When discussing firearms for personal or home defense with other like-minded shooters, a common question that crops up, and often results in argument, is whether or not modifications are acceptable on defensive firearms, and if they are, what kind or to what extent?
This is rooted in a desire to enhance (or avoid impairing) performance, but also often raises the question of whether or not those same mods will see you hung out to dry in court in the event you do use your gun to save your life.
Everyone has an opinion on the matter; we all know someone who has suffered a previously reliable firearm turning into a troublesome toaster that will barely function after a modification was made or a dose of home gunsmithing was heaped on it.
Further, it seems everyone “knows” of that case that one time where a civilian defender and victim of violent attack was found guilty by a jury because he had a hair trigger installed on his concealed carry pistol.
So what is a smart and savvy shooter to do? Any gun can be improved, and it is smart to obtain every advantage possible in a fight. That includes our weapons. But we must think ahead to the last part of the fight, the legal battle that is sure to follow any use of lethal force in defense.
Is there any merit to the idea that enhanced guns will stack the deck against us in court? We’ll answer those questions in today’s article.
Why Modify at All?
We live in an era of riches when it comes to firearms. There are so many great guns on the market it is hard to keep track of them all, and even budget-priced guns from many manufacturers are excellent performers.
No matter what you budget or mission is there is a factory gun that will likely meet and exceed your requirements by a large margin.
This is great! So great, that some might think it is the height of ingratitude to modify these wonder weapons at all, chalking it up to a chronic lack of satisfaction, classic case of idle hands, or simple “Gucci-fication” of otherwise completely serviceable firearms.
There is a very real syndrome where much is spent on tricking-out and customizing a firearm in lieu of seeking training and practicing with it.
Our stock guns today provide a level of performance- accuracy, reliability, etc. – that is almost always far beyond the minor use and stresses its owner will put it through.
We all know that most shooters’ skill will never come close to even exceeding their gun’s accuracy potential, to say nothing of shooting a gun, or even just its barrel, to the end of its service life. If the gun is chosen well, you can make a good argument for there being no need to modify a firearm.
On the other hand, almost anything, no matter how good, that has been out long enough (or even from day one!) can be improved upon, if only for an individual’s needs.
Why stop at what the designers dictated? Can I ever have too much accuracy or enough ammo? Can a gun ever fit too well? Can it ever shoot too flat? When is optimization too far?
Any gun, if you have the will and the coin, is only a starting point, no matter how good it is. One need only look at the current craze of factory, boutique and user customized Glocks for validation of that statement.
Any Glock is an entirely serviceable pistol right out of the box, and once, a long, long time ago in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, was considered the apogee of combat pistols just as it was from the factory.
But time has moved on, and shooters of all stripes and professions are ever hungry for a winning advantage, anything to improve on performance. So now we see all kinds of modifications and enhancements thought of as “essential” with a significant portion of owners sending a new gun right out for mods without even a test fire.
Neither is inherently bad, and all shooters fall a little more to the conservative or radical side of the customization spectrum by nature. The good news is, if you are smart and know what you are about as a shooter, your preferences don’t matter; some mods are acceptable and smart for defensive guns and some are not.
There is a hierarchy of needs for choosing modifications and customizations. In the next section, I’ll offer my idealized version of that hierarchy concerning handguns for your edification and contemplation.
Does Stock Rock, or is the Sky the Limit?
Before you change a single thing on your pistol, understand what is it you need to do with it, what you, as the shooter, need from it. Remember, I am only concerned with guns used in a defensive context for the purposes of this article, not for competition of any kind, though as you will see there are some attributes that are desirable for any use.
Many times competitors in elite level competition will modify their equipment, whatever it is, to such a radical extent it begins to look less and less like the class it belongs to.
Competition-grade guns will often see positive attributes like reliability or longevity sacrificed for greater speed, accuracy or efficiency. Compare modern race guns to Formula 1 cars and the design ethic becomes clear; bleeding-edge performance often means the risk of the literal or figurative wheels popping off is higher.
We don’t use competition guns for defense, typically, unless our discipline is conservative as far as the guns are concerned; Stock, Limited, lightly-modded, or similar. Wide-open Unlimited-class raceguns should be avoided.
So what do we require from a defensive handgun? The prime attribute is reliability, first and foremost. If the gun does not run reliably, rain or shine, given a modicum of care, I don’t want it. I also want to perform no modification that will compromise reliability.
