The search for the best dual-purpose, duty-competition pistol
S&W M&P9 Pro Series
By: Steve Tracy and Ed Sanow
What is the best dual-purpose pistol? The editor of Tactical Response and the editor of The Police Marksman have set out to find one pistol that can be used for both patrol-tactical use and also for pistol league competition. Both editors are tactically minded police officers, both firearms instructors, both either current or former competitive shooters, yet each carries a different pistol!
Both editors also frequently get asked for their handgun recommendations: this brand, that model, this caliber, those sights. The request this time around is for a pistol that can be used both in a “tactical response” and by the “police marksman.” Rule One: It had to be a box-stock, factory pistol with no after-market modifications.
The first answer was the Glock Model 34 (9mm) and Model 35 (40 S&W) Tactical/Practical. We covered the Glock 35 Gen4 in the Sept-Oct 2012 issue of Tactical Response. With 165-grain JHPs, the editor of Tactical Response fairly consistently shoots “possible” scores on the (old) PPC 300 course of fire, which ranges from 3 to 50 yards. It used to take a revolver in very good condition and 38 Special (not 357 Magnum) to clean the targets on that course. Tactical operators across the U.S. have the Glock 34/35 in their web gear.
The second answer is the Smith & Wesson M&P Pro Series, available in both 9mm and 40 S&W. The Pro Series “bridges the gap” between the main production pistols and the S&W Performance Center pistols. The Pro Series is the next step up from standard production while still (technically) being factory-stock. Nearly all competition organizations allow the S&W Pro Series pistols to be used in the Production category. At the same time, it is an unmodified factory pistol that doesn’t raise law-enforcement liability concerns. And, the Pro Series is indeed used on patrol.
S&W M&P Pistols
The M&P (Military & Police) line of polymer frame pistols was introduced in 2005. The M&P is somewhat based on the S&W Sigma, but is a major step up in frame design, trigger system and takedown method. (The sear deactivation lever allows the M&P to be field stripped without having to pull the trigger first.) While the M&P benefits from some of the ergonomics research that went into the Sigma and S&W-Walther SW99, the M&P does not share any parts with either older pistol.
The M&P pistols use a Browning-type locking system. The M&P pistols are striker-fired, quite similar to the Glock pistols. In mid-2009, S&W redesigned the M&P striker for better durability. This enhanced striker is thicker and has a smoother surface finish. The M&P has multiple internal safeties. It does not have a trigger-mounted safety like the Glock.
Unique among polymer-frame pistols, the M&P uses full-length, internal steel rails molded into the polymer frame. A sturdy foundation, this makes the frame more rigid to improve both reliability and accuracy. The barrel and slide are machined from stainless-steel billets.
All the M&P pistols, even the competition-oriented Pro Series pistols, have a Picatinny rail molded directly into the polymer frame under the front sight. The M&P pistols use an ambidextrous slide release and a reversible magazine release button. The M&P pistols come from the factory with three different sizes of interchangeable palm swell inserts.
4.25-inch Versus 5-inch
Both 9mm and 40 S&W versions of the S&W M&P come in two different barrel lengths: 4.25 inches and 5 inches. The clear choice for a dual-duty competition pistol is the 5-inch version. The logic behind the 5-inch barrel is easy. The longer the barrel length, the longer the sight radius, i.e., the distance between the front and rear sights. (The Glock 34/35 has a 5.3-inch barrel.)
Mounted in a pistol rest, a 4.25-inch gun is just as accurate as a 5-inch gun. However, tactical operations and handgun competition don’t involve pistol rests. The longer the barrel (sight radius), the easier it is for the shooter holding the pistol to precisely align the front and rear sights, and to keep that perfect sight alignment.
Sight alignment is the placement of the front sight inside the rear sight. Sight picture is the placement of these aligned sights on the target. While the 4.25-inch and 5-inch M&P pistols may have the same mechanical (intrinsic) accuracy, the shooter will be much more accurate with the longer barrel.
The longer barrel also has other advantages. The 5-inch pistol is two ounces heavier than the 4.25-inch pistol. This adds weight to the front of the pistol, which dampens the movement of the front sight before each shot. This extra weight also absorbs the total felt recoil and it reduces the amount of muzzle flip after each shot. The 5-inch barrel also produces a bit more velocity, which helps barrier penetration and wound ballistics, and also generates a bit more plate-toppling momentum.
