifle sights today are most often a BUIS, or back-up iron sight, and designed to fold or stow so that the primary sight, be it a red-dot or telescope, will enjoy an unobstructed field of view. Some varieties of BUIS even angle off the top of the receiver, allowing them to be instantly employed if needed due to occlusion or destruction of the primary optic.
For rifles, Magpul make extremely rugged and easy to adjust iron sights.
The single biggest performance enhancing piece of equipment for a long gun is an RDS, and approaching ubiquity. The miniature variants (MRDS) are quickly establishing viability for daily carry on a handgun. A red dot allows greatly enhanced speed and precision when used with both eyes open while focusing on the target.
Modern, high quality sights from Aimpoint, Leupold and Trijicon have superb battery life, and are as rugged as the guns themselves in most cases, allowing them to be left on for instant use for months or years at a time, and withstanding abuse and environmental conditions that would have been unthinkable 30 years ago.
Not truly a must have on a long gun, but only barely, their advantages are so overwhelming. If you are not giving these consideration on a handgun, you may want to look into them, especially if you are struggling with poor or failing eyesight; the same benefits enjoyed on a long gun apply to pistols, but they take a little more work on the average pistol to install, as well as a little more training behind the gun to realize.
Aaron Cowan of Sage Dynamics recently published an impressive and thoroughly researched paper on the performance and efficacy of MRDS-equipped handguns and the various models available. I suggest you read it.
For major considerations when choosing a RDS are reliability, durability and battery life. Aimpoint is the world leader in robust optics with a battery life measured in years. The Patrol Rifle Optic is modestly priced and an excellent sight.
Weapon Mounted Lights
Any of my regular reader will know I harp on endlessly about the importance of having a white light along with your defensive firearm, no matter if it is handheld or weapon mounted. I emphasize this point so often because it is that important, being utterly critical for positive target identification as well as backlighting your iron sights in conditions of darkness.
For a handgun, WMLs allow you to marry this capability to the gun, allowing you to control both while keeping both hands on the gun, and as a rule this helps you shoot better than when using a handheld. They do add weight and bulk to whatever gun they are attached to, but are usually well worth it.
For long guns, weapon mounted is the default, as any technique for using a handheld light with a long gun is going to be pretty clumsy. Whichever setup you choose, low-light training is required to take advantage of a WMLs benefits while minimizing its weaknesses.
When selecting a WML, the two major players are Surefire and Streamlight. Your criteria for selection is reliability, durability, output and simple switching, be it tailcap or pressure pad. Complicated multimode lights with staged or programmable switches are probably best avoided, as you may have a need for full-power, but due to normal use or accident the light has stepped down to low or “trickle” power.
A word on output, or lumens: you want all the lumens you can get. I’ll spare you the major dissertation for now, as that is a subject for another article, but go for the most throw and brightness you can get in a modestly sized light.
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- Surefire’s latest iteration of the X300 series.
- Streamlight’s new TLR-7 compact rail mounted light.
Lasers come in two major varieties, visible and invisible. Invisible lasers are used in conjunction with night vision to provide an easy aiming solution, while visible lasers do the same thing, only visibly to the naked eye. Visible lasers may not be very easy to see in bright daylight or when used with a high output white light.
On handguns, lasers can be had as standalone units that mount to a rail, combined with a WML unit, or with built-in switching as a pair of replacement grips, made famous by Crimson Trace Corporation’s Lasergrips. Less common examples today are the guide rod replacement systems, by Lasermax- Avoid those. On a long gun, they are almost universally a standalone unit or bundled with a WML.
Proponents of lasers claim they allow you to fire from compromised positions more easily and they may serve as a visual deterrent if an assailant sees they are “lased.” They also claim an increase in speed when using a laser. I can only speak on the latter point as a teacher; I have seen many shooters, even ones that are already proficient, slow down when using a laser in an attempt to steady that swaying dot on the target.
