March 08, 2023
By James Tarr, Handguns Editor
Completely new firearm designs are a rarity. Instead, the market is filled with upgraded or altered versions of existing models. That’s the case with the S&W Equalizer — even though, technically it is a new model, it is in fact the sum total of things learned by Smith & Wesson over the last fifteen years with their M&P line. Consider it, if you will, a “product improved” version of the Shield EZ, with incremental improvements pulled from the standard M&P M2.0, the Shield Plus, and the market in general.
The S&W Equalizer is a polymer-framed pistol chambered in 9mm that sports an optics-ready slide. Honestly that describes 90+% of all new guns these days, but the Equalizer sports a few features you won’t see outside of Smith & Wesson. It has a 3.675-inch barrel and weighs 22.9 ounces with the provided 13-round magazine inserted. It is not a striker-fired design but rather sports an internal hammer, and a single action only operating system. More on that in a bit. There are two versions, and the only difference is whether or not you want a thumb safety. I secured a sample of the Equalizer NTS (No Thumb Safety). Like all M&P pistols, the Equalizer is built for use and carry. The barrel and slide are both stainless steel with S&W’s “Armornite” finish, which is a nitride finish that provides good protection against corrosion. The slide is cut to accept optics with a Shield RMS/RMSc/Holosun 507k footprint.
Equalizer vs. Shield EZ
The S&W Equalizer most closely resembles the M&P Shield EZ which was first introduced in .380 ACP in 2018, and then followed up by a 9mm version. However, the EZs are fed by single-stack magazines. Both in 9mm and .380, capacity is 8+1. One of the greatest things about this pistol is that it’s sold as a package — the Equalizer is supplied with a flush 10-round magazine, a slightly extended 13-round magazine (which brings the grip to roughly the same length as the EZ), and a big stick 15-round magazine. The Equalizer is fed by the same magazines as the M&P Shield Plus, so they are somewhat common. A Maglula UpLula magazine loader is also provided with the gun.
From the side, the Shield EZ and the Equalizer seem to have the same grip angle, however I had a chance to pick up both guns side by side. About the only thing I don’t like about the EZ is the very vertical grip angle, which is shared by the Equalizer. However, perhaps because of the slightly wider grip to accommodate the double-column magazine, the grip of the Equalizer doesn’t feel as vertical, and I like it better. A brief aside — go to your local gun store and get your hands on whatever gun you are interested in buying. If you don’t quite like the feel of the Equalizer, try out a Shield Plus. It is fed by the same magazines, but has more of a grip angle and a different grip contour. I feel the S&W M&P Shield Plus is one of the best carry guns on the market today, and often overlooked.
The Equalizer sports steel sights dovetailed into place. They present a standard three-dot sight picture. The front of the rear sight is a vertical shelf, so you can rack this pistol one-handed using it if necessary. If you’ve mounted a red dot sight on this gun, you can do the same with your optic. And if your optic isn’t durable enough to be used to rack the slide, it shouldn’t be on a gun, much less a compact pistol meant for personal defense. Forward of the rear sight is a polymer cover held in place by two screws. Remove it, and you can mount your optic directly to the slide.
As the Equalizer grew out of the M&P EZ, you’ll find the slide is designed to be easy to rack. First, the new serrations front and back are very aggressive. They are wide, deep, and flat-bottomed. I like them. There’s just enough room on the right side of the slide for a small “Smith & Wesson.” On the left side of the slide you’ll have no problems spotting the big EQUALIZER in all caps.
The slide of the Equalizer has an interesting construction. With most modern pistols, the slide is just about all one piece, and the breech face is machined into it, as is the channel for the firing pin, etc. With the Equalizer, you’ll see a roll pin going side-to-side through the slide just forward of the rear serrations. This holds a block inside the slide in place, and that L-shaped steel block includes the breech face and firing pin and extractor — remove it and the interior of the slide is just an empty steel trench. Not that you’re supposed to remove that roll pin, but FYI. Why the difference? It’s because this isn’t a striker-fired gun. Striker-fired pistols (Glock, S&W’s standard M&P, etc.) have a removable striker plate on the back, and during machining the tooling can get in through there to machine out the striker channel, etc. The rear of the Equalizer’s slide is solid, so they had to develop a different construction.
