by Joseph Kurtenbach - Monday, June 18, 2012
Prior to its release, speculation abounded as to what the engineers at Smith & Wesson were developing. The “Shield Yourself” promotional video released by the Springfield, Mass.-based gunmaker further muddied the waters, and opened the floodgates to Internet debates where enthusiasts hypothesized about new products ranging from body armor and riot shields to shotguns designed for personal defense. In the end, however, the Shield turned out to be a new example of what S&W is best known for: a handgun designed for armed citizens and professionals who stake their lives on its quality.
The Shield is the smallest addition to date to the company’s Military & Police (M&P) line, which traces its roots to the Model of 1899 .38 S&W Military and Police revolver—now called the Model 10—and today includes revolvers, polymer service pistols and AR-style rifles. At only 6.1-inches long, 4.6-inches tall and less than 1-inch wide at its thickest point, the Shield is ideal for concealed carry. Certainly there are smaller guns out there, but few combine the size, power—the Shield is available in either 9 mm Luger or .40 S&W—and pedigree of the new M&P. With a distinguished lineage comes expectations and at first glance the Shield bears an unmistakable resemblance to the older, larger members of its family. Its stainless-steel slide, contoured for easy re-holstering, is finished with a black Melonite coating for increased durability. Also retained are the scalloped serrations, which provide purchase during slide manipulation. Steel, three-dot tactical sights common to the M&P line are dovetailed into the top of the slide, though the low-profile mounts are narrower than in standard models.
The Shield’s black polymer frame is of the same pattern, albeit smaller, as the other M&P models. With a grip-angle of 18 degrees past perpendicular to the bore axis, the stock’s front- and backstraps have S&W’s Palmswell grip stippling. While similar in appearance and feel to those of the larger guns, the stocks do not follow suit in that they are not interchangeable. The M&P’s Palmswell grip system incorporates three sizes of backstrap in order to provide users with the best fit possible. This system would not have been feasible within the sub-1-inch width of the Shield. Instead, the S&W engineers opted for a fixed, medium-size grip—the size that, according to their research, was already being utilized by 90 percent of M&P customers.
A tip of the hat to a heritage of successful design is only part of the Shield’s story. The pistol also represents innovation, improvement and an ability to adapt to trending demands. In recent years, small guns chambered in .380 ACP have been very popular; and subcompacts with capacious magazines for 9 mm, .40 S&W and .45 ACP have become a veritable staple. A dialogue emerged, or perhaps always existed, pitting concealability and ease-of-carry against power and capacity, especially in the context of a back-up or personal-protection firearm. While the correct answer lies in individual preference and ability, compromise is also a sensible solution. The Shield offers the svelte size and weight—only 19 ounces, unloaded—preferred by the carry-conscious while still packing serious punch—seven or eight and six or seven rounds of 9 mm Luger or .40 S&W, respectively. Two magazines—one flush-fitting, the other with plus-one capacity and an extended grip—ship with the Shield and, by utilizing a single, though semi-staggered column design, maximize ammunition capacity within the confines of the pistol’s minimalist frame.
The Shield features a full complement of controls on the left side of its Zytel frame, and while there is nothing unusual about those features, it is surprising to find a configuration usually reserved for full-size handguns on a gun the size of the comparatively diminutive Shield. Farthest forward, located just above the trigger, is a take-down lever, which, when the slide is locked rearward, can be rotated down in a clockwise manner for disassembly. The manual slide-lock is behind and above the trigger, and mates with a notch cut into the base of the slide near the mid-length mark. It is important to note that when the slide is cycled on an empty magazine, the slide-lock will automatically engage.
A thumb safety is just below the slide’s serrations, and above the frame’s backstrap texturing. Color coding is not used to denote safe or fire, rather the down-position allows the gun to fire while the up-position blocks the trigger. Shallow insets in the molded frame house the aforementioned controls, and narrow grooves provide purchase when accessing the controls. Finally, the magazine release button is behind and below the trigger guard and is textured—in the same pattern as the stock—rather than grooved.
Field stripped, the Shield looks not unlike most other striker-fired semi-automatic handguns. The components are the slide assembly, barrel, guide rod/recoil spring and the frame. The Shield’s stainless steel barrel is 3.1-inches long and, like the slide, finished in black Melonite. During operation the slide cycles rearward, tilting the barrel’s breech and integral steel feed ramp down toward the magazine and the nose of the topmost cartridge. Under power from the decompressing recoil spring—the Shield uses a pair of springs captured on a steel guide rod—the slide returns forward and in so doing strips a new cartridge from the magazine, pushing it up the ramp and into the realigned barrel’s chamber. To guide and secure the slide, the Shield uses a stainless-steel chassis with rails that fit into channels on either side of the slide’s interior. The chassis system allows steel-on-steel contact, ensuring reliability and durability while also imparting weight savings gained from using a relatively small steel assembly mounted into a much lighter polymer frame.
