Accessorizing Firearms for Beginners
Us guys can't leave well enough alone. We are hardwired with the ancient warrior instinct to imbue strong medicine unto our earthly possessions. We customize, tweak, embellish, and accessorize most of the stuff we buy. Like the Vikings who decorated their swords with runes, few gun owners can resist the temptation to modify — sometimes derisively referred as "Bubba" — their personal firearms in the pursuit of achieving shooting nirvana. The gun market knows this, and offers a huge variety of "tacti-cool" stocks, grips, rails, slings, tools, web gear, and other firearm paraphernalia. Custom gunsmithing services offer to tune any firearm to ballistic perfection. DIY projects can save you so much money doing it yourself, that you will be able to afford to repair the damage you've done to your firearm.
Some mods cost more than the gun itself. Often they do little to improve one's shooting. Worse, they can harm the historical and collectors value of certain guns. Expensive mods seldom increase the base value of firearms for resale. Modifying a new gun right out of the box could void the manufacturer's warranty, leaving you high and dry should your new gun have a factory defect. Be wary of spending time and money to fix something that ain't broke. You may discover that "less is more" works better than a bunch of doo-dads tacked on your firearm. For a gun owner on a budget, it's becomes a question of which you want to do, spend your money on ammo to shoot more, or have a safe queen to admire?
Before the new gun owner delves into the many options to gild the lily, they should become proficient shooting their gun as is, so not to be psychologically dependent on gee-whiz technology. One of the greatest snipers in history, Finnish Simo Häyhä, KIA'd over 500 Russian soldiers during the 1939 Winter War armed with a humble Mosin Nagant bolt-action rifle with iron sights. Anne Oakley in a single day shot 4472 out of 5000 targets tossed in the air with an unadorned .22. So remember, it's the shooter, not the gun, who counts.
So are any mods are useful to for the novice gun owner? A lot depends on what you want out of your gun. The ones mentioned here have little to do with hunting or competition shooting — just small improvements to make shooting more pleasurable and reliable. The usual caveat applies that I bear no responsibility for any damage or harm done for the any of the following suggestions. In case of doubt, consult a competent gunsmith first.
The new gun owner should ignore the temptation to convert a firearm to full auto (FA), and/or building a homemade suppressor, a.k.a., "silencer." These are federal offenses that will land you in the slammer, cost lots of money in fines and legal fees, and prohibit you from ever owning a gun again. So let's not tempt the powers that be, okay? If you desire to own a FA weapon or a suppressor, go through the trouble to legally apply for a Class III license. Fiddling to make a firearm FA can be extremely unsafe. The resulting inaccuracy, coupled with the horrendous expenditure of ammunition shooting full-auto does not lend itself to developing good shooting skills for the beginner.
Handguns: The first mod to consider with a new handgun purchase is changing the grips. This is one of the most inexpensive and easiest mod to do. I prefer synthetic rubber molded grips by Hogue or Pachmayr. They absorb some of the recoil, and give an improved positive grip, especially when hands get slippery with sweat.
Rubber grips do not work satisfactorily for everyone. Some find they make the pistol grip too fat. Others complain that they become sticky when worn next to the body. I found synthetic grips on my Ruger Mark II pistol not as comfortable for me as the original factory checker grips. But many prefer them, for very good reasons. As with all mods, your mileage may vary.
If your handgun is new out of the box, and shoots with no jams or stovepipes after shooting a few hundred rounds, then leave well enough alone. However, some used semi-autos may be in need a tune up. Replacing the recoil and magazine springs for semi-auto pistols can often fix these issues. A stiffer-rated (in lbs.) recoil spring handles hotter loads better. A strong magazine spring helps feed the rounds more reliably. Wolff Springs are an excellent choice for replacing these springs. Any online gun forum or gunsmith can explain how to perform this easy and safe mod.
Before putting new springs in a used gun, particularly military surplus (milsurps) as in Tokarevs, Makarovs, and the like, give them a thorough cleaning. Milsurps are usually packed with a thick gummy preservative called cosmoline, besides collecting all sorts of gunk over their lifetime. Learn how to field strip them, and soak in a good solvent, like PB blaster or brake cleaner overnight. Illustrated handgun reference books like The Gun Digest Book of Firearms Assembly/Disassembly Part I — Automatic Pistols offer excellent step-by-step instructions.
