Two Ways to Go Lighter with An AR: M&P Versus Daniel Defense

These two rifles were separated by hundreds of dollars in price, but only ounces in weight. Which one is the better value? Its hard to pass up the $550 S&W M&P15 Sport, which offers a lot.


lightweight AR rifles

Most gun owners choose a handgun or a shotgun for home self defense, with fewer of us picking a rifle for that job. Part of the equation certainly has to do with the portability and maneuverability of the handgun in tight spaces and, in most homes, short hallways. With a 9mm Luger or 45 ACP semi-auto or a 38/357/44 Special wheelgun, we believe we can shoot well enough with enough power and enough capacity to keep firing until the threat stops threatening us. Handguns are also easy to secure by safe or lock from nosy kids who ought not be looking in mom or dad’s night stand, but who often do anyway. Other homeowners prefer the snick-snick of a pump or autoloading shotgun in 12 or 20 gauge (the gauge doesn’t much matter on the receiving end). But rifles, in particular AR-15s, deserve at least a look in this area because they can be short enough, light enough, deploy enough capacity, and be powerful enough where it counts. Oddly, it is power that stops many self-defense shooters from considering the 5.56 NATO-chambered rifle for home defense, because they don’t want to have to worry about penetration through sheetrock, wallboard, or even bricks. According to at least one expert, the trick is to choose the right bullet for the self-defense rifle, because the rifle itself has a lot of advantages over a handgun or shotgun.

J. Buford Boone III, owner of Boone Ballistics in Northport, Alabama, provided expert testimony for the NRA’s litigation wing to challenge state attempts to restrict or ban AR-15s (Friedman v. Highland Park, NYSRPA v. Cuomo, Shew v. Malloy, and Kolbe v. O’Malley [now Hogan]), with the banning states’ arguments being that civilians shouldn’t own long guns that look like military rifles. NRA countered that the prevalence of the AR as a home-defense choice isn’t known, and that the landmark Heller decision protects firearms that could be used by civilians in and around the home. That’s where Boone’s expert report comes in.

Boone has a list of ballistics credentials a mile long, one of which is that he is a retired Supervisory Special Agent (SSA) of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and had primary oversight of the FBI Ballistic Research Facility (BRF) from April 1997 to August 2012. Boone said in his expert report, “The AR-15 rifle has characteristics that make it particularly suitable for defensive purposes.” He then pointed to its positives:

— It is relatively lightweight.

— It is available with a telescoping/adjustable stock.

— It has a vertical pistol grip.

— It is semi-automatic and can be fired with one hand.

— It is chambered for cartridges that can be effective while having relatively mild recoil.

— It utilizes magazines with a standard capacity of 20 or 30 rounds.

So with Boone’s endorsement in mind, we went looking for a couple of rifles that, with training, could be used by a range of folks — from husky men to small-framed women — in the close confines of a home. That meant the shortest non-SBR barrel, an adjustable-length buttstock, the ability to be fired accurately and fast with open sights or optics out to 25 yards, and either the ability to accept a light or have a handguard shaped appropriately so a light could be held with the front hand. We found two very different approaches that, naturally, cost very different dollars.

The first was a Smith & Wesson Model M&P15 Sport 811036 5.56mm NATO, which we found many NIB selling for $550. This is a gas-impingement carbine-length M4. Unloaded and with its provided open sights, it weighed 6.7 pounds out of the box. With a loaded standard-capacity 30-round PMag magazine, it tipped the scales with a fighting weight of 7.7 pounds. It had a 16-inch barrel and a six-position telescopic buttstock, which allowed the stock length of pull to range between 10.5 to 13.8 inches and the overall length to be a fast-handling 32.5 to 36 inches. To save money, Smith left off the bolt assist and dust cover.

The second rifle was also a gas-impingement carbine, the Daniel Defense DDM4v7LW 5.56mm NATO, $1350, which was our price for a LNIB rifle from a private seller. This particular DD rifle became discontinued during our test period, but units are still available at retail through auction sites. MSRP was $1620. Also, at the time of publication, the upper was available separately for $949 at Its weight unloaded was 6.5 pounds and weight loaded with a 30-round PMag was 7.5 pounds. Unquestionably, this rifle was better appointed, in our opinion. The upper receiver was an A4 flat-top style that was optics-ready; that is, it didn’t come with sights. Internally, it had a chromed gas key and bolt carrier, and that part itself was an M16-profile bolt-carrier group. It had a flared mag well and a six-position Mil-Spec receiver extension, to which was fitted a Magpul MOE sliding buttstock. The chrome-moly vanadium steel barrel was 16 inches in length and was chrome-lined and magnetic-particle inspected (MPI). The barrel included an M4 feed ramp and was a thinnish, lightweight profile to keep weight down. Another area which helped save ounces was the DD 12-inch Modular Free Float Handguard, to which were affixed three 3-inch Picatinny rail sections — rather than the full thing being a quad rail. It had a similar overall length of 32.75 to 35.75 inches, and the LOP was 10.5 to 13.6 inch, plenty of adjustment for nearly anyone to get the right eye relief, whatever the optic would be.

