I drove from my home in Tucson to the SHOT Show in Las Vegas this year-it's a scenic drive that takes a little more than seven hours. Entering the city, I passed a large police motorcade that was just beginning on the other side of the highway. I could see that regular traffic had been blocked for this procession, and I thanked God that I did not get caught up in the logjam that followed. I figured it was caused by a visiting dignitary or politician who was in town, and I didn't give it a second thought until I checked into my hotel room and turned on the TV.
All of the local channels were covering the funeral of Sgt. Henry Prendes of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department. Prendes had been gunned down just days earlier. The motorcade that I had seen coming into the city was for his funeral. Realizing that, I felt great remorse for thinking of it as an inconvenience. I decided to learn what had happened to Prendes.
Las Vegas police say this is what happened: An aspiring rap artist ambushed Prendes, 37, when he answered a domestic violence call at the man's house in southwest Las Vegas. The AK-47-wielding gunman held off officers who were armed with handguns and shotguns, firing more than 50 rounds during the confrontation. His withering fire kept officers from rescuing Prendes until a plainclothes officer with the Gang Unit arrived with a carbine. He braved the barrage of fire, attempted to rescue Prendes, and was wounded in the leg. Many officers say that his weapon and courage saved the day by allowing other officers to get close enough to take out the suspect.
Reading this account the day before the SHOT Show, I could only draw one conclusion: Cops need rifles. And they should have them in their patrol cars, not locked away in storage.
I was thinking about that as I walked the floor of the show. There, I found a lot of new candidates for police patrol rifle duty, including Smith & Wesson's M&P15.
The M&P15 patrol carbine is a flat top .223 AR-style carbine with an M4 collapsible buttstock, handguards, and 16-inch barrel. Other than the fact that it wears the S&W logo, I could see nothing that differentiated this rifle from any of the other basic AR-15s available from numerous manufacturers. Just another AR, I thought...I was unimpressed, though I did dutifully put in a request for a test and evaluation sample.
Months went by and in April I received a call from Dick Williams at SureFire. He invited me to a writer's seminar in Wyoming that was co-sponsored by Winchester Ammunition and S&W. The participants would have a chance to shoot plenty of ammo through the new M&P15 and get a chance to view new SureFire products. It sounded more like a vacation than work to me, and I gladly accepted.
On Memorial Day, I flew into Denver and was met by Winchester Ammunition's Mike Jordan. Together we made the four-hour drive to Silver Spur Ranch located just outside Encampment, Wyo. Along with four other writers, I'd have two days to shoot as much Winchester ammo through the rifle as I desired.
We started the first day by sighting in our rifles at 100 yards. My test rifle had already been fitted with an Alpen Aspen 6-24X50mm scope. It was an awkward setup for a carbine. The scope's front objective was less than a quarter inch from the front sight assembly, and I had to turn the scope up to at least 8-power just to get the inverted shadow of the front sight. I also had to back away from the rear of the lens to get proper eye relief. It was uncomfortable to use and, unfortunately, there were no alternative scopes available. Despite this, I was able to get the scope on target and managed to fire one, five-shot group that was under an inch with Winchester's 45-grain hollow point bullets.
Our choices for ammo included the abovementioned load and Winchester's premium 50-grain ballistic Silvertip bullets, which gave very similar accuracy results. S&W rifles the M&P15's barrels with a 1:9 twist, like most other manufacturers of M4 style carbines, and both of these loads are designed for varmint hunting and are lighter than I would have chosen to evaluate the carbine. Over the years, I have tested many rifles with 1:9 barrels and found that 69-grain bullets have provided me with the best accuracy. Because of our limited ammunition choices, we had to make do, though I have no doubts that the heavier bullets would be wonderfully accurate.
Our guides, Spur Outfitters, supplied us with portable shooting rests and that made precision shooting possible even in the field. Silver Spur has thousands and thousands of acres teeming with prairie dogs, ground squirrels, and other rodents. Because it is a working cattle ranch, the tunnels that these varmints dig are more than just a minor nuisance. Both cows and horses can and have fallen through into these dens and broken legs. Most ranch owners welcome anyone who wants to shoot prairie dogs on their property.
