Even with the variety of makes and models of ARs available, the entry of one particular manufacturer into this market in 2006 made everyone stop and take notice. That company was Smith & Wesson, and the rifle was the M&P15, a semi-automatic styled after the U.S. M4 carbine and chambered in 5.56x45 mm NATO/.223 Rem. Although S&W might at first glance seem to be an odd fit for an AR, it actually makes a lot of sense. With a history dating back to 1852, the company has a long and storied tradition of producing arms for the uniformed services, providing tough and reliable handguns to members of both the law enforcement and military communities since its earliest days.
In fact, the six-shot .38 Spl. revolver we know today as the Model 10 began its life at the turn of the 20th century as the “Military & Police,” a moniker that clearly stated the intended purpose of the design. When the company began work a few years back on a new polymer-frame pistol intended for law enforcement, military and civilian shooters, it decided that it was time to dust off the M&P name for the new line. As a result, when the decision was made to develop an AR line, the M&P branding made for a logical fit.
With the introduction of the M&P15 series, AR enthusiasts were presented with a very appealing option: an AR-pattern carbine produced by one of the most respected firearm manufacturers in the country. In addition, S&W’s large and expansive manufacturing capabilities allowed the company to produce a large percentage of the rifles in-house, affording it a great deal of control over quality. Although S&W relied heavily on a vendor in its earliest production, the firm now has its own dedicated M&P rifle line in its Springfield, Mass., plant.
A Familiar Friend
Smith & Wesson’s initial M&P15 offerings were relatively straightforward adaptations of the basic 5.56x45 mm NATO AR platform. Recognizing that the 16-inch-barreled M4 Carbine-style with a flat-top upper receiver was clearly the most popular with consumers, S&W focused on this general configuration. Initially, three models were offered, including the basic M&P15 with a carry handle attached to the upper rail and round polymer handguards. The M&P15A was similar, but with no carry handle and a Troy back-up rear sight instead attached to the rail. The M&P15T was equipped with a Troy Industries MRF (modular rail fore-end) system and front and rear Troy folding iron sights.
Operationally, the M&P15s were traditional direct-gas-impingement system (DGIS) carbines, in which gas is tapped off the bore at the gas block/front sight assembly forward of the handguard and vented back through a tube above the barrel. Although some criticize this system for dumping hot gases directly into the action causing fouling, this is the system that has been employed in U.S. military M16-pattern rifles since the 1960s.
The upper and lower receivers of the M&P15s are produced from 7075-T6 forgings made at the S&W factory in Springfield, Mass. The barrels are manufactured from 4140 steel and feature the familiar M4-style step-down contour. And those M&P15 parts not produced by S&W itself or an affiliate are acquired from reputable vendors and undergo thorough inspection before going into the rifle.
Quickly gaining a reputation for extremely high quality (and impressive accuracy), the M&P15 series took off. This should come as no surprise considering the rifles’ generally reasonable pricing and their backing with the full S&W lifetime service policy. As the series grew in popularity, S&W developed the broad and thorough stable of variants available today. Some are reasonably priced, such as the M&P15OR (optics ready) carbine that features no iron sights and is designed for the consumer to put an optic on the rifle. Others are more radical adaptations such as the M&P15VTAC, a competition-ready AR carbine developed jointly with Viking Tactics.
The company was not tied to making only 5.56x45 mm NATO models. S&W developed one of the more unique ARs available with its M&P15R chambered for the affordable Russian 5.45x39 mm round. Externally a basic M&P, this carbine is much less expensive to shoot than a comparable 5.56x45 mm NATO variant. S&W also offers complete M&P15R uppers as well.
Equally radical are the new M&P15PS series of piston-operated rifles. These 5.56x45 mm NATO carbines, configured in the M4 style, employ a proprietary gas piston system that addresses the complaints lodged against the DGIS carbines and rifles. Rather than dumping gases and fouling into the action, the PS system’s gas piston transfers energy from gas tapped off the bore to the bolt carrier, keeping it and the interior of the action cleaner and cooler. While the PS variant features a set of specially designed round polymer handguards, the PSX variant employs a modified Troy Picatinny rail fore-end.
Another equally innovative addition to the line is the M&P15-22, a .22 Long Rifle rimfire variant with all the standard controls of the center-fire M&P15. The result is an affordable little carbine that would make for an excellent training tool that is cheap and easy to shoot. Also, when equipped with the company’s 25-round magazine, it is just plain fun to shoot (as I discovered for myself on a recent visit to the Smith & Wesson Academy). The company’s Performance Center has even dabbled with the M&P15, developing some interesting rifle-configured variants with 20-inch barrels, which are designed to wring out even more accuracy potential from the platform.