Shortly into the test, we replaced the S&W buttstock and the DD’s Magpul MOE buttstock with Magpul CTR buttstocks to eliminate wobble. The slack in the stock of most M4s is just an irritant that we choose to fix. The Magpul CTR (Compact/Type Restricted) is a drop-in replacement buttstock for AR-15/M16 carbines. They’re light, and the streamlined A-frame profile avoids snagging and shields the release latch to prevent accidental activation. What we really like about the CTR is the supplemental friction lock system that minimizes excessive stock movement. It also provides an ambidextrous QD sling mount that will accept any push-button sling swivel. We bought a pair of the stocks from Cheaper Than Dirt! for $57 each (#2-MPIMAG310FOL).

Both rifles’ carbine receiver extensions, informally called buffer tubes, were Mil-Spec size rather than Commercial. The easiest way to distinguish between Mil-Spec and Commercial receiver extensions is to measure the tube diameter or read the manufacturer’s description. Mil-Spec receiver extensions have a slightly smaller diameter of approximately 1.15 inches. They also usually have a flat back. A correct Mil-Spec stock and a Commercial stock will fit over the Mil-Spec tube, but the Commercial version will be noticeably looser. Commercial receiver extensions have a slightly larger diameter of about 1.17 inches and usually have slanted backs. Some Commercial tubes may have a flat back and will still be compatible. Only the Commercial-size replacement stock will slide easily over a Commercial buffer tube. Do not try to force a Mil-Spec stock over the larger Commercial tube. Also, most Commercial receiver extension tubes are longer than standard Mil-Spec tubes, and often have a slanted back.

After verifying that we had the correct-size CTR version for these buffer tubes, we removed the existing stocks then gently mated the stock body with the carbine receiver extension and slid them together until the stock stopped just over 2 inches in. Then we depressed the release latch with one hand, and with the other hand, grasped both ends of the release pin and pulled down firmly. When the pins moved downward, we pushed the stock forward to complete the mount. To adjust the length of the stock, fully depress the release latch and pull the stock rearward to extend it. Push the stock forward to collapse it. Intermediate positions may be selected by partially depressing the release latch and moving the stock to the desired position.

As we noted, the S&W comes with a set of open sights, the rear sight being a Magpul Folding MBUS, which was only dial-adjustable for windage. Separately, this sight sells for $55 at Cheaper Than Dirt! (7-MAG248BLK). It was paired with an A2 post front sight on the gas block that’s elevation adjustable. If you wanted to add a similar set to the DD, you’d also need a Magpul MBUS Gen 2 Front Sight, $38 (2-MPIMAG247BLK). Some shooters will want to consider a carry-handle-style rear sight that adjusts for both windage and elevation with adjustment knobs and not fool with adjusting the front sight.

To keep weight down on the DD for close-action drills, we chose Bushnell’s First Strike Reflex Red Dot No. 730005, a low-profile dot sight. The unit is 2.4 inches long, has a 2-inch mounting length, and weighs 2.1 ounces. Cheaper Than Dirt! currently sells the No. 730005 in low-mount ($142, #7-730005) or high-mount ($158, #3-0930343) versions. The First Strike’s built-in mounting system quickly attached to the DD’s Picatinny rails. The sight’s small footprint offered an unlimited field of view and no magnification on the DD, but the front post blocked its operation on the S&W. To install the red dot on the S&W would require an offset rail, such as the GG&G 45-Degree Offset Accessory Rail (CTD #2-GGG1526, $29). This handy little rail allows the shooter to install micro red-dot optics, flashlights, lasers, and other items to be mounted at a 45-degree offset. Righties will put the rail on the right side so they can go from scope to dot with a quick counter-clockwise turn of the rifle, and without having to change head position. The unit is ambidextrous, so if lefties want to cant clockwise, they can do that. The offset piece mounts to a MIL-STD 1913 rail and offers five cross-slot mounting locations. It is 2.5 inches long, but only uses 1 inch of the top rail for mounting. It weighs 1.45 ounces. For our close-in 25-yard offhand shooting, we used the open sights as supplied by S&W and the First Strike on the DD.

