People have been upgrading and personalizing their weapons since, well, since weapons were. Better wrapping on the grip, a keener edge, stronger materials; anything that would help (or hopefully help) the wielder to win in whatever fight was worth pursuing.
Today, stock guns seem to be little more than a touching off point before an immediate round of upgrades, enhancements and customizations are installed or commissioned.
So long as reliability is not compromised and all of the upgrades are purpose-driven, there is nothing wrong with this approach: as good as modern guns are, there are ways to squeeze more performance out of them than their designers likely thought possible or at least tailor them to your own unique tastes and requirements.
But what if you are stuck with stock? For whatever reason, you cannot source or afford upgrades: maybe it is financial squeeze, a loaner, pickup or something else? It is easy to fall into the erroneous assumption that you’ll be behind the power curve and not shooting your best without a tricked out gun.
Have no fear, for today I’m offering a little guidance on the matter so you can rock out with your stock gun.
Table of Contents
Is a Gun Just a Starting Point?
In a way, yes. But ask 10 different shooters or gun owners and you’ll get ten different answers. It is a personal thing: some shooters are remorseless and restless enhancers, ruthlessly eliminating flaws or shortcomings in any given gun, improving on its capabilities until it reaches the summit of its potential. Many competitors and some armed professionals fit this category.
Other folks are content to tune or tweak a gun just a little bit to help them do their best, and you can count your intrepid author among these constituents. Conservative upgrades are the rule of the day in this clan: sights, grips, controls and the like.
And there are still, even today, a few holdouts who keep their guns strictly stock for whatever reason, be it a misguided belief that any modification will reduce reliability to a zealous belief that “good” shooters don’t need a bunch of Gucci gamer crap on a fighting gun.
Personal ethos aside, fact is almost any gun can be improved on if you have the means, meaning money, materials, skill and parts. And why wouldn’t you want to improve what might be the single most important tool you own?
A gun with a middling trigger can have a good one. A gun with a good trigger can have a great one. Hate that slippery grip texture, rather lack thereof? You should! Add a set of super rough grips, stipple the frame or pay someone to do it.
The best shooters can deliver more accuracy than what a factory barrel can produce with any ammo. A hand-fitted aftermarket match barrel will take care of that. Small, hard to see sights ala WWII-era 1911’s can be replaced with modern, snagless, high visibility night sights.
A mag funnel or mag well bevel operation can speed up reloads and prevent bobbles as can chamfered charge holes on the face of a revolver’s cylinder.
Action enhancement and reliability packages, dehorn treatments, rugged finishes and so much more can push an otherwise lackluster handgun into the realm of greatness, or a great handgun into some pretty extraordinary territory.
A few vintage and undeniably cool guns that are otherwise fairly lackluster by today’s standards can be given a new lease on life if you choose to have them upgraded and reborn into the 21st century. I am not saying you should, only that you can.
The State of the Modern Defensive Handgun
If you look at the current modification paradigm anywhere on gun-centric social media you’ll see plenty of polymer framed striker-fired handguns with ports of all shapes and sizes cut into their slides, increasingly deco-looking laser cut frame texturing, a bevy of aftermarket parts inside and out, compensators, miniature red-dots and more.
It might be cliché, but there blasters would not for one second look out of place dangling on Han Solo’s hip.
Sure, it is easy to snicker, sneer and mock at such “excesses” on a handgun especially if you think you don’t need them. “More money than sense!” “All flash no dash!” “Gamer shit!” You’ll hear it all, or might have uttered it yourself.
Let me tell you something, though: done right, and modified by professionals, specimens of this new breed of combat handgun are shockingly accurate, flat shooting, and easy to shoot at ranges that will give most of you reading this cold sweats if I made you shoot that far in a class. They are reliable to boot, too.
The future is now. All things pass. The world-beater from 40 years ago is terribly outmoded, even quaint today. Sure, there might not be quantum-leap innovation today, but what we have instead is vanishing point refinement.
Modern guns and their upgrades are just so damn good in all regards they would have been the stuff of fiction in your grandpa’s day.
Believe me when I tell you that you want in on this. While not every upgrade is a turn-key enhancement like a trigger or set of grips, better is always, well, better. No ifs, ands or buts.
And in This Corner…
But what if, no matter what your reasons are, you are not in a position to start upgrading your guns.
No matter how sweet and tantalizing the benefits, no matter how dedicated you are to seeking every advantage for the live-or-die fight that you might one day find yourself in, you are just plain not able or willing to modify you gun.
