April 24, 2023
By Brad Fitzpatrick
Smith & Wesson has been competing in the 9mm polymer-frame pistol market for well over a decade, and while S&W is hardly the only manufacturer in this segment, I don’t think any other company has spent the time and effort refining and updating its guns that Smith & Wesson has. That’s not to say the original M&P guns weren’t good, but through the years features have been changed, modernized and improved, in both large and small ways, to create pistols that compete well in the carry gun market.
The company’s new Equalizer NTS (No Thumb Safety) is a perfect example of this commitment to fine-tuning firearms for the end user. And considering millions of first-time gun owners have been created since the start of the pandemic, the “end user” is a broad swath of Americans. Some have considerable training and shooting experience; some have never held a handgun before in their lives. Building a single micro-compact pistol suitable for all of them is a challenge.
While some polymer-frame pistol families have remained fairly unchanged for decades, Smith & Wesson went back to the drawing board with this gun. There wasn’t a lot that the company needed to change. The M&P, Shield and Shield EZ guns that came before had proven to be workhorses, so the Equalizer is not a redesign, rather it’s a refresh, and it offers features that all shooters will find appealing.
The Equalizer is an internal hammer-fired 9mm with a polymer frame and a steel chassis. The grip texturing is brand new and features a micro-texturing that’s not overly aggressive yet keeps the gun planted in the shooter’s hand. This gun shares the same 18-degree grip angle as the M&P, and it keeps the hand and wrist in a comfortable position while promoting a high hand hold to mitigate recoil.
Like the Shield EZ, a passive grip safety is incorporated into the backstrap of the gun, but it lacks a traditional manual safety. However, there is an Equalizer TS (Thumb Safety) version for those who prefer one. Also, there is no magazine disconnect, so the gun is capable of firing with the magazine removed.
The Equalizer’s grip measures 1.2 inches deep from the rear of the grip safety to the undercut on the trigger guard. It features a pronounced beavertail that’s large enough to prevent slide bite, and there is a three-slot rail on the dust cover.
For years I’ve been hearing from shooters that they found it difficult to operate the slides on most semiauto pistols. Apparently, Smith & Wesson has been hearing the same thing, which is why when the company released the Shield EZ line, those guns featured lighter springs that reduced the force required to operate the slide.
Most micro-compact polymer-frame pistols are striker-fired, but the Equalizer—like the Shield EZ guns—is internal-hammer fired. This allows for a lighter spring weight and a reduction in the resistance of the slide. Many people will find the Equalizer’s spring is so light the slide can be operated with two fingers. More importantly, the lighter spring allows those with limited mobility, chronic pain or weak hands to operate the slide.
Further easing slide manipulation is a pair of “ears” on the rear of the slide that act as a gripping point during operation—also a feature found on the Shield EZ slides—as well as pronounced front and rear slide cuts.
The slide and 3.675-inch barrel are coated with an Armornite finish, which is a nitride surface treatment that actually changes the surface of the steel and offers excellent corrosion resistance and increased lubricity without a tendency to flake or chip. Diagonal carry cuts on the front and a beveled top reduce slide weight, and they also make this gun easier to holster.
Almost every modern carry pistol arriving in gunshops these days is cut for optics, and the Equalizer is no exception. Remove the slide cover plate and you’ll find this gun is milled to accept modern micro-footprint reflex sights from companies like Crimson Trace and SIG. That makes it easy to find a suitable reflex sight for these pistols, and with so many choices, options like dot color, dot size and reticle design are abundant.
The Equalizer’s optics-ready slide prevents this gun from having a tactile/visual, pop-up, loaded-chamber indicator. But the Equalizer does have a port in the top rear of the chamber that allows you to visually inspect the chamber.
Despite the popularity of reflex sights, plenty of shooters still prefer the simplicity and durability of iron sights, and those people will be pleased with what the Equalizer offers. The drift-adjustable rear sight is dovetailed into the slide and comes with serrations on the rear face to cut glare and a flat front profile for one-handed cycling.
The front post sight is also dovetailed into the slide, and the sights feature a three white-dot layout that is popular on carry guns. They aren’t night sights like you’ll find on some other guns in this class, but the white dots are visible in most light conditions from bright sun to dim light.
Modern micro-compact carry guns are all about increased capacity, and the Equalizer is no exception. The pistol comes with a 10-round, flush-fit magazine as well as 13- and 15-round magazines where legal. All three magazines are made of metal, and all come with bright-red followers. Even though the spring weight in the magazine is not excessively heavy and the mags can be loaded by hand, S&W provides an UpLula loader to simplify the operation.
The Equalizer has a control layout that is familiar to anyone who has operated a polymer-frame pistol, and it’s simple enough for new shooters to master quickly. In addition to the grip safety, there’s a slide stop on the left side of the gun. The slide stop is serrated and features a flattop section that is easy to press up to lock the slide, but it’s so small it can be challenging to drop the slide into battery. I found it much easier to retract the slide to reduce tension, press down on the slide stop and drop the slide.