M&P Pro Series
Smith & Wesson makes two different 5-inch barrel, 40 S&W caliber pistols: the M&P40 Pro Series and the M&P40L Pro Series C.O.R.E. They make three different 5-inch barrel, 9mm pistols: the M&P9L, the M&P9 Pro Series and the M&P9 Pro Series C.O.R.E. Our choice was the 5-inch version of the 9mm M&P Pro Series, which is still considered a box-stock, factory pistol.
Introduced in 2008, the M&P9L is more duty-oriented than the other 5-inch guns. It is simply the basic M&P pistol with a longer barrel and slide. The three-dot sights and the trigger system are the same as all the other M&P pistols.
The M&P9 Pro Series was also introduced in 2008. More competition-oriented, the Pro Series has two major improvements over the basic M&P pistols. First, the Pro Series uses a Novak® green (or red) fiber-optic front sight and a Novak® Reduced Glare rear sight. A plain black rear sight is gaining popularity among today’s action pistol shooters. The low rake angle of the rear sight cuts down glare. Since both sights are dovetail mounted, both may be changed to M&P tritium night sights for departments that require them.
Perhaps the biggest improvement in the Pro Series over the basic M&P pistols is the enhanced trigger system. Most serious shooters who use the M&P9L upgrade the trigger with an after-market “hard sear” or complete Competition Action Enhancement Kit from Apex Tactical Specialties. Try a Google search with “M&P9L trigger pull” and you will get a screen full of blog posts and YouTube videos on improving the trigger pull and on websites selling trigger-pull improvement kits.
For the Pro Series pistols, the S&W Performance Center adds a different sear, and polishes some of the mating surfaces in the trigger group. The basic M&P pistols, including the M&P9L, have an average trigger pull of 6.5 pounds. The smoothed-out Pro Series pistols have an average trigger pull of 4.5 pounds. (The Glock 34/35 trigger averages 4.5 pounds compared to 5.5 pounds for most other Glocks.) The Pro Series trigger group has less slack than the basic M&P pistol and also a much shorter trigger reset distance. The Pro Series trigger is simply amazing.
New for 2013
Just in time for the 2013 SHOT Show, S&W announced an even more competition-oriented version of the M&P Pro Series: the C.O.R.E. (Competition Optics Ready Equipment). Again built by the S&W Performance Center, these M&P Pro Series pistols are available in 9mm and 40 S&W and in either 4.25-inch or 5-inch barrel lengths.
The M&P Pro Series C.O.R.E. has a specialized mounting platform on the top of the slide engineered to accept six popular styles of competition-based optics. Through the use of removable brackets, the handgunner can install the corresponding mounting screws to achieve the precise fit and height required. The M&P C.O.R.E. offers quick and custom installation for the industry’s top aftermarket red-dot sight manufacturers: Trijicon RMR, C-More STS, Leupold DeltaPoint, Docter, Insight MRDS and JPoint.
In addition, Smith & Wesson added much higher-profile, triple white-dot, front and rear sights that can be used with the mounted red-dot optic. The M&P C.O.R.E. pistols use a crowned muzzle for improved accuracy. The new C.O.R.E. pistols also include a new textured interchangeable back strap with more prominent stippling, unique to the C.O.R.E. line. The M&P Pro Series C.O.R.E., considered by most groups to be a Custom-class pistol, is probably too competition-oriented to be a true dual-purpose, patrol-competition pistol.
Twist Rate Versus Accuracy
Almost any discussion of the S&W 9mm pistol used in competition eventually raises the topic of twist rate. The S&W 9mm pistols have a rifling twist rate of one revolution in 18.75 inches. This is much slower than the 1 in 9.84-inch rate of the Glock 9mm and the 1:10-inch rate of other pistols like SigArms and Springfield Armory. In fact, this difference in twist rate has fueled almost as much debate as the 9mm versus 45 ACP argument.
If the twist rate is too slow, a bullet may not be spun fast enough to fully stabilize it. An under-stabilized bullet may wobble in flight like a poorly thrown football and may not be as accurate as a fully stabilized bullet. In extreme cases, the bullet may hit the target at an angle, and even sideways—the so-called keyhole. If the bullet impact does not leave a perfect circle smudge on the target, if the entry hole is even a little oval, the bullet was not fully stabilized.
