Forty Caliber: The Perfect Middle Ground
By LC Judas
Each of the colors in the rainbow of self defense rounds, above, has its own purpose. Its dedicated group of proponents and detractors. Each slot in the spectrum is different from the others, but not all are given the same respect. Case in point: the red-headed stepchild of duty calibers – the .40 S&W. It may be considered superfluous by a lot of shooters, but when Smith & Wesson came up with this round, they changed the game . . .
In 1990 the .40S&W cartridge was designed to score a fat government contract with the FBI. Essentially, it was designed to take the place of lightly loaded 10mm rounds that were used by shooters who didn’t like the full-powered variety. The ballistics of the round were considered great at the time and are still more than passable today.
I got into shooting with a stock Glock 23 in .40S&W. Truth be told, that’s not a way you want to start any new shooter. The main reason being that a .40 polymer pistol isn’t terribly forgiving to a shooter trying to get over (or avoid developing) a flinching habit. And a .40′s snap and flash have induced plenty of cases of the yips in both new and experienced shooters.
So yes, that’s a drawback, but the caliber itself offers better muzzle energy and weight over 9mm when you compare similar loads. And it can do all this with less flash and recoil than its closely-related brother, the .357 SIG.
But let’s assume the typical human isn’t a walking ballistics calculator, nor are they also willing to tote a .50BMG rifle to assure target incapacitation for typical personal defense needs. To select a carry gun, most people run through a mental calculation, taking into account a number of factors. So let’s run the math.
To pick the right gun for you, you’ll need:
~ Enough rounds in your caliber of choice to handle the kinds of situations you anticipate are most likely crop up. Be that 5 rounds in a .38 Smith 642 or 19+1 in a 9mm Springfield XDM.
+ Security in the “stopping power” (air quotes used sarcastically) of your caliber and round choice, whatever flavor of the rainbow you prefer. I’ve met people who will talk you to death on the greatness of .22LR and others who claim to conceal a .50AE Desert Eagle on a regular basis. Whatever doesn’t sink your particular boat.
– Any recoil beyond your physical ability to control so that you can handle the pistol and keep it reliably on target – a subjective decision.
– Bulk, size and weight that you can’t comfortably carry in your typical style of dress. Here the heater frequently takes a back seat to style and seasonal considerations, which can mean less firepower (in the form of a smaller package or even none at all) rather than a change of clothes.
= Some general idea of a caliber and size of weapon for your lifestyle.
You take those four criteria and a few others — form factor, make of weapon, type of action, trigger, what you have experience shooting and what you trust — and then come up with a few choices east of the equal sign.
Now, being as arbitrary as a .40 Glock fanboy can be, six years ago I ran that equation and came up with an answer that equaled something compact with at least 12 rounds of a caliber bigger than 9mm. But since that was unlikely to come in a .45 package with the size and capacity I wanted, my choices ultimately came down to either the Glock 23 or the H&K USP Compact.
Since then I’ve run similar equations for determining what I’d carry for funerals, weddings and as a daily service weapon. And each situation can result in a different answer. For instance, I’m comfortable with a full size double stack 9mm on duty given the likelihood of being fired upon and having to return fire with plenty of capacity.
For a funeral or wedding, when I can’t conceal a larger capacity gun, I’m content with my Kahr P9 with 7+1 and a spare magazine because it’s manageable for its size, accurate and concealable. It’s also comfortable to carry all day and usually gets me past impromptu hugs without relatives wondering what that bulge is.
But back to the .40…it’s not for every occasion. But because nearly all .40 cal pistols share frame dimensions with their 9mm counterparts, you can usually find one that fits the carry situation you anticipate.
Tactically, in a full size double stack duty weapon, you (usually) lose 2 rounds if you’re going to carry .40 vs. 9mm. In the case of the Kahr P9, you lose only one. So most of the time you can do whatever you want with a .40 (in the same size and weight) that you would with a 9mm. It’s a great, versatile middle choice for EDC carry.
As I mentioned, there are plenty that consider the .40 neither here nor there. Less capacity and more recoil than a 9mm without the ballistics and stopping power of a .45. But for the reasons I already mentioned, it’s versatile and satisfies the guys who won’t carry anything that doesn’t start with a 4.
