The .40 S&W: Too Strong or Too Weak?

Wayne Thinks It’s Just Right …

While the price of Maseratis has not risen as fast as the cost of health insurance under the oddly named Affordable Care Act, I’m resigned to live without a quick Italian ride. So far, there’s no penalty for that. There’s no tandem-axle truck in the drive either, though sometimes I could use one. I make do with a sedan and a pickup. Compromises. But if not always tailored to my whim, these vehicles suffice. In truth, they’re pretty darned versatile.

Handguns and ammunition cost less than sports cars and Peterbilts, and are easier to store. So we shooters don’t feel constrained to pick just one. Or to compromise. Hence the lively debate over which of a host of worthy loads is most worthy.

Among pistol cartridges cursed with a wide range of applications, the .40 Smith & Wesson may be least appreciated. Unlike the .30-06, in versatility its counterpart among rifle rounds, the .40 arrived after millions of soldiers and constables had warmed to alternatives. The ’06 remains popular as racier numbers appear, in part because it is capable, but also because it is old, and a military veteran.

And it was first: The first successful rimless infantry round in US history. The first cartridge chambered in the front-locking, box-fed bolt action which over a century established itself as first pick of big game hunters. While it now shares the spotlight with many other rounds, the ‘06 has never been truly upstaged. No rifleman with any sense of propriety speaks ill of it.

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The list of .40 S&W loads has grown, with bullet weights
from 105 to 200 grains. Best bets: often 155 to 180.

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From left: .45 ACP, .40 S&W and 9mm Luger. The .40
gets 200 fps from 180 JHP’s.

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Stopper: .45 ACP+P loads launch 200-grain bullets as fast as
.40 S&W 180’s, but with more recoil.

Late Comer

The .40 S&W, alas, didn’t arrive until 1990, nearly 80 years after the .45 ACP appeared in John Browning’s self-loading pistol. It post-dated the 9mm Luger by 88 years. In fact, it followed the switch of the US military community from the .45 to the 9mm (1985, in the Beretta 92 S)!

There’s not much the .40 can claim that isn’t already owned by the .45 and the 9mm, except the unexciting mantle of compromise. Various law enforcement agencies have come to favor it; ammunition firms have given it frisky loads. Still, the .40 could fare better.

I’m not a policeman, though as a wildlife agent I carried a sidearm. I’ve no experience shooting people and hope I don’t have to, though I’ve seen people killed.

So I’m no expert on how any handgun load stops adversaries. That’s grist for other mills. I have fired quite a few rounds of rifle and handgun ammo — in the field, in competition and in penetration and expansion tests — and listened carefully to smart, experienced shooters who know more than I do.

Many of these people like the .40 S&W. Many don’t. Some tell me the .40 can’t punch like a .45 ACP but kicks as if it should. Others say it’s a shade more authoritative than the 9mm but at the expense of magazine capacity. There aren’t as many loads for the .40 as for the .45 or the 9, and you won’t find a box of .40 at every gun counter. The ammo and brass won’t be as cheap or as available on the gun show circuit, either. Fewer autoloading pistols are listed in .40 than in .45 or 9.

It’s easy to view the .40 in a glass-half-empty way, especially if your pet pistol is chambered for something else, or if you delight in excoriating others with different preferences. Still, the .40 is apolitical, thus unworthy of barbs you might hurl at legislators, ex-mayors, actors and presidents who dismiss every cartridge and firearm out of hand. If the .40 S&W were simply an amalgamation of what shooters didn’t like about the 9mm and the .45 ACP, it wouldn’t have survived. But it has.

The world is full of .40 fans with more time handloading this round, and more time behind pistols so chambered. But my .40’s have impressed me.

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One advantage of the 9: greater capacity. But Wayne’s
double-stack SIG Sauer P226 holds 12 rounds!

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The .40 trumps the 9, with 165-grain bullets as fast as
these 135’s. Neither is inherently more accurate.

Positive Points

As the .40 is weaker than the .45 and more violent than the 9mm, it is easier to shoot than the .45 and possibly more effective than the 9mm. Instead of branding it an ill-conceived hybrid, shooters could find the .40 a brilliant joining of the top cartridges in auto-pistol history.
The .40 S&W appeared on the heels of the 10mm Auto, introduced in the Bren Ten pistol in 1983 but given real traction six years later when the FBI blessed it as its official pistol round. The 10mm, some shooters discovered, had more case than was needed to launch 200-grain bullets at 1,000 fps. Trimming the hull from .992″ to .850″ hiked efficiency and suited it to existing 9mm frames and slides. So emerged the .40 S&W. It shares the 10mm Auto’s .425″ rim and .423″ mouth. Like the 9mm, the .40 S&W runs a listed SAAMI pressure of 35,000 psi — 14,000 psi higher than the .45 ACP’s.