Equalizer Grip Safety
So, what’s the deal with the grip safety? Glad you asked. Here’s a quick trip down memory lane, from my review of the original M&P380 Shield EZ:
“When I picked the pistol up, I was immediately reminded of the .22 LR version of the full-size M&P that I reviewed in these pages a few years ago, because there was no striker cover on the rear of the slide. A quick disassembly showed me that, like the .22, this M&P was not a striker-fired gun, but rather one which had an internal hammer. There’s a reason for this, and it is related to the ease with which the shooter can cycle the slide.
.380s traditionally have strong recoil springs to counteract the force of the fired cartridge as they have straight blowback operation. The M&P380 has the same tilting barrel delayed blowback operating system as other Shields, so a stiffer recoil spring is not required. In fact, the recoil spring on the .380 is noticeably lighter than that found on the 9mm Shield. And, that lighter recoil spring is one of the reasons this pistol is an internal hammer fired design as opposed to a striker-fired design, as the recoil spring has to fight against a striker spring when going into battery. With a strong striker spring and a weak recoil spring, theoretically, if this was a striker-fired gun, pulling the trigger might cause the slide to move back out of battery.”
The same is true of this new Equalizer. It has a tilting barrel, and a lighter recoil spring than most 9mm pistols of this size. Also, like the original Shield EZ, the slide has wings so that the slide is as easy to cycle by hand as possible. Wings. Yes, I wrote it.
If you view the slide from the top, you’ll see the difference. The rear of the slide is wider just behind the rear serrations, and the resulting ledge of steel is a definite help in working the slide. The only other centerfire pistol I’ve seen that has a feature like this is the HK VP9, but the slide “wings” on the VP9 are a polymer insert, whereas with this gun they’re integral with the slide. As this is a single action gun, for an added measure of safety it has been equipped with a grip safety. The grip safety is a long pivoting lever at the back of the gun. If it is not depressed, when pulling the trigger nothing happens. This is great insurance against the kind of accidental discharges seen frequently with striker-fired guns during reholstering — something gets wedged inside the trigger guard, and BAM! That won’t happen with the Equalizer, provided you’re off the grip safety.
The grip safety pivots at the bottom and requires only about a pound of pressure to deactivate. When fully depressed it does not fully mate with the contours of the frame but sticks out a bit at the top, and that ensures positive deactivation. Smith & Wesson doesn’t provide any specs for the trigger pull, but the trigger on my sample provided a five-pound pull that was shorter and a little crisper than most striker-fired trigger pulls, but not quite as crisp as a traditional single action trigger — in other words, it was perfectly fine for a compact pistol meant for concealed carry. I would prefer a lighter weight, of course, but as a general rule, crispness beats weight. A short, crisp trigger pull on a single action, where the trigger moves an eighth of an inch, beats a trigger pull on a revolver where the trigger has to travel three-quarters of an inch, even if that revolver trigger pull is a pound or three lighter.
The takedown lever is flat and nearly flush with the frame. The slide stop is small and only one-sided, to keep this pistol as narrow as possible. It is aggressively serrated, but still you might find it easier to cycle the slide by hand than release it using this small lever. The magazine release, which is a checkered steel button in the vague shape of a teardrop, is reversible. The trigger itself is polymer, with a constant curve. Unlike the larger, striker-fired M&Ps, the trigger is not hinged, and there is no safety on it. You will spot a warning on the right side of the frame — “CAUTION: Capable of Firing With Magazine Removed.” Which is just fine with me, magazine disconnect safeties only belong on law enforcement duty pistols, and maybe not even there.
The front of the frame sports a three-slot MIL STD 1913 “Picatinny”-style rail for mounting a light or laser. There is 1.75 inches between the front of the trigger guard and the end of the rail, more than enough for a compact light/laser. The texture on the frame is interesting. The “smooth” areas at the top of the frame aren’t smooth. They will show up as matte in the photos, but those areas (which include the trigger guard) have some texture to them and provide a little resistance to help keep the gun in place. The textured areas on the frame are just the right amount of aggressive, and the texturing on the grip extensions of the two longer magazines matches the texturing on the grip both in look and feel.
