December 19, 2006
To find out just how rugged and reliable S&W's new AR15-type guns are our tireless Technical Editor put over 5000 rounds through each of three different S&W M&P15 carbines.
Those who are surprised by Smith & Wesson's recent introduction of the Model M&P15 line of 5.56mm (.223 Remington) AR15 rifles are probably unaware that the company has actually been in the "black rifle" business several times before--most recently with its highly regarded Model 76 9mm military/police submachinegun, which was produced from 1966 through 1974, and before that with the 9mm S&W Light Rifle of the 1940s. The "M&P" designation in these new rifles stands for "Military & Police," which continues a Smith & Wesson tradition for duty-oriented guns that dates all the way back to 1899 and the world's first .38 Special revolver.
Three production-grade versions of the M&P15 are currently available, termed the M&P15 (standard model), the M&P15A, and the M&P15T (Tactical model). There is also a newly announced Model M&P15PC from the S&W Performance Center with premium features that include a two-stage match trigger and a 20-inch free-floated match-grade barrel. It is designed for competition, varmint shooting, and long-range tactical applications.
The marketplace is filled with AR-type rifles, so why has Smith & Wesson decided to move in this particular direction? S&W long gun Product Manager Steve Skrubis says, "Our goal is to be a full-service supplier of law-enforcement and personal-defense firearms and to offer a full-service array of firearms tools.
The AR15 platform is the Model 1911 of service/duty rifles. It's been battle-proven worldwide for over 40 years. We joined the Model 1911 business about four years ago, and we believe our Model SW1911 is the best featured, most reliable 1911 pistol in the world. We also believe our new polymer-frame M&P 40 pistols are the best of their type. Now we are offering the best, most reliable AR15 rifle in the world as well."
Well, that's a strong claim. But Skrubis refuses to back off. "Hey," he says, "we're not trying to reinvent the wheel. The AR15 is a proven design, familiar to everybody. All we intend is to produce the absolute most reliable and duty-ready AR15 you can find, right out of the box, with all the best features and accessories already in the package. We examined and tested literally every AR15 component in existence before selecting what we were going to put in these guns. We're building them right here, under a very close eye, with all the craftsmanship that more than 150 years of Smith & Wesson gunmaker experience can muster."
Or as S&W Vice President Tom Taylor puts it: "These guns just run and run and run and run...."
Okay, I agree. For a duty and defense tool, absolute reliability is the most important thing. So let's run a few thousand rounds through the M&P15s and see if Smith & Wesson's words hold up.
The M&P15s Up Close
First, let's take a closer look at the M&P15 specification sets. Mechanically, all three of the standard-production versions are typical-format gas-operated semiautomatic .223/5.56mm AR15A2 designs. All feature 16-inch barrels with chrome-lined bores, chambers, bolt carriers, and gas keys. The chamber specification is 5.56mm NATO dimension, and the rifling twist is 1:9.
The flash suppressor is the A2 military style. The upper and lower receivers are fabricated from 7071 T6 aluminum, manufactured in the U.S. by an independent contractor to Smith & Wesson's specifications. The machining, assembly, and final-fit matching of the parts are done by hand in S&W's plant. The single-stage trigger is factory set for a maximum break weight of seven pounds. All three versions feature standard sling swivels plus an additional side-mount front sling swivel for two-position sling option (swappable to left-side or right-side).
All models also come standard with a six-position tactical CAR-style collapsible stock, 30-round magazine from Okay Industries, and a hard plastic case. Their dull black-anodized finish is satin smooth with a much finer texture than most AR rifles on the market. It is complemented by subtle gold-hued laser-etch markings. If it is possible to say that an AR15 rifle "looks and feels" like a Smith & Wesson, these do.
S&W's new M&P15 carbines come with single-stage triggers.
S&W refers to the base model in the M&P15 series as the Standard version, but to my eyes it's quite different from what passes for "standard" from most other AR15 manufacturers. In addition to the six-position stock, 30-round magazine, reversible side sling attachment, and hard-polymer case, it also offers an M16A3/A4-type flattop receiver with integral Picatinny rail and removable carrying handle.
The carrying handle contains a full-featured dial-adjustable rear sight, and when removed allows full-function mounting of any type of optical or holographic sight directly to the receiver top rail. In case you're wondering, the high AR15-type front sight housing positioned at the front of the handguards does not interfere with the field of view of an optical sight--even the high-power varmint scope I used for my accuracy review. It's so close to the objective lens that it's effectively invisible at any magnification and does not interfere with the target image or diminish light transmission.
The second version in the series, designated the M&P15A, is essentially a slight variant of the M&P15 Standard. It comes without the detachable carry/handle/rear sight assembly, which is replaced with a detachable Troy Folding Battle Sight mounted on the flattop receiver rail and allowing perfect co-witness of the standard front sight. The full windage adjustment knob is located in same position as standard M16A2, A3, A4 weapon sights, and each click equals a .25 MOA shift in impact. In the "up" position, a stainless-steel cross lock provides 1000 pounds of shear strength, guaranteeing return to zero, and eliminating the possibility of accidental folding.
The M&P15A and M&P15T versions come with Troy Industries flip-up battle rear sights.
