By Massad Ayoob
In the last few years, we’ve seen a strong resurgence in the popularity of the 9mm among American police. The cardinal signal being the FBI paper indicating the Bureau’s intent to switch back to that caliber from the Glock .40, standard issue for them since the late 1990’s. This has led a lot of folks on shooter forums and elsewhere to conclude the .40 is on its way out of American law enforcement.
That prediction turns out to be drastically premature.
First, the Bureau itself has not yet actually made wholesale changeover. Most agents are still carrying issue .40’s, and many are carrying optional Glock’s in 9mm and .45 ACP as they have been able to do for several years. There still seems to be more police agencies issuing the .40 than any other caliber.
Left to right: 9mm, .40 S&W or .45 ACP? Shown here with SIG barrels —
the debate is destined to continue, but the 9mm is climbing back into
popularity due to modern high- performance ammo.
To understand the .40’s pros and cons, we have to go back a quarter century to its joint introduction by S&W and Winchester in 1990. During the great sea change from service revolver to auto pistol in the 1980’s and early ’90’s, the original choice had been between an 8- or 9-shot .45 ACP, or a 16-shot 9mm. This was perceived as a choice between the “stopping power” of the .45 and the cartridge capacity of the “nine.” The S&W 4006 split the difference almost exactly, with 12 rounds of “a caliber beginning with ‘4’.”
It was powerful enough to satisfy the big-bore advocates, and with double the on-board round count of the old revolver, held enough ammo to satisfy the firepower advocates. Glock’s swiftly introduced a 16-shot .40, the G22, and it seemed to be the best of all worlds.
Being a high pressure cartridge, the .40 seemed “snappier” in recoil than even the .45, let alone the 9mm. No one argues the 9mm kicks less and makes fast, accurate shooting easier for many, nor that the 9mm in the same format offers a couple of extra rounds before reloading becomes necessary. It’s likewise a fact 9mm ammo is a bit cheaper than .40, and public service agencies have to keep an eye on the budget.
Until the .40 came out in 1990, the cops’ choice of autos was eight to nine rounds
in .45 as in the Colt at left, or 16 rounds of 9mm as in the SIG P226.
For some departments, of course, “compromise” simply means giving armed personnel the option of 9mm, or .40 S&W, or .45 ACP. That’s the current policy in two of the nation’s three largest city police departments, Chicago PD and LAPD, not to mention Las Vegas Metro. LAPD issues .45’s to its most highly gunfight-trained units, the SWAT team and the Special Investigations Section. Most observers will be surprised if FBI’s own super-elite Hostage Rescue Team goes to 9mm from its trademark .45 autos, despite the current meme saying “9mm and .40 and .45 are all the same.”
The wave of “.40 to 9mm transition” is high enough to surf on, but is not by any means a tsunami that’s going to sweep larger-bore service pistols out of American police work. Indeed, there’s a smaller wave rolling in the opposite direction.
A few years ago, the Indiana State Police went back to the 9mm from the .40, but then switched to .45 ACP and stayed there, currently issuing the SIG P227. Connecticut State Police recently went from .40 to .45 ACP (SIG P220) also. The Talladega (AL) Police Department became the first in the country to adopt the long-barrel Glock 41 this year, trading in their G22 .40’s.
What’d it all mean?
At the end of the day, police — like shooters on the Internet — will continue to debate the performance of the various pistol calibers. Just as $100 police trade-in .38’s flooded the market a couple of decades ago, we may see another wave of low priced traded-in .40’s with lots of service life left. Those guns will continue to serve to protect the innocent, as pistols in .40 S&W have done faithfully for a quarter of a century.