Jim’s Gems #7 – Defensive Handgun Modifications and Enhancements

By February 10, 2018Defensive, Jim's Gems

For the final article in our series on defensive handguns, I will cover some minor modifications and enhancements to help us use our handguns more effectively.  Almost everyone likes the “new and improved” version of something, even all of us concealed carry shooters.  Since we are no different, I wanted to share some of the improvements I have discovered that will improve your defensive handgun without sacrificing its reliability.

When we started this journey for a “perfect defensive gun”, we learned that the handgun we picked had to be 100% reliable…everything else was second.  For some reason, when we begin getting comfortable with our handgun, we decide that losing “a little reliability” is okay.  Well, my friends it is NOT okay.  Poor equipment selection or modification is the kind of thought process that can get us killed.

In the Ever After…

We have to think about the “after”.  By this, I mean the “after” in a potentially deadly force incident.  This is the reason why we are carrying our defensive handgun in the first place.  The “after” may involve our defensive handgun being seized as evidence in the case. The “after” would potentially mean someone (like the police) will be testing, examining and going through your defensive handgun.  They would note any changes, safeties that did not work, modifications made, etc.  Obviously, you want to protect yourself legally and civilly in the “after”.

Foolishly, many people believe that they can work on their handguns and nobody will ever know.  Trust me, after 5 years of gunsmithing at a local gun shop, serving as an armorer for over 15 years and handling a gun every day for the past 27 years…I know the difference.  Don’t you think someone who examines multiple firearms daily for over 5 years will know whether or not it has been modified?  Of course, they will!  Protect yourself not only before the incident, but also in the “after”.

With all of that being said, I generally try to avoid installing aftermarket internal parts.  I prefer that the parts installed inside of any defensive handgun be from the original equipment manufacturer (OEM).  Normally, OEM parts are better tested and manufactured.  In addition, it would certainly sound better to a grand jury in the “after”, knowing that all of the internal parts were factory (OEM) made.  You can see where this is going.

Novak brand night sights, fixed rear sight picture on 1911

So, how can we improve our handguns to increase our speed and accuracy, while not losing reliability or leaving us open to any legal liability?  The answer is simple…

Oh, Say Can You See…

Let’s start with our sights.

If you cannot see the target or the sights, then you cannot hit your mark.  For those of us over 40 years of age, you may notice that you are having a hard time seeing “up close” or through the “small” notch in the rear sight. You may also notice that you cannot focus fast enough through the small notch in the rear sight or under speed drills consistent with gunfight conditions.  If this is you, then I would suggest going to a rear sight with a wider notch.

Many companies offer excellent wide-notch rear sights for the common defensive handguns on our list.  The companies I have used (with the most success) are as follows: Novak, 10-8 Performance, Heine and Dawson Precision to name a few.

If you’re planning on using a fiber optic front sight, plan on bringing replacements and a lighter.

Others are out there, but I have personally used and installed numerous versions from these companies and feel comfortable recommending them to you.  Usually, a rear sight notch .140” in width, is enough to enhance your 40+ sight picture.

Along the lines of being able to see the sights, we must realize that most deadly force incidents take place at night or in low light conditions.  With that being said, plain black sights do not show up well in low or no light.  Personally, I want all of my defensive handguns to have sights that glow in the dark (aka, “night sights” or tritium sights).  These sights help me achieve better alignment at night or in low light conditions.

Sight options left-right: Glock plastic front sight, Glock adjustable rear, Glock fixed rear, Glock rear night sight, Dawson plain black rear, Dawson fiber optic front sight, plain black ramped front sight.

When it comes to sights, I want to ensure that they are durable against very harsh treatment.  I do not want my sight picture to change because of a broken fiber optic rod or become knocked off-center because it’s loose on the slide.  I like my sights made solidly, with a steel housing that can be positively affixed to the slide.  Avoid any staked, plastic sights, or fiber optic rods on your defensive handgun.  These materials are not durable enough for heavy use.

Bullseye or combat? Adjustable Bo-mar type sights on left, for Bullseye target shooting. Fixed, Novak brand night sights on right for combat.

Many competition shooters will start getting up in arms because their favorite colored fiber optic sight is not getting the nod for defensive use.  I understand…they can look really good under daylight or gun store conditions.  The problem is that fiber optic rods break too often to be dependable for a defensive gun and they don’t glow in the dark.  We must think about 100% reliability with our handguns along with any equipment that goes on, or into them.