Maybe it has some flaws. Maybe some elements of its design irritate or pester you. Maybe it is frankly just a “meh” grade firearm.
It is easy to get sucked into an anxious malaise about it, a sort of FOMO (fear of missing out) on your potential. You might even be truly afraid that you’ll simply be outgunned, at the match or on the street. First things first, you need to squelch that line of thinking, right now.
Any gun can do if you can do, and while having good, reliable weapons is an important part of winning a fight, the fighters themselves are always the elements that make the most difference in the outcome.
So before you develop an ulcer over your boring, bland stock gun, we should take an honest measure of both it and ourselves and then get to work on making the most of it.
In the next sections I’ll discuss some things that you can do that will have you kicking ass and taking names with your stock pistol in no time.
Will the Gun Do? Will You?
I am not about to reveal to you any magic methods, ancient wisdom or some other Charles Atlas-worthy regimen.
Plenty of folks good and bad have gotten work done with guns we consider hopelessly obsolete by any standard. Single action revolvers are borderline novelty and enthusiasts guns today but were once state-of-the-art fighting implements.
Can you kick ass and protect yourself with a Colt SAA today? Yes, if you work hard enough. Am I saying it is a truly valid choice in light of other options we enjoy today? No.
But boys and girls let me tell you what: I would sure take it if it were all I had available and could in all probability acquit myself well with it… At least until it was time to reload!
Fighting with a gun is 85% fighter (the shooter), 10% hardware and 5% luck. I am certain plenty of folks will offer their own take on that recipe in the comments below, but no matter how you want to bake that particular cake the main ingredient is always the human.
No gun, no matter how good, will cover a lack of training, experience or will to win. Good weapons help you win, but won’t win the fight for you. Believing otherwise is delusional; guns are not a lucky rabbit’s foot.
We can argue what the ideal gun looks like all day and night (and I do). We can come up with what denotes acceptable and what makes a gun unacceptable for defense. It has all been said before. What matters is, for whatever reason, the gun you have is the gun you have. That’s it. No more, no less.
So what do you do now?
The only thing I will assume for the purposes of our discussion is that your gun is mechanically reliable. I mean dependable. I am not even assuming it is come-Valhalla reliable, torture test approved and wind tunnel tested.
I mean if you don’t feed it garbage, keep it clean and oiled and generally take care of it runs well when you are shooting it. That’s all. If your gun cannot even do that, work on replacing it posthaste and in the meantime Godspeed.
Assuming your gun works as it should and as expected, all that is left for you to do is get your mind right and then get to work practicing and training with it. What do I mean by get your mind right?
I mean focus on the task at hand. So what you want and cannot have the Wilson Combat, the H&K or the custom shop Glock? Is pining over any of those slick guns going to make a difference in your fight with your gun?
No it is not. Not a bit. This is what I am referencing when I am talking about focus. Your willpower and focus are both consumable resources that must be recharged and refreshed periodically, not everlasting wellsprings.
Why squander either on something that is not improving your situation right now? Don’t do it; instead spend that time and energy on dryfire practice, putting together a new range regimen, or seeking out expert advice from another shooter who can help you make the most of the gun you have.
If you’d stop drooling over Instagram posts featuring your favorite blaster or desired upgrade and instead invest that time into high-quality dryfire reps or practice draws, you’d be surprised at just how many blisters you’d earn on your fingers. Most people, shooters included, fripper away far too much time on idle fantasy.
Let me put it another way: what is the one, true road to surefire improvement in any skill, in any discipline? Put in the work. What is the solution for shoring up a weak point or flaw in your performance?
Put in the work. What is the best way to get the most out of any piece of gear? Yep, you got it: put in the work!
Deliberate, focused practice will overcome nearly all deficiencies in your equipment. Stock Glock have a nasty trigger? Stuck with a DA/SA hammer gun you can’t stand or a revolver when you want a semi?
The solution, assuming you cannot upgrade, is to start working. Dryfire, range time, the works. Don’t hold off on training till you can attend with the gun that is the apple of your eye. The skills you acquire with your “lesser” gun will serve you just as well with any other.
Just a Little Tune Up
The gun you feel stuck with might be entirely serviceable but still suffer from some flaws that could rate anywhere from “annoying” to “enraging” on the Personal Irritation Scale (Tactical). Instead of suffering, taking your chances or whining about them, fix them!
A variety of hardware issues can be solved inexpensively by DIY or professional methods, and almost all of them will tally far, far less than the cost of a new gun.
