I’ve never met a firearms enthusiast who didn’t enjoy modifying the guns in his collection. It’s a natural desire to have, and not necessarily a bad one. Whether it’s the addition of a simple user-installed aftermarket accessory or a full custom job, there’s often a lot of extra usefulness and enjoyment to be gained from a firearm that’s modified beyond it’s original configuration. But there is a vocal contingent of shooters who insist that such modifications should never be made to a gun that’s owned for personal protection. Personally, I think there’s often far more potential benefit than risk when it comes to making intentional, well-reasoned tweaks to a self-defense gun. Watch the video below for my take on the subject.

Video: Should You Modify Your Self-Defense Guns?

If you’re not in a video watching mood, here’s the full transcript:

Whenever I start working with a new gun that I’m planning to review, I will inevitably end up changing something. I might put in a different set of sights or change out a hammer spring or something like that. I just like to experiment a little bit when I’m doing a review.  

And whenever I talk about making these changes to a carry pistol or, any self-defense gun, really, I know I can count on at least a couple of people in the comments having some objections. And I get that. It can be easy to mess up your gun or make it unsafe if you modify the wrong parts without knowing what you’re doing. And there is a possibility of some legal implications if you ever have to actually use a modified gun in self-defense. So some people would just prefer to just leave their self-defense guns exactly the way they come out of the box.

But there’s a problem with that approach. It’s often based on the false assumption that when a gun is designed, every feature on it is put there in order to make it the best possible self-defense tool. And that’s not really how things work.

Mass-produced firearms are designed by engineers with heavy input from all kinds of other people in the company like marketing guys and accountants. On some very rare occasions, they might consult someone who could be considered an expert shooter or maybe even an experienced self-defense instructor. But even in those cases, those experts don’t get the final say in what features go on the gun when it rolls off the production line.

A perfect example is the serrations that you sometimes see on the front of trigger guards. They were originally put there because some people would advocate wrapping the support hand index finger around the trigger guard for better recoil control. In reality, that really doesn’t really help at all, and I don’t know of any respectable self-defense instructor who has taught a technique like that in probably over 20 years. But you still see those serrations on a lot of new pistols. And it’s not because it’s a good idea to use them, but probably because somebody at the company thought it would help them sell a few extra units.

So that’s why I don’t have any problem modifying my handguns. Most guns made by the reputable manufacturers are probably adequate in their stock configuration, but that doesn’t mean that they’re optimized for the serious shooter, and a lot of times they have features that are really not all that well thought-out.  On top of that, every person is different. There’s always going to be aspects of a gun that don’t really fit well with my shooting style, or my hand size, or my eyesight, so I usually change a couple of things.

Now, I don’t like to modify stuff just to be different or out of sheer curiosity. You definitely want to be cautious when you’re making any changes to a self-defense gun, so when I do make a modification, it’s usually for one of three reasons.

First, it has to offer some objective functional advantage. This would be things like increasing the magazine capacity, or making the gun more reliable, or more accurate. If I can improve the effectiveness or the functionality of a gun without spending a fortune or without compromising the gun in some other way, then I’ll consider it.

The second reason I might modify a gun is to make it easier to carry. These modifications are a lot more personal and subjective and they tend to be pretty small changes. Sometimes I’ll swap out parts to make a gun less prone to snagging on clothing, or I might use a file to just lightly smooth over sharp corners on a rear sight or on a magazine basepad.

And finally, I sometimes modify a carry gun if it helps my performance with that gun. So if I want to be able to shoot faster or more accurately or reload quicker. This would be things like adding grip texture to make the gun less slippery, or changing the sights so they’re easier to see, changing the magazine release so I can reach it with my thumb.

These modifications can also be kind of subjective and you have to be careful here because it’s really easy to try and change the gun to compensate for bad technique or lack of ability. It takes some experience and discernment to know whether the thing you want to change is a reasonable modification, or just a way to cover up a bad habit.

Usually, when people tend to go overboard, it’s with modifying the action — changing the trigger so it’s smoother or lighter. That’s where a lot of the legal anxiety comes from, too. I personally think the legal concerns tend to be a little overblown and I don’t have any objection to modifying the trigger on a carry gun in principle, but I try to be really careful. I stick with drop-in parts from reputable manufacturers and I don’t go cutting on springs and filing internal parts just to find out what happens. I also don’t want a really light trigger pull. For me, on a carry gun, I want it at at least five pounds or more.

And of course, when you make any changes on the gun, you really have to go out to the range and run a couple of hundred rounds through it to make sure everything still functions before you carry it again.
Most of us, myself included, give our gear way too much attention instead of focusing on more important things like technique and strategy and mindset. But sometimes, having the right gun configured the right way can make a measurable difference and give us some advantages that we’re just not going to get any other way. So we have to strike that balance — we can’t get too wrapped up in our gear, but we also have to be willing to change things up if that’s what’s holding us back.

Legal Issues

I know there’s a deeper legal argument to this question that I didn’t really dive into this time around, particularly in regards to modifying triggers. I’m far from an expert on those legal issues, so I’ll leave that debate for someone more qualified. In general, I’d suggest that if you have doubts about the potential legal implications of making changes to your guns, then just don’t do it until you have more information from a reliable source. But unless you have first hand legal experience on this issue, think twice before you declare to the world what is and isn’t legally prudent. A lot of the conventional wisdom (even what you may have heard from your CCW instructor) on the topic of defensive gun uses and the law is flat out wrong.

Whether for legal or more practical reasons, do you have a “line in the sand” for the types of modifications you’re not willing to perform on a self-defense gun? Let us know in the comments…

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