July 28, 2011

Practical Problem Solving: The S&W M&P 22-15

I'm fond of my AR-15. I don't mean that I sleep with it under my pillow or gaze longingly at its photograph on my desk at work. I appreciate well-designed and manufactured devices, whether firearms, musical instruments or computers. I find useful and functional design to be remarkable.

15.22 LS

The charming little weapon in the first photograph is my S&W M&P (Military & Police) 22-15 Standard model rifle. Its suggested retail price is $499.00. You'll also notice several accessories mounted on this side of the rifle.

15-22 RS

Here's the opposite side, and those of you familiar with AR-15s will recognize that the 22-15 is a faithful reproduction in virtually every respect.

15.22 BD

Here's the rifle with its hinged receiver open. Again, notice that it breaks down for cleaning exactly as the AR-15 family.

15.22 Bolt

Here's the bolt group of the 22-15, which bears only a superficial resemblance to the AR-15. I'll explain all of that shortly.

Before we go on, here’s a list of accessories I'll mention in this article:

(1) S&W 22-15 Standard Rifle. $499. 25 rnd mags $20.04: Go here.

(2) 1000 rnds of Fiocchi .223 $410. Lucky Gunner: Go here.

(3) Tasco Red Dot 38mm tube, $36.99: Go here.

(4) #11 Eye and #13 Objective—Butler Creek Flips Ups, app. $9.00 each. Go here.

(5) Magpul MOE commercial spec. stock. $59.95. Go here.

(6) SureFire G2 Nitrolon flashlight $55.00: Go here.

(7) Daniel Defense Sling Mount: $30.00: Go here.

The AR-15 family, the brainchild of Eugene Stoner, is indeed remarkable. Accurate, reliable, light weight, ergonomically brilliant, and when accomplished by many manufacturers, a thing of beauty, AR-15s are truly worthy of a bit of platonic admiration. There's just one problem…no, I'm not talking about the caliber. Yes, I know that in combat the .5.56mm is a bit anemic. Yes, I'd prefer a more powerful cartridge if I was in combat, but on the other hand, you can't have too much ammunition, and you can carry a lot more 5.56mm than anything in a larger caliber. There is no free lunch, and this post isn't about that ongoing argument anyway.

Back to the one problem: .223 ammunition (.223 is the civilian caliber designation while the military prefers the metric designation) is pretty expensive. currently offers 1000 rounds of Fiocchi .223 (with reloadable brass) for $410. That's reasonably cheap as .223 ammunition goes. You can, of course, reload, and if you do it enough, you can actually save money compared with even cheap factory .223. I used to reload and enjoyed it, but the problem is it's relatively time consuming, and as I've grown older, I've discovered that time is more valuable than I once imagined, particularly when the savings to be had from reloading are no longer as great as they once were for common rifle and handgun calibers. As many older people discover, I have a bit more disposable income than when I was younger, and as long as I can afford to pay a bit more for the ammo, I’d prefer to have the free time.

Shooting an AR-15 is just about as much fun as you can have with firearms. They're light, reliable, have very low recoil, are ridiculously accurate, and they simply feel right. They also look very cool, and even though some shooters are far too mature to admit such considerations, have you ever noticed how many of them have photographs of themselves proudly displaying various firearms? Hmmm.

A thousand rounds sounds like quite a bit, but you'd be surprised, particularly if you're planning on frequent practice, how quickly you can run through that amount of ammunition, particularly if you are participating in a professional one or two day class. Shooting is not only a physical skill, but a mental skill as well, and if you don't practice—regularly—its perishable. So we arrive at the problem: It is good (repeat after me: It is good; it is good) to own and shoot an AR-15, but it's also expensive.

One solution is one of the several .22LR adapter kits on the market. These normally consist of a bolt and bolt carrier group that slip into the upper receiver of an AR-15, replacing the normal bolt and bolt carrier. The AR-15 is a gas operated rifle, but such adapters (and the S&W 22-15) are simple blow-back actions and don't use the AR gas system. The kits also include a .22LR magazine (usually only one) that fits in the AR magazine well and uses its magazine release button. Such kits normally retail for about $130.00.

Any well-engineered kit will work reasonably well, but they have several drawbacks. The foremost drawback is that most magazines are limited to ten rounds and are quite expensive, often running as high as $100.00. Some kits have magazines of 25-30 rounds, but are often less than reliable in these larger sizes. In addition, I've found that magazines are often hard to find. The other factor is dirt: .22LR ammunition is quite dirty, and while it will shoot with good accuracy in standard AR-15 barrels, it can leave quite a bit of lead in the barrel and loads of powder gunk throughout the receiver, far more than shooting a great deal more .223 ammunition will cause.

I'm not a clean freak, but I do believe that a clean gun is a happy gun, and I like my guns to be very happy in their work. No, I don't talk to them; my cat certainly, my plants—maybe, but my guns, no. I don't mind cleaning guns, it's a part of appreciating fine machinery and fully understanding your weapons, and the AR-15 is easy to take down, clean and reassemble, but I don't like cleaning them longer and more often than necessary.