lightweight AR rifle ammo

We fired three different bullet weights in the rifles, testing for function and accuracy at 25 yards and 100 yards. The rounds used started with what we deemed would be a good, lightweight in-house hollowpoint, Federal American Eagle 223 Remington 50-grain JHPs. To see how the slightly different twist rates handled different bullet lengths, we also fired Federal American Eagle 5.56x45mm NATO 55-grain FMJ XM193s and Winchester 5.56mm M855 62-grain FMJs. Also, we function-checked Winchester Varmint X 223 Rem. 40-grain polymer tips and a variety of PMags and steel magazines. Most AR-style rifles sold in states without magazine-capacity restrictions come with 30-round standard-capacity magazines, but we used 10-, 20-, 30-, and 40-rounders, and only had two bobbles with the M&P15. We had two failures to feed with the 10-rounders on the bench, only because they weren’t inserted all the way initially. We encountered no function problems otherwise.

The task we set for ourselves offhand at 25 yards wasn’t especially tough, but was realistic enough to find out problems with the rifles’ functioning under stress. With the rifle at low ready, safety on Fire, and an open bolt sitting behind a loaded magazine, on an audible start signal, we closed the bolt and fired two rounds in the 8-ring or better of an NRA Police Silhouette Target (B-27-PR) in under three seconds. A round fired after three seconds didn’t count, and neither did a round that hit outside the 8-ring. This would be pretty fair shooting with a pistol, but with the rifles it was fairly easy. With a shotgun at that distance, we likely would have had pellets hit off the target, which the self-defense shooter is still accountable for. In less than three seconds, we put two rounds inside the 8-ring 60% of the time with the Sport and 90% of the time with the DD. The open sights were the biggest problem on the Sport — they were just slower to resolve on the black target than the dot sight on the DD, so some shots didn’t make it under the time limit. When we moved the dot sight to the Sport, we shot it just as well as the DD. All the shots with the DD were under the time limit, but we did put one round in the 7-ring.

At the bench, we fired both rifles with the same Nikon M-223 3-12x scope with 42mm objective and a corresponding one-piece M-223 mount that mated with rails on both rifles. The M-223 3-12x42SF BDC 600 riflescope (CTD 7-16305, $385) has a side-focus parallax adjustment and see-through ballistic circles for long-range shooting. The various aiming points built into the BDC reticle allow hunters to hold dead-on up to 600 yards, taking the guesswork out of figuring elevation and bullet drop compensation. The M-223 one-piece aluminum scope mount (CTD 7-833N, $68) allowed us to quickly move the scope from gun to gun and didn’t add a lot of weight. The front-sight post on the S&W was fixed on the gas block, of course, but we could still see past it with the scope. At 100 yards, the Federal American Eagle 55-grain FMJs shot a dead heat, 2.1 inches for both rifles. We were most interested in the results of the AE 50-grain hollowpoints because we had used them at 25 yards, and the DD held a slight edge there, 1.6 inches to 1.9 inches. Neither rifle shot the Winchester 5.56mm M855 62-grain FMJs worth a hoot: The S&W was better at 2.9 inches compared to the DD’s 3.3-inch groups.

With all that as prelude, here’s what we thought about the rifles individually:

lightweight AR rifle

Smith & Wesson Model M&P15 Sport 811036 5.56mm NATO, $550

The Sport is part of an extensive line of M&P15s in two chamberings and a variety of finish packages. There are also 300 Whisper/300 AAC Blackout versions, whose cartridge velocities make it easier to run suppressed without losing energy. The 5.56mm NATO models include the M&P15 MOE Mid Magpul Spec Series 811054, $1259; the MOE Mid Magpul Spec Series 811053, $1259; the VTAC II Viking Tactics 811025, $1949; the M&P15X Rifle 811008, $1379; the M&P15OR Rifle 811003, $1069; the M&P15 Rifle 811000, $1249; the M&P15T Tactical 811041, $1159; the M&P15ORC Rifle, Fixed Stock 811013, $1039; and similar rifles supplied with reduced-capacity (10 rounds) magazines and some with fixed magazines. The M&P 15 Sport is marketed as an entry-level AR-15, but to our eyes, it was just a lightweight, simple 5.56 that really worked well.

