S&W M&P40 vs. G17 Gen4 Part 1
The first great CO2 training gun and the latest
By Dennis Adler
How far have we come? I ask that question often in the world of blowback action CO2 pistols and the answer is always the same, “things keep getting better.” But since the first blowback action air pistol, the Umarex Walther PPK/S (the Model T of BBA CO2 BB pistols, sorry 007 fans, this gun needs a reboot), and the Umarex Colt Commander (2014), the art of making blowback action air pistols that duplicate their centerfire counterparts, “appears” to have increased continually over last few years.
Realism is everything for a good blowback action pistol and again, it “appears” we have only been getting this the last few years. It would, however, be far more accurate to say we have been getting a lot more of it because it actually began back in 2012 with the Tanfoglio Limited Custom and Gold Custom (yes, they predate the Umarex Colt Commander by two years in development and the S&W M&P40 by four years).
They were not practical training guns in a traditional sense, but rather more dedicated target pistols. Why am I throwing out this distinction after recently lamenting the loss of the Tanfoglio-branded lineup of blowback action target models? The answer is that for awhile there was only one really practical training gun, a CO2 model that was an honest 1:1 understudy to its centerfire counterpart; the Umarex S&W M&P40. A gun so accurate in its details, handling, and disassembly it became the first full function CO2 pistol to be used as a training gun for law enforcement, where either the 9mm or .40 S&W M&P was a standard duty sidearm.
In 2016, the most authentic blowback action pistol based on a law enforcement design then in use was the Umarex S&W M&P40. The .40 S&W model at top is also equipped with the optional ambidextrous thumb safeties required by some police departments. The big giveaway is the use of white outlines on the M&P and Smith & Wesson lettering. The flip side of the CO2 model also has the safety warning and manufacturer marks in white.
There was no absolute equal to the M&P40 blowback action model until the latest and most impressive guns of 2019 were introduced, the Umarex Glock 17 Gen4 and Springfield Armory XDM models. With all due respect to the XDMs, Glocks are used my more law enforcement agencies than any other handgun. And as a gun used by law enforcement, the Umarex G17 Gen4 is the perfect training gun. Then again, so is the Umarex S&W M&P40 (and M&P models), also used by various local and state law enforcement agencies across the country. I could say that for the H&K USP as well, but not that many U.S. law enforcement agencies carry the USP, same for the CZ 75, another excellent CO2 version of a well respected centerfire pistol. But, for a real hand’s on airgun experience, no two guns are more closely matched than the 2016 M&P40 and 2019 Glock Gen4, and this is where I personally feel we can find the answer to the question, “How far have we come?”
Going for absolute authenticity the M&P40 CO2 model has the three interchangeable backstrap panels, so the gun can be fitted to different hand sizes. This was a popular feature for police departments using the air pistol for remedial or indoor training exercises, allowing an officer to have a CO2 model with the exact same grip size as his duty gun.
If you look at the number of civilian gun owners who have (centerfire) Glocks and S&W M&P models (M&P models as a whole not just the M&P40), compared to other guns like CZ 75 and H&K models, the statistics are apt to be very close to law enforcement use (in the U.S.). You will also find a large number of Sig Sauer models among major U.S. law enforcement agencies and certainly the military, but for our purposes, the M&P40 and Glock 17 Gen4 designs compare favorably to one another as centerfire and CO2 models, feature for feature.
As a CO2 model the M&P40 was a perfect fit for all duty holsters and dustcover rail tactical lights or laser sights. The white lettering had one advantage as a training gun, easily distinguishing the air pistol from the cartridge gun when training.
The three-year span between these two blowback action CO2 models is packed with other new guns that came out in 2017 and 2018, as well as a new designs introduced this year, like the Gen4 and XDM. But looking all the way back over the seven years from 2012 to 2019, the CO2 air pistol market has not evolved as much as we think. In 2016, the M&P40 was clearly surpassing the competition as a more modern and realistic understudy for a centerfire handgun. It was a groundbreaking design that, in fact, has not been surpassed in technology, even by the new Glock 17 Gen4. Here’s why.
Serious air pistol consumers (particularly those who also have centerfire handgun) want a blowback action pistol that exactly duplicated the design, handling, and operation of a centerfire pistol, thus making the air pistol suitable for training purposes. This requires that the air pistol feel like the centerfire gun in the hand, and fit the same holsters and use the same accessories for training. And this is nothing new; almost 20 years ago in Germany, that role for law enforcement (and to a much lesser degree in the U.S.) was being fulfilled by the pellet-firing, rotary magazine loading, non-blowback action Umarex Walther CP99. Across the U.S., local and state law enforcement was adopting the Walther P99 and S&W99 (Smith & Wesson’s version built during the period when S&W and Walther were partnering for the U.S. market and the PPK was being manufactured for sale in the U.S. by S&W from 2001 to 2012).
Umarex and Glock agreed to make the distinction between a centerfire pistol and the air pistol as close to non-existent as possible. The CO2 model of the G17 Gen4 also comes with the interchangeable backstrap panels. The only subtle tell on U.S. sold Gen4 CO2 models is the absence of the caliber stamping on the slide. In Europe the slide is correct in that detail.