A release button is depressed to fold, and an internal ratcheting wedge retains the sight in folded position. Folded down, it allows installation of optical sights without removal, even with my extra-long varmint scope. If you want the capability to switch from the M&P15A flattop configuration to the standard carry handle configuration, an accessory carry handle/rear sight assembly is available aftermarket. Likewise, if you have the M&P15 Standard you can obtain a rear folding battle sight aftermarket as well.
The current top of the production-grade line is the Tactical model, M&P15T, which offers a comprehensive set of user-friendly enhancements providing every feature the most demanding professional operator will need without "overdecorating" the gun the way so many other so-called tactical AR15 configurations do. In addition to all the standard M&P15 elements mentioned, the flattop Picatinny rail receiver merges seamlessly with a Troy Industries Modular Rail Forend (MRF) with full-length MIL-STD-1913 Picatinny rails positioned at 3, 6, 9, and 12 o'clock.
This provides a continuous uninterrupted top rail from flattop receiver forward, free floating for superior accuracy, reliability, and cooling. The system accepts all SOPMOD accessories, including the M204 Grenade Launcher, and the bottom rail removes with a bullet tip for cleaning and module mounting. Constructed from precision-machined aircraft-grade T6 aluminum, the MRF has a mil-spec flat black hard coat anodized with Teflon finish and numbered cross slots and threaded accessory mounting holes. The three black synthetic rail covers adjust forward and back or can be removed entirely depending on the accessories being mounted.
Also standard on the M&P15 Tactical model is a Troy Folding Battle Sight system (carry handle not included) mounted on the receiver and forend rails and allowing perfect co-witness of red dot or holographic optics. The rear sight is the same as featured on the M&P15A. The matching fold-up front blade module is positioned at the same height as factory M4/M16A4 front sights, and the blade is easily adjusted with field expedient methods such as a fired cartridge case.
Interestingly, the curved front sight wings perfectly cup the illuminated circular reticle of a Leupold MK4 CQ/T optical sight when installed, providing an exact target index and head position for instant, both-eyes-open engagement. Probably not a coincidence. Like the rail/forend system, the M&P15T battle sights are constructed from machined aircraft T6 aluminum with stainless-steel parts and mil-spec black hard coat anodizing (Teflon impregnated) and black oxide stainless. Total weight for the M&P15T Tactical package is 7.5 pounds. The other two versions weigh about a half-pound less.
The M&P15T features a Troy Industries modular rail forend with removable black synthetic rail covers.
They Really Can Run
For review, Smith & Wesson provided initial-production samples of the standard M&P15 and M&P15T tactical versions, which arrived at PASA Park during December 2005's bitter cold snap, with midday temperatures not rising above 10 degrees and a continuous 25-mph north wind blowing sleet and snow. After properly "winterizing" both rifles by treating their internal parts to nothing but a very light wiping with a very lightweight gun oil, I gathered every variety of .223 ammunition I could drag out of inventory and embarked on a function review--38 different individual loads in all.
After more than 2400 rounds of mixed commercial ammunition of every grade and every bullet weight you'd want to put through an AR15, with no additional maintenance, no cleaning, just an occasional shot of light gun oil onto the bolt, there had been exactly zero stoppages of any kind, under weather conditions than can only be described as extreme. Okay, that's reliable. Then, in late February 2006, in more moderate weather, I obtained an M&P15A from S&W and applied the same protocol. Again, zero stoppages or malfunctions.
At this point, I decided to see how their accuracy performance was standing up. I had already checked the accuracy of the original two samples when I first received them. Both delivered minute-of-angle groups with the loads they liked.
Another key feature of the M&P15T is the Troy Industries flip-up front sight.
So, with temperatures warmed and winds no longer violent, I set up each gun in turn with a Leupold VX-III 6.5-20X Long Range scope with Varmint Hunter's Reticle and selected six review loads carrying bullets that I know to be accurate performers at the velocities involved and that were within the weight range considered appropriate with a 1:9 twist. I gave all guns a thorough cleaning, removing all accumulated fouling from their bores, and fired a series of groups at 100 yards and 200 yards using a TangoDown ACB-4 bipod at the benchrest. The results are listed in the chart. All three were still MOA shooters with their preferred loads.
Finally, as winter wore on into spring, I turned all three M&P15s over to some of my fellow shooters at PASA Park along with a stack of cases of Winchester FMJ ammunition, and we proceeded to run another 2500 rounds through each gun over a three-month period of rapid fire weekends, using only the original magazines as supplied. Still no malfunctions--after more than 5000 rounds each. I guess Tom Taylor was right about these guns just keep running and running and running.
I'm persuaded. I can't tell you that the Smith & Wesson M&P15s are the most reliable or most accurate regular-production AR15 rifles ever made, but I can tell you that I have never fired any other standard-production AR15 rifles that were any more accurate or reliable; and I've been shooting AR-type rifles since the U.S. Army first stuck an M16 in my hands way back in 1968. I can also tell you that I'm keeping the M&P15A set up with that Leupold varmint scope. It's just about the best lightweight walk-and-call predator and coyote rifle I've ever had.