July 24, 2018
By Joseph von Benedikt
Recently, I saw Smith & Wesson M&P9 pistols- the old standard model, not the new 2.0 version- on sale at a local gunshop for $380, complete with three steel magazines. So I bought one, figuring to use it for a gunsmithing project with the objective of turning it into the ultimate last-ditch survival sidearm.
A solid, no-frills pistol, the original M&P9 is a high-capacity, polymer-framed semiautomatic that most who tried found more ergonomic than just about any other pistol. Eventually, it earned respect among law enforcement and the carry cognoscenti equaled only by that accorded to Glock pistols.
Also like Glocks, the M&P became a popular pistol to modify. Shooters who preferred its ergonomic grip tweaked it this way and that, swapping sights, installing match-grade triggers, and texturing frames. Approximations of some of the more popular modifications found their way into S&W's production lineup, particularly in the M&P Pro series and the Performance Center models.
Last year saw the introduction of the M&P 2.0, a fine handgun with an enhanced trigger and other refinements. From a production-gun standpoint, it's arguably the M&P pistol perfected. But what about shooters who want a highly modified M&P?
The Pro Series, Performance Center, and new 2.0 M&Ps are nice, but they still feature mass-produced triggers, barrels, and so forth installed on an assembly line. While a marked improvement, they don't measure up to a true customized pistol. And they shouldn't be expected to. The factory improvements generally add $120 to $250- a match-grade aftermarket barrel can cost that much alone.
My Ideal Grab-and-Go Gun
I'm an accuracy addict, so a good barrel is critical. I wanted suppressor compatibility, so a threaded version would be my choice. Raised on single-action revolvers and Model 1911s, I'm a trigger snob, so a premium aftermarket trigger is vital. Original M&P sights are steel three-dot versions; they're robust and decent, but I thought a set of ledge-type night sights would be better in low light. And, finally, the grip texture of standard M&P pistols is not inspiring, so I'd stipple it with a texture that would provide a sure grip even if soaked in mud or blood.
After waffling between the convenience of a drop-in aftermarket barrel and a "gunsmith-fit" version that would require careful, time-consuming fitting, I opted for the latter because I figured final performance would be better. The Apex Gunsmith-fit threaded match barrel ($260) I chose should provide sub-inch 25-yard groups from a machine rest. Plus, I wanted to learn the fitting process anyway.
Before diving into the project, I shot the M&P from a bench-rest, accuracy-tested three loads of different weights through it to provide data for before-and-after comparison results, chronographed said loads, and measured the trigger pull weight and consistency with my Lyman digital trigger gauge. It averaged 6 pounds, 15 ounces.
Gunsmith-fit barrels are left slightly oversize in two critical dimensions: the length of the barrel hood and the depth of the camming surface that forces the hood up into battery.
The additional length of the threaded barrel may make it reluctant to enter the slide before fitting even begins. Don't gouge out the hole in the end of your slide with your Dremel; follow Apex's instructions to hone down the barrel at 11 and 1 o'clock just aft of the muzzle until it can be finessed into the slide.
To fit, the rear of the barrel hood must be filed down, straight and flat, a few thousandths at a time until enthusiastic thumb pressure will seat it fully into battery. Paint the working surface with the fast-drying indigo blue Dykem after every filing and try-fit the barrel. Pop it back out and apply a few more careful strokes of the file, repeating until it locks reluctantly but fully into battery.
Next, apply Dykem layout fluid to the bottom flat surface and the angled bevel of the barrel cam, install it and the recoil spring into your slide, and try-fit it onto the frame. Most likely, it won't go. Remove it and begin carefully working down the flat cam surface, keeping it flat and level. Go slowly, trying after every few file strokes, until the slide reluctantly assembles onto the frame.
Be sure and install the recoil spring every time you try-fit the slide. Otherwise, the slide can get stuck on the frame and be downright frustrating to remove. Ask me how I know.
