It is no secret that the AR is the best selling civilian rifle in the US with many manufacturers jumping on the bandwagon in recent years by offering their version and introducing chamberings other than 5.56/.223. As with most good ideas, often the simplest are the best. The Smith&Wesson M&P15R offers a subtle yet distinct nuance to the AR platform by chambering it in the Russian 5.45x39 cartridge. With the ever rising cost of ammunition, the 5.45x39 is one of the most available and affordable surplus cartridges found on the market. Smith&Wesson offers a full line of AR platform rifles in their M&P line ranging from basic A2/M4 variants, varmint models, tactical rifles featuring adjustable stocks and quad rail fore-ends, and custom tuned offerings by their Performance Center. By chambering the M&P15R in the Soviet/Russian 5.45x39, S&W not only further legitimizes the round in many eyes, but also seeks to attract AK users already familiar with the 5.45x39 cartridge that may be tempted to succumb to the AR lure of ready adaptability via a huge aftermarket accessory sector, increased accuracy, ergonomics, and ease of mounting optics. Please understand that there has always been a strident and ever growing throng of shooters that feel the AK system in either 7.62x39 or 5.45x39 is superior as is. Yes, AKs chambered in 5.56/.223 have been around for sometime. This is more than justified in a foreign rifle design in the land of the 5.56/223 striving for sales.
S&W reaction to rising ammunition costs by chambering an AR in the 5.45x39 will have more widespread cause/effect than anticipated. Hornady's announcement of creating VMAX loads for the 7.62x39 and 5.45x39 is a tacit admission that the Russian rounds are here to say. Many forums and discussion boards have long touted the potency and cost effectiveness of turning to the Russian rounds for training and even primary use in a fighting rifle. 5.45x39 ammunition is available via Wolf and other manufacturers along with many different importers bringing in surplus ammunition such as Century International Arms. Corrosive and non-corrosive labels need to be scrutinized so that proper care can be given to a firearm that uses corrosive ammunition. SAR did an article on the best procedures to follow several issues ago. Corrosive ammunition should not be avoided like the plague, especially once proper methods are learned and practiced in cleaning a rifle utilizing corrosive ammunition. Cleaning methods are straightforward once understood and not the alchemy some portray.
For testing, Wolf Ammunition was used in both the 60gr and 70gr FMJ variety. Some surplus 53gr 5.45x39 ammunition was used as well. This is loaded with the original 7N6 "poison" bullet that first gained notoriety in the Soviet-Afghan War. Basically, the Russian designers constructed the 53gr. FMJ with an air cavity behind the tip of the bullet. The bullet was designed with soft targets such as human flesh in mind. This more readily allows the bullet nose to deform when penetrating a target creating more effective wound tracts and terminal ballistics. One downside to the surplus ammunition is that it does utilize corrosive primers. Something the Russians and other ex-Soviet bloc states insist on using due to concerns with cold weather ignition and long-term storage capabilities offered by corrosive primers. However, stocking up on it can not be resisted considering that it can be still found at 15cents a round or lower! Another load tested was the Dynamit Nobel FMJ HP 59gr imported by Century International, which was non-corrosive.
The 5.45x39 cartridge features a shorter tapered case (39mm) compared to the 5.56's longer (45mm) and straighter design. The 5.45x39's tapering aids in more reliable extraction and feeding, especially when considering the steel case’s metallurgical properties employed with the 5.45x39 compared to brass which predominates in the 5.56/.223 loadings. The more elongated bullet used in the 5.45 gives a similar OAL to the 5.56.
S&W uses 7075 T6 Aluminum for the upper and lower receivers and 4140 steel for the 16" barrel. The receivers are produced by an outside source per S&W specifications and hand assembled at the S&W factory. S&W M&Ps have chrome lined the barrel bores, chambers, gas keys, and bolt carriers. This feature is readily appreciated by 15R owners shooting surplus 5.45x39 ammunition for maintenance reasons. Readership is too well versed to spend an inordinate amount of time describing what makes up an AR direct impingement gas-operated rifle. The 15R follows the M16A3/A4 pattern featuring a flattop Picatinny rail on the receiver with M4 front sight post and A2 birdcage flashhider. The M&P 15R weighs 6.5 pounds with the 6-position collapsible stock giving it a length of 35" extended and 32" collapsed. The barrel twist rate is 1:8. The 15R uses a standard dimension AR magazine with a specific follower with feed lips configured to handle the 5.45x39 reliably. Capacity is 30 rounds. Smith&Wesson M&P ARs are gaining a reputation as a quality rifle with many owners reporting no issues even after attending high volume of fire training courses. This is the best double check of quality—using a rifle under stress, getting both the weapon and user hot and dirty. The M&P15R does utilize a heavier hammer spring with the 15R to ensure reliable ignition of the 5.45x39 ammunition, which is mostly of the surplus variant utilizing corrosive primers that are tougher than normal US production primers. The spring is painted orange to distinguish it from the "normal" hammer springs that are employed by S&W in the other M&P rifles. Trigger pull is stiffer with this configuration, but not unmanageable measuring 7.5lbs with RCBS trigger scale.
