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Smith & Wesson M&P15-Series Rifles

Written by Scott Oldham

Without a doubt the most popular duty rifle currently in use by police officers in the United States is the semi-automatic version of the military’s M4 carbine. This design, which is made by a variety of manufacturers, makes up the bulk of the patrol rifles in police cars across the country.

Originally designed in the early 1960s, the AR-15 and its military cousin the M16 have become one of the most prolific weapons on the planet. While there are those who would deride the system as being unreliable and firing a “varmint” cartridge, there are plenty of knowledgeable people who find that the weapon and the cartridge to be completely acceptable for both law enforcement and military use. Granted, you must understand its manual of arms sufficiently and keep it appropriately lubricated.

On Feb. 28, 1997, the world of modern law enforcement was changed significantly. On that day in Los Angeles, one the largest law enforcement shootouts in American history occurred. This incident, later known as the North Hollywood Shootout, took place when two heavily armed suspects who had just robbed a Bank of America branch began engaging responding officers with a fusillade of gunfire from several weapons, including an AK47 and a 7.62mm G3 battle rifle.

As officers on the scene were armed only with pistols and an occasional shotgun, the outcome of the battle, which took place over several city blocks and left 11 officers wounded, was for a significant period tenuous. Only when several officers made their way to a local gun store to obtain rifles taken straight from the sales counter did any patrol officer have anything capable of penetrating either suspect’s ballistic armor.

As the situation unfolded, those rifles apparently did not play into the resolution of the incident, however, the rifles wielded by several members of LAPD’s much vaunted SWAT unit brought a final conclusion to this incident in a memorable close-range firefight with one offender who was attempting to flee in a stolen vehicle.

Almost instantly, officers across the country began demanding to be equipped with rifles. Long gone are the days when officers felt comfortable on patrol with nothing but a handgun to defend themselves and their communities. While the North Hollywood Shootout was the obvious watershed moment, there have been many instances in the past where a rifle in the hands of an officer could have made the difference and saved lives.

Not since the 1980s when departments across the country rushed headlong into adopting semi-automatic pistols had there been such a rush to adopt any weapon system for law enforcement use. This time, however, the federal government had surplus M16s in storage that could be given to departments, so the choice for many cash-strapped agencies was easy. As such, surplus M16A1s hit the street in defense of communities across the country.

As numerous agencies across the country began to issue rifles, many more began to allow individual officers to purchase their own weapons and carry them while on duty in a program known as PODA, i.e., personally owned, departmentally approved. During the course of the widespread adoption of patrol rifles, the infamous “assault weapons ban” was lifted (in most states). While officers were, for the most part, exempt under the ban, the lifting of the ban prompted many companies to begin producing rifles that could justly be considered “combat” capable—exactly what officers need.

One of those companies had been a trusted name in American law enforcement until the point where it lost its way. Due to a variety of factors, including poor management and even poorer long-range planning, Smith & Wesson, which had once all but owned the law enforcement handgun market, began to falter and lost its place as the pre-eminent supplier of law enforcement weapons. Within the past several years, however, a new management group has taken the helm at this storied old New England firm. The result is that the company is now firmly back in the marketplace.

Recently, we have seen Smith & Wesson come back into the law enforcement arena with a revival of the Military & Police line. This line, which had once provided a significant amount of the pistols in officer’s holsters throughout the country, had ceased to exist in the “bad” years at S&W. Its return was marked by the introduction of one of the best new pistols in recent memory.

The Smith & Wesson M&P pistol was an instant success. S&W had taken notice of the trends in what officers wanted and, more important, what they needed. When the M&P pistol was introduced, it gave officers a pistol that they could have absolute confidence in when things get lethal.

But S&W was not prepared to exist on the M&P pistols alone. Smith & Wesson was determined to once again become the weapons maker of choice for law enforcement agencies of all types. Shortly after the reintroduction of the line, S&W let it be known that it intended to produce its own semi-automatic version of the military M4 carbine.

Many were initially skeptical of this because this market has been cornered by two or three big players in the rifle game. But S&W officials nonetheless were dedicated to bringing to market what they felt would be a superior rifle at a price point that agencies and individuals could afford to purchase.

Subsequently, Smith & Wesson introduced several models of this venerable firearm. These models varied from the basic M&P15 model to the top of the line M&P15T. The M&P15 is a basic rifle that features a six-position collapsible stock with a 16-inch, 1 in 9-inch twist barrel with a fixed front sight base and detachable carry handle. This is a no-frills workhorse and an excellent weapon that will serve an officer for many years.

