I’ve heard it over and over again; shooters blaming their mistakes on their guns, especially their pistols. It seems that people of all stripes have trouble accepting the blame for their own failings, so they look for something else to blame. In shooting, that often means their gun.
One of the first things that many shooters want to do with a pistol is start messing with the sights. They can’t hit the bulls-eye and are convinced it’s because the pistol’s sights are off. So, they start making adjustments and keep on making adjustments every time they find that they can’t hit the center of their targets.
But let me tell you a secret here. Pistols leave the factory with their sights set perfectly. A good shooter can pluck a new pistol out of the box and hit the ten ring, every time. It’s just that most of us really aren’t quite that good. So we blame the gun.
If we accept the idea that it’s not the pistol that’s at fault, we need to figure out what is. Like I said, that’s us. But what are we doing wrong? Is it the sight picture? Our stance? Are we breathing wrong? Which of the fundamentals of shooting are we missing?
Most shooters will tell you that it has to be the sight picture. But that’s wrong. Most of the time, the mistakes we make with a pistol are all because of trigger control. Or perhaps I should say that they’re from the lack of good trigger control. We have never spent the time dry firing a pistol to the point where we aren’t jerking the trigger, pushing the trigger to the side or committing any of the other deadly sins of poor trigger control.
Fortunately, diagnosing trigger problems is fairly easy, once we are willing to be honest enough to quit blaming our pistol and start looking at ourselves. All we have to do is look at where our shots are going and we’ll see what sort of problem we’re having. If our shots off the bulls-eye are consistently in the same direction, that clearly indicates what sort of trigger problem we’re experiencing.
The chart above shows the most common trigger problems and where the shots will end up striking for a right-handed shooter. If you are left-handed, you’ll need to reverse the diagram, using the mirror image for your shooting. Either way, you’ll need to start dry fire practice to overcome your bad habit and form better ones.
Don’t Change that Pistol!
You shouldn’t make any changes to your pistol, especially the pistol’s sights, until you solve any trigger control problems you have. Making changes while you still have problems may do nothing more than magnify your problems, essentially encouraging you to continue with those bad habits.
All of those problems can be solved however. While you can spend time on the range working on them, your time is best spent at home, practicing with dry fire. Then, when you think you’ve overcome the problem, go back to the range to apply it there. Don’t be surprised if you go through several cycles like that, before you get to the point where you truly overcome the problem.
Changes and Frivolous Changes
Other than an almost instinctive desire to change their pistol’s sights, most people never make any other changes. They either think that the gun is good enough as it is, right from the factory; or they aren’t aware of what changes they can make and why they should consider making them.
There is another category of people, those who make cosmetic changes to their pistols. These are the ones who like to install fancy grips, paint the gun’s engraved in identification (manufacturer’s name and model), or install a fancy engraved slide. These sorts of changes do nothing to make a gun easier to shoot accurately, or make it easier to work with. All they do is make the gun look better.
Yet there seem to be more people interested in making those sorts of changes, than there are who want to make truly effective changes to their pistols, in order to make them easier to use. About the only people who typically pay attention to making their pistols easier to use are competitive shooters. They’ll spend a small fortune on a pistol, customizing it to make it the most accurate and easy to work with that they can.
I’m talking about a third category of people here; those who want to make their gun better for use in a tactical or survival situation. If you are ever faced with a situation where you have to use a pistol to defend life and limb, you’ll want your pistol’s performance and your ability to work with it, to be maxed out. A number of the changes that competitive shooters do fall into this category, making an out-of-the-box pistol better for tactical use.
How Much Can You Customize?
Not all pistols are equally customizable. Or rather, you can’t find the necessary parts on the market to make them customizable. Since pistols build out of a collection of parts, any part can be changed out to customize the pistol. But only a few models of pistols are popular enough so that there is a wide range of aftermarket replacement parts readily available.
The two most customizable pistols, from the viewpoint of parts availability, are the Colt 1911, the old Army .45 caliber sidearm, and the Glock series of pistols. Glock’s line of products use a lot of interchangeable parts, making it easy for aftermarket manufacturers to come up with parts for which there will be a large enough market to make it worthwhile for them.
