Like tattoos and piercings, the permanent modifications available to weapon systems require careful consideration. Whether it be custom stippling grips, a backyard JB-Weld mod, or a professionally pinned comp on a 14.5″ barrel (bringing it to a multi-state legal 16″) there are some things we do to our guns that just can not (easily) be reversed. We have done enough mods to weapons in our time, so here are some tips to consider while making these decisions and some lessons we have learned along the way…
Is it Safe?
In my days on the range, I have seen some stupid mods to say the least. Not all of them were dangerous, but this is a question that we all need to ask ourselves before proceeding with a modification. Let’s face it; some modifications are just dumb. It can be as simple as a barrel that is too short, or compensator that is too loud. I value my hearing and am currently only competing in sports that have comp-less classes of weapons that can be used (IDPA, etc.) A piece of paper as an award telling the world that I was a better shot than a few weekend warriors is not worth losing my sense of hearing. If the mod is not needed, and its benefits are outweighed by the added safety concerns it brings, it has to go. Another example of safety in modification we all see a lot is messing around with triggers. Yes, your 1.75 lb trigger is smooth and creep-less and breaks like glass, but when you put it on your carry gun that is plain stupid. (In fact I would not even consider using such a light trigger on ANY firearm, even my precision rifles.) Keep safety first and we can proceed with the modification.
Is it reversible?
In this age of “Over Accessorizing” our weapons, it can be great to attach and remove our countless number of Quick Detach items and basically “rebuild” an AR-15 in a matter of minutes. If we end up hating that optic we just put on our carbine we can change it back to the one we like better when we get back from downrange. A bad paint job, even though it will be messy, can be stripped off and repainted to match our liking or a new environment. But not all changes are as easily reversed. Pinning a comp to a barrel to make it 16″ in length is a permanent modification (for the purposes of this discussion) as removing it would cause great damage to the barrel and at best would greatly reduce its length. For the most part unless we get a smith to cut the comp off and re-crown the barrel, if we end up hating it, we will just have to get the rifle re-barreled. So as long as we are aware of the extent a particular modification has on the state of the weapon, and are ok with it, we may proceed.
Why are we modifying the weapon?
If the answer to this question is “So I can look more like Rambo” then read on, as there are other things to consider. As is most often the case, we need to spend more time and money improving our bodies instead of our weapons; how much use is our $4,000 AR-15 if we can’t run like Rambo?
The purpose of weapon modification should be to increase levels in the following areas:
Reliability and Accuracy
Besides safety, the most important question to ask here is if the modification is going to make the weapon system less reliable than it is presently. We need a weapon system that will fire 100% of the time and not get us killed in the field. All of the factors and variables involved in building a weapon need to be balanced. If adding something to the gun gets me 99% reliability, but makes me 20% faster at acquiring targets, I would probably take that mod depending on the mission as 20% more speed is worth 1% reliability to me in most cases.
Also, a modification’s affect on accuracy needs consideration as well. On handguns, we may, for example, sacrifice the precision of target sights, for the speed and visibility of a pair of fast tritium sights. At the short range of most IDPA and IPSC competitions, this loss in precision can be made up in time gained acquiring the sights faster between shots. Though if this weapon is also our duty weapon, we need to realize the impact these sight could possibly have at 50 yards and beyond if we need to utilize the weapon at those distances.
This is how the weapon allows you to work with it. Speed, loading and unloading, and ease of malfunction clearing, etc. If adding an ambidextrous charging handle to our carbine gains us the ability to safely and effectively work the bolt with our strong hand if needed and it does not affect the reliability of the system or add too much weight to the weapon, then I say go ahead and add it if you feel it is needed. But if the super large extended latches on some charging handles keep getting caught on pieces of kit hanging on your gear and pulling the bolt out of battery from time to time, something needs to be changed; and that means the extended latches need to go. Again… BALANCE….
Stocks that affect length of pull and cheek-weld, grips that change the angle our strong hand comes in contact with the weapon, and sight height that affects whether or not we can even use the cheek-weld our stocks provide consistently; these are all examples of weapon fit. If we set up the weapon properly for our body, then chances are that any change in these variables will end up affecting weapon fit. If a modification enhances weapon fit, then fine. If we need to compromise this fit, and are not gaining a sizable increase in any of the other categories, then we should consider it an unneeded modification.
The stowability, concealability, and general size, of the entire weapon system needs to be carefully considered. Size is often subjected to mission specific demands. Obviously, a huge DMR Ar-15 will not work well out of a patrol car because of its length, as it is a mission specific weapon. If we operate from a patrol car, then we need to consider the size of said DMR a negative drawback to that particular rifle. Weight is also a factor as it equals pain in the field. Small modifications will not, generally, cause a drastic change in weight or size, but keep an eye on how they are changing your weapon (SEE NEXT SECTION).
Changing to a lighter optic mount, for example, could have the benefit of decreasing the weight of the entire weapon, though may be at the expense of durability. Steel is durable, but again, this is about balance. If the durability of a part affects reliability, then I would error on the side of keeping the system reliable. The weather resistance of the material or design of an accessory must also be considered when the system is being used out in the real world. It may work fine at the range, but if it molds, tears, clogs, jams, or rusts out in the field and stops working then we have a major problem. Some products are just not designed for real world use. Have fun on the range with them, but give them some time to mature though more R&D before trusting them in the field.
As much as we enjoy looking at our rifles from the side, our favorite vantage point should be how it looks from the rear; down the sights and towards the target because we should be training with them more than we are looking at them on the wall, or on the table. As far as appearance goes, that side view needs to be broken up as much as possible. Many of us like the “All-Black Tactical” look, but let me tell you that nothing jumps out of the scenery more that a big black rifle (sorry Colt). That is why we paint and camo them. As far as camouflage goes, it is often the worst looking camo jobs that end up being the best in the field. I say this from the following standpoint:
If it looks like camo three feet away, it will simply look like a solid dark greenish-brown rifle at 50 yards; hardly better than the solid black you painted over in the first place. Camo is about breaking up the color and appearance of the item and making it blend with its surroundings. This may seem rudimentary, but 90% of the paint jobs I see tend to forget this basic principal and go for looks instead. Break up the rifle with BIG patches of different, surrounding-relevant colors that will hide and blend the rifle at a distance. Camo that looks blended at 5 feet is useless, unless you are also wearing facepaint; if the enemy is that close you have bigger problems to worry about anyway.
Will it make the weapon serve you better?
In conclusion, if any of the modifications we are performing deter us in our ability to perform our duty or function in our group/team, the modification needs to go. I am sorry if it looked great, but downrange results and us doing our job and staying safe is what matters. This is not a gun show. This is not “Miss AR-15 2014” and they are not handing out awards for what out carbines look like in a bikini. This is the real world, and you will notice, in general, that the further you go up the training ladder, the less $hit people have attached to their carbines. Don’t let the “Fear of Equipment Modifications” keep you from Living, Loving, and Learning, but be smart about it. Keep it simple, keep it safe.
Stay Safe, and Train Hard,