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.