As we noted, it doesn’t have a dust cover and forward assist like the DD did, but those omissions don’t bother us because of the money saved. Did crap get in the action as a result of the dust cover being omitted? Yes, and our shooters could detect that as a gritty feel in the charging handle, but there were no resulting malfunctions. The M&P15 Sport’s barrel is a full-profile cut of 4140 steel, noticeably thicker than the DD’s. Current models are specced as having 1:9 twist rates, but our gun was an earlier version with the 1:8 5R twist, which designates gain-twist rifling. The handguard was 6 inches long and made of ribbed polymer, which felt great. Downside: It didn’t have the ability to accept accessories as did the DD. That limits its flexibility on the one hand, but keeps the rifle uncluttered on the other hand. So, you’ll have to decide whether the lack of rails is a disqualification or qualification. We found it was easy to hold a flashlight in a C-clamp grip using the forward hand.

bullet patterning

Another cost savings were having just the gas key and bolt carrier chrome-coated, rather than more components being chromed on the DD. Again, this isn’t a functional issue with reasonable care. The S&W has a forged integral trigger guard which is oversized to accept a gloved hand, but you can’t choose to replace the trigger guard with something else later. Upside: The solid trigger guard offers no gap between itself and the grip, so there’s no sharp edge to abrade your finger if you’re handling and shooting it one-handed with the full weight of the rifle sitting on that spot. The Sport is tall, with an overall height of 10.4 inches, which can’t be shortened without changing the front sight gas block. The muzzle device was an A2-style “Birdcage” design, which was ported on top and solid on bottom to reduce dust from blowing up in prone. Upon close examination, the Smith & Wesson M&P seemed very well constructed. The fit between the receiver halves were tight. Initially, the lock on the charging handle was a little sticky, but that loosened up with time. The quality of the workmanship was fine, except we noted a substantial finish blemish on the upper just below the rail. It comes with one Magpul PMag 30-rounder, and we’d add more of those and some 10- or 20-round mags for easier bench shooting.

rifle flash hider

What’s particularly useful in these rifles as a class and in this unit in particular is the adjustability. There was plenty of top rail for shooters to slide on the M-223 mount and scope loosely, adjust the stock for a comfortable LOP, then slide the scope forward or backward as needed to get the right eye relief, and insert the bolts and tighten them. Basically, we could adapt the rifle to any-size shooter in about a minute, though it required re-zeroing. However, once we had the rifle on the paper initially, it stayed on the paper at up to 100 yards, so re-zeroing was a one- or two-shot affair. Helpful in maintaining accuracy was the Sport’s trigger, which offered a creep-free single-stage break at 6.5 pounds. We thought it was much better than the DD’s trigger.

The M&P15 Sport rifle came with easy-to-understand instructions for disassembly and assembly for cleaning and maintenance. To check that the rifle is unloaded, grasp the rifle with your finger off the trigger and outside the trigger guard, point the muzzle in a safe direction, depress the magazine release and remove the magazine. Place the safety selector lever on “Safe” and pull the charging handle all the way back, press and hold the lower portion of the bolt catch down while you release pressure on the charging handle. This will lock the bolt in the open position. Return the charging handle fully forward until it locks and remove your finger from bolt catch. Look into the receiver and check the chamber to be sure no cartridges are visible and insert your pinkie finger into the chamber to feel that it’s empty. Be sure not to release the bolt onto your finger.

To load the rifle, insert a filled magazine, touch the bolt-release button, and allow the bolt to jump forward, stripping a round off the top of the magazine and pushing the cartridge into the chamber. To fire it, flip the safety lever to “Fire” and discharge a round.

For disassembly of an empty gun, push the top of the bolt release to ensure that the bolt is in the forward position. Push in the takedown pin above and behind the trigger from the left side and pull the pin out on the right side of the receiver until it comes to a positive stop. Pivot the lower receiver down and away from upper receiver. If required, remove the pivot pin from the front of receiver (in a similar manner to the rear pin) and separate the upper receiver from the lower receiver completely. Pull the charging handle to the rear and remove the bolt carrier assembly. Remove the charging handle by pulling it backwards to the takedown notch and down out of the upper receiver.

Daniel defense ar rifle

Once the bolt carrier is clear of the firearm, move the bolt forward in the carrier to the unlocked position and remove the firing-pin retaining pin. Do not alter the split end of the firing pin retaining pin. Push the bolt into the bolt carrier to put it in the locked position. Remove the firing pin out of the rear of the bolt carrier.

Our Team Said: The S&W M&P Sport doesn’t kick much, is light and easy to handle, has an adjustable stock to fit shooters of all sizes, accepts optics, has plenty of attachment points to accept single- or double-point slings, and there’s an underslung bayonet lug. There’s a lot of value in this rifle.

