The Smith & Wesson M&P15 VTAC: One Year Later
Tom McHale 05.20.14
Most gun reviews consist of a short acclimation period, a couple hundred rounds at the range, and a rushed story and photos to meet an editorial deadline. We thought it might be interesting to do a “one year later” review on a gun—just to see how it holds up over time and use. While its release was announced by Smith & Wesson all the way back in their 2009 new products catalog, I picked up an M&P15 VTAC I just under a year and a half ago. It was new-in-box, found in a small stash tucked away in a Smith & Wesson warehouse. Now in its second iteration (the VTAC II), the M&P15 VTAC remains as popular as ever. Let’s take a look.
A tour of the Smith & Wesson M&P15 VTAC I
Let’s take a look at what makes the Smith & Wesson M&P15 VTAC special. The simple explanation is that the VTAC models are preconfigured factory-produced hot rods. The VTAC is more than a “marketing bundle” onto which third-party accessories are bolted on and factored into the price. The base rifle itself includes premium upgrades that set the VTAC apart before any toys are hung on the rails.
Core component upgrades
When talking premium upgrades, you have to start with the barrel. The VTAC I features a 4140 steel 16-inch barrel with a 1:7 twist and standard 1/2×28 threads. The aggressive twist rate stabilizes longer (and heavier) projectiles like 77-grain bullets. Numerous components are chromed for wear resistance and ease of cleaning including the bore, chamber, gas key, and bolt carrier.
JP Enterprises single-stage match trigger and Speed Hammer
The big deal about the Smith & Wesson M&P15 VTAC line is the inclusion of a first-rate trigger. AR-type rifles aren’t exactly celebrated for their quality off-the-shelf triggers, but the JP Enterprises single-stage match trigger is outstanding.
Even though I’ve become accustomed to the feel after shooting a few thousand rounds, it will still offer a surprise break when I’m concentrating on precise shots. It has no detectable take-up and no overtravel. By my measurements, it breaks extra-crispy at 3.5 pounds.
Viking Tactics Handguard by JP Enterprises
The 12.5-inch aluminum handguard is attached to the receiver with a steel nut, resulting in a free-floated barrel. The handguard itself is completely round, with a light texture applied to the aluminum surface. It’s insanely configurable through the use of three included rail segments that can mount to the top of the handguard via a line of seven screw holes or on the bottom or sides using rail backers that attach to the oblong grooves in the handguard.
SureFire FH556-212A Flash Hider/Suppressor Adapter
The included SureFire flash hider is a dual-purpose accessory. Its primary function is to reduce flash signature in order to protect the shooter’s night vision and conceal his or her position. This one also helps prevent muzzle rise. This particular flash hider also serves as a no-tools mount for SureFire FA556K, FA556-212, FA556MG, and MINI suppressors.
The VLTOR stock offers six positions for varying lengths of pull. Not only does this accommodate different shooter dimensions, it allows quick reconfiguration to properly fit the user when he or she is wearing body armor or other gear. The stock also contains two waterproof compartments large enough to house three CR123 or two AA batteries in each. You might also want to use these compartments for critical backup parts—a spare firing pin, springs, or perhaps beef jerky. The stock also has three different sling mounts: top, center, and a quick-detach stud swivel mount if you prefer that to simple loops.
The gizmos are nice, but what I like most about this stock is its ergonomic design. The top offers an extra-wide and smooth surface, owing to the storage compartments on either side. The shape makes for a comfortable and solid cheek-weld surface. I also like the butt design; it slopes down and towards the muzzle and is coated with a textured rubber pad that helps establish a solid position against your chest or shoulder.
SureFire G2 Light and VTAC Light Mount
Smith & Wesson included a 60-lumen SureFire G2 tactical light with a tail switch with the VTAC I that mounts wherever you want with the included Viking Tactics Light Mount kit and handguard rail segments.
Viking Tactics 2-Point Sling
If you haven’t used the Viking Tactics Quick Adjust Sling, try it. After one-time “permanent” length adjustment, you can use the quick-adjust pull tab to cinch your rifle in tight or loosen it for firing flexibility. When sized correctly, you can even shoot from your offside shoulder without adjustment to the sling. It’s handy.
This rifle arrived pretty much loaded—with one exception. I immediately replaced the standard hard plastic grip with an Ergo Tactical Deluxe Grip. Now it was ready for the configuration games.