As far as what sights I use, I normally use the factory Glock, Sig Sauer and Beretta night sights.  On 1911’s for carry, I prefer 10-8 Performance, Heine or Novak brand night sights.  As for the revolvers that don’t have fixed sights, I use the standard white outline rear with the red ramp front sights since I rarely carry these for any type of defensive use anymore.

Get a Grip…

After reviewing sights, I want you to start thinking about the proper grip index.  You cannot shoot the handgun accurately under speed without having a proper grip index.  Ideally, you should be able to hold the pistol in line with the radius of your arm and still reach the trigger.  This can be affected most by the grip or stocks and the distance of the trigger face is in relation to the back strap of the grip.

1911 & Sig Frames

1911, pistol, defensive handgun, 45 ACP

1911 Grip Panel – Slightly aggressive checkered G10 Miltac grip.  Note “long” trigger installed.

If you have “average” sized hands, avoid large or small handgun grips that throw off your proper grip index.  For 1911’s, I prefer the standard size panels for average sized hands.  Some women, and a few men, with small hands will actually prefer “thin” grips and a “short-faced” trigger to allow for the proper index.

Some men with large hands will actually need more distance from the back strap to the trigger face.  For them, I recommend the Pachmayr Presentation grip with wraparound front strap and a “long” trigger.  The wraparound rubber front strap gives large-handed shooters better control and grip index, while properly locating their trigger finger on the face of the trigger.

Along these same lines, the Sig Sauer double stacked series of pistols (models P226-P229) can be hard for the average sized person to get proper grip index and still reach the trigger face.  A simple fix to this problem is to install a “short trigger”.  Sig Sauer offers these “short triggers” as OEM parts.  A Sig armorer or a qualified gunsmith can easily install them.  Short triggers are generally not needed since the grip is smaller on models: P220, P230, P232 and P225.

As far as aftermarket grips from Hogue, Pachmayr, Farrar etc., for the Sig Sauer P series and the Beretta 92/96 series of pistols, I avoid them…for several reasons.  First of all, most of these aftermarket grips are too thick for the average man.

Secondly, most of the aftermarket grips are too smooth, allowing the pistol to move in your hand during recoil.  Finally, many are not properly inletted inside to allow proper function of controls like the de-cocking levers and slide stops.  In the end, I find that the average person prefers the standard issue, black in color, checkered plastic grips.  Remember, we still need 100% reliability even when we are talking about our grips.


The Glock grip…some say that they are “blocky”, “shaped like a 10×4” or just plain “ugly”.  Well that may be, but the pistols are 100% reliable.  So, if this is our defensive pistol choice, let’s look at some ways for improvement.  Glock’s newest models in the Generation 4 and 5 come with an interchangeable back strap system (like the S&W M&P series).  This helps a wider range of shooters adapt the pistol to themselves for a proper grip index.  Experiment with both models to find what works for you.

Glock 17 grip reduction on left. Standard Glock 19 on right. Note missing finger grooves and radius under trigger guard

For those who have a Glock Generation 3 or earlier model, many gunsmiths and companies offer a grip reduction service as a last resort.  In many cases, removing some material from underneath the trigger guard and on the back strap will fix most grip index problems for those with smaller hands.  Remember, you cannot put it back on once you take it off.  Make sure you need your grips reduced before you have them cut.


As for grips on the double-action (DA) revolvers from Colt or Smith and Wesson, I prefer to remove the original wood grips that came with the older models.  The original wood grips look nice, but they do not give a proper grip index.  Depending on the model, they are either too large or too small.  The original grips are smooth in areas where they should be checkered, allowing the revolver to move in your hand under recoil.  Also, they provide no cushion from felt recoil, which makes shooting defensive loads no joy!

revolver, defensive handgun, pistol, pachmayr, grip

Smith & Wesson Model 66, 357 Magnum, with Pachmayr Presentation grips, “small” size. Factory service stocks on right. This makes a huge difference in felt recoil and control.

On the Colt or Smith and Wesson DA revolvers (Python, Trooper, 10, 13, 15, 19, 66, 586 or 686), I prefer the Pachmayr Presentation grip (without finger grooves) in the “small” size.