The S&W M&P15R was tested at the range with various optics installed such as the Trijicon 5.5x ACOG and RX30 Reflex, ATN Ultra Sight holographic, along with Leupold Mk4 CQ/T and Prismatic sights. A detachable carry handle was even mounted at times during the various range visits. All served to illustrate the flexibility and easy adaptability of the AR platform. The 5.5x ACOG was utilized for 100yd accuracy testing and never considered as a full time optic option for the M&P15R due to weight and 5.5x magnification impacting field of view for CQB distances. The M&P15R displayed a higher degree of accuracy comparable to various AK74s tested to date. The Wolf 60gr and 70gr loads were in the 2.5" range at 100yds as was, surprisingly, the surplus Russian 53gr loads. The Dynamit Nobel 59gr loads was slightly better performing in the accuracy department. The Wolf 5.45x39 70gr chronographed slightly over 2,600fps on average with the Russian 53gr surplus, Wolf 60gr, and Dynamit Nobel 59gr all producing 3,000fps in the M&P15R. S&W is using correct barrel dimensions for the 5.45x39 round with .217 (+/-.001) bores and .222 (+/-) groove diameters to ensure accuracy. There have been reports of 5.45 barrels using improper 5.56 dimensions for various other 5.45x39 chambered rifles, which is larger, with the expected adverse effect on accuracy.
Range testing consisted of functionality test consisting of dumping multiple magazines at several targets in rapid fashion once sights were verified. Any fighting rifle, regardless of chambering, must be reliable to be worthy of consideration. Once the M&P15R proved reliable, it was then put through its paces on different rifle courses that were set up for a pending law enforcement competition that was to be held at the range. Magazine changes, shooting from the non-dominant shoulder and unconventional positions helped to put the M&P15R thru its paces. Strings of fire ranged from 15 rounds to 80 rounds with target distances measured in feet out to a couple of hundred yards. The S&W M&P15R handled as expected from an AR carbine combined with perfect reliability. Total rounds fired involving several range visits was over 2,200. The rifle was cleaned between range visits.
While the rifle never exhibited a problem during firing sequences, I did have an issue with the Wolf 70gr loads being difficult to manually extract from the chamber when unloading the rifle. The rifle had to be "mortared" with the buttstock pounded on the ground while extracting the round from the chamber. The upper was sent back to S&W who examined it and reported that a simple hand reaming of the chamber took care of the issue. This was verified once the rifle was returned the range. S&W's service took care of all of this in less than two weeks including the shipping to and fro.
The M&P15R is indistinguishable from other ARs chambered in 5.56/223Rem. S&W stamps 5.45x39 on the barrel and magazines. Shooters need to be cognizant of similar appearance any time shooting the M&P15R in conjunction with "normal" chambered ARs. The M&P15R is not targeted at LE/military but at civilians concerned with maximizing cost/shooting ratio with available ammunition while staying with AR platform versus AK, thus confusion over rifles mix matching magazines/ammunition in an armory or arms locker is minimized. The 5.45x39 is just as a viable a cartridge as the 5.56 and many will no doubt consider switching to it as a fighting rifle chambering. A stockpiling of cartridges is certainly possible with the 5.45x39 with thousands more rounds of 5.45x39 purchased versus 5.56 for the same money. Extra magazines are readily available in the $20-$30 range. S&W is offering M&P15R uppers separately as well, which will allow the ultimate flexibility for AR users to take advantage of the 5.45x39 cartridge without having to buy another rifle.
Overall, the combination of less expensive 5.45x39 (for now) with adaptability of AR platform with various accessories such as sights, stocks, and forward rails will appeal too many. The inherently more accurate AR platform will further sway others. An AR chambered in 5.45x39 should not be discounted as a worthy addition to weapon collection due to flexibility of utilizing available ammunition for either training purposes or more serious applications. It will be curious and enlightening to watch how the M&P15R fares in the long run in terms of market success. Tendency might be for AR users to stick with 5.56 and AK users with 5.45 due to ingrained norms being too hard to break free from. In either event, the S&W M&P line of ARs should be considered by anyone looking into purchasing an AR platform no matter the caliber desired.