S&W M&P 9: Part III (with a sidetrack into USPSA history)

In 2001 the US Practical Shooting Association (USPSA) decided to add a new competitive division. It would be known as “Production” class. The idea was simple: allow shooters to compete with common duty/self-defense pistols in stock configurations. These would include double-action/single-action pistols, like the Sig Sauer 226, or double-action-only pistols like the Glock 17. The hope was that by lowering the cost of admission to the sport it would attract many new shooters who might otherwise shrink at the thought of spending a lot of money on a custom-built Limited or Open gun. They certainly called that one right. The ranks have grown tremendously over the last decade with most new shooters starting in Production. The trick of course was to keep it simple with rules that are easily understood and enforceable.


With very little restriction on Limited and Open guns, the new challenge would be how to insure fair competition among this new class of shooters. Production guns must have no external modifications other than improved notch-and-post sights and grip tape. The current clarifications from the USPSA board have indicated that internal components may be improved/replaced so long as the dimensions remain essentially unchanged. Additionally the overall weight of the pistol must be within a couple of ounces of the manufacturer’s declared weight. At Level III matches and above it is routine to see guns checked against size and weight restrictions so even with the freedom to make internal changes, care must be taken to stay within the weight limits.

Given that grip tape is in fact allowed I decided to try it on my first gun and I have never looked back. It keeps the gun absolutely locked to the skin of my hand. Recoil moves the gun and my hand/skin but because the contact points do not change, the gun always comes back to precisely the same spot. This is huge for me. It also works wet or dry, with clean or dirty hands.

Getting back to my current project gun, while waiting for the Apex Tactical action kit I decided to move forward with the grip tape installation. One really nice thing about the M&P9 is that there are many third-party vendors out there making great stuff for this platform. This includes manufacturers of pre-cut grip tape panels. While I think they look great and are certainly easy to install, I just couldn’t get over how expensive they were for what is essentially skate board tape worth about $1. So, back when I started in Production I bought a roll of Black Diamond skateboard grip tape for around $8, including shipping. I have made at least 6 grip covers and still have enough to make about 4 more.

My process for creating a panel is that I start with paper, create a basic template then cut out a slightly-oversized panel out of the roll of grip tape and then custom fit it from there. Once I have a panel cut down to the precise (more or less) shape I then create a permanent paper template and trace out at least one more on the roll of tape. I then label which gun it’s for. Now to install it.

My first attempts on the SR9 resulted in the panel 1) not fully contacting the grip in all areas and 2) the seam coming loose routinely at the back. I found two tricks that fixed this. First, I used some of that awesome stretchy silicone tape to tightly wrap the installed panel. This stuff sticks only to itself so it is easy to take off after the panel is fully formed to the grip and it leaves no residue at all on the panel. Second, I found some tips on how to glue the panel to itself at the seam, which has worked perfectly.

I found the “black rubberized cyanoacrylate” at my local hobby store. This stuff is basically gel superglue with some sort of rubber in it. It is used mostly to attach rubber tires to model cars, planes, etc. It has a very strong bond but remains somewhat flexible. The key to using this stuff is the use of spray hardener. This stuff also is sold at hobby stores. You can use it several ways but what I found works best is to have one side of the seam firmly pressed against the backstrap then apply the glue to it. Next, begin to press the remaining side (or flap) of the panel onto the backstrap just to the point where it is touching the beginning edge of the glue. Then spray the hardener/accelerant right onto the glue bead then immediately press the flap down into the glue and apply the afore-mentioned silicone tape tightly around the entire grip.

I usually leave the silicone tape on overnight to give the entire panel a good chance to completely conform to the grip in all areas. The glue seam is actually set within seconds but leaving the silicone tape on longer insures a perfect fit. I like easy.

So this morning I removed the silicone tape and there is a perfect grip tape panel on the M&P! It took all of about 1/2 hour from scratch and if I need to replace the panel it can be done even faster since I have an extra panel already cut. The truth is, once I started using the glue I have never had one come loose or need to be replaced. If it does become necessary to remove the panel simply cutting it with a knife is easy. Start with the blade tip at the bottom and keep the sharpened edge away from the grip. It comes right off.

Lastly I wanted to mention that because the M&P has three different size “palm swells”, you can customize the grip fit for your hand. I went with the small model since my hands are small and I knew the grip tape would add an ever-so-slight amount of girth to the grip. I’ve been practicing reloading drills this morning and it works perfectly.