Hotspots on grips could be ameliorated with some sanding, grinding and gap filling. Perhaps a brand new set of grips that better fit your hands will see your old gun take on lively new life.
Similarly, a slick grip means a gun that is prone to skidding in the hands, a fact made worse when the hands are wet from perspiration, water or blood.
Or a milkshake, you never know! A homebrew solution could be a wrap of grip tape, a carefully done stipple job, or even crude but efficient checkering.
Sharp edges can be sanded, radiused and smoothed away. Pitiful and hard-to-see sights can be swapped or enhanced with specialty sight paints or even nail polish. Drop in spring kits can smooth up and lighten trigger pulls without compromising reliability.
There is a laundry list of small, nagging things that add up to a gun that just feels wrong. Those same little things can often be corrected with little effort to bring your gun up a peg or two.
In the age of YouTube and social media, even the inexperienced can tackle many light-duty modifications with exactly zero prior experience under their belts.
Now, one must pay attention and do your best to learn from good sources, as any yahoo with a cellphone can post their own how-to video.
Even so, a little caution goes a long way and there has never been a better time for DIY gun repair and modification than now. Don’t let a lack of experience or funds stop you from tackling basic enhancement projects for your firearm.
The Gun is Only Part of a System
So don’t neglect the rest of it. Your gun might not be God’s gift to applied ballistics, but you can make a so-so situation worse by failing to upgrade the requisite support gear.
For concealed carry, a good high quality holster and belt make all the difference in both effectiveness and comfort.
Invariably, most folks who are either saddled with a gun that is not their favorite or low on funds will skimp on the holster they need to carry it properly; floppy, crappy neoprene and bottom-of-the-pile leather is the rule, and both suck.
A poorly fitted holster will not give the gun the security it needs across most modes of movement, and it will also, probably, not be a comfortable experience for you, adding to your misery.
Pile on a few days, weeks or months of carrying a pistol you detest in a state of physical discomfort and even the most stalwart and committed gunhands will be leaving it behind or carrying sloppily more and more often.
A lame belt is often worse, being incapable of holding the weight of a holstered pistol upright and close to the body, increasing the telltale signs of a concealed gun to anyone who might notice or already be looking for it.
A good gun belt will be rigid, and achieve a sort of sweet spot for carry: not too unyielding, and not too flexible. In all likelihood, your off the shelf department store belt is not up to the task unless you are carrying an extremely lightweight gun.
I will say it right here in front of the world: if you have limited funds and are forced to choose between a high-end pistol and a high-end holster and belt or other carry solution, so long as your pistol is adequately reliable I’d tell you to upgrade your support gear, hands down.
Of course, the dedicated pistolero asks, “why not both?”
The same is true of long guns. A long gun with a crap or, worse, no sling, must have that rectified posthaste.
You will always be doing something else with your hands, not just using your shotgun or rifle and so when the time comes you need a convenient way to stow it without setting it down on the ground.
Stock Guns are Trending
It has been said that all things are cyclical.
There is nothing new under the sun, that much is certain, but once you have been around any sector long enough you start to notice that the trends and “highest, best options” of one era become suboptimal, then passe, then downright archaic.
Time marches on, and the old makes way for the fabulous new. But then… what was old is “new” once again! We are seeing the same trend, right now, with firearms.
Gun owners are no longer buying the most tricked-out firearms they can find. Instead, they are turning to firearms that are more basic, or even retro in their design. There are a few reasons for this trend.
First, many gun owners feel that highly customized firearms are too flashy and may attract undue attention from law enforcement or criminals. Second, with ever-tightening gun laws, it is becoming increasingly difficult to own and transport highly customized firearms in some jurisdictions.
Finally, many gun owners believe that basic or retro firearms are just as effective at performing their intended function as more highly customized firearms.
Your average civilian defender, even police officer, likely does not need much from the gun aside from reliability, and everything that might typically be accomplished in use can be done with a sling or holster, optic and WML. So the market is moving back to firearms that are more “tactical” by being “just practical”.
The Look, the Appeal, of Stock Guns
These firearms may not be as flashy as some, but particularly in the case of late 1980’s and early 1990’s designs that were in widespread use there is definitely a certain aesthetic charm inherent to them that many Gen X and older Millennial shooters adore, a charm shared, believe it or not, by many Generation Z gun enthusiasts. It is not hard to see why, either.
These firearms often have a very clean look about them and are devoid of extraneous “bells and whistles” that can make them difficult to use and maintain.
