If you are relatively new to the gun scene, specifically to pistols, you’d be forgiven for thinking there was always a wide selection of viable choices for reliable, accurate, feature-rich striker-fired handguns. This was not always the case. Through the late 1980’s all the way through the 1990’s, there was really only one de facto choice for hard running striker pistol.
I of course am talking about Glock. It was Glock, and everyone else, for the most part. I’ll spare you the details of how what I call the “Striker Wars” unfolded on the commercial market, but all you need to know is that what I believe the first, true domestic striker-fired competitor to the Glock finally surfaced in 2005, taking the form of the Smith & Wesson Military and Police, better known as the M&P.
By combining the strained, painful lessons learned from their earlier, less successful forays into striker-fired semi-autos Smith & Wesson, an iconic American manufacturer and long-standing supplier of law enforcement sidearms, finally produced a pistol that was not only a solid performer, but was able to challenge the near-ubiquitous adoption of the Glock by law enforcement agencies great and small.
From a somewhat wobbly introduction the M&P series has made enormous inroads in both commercial and law enforcement sales, and is a dependable handgun for duty or defense. Today it is available in a host of variations, sizes and calibers to suit any task or purpose and is one of the best pistols of the day, showing no signs of fading out.
In this article, we’ll examine the M&P’s design, introduction, stumbles, successes and performance.
Genesis of the M&P
Smith & Wesson is no stranger to producing good, hard-running handguns; that is an understatement so huge it is almost comedic. Operating continuously for over 150 years, S&W has turned out more than few legendary handguns, their Models 10 and 29 revolvers only the most known among them. Their semi-auto service pistols, beginning with the classic Model 39, did not achieve quite the same celebrity as their revolvers, but have been produced in various marks since the 1950’s and seen success in both commercial and law enforcement circles. But we can trace the lineage of the M&P all the way back to the early 1990’s.
At this time in the early 1990’s, Glock was only a rising star, the .40 S&W cartridge was well on its way to becoming the darling round of law enforcement, and the 1994 Clinton-era Assault Weapons Ban had not yet come to be. Smith & Wesson seemed unshakeable; striker-fired actions were not universally accepted or loved by the public or police, but were just gaining ground.
The .40 S&W, the eponymous cartridge developed by Smith & Wesson was poised for LE and commercial success due to a host of factors, not the least of which were several widely-publicized failures of the 9mm Para. in various LE shootings. The AWB to be, with its capacity-crippling restriction of 10 rounds for handguns, made the greater potency of the .40 even more attractive to civilians. It seemed like Smith & Wesson was poised for a big win.
Not quite. Though striker-fired action was not new, as a concept, and certainly not new in a polymer handgun, Heckler & Koch beat Glock to the polymer striker pistol-drop in 1970 with the VP70, but Glock beat S&W to the commercial market with their own cartridge in 1990, the famous .40 caliber Glock 22. Ouch. Smith & Wesson, undaunted, rolled up their sleeves and set about working on their first polymer pistol, one that would rival the Glock in all essential features. This gun, the Sigma SW40, which slid greasily onto the scene in 1994, is the grandfather of the M&P we know and love today.
The Sigma, however, was tougher to love, but, it did rival the Glock! In fact, if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, this flattery was so sincere it, such a convincing imitation of Glock pistols that Glock successfully sued S&W for patent infringement. Smith & Wesson settled for an undisclosed sum, their sacrifice leaving them stinging but allowed them to keep pumping out Sigmas. The Sigma series were OK pistols in their day, but definitely inferior to Glocks, and certainly inferior to today’s M&P’s. The Sigma donated some of its DNA to the M&P, and lives on today in the SD series pistols.
S&W abandoned their plans of polymer pistol domination until 1999, when, sensing another surefire winner from Europe, partnered with Walther to produce, in essence, an Americanized version of their sturdy P99 pistol. The P99 saw some success in Europe and America, and is best remembered for its then-innovative interchangeable backstraps and variants featuring different trigger modes for different users objectives. The resulting remix of the pistol, the SW99, like its earlier Sigma sibling, did not catch on with civilian or law enforcement users and is mostly forgotten.
