There have been many, many good ideas and innovations that have to the world of cartridges and guns in the last few decades and the .40 S&W was certainly one of the most well-intentioned. I’ve already covered the ever-popular 9mm, a great beginner’s caliber, and the .45 ACP, a not-so-great option for the newbie, but fine for an experienced shooter. The more recent .40 S&W is something of a middle ground option between these two classics and it has suffered as a result.
The beginning shooter, shopping for a first handgun, will likely be presented with a great number of inexpensive, used guns in .40 S&W that seem like great bargains. I’ve seen police trade-ins with names like GLOCK for under $300. I would go so far as to say that the pistols chambered in .40 S&W are some of the best deals around today. But there’s a reason those guns are in the used pistol case and it’s not all roses.
The .40 S&W has been dying a slow and prolonged death for over a decade now. There will be loud and aggressive defenses mounted in favor of the cartridge by those who are passionate about it, but realists know that the 9mm has essentially killed it off. It’s a (mostly) dead caliber walking. The reason you’ll find all of those cheap .40 cals for sale is that nobody wants one you can have a 9mm.
As I’ve stated in my previous articles in this series, the significant advancements in bullet technology, especially around smaller calibers, has resulted in ammunition that shoots extremely well, displays superior internal ballistics, and increased relative capacity when compared to legacy options. Yes, a .40 S&W gun offers more capacity in a given frame size than .45 ACP, but less than 9mm. In the same vein, the .40 can’t really compete with 9mm in terms of recoil and ease of use, while producing more felt recoil and generally costing as much as .45.
So what would be the reason for a beginner go with a .40 over a 9mm or even .45? The real answer, dear reader, is that I can’t give you one. The .40 was designed because, in a nutshell, it was what the FBI decided it wanted in a pistol cartridge.
The original intent was to have it be a duplicate of reduced-power 10mm Auto loads that were tested by the FBI in the late 1980’s. This meant that many law enforcement groups were quick to adopt the .40 and didn’t ask too many questions about it. Many still use it, but that’s changing and it’s why there are so many on the surplus market today. And that may be the only real modern benefit of the .40; cheap entry-level guns.
As a beginner, you will be confronted with plenty of opinions about 9mm, .40 S&W, and .45 ACP because they essentially occupy the same zone of the gun ecosystem, competing for your gun-buying dollars. I would be insane if I told you to get a .40 over a 9mm in today’s gun market and there are several reasons:
– .40 S&W pistols are generally made on the same frames as 9mm pistols (think GLOCK 26 and 27) and as such display (slightly) reduced carry capacity for the same size gun.
– Compared to 9mm in the same sized gun, .40 S&W has a far greater felt recoil and ‘snap’. That means that there will be a comparatively longer learning curve to develop proficiency.
– The cost of used firearms is relative. .40 ammunition is over 50% more expensive than 9mm for range ammo, with the average being about $0.33/round compared to 9mm at $0.20/round. That means that for a meager 1000 rounds of cheap ammo, you’ll pay about $130.00 more for .40. That’s easily the difference between an inexpensive, used .40 pistol and a new 9mm.
– Dwindling aftermarket support means that there will be less new innovations being made for .40 and fewer good ammunition options over time.
IN short, much like .45 ACP, the .40 isn’t a great beginner’s caliber. Sure, it works and works well, but 9mm just has too much going for it. The .40 S&W is a dying caliber and, despite a large number of available guns, will likely be gradually phased out of a lot of mainstream makers’ catalogs over the next decade.
That’s not to say that the .40 S&W doesn’t have its relative benefits. It offers a number of good, positive features that can benefit the right shooter.
– Excellent power-to-size ratio. Because of the fact that you can fit .40 parts into 9mm frames you can also expand the power of a given class of pistol.
– The available ammunition options for .40 are very well-developed considering its origins as a duty cartridge.
– As mentioned earlier, guns chambered for .40 S&W are cheap and plentiful. On guns like a GLOCK 22, you can always convert it to 9mm later by changing out the barrel and a few other small parts.
– Handloading for .40 S&W is fairly easy and offers a low-budget beginner cheap starting guns and easy-loading recipes.
Good guns that the author recommends in .40 S&W:
– GLOCK 22, 27, and 23. These are great pistols that come with the GLOCK name. They will be reliable and can often be found used or like-new for $300 or lower.
– Smith & Wesson M&P series: These pistols are pretty damn good as well. One of my long-time carry guns when I was new to shooting was an M&P 40C.
– SIG SAUER makes their awesome P320, P226, and many other pistols in the cartridge. Used duty guns can be had from this premium maker for relatively low prices as well.
So there you have it. I don’t believe that the .40 S&W is a long-term option (relatively speaking). Because of the world we live in and the random cult followings that pop up, the .40 will never truly die out. Hell, the .44-40 is still around today and I’m sure that some guy out there carries one every day.
What the beginner needs to know is that there are better options and that there’s more to consider than just the cost of the gun. My recommendation is to go straight to 9mm and skip the .40 altogether. The cartridge has always been a compromise, but rarely a happy one.