Beyond that, my gun must be accurate enough to reliably place my rounds at the point of aim, and the rest of the gun’s equipment including its general ergonomics aids me in shooting and controlling the gun. Things like grips or grip texture, controls, sights and more can all be improved if they hinder me from achieving that objective.
Some modifications are minimally invasive, or even non-invasive to the essential mechanism of the gun. Things like grip panels can be removed with a few screws or the twist of a tool.
Polymer framed guns can, with some skill, be heavily retextured to make them less slick, though this modification is permanent. Even in that case, you might consider stick-on grip tape or panels for the gun, adding traction without permanent modification of the frame.
Modern guns as a rule require far less fitting than guns of old, since manufacturing methods are capable of producing amazingly consistent tolerances across all of the parts needed to assemble a working gun.
This means, many times, that a person with minimal mechanical ability can simply swap in their replacement part, function check the work, perform a modest test fire regimen and declare it good.
If you have an older design, like a 1911, Hi-Power or most revolvers, the attentions of a skilled gunsmith will be mandatory for ensuring function if performing any operation more complex than switching sights or grips.
This is an important consideration, because any major alteration to existing parts of the action, or installation of aftermarket parts, increases the chances that malfunctions will occur. Tolerance stacking is a thing. Using parts from a mixture of manufacturers often exacerbates this.
There is no design of firearm on Earth, not an AK, not a Glock, not an AR that will assuredly work no matter how much you Frankenstein it. That is a pipe dream. Sure, some folks get lucky and slap together a working firearm made up from manufacturers’ parts across the entirety of the Brownell’s catalog, but that is a rare exception, not the rule.
Often times, a factory gun will be set up in its most reliable configuration possible, as it must be expected to run well across the widest possible variety of users, environments and ammunition types. Adding mods and customizations can increase performance, but that performance comes at a cost, many times.
Consider a match barrel; the tighter tolerances of a match barrel will usually make the gun more sensitive to various loads and weights of ammunition, to say nothing of the tighter lockup potentially making the gun more prone to environmentally induced malfunctions.
Some mods make sense no matter what you are doing with the gun. Anything that can improve your interface with and control over the gun without adversely affecting function and reliability is worthwhile.
Some mods, once function tested and cleared, are neutral, neither improving raw performance nor decreasing reliability, but they do positively alter control surfaces.
Things like converting a pistol with a slide-mounted safety-decocker to a decocker only, ala a ‘G’ conversion of the popular Beretta M9/92FS series guns. A similar modification would be installing oversized or slimmed down controls like magazine releases, slide-releases, safety levers and more to help the gun work with the shooter.
A larger control can help the shooter actuate it easily under stress, or merely help them reach it in the case of small hands or poor placement of the control itself. A slimmer control may help to prevent inadvertent activation, or reduce the width of the gun to aid concealment.
If you think for a moment, you probably know of at least one of your own guns that could benefit from such modifications.
Triggers can be improved, both the profile of the trigger shoe itself and the weight of the pull to improve performance. A short trigger is an aid for those with small hands or short fingers, while a nice, smooth crisp trigger makes shooting the gun well much easier than a gritty, cruddy one.
So long as one does not go too light on the pull weight, this is no inherent risk, though there is evidence to suggest that longer trigger pulls afford some extra insurance against unconscious “trigger checking” and sympathetic pressing.
Heavily textured grips and texturing of surfaces like the slide and controls can provide extra assurance that actuation will not be bobbled when wet with water, sweat or blood and are almost always worthwhile assuming they do not snag or snatch at clothing too badly when carried concealed.
A big upgrade and one that is almost always a serious improvement over stock parts is that of iron sights. Most modern pistol sights are of the highly common legacy 3-dot pattern.
While familiar and comfortable for many shooters, these are not ideal for fast, accurate shooting, and most expert teachers and other authorities will advocate a clean sight picture provided by a bright, thin, hi-vis front sight with a plain, blacked out rear notch are the current paradigm for effective shooting as it allows a clearer view of the target around the front sight and presents less visual clutter to the eyes.
Some pistols, like the beloved and “perfect” Glock have stock sights made of plastic that also have muddy, indistinct markings. Entirely unacceptable for serious use, as they are often knocked off the gun entirely, but in the chance they do hold up it is tough to get good precision out of them.
