Gun Review: Smith & Wesson M&P9 Shield

The market for guns is growing faster than the national debt. Paradoxically, the guns themselves are shrinking. Powerful handguns are getting smaller, easier to carry and less expensive. The Smith & Wesson M&P9 Shield continues this trend. It’s a pistol trimmed down to a size often reserved for weaker cartridges like the .380, but it maintains many of the ruffles and flourishes of its larger siblings in the M&P series. That’s all well and good, except that there are hidden costs that can outweigh the benefits of proliferating pistol shrinkage . . .

A smallish handgun can be difficult to shoot with accuracy due to its short sight radius. A small 9mm gun can twist around in the hand like a python with abdominal cramps. And reliability can suffer when power overwhelms small springs, feathery frames and parts made by pixies. I tested the Shield because I wanted to know if the baby M&P is a worthy entry into the M&P family, or just some marketing maven’s idea of a profitable brand extension.

I Say Hello to My Little Friend

I opened the box expecting to find a Noisy Cricket tucked inside. In its glamorous publicity shots, the Shield looks like a really tiny niney, but the pictures are deceiving. In real life, the Shield is small, sure, but it’s no mouse gun. The Shield measures in at only 6/10ths of an inch shorter than Smith’s M&P Compact and weighs in at less than three ounces lighter.

So what we have here is either a small compact or a big subcompact. What separates this packin’ pistol from the rest of the pack of M&P pistols isn’t its overall length or weight. It’s the Shield’s girth, or rather the noticeable lack thereof. At a dead-skinny .95” wide, this pistol is more that .2” thinner than the M&P Compact. Oh, so you think that .2” is much ado about nothing? Take a look at this slide by slide comparison.

Wrapping my mitt around the Shield was an altogether different experience from handling almost any other pistol. The eight-round magazine provided a full-fisted grip for my medium-sized hands, while the seven-rounder would work best for people who have tiny hands or whose pinkies have at some time in the past suffered a catastrophic bologna slicer accident.

What really made an impression is the way the extreme flatness of the Shield’s stock fit in my hand so perfectly, so naturally, that it felt as if it was custom-made. All of a sudden, the M&P compact that I’ve felt comfortable with for years felt chunky by comparison, if not downright clunky. Even my M642 – all fifteen ounces of it — felt like a war club in my fist after gripping the Shield.

Okay, feel is very important, but what about style? Well, if looks matter, then the Shield passes with a solid B. Appearance-wise, it’s not in the same class as, say, a Kimber Solo Carry Stainless or the peerless Salma Hayek, but in the box or the hand, the Shield looks handsome and well-balanced. It has racy lines and is kitted out with a handle that sports S&W’s customary pebbled (fixed) backstrap and a slide with Smith’s wavy striations. The pistol also features an oversized trigger guard that can accommodate people with gloves, men with porcine fingers, or porcine men with fingers the size of kielbasa. Fit and finish also looked to be spot-on.

I checked the controls, which are located on the right side of the pistol. Shooters who prefer a pistol with a manual safety will be happy with the Shield because it has a manual safety. Those who abjure the use of a safety on a striker-fired DA pistol can leave the Shield’s safety in the off (down, not up) position and forget about it. Try as one may, the clicky and flush-fitting safety will not accidentally be switched on or off, so fuhgeddaboudit.

Those who despise a mag-drop safety will be pleased, too, because if there’s one in the pipe, this pistol will fire even if there’s no mag in the well. Those who require a mag safety will have to look elsewhere or head to what Joe Matafome calls Komiefornia.

The takedown lever and slide lock are in their traditional M&P positions; a shooter who owns any other M&P already knows how to use this one. Like its larger siblings, pulling the trigger is not required to field strip this pistol. All those right-hand controls are finger friendly, tactile and lock positively into position. Unfortunately for southpaws, only the mag release can be reversed.

Straight out of the box the M&P9 Shield was was oozing more oil than the Gulf of Mexico after the BP blowout. Most experienced pistoleros know that an over-oiled pistol is more likely to jam than one that’s properly lubed-up and wiped down (watch it you). So, I did what every self-respecting gun reviewer should do: I carried it to the range and shot it as is, to see what the pistol could do in a pinch.

