Fine-tuning Your Handgun

Many people think that learning proficiency with a handgun is as simple as

  • buy a gun
  • buy some ammo
  • start shooting

While that will work, up to a point, the optimal accuracy is achieved by fine-tuning the performance of your gun.  This will almost always involve ammo choices, and may involve upgrades to the gun itself. Let me discuss those in a little more detail.

Choosing the right ammo for your gun is very effective, and very easy, although a little tedious.  A semi-auto only fires whatever caliber it is designed for, so you don’t have any choices there, but those cartridges come with bullets of different weights (usually at the same cost).  Depending on your gun, the caliber, and the length of the barrel, different weight bullets can have a significant impact on accuracy. Here is how you can resolve that issue:

I will explain the process for a 9mm handgun, but it would be similar for other calibers.  9mm ammo comes in bullet weights of 115 grain, 124, and 147.  Grain does not refer to gunpowder, but is a unit of weight.  A heavier bullet will typically travel slower, and a lighter bullet faster. A lighter bullet will often wobble or tumble in flight, which has an effect on accuracy, while heavier bullets tend to stabilize better.  Buy one box of each bullet weight.  If they can be the same brand, that is a plus, but not required.  Use a target with multiple circles or bullseyes, set out to 10 yards.  With your hands resting on a bench or sandbag, fire 3 shots of each weight, using a different circle/bullseye for each group of 3.  Take your time, and get the best group you can.  Repeat the process, but make sure you know which ones are which.  By this time, you should be able to tell which bullet weight works best for your gun.  Note that self-defense (HP) ammo does not usually come in multiple weights, so this process would involve different brands.

Upgrades to the gun may involve sights, grips, triggers, or other internals.  Some of these are relatively easy, and some more complicated, so I will discuss them in the order of increasing difficulty/expense.

Grips.  Some guns have easily replaceable grip panels or backstraps.  Changes here can have a small effect on accuracy, as the guns will fit your hand better, and you may have better recoil management.  A more common and serious problem is when you cannot get your little finger on to the grip.  In that case, you can buy magazine base plates that extend the magazine further down, to solve that problem.  It is very important that you can get your little finger on the grip.

Sights.  Most non-competition pistols do not have sights that are adjustable for elevation.  If you really need that, there are aftermarket sights available.  Usually, the only adjustment you might need is windage.  The rear sights can be moved (not easily) with a drift punch, or easily with a sight-mover tool.  Even if the sights are correct, everyone’s eyes are different, so if you consistently shoot a little left (or right) (and this is not a flinching issue), adjust the sights so that you can consistently shoot to Point-of-Aim (POI).

Other internals.  Every time you clean your gun, you have to remove the guide rod and recoil spring.  If the guide rod is plastic, replace it with stainless steel.  That keeps the parts from moving laterally during cycling, and will make a huge improvement in accuracy.  If the guide rod and spring are one unit, it is easier to replace the whole thing.  This is especially an issue with Glocks.  In addition, replacing the safety plunger with one that is chrome-plated will remove some friction from the system, and help the trigger action (and accuracy) slightly.  The difficulty of doing this depends on your make of pistol, but there are many videos available to help.

Triggers.  Most semi-autos under $1000.00 have mediocre triggers, but these can be improved considerably.  There are trigger kits available for most popular makes of pistol, like the Apex Tactical kit ($150+).  These are quite easy to install on Glocks, but often a little trickier on other makes.  The kit manufacturers will have videos available to help you.  Some of these kits will include a new connector and safety plunger (referenced above), and will reduce the trigger pull by 1-2 lbs.  This helps accuracy a good bit, because you are not having to pop the trigger to get it over the break.

NOTE: if you take any actions resulting in a “hair-trigger”, that could be viewed as reckless in a legal setting, like a jury trial.

Attention to ammo choice and some other features of your gun can make a big difference in baseline accuracy.  Don’t forget to practice!