It was the initial handshake that did it. Everyone knows the design of a pistol's magazine well is dictated by the size and shape of the magazine. The frame has to accommodate the mag's rectangular shape, and for the new breed of higher-capacity pistols with double-stack magazines, this means bigger, bulkier frames. But what Joe Bergeron and his Smith & Wesson design team realized was, while the grip frame interior had to be shaped like a rectangle, the exterior of the grip frame could—and should—be shaped to fit the human hand.
When you look at the grip frame of the M&P, you see more of an elliptical shape, whereas on other polymer-frame wide bodies you see a rectangle with the four edges slightly dehorned. When you grasp the M&P, the gun melds to your hand with no box edges dominating the contact points. You could say it fits, but it's not merely the kind of fit that comes from interchangeable backstraps. The backstraps simply extend or reduce the distance to the trigger face and grip circumference, without changing the contour of the grip. The M&P's gun-to-hand interface is friendly regardless of which backstrap is used, because the overall grip shape was designed that way. Other polymer-frame pistols are getting more user-friendly through various techniques, but the ergonomics champ is still the M&P.
Fast forward a couple of years to some consultation between Smith & Wesson and Viking Tactics, and we have the VTAC models of M&P pistols. If you don't know Viking Tactics, suffice it to say the company has some very serious combat experience and expertise. These capabilities were made available to Smith & Wesson, and the result is an M&P pistol with two big changes from previous models.
First, the color has been changed from black to flat dark earth. Since our country's overseas combat engagements for the last 20 years have been in arid or semi-arid regions of the planet, this seems appropriate. Even if the color change is nothing more than a marketing strategy to sell a different model, I'm OK with that. After all, if the anti-gun politicians somehow equate black to an "evil assault weapon," let them have tan.
Whatever the reason for the color change, it has no bearing on the combat effectiveness or capabilities of the M&P pistol. The flat dark earth finish is attached via a vapor-deposition process similar to that found on M&P revolvers, but in brown instead of matte black. The gun is still the highly reliable, polymer-frame, stainless steel slide and barrel, striker-fired pistol with magazines holding 17 rounds of 9 mm or 15 rounds of .40 S&W. These are not high-capacity pistols, but are in fact standard-capacity pistols. When you equip the guns with 10-round magazines, they become reduced-capacity pistols.
The really important change in the new VTAC series of M&Ps is the VTAC Warrior sights. I'll be honest; I was skeptical when I first saw the sights, thinking they most resembled a traffic light and were way too busy to be useful in a stressful situation. Once on the range, my attitude toward the sights changed rapidly and dramatically.
The Warrior sights (both front and rear) are considerably taller than the three-white-dot fixed-sight arrangement found on a standard M&P. The rear-sight notch is quite deep, which I like because it allows more light to show around the front sight blade. As we get older, we need more light, so if you want to call this a "geezer feature," I won't get too upset. Keep in mind, as ambient light dims, even young eyes will appreciate the additional light. More useful and unique, the front-sight blade tapers so it is narrower at the top than at the bottom. Again, more light comes past the front blade. I didn't do any shooting beyond 15 yards, but in her Gunsite 350 class, my daughter engaged a few poppers out to 50 yards and commented favorably on the tapered-post/deep-notch arrangement for longer shots.
My bigger initial concern was about all the green on the Warrior sights. On the front blade, just below the top edge, there is a green fiber-optic insert, while the rear sight has a green fiber-optic insert on each side of the notch. As the ambient light dims and your conventional post/notch sight picture fades, or if your target represents a very dark background, the fiber optics provide a brighter, enhanced three-dot sight picture.
Unlike some handgun sights where the three dots are not properly aligned in the conventional sight picture, the Warrior fiber-optic sights seemed to be pretty much dead on. While I did not engage anything beyond 15 yards, in poor light conditions that may be the maximum range you need or can effectively handle.
Finally, slightly below the fiber-optic rods, the VTAC has three tritium inserts, which, like the fiber optics, seemed to be pretty well aligned with the conventional sight picture. I say "seemed" because I did not do any night shooting with the gun. Again, for close-range defense when the dark negates the viability of your conventional and fiber-optic sights, these tritium dots are a proven mechanism for getting your sights on the target. Yes, the sights are busy, but not distractingly busy. As light conditions change, each sighting option becomes dominant to the point where you will automatically use the visible sights without wasting time trying to sort out options. I want a set of these on my house gun.
To me, one of the weak points on striker-fired handguns is the trigger. If you're young and grew up exclusively with striker-fired polymer handguns, you may disagree. But if you ever shot bullseye events with a good target model .22 LR or 1911, or shot handgun silhouette single action with a Smith & Wesson Model 29, you're probably less than thrilled with the triggers on striker-fired handguns. I will acknowledge Smith & Wesson M&Ps are combat handguns and have triggers more than adequate for self-defense. Man-size targets out to 50 yards can be successfully engaged and defeated with the stock triggers on both the 9 mm and .40 S&W VTACs. Considering fine motor skills deteriorate rapidly under stress, you could even argue a heavier trigger is better than too light of a trigger for self-defense.
However, should you choose to upgrade the trigger on your M&P to improve hit probability on long-range precision shots, you might check out services and gear provided by Apex Tactical Specialties.
One of Apex's M&P offerings is the Duty trigger, so named because once installed, you can't visually distinguish it from the stock trigger. You only notice the difference when you start shooting. The Duty trigger knocks about 2 pounds off the pull weight, removes the mushy feeling during trigger press and greatly reduces the reset travel distance.
The upper-end replacement from Apex is called the FSS Trigger Kit with "FSS" standing for "Forward Set Sear." I'm not enough of a gunsmith to tell you more about the mechanics of the kit, but everything the Duty trigger does for the M&P, the FSS Trigger Kit does even better. Unlike the Duty version and stock trigger, the FSS doesn't have a pivoting trigger, but rather features a safety lever in the center of the trigger face (like Glocks and the Springfield XD line) that must be depressed first before the gun can be fired. Your decision on which to buy might boil down to a budget judgment.
In case you haven't guessed, I'm a fan of the M&P and very impressed with the new sights on the VTAC. I'm also impressed with Smith & Wesson for listening to Viking Tactics and making the sights a factory-available item. My house gun (and sometimes my car gun) is an M&P in .45 ACP set up with a SureFire X400 weaponlight and laser. It now features the Apex FSS Trigger Kit and will soon be wearing Warrior sights from Viking Tactics. I can't make a stronger endorsement than that.