***DISCLAIMER: This article is not to be treated as legal advice. The author is not an attorney. Neither <> 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. Any comprehensive self defense plan will include preparing for the legal aftermath of any self-defense encounter. The reader should hire and consult with a competent attorney as part of your preparations. ***
The subject of legal ramifications of defensive firearm modifications is a hotly contested topic right this very second, it has been for some time, and will likely be argued for the foreseeable future.
Attorneys, being the ones who have to argue such things in court, are often our best source of information as to how such things will play out. You must remember this always: something does not have to be damning to sink you in court. Little things can add up, bit by bit, drip by drip, to sway a jury of your fellow citizens, not your peers, against you.
There are few hard rules when considering “defense approved” mods, as there is no blanket framework or structure to work within; any modification, great or small, will have to be explained in court. Remember that!
Discount entirely any cosmetic modification to the gun that is outside the scope of good taste and traditional firearms design. Common metal finishes (bluing, chroming, bare steel, black, earth tones) and grip materials (plastic, wood, rubber, G10, etc.) will pose no risk.
Any outlandish colors that appear “toy-like” and any engraving or iconography of things like skulls, comic book heroes or villains, vulgarity, slurs and other such nonsense must be omitted completely for obvious reasons.
Save that stuff for custom fun guns, competition guns, or collectibles. Using a gun against another human is serious business, and your chosen firearm should reflect both your internal bearing about the matter as well as the gravity of the responsibility.
If you don’t think it matters in court assuming the gun is merely “legal in all respects”, imagine how big you’ll feel having to explain to a jury why you, a gun-carrying citizen, installed the skull insignia of a certain comic book vigilante on the backplate of your Glock, and explain it in light of you filling in some teenage gangbanger.
A jury, don’t forget, whose constituent members have been ceaselessly pounded with anti-gun programming in all media sectors and almost certainly are not NRA members.
Performance Mods and Controls
Any mods must be explained to the jury; what they do, and why you installed them on your firearm. The prosecution will invariably spin this as something along the lines of “it makes it easier to kill people”, “allows the shooter to shoot more people before reloading,” “reload quicker to continue killing people” and so on.
A competent defense attorney will handily rebut this line of reasoning, but do keep in mind without the services of expert (read expensive) witnesses. Ultimately, you can depend on such character-assassinating tactics to leave a lasting blemish on your conduct and ethics in the minds of many on the jury, even if you are able to rationally and logically dispel such tactics through use of a good attorney or expert testimony.
No matter how dead-stupid simple a particular mod is to perform or install, this can, once more, handily be turned against you. A prosecutor could easily create the idea that you are reckless by pointing to the manufacturer of the part’s literature that says, “Gunsmith Installation Recommended.” He would then ask you, “Mr./Ms. Defender, are you a gunsmith?” If you answer “no,” the stage is further dressed against you.
Another major point of contention is trigger pull weight, specifically the reduction of trigger pull weight below factory specification. As a broad rule, you should endeavor not to go too light with any defensive gun, even guns which are otherwise suitable for self-defense and desirable because of their crisp, light triggers, such as the vaunted 1911.
Factory or custom, my recommendation is to go no lighter than a 4 ½ lb. break. Much lighter becomes pretty hairy to use practically and safely under serious stress, for all the reasons I have previously mentioned.
Of equal or even greater importance, is the prosecution’s likeliness to pounce on a “hair-trigger,” especially one reduced from factory designed and built weight, and sell it to the jury as negligence or bloodthirstiness on your part. Neither is a good thing.
This particular issue is the fount of much arguing, invective and histrionics from gun carriers both for and against it. A cursory internet search will turn up several criminal and civil cases where the modified weight of a gun’s trigger pull became an issue in court.
At most, if you do decide to have the trigger pull of your defensive gun lightened, make sure it falls within factory-offered ranges for guns of like type, and have the work performed by a competent gunsmith who is trained and certified in making such modifications safely.
Another item you should not modify beyond factory set parameters are safeties. Disabling any safety is going to bite you in court, even on guns that have a very good reason to have a safety disabled, like Browning Hi-Powers and other guns with obnoxious magazine safeties that prevent the gun from being fired if the magazine is removed.
