August 08, 2008
If Smith & Wesson's M&P Pistol proves to be to auto pistols what the original M&P revolver was to wheelguns, it may be S&W's best autoloader ever.
The moniker of Smith & Wesson's new Military & Police Pistol made me stop and think. Anyone with even a passing interest in handguns instantly recognizes the phrase "Military & Police" as the appellation attached to what was without a doubt one of the most famous American handguns ever produced: the Smith & Wesson Military & Police Revolver. Introduced in 1899, it became the standard by which every other medium-frame double-action revolver would be judged--as well as serving as the launching platform for one of the most influential handgun cartridges in history: the .38 S&W Special. The popularity of the M&P (aka Model 10) revolver grew so quickly that it was the most widely used police revolver in the free world. Its reputation led to it being issued by many military forces, to say nothing of its immense popularity with civilian shooters.
To me, Smith & Wesson's decision to baptize its new pistol thus was risky because it has quite a legacy to live up to. But it is also a testament to the confidence the company has in the new design's ability to meet and surpass the heritage of its legendary predecessor.
I made my first acquaintance with the new M&P Pistol at the S&W Academy in Springfield, Massachusetts, last December. The factory reps I spoke to made it very plain that S&W intends to actively pursue, and recapture, the dominant position it once held in the domestic and international police and military markets. And they were convinced that the M&P Pistol would be the vehicle by which the company would accomplish this. Two days of technical presentations, hands-on time at the Academy range, and observation of the manufacturing processes gave me a much better understanding of the new M&P. I came away convinced that this was not just another polymer-frame pistol.
The M&P Pistol: Inside & Out€¨The M&P is not a revamped S&W Sigma. In fact, according to S&W's Joe Bergeron, there is not a single interchangeable part between the two pistols.
The M&P's slide and barrel are machined from bars of solid stainless steel and are then "through hardened" rather than casehardened. The latter process, which is used by many manufacturers, merely hardens the surface of the steel while the former process, as its name indicates, produces both external and internal hardening. To improve durability and reliability, the slide rails of the M&P are thicker than those on many other brands of pistols. M&P barrels have a so-called "cone" muzzle. This style of barrel provides consistent positioning for enhanced accuracy but at the same time produces less friction as the slide travels rearward. At the rear top of the barrel is a half-moon cut that allows the shooter to verify whether or not there is a cartridge in the chamber. Important to those shooters who "roll their own," the broach-rifled barrel allows the use of lead bullet ammunition.
Both the slide and barrel receive S&W's proprietary Melonite finish, a heat-treatment process that protects the surface while going into the metal itself. This provides enhanced protection from wear, tear, solvents, salts, and whatever Mother Nature throws at it combined with the through-hardening process to produce a surface hardness of 68 HRC.
The extractor's generously sized claw ensures reliable extraction, and its external location makes repair and replacement fast and simple. M&P Pistols come standard with Novak LoMount sights, one of the most highly regarded sighting arrangements on the market today. These use the three-dot system to aid in rapid sight alignment and enhanced target acquisition. For those persons or agencies desiring higher tech equipment, Trijicon night sights are optional.
The front of the slide features a unique two-stage, tapered profile designed to ease reholstering of the pistol, especially when the task has to be performed one-handed. Deep-cut serrations at the rear of the slide allow it to be retracted smoothly, even with wet hands or when wearing gloves. Another nice feature is that all edges of the slide, including the Novak sights, have been beveled to prevent abrasion to the shooter's hands when loading and unloading.
Last, but not least, the full-length stainless-steel guide rod is surrounded by a captive recoil spring that ensures smooth operation and consistent lockup and also greatly eases the task of disassembly.
Breech locking is by means of a variation of the tried and true Browning method: the barrel and slide are locked together by the barrel hood bearing on the front edge of the ejection port. When the pistol is fired, these two parts recoil together for a short distance whereupon an angled lug on the bottom of the barrel bears on the frame-mounted locking block and is cammed down, releasing the slide which continues to the rear, extracting and ejecting the spent cartridge case. As the recoil spring pulls the slide forward, it strips the next round out of the magazine and chambers it. As the slide and barrel go into battery, the barrel hood once again moves up into the ejection port, locking the two units together.
