There are two booming markets in the United States for handguns: concealed carry pistols and out-of-the-box competition pistols. And Smith & Wesson has been a formidable name in both for many years. But, as with any highly competitive market – you can barely rest on your laurels long enough to catch your breath, and then it’s time to get back to work. There has been a recent explosion in top-quality production match guns, and the staple S&W Performance Center 9mm M&P needed an upgrade if it was going to stay in the conversation. The solution was an obvious one – we needed the M&P 2.0 platform to be offered in a Performance Center, race-ready configuration. And now – we’ve got it!
The Smith & Wesson Performance Center offers the M&P in a variety of configurations. When requesting the loaner for this review, I decided to go for the full enchilada and I asked for the 5”, optic ready, ported barrel version. The good folks at S&W obliged and sent me a copy of what is clearly the flagship of the M&P Series. Built for serious competition, for sure – but because it’s an M&P at heart, it is well suited for home defense, duty use, or just fun recreational shooting.
Standard M&P 2.0 build and features are the foundation of this pistol. The M&P line of pistols, especially in 9mm, has been one of the best success stories in the firearms industry for over a decade and a half now, introduced in 2005 to immediate acceptance by law enforcement and civilian alike. In 2017 Smith & Wesson introduced the 2.0 variant of the product line, rolled out slowly, beginning with the standard full-sized model. Now with the introduction of the Performance Center treatment, the M&P 2.0 is available across the full product line. While enormously popular, the first generation of M&Ps did have its detractors, and even among the faithful – some complaints. Smith and Wesson were listening and made many changes to address customer requests and freshen the design of the pistol.
The most notable and welcome change was to the trigger. Even the M&P enthusiasts had long lamented the “squishy” trigger with little or no tactile reset. In fact, one aftermarket trigger company, Apex cut its teeth making improved M&P triggers. The 2.0 trigger is still constructed the same way – with a jointed trigger shoe that actuates the trigger safety, but it is a much-improved mechanism with a well-defined wall and crisp break – and an audible and tactile reset. The Performance Center treatment also includes a trigger stop to prevent any over-travel. Additional 2.0 changes include a stiffer frame, due to the addition of a stainless-steel insert that is molded into the polymer frame, to reduce flex during firing and improve accuracy; a modified ambidextrous slide-stop control; and a completely redesigned grip texture. The Performance Center model also comes with three 17-round magazines and four different sized backstrap/palm swells so that you can fine tune the already excellent ergonomics to your hand size.
Bonus Cleaning Kit
Smith & Wesson is packing a nice little branded cleaning kit in with this flagship pistol, and it’s nice enough to deserve its own paragraph here. It is common to get a plastic cleaning rod and a caliber specific bore brush with many new handguns, but the ante has been raised here with a legitimate compact cleaning kit that includes a collapsible cleaning rod with T-handle, a nylon cleaning brush, four caliber-sized bronze bore brushes (.22, 9mm/357, 40 cal/10mm, and 45 ACP) as well as the accompanying nylon jags for each, and an assortment of slotted tips for your patches. There are even about 10 cotton patches in the kit.
The whole thing comes nicely packaged in a small convenient case that would be easy to toss into your range bag or workbench drawer. The extra touch is the Performance Center logo flex patch stitched onto the cover of the case.
SHOOTING THE NEW C.O.R.E. 2.0
My fingers are getting cramps just writing about all the changes and extras with the new 9mm flagship M&P, and I haven’t even started talking about shooting it yet. Shoot it I did. And loved it, I did. For me, it all starts with the ergonomics of the pistol. If I have to fight the design of the gun to get my natural point of aim or push out to a clean sight picture, that costs me time and makes me work harder. And the older I get, the less fond I am of anything that feels like work.
M&P ergonomics are, for me, a natural fit to my hand – so much so, that the gun literally becomes an extension of my arm. It takes more than just an accommodating grip angle to accomplish that. The shape of the palmswell and backstrap are critical, as is the thickness where my thumb and forefinger will wrap around it. Where does the trigger naturally touch my finger when my grip feels right? How easy is it to eject a magazine? And do the sights align flat when I push the gun forward to fire, or am I spending the last half-second adjusting for them?