The .40 hurls 200-grain bullets at just over 900 fps, nearly as fast as standard .45 ACP loads with same-weight bullets. The .40 drives 135-grain bullets as fast as 1,325 fps — an edge of 200 fps over 9mm +P loads with 135’s. Cor-bon lists a 150 .40 JHP at 1,200 fps, about what you get with standard 115-grain bullets from a 9mm.

Not to belittle the 9mm. I once dismissed it as anemic, unacceptable in a personal-defense pistol. But modern loads have altered my view. Many trials still quoted as definitive were run long ago, before current powders and jacketed hollowpoint bullets had arrived, and when velocities from handguns hewed closer to those of crossbows. Firing 93-grain .30 Luger and 288-grain .476 Colt bullets into slaughterhouse carcasses and human cadavers today wouldn’t tell us much about modern 9mm and .45 ACP loads.

Gelatin tests with hollowpoints, through clothing, windshields and other real-world barriers, can yield more practical data about bullet performance and lethality than do ballistics charts. Still, velocity values offer useful snapshots — a way to quickly compare loads.

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In the .45-ruled 1911, the 9 is gaining fans. The .40 generates
as much pressure as the 9: 35,000 psi.

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The .40 suffers the middle-child status of the
.41 Magnum in large-frame revolvers.

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Fistful of power: The .40 S&W in a short Springfield XD, an
utterly reliable auto that points naturally.

Better?

With mid-weight bullets clocking over 1,150 fps at the muzzle, the .40 S&W runs close behind the .357 Magnum and .45 ACP+P loads for like-weight bullets. It’s clearly superior to the 9mm and .38 Special. With light bullets, the .40 and .38 Super are very close, ballistically. The .40 has a decided edge with heavier bullets.

My favorite .40 pistol? The fetching SIG Sauer P226 stainless Elite. This auto holds 12 cartridges in its double-stack magazine. Its polished, stippled grips are perfectly shaped and proportioned for my big paws. At 42 ounces, it’s no lightweight, but those grips and superb balance put it on target fast. They also help keep it on target and make this .40 more comfortable in recoil than many if not most mid-size 9mms!

My SIG prefers heavy bullets and has done its best work with 180-grain Federal Hydra-Shoks at 1,000 fps. I’d like to have drilled a super-tight 25-yard group for this article. Certainly the pistol is able. A spring-like day in February gave me plenty of opportunity. Though I managed good starts (three bullets in an inch, for example), I scuttled every one. Last shots are my nemesis.

I’ll keep after that golfball group — a pleasant chore with this pistol — and more affordable fun than renting a Maserati.

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Barrels for the .40 and (here) 9 can be heavier than a
.45’s, given ordinary frame, slide dimensions.

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Top-rank defense loads for the 9mm, .40 and .45 abound.
The .40 is essentially a short 10mm Auto.

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Wayne’s favorite .40: SIG Sauer’s P226 Elite. Perfect balance,
ideal grip. Note the new SIG ammo.

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This Federal load shoots better than others from Wayne’s SIG.
Potent but easy to handle in the 226.

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One popular .40 is S&W’s M&P Pro series. The round
appeared in 1990, so only recent pistols chamber it.

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Capable of pushing 155 JHP’s at 1,200 fps, the .40 is
ballistically a match for the longer 10mm Auto.

By Wayne van Zwoll

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One thought on “The .40 S&W: Too Strong or Too Weak?

  1. Evin

    I’m a big fan of the .40. It ups the capability of the 9, while keeping more capacity than the .45. But the truth is, I’m a fan of all the more recent pistol cartridges, plus 9mm. But I’ve largely abandoned the .45. It’s capable. But it costs more (factory or reloading), it holds less (unless you go with a gigantic grip), and all too often is handicapped by a poor launching system (a majority of the 1911’s manufactured today). It’s a great round. Better than the 9 or the .40. But for me, it is not so much better that I’m willing to accept the other shortcomings. For me, .40 is the primary defense caliber, 9mm is gaming (with some defense), and .357 is my outdoor caliber (be it Mag or “SIG”).

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