I stuffed the Shield into a Remora holster, stuffed the Remora cum Shield into my waistband (at the 4 o’clock position at 2 o’clock in the afternoon), slipped on a light T-shirt and pedaled off to the range on a racing-style bicycle with drop handlebars. Normally, my two-wheeler is a sure ticket to Printsville. The Shield is so flat (or my corpus so round) that the piece disappeared – poof! — like a fugitive stock swindler.

The Shield was as comfortable as a well-used metaphor. No sharp edges or pointy bits to gouge skin or catch on a pocket or holster. No beefy swells or bulges to announce the presence of a concealed gun. Anyone – thin or fat, tall or short, smart or stupid, old or young, man or woman, rich or poor, black or white, human or space alien — yes, absolutely anyone can hide a Shield. If the Shield was any more concealable, you could stuff it into your wallet next to Wednesday’s Powerball ticket.

Shooting the Shield

I procured some 9mm range ammo like I was paying for it. I bought cheap, dirty, crummy and mostly Russian steel-cased bargain stuff. (Bears of Brown and Silver always give guns a good workout, as do Tula and low-rent Fiocchi ammo, even though the latter is brass-cased.) Knowing that some Russki ammo is particularly dirty—Brown Bear, I’m talking to you—I brought some muffins to the range to go with the expected jams. And just for giggles, I also brought along some extra hot Ranger ammo just to see if it would overwhelm the M&P Shield.

The brand-new, box-fresh single-stack mags contained springs that were stiffer than a brace of day-old carp. After a bit of a struggle, I was able to load up the seven-round mag after a bit of struggle and some colorful language. Shoving the last round into the eight-rounder was an impossible dream—until I remembered the UpLULA in the bottom of my range bag. Together, the Israeli loader and I made short work of topping-off the recalcitrant mag. Add one more potential source of a misfeed or malfunction, thought I.

Why do I get so excited about testing pistols under adverse conditions? Because I want the tests to be as real-world as I can make them, that’s why. In a life-or-death struggle, guns won’t always be clean and ammo will not always function as it should. Mr. Murphy is always lurking in the background, waiting to have the last laugh, and I’d prefer to have him laugh at me on the range rather than in a dark and deserted parking lot.

Handling the Shield is child’s play (although I recommend it for adults only). It’s nicely balanced and, despite its traditional 18° grip angle, it points well. But not great. If the Shield’s handle was canted another 3° or more, it would be the best pointer since Pearl the Wonder Dog. Alas, a small tilt of the wrist is all that’s required to point properly, without which this dog won’t hunt.

Despite the stubby 3” barrel, the Shield boasts a 5.3” sight radius and bright, three-dot steel sights. By way of comparison, the barrel length on an M&P Compact is 3.5” and the sight radius is 5.7”. Oh, and based on my experience with other M&P pistols, it would be wise to keep some sight paint on hand for the time when one or all of the sight dots pop off.

At self-defense distances, aligning the sights on targets wasn’t too challenging. The front blade is of average thickness, which is a problem at longer distances where the blade obscures too much of the target. This criticism applies to almost all current handguns, where front sights are thick to assure durability and a place to mount a dot. While the Shield’s front blade is too wide for precision distance work, the rear sights are placed widely enough to allow adequate light to pass through. Shooting with “equal light” was therefore a breeze.

Equal height was more of a problem. Aligning three small dots can be a stern test, and it was amplified by the short sight radius of the pistol. The shorter the sight radius, the more even a minor maladjustment will affect the shot. At five yards, this was no issue.

Despite the Shield’s claimed 6.5 pound trigger pull, mine was closer to seven pounds and felt even heavier. That’s about a pound and a half too much, in my opinion. While the trigger will probably soften up with use, it won’t soften by 1.5 pounds. Fortunately, a good gunsmith should be able to tune up a Shield easily, and for all we know Apex is working on a kit now. As additional plusses, the trigger breaks really clean after ¼” of light takeup and the reset is audible and highly tactile, which were the trigger’s best features.

Considering the barrel length and trigger firmness, the M&P Shield was more accurate than it had any right to be. Shooting unsupported, weak hand only is not an area where I excel, but my results were satisfactory.