While the top of the M&P is impressive, it is the design of the frame that really sets it apart from the competition. Picking up an M&P you immediately notice its styling and ergonomics. As for the former, I must admit that it has fine lines and good looks, but such cosmetic features, while a nice touch, are not really needed. What is, however, is how the pistol fits the shooter's hand, and this is where the latter comes into play. Unlike other brands of polymer-frame pistols, the M&P's frame features an extended beavertail that secures the pistol in the shooter's hand, dissipates recoil pulse, and lets you get back on target faster. An optimal grip angle of 18 degrees makes for a naturally pointing pistol with enhanced recoil control. Last, the trigger guard (which I'm happy to say lacks a curved "finger rest") is enlarged to allow use by shooters wearing gloves.
M&P frames are one-piece units made from Zytel polymer and are unique among all others on the market in that ridged steel rails are located on both sides of the frame and run from the front locking block to the rear sear housing block. These rails provide additional strength to the frame--reducing torque, frame flex, and felt recoil--and they create a chassis that provides consistent alignment of the trigger and sear that is not affected by the expansion and contraction of the frame due to environmental conditions or the heat generated by extended firing.
The slide reciprocates on four stainless-steel rails. Many of you are probably saying, "What's the big deal? That's how most polymer pistols operate." Which makes you both right and wrong. First, unlike many polymer-frame pistols the rails are not imbedded in the frame, instead the forward pair are integral to the frame-mounted locking block while the rear are part of the steel sear housing. S&W's engineers designed the rails so that when they are viewed from the top they have an oval shape, or as Bergeron put it so well, "Sort of like half a football." This simple redesign provides a very small frame rail/insert bearing surface that, while still providing sufficient support, reduces friction to improve functioning while at the same time creates a self-cleaning action that removes debris from inside the frame rails.
One of the more innovative features of the M&P's frame is in the grip. Instead of the shooter having to adapt their grip to the pistol, the pistol's grip can be adapted to the shooter's hand by installing any one of three different sizes (large, medium, and small) of palmswells at the rear of the grip frame. To do so, one merely rotates a catch at the bottom of the grip frame and pulls it out allowing the palmswell to be lifted off and replaced. (The pistol fits me best with the medium-size palmswell, so I guess I should categorize myself as an "average" shooter.)
Ensuring reliable functioning was utmost when it came to designing the M&P. It doesn't matter how accurate a pistol is, how powerful a cartridge it fires, or how close to ergonomic perfection it might be if it doesn't go bang every time the trigger is squeezed. S&W engineers made a small change that qualifies for inclusion in the Why Didn't I Think Of That? Hall Of Fame. I'm referring to the slide stop levers.
Many years ago I lost a speed shooting match when I inadvertently rested my thumb on the slide stop of my pistol, allowing the slide to run forward on an empty chamber. Thinking the empty pistol still had ammo in it, I attempted to fire another shot while the other contestants were reloading. The few seconds it took me to rectify my mistake were the difference between winning and blowing it!
Conversely, I'm sure most pistol shooters have at one time or another, whether due to a poor grip or recoil, engaged their pistol's slide stop by mistake.
On the range such mistakes are aggravating, but in a defensive situation they could have deadly consequences. The M&P's ambidextrous slide stop levers have a flat profile, are located slightly forward of the usual slide stop position, and are flush with the frame. Those three features combine to greatly lessen the chances of the shooter manipulating said devices unintentionally and require a separate, conscious movement to activate.
To complete its ambidextrous bona fides, the M&P features a magazine release button that is reversible. It can be changed from port to starboard sides in a few seconds using nothing more complicated than a ballpoint pen.
Before embarking on the process of building a new pistol, S&W personnel conducted extensive interviews of law enforcement and military agencies, competitive shooters, and civilian gun owners. The information enabled engineers to include a number of features these varied groups thought were desirable. They wanted a consistent trigger pull; they didn't want any external safety devices.