Few other pistols actually fall into this category, although there are some alternative parts available for many different models. Some types of parts, such as sights, are more likely to be available than others. So before deciding to trick out your pistol, check to see what’s available for it.
The pistol shown below is my Glock 17, which has been extensively customized. None of my customizations are cosmetic; they are all done with the idea of making the pistol more usable in a tactical situation. Changes I’ve made include:
- Threaded barrel (for installing a suppressor)
- Extended slide lock
- Extended magazine lock
- Lighter trigger (3.5 lb. trigger bar)
- Tritium night sights
- Laser sight
- Tactical light
Let’s look at some of the possibilities that you might want to consider doing to your pistol.
Start with Controls:
The controls of your pistol are critical for ease of shooting. While the controls that come on the gun from the factory are all functional, they may not be the easiest possibilities to work with. In some cases, changing over the controls to something more ergonomic can both improve your shooting and improve your speed.
I’ve already mentioned trigger control as the number one shooting problem that most people have. So it’s only logical to start our modifications by changing out the trigger. Some models of guns have a number of aftermarket triggers available for them. These range from triggers which mostly provide cosmetic changes to triggers that are more finely machined than the originals, making them smoother.
Triggers also vary in what you are actually buying. In some cases, the trigger itself is all that is changing, while others are a complete trigger system, including the parts that work in conjunction with the trigger. Regardless of the case, you don’t want to jump into this sort of purchase, without really knowing what you’re buying. Take the time to read reviews, especially those by customers, as well as the manufacturer’s claims about the trigger.
You can also work over the original trigger yourself, improving the finish of the parts, especially in those places where metal parts rub against each other. A lot of the smoothness of any trigger system comes from how parts rub against each other and how smooth the finish on the parts is, where the parts rub. Often the only real difference you’ll see between factory parts and an expensive set of replacement parts is the quality of the finish. The expensive ones will be extremely smooth, reducing friction and the chance of the part hanging up.
A more expensive trigger, or working your own trigger over to make it smoother, will reduce or eliminate the possibility of parts hanging up on each other, making the pull smoother. This will, in turn, reduce the likelihood of jerking caused by parts hanging up on each other.
Another important change, which is directly associated with the trigger is the trigger pull. Different types of pistols will need different modifications to change the trigger pull. Glocks require a change of the trigger bar to lighten the pull, while the Springfield XD and XDS require changing our several springs. Different designs have different requirements.
A lighter trigger pull will help those people who tend to jerk their pistols. However, the flip side of the coin is that a lighter trigger pull makes it easier to shoot prematurely. So you want to understand your own shooting peculiarities and habits, before making this change. For some people, a light trigger pull is a great advantage, for others, it can create a dangerous situation where they are likely to shoot before their sights are aligned on the target.
Always keep your old trigger parts, as they can serve as spares. This also gives you the ability to change back, if you decide that you don’t like the mod that you’ve just done.
Some handguns, like the 1911, have a variety of different hammers available for them. While this may be considered a cosmetic change, it can also be quite useful. Some tactical hammers will have an open, rounded thumb spur, rather than a more traditional horn shaped spur. This can be easier to grip and cock, especially for people with small hands or short fingers.
There are also hammer kits made, which will contain the hammer, sear and disconnector. By buying the three parts together, you get a set that is designed specifically for each other. That will help smooth out the operation of the parts.
I have a Armi Fratelli Tranfoglio TZ 75, 9mm pistol that I like quite a bit. The trigger and grip are excellent on the gun, and the stock magazine and slide releases are already extended. But I don’t particularly like the hammer, which is a standard closed spur design. Apparently the designers thought that since it was double action, there was no need to make it easy to cock. But I’d like to change it for an open loop, because the hammer is hard to cock. But unfortunately, there aren’t any such hammers on the market. I guess I’ll have to make my own.
Slide & Magazine Locks
Any control on a gun should be easy to work with. But designers typically have to make a number of compromises. One of those is not having the slide and magazine locks stick out too far, as that can catch on clothing and holsters. But if they are too short, close to the body of the pistol, they can be hard to operate, especially in a hurry.