If you are going to modify any safety system, it should only be a conversion to another factory-offered variation of the gun, as with the Beretta M9/92 ‘G’ conversion I mentioned above, that swaps, using factory parts, the slide-mounted safety-decocker to a decock-only lever.
No matter how much you like your gun and how ideal it will be in your mind if you could only get rid of that annoying safety, don’t do it; select a different gun that has the function profile you want and deal with its other warts.
The Last Part of the Fight
There is an old and pithy adage, its origins now apocryphal, that states “it is better to be judged by twelve than carried by six,” the point being that it is better to face a trial and jury in court than be shuffled off the mortal coil by pallbearers. I’ll spare you my usual loquaciousness on the story and say simply that, while an inimitably good boast, the dim-witted speaker of this adage never, ever had to face a trial as a good guy.
The reality is this: in all but the rarest cases, you can expect any self-defense shootings to result in soul-crushing stress, life-changing social stigma, and dreadful financial expenditure. There is almost never a cleared-at-the-scene shooting anymore. The fact is that preparing for the inevitable legal showdown is just the last part of the fight, one that you must win to stand any chance of earning your way of life back.
No matter the circumstances or outcome of the fight, you should expect to spend a year to year and a half of your life awaiting the ultimate decision of the trial. You will, on average, spend in excess of $100,000 dollars on all legal fees. This does not include the follow-on civil trial should it occur.
The entire time you could be sitting in jail if unable to bond out. If you are found guilty, you will be serving a sentence in prison among the worst people that society has produced. This will be bad enough. What will be worse yet, is knowing that everyone you love and care about, everyone who depends on you will be forced to go on without you. Your destruction will be total.
It perhaps would have been better to have died instead. Such is the cost of failing the final part of the fight, the legal battle. It must not be taken lightly.
And while I would never advocate wantonly choosing an inferior gun for self-defense, you must, must understand, I implore you, that every, single thing you did in the encounter, every single thing you did leading up to the encounter, your thoughts, decisions and actions made in an instant under life threatening duress, what you said and where you were, what you posted or liked on social media, all of it will be scrutinized at leisure by a group of people too bafflingly stupid to get out of jury duty, with your life hanging by a thread in the balance.
You can run your defensive pistol stock, optimize it conservatively or let your freak flag fly and go nuts on mods and personalizations. The choice is yours. Just make sure you understand what is at stake should you use it in a self-defense scenario.
Tim’s Carry Gun Modifications
Because it will certainly come up in the comments, I will furnish what mods I have on my personal pistol, a DA/SA P226. The gun is finished in a matte charcoal black Nitron, the factory application, and has been refinished once before from wear. The pistol is internally bone stock, with the only fire control component replaced being the trigger shoe, swapped for a factory short trigger that allows me better access with my small hands.
The grips were changed to SIG’s slim, one piece grip unit that further reduces trigger reach while also trimming a few fractions off the gun, making concealment easier. That unit also features better texture than the legacy grips which were a tad on the slippery side. The sights are stock, the only mod being I have taken a Sharpie to them and blacked out the rear insert to reduce visual clutter.
A Surefire flashlight rides on the front rail to help me verify my target in any conditions, vital not only for ethical and safety reasons but also because I must be able to articulate to police and any legal-beagles what my assailant had in their hands and what they were doing with it immediately prior to me putting a few hot slugs of lead in them.
The final modification to my carry pistol is the addition of industrial strength grip tape to a few areas of the slide in order to provide a non-slip, positive grip.
As you can see, very, very conservative upgrades, and most of them are merely to enhance my interface with the gun, affording greater control, certainty and safety in operating it.
The trigger pull is untouched, but extremely smooth and easy to manage in both single and double action, this being the result of countless tens of thousands of rounds fired and the action slicking itself up quite a bit. Any pistol can get a good trigger job if you will shoot it enough!
I would have 100% confidence in court that none of the mods and upgrades I mentioned could be effectively turned against me (not to say that prosecutors will not try) assuming my attorney is doing his job.
Modified guns are certainly more popular than ever, and there are seemingly an infinite number of potential upgrades, customizations and modifications to be had. However, willy-nilly customization of a gun intended for self-defense is likely to cause more problems than it solves, both during the fight and in the legal aftermath.
Before you change the factory configuration of your chosen defensive gun, make sure you understand what you are trying to achieve, the potential drawbacks, and what the gun so changed will say to a jury in court.