In Part IV: A Comedy of Errors, we learn the importance of following directions 😉

In search of the perfect 9mm for USPSA

In the Spring of 2010 I asked my friend Glyn if I could test out some of his 9mm pistols. I had been shooting the Ruger SR9 in USPSA matches for a number of months and although I was doing well with it I wanted to know if there might be a better solution out there. He had several different popular models so I started by handling and then dry firing them. Here’s how that part went:

  • H&K USP 9mm: really not a good fit for my hands and the trigger seemed stiff. The grip was just awkward.
  • Beretta 92FS: too fat in my hand and very heavy. Trigger was OK.
  • Springfield XD9 Tactical: fine ergonomics but the trigger was squishy with a very long take-up and reset.
  • Beretta PX4 Storm: I liked this one a lot. It felt really good, had a good trigger and it looks…well, cool.
  • Smith and Wesson M&P 9: I also liked this one very much. It felt great in my hand and the trigger was excellent.
Berreta PX4 Storm 9mm
Berreta PX4 Storm 9mm

I decided to next try shooting the PX4 and the M&P. Before I discuss that I should clarify something: I have owned several XDs and I had even shot the XD mentioned above for about a week to see how I liked the particular sights on it. (Dawson FO front/BoMar blackout rear). I do like the XD, especially in the larger calibers but the current effort was specifically to find the best gun to run in USPSA Production and frankly the XD (from the factory) just doesn’t get it for me. Yes, Springer triggers are great but that puts the price of the gun fairly high and the trigger and grip safeties are just a nuisance during competition.

XD9__6_straight_640
Springfield Armory XD9 Tactical

So, out we went to the range. I will say that both the PX4 and the M&P shot really nicely but the M&P seemed to have the edge. I later discovered that the M&P has a very low bore-axis, which probably had a lot to do with my perception. This of course keeps the recoil forces close to the plane of one’s forearms, thereby keeping the muzzle from rising as much. That whole lever principle I guess.

One thing I noticed about the PX4 that I actually did not like was the location of the ambidextrous safety. When I racked the slide those big things were right in the way, which gave my fingers a raking every time I did it. Also, while the pistol is very light and feels wonderful in my hand, it is a bit bulky. But it does look really cool.

In the end I had to say that the M&P was the clear winner. I later went on to see a lot of great Production shooters using that very pistol. I’m not at all surprised.

Smith & Wesson M&P9

I went back to using my SR9 and and continued shooting it at matches (along with my 1911 for Limited/10 occasionally) for about six months but this past week I had the opportunity to buy the very gun I had tested so…I did.

Now, I’ve been accused more than once of being a Ruger-phile, Ruger-centric or perhaps just a shill in general for that company. I will be the first to admit that I have become very fond of a number of Ruger firearms but I will assure the reader that this is purely a matter of coincidence. The purchase of these guns was never done on the basis of the Ruger name but on the basis of either a targeted need or an opportunistic purchase. So, as much fun as I’ve had with the SR9 I have to say at the end of the day that with all the effort and money I have put into making that gun as good as I could for USPSA, the M&P smokes it right out of the proverbial box. Of course the M&P price is substantially higher than the SR9 so it’s not really surprising.

One more thing about the SR9: I still think that for the money it is a great gun for Production class shooters who want a cost-effective gun with which to get started. I also love the SR9c as a CCW gun and don’t see that changing. However, for where I’m at with USPSA I think it’s time to move on to something that suits my development better.

I guess I should mention Glock at this point lest I get the G-men after me 😉 Yes, I’ve shot the G17 and the G34 many times. They are great guns in many respects, especially the 34 but the ergonomics just do not work for me. That grip angle is simply a deal-breaker. I just can’t make my wrists bend forward beyond that classic 17 degree angle common to the 1911 and most other classes of modern auto-loading pistol. If that gun works for you that’s super but please don’t tell me I don’t know what works for me.

So, where does that leave us? Oh yeah, ready to start the M&P adventure!

Stay tuned…

Pistol review: Sig Sauer 226

My friends Kevin and Bill are long-time Sig fans and after some teasing about me being Ruger-centric I decided to try one out and see what all the fuss was about. Bill loaned me one of his 226s and I checked it out over the last week.

To be fair, I had shot Kevin’s 229 and this 226 previously but only a few times. The plan now was to really put some rounds through it and get a good sense of the pistol. My experience was a mixture of confirmed assumptions and surprises.

