(Editor’s note: This column was submitted by freelance writer Max Slowik. The opinions expressed reflect Mr. Slowik’s own thoughts on the .40 and do not necessarily represent the opinions of GunsAmerica. If you like what he has to say, you can praise him in the comment section below. If you don’t like what he has to say, you can politely tell him why in the comment section below.)
.40 is Dead. Long Live the .40!
If there was only one handgun cartridge, it would be 9mm Luger. Today 9mm is the go-to cartridge for the majority of shooters worldwide for almost all shooting roles, from personal protection to law enforcement to military service to competitions everywhere.
It’s obvious to see why the cartridge has been so successful. It’s easy to handle even for novices. The low recoil and report are less likely to teach new shooters bad habits and on top of that 9mm is one of the most affordable centerfire cartridges out there, taking some of the sting out of paying to practice shooting skills.
In experienced hands, 9mm can be shot at near-subgun speeds with surprising accuracy. And years of projectile development have turned out better, more reliable alloys and bullet designs that make 9mm self-defense loads perform as well as larger cartridges with heavier bullets.
Owing to its 10mm Auto lineage, .40 S&W can be as hard on guns as it is on shooters, and pistols chambered for .40 can have a shorter service life than their 9mm counterparts. To compensate for this many commercial . 40 S&W loads are on the light side, to reduce recoil and wear, which is partly why they perform so similarly to 9mm +P loads.
The case against .40 is established. To many it would appear open and closed, especially following the FBI’s ground-breaking announcement that 9mm performed as well or better than other popular handgun cartridges, including specifically .40 S&W and .45 ACP, while offering the shooter more shots per magazine and greater hit rates on target.
Hit rates are key, especially with shooters who don’t have the time or the means to practice regularly. According to the FBI the average law enforcement officer misses up to 4 out of 5 shots taken in real-world shootings, and in that respect, the use of 9mm may very well save lives through increased capacity alone.
Furthermore there is a cost difference between the two cartridges, again with 9mm coming out on top. So with modern over-pressure ammunition, 9mm Luger performs about as well as .40 S&W, and it offers higher capacities and costs less. So what’s preventing .40 from total obsolescence?
Counter to the FBI’s recommendation, .40 S&W will be in use with law enforcement and private shooters for many years to come. Between agencies that are heavily invested in .40, gun owners who prefer it over other prominent handgun cartridges and race gunners who compete in .40-caliber competitions it will always be in production.
The cartridge’s greatest strength today is that it is not 9mm Luger. It’s a wholly-proven alternative to 9mm with a huge amount of support. Nearly every major handgun manufacturer offers pistols chambered for the cartridge–from full-size steel-framed service pistols to polymer subcompacts for concealed-carry.
During the last ammo panic it was made abundantly clear how popular 9mm Luger has become, with shelves stripped bare of the cartridge across the country for months. Other cartridges, including .40 S&W, were a lot easier to find. And with the price hikes on 9mm, it lost a lot of its cost advantage overnight.
Now that things have calmed down .40 is once again more expensive than 9mm, but the price difference isn’t so dramatic. For a major law enforcement agency with thousands of guns to feed and care for, the cost in terms of ammo alone can justify 9mm, but for the private shooter it may not matter as much, especially when the alternative is no ammo at all.
Another ammo crunch isn’t out of the question. The 2016 elections are just around the corner and gun control is already a central issue–it’s safe to say that ammo and gun sales are expected to rise in the coming months.
Basically, it’s good to have options, and .40 S&W is an appealing option. It’s capable as a handgun round, it’s mainstream and compared to other popular 9mm alternatives, it’s relatively affordable. On top of that, many .40 S&W pistols can be used to shoot .357 SIG with a drop-in conversion barrel for even more options.
It’s also an important cartridge for anyone who lives in a jurisdiction with magazine capacity limits. Depending on those restrictions, .40 S&W can open up doors to standard guns without artificially limiting their capacity, or only limiting them by a small number of rounds. Without the advantage of more ammo per mag, the arguments in favor of 9mm are less compelling to people capped at 10 or 15 rounds per mag, especially for anyone who shoots 9mm and .40 S&W equally well.
And there’s one area where nearly all the arguments against .40 fall apart, and only the benefits of the cartridge stand out: pistol-caliber carbines. The recoil that makes handguns flip and shooter flinch is nothing out of a carbine and the gains can be substantial.
Over the years, there’s been a push to make 9mm perform more like .40 S&W and .40 S&W handle more like 9mm, and thanks to today’s +P ammo 9mm is quickly taking over the .40-cal market. It’s easy to say that there is a siren calling out to the .40-caliber cartridge, but that would be short-sighted.
Cartridges that have achieved the level success that .40 S&W has never truly fade out completely. Right now .40 is in a good position to be reinvented.
Low-recoil .40 will always be around, but there’s a huge market for full-house .40. There are a few independent ammunition manufacturers, like Buffalo Bore, Double Tap Ammunition and Underwood Ammo that are loading .40 S&W all the way to the top, to levels that no 9mm can ever expect to achieve.
It no longer has to be the snappy round that doesn’t do anything better than 9mm; .40 S&W can be remade as the next step up for shooters who can handle it–even if it’s mostly just for guns that go to the range when 9mm is hard to find. And for casual shooting, there’s quite a bit of low-recoil .40 ammunition out there as well.
None of this is in condemnation of 9mm Luger. If anything, it’s .40 S&W that needs to be readdressed. If you only have one handgun, it’s probably best if it’s a 9mm. But if you’re looking to expand your handgun collection and don’t have a .40, maybe now’s a good time to rethink it.