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How Pistol Rails Make You a More Effective Shooter

Image of Bryan Hill, Founder of Pistol Wizard Bryan Hill / March 21 2024

Rail on a Glock 19
A pistol rail can give you extra options for sights, lights, and laser sights. We'll cover how to tell good rails from bad ones, types of pistol rail attachments, and which is the best pistol rail attachment.

On This Page:

  1. What is a Pistol Rail?
  2. Why Do Rails Matter?
  3. What Makes a Good Rail?
  4. Should I Use a Rail Attachment?
  5. References

What is a Pistol Rail?

The rail is part of the frame, under the barrel.

Rails have a horizontal slot on each side of the frame, and one or more vertical slots along the bottom of the frame. Accessories slide onto the horizontal slots, and have a piece that locks into one of the vertical slots.

Why Do Rails Matter?

Rails can attach accessories that enhance pistol performance:
  • A weapon-mounted light (WML) helps with self-defense at night.
    Streamlight TLR-1 HL mounted on a Glock 19's rail.
    It gives you light to ID targets in the dark. Without it, you'll have to hold a flashlight in one of your hands. Gripping a pistol with two hands gives faster, more accurate fire. Just remember: You don't have to point a light directly at someone to ID them.
  • HK Pistols: These have rail-mounted compensators that reduce recoil 25% and have another rail underneath, so you can attach a light.
    HK Parts Compensator mounted on an H&K VP9's rail.
    It may be harder to find a holster for these.
  • A mount to attach a red dot optic. Many find that red dots are easier to use when mounted to the frame instead of the slide.
    A rail mount for a pistol red dot.
    If you train and practice, these are good for home defense and may work for duty carry. However, a rail-mounted red dot is too bulky for concealed carry.
A good rail ensures those attachments stay solid on your pistol.

What Makes a Good Rail?

Universal type, so you have the most options. Avoid proprietary rails if possible.
Exception: Pocket pistols can have proprietary rails. They're too small to have universal rails.

A rail slot close to the trigger guard, so you can mount accessories close enough to reach with your finger or thumb.
Rail on the CZ Shadow 2, with just one slot close to the trigger guard.

More slots are fine. Each one slightly reduces weight in the frame at the front of the pistol. This is both good and bad: The lighter a pistol is at the front, the faster it is to point and aim, but you get more recoil when you fire.
Rail on the CZ SP-01 Shadow, with 3 slots. Only one is necessary at any given time.

Should I Use a Rail Attachment?

Home defense: Yes, use a weapon-mounted light.

Concealed carry: Probably. Use a grip-activated laser, or a weapon-mounted light.

Otherwise, it depends. If you haven't trained and practiced enough, a red dot won't help. Rail-mounted compensators are only for a few pistols, and don't work as well as standard compensators.

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  1. HK Parts P30L Rail Mount Compensator (2019)
  2. Slide Mounted vs Frame Mounted Red Dot Optic (2015)