I’m fond of my AR-15. I don’t mean that I sleep with it under my pillow or gaze longingly at its photograph on my desk at work. I appreciate well-designed and manufactured devices, whether firearms, tools, musical instruments or computers. I find useful and functional design to be remarkable and endlessly fascinating.

The charming little weapon in the first photograph is my S&W M&P (Military & Police) 22-15 Standard model rifle.  Its suggested retail price is $499.00. You’ll also notice several accessories mounted on this side of the rifle.

Here’s the opposite side.  Those familiar with the AR-15 family will recognize that the 22-15 is a faithful reproduction in virtually every respect.

Here’s the rifle with its hinged receiver open. Again, notice that it breaks down for cleaning exactly as its rifle-caliber siblings of the AR-15 family.

Here’s the bolt group of the 22-15, which bears only a superficial resemblance to that of the AR-15. I’ll explain all of that shortly.

Before we go on, here’s a list of accessories mentioned in this article:

(1) S&W 22-15 Standard Rifle: $499. 25 rnd mags: $20.04.

(2) 1000 rounds of PMC .223: $325.00.

(3) Tasco Red Dot sight, 38mm tube: $37.99.

(4) #11 Eye and #13 ObjectiveButler Creek Flips Ups: app. $9.89 each.

(5) Magpul MOE commercial spec. stock: $59.95.   (This stock is available on at least two models of the 15-22 from the factory.) 

(6) SureFire G2 Nitrolon flashlight: $59.00 (I have seen this flashlight considerably cheaper from a variety of sources). 

(7) Daniel Defense Sling Mount: $31.00.

(8) VLTOR Scout standard flashlight mount: $34.97.

The AR-15 family, the brainchild of Eugene Stoner, is indeed remarkable. Accurate, reliable, light weight, ergonomically brilliant, and when accomplished by many manufacturers, a thing of beauty, AR-15s are truly worthy of a bit of platonic admiration. There’s just one problem…no, I’m not talking about the caliber.

Since its adoption by the Air Force and eventually and reluctantly, the Army, the 5.56mm/.223 Remington cartridge has had its detractors, primarily over its lack of consistent single shot lethality and penetration in military use.  In many ways, I’d prefer a more powerful cartridge if I was in combat, but on the other hand, it’s just not possible to have too much ammunition, and far more 5.56mm can be carried by an individual soldier than any larger caliber. There is no free lunch, and that ongoing argument is better explored in another article.

Back to the problem: .223 ammunition (.223 is the civilian caliber designation while the military prefers the metric designation) is pretty expensive. Luckygunner.com currently offers 1000 rounds of PMC .223 (with reloadable brass) for $325. That’s reasonably cheap as .223 ammunition goes.  Steel cased, non-reloadable Tula (Russian-made) .223 is available from the same source for $225.00 per thousand, which isn’t bad (22.5 cents per round, about five rounds for a dollar).

Reloading is another possibility.  Once all of the necessary equipment is purchased, it’s possible to save money, but probably not when cheap .223 like the Tula ammunition is considered.  I used to reload a great deal and enjoyed it, but the problem is it’s relatively time consuming, and as I’ve grown older, I’ve discovered that time is more valuable and in shorter supply than I once imagined, particularly when the savings to be had from reloading are no longer as great as they once were for common rifle and handgun calibers. As many older people discover, I have a bit more disposable income than when I was younger, and as long as I can afford to pay a bit more for ammo, I’d prefer to have the free time.

Shooting an AR-15 is just about as much fun as one can have with firearms. They’re light, reliable, have very low recoil, are ridiculously accurate, and they simply feel right. They also look very cool, and even though some shooters are far too mature to admit such considerations, have you ever noticed how many of them have photographs of themselves proudly displaying various firearms, particularly the “cool” ones?  Thought so.

A thousand rounds sounds like quite a bit, but its surprising, with frequent practice, how quickly one can run through that amount of ammunition, particularly when participating in a professional one or two day class. Shooting is not only a physical skill, but a mental skill as well, and without regular, correct practice it’s perishable.

So we arrive, once again, at the problem: It is good (repeat after me: “It is good; it is good…”) to own and shoot an AR-15, but it’s also expensive.  With the PMC ammunition I mentioned earlier, every time the rifle goes bang, 32.5 cents is speeding downrange.  That’s three rounds for a dollar.

The obvious solution for the cost issue is to substitute cheaper ammunition, particularly the ubiquitous .22LR.  Lucky Gunner lists 500 rounds of Federal Champion .22LR at $21.50.  That’s $43.00 per 1000, or 4.3 cents per round/23 rounds for a dollar.