I have no experience using night vision systems, but it is the opinion of several industry experts I follow that an infrared laser is mandatory for effective use of a firearm when using night vision goggles. You’ll have to investigate that on your own.
I am not a fan of visible lasers on handguns or long guns, and believe your bucks are better spent on a red dot if an electronic sight is desired. Lasers can however make for handy training aids, as they can easily illustrate to both teacher and student concepts like minimizing sway, and what is happening at the gun the moment the trigger breaks.
You can find one of CTC’s many variations of the Lasergrip sight here.
Extended Magazines and Magazine Extensions
Ammo is a lifesaving resource for a defensive gun. The more ammo I have onboard without reloading, the better. For magazine fed semi-auto pistols and long guns, capacity is most often increased by simply purchasing a magazine with greater capacity.
These can range from slightly longer box magazines to drums. Also take care that an extended magazine does not protrude so much that it compromises concealment, if applicable, or hinders you when slinging or changing position with a long gun.
Take care here, and be sure you are purchasing OEM or high-quality aftermarket magazines, as there are many companies that make poor quality high cap magazines for the uneducated to buy at gun shows. Many drum magazines are troublesome, having complicated loading or unloading procedures as well as poor reliability.
For detachable magazines of common pattern, say Glock, M&P, and AR-15 magazines, among others, extensions can be purchased for standard capacity magazines that will add anywhere between 2 and 10 rounds, depending on the model. These are commonly seen adorning the magazines of various action pistol and 3-Gun competitors.
Tube-fed shotguns, depending on the barrel lug arrangement, will usually accept a thread on extension increasing capacity between 1 and 4 rounds. Note that for detachable magazine or shotgun magazine tube extensions a replacement magazine spring may be required to ensure proper function.
Use discretion before trusting a duty or carry magazine to such a device. Rigorous testing is required to ensure reliable feeding and durability of the unit before carrying it in harm’s way.
Wide Magazine Well, or Mag-Funnel
Once the province of Open or Unlimited Class competition, enhanced magazine wells have been seen more and more often on semi-auto handguns and more than a few AR’s and AK’s.
A good design for a handgun will still be low-profile enough to conceal easily, and still reduce snags and fumbles when reloading at top speed. Those will typically click into place or bolt on with a screw for a polymer framed pistol, but installation varies on metal framed handguns. On rifles, most units clamp on or around the receiver to function.
I find these to have merit for most any shooter if the well is conservative in proportion. They also seem somewhat more useful on handguns than rifles.
Control Accessories – Grips, Stocks, and Stops
These are the components that will make the most difference when it comes to the user interface; after all, these parts are the ones that will actually be your points of contact when handling or shooting the gun.
Look for parts that are ergonomically sound, well fitted, and made of rugged material. Any good choice here will provide an excellent grip whether wet or dry. Good materials are quality-made, heavy-duty plastic or G10 laminate. Save wood for your barbecue guns.
Pay close attention to fitment: stocks should not rattle, grips should not interfere with controls or interfere with you reaching the controls. Any support hand accessories for long guns should suit your shooting style and mate solidly to the forend.
Shorter vertical grips and simple handstops are the current ideal owing to the most modernized technique. Angled foregrips are preferred by some, and work fine, but may not allow you to use the grip in unconventional positions like a vertical grip can.
Handstops provide only a small reference point for consistently repeatable hand placement, or to prevent your support hand from slipping off the forend in front of the muzzle on a very short-barreled gun. A barricade stop is designed to be pressed into a barricade or obstacle, whatever it may be, and bite into it to help the shooter steady the gun. These can also serve as a forward handstop.
A time tested, inexpensive option to add grip to metal or plastic surfaces, wet or dry. If you buy a high quality deck or no-skid tape (from a skateboard shop or safety department at a home improvement store, respectively) and pay attention to prepping your surface you can get several months of steady use out of it before it needs replacement, or over a year under lighter use.
