January 2008

Full-Size Polymer .45s: S&W’s M&P45 Beats H&K and Glock

Put head to head with two previously high-rated handguns, Smith & Wesson’s Dark Earth .45 was nice to shoot and nice on the wallet. We’d pick it over the Model 21 and USP45CT units.

How We Tested

We fired a range of ammunitions for this match-up, including Aguila’s IQ 117-gr. hollowpoint, Hornady +P 230-gr. JHP/XTPs, and an inexpensive 230-gr. FMJ ball ammo from Sellier & Bellot. To collect accuracy data, we fired five-shot groups from a sandbag rest at targets 15 yards downrange. We recorded velocities using a PACT Professional Chronograph XP from Brownells, with the sky screens set 3 yards from the muzzle. Our accuracy targets were Caldwell Orange Peel 4-inch bullseyes, and we used a B21XR 50-foot silhouette target from Law Enforcement Targets, Inc. for our combat evaluations, which were shot at 7 yards.

Because Smith & Wesson seemed to have designs on the M&P45 being considered as a replacement for the 9mm M-9 from Beretta, we asked our test team, composed of law-enforcement officers and old Airborne soldiers, to consider which gun they would want when the chips were down. Their responses were direct and hard-hitting.

Smith & Wesson M&P45 .45 ACP, $619

The M&P45s feature a 4.6-inch barrel with an overall length of 8.0 inches. The M&P45 comes standard with three interchangeable grips, a steel dovetail mount front sight and a steel Novak Lo-Mount carry rear sight. Tritium sights are also available. A universal Picatinny-style equipment rail has been incorporated for tactical lights and lasers. Our polymer pistol had an empty weight of 25.1 ounces.

Full-Size Polymer .45s

When we tested a $619 Smith & Wesson M&P 45 .45 ACP (top) against a Heckler & Koch USP Compact Tactical USP45CT that cost twice as much (left), we didn’t find twice the performance in the more expensive gun, which earned an A in the June 2007 issue, but which falls to C- here. The $635 Glock 21 SF, (right), which we tested in July 2007, was a B+ gun in July, and it maintained that ranking when pitted against the M&P45.

The new frame-mounted ambidextrous thumb safety acts as a passive safety device, allowing the slide to be pulled toward the rear, clearing the firearm without disengaging the safety. Another feature is the lanyard attachment. All M&P45 pistols feature a Zytel polymer frame reinforced with a stainless-steel chassis and a hardened black Melonite-finished stainless-steel barrel and slide and a Dark Earth Brown grip. This is a silly name for a color—Sand would have been fine—but we overlooked it.

A passive trigger safety prevents the pistol from firing if dropped, and a sear-release lever eliminates the need to press the trigger in order to disassemble the firearm. A loaded chamber indicator is located on top of the slide. The firearm also features an ambidextrous slide stop and a reversible magazine release, as well as an enlarged trigger guard designed to accommodate gloves. The Smith & Wesson lifetime service policy is standard with each pistol.

The barrel measured 4.6 inches in length, with a sight radius of 6.8 inches and an overall height of 5.5 inches. The frontstrap and backstrap heights were 2.5 inches and 3.8 inches, respectively. Across the ambi safety paddles, the gun’s maximum width taped out to be 1.6 inches, with the grip measuring 1.4 inches thick and 5.9 inches in circumference. Our test sample weighed 25.1 ounces with an unloaded magazine. The trigger pull weight single action was 8.0 pounds, and the trigger span of the gun cocked in single-action mode was 2.7 inches. Trigger travel rest to fire was 0.3 inches, and the trigger reset distance was 0.140 inch.

We liked a lot of things on the M&P45. Of course, to start it was slightly cheaper than the Glock and $600 cheaper than the H&K. It had impressive fit, finish, and cosmetics. For instance, we could see only the faintest line at the bottom of the grip where the pieces could be switched. The brown frame color offsets the black slide nicely, though the black pins in the brown frame didn’t look good to our eyes.

The gun is ambidextrous. Lefties had no trouble working the slide release or the safety, and the magazine release is reversible. The magazine release was a push-button design that could be changed to operate from the right side if desired—a boon for lefties, but the Glock and H&K guns had full-time ambi buttons, the H&K behind the trigger guard and the Glock in roughly the same place, but back into the frame, for good or ill.