Things weren’t looking up for Smith & Wesson on the polymer pistol front; two plastic flops and a lawsuit. Not content with those mishaps, they then made the monumentally idiotic decision in 2000 to collaborate with Bill Clinton (of Assault Weapons Ban infamy, who also once famously gave an intern a cigar) on a deal that would see them get preferential treatment in return for changes to both the design of their guns, and distribution to dealers thereof.
This collusion with the Clinton White House, rightly hated by gun owners, saw immediate, massive backlash and boycotting by consumers, and the departure of the S&W CEO who was maestro to the deal. Stocks plummeted, and Smith & Wesson, decried rightly as quislings by the gun sector, was on the ropes. Smith & Wesson was soon after purchased in 2001 for pennies on the dollar by Saf-T-Hammer Corp., and turned sunward once again.
Their big break finally arrived in 2005 with the inspired release of the semi-auto M&P. Seeing opportunity in a market stagnant with striker-fired handguns, with the M&P series Smith & Wesson sought to simultaneously address the shortcomings of the Glock pistol for law-enforcement use, that company arguably content for years to rest on their laurels within that sector, and the complaints of civilian consumers about polymer pistols in general. Resurrecting the livery hard-earned by the .38 Military and Police revolver, the M&P was well received with a good trigger, ambidextrous controls and configurable grip, and despite a few hiccups caught on quickly. Within a few years, it was nibbling away at the law enforcement market taken for granted by Glock, and continues to do so today.
Smith & Wesson was back in the semi-auto pistol arena in a big way.
The M&P40 is a polymer framed, locked-breech pistol using iconic and common Browning locking. Barrel length is 4 ¼”, and there is a small peephole on top of the barrel hood that allows the user to visually see if the chamber is loaded without retracting the slide. The design of the frame incorporates a steel insert, sometimes called a chassis or subframe, for additional strength and rigidity, and features an accessory rail on the dustcover. Capacity in the fullsize gun is 15+1, 10+1 in the compact. The finish of the slide is S&W’s hard-wearing Melonite.
The grip size is configurable by way of wrap-around grip shells that are replaceable by removal of a pin at the bottom of the grip behind the magazine well. Slide releases are on both sides of the frame immediately above and behind the trigger guard. The magazine release is of typical button configuration and its installation is reversible for right or left handed shooters.
The trigger is of consistent action, comparable to Glock pistols in function, with the notable difference that the M&P features a pivoting trigger safety versus the inset blade-type safety of the Glocks. The M&P is available with an optional manual safety lever mounted at the rear of the frame in the same location as a 1911; up is safe, down is fire.
Stock sights are steel, drift adjustable and of 3-dot arrangement. Serrations on the slide are the distinct, wavy “fish-scale” pattern seen on other Smith & Wesson semi-autos, and offer good purchase. The disassembly lever is located forward of the trigger guard on the left side of the frame, and is rotated down to 6 o’clock with the slide locked open and magazine removed to enable removal of the slide. The M&P has a tiny arm inside the magazine well that, when lowered, precludes the need to pull the trigger for disassembly. This is a significant improvement over the Glock in the eyes of many.
While utilizing mechanical elements from the Sigma, and ergonomic cues from the SW99, it has no interchangeable parts with either of its relatives.
When the M&P40’s first broke on the market, and for a year or so thereafter, there were issues reported: slides and mags rusting rapidly if not kept scrupulously maintained, and slide release levers snapping off after little use. There were complaints of poor accuracy among some users, but this was predominately among shooters of the M&P9, the cause later being attributed to a too slow rifling twist and a barrel design flaw.