Some companies make specialty, die cut kits that perfectly fit certain makes of handguns, allowing you to try out a heavy, sharp texture before committing to having the frame stippled or purchasing new grips, both expensive enhancements, and in the case of stippling, often irreversible.
For a long gun, a sling is as essential as the holster is to the handgun; when you need your hands free If you don’t have somewhere to put your gun on your body, you must resort to putting it down, and that is a poor solution.
The most common sling designs today are single-point, two-point and three-point, with the last being much less common than in the early 1990’s.
A single point sling is attached to the gun at only one point, typically the rear of the receiver, hence the name. Single-point designs allow the gun a great deal of mobility, and an easy transition to the opposite shoulder, but really suck when it comes to carrying the gun, and doing it in a secure, stable way, which is the whole point of a sling.
A big flaw with a single-point sling is, when used on a rifle or carbine, if you drop the gun quickly, it will fall straight down and smack you in the nads. Ouch. Single-point slings do though have some utility for very short barreled guns, like the classic MP5, or AR pistols, which have a much shorter overall length and weigh less than a proper rifle.
Three-point slings attach to the gun at two-points, typically, but have a long runner between the two attachment locations, and a lot of other things in between there and you. Bottom-line, they are overly complicated and present significant snag and tangle hazards. Avoid them.
Two-point slings are what you want, as exemplified by the modern quick-adjust slings made by Blue Force Gear, the VCAS sling, and Viking Tactics’ VTAC sling. Using one of these slings will allow you to sling the gun in front of your body and keep it out of the way. Or sling it on your back, and cinch it down, if you need to climb, carry or what have you. Slings of this sort also allow you to “sling up” and use the sling as a support with traditional techniques to improve accuracy. They are eminently simple, durable and practical. Get one!
If your gun has a threaded barrel, you can take advantage of the wondrous selection of hood ornaments- er, I mean muzzle devices! Muzzle devices come in a few varieties that give different effects. Flash hiders are designed to reduce the flash signature at the muzzle upon firing as much as possible. Very good designs, coupled with the right load, can virtually eliminate flash.
Muzzle brakes typically feature one, two or more expansion chambers to lower gas pressure at muzzle, which is then expelled through large ports square to center line of bore. This provides stabilization of secondary recoil effects. Note correct usage is ‘brake,’ not ‘break’.
Compensators feature at least one expansion chamber and one or multiple vectoring ports located in varying patterns around the perimeter of the device which are clocked to counteract movement of the muzzle during secondary recoil effects. Note that so-called “hybrid” designs exist, which blur the line between the comps and brakes somewhat and may also feature some degree of flash suppression.
Lastly you have suppressors, or silencers. These control the expanding gases from a shot via routing them through (typically) convoluted baffles along the internal length of the device. A silencer provides blast noise reduction and major stabilization of secondary recoil effects, being in essence an enclosed mega-compensator. Today, most modern silencers will mount directly to a specific flash hider or muzzle brake.
These all have their place depending on what you want to accomplish, but bear in mind that many brakes and comps on rifles will dramatically increase pressure to the sides of the device, especially in an enclosed space. For a defensive or duty gun, a flash hider or silencer will serve best.
This category of enhancements rely on making permanent, physical changes to the chosen part of the gun, and as such, barring replacement of the affected component, are permanent. I.e. you cannot simply take it off. If in doubt of your abilities on any of these mods, let a professional do it!
Trigger Job and Action Enhancements
Trigger enhancement can be as simple as smoothing up the mating surfaces in the stock trigger group, and replacing springs with lighter versions, to completely replacing those same parts with purpose-made high performance components. A lighter trigger on any given gun is almost always an advantage, as it is easier to manipulate the trigger, especially at speed, and not disturb your sight picture.
Beware that you do not go too light on the pull! A trigger that is too light is more prone to be inadvertently pressed, whether from negligence, rough handling, or mechanical failure. Also, the ease and efficacy of this mod will vary greatly depending on the gun in question.
