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.