The 226 has been around a long time and it is no accident that it remains a popular pistol. With its metal frame and slide it is a durable, solid pistol that feels massive and does a good job mitigating recoil. It looks good too. I shot factory 115 gr Georgia Arms ball ammo and my own handloads (124gr JHP from Montana Gold, 4.1gr Titegroup, CCI small pistol primers using mixed brass) and found that from a recoil perspective it was very pleasant to shoot. Two other things struck me immediately: first, the grip is fat and second the pistol is really accurate. Ergonomics being all the rage recently this pistol is not a great fit for my small hands. I found it uncomfortably large compared to my SR-9 and my 1911. Nevertheless I found that I was very accurate shooting at 10 yds.

The first day shooting the 226 was shared with my friend Neil who was at the range fighting with his new PPK. Just for fun he tried the 226 and was astonished at how much he liked it. In fact he shot most of the ammo I brought and was contemplating a trip to the gun store to pick one up on the way home.

The 226 has an exposed hammer, a de-cocker and no manual safety. This means that to fire a round left in the chamber requires the first shot be taken as double-action. This is not a simple task for those of us accustomed to DAO guns or the locked-and-cocked 1911. I’m told that you get used to it but there’s no question that the first shot is going to be either slower or less accurate or both. I just don’t see how you can get around that.

So I figured I would try the gun again after our next practice just to see how it felt on a second day and then I would write the review. Yesterday when I got to practice I was very unhappy to discover that when I reassembled my SR-9 after cleaning that I had left out the take-down pin. I then remembered that I had brought along the Sig so I used it instead. The results were impressive.

Bill, Mike and I shot “Can you count?” and “Mini-mart” from the USPSA classifier book and even with the double-action first shot I was able to really move through the first stage very fast. The trigger’s short reset and short, crisp single-action pull make up for the first shot. The big surprise for me was my accuracy. Sure, these are not long-shot stages but as anyone who has shot with me knows, I tend to get wide when I’m blowing through stages. Interestingly enough, on this day I had quite a few runs that were all Alpha hits and I had no Mikes and no No-Shoots. I broke into the six and seven hit factors, respectively. You can’t argue with success.

After about 200 rounds we concluded the practice and I gave the pistol back to Bill. It is worth noting that I was using a nylon holster that was loose on my normal leather belt. Once the front fiber optic sight caught on the holster during a draw and cost me at least .5 seconds. I suspect with a Bladtech DOH I would have done even better.

So, am I (like Neil) headed to the gun store? I don’t think so. I certainly was surprised at how this gun performed under stress. My groups looked really good. But I couldn’t shake the ergonomic issue. Not only that but the double-action first shot costs, regardless of how nice the remaining shots are.

I always think of Jack Bauer when I see that pistol and for many people it is the perfect competition and/or carry gun. For me it is a fun gun but not for serious business.

Your Mileage May Vary

Reloading: how I found my way to the Dillon XL650

Once I got the USPSA bug my round count per month went up dramatically so it was inevitable that I would start reloading. The question then was: where to start? Conventional wisdom says to start off with a single-stage press and learn the subtleties of reloading before moving into a progressive press. This is certainly not a bad idea but life is short and I was lucky enough to get right into the big leagues.

After months of ammo shortages our local sensei offered to let several of us use his Dillon Super 1050 to load a bunch of 9mm one weekend if we would get our own 1) bullets, 2) powder, 3) primers and 4) prepped cases. I said, “sure” and started collecting money and placing orders. CZ Custom was our bullet source for 115gr FMJ bullets, Powder Valley sold us the TiteGroup powder and I bought a bunch of Wolf primers on eBay. This was fall of 2009 and reloading components were still tough to come by but we eventually got everything and scheduled a weekend for the reloading party. I spent many hours washing, drying and cleaning brass so that we were ready for our scheduled 6k rounds (2k each for three guys). We headed to Glyn’s house and that’s when the fun began. Over the course of that weekend I learned an enormous amount about reloading in general and the characteristics of the 1050 in particular. I was hooked.

After burning through those 2k rounds in short order I realized I needed to come up with my own solution. Glyn’s generosity was admirable but if I wanted to tune my own 9mm load I really needed my own setup. I began the process that so many of us follow: search the Internet and drink from the fire hose. In hindsight I should have stuck to Brian Enos’ forums since not only is that the best source of information on USPSA shooting in general but the reloading forums there are superb. I owe a lot to the excellent information shared there.

I toyed with the idea of a Lee Loadmaster since it is a progressive, auto-indexing press that would allow me to really crank out the rounds and it was very cheap. I think the press with set up for one caliber (dies included) was around $250. I think there were other items needed like a powder measure perhaps but I don’t remember with certainty.

At this point my friend Bruce, who has been reloading for decades, shook his head and said that if I bought a Dillon press I would never regret it. Remarkably I listened to his advice and began bracing myself for the wallet-draining that was to come.

