December 02, 2021
By Jeremy Stafford
Following the 1986 Miami-Dade Shootout, the FBI sought an improved round for its agents in the form of the 10mm, which quickly evolved to the .40 S&W in 1990. The FBI had worked with Smith & Wesson and Winchester ammunition to develop the .40 S&W, which was meant to be a slightly reduced-pressure version of the 10mm Auto. FBI ballisticians had fallen in love with the 10mm after tests revealed that a 180-grain bullet pushed to 850 to 950 feet-persecond (fps) resulted in the terminal ballistics they desired without the attendant felt recoil of the typical 10mm load featuring a 180-grain projectile moving between 1,100 fps and as much as 1,300 fps! Smith & Wesson’s engineers figured out that by cutting down the 10mm case from .992 inch to .850 inch, they were able to eliminate all of the dead-air space while still delivering the FBI’s preferred ballistics.
The resulting cartridge permitted S&W to use their existing 9mm pistol frames versus the larger .45-caliber frames, and allowed S&W to develop guns that could carry more rounds through the use of modified double-stack magazines. During the “Wonder Nine” wars of the late 1980s, capacity was considered key, so use of a single-stack magazine would have hamstrung the .40 S&W out of the gate. Despite S&W spearheading development of the .40, the Glock models 22 and 23 arrived ahead of the S&W Model 4006. In fact, Glock managed to beat S&W by several months in 1990. As the round matured and was adopted by numerous law enforcement departments, firearm manufacturers jumped on board. Just about every maker offered a .40 by 1993.
The “duty” pedigree of the .40 also influenced the competition world. The .40 could easily make Major and still be shot in a relatively large-capacity pistol when compared to the 9mm. While it took a little while to supplant the 9mm in duty holsters, the lure of a round that could “hit like a .45” and “carry like a 9” became too strong. For a brief period in the late 1990s, the .40 was king.
Then something happened. A clamor for more police transparency led departments to track details about officer-involved shootings. With the boom in data collection, a fact jumped out that was void of hyperbole: The difference in effectiveness between the major service and duty cartridges was minuscule. When analyzing similar mid-thoracic hits, the 9mm, .357 SIG, .40 S&W, 10mm and .45 ACP all produced about the same real-life results. The myth of the “One-Shot-Stop” caliber was dispelled. Short of a cranio-ocular cavity hit, most bad guys had to be struck at least two times before their aggressive, dangerous actions were stopped. If two hits of 9mm is going to yield the same results as two hits with either a .40 or .45, why bother issuing handguns chambered for the bigger calibers?
As a result of this understanding, many departments transitioned back to the 9mm. The supposed nail in the coffin for the .40 came in 2015 when the FBI concluded a study showing that modern 9mm defensive loads were effective for defensive use. They transitioned agents to the Glock 17M/19M in 9mm loaded with Hornady’s Critical Duty 9mm +P 135-grain FlexLock (hornady.com), after more than 20 years of issuing the .40. That said, many in law enforcement are still issued a .40-caliber pistol with either the 155- or 180-grain jacketed hollowpoint (JHP) from Black Hills Ammunition (black-hills.com); Federal Premium 165- or 180-grain Tactical HST (le.vistaoutdoor.com); the bonded 165- or 180-grain Speer Gold Dot (speer.com); or Winchester’s Ranger T-Series (winchesterle.com).
In the spirit of American writer Mark Twain, the report of the .40’s death has been exaggerated. With the abandonment of the .40 by a growing list of agencies, a glut of quality service pistols chambered in .40 continue to enter the market at reasonable prices. One thing gun people love more than a good firearm is a great deal. The Glock 22 and Smith & Wesson M&P40 qualify because they typically sell for less than $400, and the SIG Sauer P226 or P229 variants appear for around $450.
The .40 has an incredible amount of utility for the individual shooter. Converting the Glock and M&P from .40 to 9mm is straightforward, and I’ve seen many of these guns get this treatment. Certain guns can even be converted to shoot .357 SIG, if that interests you. The bottom line is that a pistol chambered for .40 is flexible for customization. Even leaving it chambered in .40 S&W isn’t a bad idea. For a low-recoil option that’s great for blasting steel, take a look at Federal’s Syntech Action Pistol (federalpremium.com), which sends a 205-grain bullet out of the muzzle at 850 feet per second (fps). In contrast, Buffalo Bore (buffalobore.com) offers a 155-grain +P load that screams at 1,300 fps out of the muzzle, but be sure that you’re using an aftermarket barrel in a Glock if you’re shooting this load. Glock pistols are likely the only .40-caliber handguns offered in the U.S. that do not feature fully supported chambers.
The latest chapter in the .40’s life might be the most interesting. When COVID-19 struck, most 9mm pistols and ammunition disappeared. For new gun owners, or those looking to bolster their options for training or defense, .40-caliber pistols and ammunition were available long after the 9mm and .45-caliber options were gone. A pistol’s best ability is its availability, and the .40 is definitely still available. At the time of this writing, I can still go to my local gun store and find a decent selection of .40 S&W, both ball ammo and defensive loads — and sometimes cheaper than 9mm!
While the .40 is far from dead, it does have some issues. If the vast majority of your experience is shooting 9mm guns, you’ll feel that the .40 definitely produces more recoil. It’s not prohibitive for most shooters, but it bears mentioning. Recoil control is not something you can train away with dry-practice; you’re going to have to put in live-fire work before relying on it for self-defense.
The .40’s recoil also produces an increase in wear with any pistol. While you don’t need to stress about the care and maintenance of a retired duty pistol, they do rate routine examination for signs of unusual wear and over pressure. Take note of bulged cases and flattened primers. With .40-caliber guns, ignoring routine inspections and spring replacement cycles is not a good idea. Smith & Wesson, for example, recommends that the recoil spring assembly be replaced in duty guns between 5,000 and 10,000 cycles, and not to exceed 20,000 rounds. These guns may still function properly, but the performance decreases and reliability would be in question. The reliability of a pistol intended for duty or defense is not something to gamble with.
In the 30 years of shooting .40-caliber pistols, I’ve observed inconsistent results in accuracy. Just because a particular load shot well in one gun, never meant that it would shoot well in another. If you want to maximize your .40’s accuracy potential, be prepared to experiment.
I predict that the .40 S&W will remain a viable option for years to come. In fact, as I finish writing this column, I am now convinced of my mistake in not acting on this sooner. It’s time to pick up a .40 for myself. You know, just in case.
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