Short of buying a rifle in .22LR, one option is one of the several .22LR adapter kits on the market. These normally consist of a bolt and bolt carrier group that slip into the upper receiver of an AR-15, replacing the normal bolt and bolt carrier. The AR-15 is a gas operated rifle, but such adapters (and the S&W 22-15) are simple blow-back actions and don’t use the AR gas system.  These kits also include a .22LR magazine (usually only one) that fits in the AR magazine well and uses its magazine release button. Such kits normally retail for about $130.00.

Any well-engineered kit will work reasonably well, but they have several drawbacks. The foremost drawback is that most magazines are limited to ten rounds and are quite expensive, often running as high as $100.00. Some kits have magazines of 25-30 rounds, but are often less than reliable in these larger capacities. In addition, I’ve found that magazines are often hard to find. There is also enough tolerance variability in ARs by various manufacturers that some kit magazines might not fit a given weapon’s magazine well.  The other factor is dirt: .22LR ammunition is quite dirty, and while it will generally shoot with good accuracy in standard AR-15 barrels, it can leave behind quite a bit of lead in the rifling and loads of powder gunk throughout the receiver, far more than shooting an equal amount of .223 ammunition will cause.

I’m not a clean freak, but I do believe that a clean gun is a happy gun, and I like my guns to be very happy in their work. No, I don’t talk to them; my cat certainly, my plants—maybe, but my guns, no. I don’t mind cleaning guns, it’s a part of appreciating fine machinery and fully understanding complex mechanisms.  Understanding the design and function of a given firearm will help one to be a better shooter.  Because of its military lineage, any AR-15 is easy to take down, clean and reassemble, but I don’t like cleaning them longer and more often than necessary.

By now it’s probably obvious that one solution to this dilemma is the S&W 22-15. There are indeed similar weapons by other manufacturers, but Smith really got this one right. Smith and I have had a rather rocky relationship. They have always made fine revolvers, but many of their weapons, particularly their earlier semi-automatic pistols, just weren’t up to their promise. In recent years, S&W has, happily, reversed that trend in a great many ways, and the 22-15 is a fine example.

Before I get into the details of the Smith, let’s explore the rationale for buying one. The standard model of the gun retails for $499, but can be found for considerably less with a bit of careful shopping. When many adapter kits with one spare magazine run for $200 and more, the difference is not so great, considering that 1000 rounds of .22LR can be had for $40.00 and less. Compared to $325 and more for 1000 rounds of .223, one isn’t far from buying the Smith for the savings inherent in the first 1000 rounds.

NOTE: it has been positively established by recent experiments with the Large Hadron Collider at CERN—as a side effect of looking for the Higgs Boson—that it really is scientifically impossible to have too many guns or too much ammunition, but you always suspected that, didn’t you? Ain’t science grand?

Of course, the greatest benefit of the Smith is that it is, in virtually every way, identical to an AR carbine. The position and feel of all of the controls—bolt release, safety, trigger, magazine release, take down pin, cocking handle—is identical to that of a full-fledged AR, with the exception that the travel of the cocking handle is much shorter than that of a real AR as the .22LR cartridge is much shorter. The two primary differences are that the Smith is about a pound lighter than a comparable AR, and that recoil—already very light in an AR—is all but nonexistent in the Smith.

The Smith is made primarily of polymer, and only those parts that actually need to be steel are made of steel and finished in what appears to be the same kind of dull black, mil-tech finish common on ARs. The forearm is a non-removable plastic with standard sized, full-length accessory rails top and bottom and on both sides. The lower and upper receivers (the upper also has a full-length accessory rail for scope mounting) are also polymer.

The standard model comes with easily removable—by means of large knurled nuts–front and rear “iron” sights and no flash hider, an accessory available (installed) from the factory for an additional $20.00. In fact, a wide variety of accessories and finishes are available from the factory for extra cost, including several models in a sort of Zebra-like pink, though I’m not familiar with where such a color scheme would blend with the natural flora and fauna and am sure that the corresponding camo uniform would clash with my eyes.  One can also follow my lead and accessorize from the aftermarket, which can be rather fun in and of itself.

Accuracy is easily on a par—within the range parameters of the .22LR cartridge—with the AR family. I chose an inexpensive yet well made Tasco red dot sight as being similar to the more expensive sights on my ARs. Unlike more expensive models with multiple, multi-colored reticles and other bells and whistles, the Tasco provides a simple, easy to see red dot. Windage and elevation click adjustments are audible and have a solid, positive feel. There is much to be said for simplicity. The single rheostat on/off control has 11 separate brightness settings allowing the brightness level appropriate to light conditions.  Most will find 9-11 necessary for bright daylight. One can certainly spend more than the price of the weapon on optics, but when I sighted the Tasco in, I was able to easily shoot 3-round groups consistently in the one inch range from 50 yards, supported from sandbags on a bench with middling quality ammunition. Many expensive .22LR bolt-action rifles do no better, and the Smith has a standard-feeling AR mil-spec. trigger rather than an ultra-light target trigger (a two-stage match trigger is also available on several models factory direct). In fact, the Smith’s lock work resembles the AR mechanism with the exception that the Smith’s hammer is plastic. Even so, it sounds and feels just like an AR and function checks identically. The Smith’s barrel is not a heavy, target barrel, but it is more substantial than most .22 rifles and features a recessed crown at the muzzle to protect the rifling.