The bore height of the Equalizer off your hand is roughly the same as a Glock 17/19, if not a hair lower. This means it has a low bore, which is a very good thing. Lower bores reduce muzzle rise, which reduces the gun moving in your hand. You’ll still have recoil, but there will be more “back” than “up” when compared to pistols with high bores. The name “Equalizer” has a storied and respected place among red-blooded American males of a certain age. I’m not talking about the disappointing and utterly forgettable movies starring Denzel Washington, or the travesty that is the current TV show starring Queen Latifah. No, I’m talking about the original TV series starring Edward Woodward, with the unforgettable theme by Stewart Copeland of The Police, that was part of CBS’ unbelievable Thursday night lineup — Magnum P.I. (8 p.m.), Simon & Simon (9 p.m.), and The Equalizer (10 p.m.). Simply watching CBS on Thursday in the eighties increased your testosterone by 400%. Once you add in NBC’s Miami Vice (Friday at 10 p.m.), is it any wonder we won the Cold War?
Edward Woodward’s Robert McCall carried a silver Walther PPK. Not my first choice for a defensive weapon, but he was a 1980s Brit so I find it an acceptable selection for the character. However, if he’d had the option, Smith & Wesson’s new Equalizer is an objectively better carry gun — 10 to 15 rounds of 9mm (depending on your choice of magazine) compared to the 6+1 rounds of .380 ACP in the Walther PPK. Sure, the Equalizer is a bit bigger and heavier than the Walther, but Woodward’s Robert McCall was almost without exception wearing a suit, more than enough clothing to conceal it.
And let’s talk about that size for a bit, please. Smith & Wesson insists on referring to the Equalizer as a “Micro-Compact.” I have written before how there is no formal or legal definition for “compact,” “sub-compact,” or “micro-compact.” Magnum Research can decide to call the .50 AE Desert Eagle a micro-compact and they won’t be violating any laws. Especially in the modern era, where I am within my rights to self-identify as a female quagga with the preferred pronouns King/Avocado. However, to my mind, a sub-compact should probably be able to fit into your pocket, and a micro-compact definitely should. The Equalizer is 6.75-inches long, 4.5-inches tall with a flush magazine in place, and empty weighs 22.4 ounces with that flush 10-round magazine. That, to me, is somewhere between a compact and mid-size gun, half an inch smaller in length and height than a Glock 19 and about an ounce lighter. Any pocket big enough to conceal it is suitable for smuggling at least two cans of beer into a movie theater. Not that Firearms News advocates smuggling or drinking.
But don’t for a second think that I believe the Equalizer is big — I just want people to have an accurate idea of its actual size. It is a great size for a concealed carry gun, perfectly positioned in that Goldilocks zone — big enough to shoot comfortably and hold a lot of ammo, yet small enough to conceal. At 1.04-inches wide it is nice and flat, which helps concealment. It disappears under appropriate clothing, provided you have it in a good holster, combined with a good belt. This is not a pocket gun. Putting an optic atop it will of course enlarge its footprint and make it harder to conceal.
If you’re a regular reader, you know I’ve gone on record (over and over, like a broken record) that I think the disadvantages of putting a red dot on your pistol outweigh the advantages, and that’s especially true with a subcompact pistol, where that red dot compromises concealability. But the customer wants what the customer wants, and red dots on carry guns are hotter than Pam Anderson was when The Equalizer was on CBS. Kids, if you don’t know who that is, ask your father.
With the flush magazine in the gun, I can get almost all of my fingers on it. With the 13-round magazine in place, I can comfortably get my whole hand on the Equalizer, although I have skinny fingers. With the big stick 15-rounder inserted, even people with massive hands should be able to get a full grip on the gun. For hard numbers, here’s the distance from the bottom of the trigger guard to the tip of the inserted magazine — the 10-round is 2.0 inches, 13-round is 2.5 inches, and 15-round is 2.9inches. The shorter the magazine, the easier the pistol is to conceal, but you also may not be able to get your whole hand on the gun, so you’ll have to figure out what works best for you. Personally, I would carry the Equalizer with the 13-rounder inserted as it allows me to get my whole hand on the gun, and have the 15-rounder in a mag pouch on my off-side if I needed to reload. The gun is of course most concealable with the flush 10-round magazine inserted, but you’re reading an article written by someone who carries big handguns and dresses around them.
