Photos by Michael Anschuetz
On a trip to the White House in 1942, Winston Churchill became so enamored with the idea of building a pistol that could be air-dropped behind enemy lines that he woke President Franklin Roosevelt at four in the morning to discuss the idea.
The gun would have to weigh less than a pound, had to be so mechanically sound it could be dropped from passing airplanes, and had to be so foolproof and of such basic construction that even an illiterate fighter who spoke no English could, following the included photos, make the gun fire.
And since this gun was to be a single-shot and that one trigger pull might be a resistance fighter's only defense against an enemy, the caliber had to be suitable to stop a soldier with one close-range shot. Churchill opted for the .45 ACP.
That gun became known, at least officially, as the FP-45 Liberator. Those who had experience actually shooting the gun referred to it not so affectionately as the "Little Monster." It seems it was easy to use and easy to conceal but painful to shoot. The awkward minimalist style made the Liberator a gun you would fire only if you were completely out of other options.
The compact .45 is still as much in demand as it was during World War II (more so, in fact; the Liberator saw only limited use in actual conflict).
The modern market for compact carry guns has become a battlefield in its own right, with dozens of manufacturers vying for the attention of a growing number of permit holders.
What they want is actually quite similar to what Churchill envisioned in the 1940s: a gun that was tough, simple to use and capable of stopping a deadly threat with a single trigger press.
In the fight for carry gun dominance, the Smith & Wesson M&P Shield line is a decorated soldier.
The recipe for the Shield's success has been relatively simple: It's another iteration of the popular compact polymer-framed, striker-fired semiauto pistol chambered in, at least until recently, 9mm and .40 S&W. Now the Shield family has grown to include a .45 Auto version: the M&P45 Shield.
"Our new M&P45 Shield takes personal protection to the next level by offering all the M&P features our customers have come to trust, combined with .45 caliber power," says Jan Mladek, general manager for the M&P line at Smith & Wesson. "Well over 1 million consumers and professionals have chosen to 'shield themselves' with the slim, concealable and powerful M&P Shield pistol. The new M&P Shield in .45 Auto provides that extra level of confidence."
The differences among the many polymer carry guns are nuanced, but the Shield has set itself apart with its thin profile, solidly constructed sights, ease of operation, optional thumb safety and affordable price.
The new .45 version underwent a few cosmetic upgrades, too, with small, curved slide serrations up front and a brand-new textured grip. But it shares much of the DNA with its smaller Shield siblings: same 18-degree grip angle, same polymer frame, same takedown lever, sights and controls.
Speaking of controls, the Shields are minimized to Lilliputian dimensions. That's good for concealed carry, but it can make basic operation a bit of a chore at times.
Like other Shield models, the .45 has a slide that is treated with black Armornite, a hardened nitride finish Smith & Wesson trademarked in 2015. It does a good job of standing up to the elements and protects guns against the corrosive effect of daily exposure to human perspiration.
The Shield's sights are good for this class of guns: a front post with white dot and a rear sight with twin white dots, both of which are dovetailed into the slide and both of which are made of steel.
The rear sight is drift adjustable via a setscrew, and Smith & Wesson has done a good job balancing robust build quality and functional size with a snag-free design.
Rear slide serrations have an overlapping curved pattern that is quite functional and allows you to obtain a firm grasp on the slide. A large side-mounted extractor gets a hefty bite on a cartridge case, and a hole in the top of the slide acts as a loaded-chamber indicator.
Grip texturing on the .45 aids in controlling the gun, and unlike some other carry guns, the Shield's texturing isn't so aggressive as to grate your skin like a roll of Havarti cheese, yet the gun stays put.
The success or failure of a particular carry gun model is often dictated by dimensions, so the size and weight of these guns bears some scrutiny.
Smith & Wesson has a pretty good idea of what size gun works for most shooters, and in the original 9mm Shield the company went with a gun weighing 19 ounces, a 3.1-inch barrel and a 0.95-inch width.
The .45 version needed to stay close to those figures, and with a 3.3-inch barrel the Shield .45 weighs just 1.5 additional ounces and is a scant 0.04 inch wider than the 9mm.
The .45 is 6.45 inches long, the 9mm 6.1 inches. In real-world terms these guns are identical in size. But they aren't the same caliber, and the .45's maw looks like a flare gun compared with the 9mm version.
