Monday, December 28, 2015

The M&P Project

My unmodified M&P9 Pro Series pistol.

The polymer-framed handgun was pioneered by Heckler & Koch in the 1970s but wasn’t popularized until Glock began manufacturing its series of pistols a little over 10 years later. By the turn of the century, they were everywhere. Military and police forces around the world adopted the new weapons readily, and they soon found a place among recreational and defensive shooters in the civilian market as well.

Today, almost every major firearms manufacturer has plastic-framed offerings. Even the first generation of such weapons had some obvious benefits. They offered high ammunition capacities at lighter weights than comparable steel or alloy-framed pistols, and Glocks in particular gained a reputation for unbeatable reliability. They were also bulky and, to some eyes, ugly.

The Glock 19 is blocky but ubiquitous.

The former problem was why I eventually dismissed my own Glock 19. The pistol’s awkward, oversized ergonomics simply didn’t suit my smaller hands. I wasn’t alone, and by the mid-1990s, pistols with modular frames began to appear in the marketplace. These guns provided a degree of built-in customization, allowing the weapon to be adapted to the user rather than demanding the opposite.

The Heckler & Koch VP9 employs a multipart modular grip.

Smith & Wesson was one of the first major manufacturers to adopt this innovation. The new Military & Police series (recalling the M&P revolvers introduced at the dawn of the 20th century) features an interchangeable backstrap insert. A shooter can select small, medium, or large inserts to modify the overall size of the grip. In short, the M&P pistols implemented the Glock-style striker-fired action and passive safety mechanisms in a more elegant, ergonomic package.

This is what had intrigued me about the M&P pistols for several years. I even handled them at gun shows to confirm their favorable ergonomics, but I could never justify the restricted-capacity, dumbed-down (and possibly less safe) versions “legally” available in my native California. Meanwhile, aftermarket solutions also began to appear for some of the platform’s known weaknesses.

When I effected my escape from California last year, the legal barrier was removed. After a few months, I finally succumbed to curiosity and purchased an M&P9 Pro Series pistol, which supposedly has an improved sear over the standard models. As usual, though, I compared the new pistol to my dimensionally similar SIG-Sauer P220, which serves as my standard all-around sidearm. With the slimmest grip options installed on both pistols, the 17-round, 9mm-NATO M&P9 felt almost identical in my hand to the eight-round, .45-ACP P220. (In fact, the grip circumference differed by only about an eighth of an inch, favoring the big-bore, single-stack pistol for trimness.) With magazines loaded, the P220 outweighed the M&P9 by less than two ounces, contributing to the similar feel. (The pistols both weighed less than 2.5 lbs.) The Pro Series’ trigger break was also comparable, only slightly stiffer than the SIG-Sauer’s advertised 4.5-lb. single-action break.

The P220 and M&P9 are dimensionally similar.

However, trigger pull and trigger reset are the primary known weak points of the M&P pistol. Its standard trigger tends to feel mushy, and its geometry pulls the sights off target too easily—at least for me. The reset is also nearly imperceptible, which can slow down followup shots or cause the shooter to short stroke the trigger. Luckily, the marketplace has already provided some solutions.

Investing a couple hundred more dollars, I installed three components from Apex Tactical Specialties: an aluminum trigger, competition springs, and their reset-assist mechanism. The Apex kit replaced the highly curved S&W hinged trigger with a flatter, Glock-style trigger (complete with pivoting safety lever), which improved the trigger geometry, in my opinion, and gave a cleaner break. The new springs also reduced the overall trigger pull weight, further enhancing control. Finally, taking ingenious advantage of the unused channel for S&W’s internal locking system, the RAM provided the pistol with a tactile and audible trigger reset.

My upgraded M&P9 Pro Series.

When the northwestern weather produced a warm, dry winter day, I finally headed to the local wet, muddy shooting range for some live-fire testing. Again, I put the M&P9 up against my trusty P220. Both guns performed well in my somewhat out-of-practice hands, shooting 2⅛-inch groups at approximately 10 yards, and that’s where the comparison ended. While the P220 may have slung the vaunted .45-caliber slugs very effectively, the S&W pistol put more than twice as many bullets down range and did so more easily.

This review, such as it is, would have been completed much earlier, but I also wanted to evaluate potential holsters for the pistol. As a mid-sized handgun, I thought that the M&P9 could prove suitable for everyday concealed carry. I tried variations of Kydex and hybrid holsters but found them lacking for my needs. In the end, I returned to traditional leather, selecting a highly canted inside-the-waistband holster that kept the pistol easily accessible but conveniently out of my way.

My M&P9 in a Garrity IWB holster paired with a Nightingale magazine pouch.
Now that I’m involved in the business of selling firearms with Dancing Giant Sales, I will be even more curious to see how the Smith & Wesson compares to other competing offerings from the latest generation of polymer-framed pistols, but the M&P series has demonstrated that the technology itself has improved from its rough beginnings. While not perfect out of the box, the M&P is meeting demands for a flexible, ergonomic pistol in effective calibers. These requirements will persist well into the future, if the defensive handgun continues to take its rightful place in civil society.