Important note here — Field stripping a firearm is considerably different than performing a complete disassembly. Field stripping is a limited disassembly procedure for the sole purpose of cleaning and simple maintenance. As a gun greenhorn, never attempt a complete disassembly. It involves special tools and a diagram of the specific firearm. Lots of tiny springs may pop out and be easily lost. The risk of marring the finish or action tapping out small pins is great. One may be able to take a firearm completely apart, but few are those who can put it together again. Gunsmiths make lots of money with embarrassed gun owners bringing boxes of loose gun parts for them to reassemble.
Some handguns do not come with dots on the front or rear sights. You can paint dots on the back and front sights. Lay down a white base color, and then carefully paint the color dot on top. After it dries, apply an acrylic protective finish. A superior but more expensive alternative is to install Tritium sights. These use a radioactive gas that makes them glow in the dark. They are the bee's knees to have, but only if you plan to shoot thousands of rounds a year to justify the investment.
A multitude of custom gunsmith jobs are available to turn your handgun into a competition "race gun." Above all else, you want your gun to go bang every time. Anything else is superfluous if it fails to do so. The most practical handgun mods are reliable feeding of ammunition and improving the trigger pull. The former involves polishing the chamber throat. This helps assures the feeding of hollow point ammunition, which can be problematical with new handguns, as well as old. Before you decide to go to a gunsmith for a modification, shoot several hundreds of rounds through your pistol. It is not unusual for one gun to have no problems digesting any ammo it eats, and then another gun of the same make choke on certain ammunition brands and types. This will also bring out any feeding or extraction issues. Ammunition is a big variable with consistent gun performance, so it's crucial to find which ammunition shoots reliably.
On the latter, a heavy or gritty trigger pull affects accuracy. A firearm's trigger can improve over time by breaking the gun in shooting live ammo, or dry fire with snap caps. Online DIY instructions are available to improve the trigger action on revolvers using simple tools and a polishing stone. But I don't recommend this unless you really do your homework, and are competent with tools. The guideline for grinding, polishing, and otherwise removing metal from gun parts is this — Never use power tools. Easy does it. Do a light stroke or two, assemble, and test it. Removing too much metal during a DIY project makes one really appreciate the gunsmith's deft touch. When in doubt, remember the mantra — "See a professional gunsmith."
Extra magazines for semi-auto pistols are essential. You should have a minimum of three, preferably a half of dozen. Always assume you'll lose some, or they will break. Without them, your semi-auto pistol is at best an awkward single shot, or at worst, an interesting paper weight. I strongly suggest buying factory brand magazines only. Third-party magazines can be a crapshoot. Ask any serious 1911 gun owner who made the mistake thinking all 1911 third-party magazines are created equal. Most feeding problems with semi-autos can be tied to magazine issues, particularly with the springs or feed lips. Manufacturers like Mec-Gar have a pretty good reputation. ProMag and TriStar — ah, not so much. Like the Good Book says, prove all things, hold fast that which is good. Practice shooting your pistol with all your magazines to test for reliability. Your life may depend on them.
Shotguns. For home defense purposes, noting beats the ubiquitous shotgun. Pistol grip shotguns sans the butt stock, like the Mossberg Persuader, are not a good idea, unless you have Herculean wrists. For ease of navigating around the corners of the house at night, a shotgun with a legal 18.5" barrel length is best. If your present barrel is longer than this, and you wish to make it this size, you can chop it yourself, pay a gunsmith, or buy a replacement barrel. Just make sure before you cut the barrel that the shotgun is not a collectable, such as a Winchester 97. The best case is to buy a home defense shotgun from the gitgo with an 18.5" barrel. I learned this the hard way when I took a $140 used Mossberg 500 pump with a 24" barrel and invested another $145 in a 18.5 barrel and accessories. For the all money I spent, I could have bought a new or used one all made to order.
If shotgun recoil is bothersome, get a slip on pad for the buttstock. The Limbsaver brand butt pad is a proven design for reducing shoulder slam. Other than that, slap on a cheap five-round shell holder on the buttstock, or if you prefer, mount one on the receiver to hold extra rounds. There, you're all done. Extras like synthetic pistol buttstock combos, extended shell tubes, tactical rails, pump slides with hand straps, flashlights, barrel shrouds, and slings with shell holder loops put you in the zone of diminishing returns for the money invested. They also add weight. Using sling indoors is an invitation to snag your shotgun on something as you walk around in the dark. Many will argue the merits of those items, but for the purposes of home defense, a basic pump shotgun with an 18.5 inch barrel is more than enough to do the job. If you get in a situation in the middle of the night where five plus one in the chamber rounds of 12 gauge buckshot goodness are insufficient to meet the threat at hand, then you are over your head anyway. Nothing short of artillery, air support, and a nuclear option is going to save you.
