December 11, 2017
By James Tarr
The Smith & Wesson Performance Center produces what could be considered semi-custom versions of catalog guns. The gunsmiths and engineers at the S&W Performance Center aren't focused on producing firearms specifically aimed at personal defense, hunting or competition. They do it all. Performance Center guns, as they say, are "feature rich and enhanced for better performance." Over the years they've put their minds to tweaking just about every model Smith & Wesson has offered in just about every way possible—from engraving to trigger jobs to custom grips. One of the newest products from the Performance Center is the M&P15 Competition rifle.
The M&P15 runs on the standard direct-impingement gas system, and the Competition rifle has a longer rifle-length gas system. The longer the gas system on an AR-15 the slower the bolt/carrier move under recoil—although we're still talking milliseconds. This results in a longer life for the moving parts, but more importantly, it results in lower recoil. The rifle uses a standard-weight carbine buffer.
The barrel has 5R rifling with a 1:8 twist and a 5.56 NATO chamber. A 5.56 NATO chamber is a little bigger than a .223 Rem. chamber. Reliability is much more important than sub-m.o.a. accuracy in 3-Gun competition, and while a larger chamber might open up groups slightly, it will also run dirtier longer.
The biggest sign this rifle is meant for high-speed competition is the large two-chamber Performance Center muzzle brake. Muzzle brakes that are properly paired with a rifle's gas system and overall weight virtually eliminate muzzle rise, which means quicker follow-up shots on targets that require multiple hits.
The barrel is free-floated inside a 15-inch Troy Industries Alpha TRX Extreme II M-Lok handguard. This aluminum handguard has a continuous top rail with T-marked rail slots and M-Lok mounting slots all around its circumference. The handguard has a white Performance Center logo on the left rear side—matching the white Performance Center logo on the magazine well—and an M-Lok logo on the right rear side. A two-inch rail section is provided with the rifle.
Long handguards can be found everywhere now, but they originated with competition shooters. Yes, a longer handguard provides more mounting surface for accessories for the tactical types, but competition shooters prefer them because they allow the support hand to grab the rifle as close to the muzzle as possible. This makes it easier to muscle the rifle quickly from target to target when working at close range, and it's a shooting style that has become popular outside of the sport.
The standard trigger group on the AR-15 rifle is reliable, but it does not provide a good trigger pull. Any company can slap the label "competition" on a rifle, but if it doesn't have a good trigger pull it's not really a competition rifle. The Performance Center Competition rifle has a two-stage match trigger that is far superior to the GI-style trigger components that usually offer gritty trigger pulls exceeding six pounds. My sample trigger broke at a crisp 3.75 pounds.
Heavy triggers on "competition" rifles are my biggest pet peeve with the breed, and number two on my list is the lack of a modern charging handle. The original charging handle is fine if you are in no hurry and want to work the handle using the Vietnam-era "pinch and pull" method. But 3-Gun is a hard-charging sport in many ways, and there isn't a decent 3-Gun rifle shooter out there not running some brand of extended charging handle. I think Smith & Wesson made a mistake in sticking a GI charging handle on a decidedly non-GI gun.
The modern technique of working a charging handle involves keeping your firing hand on the pistol grip and working the handle with the palm of your other hand. Try doing that with a GI-style handle. And remember, 3-Gun competition is its own semi-tactical animal. You might find a stage where your rifle starts in Condition Three (empty chamber) or have to clear a jam on the clock. And everybody is running an optic in the sport, so having a charging handle that clears a scope only makes sense.
I recommend both the Bravo Company (BCM) and Geissele oversize charging handles and have one or the other on all my rifles whether or not they're used for competition.
Streamlined "sport" ARs have been offered with fewer features, but the Performance Center Competition rifle has the standard forward assist, brass deflector and ejection port cover. Instead of a basic plastic A2 grip, the Competition rifle sports a Hogue rubber overmolded version of the A2, and it has a pebbled surface and three finger grooves.
Competitors in 3-Gun are often required to walk or run between shooting positions, frequently shooting on the move. Most shooting is done from improvised positions or offhand at multiple targets. Shooters need a rifle that balances well and is not muzzle heavy so it swings quickly between targets. I've seen some 3-Gun rifles using Magpul's heavy UBR stock simply to offset the weight of a heavy barrel so it has a neutral balance—all of which explains why S&W put a Vltor IMod stock on this rifle.
