March 10, 2022
By Jeremy Stafford
Every manufacturer has integrated aftermarket modifications into production pistols; Springfield Armory, Taurus, Kimber, SCCY, Ruger, Smith & Wesson, SIG Sauer, Colt, Walther, CZ, FN, Armscor and HK — all of them! From undercut triggerguards to advanced grip texture and sights, the modern fighting handgun has been pushed in this direction by consumers — not manufacturers. Consider these popular modifications to handguns and determine if your handgun really needs them.
One of the most common modifications to polymer-framed pistols is texturing. Whether it be for aesthetic reasons or tactile control, changing the texture on a factory pistol tends to be one of the more useful treatments. Texturing on polymer frames evolved from checkering and stippling, which originated as functional artforms by gunsmiths. The purpose of both is the same: To impart more surface area on the frame and increase contact and control of a handgun. Today, “stippling” and “checkering” is often molded in or laser engraved, and designs are increasingly precise and complex with the aim of functioning better as pressure from the hands is applied. Ultimately, the goal is to increase friction in order to reduce movement, but how a pistol feels in hand (or against the skin when carried) remains very subjective.
The grip of a pistol’s frame is not the only area benefiting from aftermarket treatment. Shooters discovered that applying texture and contours to the bottom of the triggerguard and contact points underneath the slide can aid in recoil control and muzzle management. Many companies have taken notice and provide these textures and contours as factory options.
Aggressive stippling was made popular in bullseye competition during the 1950s, which evolved to include gritty, sandpaper-like textures in action-pistol competition by the 1980s. Though custom stippling existed in competition and with some law-enforcement agencies through the 1990s, the War on Terror revived the business with private security contractors in the early 2000s, which of course bled over into the commercial market. Since members of the military are forbidden from permanently modifying issued government property, the stippling and melting of polymer frames started out with hobbyists performing DIY jobs on polymer-framed pistols. The results didn’t always look great, but they proved effective.
Today, if you’re in search of a professional-quality treatment, companies such as Agency Arms, Boresight Solutions, and Taran Tactical Innovations are in the business of turning guns into functional art.
I prefer a coarse grip, and I’ve been using Taran Tactical’s Silicon Carbide Grandmaster Grip on my Glock pistols. They use a process to bond the polymer frame with silicon carbide (SiC), which is a synthetic that’s been mass-produced since 1893 for use as an abrasive. It gives pistol grips a coarse, so-called “skateboard tape” feel without the worry of tape eventually peeling off.
If you prefer to do your own work with a soldering gun, and have the patience, keep it up. Otherwise, there are amazing factory textures on the market including the stock Smith & Wesson M&P M2.0 texture and Springfield Armory’s new multi-layer adaptive grip texture. While many factory guns are adequately textured, some are still lacking. If you find your grip slipping when shooting, don’t be afraid to improve texture. This is an economical and worthwhile mod.
Optic cuts are quickly becoming expected, especially as shooters watch military, police and competitive users move in that direction. Let’s consider how they are attached to a pistol’s slide. A direct-mount optic setup means that the slide has had material machined away, or “milled,” at the top to accept an optic. Often, this includes specific mounting points such as screw holes and indexing tabs, or “bosses,” for specific optic patterns, i.e., “footprints.” A machined optic cut typically allows the optic to be mounted low on the slide. Many shooters order this service to reduce the height profile of a pistol equipped with an optic sight and accommodate the conventional use of stock post-notch sights for use as a backup.
However, to accept as many of the various optics sights as possible, gun makers have had to include adapter plates to specific models. Needing an adapter plate will slightly increase the height of the optic and could allow moisture or debris to enter between the plate and the bottom of the optic. Plate-based systems, such as the Glock MOS, offer shooters flexibility in optics, but sometimes at the cost of durability. Reliability and sight height are the two primary considerations for having a shop perform a precise, direct-mill optic cut.
Aftermarket slide cuts are losing popularity for four reasons: Number one, manufacturers offer optic cuts as a standard or optional feature. Second, mounting an optic on an uncut slide comes with additional expense. G&A found this service ranging from $125 to $450. Third, a custom shop will require patience for turn-around time. Lastly, once cut, you are committed to a particular optic footprint, which limits your ability to upgrade optics as technologies improve.
The best option, in my opinion, is the optic plate setup with certain aftermarket plates. I like those offered by CH Precision Weapons. I’ve experienced the flexibility of changing optics using their plates, but with increased durability over factory plates. Durability comes from their specialized engineering on parts and critical areas. For example, CH Precision Weapons provides increased thread engagement for the mounting screws, which is a detail that seasoned shooters can appreciate.