If the twist rate is too fast, the bullet may be spun faster than required to fully stabilize it. With an over-stabilized bullet, the effects of tiny manufacturing differences in bullet weight, jacket or plating thickness, jacket crimping and hollowpoint formation may be amplified. These differences won’t cause the bullet to wobble or tumble, but may cause the spinning bullet to take a slightly inconsistent trajectory—resulting in wider groups.
For under-stabilized 9mm bullets, think in terms of heavy (147-grain) bullets fired through a slow (1:18.75-inch) twist rate barrel. For over-stabilized 9mm bullets, think in terms of light (115-grain) bullets fired from a fast (1:9.84-inch) twist barrel.
Right now, most readers are thinking, the 147-grain ammo does just fine from your slow twist S&W pistol. Or, the 115 grain ammo does just fine from your fast twist Glock / SigArms pistol. Right on both accounts. In modern pistols, the slowest twist rates are almost fast enough to fully stabilize the heaviest bullets, and the fastest twist rates are almost always slow enough to properly stabilize the lightest bullets.
Accuracy is about much more than simple bullet weight and twist rate. Assuming good condition guns, the tiny manufacturing differences in the barrel and locking systems, and the bullet design and construction are major factors. As all these differences in manufacturing tolerances stack up, many guns will end up being more accurate with a particular make, weight or design of bullet.
Home on the Range
That said, we went to the range with 15 different kinds of 115-grain, 124-grain 147-grain JHP and FMJ ammo from Federal, Hornady, Remington and Winchester. According to the S&W Performance Center, the factory specs for Pro Series accuracy are 3-inch, 25-yard groups or better. Obviously, this is both ammo and shooter dependent.
The best accuracy from our random selection of ammo just happened to be the Remington 115-grain FMJ (1.5-inch), the Federal 124-grain FMJ (1.8-inch) and the Winchester 147-grain FMJ Match (2.8-inch).
To add fuel to the twist rate debate, four of the 115-grain, five of the 124-grain, and three of the 147-grain loads shot under 3-inch, 25-yard, sandbagged groups. A few of the 115 grain and 147 grain loads shot over 3-inch groups. All shot 4-inch groups or better.
With 115-grain FMJ ammo from the M&P9 Pro Series, the editor of The Police Marksman found that the longer sight radius and excellent trigger brought his pistol league scores up from the previous year. In 2011, his average season score in combat matches was a 438.70/480 while firing a standard double-action pistol. His 2012 results with the M&P Pro improved to a 447.20/480 average.
While this 1.8 percent increase may seem small, it’s based on a 48-round course of fire and the M&P Pro lifted his final standings from Expert to the title of Master, which begins with an average of 446. The M&P Pro fits in most standard duty holsters, despite the extra barrel length. The advantages of the Pro Series in competition will translate to the street if the need arises.
Storm Lake Match Barrels
Still unsure about the barrel twist rate? Want a Match-grade barrel? Definitely consider Storm Lake. They offer 5-inch, drop-in barrels for the 9mm with a 1:16 twist. They also offer 5-inch, drop-in barrels to convert the .40-caliber M&P Pro Series or Pro Series C.O.R.E. to 9mm. The barrels retail for $160 and require no modification to the recoil spring or extractor for reliable function. You just need factory 9mm magazines.
The 9mm ammunition is less expensive to shoot for practice or competition, while 40 S&W is the most popular pistol caliber choice for today’s law enforcement. The .40-caliber pistol can be converted to 9mm with a simple barrel swap, but the concept does not work conversely. If a 9mm pistol is purchased, that’s the only caliber that can be fired through it.
For the standard 4.25-inch M&P pistols, Storm Lake offers conversion barrels to 9mm from both 40 S&W and 357 SIG. Ported and threaded barrels are also available in all barrel lengths.
What’s next in this search for the ideal patrol-competition pistol? Perhaps the Springfield Armory XD(M) 9mm Comp 5.25? Something else? We want to hear from you. Let us know; copy both of us.
Officer Steve Tracy is the editorial director of
The Police Marksman (online) and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Sgt. Ed Sanow is the editorial director of
Tactical Response (print and online) and may be reached at email@example.com.