These elements of ergonomics are important just for a day of enjoyment at the range – but if you are looking for a gun to compete with – they are each a critical must-have. I will add to that list the grip texture. Does it bite into my skin enough to allow me to fire a full magazine, or even more, without having to re-acquire my grip? Many do not. The new texture of the 2.0 is a home run in that regard. It keeps the pistol planted in your grasp with no slippage, and does it without making you painfully aware of it. It is a subtle but very big improvement over the less aggressive texture of the first generation of M&P handguns. The slide-stop/slide-release control is ambidextrous and the magazine release is reversible. The takedown lever tucks tightly against the slide and does not interfere with an aggressive ‘thumbs forward’ grip, but may offer a nice index point.
The M&P 9 shoots flat anyway, but with the 5” ported barrel you can expect even less muzzle rise – especially with the hotter factory loads. Additional contributions to the flatness of the pistol are the low bore axis and aforementioned ergonomics. Not every sport allows a ported barrel, however. IDPA does not allow ported barrel use in any class. Still, I was hoping to run this gun through a steel challenge match, to which it would be well suited – but alas, with the current social distancing guidelines in place there are not any matches being held. So, I did the next best thing and did some simple speed drills in live fire.
The ever-reliable Multi Holsters company set me up with an outstanding Kydex straight-draw rig that made draws silky smooth (well, as smooth as I can do them, anyway). This reaffirmed for me that the M&P just pushes out to a great sight picture quite naturally, and the competitive shooters out there know how valuable that is. For IDPA shooters – the pistol is available in this exact configuration without the porting. For those who want the best of both worlds, a simple non-ported barrel dropped in makes it legal too.
I shot several test groups at a distance of 25-yards using a Holosun HS507C red-dot optic and resting the gun on a CTK rest. My “warm-up” groups (never intended to be part of the final list) were done with ball ammo – 115 grain and 124 grain, from Herter’s and Federal respectively. Both performed good enough to include with the high-priced stuff, as you can see in the chart. The Federal American Eagle 124 gr. load provided by far the best overall group, and convinced me that 124 gr. is a sweet spot for this gun, so I stuck with heavier projectiles.
There is always some amount of shooter error involved, which is why I show the 5-shot and best-three results, and each group probably had one flyer. Even with all those things considered, the M&P 9 5” made nice consistent groups, all of which would fit inside the A scoring zone. Average of 5 shots was well under 3” and the three-shot average barely over one inch.
It wasn’t all seriousness and group-measuring. Most of the several hundred rounds I fired through the pistol were done at steel targets of various sizes, using a variety of the same type of range ammo most of us find well priced. I even ran a couple of magazines of ‘cheap’ steel cased ammo from Winchester (one I have had numerous guns produce failures with) just to test the gun’s tolerance for the sort of stuff we might be lucky enough to find on shelves this year. The result – not a single hiccup.
I also ran 50-100 rounds of my personally handloaded match ammo, as a test of the gun with “just meets power floor” pressures, to see if there would be any trouble cycling the lighter stuff. There were no malfunctions of any kind with any type of ammo.
JUST MY OPINION
The bottom line is that I simply enjoy shooting this gun. Each time I pick up an S&W M&P, I feel like I just slipped on my comfy slippers. Ergos are a personal and subjective thing of course, and others may not appreciate those of the M&P as well as I do, but if sales figures are any indication – over the years more people agree than don’t. And after all, our hands might come in different sizes and colors, but only one basic shape.
On the more objective side of things, the M&P Performance Center 5” Ported Barrel C.O.R.E. is one of the best bargains in all of handgunnery. With an MSRP of $735 and a street price reasonably expected under $700, you get a Performance Center tuned, rugged and reliable, consistent, and accurate pistol – with a recoil-flattening ported barrel and an optics ready slide, built on the M2.0 updated platform. I also appreciate Smith’s attention to the finer performance details, such as the ejection pattern of spent cases. Not only does this M&P pitch all the empty brass into a small space to the right of the shooter’s shoulder, but not a single case impacted the mounted optic, that I was able to discern. Not every optic-ready pistol gets that right. All that, and a darn nice cleaning kit, too! If you’ve yet to try an M&P, there’s no better place to start than at the top.