Other action enhancements, like polishing of slide, bolt or cylinder bearing surfaces, lighter action springs, hand mating and fitting of components and numerous other small refinements can add up to a tremendously slick and soft shooting gun. Without training and skill at the task, most of these are best left to a ‘smith.
Some guns, like Glocks, are so easy to detail strip and reassemble that a trigger kit install is within the abilities of a serious user. Some guns, like the AR-15, may be simple to disassemble but a little tricky to install the part on and reassemble. Others examples, such the venerable 1911 or Browning Hi-Power, require a significant degree of gunsmithing skills to perform a modifications on safely and correctly without compromising reliability.
For revolvers alone, chamfering of the chambers, a process where the opening of the chamber is beveled slightly to more easily accept the incoming cartridges off a reload, is an expensive but highly desirable modification. For a defensive revolver, the ability to execute a quick and fumble-free reload is high on the list of skills to train, and so anything that will help on that front is a boon.
If in doubt, leave it to a gunsmith or the manufacturer.
Stippling, Checkering and Other Texturing
Like grip tape above, these methods are all ways to add a non-slip texture to a gun. The exact method will depend on the host part’s material. Stippling is currently a part of the custom polymer gun craze, and is a fine way to add permanent grip to the frame or forend of a gun, as long as it is plastic.
Typically done via a soldering-iron type tool, stippling at its simplest simply burns a series of dots or shapes into the part, and in doing so creates a texture that affords a good grip. With a little practice, the average owner can effectively stipple a frame or other part without damaging its structural integrity.
Checkering is seen often on metal guns, and is achieved by way of cutting perpendicular rows out of the surface of the metal with special files. These rows, interlaced, leave behind a field of tiny pyramid shapes that will bite into the hand of the shooter. Depending on how sharp or beveled they are they will provide good to excellent grip, and will go a very long time before being worn away.
Other textures, like striations, grooves and so on, achieve much the same ends, and though they vary in effectiveness and application.
When in doubt, texture: you never know if you will be wet, greasy or bloody when the time comes to use your firearm. The only consideration against it is for the purposes of concealed carry and high-volume training or practice.
For carry, aggressive texturing will start to shred clothes in a short amount of time. Used in a long practice session, they will wear away skin and even draw blood with frightening rapidity. There is a happy medium here, experiment using grip tape or by stippling an old rail panel, unused set of grips or Pmag to see what works best.
Depending on the gun, controls are either too large or too small, stick out too far or not enough, and are too slick or too sharp. The trigger itself may feel too far away to enable proper placement of the trigger finger. Thankfully, replacement or modified controls are widely available and reasonably affordable for many major service handguns and rifles.
You might consider a slightly extended slide release on a Glock to help you utilize it on a reload, or more easily lock the slide open. A classic P-series Sig will benefit from a shaved slide release to help prevent the shooting hand thumb from depressing it, keeping the slide from locking open on the last round. If you have small hands or are dealing with a large gun, a “short trigger,” one that is thinner from front to rear will lessen the reach to get proper purchase on it.
A 1911 user may like a larger or smaller safety, or one that is ambidextrous. AK users will all enjoy a safety modified to be swiped off with just the trigger finger. This category is tone of the best places to make thoughtful modifications to your gun, as again, the way you interface with these controls will in part dictate how effectively you can run it.
A great example of an enhanced safety lever for a shotgun, in this case a Mossberg. The pronounced lip on the lever prevents the shooter from slipping off when pushing it forward to fire.
Any gun is a starting point. A stock gun may be superb, but without doubt it can be improved. It can be modified to better fit and serve the one who carries it. You may determine that you need very little in the way of customization, if anything, to fulfill your objectives.
Or you may decide to wring out every last molecule of performance that it has to give in pursuit of maximum performance. The choice is yours. But whatever you do, make sure you are modifying and adding to your gun with purpose, not just in pursuit of attaching accessories for the sake of it.