It suits what I imagine my needs to be and doesn’t weigh down my pants and make sitting a hassle like a threaded barrel 1911 in an IWB holster does. But it isn’t a caliber I have trouble believing will stop a potential adversary. I also handle it well, not only on the days I re-qualify, but also on the days I just go plinking at the range. In short, for me it’s the answer to my personal equation and it works.
By LC Judas
This is the second installment (part one is here) of my .40 dissertation and I’d like to address the hot-button issue of what contributes to the .40 caliber round so often being the butt of jokes. As in “.40 S&W means .40 Short and Weak.” Like that. Let’s look at what the round actually does after it comes out of the gun . . .
Ballistically, given the choices of most law-enforcement agencies as far as sidearm calibers, the .40 is going to suffer one way or the other depending on what you’re looking for. It’s typically only faster than the .45, and only heavier than the 9mm and .357SIG bullets. So the .40 doesn’t really shine in any one area. And usually, when picking a sidearm caliber for a particular task, you want it to shine for its intended purpose.
I’ll admit that while I think it’s a well-rounded carry caliber, I don’t find it to be the best caliber to start with for a new shooter. Recoil is snappy and a 1911 .45, being heavier and easier to handle in some hands, may make a better teaching gun for someone with a higher caliber preference. But before you think I’m downplaying the .40 as not really great at anything, take a look at some of the self defense loads.
I shoot Remington Golden Sabers in my guns almost exclusively. I have my reasons and I think it’s an overall good round. While it’s an apples-to-orange comparison, taking the same round across calibers of 9mm, .40 and .45 you get the following:
- 9mm +P Remington Golden Saber JHP 124 Grain: Muzzle velocity: 1180 fps Muzzle energy: 384 ft/lbs
- 9mm Remington Golden Saber JHP 147 Grain: Muzzle velocity: 990 fps Muzzle energy: 320 ft/lbs
- .40 S&W Remington Golden Saber 165 Grain Jacketed Hollow Point: Muzzle velocity: 1150 fps Muzzle energy: 485 ft/lbs
- .40 S&W Remington Golden Saber 180 Grain Jacketed Hollow Point: Muzzle velocity: 1015 fps Muzzle energy: 412 ft/lbs
- .45 Auto +P Remington Golden Saber 185 Grain Jacketed Hollow Point Bullet: Muzzle velocity: 1140 fps Muzzle energy: 534 ft/lbs
- .45 ACP Remington Golden Saber 230 Grain Jacketed Hollow Point Bullet: Muzzle velocity: 875 fps Muzzle energy: 391 ft/lbs
Each of these weights and calibers has its promoters and detractors, but I posted these stats to show that they’re essentially comparable and the .40 remains middle ground. That’s not speculation, it’s fact. There are more powerful and less powerful loads for all three calibers, but the .40 is a good compromise among them all. You’re going to end up making the decision for yourself, just don’t make it based on hopes that any round will convert your pistol into a death ray.
The .40 S&W caliber is based on the 10mm Auto cartridge. That’s the parent case and .40 is the shortened version. That may be elementary for a lot of us here, but going over the ballistics and what the bullet is supposed to do involves the inevitable comparison of the .40 is to 10mm. Essentially, when adopted by the FBI, it was found that the 10mm round was hard to handle as far as recoil, noise and muzzle blast were concerned. This prompted a search for lighter loads that were later called light 10mm or 10mm Lite.
This class of round, a lighter-loaded powder 10mm, carried the same ballistics as .40 did upon its inception but in a larger and more cumbersome frame with wasted space inside of the case. Someone at Smith and Wesson had the bright idea to market 10mm Lite as its own cartridge. And to produce a gun made specifically for it with a more universally acceptable dimension that would accommodate more hand sizes and at an acceptable level of recoil.
That history lesson is essentially a reminder of why the .40 exists. So if you think the .40 is weak compared to the 10mm, go get a 10mm. That’s not intended as snark — don’t pretend the .40 as it was intended is what the 10mm was. Reading back on some of the texts on the subject of the “stopping power” of 10mm and the hopes as well as hype placed in the then-untested .40, it would appear that the light version of 10mm fell a little short of expectations. In my experience though, a lot of the ballistic knowledge we operated on in the past appeared flawed at best.
For the .40 to be as amazing and lethal as the 10mm round was, it would have to have remained the 10mm round. Physics says if you lower the weight of the projectile’s maximum payload by 20 grains (10mm tended to top out at 200gr and .40 is usually 180gr at the heavier end) and reduce the amount of propellant used (which is apparent given case dimension differences) and you’re hoping for more fireworks, you’re likely to be disappointed.