Where the M&P gained an edge was in its 1911-style ambi safety paddles. Our test team loved that feature. 1911 shooters will welcome these levers, for they broaden the shooter’s choice of which condition to leave the gun in. Also, because the levers work all the time, the gun can be made safe loading, unloading, or working the slide. The Glock, of course, lacked this feature altogether, and the H&K had it on just the left-hand side. However, the H&K’s lever could be reversed.

One of the most important aspects of any pistol is the way it feels in the shooter’s hands, and the M&P feels good. We found the M&P’s grip angle to be to our liking. One of our testers called the M&P "a natural pointer" the first time he handled it, commenting that the grip angle reminded him of the 1911. The hand slips under the M&P’s beavertail better, and the thinner grip allowed the shooter’s hand to close around it better than the blockier Glock, we thought. Additionally, the optional backstraps allow shooters with different hand sizes to customize the grip for best fit. Unlike on the M&P40 we recently tested, we were able to extract the 45’s grip tool from its storage space and change grips. The Glock and H&K lacked this feature.

In more detail, the trigger face was hinged, and when the bottom of the trigger was pulled, it deactivated the striker block safety. The initial take-up disengaged the safety, then there was some creep and additional weight, then a bit of travel before a clean break at 8 pounds. Once pulled, a trigger stop hit a ridge on the inside of the trigger guard, which shortened the reset distance.

Elsewhere, the Novak sights were clear and easy to see; the frame included an accessory rail, and the wavy slide serrations provide a great grasping surface for working the slide without discomfort. The double-stack, 10-round magazine doesn’t cause the grip to be bulky. Also, with a 10-round count, it’s easy to calculate and count the total rounds you’re carrying and what you have shot, and what you have left. Under stress, it’s amazing how difficult it is to multiply times 7, 8, or 13.

From the bench, the M&P45 printed its best five-shot groups with Aguila’s 117-grain hollowpoints (1.4 inches), followed by the Sellier & Bellot 230-grain FMJs (1.5 inches) and Hornady’s 230-grain JHP/XTPs (1.8 inches). That was better than the Glock and H&K using the high-speed Aguila ammo and the S&B ball round, but behind the H&K with Hornady load.

Elsewhere, the M&P’s external extractor helped the gun function without flaw. The rear Novak low mount sight with two white dots was adjustable for windage only. The barrel hood offered a hole at the rear that extended into the breech face for visual inspection of the chamber. The ejection port in the slide was large. The well-built blued magazines were numbered 3 to 10 on the back side of the magazine, with the only weird thing being that the 9 hole was lower than the 10-hole.

But the gun’s not perfect. We found very sharp points on the front of the frame under the guide rod. This is a ticky-tacky point, because the other guns had the same problem, and that part of the frame isn’t exposed. And the M&P45 was the most difficult of the test guns to field-strip.

Also, we had trouble loading the ninth and tenth rounds into one magazine, and we couldn’t load the tenth round into the second magazine. We also noticed that when releasing the slide, it’s possible to engage the safety inadvertently. If you train with it, snapping the safety back down after a reload won’t be a problem, but if you’re not aware of it and you’ve shot a full magazine, reloaded, and snapped the slide home expecting the gun to go bang when you pull the trigger, then the safety lever being up could be a problem.

Glock G21 SF .45 ACP, $637

In July, we covered the major changes between the standard Glock 21 and the 21 SF model. To recap those changes briefly, the trigger housing was changed and an ambidextrous magazine release was installed. Original G21 magazines won’t fit the SF, but SF magazines will fit older Model 21 pistols. The backstrap was shortened by about 0.10 inch.

The barrel measured 4.6 inches in length, with a sight radius of 6.8 inches and an overall height of 5.2 inches. The frontstrap and backstrap heights were 2.6 inches and 3.6 inches, respectively. Across the thumb ridges in the grip frame, the gun’s maximum width taped out to be 1.4 inches, with the grip measuring 1.4 inches thick and 6.3 inches in circumference. Our test sample weighed 26.5 ounces with an unloaded magazine. The trigger pull weight was 7.7 pounds, and the trigger span of the gun cocked in single-action mode was 2.9 inches.