Several safety features are engineered into the Shield’s design. Most obvious is the manual thumb safety. Self-defense practitioners will debate contentiously whether or not a back-up gun should have a manual safety, a primary argument being that it is just one more thing that could hinder its quick presentation and use at a critical moment. Even the stiffest opposition, however, could probably get on board with the Shield’s safety configuration. Because the lever is set into the frame to accommodate the pistol’s slim profile, there is virtually no chance of it getting snagged or hung up during presentation. Additionally the lever requires definite force to manipulate in either direction, the safety’s tension is more than firm enough to resist accidental contact, and engagement and disengagement are both accompanied by a positive, audible click. Those still set against the manual safety can rest assured that if they leave it disengaged, it will stay that way. Passive features include a chamber window, found in the top of the slide, and an articulated trigger safety. A sear-release lever rounds out of the Shield’s safety mechanisms. Accessible when the slide is locked to the rear, the lever can be pulled down—to a position nearly parallel with the slide—disengaging the sear and making disassembly possible without having to pull the trigger. It should be mentioned that the Shield does not utilize a magazine disconnect and is therefore capable of firing even if the magazine has been removed.
For evaluation I tested a 9 mm Luger version of the Shield. Prior to introducing live ammunition, the pistol was given a thorough once-over. Rather than simply shortening the stock and barrel, the Shield looks as though it were downsized proportionally. In my hand, that attention to detail translates into a gun that just plain feels great. Some smaller pistols take on the ergonomics of a brick, not so with the Shield, which to me seems very natural, and I credit that to the stock being both shorter and leaner in equal measure. The controls were, though small, easy to manipulate and well within the reach of my thumb while maintaining a proper grasp. The white dot sights were bright and easy to acquire despite being seated very low on the slide. The grip accommodates a comfortable two-finger hold, and the extended magazine provides more than enough room for the pinky. Dry-firing, I noticed the trigger is firm, but not excessively so—the average of 10 pulls registered 7 pounds, 2 ounces—with a crisp break. The Shield’s predecessors possessed smooth triggers as well, but were criticized for not having a clear reset. The engineers at S&W redesigned the M&P trigger for the Shield; and by holding the trigger to the rear, cycling the slide, and slowly easing the trigger forward, I was able to experience both an audible and tactile cue that confirmed the problem was solved. Trigger reset is easy to discern and takes place at about the midpoint of the initial pull stroke.
Heading to the range I put the Shield through its paces. Delivering accurate fire at 25 yards is easy to do with the Shield—it is comfortable, has effective sights and points naturally. However, because the pistol is designed for personal protection, an appropriate engagement distance of 7 yards was selected for accuracy evaluation. Three brands of defense ammunition were chosen and five consecutive, five-round groups were fired from a bench rest for accuracy. A complete results table is included, but all the ammunition performed admirably and average group sizes varied by only 0.10 inches. Hornady Critical Defense posted the best average at 1.55 inches, but Remington HD had the smallest group; exactly 1 inch. During testing I encountered no stoppages or failures. In fact, I fired more than 400 rounds from the pistol used in evaluation and witnessed close to 4,000 rounds being fired from other Shields. All told there were no more than five or six stoppages, all of them ammunition induced.
The S&W M&P Shield is exactly what I’d expect from a company that understands that it must embrace tradition, but not at the expense of innovation. By holding on to what works, fixing the things that don’t and keeping a finger on the pulse of expanding and changing consumer demand, S&W has produced a handgun purpose-built to not only be carried and concealed by armed citizens, but also to stand up to the rigors and challenges of law enforcement use.
Manufacturer: Smith & Wesson; (800) 331-0852; www.smith-wesson.com
Action Type: semi-automatic, striker-fired center-fire pistol
Caliber: 9 mm Luger (tested), .40 S&W
Frame: molded Zytel polymer
Slide: stainless steel with black Melonite finish
Magazine: detachable box; six- or seven-round capacity
Barrel Length: 3.1"
Weight: 19 ozs.
Overall Length: 6.1"
Accessories: cardboard box, seven- or eight-round magazine with extended grip, lock, owner’s manual
Suggested Retail Price: $449
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