Daniel Defense DDM4v7LW 02-128-16524-047 5.56mm NATO, $1350

The price as listed above is for a recently available new gun promoted for sale on Obviously, the DDM4v7LW is a better-appointed gun, but you will pay for those upgrades. The question a shooter who’s shopping for this type of rifle has to answer is, what am I willing to pay for such upgrades? Owner Marty Daniel got started in the firearms business by making sling loops and rail interfaces, but his component business eventually funded a 38,000-square-foot facility in Black Creek, Georgia, where the company became famous for its state-of-the-art cold hammer-forged barrels. Daniel Defense also operates a 90,000-square-foot factory in Ridgeland, S.C.

smith and wesson AR rifle

All Daniel Defense AR rifles operate via Eugene Stoner’s direct gas impingement original M16/AR-15 design, which eliminates the conventional gas cylinder, piston, and operating rod assembly. It functions by using high-pressure propellant gases, which move up through a port in the barrel just prior to the bullet leaving the muzzle, passing into the gas plug and then down a tube to impinge on the bolt carrier and start the recoil stroke.

There are several DD V7 model configurations, including a 16-inch mid-length government-profile barrel and a DDM4 V7-300 in 300 AAC Blackout. The Daniel Defense M4 V7 lightweight upper receiver group is built off the V5 platform and is about 5 ounces lighter than the original V7. The Modular Float Rail 12.0 can be run “slick” with an uninterrupted top rail that runs the length of the tube. This allows the handguard to remain snag-free and uncluttered, making for a more comfortable off-hand point of contact than full-length quad-rail designs. Or, installing modular Picatinny rail sections is easy to do, allowing the shooter to customize the rail set up. The handguard has integral 3-inch MIL-STD-1913 rail interfaces at 3 and 9 o’clock at the front. We moved the 3-inch rail interface at 6 o’clock rearward about 4.5 inches to accept a vertical foregrip. The 12-inch handguard covers a pinned, low-profile gas block at the Mid-Length gas port position, offering the dual benefits of a longer sight radius and increased gas dwell time for softer recoil at the butt.

Generally speaking, we like to put money into guns where it counts the most. The Daniel Defense DDM4v7LW upper assembly features a premium, cold hammer-forged barrel made from Mil-Spec 4150 chrome-moly vanadium steel that is chrome lined for durability and corrosion resistance.

The DD’s six-groove 1:7 rifling twist rate would stabilize longer bullets, and the 16-inch barrel is turned down to a lightweight profile to shed excess weight, resulting in a trim package that is easy to carry without sacrificing performance. M4 feed ramps are incorporated into the barrel extension and upper to enhance feeding, while a true 5.56×45 NATO chamber ensures that both commercial and higher pressure surplus mil-spec ammunition may be safely used.

The bolt and carrier both pass a thorough High Pressure/Magnetic Particle Inspection, in which a proof load or overpressure cartridge is used to locate imperfections.

Some of the Daniel Defense rifle’s controls are ambidextrous. On the left side is the vertical bolt hold-open release lever and the fire selector lever. The 12 o’clock position is marked “SEMI” and the selector’s 9 o’clock position is marked “SAFE.” These symbols also appear on the right side, along with a selector lever. The magazine catch/release button appears on the right side and is protected by a three-sided guard to the rear of the magazine well. DDM4 V7 rifles are furnished with a conventional M16/AR-15 series charging handle.

Of the pair, we liked the DD’s as-provided Magpul MOE buttstock better than the nondescript S&W stock, but we wound up replacing both with the non-wobbly CTR.

Out front, we preferred the DD’s ability to accessorize the Pic rails on the 12-inch smooth handguard. We also like its free-float design, which should have offered better accuracy, but didn’t with our test ammos. The 43-slot continuous toprail offered plenty of sighting options, all of which would cost additional dollars, but there’s no frame for the front sight to mess with the sight picture of scopes. If we owned this gun, we’d likely run a medium to long-range optic on top then use an offset rail for a closer-range dot.

A disappointment was the DD’s trigger, which was a heavy, single-stage (8.6-pound break) affair that would soon be replaced with a Geissele or Ruger aftermarket unit.

Our Team Said: If we seem underenthused about the Daniel Defense DDM4v7LW, maybe there is some of that, mainly because of the cost. Bottom line, however, the rifle fed everything we threw at it, shot well with at least one ammunition selection, and was a joy to handle by all our shooters. But it would require adding sights of some sort to the base package, which adds to the cost, and we didn’t like the trigger. Our view is that the Daniel Defense DDM4v7LW is definitely a lot of gun, but the Sport is probably the better gun for the money.

Written and photographed by Gun Tests Staff, using evaluations from Gun Tests team testers.


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