The ability to change magazines in a hurry provides an important tactical advantage. The faster you can make that change, the sooner you can be back on target, shooting. Longer, extended slide and magazine releases help with this, making it much easier to find and operate the controls.
Once again, these aren’t available for all pistols, but you can find a number of different versions on the market for some of the most popular guns.
The magazine well is, of course, the place where the magazine slides in on a semi-automatic pistol. This is normally in the handle of the pistol, using space that would otherwise be wasted and making the overall gun more compact. Some early models of semi-automatic pistols, like the Broom handle Mauser had a magazine well forward of the trigger and separate from the handle; but this sort of design was abandoned long ago.
Typically, magazine wells have almost no bevel at the entrance, to make it easier to guide the magazine into the pistol, although some, like the Glock, offer a slightly larger opening than the size of the magazine. But there are extensions for the magazine well, often just referred to as a “magazine well,” which offer a better taper, easing the insertion of the magazine.
This is a very common modification for competitive shooters to make, as a can shave half a second or more off of magazine change times. In competition, like in an active shooter situation, that half a second can be critical.
Then Look at Optics:
While I said that you shouldn’t be too quick to adjust the sights on your gun, I didn’t say that you should necessarily be happy with the factory sights. Yes, they are set right from the factory, but they may not be the best possible sights you can have on that pistol. Many pistols are built with the ability to change out your sights for better ones with are easier to see.
I would have to say that other than the trigger, your gun’s optics are the most important change you can make. Different sights will give you different advantages, but in all cases, they are designed to make it easier for you to acquire the target so you can take the shot.
Tritium Night Sights
I am a firm believer in tritium night sights. In fact, I’m such a firm believer in them, that every one of my pistols has them, assuming that they are available. This is one of the most life-saving modifications that you can make to any pistol. The reason for this is that a rather high percentage of active shooting situations happen around twilight. You can’t see your normal sights worth beans in that sort of light.
Try it sometime. Go outside with your pistol at twilight. Look around your backyard or neighborhood and try to pick out some potential targets. Make sure some of them are in the shadows. Then try and line up your sights, as if you were going to take a shot at that target. You probably won’t be able to see a thing. If you can, just wait a few minutes and let it get a little darker.
Tritium sights are radioactive, making it possible for them to glow in the dark. The radioactive tritium will last for about 20 years and is not dangerous to your health. But it can be dangerous to a bad guy’s health, when you can suddenly see your sights clear as day.
Fiber Optic Night Sights
Fiber optic sights are intended to do the same thing that tritium sights can. The major difference is that they don’t have the radioactive tritium in them. Instead, they have a short piece of fiber optic fiber, usually colored red or green. Ambient light enters the sides of the fibers and bounces around the inside of the fiber, making it appear to glow.
If you’re talking twilight conditions, then fiber optic sights are great. But they won’t work when it’s truly dark. Of course, if it’s that dark out, you probably won’t be able to see your target clearly anyway. In that case, you really shouldn’t take the shot.
There are a few models of adjustable sights available on the market. The tritium sight on my personal Glock is actually adjustable. I installed it early on in owning the gun, when I was still fighting with trigger control. Having the ability to adjust the sight helped me through that stage.
But in reality, adjustable sights are not a necessity. If your sights are properly installed and you are shooting properly, you shouldn’t need to make any adjustments to the position of your sights.
Reflex sights were originally designed for military use. Their main advantage is that they are a one-point sighting system, rather than a two-point one. What that means is that you only have to align one sighting point with the target, rather than two.
This makes it faster and easier to align the gun with the target, which is why it has been so widely adopted by the military. The ability to shoot both rapidly and accurately is something that the military has always been interested in.
While originally created for rifles, smaller versions of reflex sights have been manufactured for use with pistols, providing the same advantages. However, they also have a couple of important disadvantages that we need to be aware of. First of all, they are more or less useless at night, as you can’t really see them. Secondly, they make it difficult for any pistol to be used with a standard holster. The holster may need to be modified to provide space for the reflex sight.