Of course, the big difference between the two is recoil. If the Shield .45 was going to win over customers who could just as easily buy a 9mm or .40—from Smith & Wesson or dozens of other manufacturers—then it was going to have to be a good dog whose backward bite remained manageable even with hot defensive loads.
Smith & Wesson provides two magazines with this gun, and that's part of how it helps shooters manage recoil. The included six-round mag fits flush with the bottom of the gun, and the seven-round version is extended to offer plenty of space even for shooters whose hands resemble catcher's mitts.
The idea is that the extended magazine will be used at the range since it offers more grip space and a higher cartridge capacity for less reloading. It's also a great option as a spare magazine in a carry situation.
The flush-fit mag cuts capacity by one, but it makes the pistol easier to conceal. In truth, even with the stubby magazine in place, there's still a fair amount of grip space. I have a relatively large hand, and even with the short magazine, I never hung a finger in space or felt cramped.
I carried the Shield for a few days before and after shooting it, and it's an easy gun to pack. I didn't have a holster for this particular gun, but it fit just right in the ancient and somewhat tattered belly band I use while hiking and running.
The slim Shield sucks right up into your hip and disappears from view. The minimal controls make it easy to carry, and with the short magazine you can hide this gun under just about any level of clothing that won't get you kicked out of church. I took the Shield on a four-mile run and had no problems; there simply aren't any rough edges to chafe or jab.
From the bench I shot five groups of five shots with five different loads from 15 yards, a grand total of 125 shots, in the span of a few hours. On top of that, I burned up just about every available round of .45 ammo shooting hostage targets and silhouettes.
The end result was a full day at the range and several hundred rounds, and I must say that while the Shield .45 can be a bit trying to shoot for extended periods of time from the bench, it wasn't as bad as I had expected it would be.
The grip angle promotes a high hold, and the low bore axis pushes the gun backwards instead of snapping the muzzle upward, which greatly reduces perceived recoil. The thin grip is rather deep—roughly two inches—and the aforementioned texturing helps with your hold.
And, of course, a low-recoil training load further reduces the .45's snap, and it was noticeably more comfortable to shoot the Winchester Train FMJ load at 715 fps than the other, hotter defense loads running 100 fps faster.
Some people avoid purchasing low-recoil practice ammo for fear their guns will fail to feed, but the Shield digested every load from the mild to the wild without a single hitch. The only noticeable difference—aside from lower recoil—was that the slide wouldn't always lock open after the last shot with the Winchester training ammo.
With the other loads, the ones you'd be using for self-defense situations, the slide always locked open, which is critical for quick mag changes. In short, despite the fact that the Shield .45 has considerably more roar and more snap than its 9mm sibling, this isn't a gun that is painful or unmanageable to shot.
The pistol shot well with a variety of different loads. In fact, until I broke out the calipers and calculator back in the office, I had no idea which load would win the day. Turns out it was the SIG Sauer V-Crown 200-grain jacketed hollowpoint load, which produced groups averaging 1.31 inches. The Winchester Train FMJ was next in line.
I was impressed by the consistency with every load tested in terms of accuracy and velocity, and every ammo produced at least one sub-1.5 inch group. You don't need to hit a soda can at 15 yards with your carry gun, but it's nice to know you can. Additionally, the sights were regulated dead nuts from the factory with no need to adjust.
The real test for a gun like this is shooting drills that mimic defensive shooting scenarios—offhand and at close quarters. I used the Shield to run a number of drills, including lateral and vertical movement drills, hostage drills and double-taps with reloads.
During these tests the Shield performed quite well. I feared the minimized safety would cause problems, but that was never an issue. (And as an aside, the gun is also available without the manual safety.) The teeny slide stop button, however, added a few seconds to some of the magazine changes because it's hard to hit that thing without jockeying the gun a bit.
The trigger is 6.5 pounds and a bit spongy but not beyond the norm with guns of this ilk, and there's a smooth take-up and short reset.
The Shield gets high praise for its sights, and the seconds I lost fiddling for the slide release were probably made up by fast shot delivery, thanks to that big white dot front post that can be easily seen, buried in the center of the target, and quickly reacquired after each shot.
Churchill was a brilliant man, and he was right that there was a need for a compact, easy-to-use, reliable .45. But his idea for the "Little Monster" might have fallen short.
Oh, but he would be chuffed with the new Smith & Wesson Shield .45.
I don't know that this gun could survive being dropped from airplanes behind enemy lines, but woe to the Axis soldier who came across a freedom fighter so armed—or to the criminal who encounters a .45 Shield-carrying citizen.