BB vs. pellet gun development
Getting pellets into a blowback action CO2 model wouldn’t become a reality until the mediocre Beretta PX4 Storm in 2007, and wound not be improved upon significantly until Sig Sauer entered the market with the P320 ASP a decade later, and further-improved late in 2018 with the blowback action M17 ASP. Thus the onus for building true 1:1 CO2 training guns has rested squarely on the shoulders of BB-firing pistols with self-contained CO2 BB magazines that are 1:1 counterparts to centerfire models.
Interestingly, even though the grip panels are attached identically on the CO2 model, there is just enough difference between the air pistol and the centerfire model that the backstrap panels are not interchangeable between guns. This is the CO2 model.
1:1 G17 and M&P40
Let’s begin with the older M&P40 (older in terms of being a CO2 model). Both the centerfire M&P40 and Umarex have matching polymer frames, and metal slides. The visual differences are minimal and confined almost solely to the white outline lettering around the M&P40 and Smith & Wesson names on the left side of the slide, and the telltale manufacturer’s information and safety warnings on the right side. Except from a straight on view that reveals the recessed .177 caliber muzzle, the variances in fit, finish and details of the M&P40 airgun and the .40 S&W and 9mm models are minimal. The Umarex model of the M&P40 also duplicates the optional ambidextrous manual thumb safeties on centerfire models, so that is not an immediate giveaway that the Umarex is an air pistol.
All things being equal, the mechanical design for the M&P40 CO2 model and the Glock 17 Gen4 are very much the same. Both guns handle like their centerfire counterparts and the slides lock open on an empty magazine. They are as true to the actual gun as an air pistol can be. Aside from the obvious different external configurations and trigger designs, the most significant improvements between 2016 and 2019 are how these guns are finished.
The 9mm, .40 S&W and .45 ACP models are a fraction of an inch longer, and the rear sights are slightly different is shape and a fraction of an inch taller than the white dot sights on the cartridge-firing models. The most telling feature of the airgun’s handling is the lighter trigger pull.
As a training gun the handling characteristics are identical including field stripping and cleaning. Every working feature of the M&P40 is duplicated, so all training regimens can be taught and practiced with the airgun creating duplicate responses right up to the moment you pull the trigger. The M&P40 CO2 also has correct ambidextrous slide releases, left side magazine release, three interchangeable palmswell grip panels, full blowback operation with a slide that locks open on a empty magazine, and a correct two-piece trigger design with over travel stop. The airgun also has a matching 3-slot Picatinny rail on the dustcover so it can be equipped with the same tactical lights or light/laser combinations used on centerfire models.
In terms of authentic handling, both use a version of the J.M. Browning short-recoil, locked-breech design and have correct centerfire model white dot (M&P) and white outline white rear sights and white dot front sights. Internally both guns use the same basic CO2 firing systems and CO2 BB magazine designs.
The airgun uses drop free, self contained CO2 BB magazines with a capacity of 15 rounds, making the airgun ideal for practicing reloading and tactical reloads. Like the cartridge models. This is literally as close to handing a cartridge-firing S&W M&P40 as you can get.
Most of the applicable attributes of the M&P40 are also found on the new for 2019 Umarex Glock 17 Gen4. In fact, mechanically they are almost identical. Oh, and that applies equally to the centerfire models. As an air pistol, the G17 Gen4 surpasses the M&P40 by eliminating the telltale white lettering and hiding the safety warnings on the underside of the triggerguard. But, mechanical feature for mechanical feature, the G17 Gen4 is no more advanced than the older M&P40 CO2 pistol. It fieldstrips just as easily and identically to the 9mm pistol. One plus, the Glock CO2 BB magazines are vastly easier to load, but before you applaud that improvement in design, the new Springfield Armory XDM CO2 BB magazines are just as hard to load as the older M&P40 mags, so the improvements are not across the board.
The last touch is authentic field stripping capability. The Glock shows one advantage (we will call it an improvement because it is more authentic) using a correct Gen4 dual recoil spring guide rod assembly. The Glock CO2 BB magazine is also much easier to load. And that is how far we have come since 2016. It is all about new models, more than new manufacturing technology. Is the G17 Gen4 better than the M&P40? We will find out in Part 2.
In all the important respects, the Umarex S&W M&P40 and Umarex Glock 17 Gen4 share almost the exact same manufacturing technology with visual differences in pistol design and the Glock’s superior finish. How far have we come? In terms of new models, we have advanced in leaps and bounds in the last few years, but new technology is not as prescient, unless one looks to Sig Sauer. And this sets the stage for December’s selection of the top new models competing for 2019’s Replica Air Pistol of the Year title. Innovation needs to be on an equal plane with technology that keeps being reused to adapt newer designs that are only new on the outside!
A word about safety
Blowback action airguns provide the look, feel and operation of their cartridge-firing counterparts and this is one reason why they have become so popular. Airguns in general all look like guns, blowback action models more so, and it is important to remember that the vast majority of people can’t tell an airgun from a cartridge gun. Never brandish an airgun in public. Always, and I can never stress this enough, always treat an airgun as you would a cartridge gun. The same manual of operation and safety should always apply.