In this test, the G21 SF had a flat, boxy feeling compared to the M&P45, but the SF was nevertheless more pleasant to handle than older Glocks. (Many of our testers use Glocks at work, so they were able to make this assessment simply by reaching in their holsters.) However, the Glock’s smooth grip texture could be a problem with sweaty hands, and some of our shooters complained that when they bore down on the gun, the left top part of the grip frame irritated the inside web of the right-hand thumb.

Still, we thought the SF did the best job of handling recoil compared to the M&P and H&K. The grip angle allowed the gun to come onto target quickly, and it recovered the best during our combat shooting.

The Glock trigger had a short stroke that was smooth into the break. We never got to the point in our press where we felt it was taking too long to break.

The sights consisted of a white outlined notch in the rear unit, which was dovetailed into place. Our team said the sights were thick and allowed for little play in the sight picture. On our sample, the front dot was unevenly applied, with a thin strip at 12 o’clock. Our testers also don’t like a plastic front sight on a combat pistol.

The Glock 21 SF was right in the middle in our accuracy tests. Overall average for five shots was about 1.7 inches across. But when firing the Aguila IQ 117-grain HPs, the SF was a close second.

H&K USP Compact Tactical USP45CT .45 ACP, $1235

Our third gun was the Heckler & Koch USP Compact Tactical. Also referred to as the USP45CT, this gun may be carried as a traditional double-action pistol or it can be carried cocked and locked for single-action operation. The HK USP45CT pistol was the only gun shipped with an eight-round magazine, putting it at a capacity disadvantage.

The new Compact Tactical USP45CT arrived in a ballistic nylon attaché case with tool kit and cleaning kit and two magazines. The gun’s price also included a longer barrel threaded for a suppressor. Our team thought the package was professional and businesslike (One commented that it was "everything a hit man could want.")

The barrel measured 4.4 inches in length, with a sight radius of 5.6 inches and an overall height of 5.1 inches. The frontstrap and backstrap heights were 2.3 inches and 3.1 inches, respectively. Across the levers underneath the slide, the gun’s maximum width was 1.4 inches; the grip thickness was 1.2 inches, and it was 5.5 inches in circumference. Our test sample weighed 26.3 ounces with an unloaded magazine. The SA trigger pull weight was 5.3 pounds and the DA pull was 11.5 pounds. The trigger span of the gun cocked in single-action mode was 2.7 inches and 2.9 inches in double action.

Perhaps moreso than the Glock, this gun suffered in a direct comparison with the M&P45. Shooting the guns side by side, our testers said the slim grip frame’s sharp checkering worked great with gloves, and the large slide-release and safety levers were easy to manipulate, but the small mag-release button would be hard to work with gloves on. Our testers didn’t much like shooting the USP45CT over long round counts without protection on their hands.

In our view, the double-action trigger of the USP45CT was too heavy and not nearly as pleasant as its single-action trigger. When we fired the gun from the bench, we were able to land an average SA size group of about 1.7 inches for all shots fired during our accuracy test. But during combat sequences when we started with DA, we thought the trigger was creepy, and the pull weight was significant enough for the gun to shift in the hand during the backward trigger stroke. That when we noticed the looseness in the front part of the SA pull, which was creepy instead of feeling like the front part of a two-stage pull, like on the M&P45. The slim grip was also harder to point, we thought, and we noted the natural tendency to dip the trigger on the double-action pull.

The decocker/safety lever was found on the left side only, but was reversible for left-handed shooters. We found it safe to ride the safety while shooting because the downward pressure exerted would not activate the decocker. We preferred having a safety lever like that found on the M&P45 and H&K guns over nothing, like on the Glock.

Magazines were a bright spot for the H&K. They were of high quality, with steel bodies and tight construction. One loaded to capacity easily, and on magazine two, round eight was hard to get in, but it did go in.

SMITH & WESSON M&P 45 .45 ACP

GLOCK 21 SF .45 ACP

ACCURACY AND CHRONOGRAPH DATA

H&K USP COMPACT TACTICAL .45 ACP

GUN TESTS REPORT CARD