Disassembly of the Equalizer is simple…and yet not. Lock the slide to the rear, remove the magazine, and then rotate the disassembly lever down. Then all you need to do is release the slide stop, and the slide will pull right off the front of the gun — provided you’re not depressing the grip safety. If at any point while trying to take the slide off you press the grip safety, you’ll likely have to retract the slide fully before it will slide off the front, and make sure to hold the pistol upright, to keep those movable parts out of the way. Reassembly is in reverse, and pay attention to your recoil spring assembly. The rear of your recoil spring guide rod is roughly oval shaped. That oval needs to be oriented up and down when pressed against the recess in the barrel lug so it properly fits in the corresponding slot in the frame.
Red dots are more precise than iron sights. The average front sight of a pistol is 12–15 MOA wide, compared to the 3 MOA or so of a red dot. That allows more accurate shooting of that pistol — irrelevant in a close-range defensive shooting situation, but very nice when you’re a gunwriter who has to do accuracy testing. For that testing, I mounted a Holosun 507k X2 on the Equalizer. This optic has the options of a dot, circle, or circle/dot reticle, and I chose the 2 MOA dot. The Equalizer provided average accuracy, with most groups printing between three and four inches at 25 yards.
When doing accuracy testing with just the iron sights, I found the pistol was hitting a few inches low left. The low can be corrected for by drifting the rear sight a bit in its dovetail, but the only way to correct the elevation is to shave off a bit of the front sight. It’s much easier to adjust zero when using a red dot. For initial reliability testing, I fired ten different types/brands of ammo through the gun, everything from FMJ to traditional hollowpoints to the oddly-shaped Black Hills HoneyBadger copper solid projectiles. The pistol fed everything perfectly, however I did find that the 13-round magazine was occasionally tough to load. Occasionally it wouldn’t load past 10 rounds and I would have to unload it. When re-loading it everything was fine, and like I mentioned, the gun never came close to malfunctioning while shooting.
With standard pressure/velocity ammunition, especially the subsonic stuff, this gun is a pussycat and shoots like a full-size gun. With +P ammunition it is very controllable. Surprisingly controllable, in fact. One of my top two favorite carry loads is the Hornady Critical Duty 135-grain +P. I like this load because of its performance, plus the fact that it has very light recoil for a +P — in the Equalizer it is accurate and soft-shooting. The same was true of my other top preferred carry load, Black Hills’ 115-grain TAC-XP+P.
A reliable, accurate carry gun that is easy to rack, with a great trigger, with great capacity, which shoots and handles like a bigger gun but which is small enough to easily conceal? What’s not to like about the Equalizer? Smith & Wesson’s new Equalizer is physical manifestation of all the things the company has learned since the introduction of their first M&P almost 15 years ago. It’s about as close to an “Ultimate Carry Gun” that they make.
Smith & Wesson Equalizer Pistol Specs
- Type: Single-action-only, semiautomatic
- Caliber: 9mm
- Capacity: 10, 13, 15 rds.
- Barrel: 3.675 in., stainless steel with Armornite finish
- Length: 6.75 in.
- Height: 4.5 in.
- Width: 1.04 in.
- Weight: 22.9 oz. (w/unloaded 13-rd. magazine)
- Slide: Stainless steel
- Finish: Armornite (nitride)
- Grip/Frame: Polymer
- Sights: Steel, 3-dot, optics ready slide cut for Shield RMSc/Holosun 507k
- Trigger Pull: 5 lbs. (tested)
- Safety: Grip safety (thumb safety model available)
- MSRP: $599
- Accessories: 10, 13, and 15-rd magazines, magazine loader, cable lock
- Manufacturer: Smith & Wesson Inc.
About the Author
James Tarr is a longtime contributor to Firearms News and other firearms publications. A former police officer he is a USPSA Production Division Grand Master. He is also the author of several books, including CARNIVORE, which was featured on The O’Reilly Factor. His current best-selling novel, Dogsoldiers, is available now through Amazon.
If you have any thoughts or comments on this article, we’d love to hear them. Email us at FirearmsNews@Outdoorsg.com.