Our guides would drop us off in a field, set up our shooting benches, and let us shoot for an hour or more before taking us to another destination. Shots ranged from 15 yards to more than 400 yards, with most of our best results occurring between 100 and 200 yards. The action was fast and furious and, oftentimes, we'd fire as quickly as we could obtain a sight picture and press the trigger. The only real time we had to cool the barrel was when we were loading our 30-round magazines.[PAGEBREAK]
Like most AR15s, S&W's M&P15 comes with a standard trigger. My sample was a little gritty and broke with about seven pounds of pressure-in other words, it is a standard military trigger pull. I felt that I would have had more success if I had been able to replace the trigger with an aftermarket two-stage trigger.
Somewhere around 600 rounds, I began to have cycling problems with the M&P15. The bolt would ride over the rear end of the cartridge, and it would fail to feed. Pulling back on the charging handle and letting it fly forward would correct the problem and get me back in the action. But it annoyed me enough that I broke the gun open to look at the bolt carrier. It was bone dry and heavily fouled. I didn't have a cleaning kit with me and no oil, so there wasn't much I could do except keep clearing the misfeeds.
Mike Jordan asked if he could help and I told him that I needed some oil. Minutes later he came back with the dip stick from the rental SUV and slathered the motor oil on the bolt and carrier. That was all that it took. The gun was 100 percent after that for the next 500 rounds before we quit for dinner. While the writers and sponsors ate, Matt Rice from Blue Heron Communications (S&W's press relations company) broke the rifle down and gave it a thorough cleaning and re-lubricated it.
A Crowded Market
At dinner I spoke with Tom Taylor, S&W's vice president of sales and marketing. I was curious to know what brought S&W into the AR game when there are already so many players. According to Taylor, it was the result of extensive marketing research and consumer requests for a tactical long gun that prompted S&W to make an AR-15.
The M&P15 and the tactical "T" model are the company's first AR15s, though there will also be precision models with free-float handguards and longer, heavy stainless steel target barrels. "Smith & Wesson has longstanding ties to the law enforcement community, and it is our goal to give officers a gun that they can trust their lives to," says Taylor.
Right now S&W is using a number of vendors to get the parts to build its M&P rifles. Most AR producers do little more than assemble guns with parts from numerous sources. Very few manufacturers actually make their own receivers. But the eventual goal is for S&W to make all of the components, including the receivers and barrels. "Building parts in-house gives us ultimate control over quality issues," Taylor says.
Though S&W is outsourcing some of its parts, the company is not sacrificing quality for savings. The upper and lower receivers are made from forgings that are machined and then hard coat anodized. The barrels are chrome lined and capable of tremendous accuracy.
I made a point of shooting the same gun the next day. I was interested in seeing if a simple cleaning and lubrication would cure its ills. I was able to fire more than 1,000 rounds the second day and am happy to report that I did so without a single malfunction.
I never thought that I could get tired of shooting but, in all honesty, I'd had all I wanted by 4 p.m. the second day. I was sunburned, had a sore cheek and shoulder (despite the low recoil of the .223 cartridge), and was experiencing severe eye fatigue from looking through the scope so much. But I did feel as though I had thoroughly tested the M&P15. Despite the problems the previous day, the gun had proven itself the second day.
I also had the chance to shoot the M&P15A Model. This is the same gun as the M&P15, but it is outfitted with a detachable folding rear sight instead of the carry handle sight. I had absolutely no problem engaging the small targets out to about 150 yards and did quite well with it. I had forgotten just how much fun it is to shoot the ARs with iron sights, and it allowed me to get out from behind a scope and allowed my headache to go away.
S&W currently offers two different M&P carbines. The M&P15/M&P15A evaluated in this article has a 16-inch, M4-style barrel, detachable rear sight, and six-position collapsing buttstock. The T Model is a tactical version that has many of the same features as the standard M&P15 but features a free-floating rail/handguard system. At some point in the future S&W will offer a tactical precision model that will have a free-floating handguard and heavy, stainless steel target barrel along with a two-stage trigger.
On the Job
Following the shooting of Officer Prendes, donations poured in from the community with the express purpose of funding the acquisition of patrol carbines. Las Vegas Metro PD requested test and evaluation samples from numerous manufacturers at the 2006 SHOT Show and, according to a rightfully proud Taylor, the agency decided to buy 300 of the new M&P15s.
The Las Vegas PD's faith in this weapon, especially in light of its recent tragic experience, speaks volumes about Smith & Wesson's quality. The S&W M&P15 is a welcome addition to the AR market.
Mike Detty is an NRA-certified rifle, pistol, and shotgun instructor. A certified rangemaster and competition shooter, Detty served as an officer in the U.S. Marine Corps and holds a degree in criminal justice from the University of Arizona.