The best feature of the .40 Smith and Wesson today might be its falling popularity. That means quality handguns and ammunition are available now when other calibers aren’t. After the FBI’s adoption of the 9mm, the .40 has lost favor with law enforcement agencies, but it is still around and remains a very good self-defense cartridge.
The .40 S&W, also called .40 caliber, was a popular caliber for law enforcement duty pistols for 20 years. This means that police trade-ins are available providing lightly used quality at affordable prices. Less popular than 9mm, there is still a wide selection of .40 S&W ammunition for training and personal defense when other calibers are sold out. Despite conventional wisdom, gun buyers, new and old should consider the .40 S&W.
The .40 has more energy but the same sized pistol in 9mm will hold more rounds since the cartridge is smaller. A pistol chambered in .40 S&W holds more rounds than a.45, but the energy of the .45 ACP is higher than the .40.
It is useful to look back and see why the .40 was so popular for so many years. This is not another caliber debate. Do your homework and your range work before picking a handgun caliber. When you do pick one, remember, it is rude to talk about politics, religion, or handgun caliber at the supper table.
All around the internet, .40 S&W ammo is available in dozens of different loads. I didn’t find any .40-caliber ammunition at my local box stores, but I did find several cases at my local gun shop. It was priced slightly higher than what is available from online retailers, but there are no added shipping fees and I walked out of the store with it.
The .40 S&W was specifically developed to duplicate the performance of the FBI’s reduced-velocity 10mm cartridge and fit into medium-frame (9mm size) automatic handguns.
Since the 1900s, the .38, .45, and 9mm had been the main cartridges for law enforcement and the military in the United States. In the early 1970’s Whit Collins had a better idea. He wanted to rechamber the 9mm Browning Hi-Power in a more powerful cartridge.
Collins originally considered the .38 Super, but read Jeff Cooper’s concept of an ideal cartridge of a .40 caliber bullet weighing 200gr moving at 1,000fps. After much study of geometry Collins began looking for existing rifle cases that had the right dimensions and could be trimmed to proper length a Browning Hi-Power magazine.
Cooper approved and helped Collins get his idea to Guns & Ammo. By 1972 a Browning Hi-Power chambered in .40 G&A was test-fired. The loads being fired consisted of a 180gn bullet at 1,050fps out of the 5″ barrel.
In 1973 Cooper and Collins explored the idea of a longer cased .40 caliber round developed for large frame .45 platforms. Whit Collins continued working on his .40 G&A and Jeff Cooper began work on his .40 Super. In 1978 Cooper helped conceive the Bren Ten semiautomatic pistol, and his .40 Super evolved into 10mm Auto. Bren didn’t last long, but the 10mm would be re-born.
The true genesis of the .40 S&W was on April 11, 1986, in Miami Dade county Florida. Eight FBI agents and two bank robbers engaged in a fight to the death. FBI Special Agents Jerry L. Dove and Benjamin P. Grogan were killed, while five other agents were wounded.
The two robbery suspects, both with military experience, William Russell Matix and Michael Lee Platt, were also killed. These were bad men armed with an S&W M3000 12-gauge shotgun and a Ruger Mini-14. They had decided they were not going to be taken alive.
The incident has been intensely studied by the FBI and other law enforcement agencies. Despite outnumbering the suspects 4 to 1, the agents found themselves pinned down by rifle fire and unable to respond effectively. Although both Matix and Platt were hit multiple times during the firefight, Platt fought on and continued to injure and kill agents.
The subsequent FBI investigation blamed the failure on the poor stopping power of their .38 and 9mm handguns. They started the process of testing 9mm and .45 ACP ammunition seeking to replace the 3″ barrel Smith and Wesson Model 13 with a semi-automatic pistol. The semi-automatic pistol offered increased ammunition capacity and was easier to reload during a gunfight.
The FBI was satisfied with the performance of its .38 Special +P 158 gr cartridge. Ammunition for the new semi-automatic pistol had to deliver terminal performance equal or superior to the .38 Special FBI Load. The FBI developed a new series of practically oriented tests involving eight test events that reasonably represented the kinds of situations that FBI agents commonly encounter in shooting incidents.
The FBI ultimately selected a downloaded 10mm using a 180-grain jacketed hollow-point bullet fired at 950 fps. Even downloaded, this was a very hot load, unsuitable for the average agent.
It proved to be an excellent ballistic combination, although the long case was a problem. The 10mm round required a large-frame pistol. At that time, there were only two manufacturers making large frames, S&W and Colt.
The FBI contacted Smith & Wesson and requested they design a handgun to FBI specifications, based on the existing large-frame S&W Model 4506 .45 ACP handgun, that would reliably function with the FBI’s reduced velocity 10mm ammunition. This became the Smith & Wesson 1076, chambered for the 10mm Auto round and it was chosen by the FBI.
During this collaboration, Smith & Wesson’s smart guys soon realized that downloading the 10mm to meet the FBI specifications meant less powder and more airspace in the case. They found that by removing the airspace they could shorten the 10 mm case enough to fit within their medium-frame 9mm handguns.
Working in a secret joint project with Winchester Ammunition they developed a cartridge with identical ballistics to become known as the .40 S&W. When loaded with a 180 gr bullet, it produced the same ballistic performance as the FBI’s reduced velocity 10mm cartridge.
Ironically, the Glock 22 and Glock 23 pistols chambered in .40 S&W were announced a week before the 4006 and beat Smith & Wesson to the market in 1990, with the S&W cartridge. Clever marketing has S&W in the very name of the round. The new guns and ammunition were an immediate success.
Other than a .142″ reduction in overall case length, resulting in less powder capacity in the .40 S&W; the 10mm and .40 S&W are identical in projectile diameter, both using a 0.400″ caliber bullet. The .40 uses a small pistol primer whereas the 10mm cartridge uses a large pistol primer.
The 40 S&W, has nearly identical accuracy with the 9mm but it has an energy advantage over the 9mm and more manageable recoil than the 10 mm Auto cartridge. The .40 S&W and the 9 mm Parabellum both operate at a 35,000 psi (240 MPa) SAAMI maximum, compared to a 21,000 psi (150 MPa) maximum for .45 ACP.
There are a number of quality .40 caliber handguns available on GunsAmerica, you may have to search, but you can find your gun with a little patience.
The .40 S&W became more popular than the 10mm due to the ability to chamber the shorter cartridge in standard frame automatic pistols designed initially for the 9 mm Parabellum. The problem here is that pistols designed for the 9mm are damaged by the high pressures and high energy of the .40 accelerating wear. Many shooters experience increased felt recoil often described as muzzle flip.
The .40 has been there for a generation of cops. It was conceived by none other than Jeff Cooper himself and developed with some careful science. With improvements in 21st-century ammo, it is even better. While .40 S&W’s recoil and magazine capacity can be challenging, shooters will find that this is a small price to pay for availability and performance. Today might be the best time to buy one.