For what the round was intended to do in gelatin and through the barrier scenarios specified in the FBI Ballistic Test Protocol, the .40 performs admirably. For the lazy who don’t want to do the reading, that means it will penetrate at least 12-18 inches into a person through the following at 10 feet: winter clothing , car door, drywall , plywood and automobile glass. That’s the first thing you need to remember about the .40. It was created for a specific purpose – to incapacitate people through intermediate barriers by penetrating a human body to a minimum of 12 inches, causing enough of a wound cavity to incapacitate.
I find that test to be more exhaustive than the equation I run in my mind before I buy handgun ammunition. Placement remaining the key, if the bullet can come through for me (no pun intended), then it’s a tactical advantage I want to have. If you require a bullet that does more than that, you probably have higher expectations than I do because you foresee some other situation that’s a hazard to your health. And there are other rounds in other calibers that can pass all parts of that test with flying colors.
However, for the FBI, the essential functionality listed above combined with a general useability by its field agents added up to the .40 cal. They weren’t trying to duplicate the performance of any other round. They just wanted a level of performance that suits their projected need without being unmanageable for their agents. That leads this writer to believe that other qualifying ammunition in other calibers has more felt recoil and is less manageable than the .40 Smith & Wesson.
Considering the original market for the .40S&W and how the caliber was approached for mass production I find that a lot of the caliber debate can be effectively negated. Saying “it’s not heavy enough” or “it’s not fast enough” are moot points as those weren’t the intentions of the .40 round; you can’t lose a contest you didn’t enter.
I don’t tout the ballistics of this round as gospel. It performs as desired for the purpose it was designed for. Not as a 10mm substitute. Not to outperform a .45ACP or 9x19mm. The .40 is its own round. If what it is and does suits your needs, it’s indeed a good round. And while their are more than just the ballistics that contribute to the .40 cal’s popularity, that’s something for the third and final installment.
By LC Judas
While my previous posts on the virtues of the .40 S&W round seemed to stirred the sleeping dragon known as the “pistol caliber wars”, that wasn’t really the intent. And today it’s time to talk about what the .40 Smith & Wesson brought about by the nature of round’s existence. There is a lot to thank the .40 for and it usually gets no credit. The round’s virtues go far beyond the fact that it reliably penetrates the 12-18 inches of ballistic gelatin, as it was originally designed . . .
First, the fact that the .40 is easily one of the best upgrades to 9mm handguns there ever was is an easily overlooked and fun fact. I use the Browning Hi Power case for my example. While Smith & Wesson and GLOCK made most of the original sales of handguns chambered in .40 to law enforcement, they weren’t the only game in town. Browning rushed to market with a .40 Hi Power on the 9mm frame they’d been using and it essentially failed. The gun experienced accelerated wear which warped the frames, ruined tolerances and accuracy over a time period that was well below acceptable service life for the effective round count.
That example, as well as some other models from other manufacturers that never made it to market or ended up with teething problems made it clear that it would require beefing up the 9mm platform if they wanted to offer a .40 in the same form factor. This lesson was well-learned by Heckler & Koch as they offered their USP models in .40 first before moving to 9mm and .45ACP. The tougher platform increased the service life of 9mm pistols across the board, as the trend caught on, and being the most popular caliber in the country it served a good purpose in extending the life of the secondary market of 9mm handguns.
The .40 was also the first caliber of handgun to regularly share holsters with another caliber. While that seems minor now, back then semi-auto handguns were a lot harder to fit as specs could differ slightly between models even if they shared fundamentally similar designs. Anyone who has tried getting fitted holsters for a Sig 229 knows how many variants of rail they have and that the 228, which is very similar isn’t the same and won’t let you share the same holster.
Holsters weren’t the only thing being shared between .40s and 9mm handguns. After companies had for the most part started producing .40 and 9mm in the same frames, conversion kits for converting a .40 gun down to 9mm began to hit the market. Converting a gun to .22 can be fun for plinking and training, but having the ability to go to 9mm — when ammunition for .40 was a lot more scarce and expensive — was a godsend.