Currently, these are only offered in “large”, which is a shame since the average sized hand prefers the smaller grip to the larger.  These “small-sized” Pachmayr Presentation grips can still be found for sale on auction sites such as eBay or Gunbroker.  Obviously, men with large hands will appreciate the larger grip of “large” Pachmayr presentation grip.

Finger grooves?  Oftentimes, revolver shooters ask me about my opinion on grips with finger grooves.  Let me be the first to say that they look great!  However, looks are not what we’re worried about on our defensive handgun.  Again, what we are looking for is 100% reliability.  Normally, I find that the finger grooves don’t fit most shooters.  Furthermore and most importantly, I find that it’s harder to shoot the revolver if you get a bad draw from the holster.  The Pachmayr Presentation grips (without finger grooves) are more forgiving in this area of poor draws.

revolver, handgun, defensive pistol, grips, pachmayr

Pachmayr Compac Grips on Colt Cobra 38.  Factory grips on right.

As far as the small, back-up size DA revolvers, I prefer the Pachmayr Compac grip.  They have a better grip index and recoil control than the factory grips that come on most hideout size revolvers.  Another favorite for these small handguns and the average shooter is the “Uncle Mike’s Boot Grip”.  The Boot Grip gives the shooter excellent control with better grip index, in a smaller more concealable package.  Unfortunately, as with other models, you don’t get any break on felt recoil since the back strap is not covered with rubber.


This brings us to the trigger and trigger pull weights.  Everyone wants a better trigger pull since this is what usually keeps us from hitting our mark, right?  Yes and no.

A heavy trigger pull is harder to shoot well under speed, than shooting with a lighter trigger pull.  But, what is “heavy”?  An Olympic, 22 small bore or air gun competitor thinks anything above 4 ounces is heavy.  Many benchrest shooters like triggers in the 2 oz.-2 lbs. range.  There are hunters I know that prefer triggers in the 2.5-3.5 lbs. range.  Most law enforcement and military agencies require trigger pulls in the 4.0-5.0 lbs. range for their issued handguns.

Beretta 92F, 9mm, with 92D hammer spring. Note that the factory 92F spring is on top, 92D on bottom. See and feel the difference.

I like (most) defensive handgun trigger pulls in the 4.0-4.5 lbs. range.  This gives me a good balance of reliability, accuracy and control.  The defensive handgun trigger must break as cleanly as possible, while not being too “easy” to accidentally fire should we become startled.  Furthermore, we have to think about the adrenaline dump our bodies will receive during a deadly force threat, as well as the outside temperature under all conditions.  We may not have the dexterity to “feel” a trigger pull below 3.5 lbs. when we are highly stressed, if our hands are cold, or if we’re wearing gloves.

Trigger pulls that are too light may not hold under heavy use.  Many 1911’s I have examined have trigger pulls adjusted too light for defensive purposes.  I have seen numerous 1911’s come through the shop where the hammer “followed” the slide forward.  This indicates that the sear cannot hold the hammer in position.  This is dangerous and is courting a disaster.  Simply increasing the sear weight to a 4.0-4.5 lbs. range usually fixes this issue, unless the sear or hammer hooks have become damaged.

The Beretta 92F/96F series of pistols is easily smoothed out and lightened by spring replacement.  When attending Beretta’s Armorer School many years ago, I had the opportunity to work on many different models of the Beretta 92 and 96.  I discovered that the 92D model hammer spring is lighter in the double-action mode than the 92F and M9 pistols.  In comparing both hammer springs, I learned that the 92D hammer spring is approximately two coils shorter than the 92F or M9 pistols.  Switching from a 92F/96F hammer spring to the 92D/96D hammer spring is as easy as ordering a factory OEM replacement.

Sig P226, 9mm, Short trigger installed. Standard trigger below.

Double-action revolvers from Colt or Smith and Wesson are usually smooth, but heavy.  With a decent trigger job, a few pounds of double-action pull weight can be removed.  Since few gunsmiths really understand these revolvers, I recommend that you ask a lot of questions to determine their skill level.  You want the trigger to be smooth and light, without giving up any reliability.  I find that a 10 lbs. double-action pull weight is reliable and still easy to manage.  I don’t reduce the mainspring tension to get this weight.  Test the single-action mode by cocking the hammer to full cock, then push forward with your thumb.  The hammer should not “push off” with normal thumb pressure.