The rusting encountered with the earliest guns was a result of improperly applied finishing at the factory, and while disappointing, not a knock against Melonite as a finish itself. Melonite is a trade name for a form of nitrocarburizing that produces an extremely hard, wear resistant finish on surfaces to which it applied. The slide release breakage occurred most commonly due to a design flaw, since corrected; a too-sharp contour in the slide release led to stress fracturing and subsequent breakage.
Both of these flaws have since been corrected by production and design changes at the factory, and the M&P40 is widely regarded as a reliable and durable pistol now, though a few intermittent complaints of susceptibility to rusting persist.
Enhancements, Modification and Customization
The M&P family is host to a great variety of factory and aftermarket mods and accessories; hand-fit match barrels, drop-in threaded barrels, enhanced triggers, a plethora of sighting options, factory and aftermarket red-dot mounting solutions, extended controls, magazine extensions and much more.
This allows a shooter to start with the M&P40 as a solid base gun and enhance it as they grow in ability, or purchase one stock as the beginning of a hot-rodded custom pistol. While not privy to the catalog-clogging variety and brands of parts that Glock pistols are, it will be the rare occasion where an M&P user will not be able to procure a specific component to fulfill their needs.
Before you even start down the road to homebrew or gunsmith modification, Smith & Wesson offers a variety of enhanced variants and Performance Center models that feature everything from long slides to factory mounted red-dots and tuned actions. The stock M&P40 rocks, but there is a custom or semi-custom variant to fit every desire and budget if you choose.
S&W recently released the second generation M2.0 M&P’s, which address a few of the most common complaints among users of the base pistols. The stainless steel frame insert has been redesigned and extended for even greater strength and rigidity, with the grip being aggressively textured straight out of the box. The trigger has been improved over the previous iteration, featuring a cleaner break and audible, tactile reset. Note here I do not worship at the altar of Trigger Reset, and believe the criticism aimed at the first-gen M&P’s reset being mushy, or hard to perceive was unwarranted, but that conversation is one for another day. Lots of consumers wanted a more distinct reset of the trigger, and S&W delivered.
Combined the enhancements of the M2.0 series guns make sense, addressing shortcomings of the earlier guns and aligning the feature set of the gun with the desires of modern shooters.
About the .40S&W
The .40 S&W cartridge came along at a confluence of events in history that saw it race to wide acceptance among law enforcement agencies who were eager for round that would give them the combined advantages of the 9mm and .45 ACP. Today, the 9mm is ascendant once again, thanks in part to the FBI’s re-issue of it, bringing them back to the beginning as it were; they ditched the 9mm for the 10mm, thanks to perceived failures of the 9mm, then watered down the brisk 10mm enough that the shorter .40 S&W made sense. Now bullet technology and understanding of wounding mechanics with handguns has advanced enough that the .40 is seen as negligibly different in performance, and the 9mm is once again the heir apparent. Whew! Everything old is new again!
We can, and do, argue the actual merits of one round over the others till we are blue in the face, but taking a long-running look at the evolution of not just pistol ammunition but also consumer trends is more useful in determining the .40’s future. First, the .40 S&W is entirely adequate for self-defense or duty use. If you have a gun chambered in .40, you should consider yourself well-armed. Second, consider the fact that this round’s sharp recoil and high pressure is more abusive to both shooter and pistol, and is especially noticeable in compact guns.
I like the .40 fine in fullsize guns, but less and less as the gun gets smaller. Some manufacturers do not quite build their pistols up enough to handle the cartridge, and see proportionally more wear and tear than the same model chambered in 9mm. This is not the case with the M&P40 series, which are adequately designed to handle this beefier round.
The M&P is one of premier striker-fired pistols of our day, and is rapidly maturing and seeing wide adoption among agencies in the U.S. and abroad. Many proclaim it as the first challenger to Glock’s dominance in law enforcement, and they aren’t wrong. Hundreds of thousands more civilian shooters have found them to be trustworthy and dependable guns for protection and defense. If you are searching for an excellent .40 caliber handgun, the M&P should be near the top of your list.