Laser sights have gained a lot of popularity due to Hollywood. While I have them on my pistols, I have to say that they are not the best option for most people. The basic problem is that if you become accustomed to shooting with laser sights and not with the iron sights on the pistol, you’re sunk if the battery goes dead.
The reason why I have laser sights on my pistols is that my eyes aren’t all that good. Unless I am wearing my computer glasses, I can’t really see the front sight clearly; and that’s the most important one to see. Putting laser sights on my guns allows me to keep my eyes downrange, which I can see just fine with my normal glasses.
I overcome the potential problem with laser sights by doing most of my shooting using the iron (actually tritium) sights on my guns. I only practice enough with the laser sights to keep myself proficient with them. In an active shooter situation my first choice is the iron sights; but if I have the wrong glasses on, I can easily switch over to the laser sight.
I’ve actually bought a number of different laser sights through the years, starting out with cheap ones and gradually replacing them all with the more expensive ones I have now. One thing I discovered is that the only laser sights that are worth having are the ones that come on automatically when you draw your pistol. These work by having a pressure switch where your hand will actuate it when you grip the pistol normally.
There are only a couple of manufacturers who make their laser sights this way. Nevertheless, this is important because in an active shooting situation you won’t have time to draw and turn on the laser sight in a separate action. You could be dead by the time you turn it on.
Other Options to Consider:
The items listed above are the major modifications to make your pistol more usable in a tactical situation. Everything I’ve mentioned to this point has a practical use, specifically in making the gun easer to shoot, making magazine changes more rapid or making your shooting more accurate.
But there are a few other parts we should consider, which really don’t fall into the category of gun controls or optics. A couple of these are actually pretty expensive, so you may not want to start out with them. Nevertheless, I wanted to make this a complete guide, so I’m going to mention them.
There are two reasons why you might want to consider changing the barrel on your pistol: accuracy and silencers. Some high grade barrels are designed and manufactured to extremely tight tolerances, making them inherently more accurate. To be honest with you, most shooters are not accurate enough to warrant replacing their barrel with one of these “match grade” barrels.
The other reason for changing a barrel is to put a threaded barrel on the gun. This, in turn, allows a silencer (more properly called a suppressor) to be mounted to the gun. These are essentially standard grade barrels, made slightly longer (about 5/8”) and then threaded for the attachment of the silencer.
There are a wide range of custom slides available for some models of pistols, especially the 1911. This is one of the more expensive modifications you can make. While it is largely cosmetic, there is an actual functional reason for a slide change.
Many of the custom slides are machined to have a number of “vents” in the sides. This does two things for you. First of all, it lowers the overall weight of the gun. But the bigger thing it does is to allow the barrel of the gun to cool more rapidly. This is important if you’re doing a lot of shooting.
As we all know, guns work by burning gunpowder. That generates hot gases, which push the bullet out of the barrel of the gun. At the same time, some of the heat from those gases passes to the barrel, making it hotter. Following the laws of physics, the hotter barrels expand, changing their geometry. This can affect the shot placement of later shots in a string.
The piercing in the sides of the slide work to overcome this, making the shots more consistent. Again, like the match grad barrels, I don’t think the average shooter will notice any real difference. If you do, you’re probably a much better shooter than I am.
Other than SWAT teams, few people bother installing tactical lights to their pistols. What you usually see is the round ones, slung under the barrel. This, of course, means that the pistol has to have a rail there to mount the light to.
Like laser sights, having a tactical light which needs to be turned on separately can be a problem. On the other hand, you really don’t want to be leaving it on. Rather, you want to use it intermittently, so that you don’t give away your position to the bad guys. This is actually easier to accomplish with a hand-held tactical light in your support hand.
Nevertheless, I have tactical lights mounted on a couple of my pistols, including the Glock pictured above. Those lights, like my laser sights, are the kind where I am able to turn it on with a pressure switch, when I draw the pistol. It takes some practice, but you can actually turn them on and off momentarily, while maintaining a good grip on your pistol.