As far as Glocks go, the easiest fix in getting a better trigger pull is to purchase a factory “minus” connector.  This will take your trigger pull down to 4.4-4.5 pounds.  Make sure to get a factory part since many aftermarket connectors have a tendency to start “doubling” after 1,500-2,000 rounds.  Ask me how I know.  Again, your mileage may vary.

Avoid installing aftermarket trigger kits, reduced striker springs, etc.  Generally, these will all become a reliability and legality nightmare.  This also goes for the APEX trigger kits for the S&W M&P series.

A serrated faced trigger can be replaced with a smooth one to achieve a better trigger pull in a 2nd, 3rd and 4th Generation Glock pistol (that are not full-sized guns)   For some reason, Glock installed serrated faced triggers in models 26, 27, 19, 23, et al, before the Generation 5.  If you are already shooting more than a few hundred rounds in a practice session, you will know why I recommend switching out this part.


There are a few more additions that I recommend, but under certain circumstances.  Magpul has just released their low-profile magazine well for the 3rd and 4th Generation Glock  models 19 and 17.  This magazine well doesn’t add any substantial length or weight to the pistol grip, yet provides a faster reload for most people.  This is an excellent recommendation for those that want a slight edge on their reloading times.  I would avoid the large, bulky, competition style funnels on any defensive gun.

Glock 19, with factory night sights, minus connector and Magpul mag well.

Extended slide releases?  Generally, I avoid these things on the majority of pistols.  However, I have found that installing a factory extended slide release on a Glock is a good thing for some people.  Some women, or those with diminishing hand and upper body strength, can benefit from these extended releases.  It allows a bigger surface to push up against while trying to get the slide locked open during clearance drills.  Also, those in the military or law enforcement that may have to manipulate a ballistic shield can reload faster ,with one hand, by using one of these.   Otherwise, I would try to avoid adding extended slide releases on your defensive gun.

Extended magazine releases?  Please, please, please don’t install one of these “enhancements” on your pistol.  In many cases, they cause more harm than good.  Some of the competition magazine releases can be easily activated, at the most inopportune times, because they are so large.  Some examples: during the draw, when your hands come together to shoot under speed, while picking the pistol up off of the table and simply while in the holster if leaned upon at the right angle.  Again, what is 100% reliable for you under all conditions?

Jim’s List

Here is Jim’s short list of recommended modifications by brand and model:

  • Glock models: 26/27, 19/23, 17/22, 20/21, et al, night sights, factory Glock “minus” (4.4 lbs.) connector, factory smooth-faced trigger on 26/27 and 19/23 models (Possible other modifications: extended slide stop/release, Magpul magazine well)
  • Sig Sauer models: P226/P227/P228/P229, night sights, short trigger
  • Beretta models: 92F/96F, night sights, 92D hammer spring
  • 1911, night sights, proper grips for better grip index, 4.0-4.5 lbs. trigger job, hammer doesn’t “follow” the slide
  • S&W DA revolvers, Pachmayr Presentation or Compac rubber grips, service trigger job not below 10 lbs. DA, hammer will not “push off” in single-action mode
  • Colt DA revolvers, Pachmayr Presentation or Compac rubber grips, service trigger job not below 10 lbs. DA, hammer will not “push off” in single-action mode
  • S&W M&P 2.0, night sights

In the End…

Most handguns modified or improved as indicated above will work perfectly without further issue.  We’ve probably invested less than $100.00 for most of these modifications.  The best thing is we didn’t sacrifice any reliability to gain this edge in performance.  We can show that these pistols have had minor enhancements that improved performance, yet without making them a legal liability in the “after”.  When it comes to modifying your defensive pistol think… “less = more”.

Until next month…Si vis pacem, para bellum!


Read All of the Jim’s Gems Articles:

Jim’s Gems #1 – Defensive Pistol Selection Thoughts and Experiences

Jim’s Gems #2 – Selecting a Defensive Caliber

Jim’s Gems #3 – Back-Up and “Small” Guns

Jim’s Gems #4 – My Year with an AK-47

Jim’s Gems #5 – Didn’t Stay Holstered Long

Jim’s Gems #6 – Myriad of Magazine Questions




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