Rifles. Handguns are portable. Shotguns have massive stopping power, but the rifle makes all arguments final at any range. The SKS, AK, AR, and the Ruger 10/22 are the most common rifles used for "Bubba" projects. Be aware that major changes to SKS, AK's, Saiga's, and similar imports can open up a can of legal worms. With minor exceptions, once you start modifying these firearms, you have changed their legal status. They must then be made 922r compliant with certain US-made parts to satisfy Federal law.
One mod that can be done without playing the 922r game is trigger jobs. AK's triggers in their original configuration have a wicked trigger slap, which cause inadvertent flinching and discomfort to the shooter. Installing a Tapco trigger makes a positive difference in shooting this bad boy. Some SKS's are subject to "slam" fires. This can be due to the firing pin sticking in the bolt from cosmoline or debris in the firing pin channel. Dissembling the bolt and cleaning the firing pin channel can resolve this.
Synthetic stocks for rifles, as with handguns, offer many advantages. They are lighter, unaffected by wet weather, and dent resistant unlike traditional wooden stocks. They often offer better ergonomics for handing and shooting. For AK owners, I highly recommend at least replacing the original AK pistol grip with any number of synthetic third-party pistol grips available.
On the con side, synthetic stocks can be expensive. The cheaper ones look, well — cheap. Some, like the $139.00 MG42 replica stock for the Ruger 10/22, are all show and no go. If you have money to burn for such vanity stocks, be my guest. Synthetic stocks often require fiddling around trimming and cutting to get them to fit. Be aware that folding or telescoping synthetic butt stocks is illegal in some states, such as New York. As far as aesthetics go, wooden stocks have a warmer, classic old-school charm compared to sci-fi looking synthetic ones. Wood stocks also increase the resale value of certain uncommon firearms — so keep them just in case.
Scopes are expensive additions. Buying quality glass for a rifle that won't fog, break, lose zero easily, have proper eye relief, or suffer from parallax issues requires serious research coupled with a very positive cash flow. The rule of thumb is "you get what you pay for." Adding a scope usually requires the cost of installing a mount on the rifle. This can require drilling and tapping holes in your rifle by a gunsmith. Adding scopes to milsurps can result in new problems. On Mosin Nagants, the straight out bolt handle has to be bent down to clear the scope. For SKS's, any scope mounted directly on top of the rear receiver cover is doomed to lose zero from recoil. A shell deflector may be necessary to prevent empty shells hitting the scope. Red dot scopes are in the same boat. Inexpensive ones can be bought for $50 or less. Those are fine for messing about at the gun range. But for surviving serious wear and tear in the bush, you need quality brands that have been proven in combat overseas. Trijicon, Aimpoints, and Eotech brands are the gold standards for red dots. With prices starting at $500, they don't come cheap.
The military and law enforcement use Picatinny/Weaver rails to attach scopes, lights, forward pistol grips, bipods, and bayonets. Unless one is willing to commit to serious practice to gain the benefits of these accessories, they are an exercise in Mall Ninja-ism, and so much dead weight. Rifle slings are a necessity. Single and multiple point tactical slings offer practical methods of firearm carry. Buy one which you need, not how it looks.
There is a whole world of gun accessories out there to tempt the new gun owner to part with their hard earned money — money that can be spent better elsewhere for ammo, food storage, and other preparedness gear. Before you invest in gun accessories and mods, do your homework first. There are many good firearm forums online where you can benefit from others' experiences on what works and what doesn't. Don't ever feel inferior to those at the range with the tricked-out firearms. Guns are tools, and for the most part, they are designed to do their specific job right out the box. To get the most bang for your buck, spend your time and money practicing good shooting habits, not on expensive gear. It will pay off in the long run.
January 13, 2010
Ron Shirtz [send him mail] is a transplanted Californian teaching Graphic Communications in Northern (Not "Upstate") New York. His hobbies include arranging deck chairs on sinking ships, tilting at windmills, and being fashionably late.
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