A rotating takedown lever, when swung 90 degrees downward, allows the slide assembly to be removed. You don’t need to pull the trigger to disassemble the pistol. The oval magazine release button is in the traditional position on the front left portion of the grip and is reversible.
Thin is in, and S&W gets that. Although not as micro as some competing micro-compacts, the Equalizer is a slender pistol. I broke out my calipers and got a slide width of 0.95 inch and a grip width of 0.99 inch. At its widest point, this pistol measures 1.17 inches across the controls. S&W lists the overall width as 1.04 inches, which is very close to what I measured at the widest point of the frame, not including control width.
Height is listed at 4.5 inches, but with an extended magazine and reflex sight the height was 5.6 inches. Overall length is 6.75 inches. Unloaded weight is just under 23 ounces.
Smith & Wesson set out to create a carry pistol that was easy to operate, and it has succeeded with the Equalizer. As advertised, the slide is very light and is noticeably easier to operate than those on competing micro-compacts, and it’s not just the lighter spring that makes this so. The fore and aft slide cuts are substantial and offer enough surface area to control the pistol effectively, and the “ears” on the rear portion of the slide offer a wide gripping point for slide operation.
For testing I used a SIG Romeo Zero Elite. It worked well, lining up perfectly on the pistol, and this red dot has a built-in rear sight that co-witnesses with the front sight on the Equalizer to offer dual sighting systems.
Accuracy was good with the defensive ammunition I tested, with the smallest 25-yard groups measuring about 2.5 inches from the bench with an average around 3.5 inches. That’s perfectly suitable for a 9mm semiauto carry pistol and better accuracy than you’ll obtain from many rival guns in this class. The gun also performed very well on slow-fire offhand accuracy testing at 25 feet with iron sights, where I was able to cluster shots in the X-ring on the target.
One reason this gun performs so well is the trigger. It’s not target-rifle smooth, but it’s considerably better than the gritty triggers found on some competing carry guns. Break weight is a predictable 5.5 pounds on average, and recoil is quite manageable.
The grip is larger than on some other carry pistols with similar capacity, but I like the added space. In cold weather I wear large gloves and run out of space on most micro-compacts, but not on the Equalizer. There’s ample room in the trigger guard for gloved fingers, too. I’m also a fan of the modern, effective micro texturing. It provides a firm hold on the gun without being overly aggressive.
The takedown lever makes field- stripping the Equalizer a breeze, which is especially beneficial for new shooters. Machining on the inside of the gun is clean and free from marks or gritty surfaces, and the feed ramp is smooth and properly angled for reliable feeding.
Couple that with the Equalizer’s high-quality magazines, a robust internal extractor and a fixed ejector and it’s easy to see why this gun ran through the entire test without one failure. The slide never failed to come locked after the final shot.
Shooters must be certain that they have a firm hold on the pistol to deactivate the passive grip safety, but with a proper grip, that isn’t an issue. Other than fiddling with a slide stop I believe to be slightly undersized and with basic but effective iron sights, I find little to grouse about with this gun.
Although it’s longer and taller than some competing 9mm carry guns, the Equalizer is easy to conceal. At just an inch wide, it tucks close to the body under light clothing, and it’s light enough not to be burdensome. The grip is longer than on some rivals, but it’s not so long it’s a chore to conceal this pistol. It’s sized for everyday carry for bodies large and small. And the Armornite finish has proven effective at standing up to everything short of an acid bath.
The Equalizer carries a suggested retail price of $599. This is slightly more than the Springfield XD-S Mod.2 OSP at $568. Both guns have a passive grip safety and a slide cut for optics, and both weigh virtually the same, but the Equalizer offers a greater capacity.
Other optics-ready micro-compacts like the Springfield Hellcat OSP and SIG P365X are smaller and lighter than the Smith & Wesson and offer similar capacities: 11/13 rounds for the Hellcat OSP, 12 rounds for the P365X. However, they are priced slightly more than the Equalizer at $620 and $613 respectively. And only the Smith & Wesson gun offers the EZ-type slide.
Kudos to Smith & Wesson for continuing to refine its carry pistols and redefine the micro-compact market. Ease of operation is beneficial for new and experienced shooters alike, and this is one of the easiest semiauto 9mm carry guns on the market to operate. If the Equalizer’s objective was to level the playing field and create a gun that works well for self-defense for any shooter, this is mission accomplished.
Smith & Wesson Equalizer Specifications
- Type: Internal hammer-fired semiauto centerfire
- Caliber: 9mm Luger
- Capacity: 10, 13 and 15-round mags supplied where legal
- Barrel: 3.675 in.
- OAL/Height/Width: 6.75/4.5/1.2 in. (height w/flush-fit mag)
- Weight: 22.9 oz.
- Construction: Armornite-finished stainless steel slide, polymer frame
- Trigger: 5.5 lb. pull (measured)
- Sights: White three-dot; drift adjustable rear; red dot ready
- Safety: Grip (as tested)
- Price: $599
- Manufacturer: Smith & Wesson, smith-wesson.com