Dillon Precision has been the leader in progressive presses for a long time and there are many reasons why. The foremost is that they are utterly dedicated to their customers. It doesn’t hurt that they have the best engineered presses on the market either. Their Square Deal presses are a low-cost solution that allow entry into progressive reloading with minimal cost. The downside there is that they use non-standard dies and they are limited to pistol cartridges only. I wanted to reload not only 9mm but also .45acp and .233, so that was not an option.

Dillon’s three main offerings are the 550, XL650 and the Super 1050. The 550 is a 4-stage press with manual indexing. My sense is that this press was designed for the medium-volume reloader whose interest was primarily in a very precisely loaded round. It is an excellent press but would not suit my needs since I was interested in high-volume. The Super 1050 is the top-of-the-line, 8-stage, auto-indexing press already mentioned. It is Dillon’s most sophisticated offering. It is also very expensive. A single caliber setup can cost $2k, depending on options. One drawback to the 1050 is that it is considered a commercial press which means that Dillon doesn’t give it their “no B.S. warranty”. In other words, as things break on the press Dillon expects the customer to pay for parts and/or repair. For a true commercial reloader this is reasonable but for my purposes I wanted the comfort of knowing that whatever goes wrong they will cover. This left me with the XL650 as the obvious choice.

The Dillon XL650 is a 5-stage, fully progressive press with a removable toolhead and optional case feeding system. The basic press is around $540 with the case feeder adding another $250. The press comes with one caliber kit, matching primer feed system and dies. This means that for around $1k you can start reloading your cartridge of choice. If you want to quickly switch calibers then you will want to purchase not only the necessary caliber kits and dies but also additional toolheads. This allows for the permanent mounting of the dies, powder feed, etc. right in the respective toolheads for each caliber.

I decided to get setups for 9mm, .45 and .233. In addition to the toolhead items, the case feeder requires a different collator plate for each caliber. Once all three calibers have been set up I can now switch from one to the other in about 20 minutes. All dies and adjustments remain untouched. This is a huge time saver considering how long it would take to remove, install and adjust dies in a single tool head.

Having used Glyn’s 1050 with a Mr. Bullet Feeder it wasn’t long before I yearned for the same setup. I eventually added a Mr. Bullet Feeder to my system, allowing for one-handed operation. Given that the bullet feeder requires a station and the fact that I wanted to use the powder check die (seeing a pistol go kaboom is an eye-opening experience) I got hold of an RCBS seat/crimp die for station five. I have found this to be an ideal setup for 9mm. I can produce 250 rounds (one full bin) in about 10-12 minutes without breaking a sweat.

There is an awful lot to reloading and safety cannot be shortchanged. Never reload without eye protection and never, EVER have more than one powder type in your reloading area. I’m not kidding.

This post is meant to give the reader an overview of my reloading experience and to hopefully share a bit of what I have learned. If you are considering reloading get hold of a reloading manual and read the whole thing. If you can, get yourself a mentor or three. Kevin, Bruce and Glyn have helped me tremendously.

If you are considering a Dillon press, do yourself a favor and talk to Brian Enos. I bought mine through him and he was a wealth of knowledge and helped me get precisely the setup I needed and wanted. You won’t be sorry.

USPSA belts, holsters and mag pouches: what works for me

After shooting USPSA Production division since early last year I have settled on a belt/holster/mag pouch combination that I am very happy with. This Spring I duplicated the setup for my 1911 for Limited/10 class and find it to be perfectly workable there also.

The CR Speed company’s “Hi Torque” belt is the hands-down top choice within USPSA circles. It is a two-part system that uses an inner belt (normally threaded through the belt loops of pants) and an outer belt that can be attached simply by pressing it onto the already-attached inner belt. Double-Alpha has a similar product but some prefer it due to differences in stiffness or lack thereof in the inner or outer component. I have found the Hi-Torque to be just right for me. The inner belt is actually quite comfortable as a normal belt. It contains the “loop” portion of the fastening system. It is soft to the touch and doesn’t grab fabric. I have often worn the inner belt on match days as my regular belt which saves me having to switch before and after the match. The outer belt is very stiff and contains the “hook” fasteners.

Once attached securely this makes an excellent foundation for holster and mag pouches. One note: always order the belt 2 inches larger than your actual waist/pant size.