By now you've probably realized that the solution to this dilemma is the S&W 22-15. There are indeed similar weapons by other manufacturers, but Smith really got this one right. Smith and I have had a rather rocky relationship. They have always made fine revolvers, but many of their weapons, particularly their earlier semi-automatic pistols, just weren’t up to their promise. In recent years, S&W has, happily, reversed that trend in a great many ways, and the 22-15 is a fine example.

Before I get into the details of the Smith, let's explore the rationale for buying one. The standard model of the gun retails for $499, but can be found for considerably less with a bit of careful shopping. When you consider that many adapter kits with one spare magazine run for $200 and more, the difference is not so great, considering that 1000 rounds of .22LR can be had for less than $40.00. Compared to $410 for 1000 rounds of .223, you can nearly buy the Smith for the savings inherent in the first 1000 rounds. And it has been positively established by experiments with the Large Hadron Collider at CERN—as a side effect of looking for the Higgs Boson—that it really is scientifically impossible to have too many guns (or too much ammunition), but you always suspected that, didn't you? Ain't science grand?

Of course, the greatest benefit of the Smith is that it is, in virtually every way, identical to an AR carbine. The position and feel of all of the controls—bolt release, safety, trigger, magazine release, take down pin, cocking handle—is identical to that of a full-sized AR, with the exception that the travel of the cocking handle is much shorter than that of a real AR as the .22LR cartridge is much shorter. The two primary differences are that the Smith is about a pound lighter than a comparable AR, and that recoil—already very light in an AR—is all but nonexistent in the Smith.

The Smith is made primarily of polymer, and only those parts that need to be steel are made of steel and finished in what appears to be the same kind of dull black, mil-tech finish common on ARs. The forearm is a non-removable plastic with four standard sized, full-length accessory rails. The lower and upper receiver (which also has a full-length accessory rail) are also polymer.

The standard model comes with easily removable—by means of large knurled nuts--front and rear "iron" sights and no flash hider, an accessory available (nstalled) from the factory for an additional $20.00. In fact, a wide variety of accessories and finishes are available from the factory for extra cost, or you can do as I did and accessorize from the aftermarket.

Accuracy is easily on a par—within the range parameters of the .22LR cartridge—with the AR family. I chose an inexpensive yet well made Tasco red dot sight as being similar to the more expensive sights on my ARs. Unlike more expensive models with multiple, multi-colored reticles and other bells and whistles, the Tasco provides a simple, easy to see red dot. Windage and elevation click adjustments are audible and have a solid, positive feel. There is much to be said for simplicity. Turn the single rheostat control—11 separate brightness settings--to the brightness level appropriate to light conditions, and you're ready to go. You can certainly spend more than the price of the weapon on optics if you like, but when I sighted the Tasco in, I was able to shoot a 3-round group slightly under one inch from 50 yards, supported from sandbags on a bench with middling quality ammunition. Most expensive .22LR bolt-action rifles do no better, and the Smith has a standard feeling AR mil-spec. trigger rather than a ultra-light target trigger. In fact, the Smith's lock work resembles the AR mechanism, with the exception that Smith's hammer is plastic. Even so, it sounds and feels just like an AR. The Smith's barrel is not a heavy, target barrel, but it is more substantial than most .22 rifles.

One of the things I most appreciate about the Smith is its 25 round magazines which resemble standard AR 30 round magazines. These magazines cost only $20.04 direct from Smith, and are quite reliable. I've found that the key to reliability is to load no more than 23 rounds, and to load them by pulling down on the follower buttons on each side of the magazine, allowing each round to drop into the magazine rather than pushing it into the magazine under spring tension. This allows the cartridges to orient themselves in a sort of left/right/left manner and allows the nose of the top cartridge to protrude at an upward angle from the magazine lips. If the top cartridge is not in this attitude, you'll definitely experience a feedway malfunction. By the way, ten round magazines--useful for sighting in from a bench—are also available and inexpensive. I did initially have one 25 round magazine that would not feed reliably. I sent it back to Smith and received one that worked properly within a week.

You should also be sure to use a proper stance, holding the weapon firmly into the shoulder pocket. Failing to do this will often result in a failure to go into battery from a short stroking bolt, which didn't have a solid platform against which to recoil. There is no forward assist plunger on the right side of the weapon (that's a good thing with the .22LR which is a rimfire cartridge), but malfunction drills are identical to those employed with the AR. One should charge and manipulate the weapon smartly as delicate or tentative motions will tend to encourage malfunctions, but save your Incredible Hulk impressions for other weapons; the Smith is mostly made of plastic, after all, so butt-stroking others is pretty much right out, as the British would say.

As I mentioned earlier, the Smith employs a straight blowback action. The action spring rides above the bolt on a guide rod, which rides in two rails embedded at angles in its sides and attached to a plastic base behind the bolt. The recoil spring housing of the AR, in which rides the recoil spring and buffer, is non-functional on the Smith, and the plastic tube is present only as the mount for the telescoping stock. Unlike the AR, it is integrally molded as a piece with the lower receiver and cannot be removed, but it does accept properly dimensioned aftermarket stocks, like the Magpul unit I have, which is also available directly from the S&W factory. I chose this stock simply because it's the stock I use on my ARs, so why not be consistent? I also like its solid construction and unobtrusive but non-slip buttplate. Having the release mechanism protected by the body of the stock is also helpful, as I've had standard AR stocks collapse at inopportune times when hung up on gear and other objects.