When the slide allows you to install it onto the frame, rotate the takedown pin to the locked position and drop the slide. It should go into battery even more reluctantly. At this point you should have to apply a fair amount of force to the rear of the slide before it pops forward the last quarter-inch or so and the barrel hood locks up into battery.
Remove the slide, examine the burnish marks in the layout fluid- they will provide a guide where to remove material- and continue to file and fit until the slide pops forward into battery with only modest pressure against the back.
Finally, take the pistol out- before applying any additional modifications- and function-test it with several different bullet weights.
While Apex Tactical's barrels have a good reputation, it's the company's trigger that really sets it apart as the go-to operation for aftermarket M&P parts. Shooters can purchase anything from a simple polymer trigger shoe upgrade to a full-blown kit that includes a machined, anodized aluminum match-grade trigger; a forward-set sear; and all the component parts necessary to install and tune it to perfection. I opted for the kit ($166).
Candidly, the trigger kit installation process is beyond the scope of this article. Anybody handy with tools can accomplish it, but the M&P must be fully disassembled; the trigger, sear, and several springs have to be exchanged for the new parts; and the whole pistol reassembled. Then trigger overtravel may need to be tuned. Thankfully, several in-depth video tutorials on Apex Tactical's site ease the process. The only critical tools are a lightweight hammer, a 1/8-inch roll pin punch, and a couple small Allen wrenches.
No striker-fired pistol trigger can ever match the feel of a well-tuned 1911 trigger, but once installed and tuned, the new trigger in your M&P will be the next best thing. Initial take-up is clean and smooth, and the wall breaks crisply and without sponginess. Overtravel can be tuned. Reset is short and distinct. All in all, the trigger is a remarkable improvement that will enable you to shoot your M&P far more accurately and consistently. Yes, I'm a believer. If you can afford to make only one modification to your M&P, this should be it.
My preferred handgun suppressor is a SilencerCo Osprey 45K, a shortish, asymmetrical suppressor compatible with most cartridges up to and including the .45s. Since it places most of its bulk below the boreline, super-high sights aren't necessary to achieve a sight picture above the suppressor.
I look for several characteristics in aftermarket sights. I prefer steel, for durability; quality tritium vials that provide bona fide low-light usability; a clear, crisp profile that enables a fine sight picture for accurate shooting in good light; and a ledge-type design that enables the shooter to rack the slide one-handed against a belt, steering wheel, street curb, or whatnot should one hand become disabled.
Trijicon's HD XR sights meet all my criteria. Differing from previous iterations, the front sight is thinner- only 0.122 inch wide- enabling more visibility on each side of the post and a finer bead on the target. Tritium phosphor-filled glass lamps are, according to company literature, "...contained within protective aluminum cylinders and have silicone rubber cushioning.... Each lamp is capped with a sapphire jewel that evenly distributes light and offers an additional layer of protection from solvents and abrasion."
M&P pistol sights attach via dovetails machined into the top of the slide. It's a sturdy, reliable, time-proven method that makes for easy sight exchange- providing you have the appropriate sight push tool. Smith & Wesson machines a tight dovetail, and often the sights are impossible to move with a brass hammer and non-marring punch. After a tentative- and unsuccessful- attempt, I headed to Gunnies in Orem, Utah, and borrowed buddy Bryan Hood's sight push tool to swap the original M&P sights for my new Trijicon irons.
Point of impact with the original sights was about 4 inches low at 25 yards with the lighter 9mm bullets and on the money with heavier 147-grain bullets. The Trijicon sights are slightly higher, putting light bullets on the money at 25 yards and heavier bullets an inch high.
While they're a bit desk-softened now, my hands are farmer's hands- broad in the palm and beefy from too many years building fence and hauling hay. I like an aggressive grip texture. Some may argue that an aggressive texture will tear your hands to shreds over a three-day handgun class at Gunsite. That could be so, but in slippery-when-wet conditions, whether induced by fear-sweat or bleeding, that aggressive texture will keep the gun secure and consistent in your grip.