One of the things I most appreciate about the Smith is its 25 round magazines which resemble standard AR, 30 round magazines and fit in the same pouches. These magazines cost only $20.04 direct from Smith and are quite reliable. I’ve found that the key to reliability is to load no more than 23 rounds, and to load them by pulling down on the follower buttons on each side of the magazine, allowing each round to drop into the magazine rather than pushing it into the magazine under spring tension. This allows the cartridges to orient themselves in a sort of left/right/left manner and allows the nose of the top cartridge to protrude through the magazine lips at an upward angle. If the top cartridge is not in this attitude, a feedway malfunction is highly likely.  Magazines break down for cleaning easily.  Ten round magazines–useful for sighting in from a bench—are also available, also as $20.04. I did initially have one 25 round magazine that would not feed reliably. I sent it back to Smith (with their consent) and received one that worked properly within a week.

It’s important to use a proper stance, holding the weapon firmly into the shoulder pocket—or the top of the shoulder for most, which is a necessity with AR-type weapons. Failing to do this will often result in a failure to go into battery from a short stroking bolt, which didn’t have a solid platform against which to recoil.  In the photos that follow, I demonstrate that proper stance and hold.

Low Ready Position

This first photo demonstrates the low ready position.  Notice that the rifle’s buttplate is high on the shoulder—that’s perfectly fine with the AR family, and particularly the 22-15, as both produce almost no recoil–and the weapon is firmly gripped with the right hand.  Contrary to common belief, one shouldn’t firmly grasp the forearm as this can lead to pulling-usually to the left—with that hand.  The control of the weapon is accomplished with the right hand and shoulder.  The weapon simply rests in the relaxed left hand.  Notice that the neck is erect and the head upright in both photos.

Pointing In Position

This photo illustrates pointing in at the target.  From a proper low ready position, all that is required is simply raising the muzzle upward which takes a fraction of a second and brings the sight up to the eye, not the eye down to the sight.  Notice too that the trigger finger is in register—out of the trigger guard and in contact with the receiver—until moments before it is necessary to pull the trigger.  This should be every shooter’s common, default practice with any firearm.

There is no forward assist plunger on the right side of the weapon (that’s a good thing with the .22LR which is a rimfire cartridge; ramming a forward assist plunger into the cartridge would almost certainly fire it at inopportune moments), but malfunction drills are virtually identical to those employed with the AR.

One should charge and manipulate the weapon smartly as delicate or tentative motions will tend to encourage malfunctions, but save Incredible Hulk impressions for other weapons; the Smith is mostly made of plastic, so butt-stroking others is pretty much right out, as the British would say.  This is also true with the military’s M-4 versions of the AR family. Their aluminum construction makes them poor clubs.

As I mentioned earlier, the Smith employs a straight blowback action.  This means that the bolt holds the cartridge in the chamber under sufficient spring tension to keep it in the chamber as the round fires.  When the pressure diminishes to a safe level, the remaining energy of firing overcomes the tension of the recoil spring and pushes the bolt backward.  The extractor pulls the fired case out of the chamber, and as the bolt continues backward, strikes the case against the ejector which sends it smartly out of the ejection port.  When the bolt reaches its rearmost travel, the compressed recoil spring pushes it forward to push the next cartridge out of the magazine and into the chamber.  All of this takes place in the blink of an eye.

The action spring rides above the bolt on a guide rod.  The bolt rides in two rails embedded at angles in its sides and attached to a plastic base behind the bolt. The recoil spring housing of the AR family, in which rides the recoil spring and buffer, is non-functional on the Smith, and the plastic tube is present only as the mount for the telescoping stock. Unlike the AR family, it is integrally molded as a piece with the lower receiver and cannot be removed, but it does accept properly dimensioned aftermarket stocks, like the Magpul unit I have, which again, is also available directly from the S&W factory on several models. I chose this stock simply because it’s the stock I use on my ARs, so why not be consistent? I also like its solid construction and unobtrusive and non-slip buttplate. Having the release mechanism protected by the body of the stock is also helpful, as I’ve had standard AR stocks collapse at unplanned and unfortunate times when hung up on gear and other objects.