As the M&P slide goes forward, the tail of the striker remains in a partially cocked position. The M&P uses a double-action-only (DAO) trigger that provides a 6.5-pound trigger stroke of 0.30 inches, which completely retracts the striker before tripping the sear. The trigger pull is exactly the same for each shot, providing the legendary consistency and accuracy of the double-action revolver. Another nice touch is a trigger overtravel stop that eliminates overtravel after the trigger trips the sear, which reduces the likelihood of flinching and thus enhances accuracy.
While the M&P's long trigger stroke is one of its primary safety features, the pistol contains a plethora of other safety systems. These consist of trigger, firing pin, and magazine disconnect safeties in addition to an internal lock. Located at the rear of the trigger where it bears on the frame, the trigger safety prevents movement until the pivoting trigger is pulled. The second is an internal, spring-loaded plunger that prevents firing pin movement until the rearward movement of the trigger bar deactivates just before it releases the sear to fire the pistol. Both also serve to prevent trigger and/or firing pin movement in the event that the pistol is dropped.
Magazine-disconnect safeties generally have a poor reputation with shooters because most of the designs out there have an adverse effect on the trigger pull. The system used on the M&P solves that problem. When the magazine is removed, a lever at the rear of the magazine well pivots forward, moving the trigger bar out of alignment with the sear, making it impossible for the pistol to be fired. Reinserting the cartridge container realigns these two units allowing the pistol to be fired by a normal pull of the trigger. Last, as on most new S&W handguns, the M&P is fitted with the Internal Safety System. A special key is inserted into a small hole on the left rear of the frame and rotated, activating the magazine disconnect safety and preventing unauthorized firing of the pistol whether or not a magazine is in the pistol. As a further safety feature, the M&P's slide must be locked open and a sear deactivation lever rotated before it can be disassembled.
The M&P's magazine is a completely new design intended to further enhance functional reliability. Produced by Mec-Gar, the world's most respected manufacturer of firearm magazines, it is distinctive in that while the bottom section is your typical double-column, high-capacity magazine, the upper section narrows so that the top two rounds are fed from what is in effect a single-column magazine. This means that when the top round is chambered by the slide it does not hit the feedramp at an angle but goes straight into the chamber, providing smoother functioning and enhanced reliability, especially with hollowpoint bullets.
Today it has become all but mandatory to be able to fit lights and/or laser sights to service-type pistols. To satisfy this requirement, the M&P has a Picatinny rail on the bottom of the dustcover; it accepts all standard tactical lights and laser sights.
The M&P On The Shooting Range€¨After I returned home from the seminar, I was able to obtain the same .40-caliber M&P I had fired at the S&W Academy for a thorough review at my home range. Friend Rusty Rawsen performed the requisite accuracy testing on a series of targets at 25 yards, and he fired three five-shot groups with each brand of ammunition. His results can be seen in the accompanying chart. Considering the wide range of bullet weights used, the M&P's performance and consistency was impressive.
Using a mixture of the remaining ammo, we each ran the M&P through the following drills on a pair of USPSA targets. At five yards we drew the pistol and fired five rounds on each target (one-hand hold). We performed a combat reload and repeated the firing. At seven yards we drew the pistol and double-tapped each target, rapid fire, with a supported grip. We then holstered the pistol and repeated the drill two more times. We repeated that sequence on targets placed at 10 yards. At 15 yards we drew the pistol and fired six rounds on each target, slow, aimed fire.
We had no trouble putting the rounds where we wanted them to go. We took the M&P to the range the following week and ran a number of other drills with it. After each of us had launched 400+ .40 bullets, again of widely varying styles and weights, I can state categorically that it proved 100-percent reliable. In addition I have been carrying the M&P on a daily basis, and despite it being a full-size pistol it is comfortable and convenient in the CCW role. And with an Insight Technology M3 Tactical light mounted on the Picatinny rail, the M&P does double duty as my "nightstand" gun and will serve as a very comforting companion if something goes "bump in the night."
I make it a point to always mention any negative aspects of the firearms I test. After all, nothing is perfect. In the case of the M&P, I can voice but a single criticism: the magazine. Loading it to capacity is a bit of a struggle after round 11 or 12, and I believe that it would behoove S&W to include a magazine loading tool with the pistol. Aside from that one caveat, I think Smith & Wesson's new M&P pistol lives up to its legacy!