A great grip texture is tacky without being abrasive- a particularly important characteristic when wearing your sidearm concealed under nice clothing. It's a shame to wear out a fine Filson vest from the inside.
Traditionally, some form of stippling is the easiest and most effective way to increase the quality of texture on a polymer-framed handgun. Accomplished with a wood-burning tool, stippling is simply a pattern melted into the surface of the polymer.
Just like tooling leather, various patterns and textures can be created with various shapes of wood-burner tips. Probably the easiest to use for good-looking results is a simple round tip, with which various organic patterns can be formed. Other popular options are waffle and rectangular tips, which lend themselves to creating more geometric patterns.
Different types of polymer take the super-heated tip differently, and the M&P has two: the frame itself is a glass-filled nylon composite, and the interchangeable grip panels are made of a softer rubber-like material. For practice before attacking the stippling job, I stippled a good-size patch on my M&P's "large" grip panel- which I find uncomfortable- and on a Magpul PMAG, which takes stippling much like the frame of the M&P.
Using masking tape, block off the areas you don't want to stipple. Work in a well-lit, well-ventilated space; take frequent breaks to save your back and maintain your focus; and (when creating an organic texture with a simple pointed round tip) work in circles rather than long lines or patterns. To avoid burning yourself and to preserve the crispness of the stippling, don't touch the surface after stippling until it's well cooled.
For a gun destined for hard use, I prefer a lot of stippling coverage, well laid-out to follow and complement the natural lines of the gun.
Range Results: Before and After
With barrel, trigger, and sights installed and a good grip texture created, I headed to the range to see how much difference the work made. Shooting from a benchrest over sandbags, I accuracy-tested it with the same three loads I'd tested through the gun when it was still factory original and several additional loads.
A stiff crosswind blew, buffeting me enough that it was hard to keep my head still and perfectly aligned with the iron sights. I didn't average an inch or less with any ammo type, although I came close with three different loads. In each case the before-and-after test demonstrated that accuracy doubled (i.e., groups averaged half the size) and in one case tripled.
Reliability came easily- if the SilencerCo Osprey 45K suppressor wasn't attached. As initially fit, the slide required substantial pressure applied to its rear face before it would go into battery, and that didn't fly at all when my suppressor was attached. I worked the cam surface on the bottom of the barrel down until the slide closed with the recommended 2 pounds of pressure applied to its rear face, and voila! my modified M&P now functioned perfectly with the suppressor.
Heat coming off the suppressor builds quickly, distorting the sight picture and making extensive accuracy testing nearly impossible. I persevered through one type of ammunition: Speer's 147-grain Gold Dot2 load. It was humorous how large the final group- when I had to chase a target dot belly-dancing in the mirage across the paper- was compared to the first, cold-barrel/cold-suppressor group.
Interestingly, with two of the three comparison test loads, velocity dropped a bit with the new, longer, 4.75-inch barrel installed. Plus, extreme spread and standard deviation opened up. The third load shot tighter and faster. It just goes to emphasize the fact that every barrel is unique.
With $576 worth of aftermarket parts in my gun- more than full retail on the original pistol- plus my time, I'd made a substantial investment into the pistol. You might ask: Was it worth it?
Absolutely. It is now significantly more accurate than any other polymer-framed pistol I've fired. And while the ergonomics of the standard M&P are excellent, the grip texture enables better control during rapid-fire shooting and in adverse, wet conditions. The Trijicon HD XR night sights are a significant improvement for low-light shooting. And the crisp, relatively light Apex Tactical trigger makes a huge difference when attempting to make the most of the modified pistol's outstanding accuracy.
Also, importantly, the customized pistol has tremendous appeal. It's not only easy to shoot well, but also it's sexy. While I liked it before, it was just a tool. Now it's one of my favorite EDC guns, and I rarely leave it behind when I head for the range. As a result, I'm more proficient with it than I ever was before.
I sincerely believe it's the most capable and versatile grab-and-go last-ditch survival sidearm I have.