As expected, groups edged a bit wider as distances increased. Nevertheless, ten-yard accuracy was still satisfactory.

Recoil management is important to making quick, accurate follow-up shots. While a bit flippy, the Shield recoiled less than expected. I tried to get a handle on the Shield’s recoil (pun intended) by firing a snubby for comparison. Although describing felt recoil is like describing color to the colorblind, to me the Shield felt like it had 1/3 less recoil than the M642 firing plain-jane .38Spls. I was absent from law school the day they taught engineering, so I might be wrong if I attribute the Shield’s decent recoil management to its nested recoil springs. Whatever the cause, recoil is quite manageable.

After pedaling to the range on a hot day, my paws were slick with perspiration. Smith’s grippy handle surfaces did their job without sandpapering my hands, but I would have appreciated a bit more aggressive texture. I was never close to losing control of the pistol, but the texture did nothing to inspire confidence. The wavy striations proved to be completely useless. I simply could not rack the slide with my sweaty hands without using the front of my t-shirt as a rag.

Say Bye-Bye to My Little Friend

After ten days of hanging out with the Shield, toting it everywhere and sending a whole lot of ammo down its tiny pipe, I have to say that I really liked it. It represents an excellent combination of portability, reliability, power, style and [low] cost making it a very good all-around pistol.

If the Shield is targeting the market previously dominated by the Ruger LC9, then Smith has succeeded in producing a very competitive pistol for a nearly identical list price. Unfortunately, the heavy trigger holds the Shield back, so I didn’t like it as much as I thought I would. Upgrading the Shield’s trigger would turn it into the LC9 killer that Smith & Wesson was aiming for.

SPECIFICATIONS:

Model: Smith & Wesson M&P9 Shield
Caliber: 9mm
Magazine capacity: 8 & 7 rounds
Materials: Stainless steel slide and barrel, polymer frame
Weight empty: 19 ounces
Barrel Length: 3.1″
Overall length: 6.1″
Sights: Stainless steel three dot
Action: Striker Fired
Finish: Black Melonite®
Price: $449 MSRP

RATINGS (out of five stars):

Style * * * *
If pistols had a Louvre, a portrait of this one wouldn’t be hanging in it except, possibly in the underground parking garage. Still, from an aesthetic standpoint, the proportions of the M&P9 Shield are perfect, fit and finish are near perfect and it’s a handsome little gun.

Ergonomics (carry) * * * * *
Good news, fashion slaves. Your days of buying oversized pants are over. IWB, OWB or pocket carried, the Shield is so flat, comfy and stealthy that you might be able to sneak up on yourself.

Ergonomics (firing) * * * *
The heavy trigger cost this pistol a whole star. The three-dot sights and the pistol’s short sight radius worked fine at 10 yards and under, but as expected were outclassed at distance. The pistol is great to hold, recoil was well managed. The Shield was a good shooter and with a few gunsmith tweaks, it would be much better. However, rated “as is,” not “as it might be,” it gets four stars.

Reliability * * * * *
I shot it wet. I shot it dry. I shot it limp-wristed, weak handed. I shot it with ammo so crappy it would gag a maggot. I shot it with the finest JHP ammo known to mankind. I shot it with very hot loads. Through it all, the Shield lit like an old Zippo the first time and every time. Long term durability is difficult to assess based on just a few range sessions with a new gun, but this pistol seems built to last.

Customize This * * * 1/2
It has no rail. Personally, I think that rails belong on stairways, not pistols. Okay, I know that rails and doodads are all the rage, but overburdening this pistol with a lot of crap hanging off it just doesn’t make sense. This is a carry gun; small, light and tuckable. Leave it that way and save the lights and lasers for your bedside insurance policy. For shooters who just can’t help but gild the lily, the Shield has lasers, holsters, sight systems and accessories a-plenty, according to the booklet that came packaged with the gun.

OVERALL RATING * * * *
The Shield is slightly heavier and a smidge wider than the LC9, but it feels lighter and flatter. Even considering the unnecessarily heavy factory switch, the Shield is nevertheless sweet enough to cause diabetes. With a street price that should be somewhere south of four bills, there’s no reason not to check one out.