5 Most Common Handgun Upgrades

posted on June 30, 2021

What are the five most common upgrades for a defensive handgun and how would you even discover that information? Ironically, we may have known what the two most popular defensive handgun upgrades have been for a long time. Referencing the 1911 pistol, in 2003 Jeff Cooper wrote, “We have opined that all the 1911 really needs are a trigger that you can manage, sights that you can see and a dehorning job.”

As it turns out, better sights and better triggers are the most common, non-cosmetic, defensive handgun upgrades, whether the pistol is a 1911, Glock or just about anything else. 

How do we know this? Well, you have to ask someone that does a lot of handgun upgrading. Gunsite Academy funnels thousands of students through their defensive handgun courses every year. These are folks who are serious about the defensive handgun. Fink’s Custom Gunsmithing runs the gunsmith shop at Gunsite Academy. Their job is to take care of the guns that Gunsite Academy’s students use, and part of that care includes upgrading those guns.

Handgun Sights

According to Dave Fink, the single most common upgrade his shop performs is the installation of highly visible sights. The brand is not that important, but what is important is that the front sight is bold and easy to see in any light. What you might find most interesting about the sight upgrades Fink’s performs is that few are three-dot systems.

Most consist of a black rear sight or a rear sight with a single dot, tritium or otherwise, below the rear notch. Good, highly visible sights like the Fiber Optic Pro from TruGlo or the tritium-powered F8 sight from XS Sights will cost you between $75 and $150. To have them installed you’ll pay another $35 to $65.

Trigger Mods

Next to sights, Fink says triggers get the most attention, and it really does not matter what style or make the handgun is. Factory triggers in defensive handguns are notorious for being less than ideal. Fink and his team of talented gunsmiths spend a lot of time tuning or installing aftermarket triggers in many of the guns used by Gunsite students. Labor for a trigger job can vary but expect to pay around $25 to $175 plus, the cost of new parts or in some cases a completely new trigger system.

As for the Cooper referenced “dehorning job,” this upgrade is not as common as it used to be. Between 1976 when Gunsite Academy opened, and 2003 when Cooper penned those words, the 1911 was one of the most popular guns used at the school. Many were manufactured by Colt and Colt liked to leave sharp edges on their 1911s.

The “dehorning” process, which also became known as a “carry bevel,” was executed to smooth those edges so the shooter would not injure their hands when manipulating the handgun. Most modern defensive handguns now come with reasonably smooth edges but on occasion sharp spots still need to be knocked down by a gunsmith. Costs can vary but will also likely include a charge for refinishing.

Aftermarket Grips 

Aftermarket grips are very likely the most popular defensive handgun upgrade. Some are added purely for cosmetic reasons, but others like the excellent and nearly impossible to let go of G-10 grips from VZ Grips, which cost between $65 and $85, are added to help the shooter maintain a solid purchase on the handgun with sweaty hands, or with hands covered in rain or blood. Laser grips like those offered by Crimson Trace, which will range in price from around $300 to as much as $500, are also popular because they give shooters an advantage in low light. In fact, laser grips are so popular that Gunsite Academy now offers a version of their 250 Pistol Course for handguns that are so equipped.

Reliability Tuning

Fourth on the list of popular upgrades is what is known as reliability tuning. This service, which should be performed by a competent gunsmith like Fink’s, is often referred to as a “reliability package.” The nature of the work to be done can vary from handgun to handgun but essentially, the results are the same. The handgun is tweaked—among other things, the ejector and extractor are tuned—so that the handgun can deliver the optimum level of reliability with practice and carry ammunition. Basic reliability package services cost around $75 to $175 depending on the platform.


Slide Milling for Red Dots

The fifth most popular upgrade might surprise you. It’s the milling of a pistol’s slide to accept a reflex sight. Like with laser grips you know it is becoming popular because Gunsite Academy also offers a version of their 250 Pistol Class for handguns equipped with red-dots sights. Many new defensive handguns come optics ready.

However, there are thousands of guns in their post-optics ready variation already in shooter’s hands. Not only that, owners of 1911s, Browning Hi Powers, and other handguns that are not offered in an optics ready format are transitioning to the reflex sight. The cost of milling a slide will range from around $150 to $250.


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