The IMod features two compartments designed to hold batteries. The need for spare batteries during a 3-Gun stage is near zero, but this stock is several ounces heavier than a standard GI/M4 polymer stock, and it does a good job of balancing the Competition rifle's heavier-than-GI barrel. With the stock fully extended, the rifle balances about half an inch in front of the forward receiver pin.
Extra weight for better balance is the main reason for an aftermarket stock, but the Vltor offers other improvements as well, including a rubber buttpad and multiple sling attachment points of various types. The Vltor stock rides on a six-position receiver extension.
Since the rifle doesn't come with any sights, and optics are where it's at in 3-Gun, I took the opportunity to try out Trijicon's new 1-8X AccuPower scope. Trijicon's TR24 (1-4X) and TR25 (1-6X) AccuPoint scopes are popular in 3-Gun, and now that 1-8X scopes are getting more popular and affordable, competition shooters are gravitating toward them.
The Trijicon 1-8X AccuPower is a first focal plane scope, which means increasing the magnification zooms in on the reticle, and Trijicon's segmented circle/crosshair reticle is actually useful at both ends of its magnification range and everywhere in the middle. Plus, the reticle is illuminated, with Off settings in-between each of the 11 brightness settings. For a 1-8X scope the Trijicon is competitively priced at $1,699. This is a big scope with a 34mm tube, and I mounted it in a Midwest Industries QD scope mount.
Accuracy work was done off sandbags, but since a muzzle brake is necessary when shooting multiple close targets, and that is done from the offhand, I did a lot of trigger pulling while standing upright. The Performance Center muzzle brake was effective. Every shooter is a little different, but if I had a solid stance the brake was either neutral or gave me just a slight muzzle rise—depending on the ammo used. Dedicated competitive shooters will tune their ammo to their brake (or vice versa) to get as close to zero muzzle rise as possible.
A muzzle brake affects recoil by diverting gases that would otherwise exit the muzzle to the side to push the gun forward and counteract the recoil forces. While they do this effectively, the physics of it also causes increased muzzle flash and increased noise. I noticed these effects with the Performance Center brake, but there's no such thing as a free lunch if you want to kill felt recoil on your rifle.
The rifle is supplied with one 30-round magazine, which is the minimum round count you want in 3-Gun so you don't have to reload during a stage unless it's a stage requirement. The sample on my rifle was a Magpul Gen 2 PMag, and I used it exclusively in testing with no malfunctions.
During accuracy testing, I ran several 55-grain loads through the rifle, as that bullet weight is still the most popular in this country. However, heavier bullets are often used in 3-Gun competition, especially out West where some of the shots are longer. Heavier bullets buck the wind less and hit targets harder, important when you have to call your shots on reactive targets at distance. At 300 yards there is a distinct difference in noise on steel between 55- and 77-grain bullets. For that reason I tested 77-grain loads from both SIG Elite and Black Hills.
ARs are like LEGOs in that they are completely modular. If you had the skills and wanted to build your own, you could make it exactly the way you wanted. But most people—even veteran competition shooters—don't have the time, inclination, confidence or skills to put together their own rifles. So while some people might prefer this grip or that handguard length, S&W's Performance Center is aiming for the market's sweet spot with this combination of features on the M&P15 Competition rifle.
While 3-Gun may be a relatively popular gun sport, and many makers have jumped on board, the actual number of people who compete in this discipline is fairly small. So why do firearms manufacturers like Smith & Wesson bother?
Even people who don't compete are interested in competition gear. How many people do you know who wear running shoes but don't run? Buy sports car magazines but don't race? Or buy top-of-the-line golf clubs even though they hit the local links only once or twice a year? The market for competition-oriented products is much larger than the pool of people who actually compete in those sports.
If you look at how the S&W Competition rifle is set up, other than possibly the muzzle brake, it would work just as well as a coyote or prairie dog hunting rifle. An AR with a decently long free-floated barrel and quality trigger is useful for a whole lot of things—including competition.