The holster I use is also widely considered the best choice among USPSA Production class competitors: the Bladetech Dropped and Offset Holster (DOH) with Tek-Lok attachment. This system combines BladeTech’s excellent OWB holster, molded to specific pistol models, with a Tek-Lok belt attachment and the DOH extension. The extension moves the holster out and down from the normal position. This puts the pistol two inches lower and about an inch out from the belt. It also cants the pistol so that the grip is even a bit further out. This allows a much easier draw with the pistol closer to the draw hand and away from belt and clothing. The Tek-Lok attachment is adjustable for belt width and allows for a very tight grip on the outer belt. The holster itself is adjustable for retention but I’ve never touched mine and it works perfectly: just enough bite to keep the pistol safely holstered but loose enough to draw quickly and cleanly.

For mag pouches the most popular choice is also from CR Speed: their Versa Pouch system.  While this system is undoubtedly superb I personally have chosen a different solution: the Blackhawk carbon fiber mag pouch. I was able to purchase six of these units for the price of two Versa pouches. As anyone who knows me will attest, I’m not afraid to spend money on shooting-related items but this was one of those rare instances where I just knew there had to be a comparable solution for less money. The Blackhawk pouches are very sturdy and come with a belt clip that slides into the back of the pouch with a Picatinny rail. I first used these with the Serpa holster on a Drop Leg platform, also from Black Hawk (more on the Serpa later). The pouches work well for my Ruger SR9 mags as well as a number of other 9mm and .40 S&W pistol mags I’ve tried.  The spring that retains the mags was stiff when I got them but after leaving mags in them for a week they were perfect. I’ve never had a mag fall out even running at full speed, but they draw without a hitch. I wanted a tight fit on the belt so I opted to use 1/4 inch wood screws to attach the belt clips to the belt. I then slid the pouches onto the belt clips (remember the rails?) and this gives me six mags as close together as possible.

One last thing on the mag pouches: I found that I wanted the mags just a little higher than the default so I created small wood inserts about 1″ x 3/4″ x 3/4″ to sit in the bottom of the pouches. This raised them to the perfect height and helped ease the spring tension a bit more. For my 1911 setup I found that a standard Lego 2×8 piece (let the jokes begin) was perfect for creating the necessary mag lift. Yes, I realize that the time spent attaching and modifying these pouches probably negated any savings over the Versa units but…sometimes you just have to do things. It’s sort of like Male-Answer-Syndrome.

So, the CR-Speed belt/Bladetech DOH holster/Blackhawk pouch system works very well for me in both Production and Limited/10. I suspect it will for you also.

USPSA: Formula 1 of shooting sports

I have always enjoyed shooting but when I tried bullseye competition it was never much fun. In fact I found it very stressful and I would often finish feeling more tense than when I started. If shooting wasn’t fun then I really had no reason to do it so I left that pursuit behind. Some time later when I first encountered “practical shooting” I felt that it was probably not a good idea for me to even try it. I watched some guys at my local range practicing stages and while I was intrigued I kept thinking about my bullseye experience.

While trying to resolve a problem with an AK-47 I was put in touch with a fellow who turned out to be the local US Practical Shooting Association (USPSA) guru. What started as a 10-minute meeting to help me with the rifle turned into an hour-long session describing practical shooting, showing me his guns and his reloading gear and even heading out to his backyard range to try out his Open gun. With this kind of introduction I could hardly resist.

A friend had a Ruger SR-9 and suggested I borrow it to try out this new facet of shooting. I took a simple Fobus holster and a nylon mag pouch and showed up at the next practice session. After getting the thorough safety briefing which is the hallmark of USPSA activity I watched the other shooters figuring out how to manage the stage then we all took turns shooting it. When it was finally my turn and the Range Officer said, “Shooter make ready.” I was pretty excited. Then the timer beeped and everything changed.

It is rare in my experience that a single event or a single place and time can be identified as the beginning or end of something in my life. Usually things happen slowly over time with very gradual change. When that timer went off it felt like a thousand volts were shooting through my body. I drew my pistol and engaged those dozen or so targets as if I was in a trance. Time stretched out like in a car accident. I had never experienced anything quite like it. When the RO said, “If finished, unload and show clear”, it took a moment to “come to”. I was exhilarated. I realized immediately that this was my sport.

I have been shooting Production class, still shooting a modified (legally) Ruger SR-9, for a little more than a year. I’ve learned a lot about the sport and been lucky enough to shoot matches at several clubs throughout New England. I’ve made a lot of new friends doing so and also brought along a bunch of shooting buddies to join in the fun. The combination of speed, power and accuracy required has been a really enjoyable challenge. I also started reloading ammunition as a result of the required high round-counts (more on that later).

Most importantly, I still get that huge rush every time that timer goes off.

Shooter make ready!

William