Optic cuts shouldn’t be an option, and I predict that by 2024, fewer pistols will be sold without them than with them.
My advice to shooters new to red dots is this: Unless you’re sure that you will never change optics, get a stock plate system and spend your money on aftermarket plates. The cost of a good one would amount to less than having the slide milled. The ability to upgrade your sights later will keep your pistol from becoming obsolete.
In the days when single-stack Model 1911s dominated matches, a flared magazine well, or “funnel,” was seemingly mandatory to be competitive. A single-stack magazine can easily get hung up on the bottom of the frame under time and pressure if a funnel is absent. A funneled magazine well helps guide the magazine into place even if the shooter is less precise during insertion, and can result in speedier reloads. However, with today’s frame designs and double-stack mags, this is less of an issue than it was because the top of most magazines are now tapered. And, to assist in reloading, many production pistols include a slight flare at the bottom of the grip.
There are several duty-themed minimalist mag funnels available that are made well and are low profile, but they still add bulk to the bottom of a pistol. Minimalist mag funnels can make the fastest reloaders faster, but most people would not benefit. They’re not typically expensive, so if you’re still debating, pick one up and give it a go. If you’re running a single-stack gun for duty or carry, a mag funnel will help you, in my opinion. If you’re running a double stack, it’s nice to have but not necessary.
As shooting techniques evolved, so has the triggerguard. Modern frames and grip techniques place the shooters hands as high up on the pistol as possible. This makes a triggerguard undercut necessary for comfort. This was once an aftermarket-only feature, but now almost all new pistols offer a varying degree of undercut reliefs at the back of the triggerguard. The Smith & Wesson M&P M2.0 and the CZ P10 are two of my favorite pistols with a distinctive triggerguard undercut. From the factory, Glock pistols and Model 1911s were slow to accommodate this feature due to the pistol’s older design and position of the magazine release button. Recent generations and models are designed with an undercut included.
Triggerguard undercuts are a modification that helps to maximize control of a pistol under recoil. A higher grip equals improved recoil management by putting the hand closer to the barrel’s bore axis. Other than the additional cost, I see no downside to adding an undercut to your pistol’s frame.
There are many aftermarket options for adding a few extra rounds to your pistol’s magazines. At this point, most have been extensively tested and vetted through competition and duty endusers. The benefit of extra rounds suffers two trade-offs: One is added weight, which could be an issue for those that conceal carry. Second, length to the grip can make a pistol harder to conceal. However, both could be worth it.
Trust no one; test them yourself. Before putting your life on the line with any new basepad, load it full and shoot it in your gun. Then drop each fully loaded magazine to ensure that it doesn’t come apart in pieces. Reliability outweighs additional rounds, so stick with recognizable brands.
For a duty or competition gun, there’s little-to-no downside with carrying a higher-capacity pistol capped with a quality basepad. If you are considering changing a factory basepad for an aftermarket one to conceal carry, be aware of the additional length.
Personally, I’ve had good luck with units from Taran Tactical and Hyve (hyve-technologies.com), as well as factory Glock and SIG Sauer mag extensions for their respective lines.
While it’s true that many non-factory barrels outshoot stock ones, it’s also true that most of us don’t shoot well enough to see a difference. If you want a new barrel, then by all means. Personalization of a pistol is great reason. If you want one because you think it will make your pistol competition ready, you might be disappointed.
A good reason to change your pistol’s barrel is to take advantage of an aftermarket threaded barrel to attach a suppressor or compensator. For those who want to protect their hearing with a can or manage muzzle rise with a comp, a threaded barrel is a must-have. For matches, duty or carry, barrels can upgrade your rig and are not too expensive, but temper your expectations.
Not long ago, muzzle devices such as flash hiders, muzzlebrakes and compensators were almost exclusive to gamers. Times have changed. Comps for duty and carry now benefit all of us.
Despite the rumors, muzzlebrakes or barrel porting on pistols do not produce enough muzzle flash to ruin your night vision or blow out night vision goggles, if you happen to be shooting with them. However, the downside to using muzzle devices on pistols (and optics) is that you may need to experiment with recoil spring rates to make them reliable. Plus, the increased length to the slide may require a custom holster, which can be expensive.