Additionally, firearms of this category usually do not come with the high price tags of their ultra-refined and personalized stablemates of today.
It is no coincidence that some of the most popular firearms on the market today are designs that hearken back to an earlier era.
Firearms manufacturers are starting to take notice, and some are beginning to produce firearms that are more basic in design and more closely resemble firearms of past decades.
Everything from AR’s with Vietnam era furniture and controls to full and beautifully wood stocked combat shotguns replete with vent ribs or heat shields, all considered woefully obsolescent in appearance and, many experts said, function.
So, what does this mean for the average stock-enthusiast gun owner? Simply put, it means that there has never been a better time to buy and own firearms that are less “tactical” in their design. The market is starting to move away from the over-the-top, high-dollar custom firearms and back to basics. So if you are in the market for a new firearm, do not be afraid to consider something that may seem “old school.”
Stock Still Rocks: The Curious Return of the 20″ Bbl. AR
Whatever the reason, the return towards stock or “basic” firearms is definitely underway, and perhaps nowhere is this more obvious than in the resurgence in popularity for longer barrels on AR-family rifles.
For a long time, the military M16 and, by extension, the civilian full-length AR-15 rifle market has been dominated by M4-style weapons. This refers generally to a 16″ or shorter barrel and a telescopic or retractable in general.
The carbine AR’s sheer versatility is undeniable, but revisiting the “rifle-length” AR is worthwhile because of its own particular benefits.
The first civilian ARs were heavier-barreled match or varmint hunting weapons, both of which were brought to the market by Colt in 1986 with its AR-15A2 , the “H-Bar.”
While hefty barrels have the potential for remarkable precision, their increased mass results in a center of gravity that is farther forward and more weight overall.
Compare with genuine M16s and the earliest AR-15s that utilized a “pencil” barrel profile which yields completely different handling and balance characteristics than a heavy barrel profile.
What does a longer barrel get us on an AR, aside from those sweet 1980’s aesthetics? Most importantly, ballistics. A 20″ barrel averages a 200-250fps advantage over shorter 14.5″ and 16″-barreled brethren using typical “service” ammo.
When I compared a 20″ barrel to a 16″ barrel, using Federal’s common XM855 ammunition, I found that the former recorded about 170 fps average more than the shorty.
But velocity is not the only advantage afforded by the longer barrel, since it is mated to a longer gas system. For data on dependability and durability, the United States military offers a good example.
The gas system is one of the primary reasons for this. The “rifle-length” gas system on a 20″ barrel is 5″ longer than the “carbine-length” gas mechanism in use on all many common carbine length barrels.
The gas port on a rifle can be larger as a result of the drop in pressure during this longer distance, causing more low-pressure gas to return to the action.
The extra length of the gas tube causes the velocity of the gas when it reaches the bolt carrier to be lower. This implies that there is less force and heat applied to a rifle.
A carbine gas system’s length, on the other hand, sees the bolt unlock that much sooner and more violently since pressure in the chamber is greater. This has attendant problems concerning bolt lug and extractor life.
While the contemporary M4-style carbines have become extremely dependable, it was a lengthy and complicated path that included the development of mid-length gas systems, extra-power extractor springs, several revisions to feed ramps geometry, and a variety of buffer weights.
In the end, the M16/AR-15 family of rifles and the 5.56x45mm NATO ammunition it fires were optimized with a 20″ barrel as standard. One might argue that anything shorter is compromising perfection one way or another.
The popularity of AR-15s has also been aided by the fact that many major, well-respected manufacturers, such as FN America, Bravo Co. USA, Brownell’s, Colt and others have recently released models with longer barrel lengths, and rifle-length gas systems.
They have started aggressively marketing them once again, in flagrant defiance of the ultra-optimized, ultra-short AR pistols and carbines that currently rule the commercial sector.
These longer “retro” rifles confer distinct advantages to new and old shooters alike.
It can be demoralizing coping with a gun that is not quite what you want, or even objectively flawed in one or more ways.
But sometimes you have to play the hand you are dealt and instead of lamenting your rotten luck, position or lack of spending money, spit on your hands, roll up your sleeves and get to work, at the bench and on the firing line.
With enough dedication, you can do better than “make do” with a stock gun.
last update: 02/25/2022
Charles Yor is an advocate of low-profile preparation, readiness as a virtue and avoiding trouble before it starts. He has enjoyed a long career in personal security implementation throughout the lower 48 of the United States.