The aftermarket for parts to customize your preferred sidearm are usually so vast it is easy to overdress your favorite sidearm and turn a good piece of kit into a Frankenstein-like behemoth that is neither attractive nor functional. One question I’m asked very often is “how should I modify my pistol?” and usually my disappointing response is, “it is entirely up to you.” The fact of the matter is there are untold combinations of changes that can be made one’s sidearm and what works for my shooting partners doesn’t always work for me.
The problem with this discussion is that the “technology bug” bites people hard and in this day and age of gadgets for everything, it is easy to get caught up in loading your pistol with all kinds of unnecessary changes. As a general rule of thumb, simpler is better. Less moving parts translates into less opportunity for failure.
Most of the things people want to hang on their sidearm have specific envelopes of advantage and practicality that intrinsically depend on what you are planning on using your sidearm for, though the way I see it, there are three things that are non-negotiable. The first is the sidearm should be fully ambidextrous in terms of the magazine release and safety. The slide release is less of a concern since I am a huge proponent of racking the slide to seat during empty magazine reloads. It is a non-issue, obviously if the change out is a tactical one. Regardless, the more ambidextrous your handgun is the better.
The second non-negotiable item for me is a really good set of night sights. Tritium is best in my mind and Trijicon makes several. It has a really easy to acquire front sight post, which makes target acquisition much simpler. Really, at the end of the day, that’s what it’s all about. Doesn’t matter how fast you are on target, if you miss because you can’t get a sight picture, you had better have God looking out for you.
The third non-negotiable is a trigger break that suits your needs. A hair trigger on a combat/defense sidearm is a BAD idea while creep in a trigger will cause anticipation and poor trigger control. Clean and crisp at whatever weight you have the break occur at is ideal.
When addressing other functional modifications I would make in using my sidearm, I am first going to review my ammunition preferences and consider how the weapon deals with the rounds it is most likely to see. I want to know if the feed ramp is smooth and will accept FMJ rounds through to HPs. Some feedramps can be finicky so, if this is something you notice, get it dealt with by a good gunsmith. Similarly, I want to ensure that the recoil spring is fine with my choice of ammunition. Sometimes a really heavy spring can cause ejection/feed issues for softer loads and really hot loads can make short work of lesser springs.
You should ask a lot of questions about your hammer as well. Before switching your hammer out for another style, ask yourself whether it is “in your way” when you bring the weapon into play. If it isn’t an issue then it probably doesn’t need to be changed out. If your style of attire or carry method make it an issue, possibly due to clothing snags on the draw, there are hammerless sidearms or flat/bobbed hammers available for most makes in production.
Grips should fit the natural contour of your hands in your shooting grip and allow for strong controlled positioning and easy re-grasping. Re-grasping the firearm after magazine changes or hand changes during cornering or barricade shooting is an essential skill. You should train extensively at this as it gives you the best response options from cover if you ever find yourself shooting your weapon to lockback or with your offhand.
Porting and compensators are another issue. Do they work? Yes, but to what degree will they improve your center mass targeting? Personally, I believe that for combat settings training grip and deployment to target will more than eliminate the need for these options.
In terms of diagnosing your magazines, there’s really no substitute for running several hundred rounds through each magazine you expect to use with your gun. If there is any indication that the magazine follower sticks or the spring is light, replace them immediately or ditch the magazine and get a new one. And don’t buy the cheapest Chinese knock-off you can find. Get a good quality magazine because if you can’t get rounds up the stack when you need them, it could mean you life.
There are a number of questions I need to ask myself about the use of add-ons. First, do I really need it? If you are a police officer or out at night frequently, then a light might be a sound investment, although I still believe a small handheld is the way to go. If you do not find yourself in the dark very often, the night sights should suffice for most household/street defensive settings since ambient light will almost always be present to a reasonable degree. Low lights’ greatest threat is in the limitation of observation capabilities, so that is why I am a high output, small light fan.
Lasers—some love them, some hate them. I would never have one on my sidearm or rifle but if it makes you more successful when you deploy the weapon then so be it. Your decision is tailored to you, but remember, a laser points both ways, so if you use one, turn it on only upon acquisition of your target.
If there is anything I want you to walk away with after reading this article it’s this: any modifications you make to your firearm should be dependent on your personal preferences and skill sets. Be honest with yourself when appraising your needs and skill level. If the sidearm functions mechanically and in line with your action envelope, then you already have what you need. At that point, the amount of time you train with your gun will be the greatest contributing factor to performance improvement.