I protect the Tasco sight with Butler Creek flip up scope covers, which at about $9.00 each are inexpensive and work very well. You should note that you can buy most—if not all—of the accessories I list here from sources other than those I've provided, possibly at reduced prices. However, I've generally found these sources to offer reliably good service.

I also mount a flashlight because I do the same with my ARs. We live in varying degrees of darkness half the time, yet few shooters practice shooting in low and no light situations. For less than $100, I've found that the SureFire G2 Nitrolon (polymer) flashlight and the VLTOR scout mount position the flashlight perfectly for on/off manipulation by the left hand thumb. Yes, you can purchase squeeze pads, but why add wires and additional expense and complexity when you have a perfectly good thumb just hanging around on the left side of the forearm anyway? The Scout Mount weighs almost nothing and adjusts the position of the flashlight, and clamps to the accessory rail, with a single thumbscrew.

The final accessory is a Daniel Defense accessory rail mount for one of their neat plunger-type sling mounts. Push a button to insert the solid, ballbearing plunger, and push the same button to release it. This works particularly well with single point slings, which I favor, rotates 360° and makes no noise. The only difference between the Smith and AR is that I use a Daniel Defense mount that clamps onto the recoil spring tube just behind the lower receiver on my ARs, which positions it perfectly for a single point sling, allowing the rifle to hang well on the body. I don't believe that particular mount is a good idea with the Smith as it could easily overstress or crush the plastic tube. The problem is that this forces you to attach the sling mount at the rear of the accessory rail, in front of the lower receiver, placing the center of gravity in about the middle of the gun, allowing the barrel to flip upward. The simple solution is to buy—or make if you can sew—a simple ¾" wide nylon strap with Velcro closures that wraps around the stock tube and the single point sling to keep the gun in a barrel down orientation.

My only real complaint about the Smith is its owner's manual. Most of it is obviously written with avoiding lawsuits foremost in mind. You know the type that might say something like this for a toaster: "Do not insert wet badgers connected to you by exposed copper wiring into the toaster slots." Can't you just imagine what the testimony was in that lawsuit? Lawyer: "And do you recognize this charred badger Mr. Jones?"

The Smith manual implies that if you're foolish enough to actually fire the gun, you or others could get hurt and its absolutely not the manufacturer's fault because they warned you! What is conspicuously missing from my manual is disassembly and reassembly instructions for the bolt/bolt carrier for cleaning. As I bought a rifle from one of the earliest production runs, this may have been subsequently corrected.

To take down the bolt, simply pull the recoil spring back slightly from its resting place on the black plastic base, and holding the back of the base steady, push the guide rod (the bolt will move too) slightly to the rear. There is a slot machined in the end of the guide rod, which will easily slide up and out of its holder on the top of the black plastic base if you push it back just a little. Simply slide the bolt off the rails and reassemble in reverse order. A little lubrication on the rails and guide rod are all that should normally be necessary (apart from a thin film of oil on metal parts for rust prevention, of course).

Cleaning the rifle is easy, but one should have plenty of Q-tips for small or hard to reach places, particularly around the breach face and its fixed, protruding ejector. It's important to be careful with the rifle when the upper receiver is open. This is so even with ARs, which have aluminum receivers. The single forward hinge point is vulnerable to damage with the receivers are open, and this is particularly true with the plastic Smith.

Oh yes, one additional warning: The accessory rails are plastic, so when attaching accessories, particularly scopes, keep in mind that torque specs applicable to metal rails might crush plastic rails. You'll need to figure it out by hand, again, saving the Incredible Hulk impressions for other weapons.

The Smith and Wesson M&P 22-15 is an excellent and inexpensive way to practice completely transferrable AR skills. Its light weight and miniscule recoil also makes it an excellent training weapon for any shooter, but particularly women and children who can shoot hundreds of rounds for little money.

Posted by MikeM at July 28, 2011 11:48 PM

My wife got me one of these for Christmas- except for initial sighting in, MY use of this really nice little gun has since been limited to feverishly re-loading magazines while she cheerfully (and accurately) pops round after round downrange. It has been totally reliable and a LOT of fun- Best, in my opinion of all the "tactical" .22LR long guns!

Posted by: John D at July 29, 2011 01:55 PM

I bought an early one, and apparently it was one of those with ALL the problems; after three trips back to the factory, the fourth trip they exchanged it for a new rifle. This one has functioned flawlessly

Posted by: Firehand at July 29, 2011 03:21 PM

Why are you listing .223 prices WRT this .22lr rifle?

Posted by: Smarty at July 30, 2011 07:04 AM

Dear Smarty:

On the theory that you're not kidding, I listed .223 prices to make the point that you can save a great deal of money shooting .22LR instead. And if you're shooting the 22-15, the skills you learn or hone will transfer directly to a genuine AR-15.

Thanks for reading and for your question!

Posted by: Mike Mc at July 30, 2011 02:05 PM