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In Praise of the .40 Smith & Wesson Cartridge

By David Tong

.40 S&W
Illustration courtesy of Hornady Mfg. Co.

This article represents a personal re-assessment of this very popular self-defense and police pistol cartridge. Most readers know that the .40 round is the result of the aftermath of the FBI’s short-lived adoption of the 10mm Norma cartridge and the S&W M1076 pistol described elsewhere on G&S Online. Essentially, it’s reason for being was the then available technology in bullet design and the continuing perceived need to balance adequate penetration, controlled expansion within the average thoracic cavity and reducing so-called “over,” or “secondary,” penetration to limit damage to innocent bystanders.

The original 10mm was a hot number. Its .40 caliber bullet weighing 200 grains traveled at 1,200 feet per second. Even downloaded somewhat, this round proved to be too much for the average, non-gunner, FBI Special Agent, so Smith & Wesson and Winchester/Olin Corporation came up with an idea to shorten the case and reduce its power to coincide with FBI’s Firearms Training Unit’s specifications of a 180 grain pill moving out at just 950fps. S&W reasoned that “9mmX19” sized pistols would be able to use the new round, thus saving much on tooling costs, as well as tacitly admitting that reducing the width of the grip and trigger reach would be sound for the average-sized hand.

Earlier .40 S&W rounds suffered from over-penetration and so-so accuracy. Adherents of the 9X19 round often state that the .40 is harsh-recoiling, has a “blasty” report and pistols chambering them who share platforms with 9mm hold fewer rounds.

My earliest experiences with the round seemed to confirm some of these anecdotal reports. I have shot both the Glock 23 and Walther P99 in the caliber. Both are plastic framed, lightweight, compact pistols and the recoil did seem obnoxious compared to the steel framed .45ACP weapons with which I grew up. In addition, stopping power results in police circles did not seem to warrant considering a .40 caliber pistol at that time.

Time and technology does march on, however, and natural curiosity made me revisit both the round and another pistol design, the SiG-Sauer P229, which I have previously written about in these pages.

The .40 round is now used by over 70% of American law enforcement agencies, mostly because computer aided design has afforded ammunition manufacturers refinements to bullet ogive shape, jacket serrations, jacket material and even weight distribution to create a round which offers significantly better stopping power than standard pressure 9X19 (which, coincidentally, is the same pressure as the .40, roughly 33,000psi) and often equaling that of the .45ACP in its better iterations. One does lose a few rounds compared to the 9mm, usually 2-4 per equal length magazine. On the other hand, the .40 user usually gains that same amount over someone toting a .45, which was the original point of the exercise: to provide a true “stopper” with a higher round count than the proven .45 ACP.

Chuck Hawks and I have spoken at some length in the past about the .40 round and at the time, we agreed that there appeared to be little reason for the cartridge. In today's popular lightweight pistols, it can cause a control issue in rapid fire, not to mention the excessive recoil and muzzle blast even in heavier pistols. (Lightweight pistols, of course, are strongly favored by civilians for concealed carry. -Ed.)

My evolving view now is that, while the .40 does recoil more than either the 9x19 or the .45, it can be mitigated by carrying the round in a heavier pistol and paying particular attention to the curvature of the backstrap, to ensure that it is not overly curved. A more open radius spreads the recoil force more evenly in the web of the hand between the thumb and index finger. While this does mean your overall weapon weight with an aluminum frame goes up about five to six ounces compared to a plastic framed pistol, it pays dividends in mitigating the harsher recoil pulse.

The SiG design does have a rather high bore axis, which increases muzzle flip on recoil, but this does not appear to be a big issue, though it is still harder to control than either standard pressure 9mm or .45. I would expect that the .40 round would be easier to shoot were it chambered in a pistol of similar weight without this bore height disadvantage.

A review of Evan Marshall’s “Stopping Power” provides the following stats for "one shot" stops:

  • 9mmX19, 115 grain Federal 9BP, 1150 fps/33,000 psi: 81%
  • 9mmX19, 127 grain +P+ Winchester Ranger SXT RA9TA, 1250 fps/42,000 psi: 91% (+P+ ammo is generally law enforcement only)
  • .40 S&W, 165 grain Remington Golden Saber, 1050 fps/33,000 psi: 94%
  • .45 ACP, 230 grain Federal Hydra-Shok, 830 fps/21,000 psi: 94%

While the “one shot stop” is a statistic and not a tactic (!), what's telling is that, since the vast majority of American law enforcement is now using the .40, it will continue to be aggressively developed by US ammo manufacturers. The importance of this emphasis on development should not be under-estimated. In local police circles, as far as I am aware, only the Portland Police Bureau issues a 9mm caliber pistol; most Oregon agencies, including the Oregon State Police, are using .40's (or larger).

Far from being a mere flash in the pan, I believe that the .40 S&W round now merits serious consideration. Its combination of stopping power, velocity, bullet weight and caliber can make it a trusted companion on the mean streets.

Note: A full length article about the .40 S&W cartridge can be found on the Handgun Cartridge Page.

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Copyright 2009, 2013 by David Tong and/or All rights reserved.