I protect the Tasco sight with Butler Creek flip up scope covers, which at about $10.00 each are inexpensive and work very well. One should note that most—if not all—of the accessories I list here can be purchased from sources other than those I’ve provided, possibly at reduced prices. However, I’ve generally found these sources to offer reliably good service and prices within the normal range of the retail market.

I also mount a flashlight because I do the same with my ARs. We live in varying degrees of darkness half the time, yet few shooters practice shooting in low and no light situations. For less than $100.00, I’ve found that the SureFire G2 Nitrolon (polymer) flashlight and the VLTOR standard Scout Mount position the flashlight perfectly for on/off manipulation by the left hand thumb. One can purchase squeeze pads, but why add wires and additional expense and complexity when there is a perfectly good thumb just hanging around on the left side of the forearm anyway? The Scout mount weighs almost nothing and allows quick and easy mounting and adjustment of standard 1″ tube flashlights, like the G2 and most other SureFire and Streamlight flashlights, with only a single thumbscrew.

The final accessory I use is a Daniel Defense accessory rail mount for one of their neat plunger-type sling mounts. Push a button to insert the solid, ballbearing plunger, and push the same button to release it. This works particularly well with single point slings, which I favor, rotates 360° and makes no noise. The only difference between the Smith and AR is that I use a Daniel Defense mount that clamps onto the recoil spring tube just behind the lower receiver on my ARs, which positions it perfectly for a single point sling, allowing the rifle to hang well on the body. I don’t believe that particular mount is a good idea with the Smith as it could easily overstress or crush the plastic tube.

The problem with this mount on the 22-15 is that the sling mount must be attached at the rear of the left side accessory rail, in front of the lower receiver, placing the center of gravity in about the middle of the gun, allowing the barrel to flip upward. The simple solution is to buy—or make if you can sew—a simple ¾” wide nylon strap with Velcro closures that wraps around the stock tube and the single point sling to keep the gun in a barrel down orientation.  Properly done, this does not interfere with mounting the weapon to the cheek when firing.  In a pinch, any appropriate piece of cord, even an old shoestring, would serve the same function.

My only real complaint about the Smith is its owner’s manual. Most of it is obviously written with avoiding lawsuits foremost in mind. It’s of the type that might say something like this for a toaster: “Do not insert wet badgers connected to your anatomy by exposed copper wiring into the toaster slots.”

Can’t you just imagine what the testimony was in that lawsuit?

Lawyer: “And do you recognize this charred badger Mr. Jones?”

The Smith manual implies that if you’re foolish enough to actually fire the gun, you or others could get hurt and it’s absolutely not the manufacturer’s fault because they warned you! What is conspicuously missing from my manual is disassembly and reassembly instructions for the bolt/guide rod for cleaning. As I bought a rifle from one of the earliest production runs, this may have been subsequently corrected.

To disassemble the bolt, simply pull the recoil spring back slightly from its resting place on the black plastic base, and holding the back of the base steady, push the guide rod (the bolt will move too) slightly to the rear (toward the black plastic base). There is a slot machined in the end of the guide rod, which will easily slide up and out of its holder on the top of the black plastic base if pushed back just a little. Be sure to keep everything in hand as the spring will rocket around the room if prematurely released.  Simply slide the bolt off the rails and reassemble in reverse order. A little lubrication on the rails and guide rod are all that should normally be necessary (apart from a thin film of oil on metal parts for rust prevention, of course).

Cleaning the rifle is easy, but one should have plenty of Q-tips for small or hard to reach places, particularly around the breach face and its fixed, protruding ejector. It’s important to be careful with the rifle when the upper receiver is open. This is so even with ARs, which have aluminum receivers. The single forward hinge point is vulnerable to damage with the receivers are open, and this is particularly true with the plastic Smith.  It’s best to simply push the pin to its stop (the lower receiver retains it so it can’t fall out and be lost) and remove the entire upper receiver/barrel assembly for cleaning.  This makes barrel and chamber cleaning more convenient and easier anyway.

One additional warning: The accessory rails are plastic, so when attaching accessories, particularly scopes, keep in mind that torque specs applicable to metal rails will crush plastic rails. It’s necessary to figure it out by hand, again, saving the Incredible Hulk impressions for other weapons.

The Smith and Wesson M&P 22-15 is an excellent and inexpensive way to practice completely transferrable AR skills. Its light weight and miniscule recoil also makes it an excellent training weapon for any shooter.  As with the AR family, the collapsible stock allows immediate length of pull adjustment for shooters of any stature and arm length.  This is particularly useful for women and children who should always be encouraged to learn and appreciate shooting skills.  The little rifle also has the advantage of looking very cool, which doesn’t hurt in attracting new shooters.