The M&P15T, at the top of the line, features a fully free-floated barrel that is surrounded by a four-sided Troy Picatinny rail. The rail allows for the attachment of numerous accessories, including optics, lights, grips and lasers. There is no fixed sighting system with the M&P15T as it is meant to be equipped with an optical sighting device. Each weapon comes standard with an excellent set of Troy folding battle sights that are attached to the upper Picatinny rail, which runs the length of the weapon.

As with all other M&P15 rifles, the upper and lower receivers are made of the industry standard 7075 T6 aluminum. All rifles of the series also feature a true 5.56mm chrome-lined chamber and barrel, something that is sadly lacking on many other weapons of this type. Also of importance is that all the M&P15 rifles feature a bolt carrier which has a gas key that has been appropriately staked, an often forgotten touch by some manufacturers that can eventually lead to malfunctions.

Unfortunately, as more companies have begun producing M16 pattern rifles for law enforcement and civilian use, many have attempted to cut costs by taking short cuts. Some of these cuts will mean little to most end users, but for those whose lives may depend on the rifle’s functioning in the most dire of circumstances, cost cuts can spell tragedy. But Smith & Wesson has done it right. All mission-critical components are made to the highest standard with quality control being a significant part of the construction process.

In addition to the basic and “T” models, Smith & Wesson has also wisely chosen to introduce some of the same features of the more expensive T model in the M&P15OR. This is a rifle specifically set up for end users who plan to deploy the weapon with an optical sight but who do not need the added cost and weight of a free-float barrel system. This rifle was tested for this article because it represents the best overall hybrid of the various M&P15 iterations.

The M&P15OR features the same 16-inch, 1 in 9-inch twist chrome-lined barrel as does the standard M&P15. But it also features a pinned gas block that has a Picatinny rail attached rather than a standard front sight base. Likewise, no rear sight comes with the weapon, allowing the end user to select the one he favors.

When the M&P15OR arrived, the first thing we noticed was that it felt solid in the hand—a quality that not all rifles possess. From the moment that the rifle was lifted from the case, one could immediately appreciate that it had been designed to protect lives. Before we outfitted the rifle, it was quickly examined to confirm its quality of construction. As has been noted, the bolt carrier is appropriately staked with the all appropriate parts lined in chrome.

The test rifle was immediately outfitted with SureFire’s excellent M73 Picatinny rail system and its rugged 125 lumen M910 tactical light, the standard by which all other tactical lights are judged. The weapon also received the newest offering from Trijicon, the RX30 Reflex sight. For folding backup sights, an A.R.M.S. unit was chosen for the rear with an excellent Samson unit receiving the nod for the front end. For a sling, the padded VTAC unit from BlackHawk was attached and has proven itself to be a useful addition to the overall weapons package.

Because the rifle came from the factory with just one 30-round magazine, a variety of other magazines, including both standard GI aluminum and the newest MagPul PMAG magazines, were gathered to be sure that M&P rifle would function with each.

In an almost 1,000-round test, the rifle proved itself to be everything that an officer could ever need. The rifle did not experienced one malfunction throughout the test. The weapon has been kept appropriately lubricated, but it has not been cleaned since it was first taken from the box.

Even though the Reflex sight has a 6.5 minute of angle dot, the weapon and sight combination proved themselves to be more than accurate enough for short-range precision work, easily keeping all rounds fired in the head of a standard B27 training silhouette during a variety of drills at 50 yards.

Throughout the entire test, officers who fired the weapon all thought they would be most confident in carrying the weapon while on duty. All said the rifle was an excellent addition to their selection of threat-management tools and one that they would happily spend their own money to acquire.

When you combine the quality of construction with the value that is built into Smith & Wesson’s pricing, you quickly arrive at the opinion that the Smith & Wesson M&P15 series represents the best of the current generation of patrol rifles. Built to last an officer’s entire career while delivering a level of performance that can be trusted to defend lives, the M&P15 rifles should receive a high degree of consideration when choosing a patrol rifle for law enforcement service.

Scott Oldham is a supervisory sergeant with the Bloomington, IN Police Department where he is assigned to the Operations Division as patrol supervisor, as well as being one of the team leaders for the department’s Tactical Unit. He and his partner, Sergeant Mick Williams, provide contract instruction on a wide range of subjects, including tactical and patrol-based skills. He can be reached at oldhams@bloomington.in.gov.

Published in Tactical Response, Sep/Oct 2009

Rating : 10.0


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