I first set it up as a home-defense rifle. Using the included rail segments and Viking Tactics light mount, I added a vertical front grip and mounted the light low on the dominant-hand side. This position allowed operation of the SureFire G2 tail switch with my thumb when using the vertical grip with my support hand.
Then I got bored and decided that I wanted something more outdoor-appropriate. So I ditched the vertical grip and moved the light to the upper support-hand side. From the shooter’s point of view, it was now at about an 11 o’clock position. When using a normal support-hand grip, I could operate the light with my thumb. However, without the vertical grip, the rifle was now much more “support friendly” for longer-range shooting.
Then I decided to use this rifle in the Crimson Trace Midnight 3 Gun Invitational. Being a Crimson Trace event, I elected to remove the included SureFire light and install an integrated tactical light, laser, and vertical grip combination in the form of the MVF-515. Wow, that was the bomb. I was amazed at how quickly I could find and engage targets in the pitch dark with the grip-activated light and green laser.
Once again, shiny object syndrome struck, and I decided to reconfigure this as a dedicated outdoor long-range rifle. I mounted a Warne RAMP scope mount with a Bushnell Tactical Elite 1-6.5x optic. As the RAMP offers a two small rail segments in 45-degree positions, the only thing missing is a small red dot optic for fast short-range shots. I’m thinking a Burris FastFire will complete this configuration nicely.
Does it shoot?
Any rifle is going to have ammunition preferences when it comes to wringing out every last bit of accuracy. Being a tireless reloading tinkerer, I’ve been shooting dozens of varieties of home-loaded and factory ammunition rough this rifle.
I started with the assumption that this rifle would perform better with longer and heavier projectiles given its barrel’s 1:7 twist rate. But I was wrong. Yes, it did shoot 69- and 77-grain bullets quite well, but it achieved equally good accuracy with short and light 55-grain projectiles. I tested the following loads at a 100-yard outdoor range in three-shot groups, using the Bushnell Tactical Elite scope at 6.5x magnification.
|Load||Group size (inches)|
|DoubleTap 55-grain Nosler Ballistic Tip||0.705|
|Speer LE Gold Dot Duty Ammunition 64-grain GDSP||1.350|
|Winchester Ranger 55-grain Pointed Soft Point||1.360|
|Winchester Ranger 69-grain Match Hollow Point Boat Tail||1.840|
|Federal Fusion MSR 62-grain||3.400|
|Hornady 55-grain V-MAX||0.795|
|Black Hills 50-grain Barnes TSX||1.180|
|Israel Military Industries (IMI) 77-grain OTM, LR, MOD 1||0.492|
Clearly, I’m going to have to stock up on the IMI 77-grain LR, MOD 1 load, or work up a reasonable hand load equivalent.
The new and the old: the VTAC I and VTAC II
Smith & Wesson has made a couple of tweaks to the VTAC rifle in its second iteration. It features a mid-length gas system for a more gentle recoil and less wear and tear on the moving parts. The barrel twist of the VTAC II is 1:8, allowing for a little more versatility in projectile choice—although I had no issues at all shooting lighter bullets from the VTAC I’s 1:7 twist barrel. The handguard is now a Troy Industries Extreme TRX with a full-length rail along the top and adjustable rail segments. The VTAC II still includes a premium trigger, but now it’s a Geissele Super V. The SureFire flash hider has been replaced with a Smith & Wesson model.
The suggested retail price of the recently-released VTAC II is $1,949, but you’ll be able to find it on the street for substantially less.
There’s not much I could suggest doing to this rifle to make it better for its price point. It’s put together well and the third-party accessories are all first-rate brands.
I’ve used this rifle regularly for just under a year and a half for recreational shooting, accessory and ammunition reviews, and some competitions. It just runs. All the time. No surgery has been required and it’s proven to be insensitive to ammo type, weight, and brand when it comes to reliability. I’ve also noticed no detectable difference in accuracy over time.
The M&P15 VTAC I is a classic example of “you get what you pay for.” You can buy an AR for $700. It will most likely work. It won’t, however, be comparable to the Smith & Wesson VTAC.
There are a number of tier-one AR rifle manufactures that compete in the $1,500-ish price range, but Smith & Wesson has figured out how to deliver a quality base rifle and a slew of third-party customizations at a similar price point.
I highly recommend the M&P15 VTAC I. You’ll spend a few bucks extra and be glad you did.
Tom McHale is the author of the Insanely Practical Guides book series that guides new and experienced shooters alike in a fun, approachable, and practical way. His books are available in print and eBook format on Amazon.