Chuck Pressburg of Presscheck Consulting popularized attaching a muzzle device, pistol light and red-dot sight through his Roland Special builds. His vision concerning a pistol’s setup, which resulted from his military service, has been realized. Many companies offering duty and carry comps now emulate the Roland Special concept.
If absolute performance is your goal, a comp’d barrel can help. Don’t expect a plug-and-play solution to poor shooting abilities; be prepared to work. Will the amount of work and additional expense be worth the hundredths of a second you shave off your split times? For most, a barrel and comp are far down on the list of things that will help you shoot better.
Recoil Springs & Guiderod Assemblies
Unless you’re running a barrel fitted with a muzzle device and optic, and you need to tune your recoil spring to cycle a particular load, these are going to be a waste of your money. I’ve never seen them make an unreliable gun reliable, but I have seen them make several reliable guns unreliable. Recoil springs are disposable items with a service life; most manufacturers recommend changing a pistol’s spring every 5,000 rounds or so. For serious shooters, that can mean several per year, so don’t spend heavy on a part that you’ll need to replace often. Unless you’re running a compensator or a can, stick with the original equipment.
If you’re running a pistol with an optic, a set of suppressor-height sights can set you up with an aiming reference if your electronics fail. Are backup sights necessary on a handgun? That depends. If it is a duty pistol or carry gun that you’ll bet your life on, then yes. Is it a fun gun for the range, then no.
When deciding on sight height, try to keep the top of the sights as low in the optic window as possible. Some sights align with a red dot optic in the center, but they are usually tall, suppressor-height sights that can snag or be difficult to find holsters for. There are lower sights available that position the backup post-notch at the bottom of the window, sometimes referred to as the “lower third.” I like backup sights at the bottom because I feel that there is no need to clutter my field of view for a feature that I’ll most likely never need.
There is also some discussion about the placement of the rear sight, especially when used with closed-emitter optics such as the Aimpoint Micro and ACRO series, which are longer than many open-emitter sights. If the slide is short on real estate, do you put the rear back-up sight in front of the optic or behind it? Both work just fine for shooting, but installing the rear back-up sight in front of the optic could offer some protection for the lens during one-handed manipulations or erratic ejection. If I had the option, I’d go with a sight in front of an optic. If it’s not an option, don’t lose sleep over it.
If you carry a pistol on duty in an outside-the-waistband (OWB) belt rig, then there is no excuse to be without a mounted light on your pistol. You’ll shoot better than you would with a handheld-light technique, and there may be times when you need your support hand in order to perform another necessary task. Keep in mind: Hand-held techniques are for when searching takes the priority over shooting. If you encounter a threat, you transition from searching with the light to shooting with the gun. A mounted light is used when shooting is the priority and you know a threat is imminent.
For citizens who conceal carry, it gets trickier. Not all pistol configurations are the same; what is comfortable for some might be excruciating for others. With the recent introduction of compact lights such as the Surefire XSC ($329) and Streamlight TLR-7 Sub ($226), there are few reasons not to have a light on the gun you carry, even if it is small. Holsters continue to accommodate more makes and models of pistol and light, so carrying a light on your defensive pistol is quickly becoming a must.
Penetration is important with low-velocity handgun cartridges. If you are carrying a small caliber such as .22, .25 or .32, then I could see a reason for carrying full-metal-jacket, round-nose ammunition. If you are carrying a pistol chambering .380 ACP or larger, there is no reason to carry Ball. Ball ammo doesn’t perform nearly as well as modern controlled-expansion hollow-point ammunition in any circumstance. Every quality modern handgun will feed and function with hollow points, including the majority of M1911 pistols. Stop arguing with data points from 1985; reliability with hollow points isn’t an issue, and no, they won’t “all fall to hardball.” Many attackers don’t fall right away to any handgun ammunition, even the most high-tech hollow-point bullets. By limiting yourself to Ball ammunition, you are limiting your capacity to stop a determined threat. Furthermore, modern ammunition manufacturers use high-quality components in making their defensive pistol ammunition. They are more reliable and accurate then decades before.
Quality defensive ammunition is money well spent. Buy a box and test it in your gun. Cycle it out every year and match the bullet weight with a less-expensive substitute for practice.
Human beings have been modifying their weapons since flint-tipped spears. The urge for personalization is ingrained in all of us, and is reason enough to change aspects of any gun. However, don’t lose sight of what the gun is to be used for, and don’t make modifications that could produce negative risks against that purpose. If you keep performance as the measuring stick, you’ll figure out where your time and money are best spent.
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