Caliber conversions from .40 to 9mm are usually accomplished with just a simple barrel swap. That makes the .40 one of the most aftermarket-friendly handguns out there because it was born as the bastard child of both 9mm and 10mm designs. Prior to that, modularity in the pistol realm really had, for the most part, only been achieved by making .22LR kits for .45ACP pistols. There was also the necked-down 9mm in a 10mm case known as the 9x25mm (9mm Dillon) which had a special purpose in competition, but it never caught on as a mainstream law enforcement or defensive round. With the advent of the .40 you got a gun with an easy slide assembly or barrel swap to the much-loved 9mm.
That advent of the .40 created a huge aftermarket for customization, too. If you regularly run a .40 pistol in 9mm, you’re probably going to consider lighter springs, alternative mags and the springs to fuel them. Wolff makes their bread and butter off of exactly that. There are other recoil systems that minimize wear and tear if you run hot loads – like those from Sprinco – that minimize bolt flash. That’s something that’s a marked issue with .357SIG.
Owning a gun in multiple calibers without needing to make multiple outlays for more firearms is also going to make reloading a lot more tempting (especially in calibers where there simply is no wide availability of ammunition like .50GI). That fuels the market for gear like chronographs, reloading dies and presses as well as associated materials. Buying fewer firearms means you have more money for ammo and that gets more shooters in the sport and exposed to two calibers with one pistol (four if you add a 357SIG barrel and .22 kit with it).
That also helps if you’re trying to do apples-to-apples comparisons with firearms from the same make with the same manual of arms and appearance to cultivate the same reflexes for use, keeping the same parts for repairs and enhancements. I still have GLOCK parts (of various brands) floating around the armory from my mad customization days.
The .40 inspired more than just more gear. The 357SIG, another caliber with a whole unique set of ballistics in the defense and duty caliber debate, was spawned directly from the .40 Smith & Wesson. It was necked down in much the same way the .40 was born in the shell casings of 10mm pistols.
Following on that precedent, Magnum Research came up with the .440 Cor-bon (necked from .50AE) for Desert Eagles, .400 Cor-bon (necked from .45ACP), and the invention of the .50GI from Guncrafter Industries in the 1911 platform saw GLOCK .45 platforms get a slide assembly and mag for the purpose.
A lot of people think that .40S&W is a solution in search of a problem and more fuel for a fire that needs to burn out, but it fills a vital role in the defense and duty caliber hierarchy. Its existence is a testament to ingenuity and persistence, as the 10mm round could have just as easily fallen out of favor and been replaced by .45 or 9mm by the FBI. But the .40 bridges that gap between 9mm and .45, highlighting the weaknesses of both rounds at the time. The concept of a consistent set of criteria used to test them raised the bar for what was considered acceptable ammunition. The tests used to evaluate all calibers became standardized after the .40 came into being, more respected than reading books with outdated opinion or outright speculation many accepted as fact.
No, .40 isn’t the best caliber out there, but nothing is. That’s reality. But what the round does in ballistic gel isn’t conjecture. Manufacturers now are able to see how the end users test their products and they develop them accordingly. The HST from Federal is a direct result of looking at what was desired ballistically and building a bullet accordingly instead of simply theorizing on what might be effective.
Expansion and penetration in any caliber is now the universal standard for what works; the old “stopping power”, “power factor” or “one-shot stop” measures weren’t realistic or objective standards. Today, the Black Talon is a pice of ballistic engineering history because of the political fallout, but if the gelatin tests had been the standard used at the time, I doubt they would have fallen from favor the way they did.
Even if you’re not a fan of the .40, you can’t deny that the firearms market now is far more comprehensive because of it. Now we have tougher 9mm firearms and when a company comes out with a new nine we we’re eager for the follow-on .40S&W, 357SIG and .22 models to fit the same holsters and mag pouches. For the folks who say .40 was good for its time and that bullet technology now is better, that’s because the high bar resulted from the inception of the .40. Without the drive to compare it to the 9mm and .45, the improvements in those more popular caliber’s would likely have been much slower in coming.
Better guns, better ammo and more selection safeguards the Second Amendment better than any closed-minded .45 or 9mm cultist claiming the old guns and ammo work just fine and there’s no reason for change. Why alienate when you can assimilate? More choice and innovation is better. MAC made the statement last year that he feels .40 is fading, but looking at what it has done and how much it has caught on…I doubt the manufacturers and consumers have gotten that memo or will anytime soon.