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Sunday, June 28, 2009

The .40 S&W- Your Tax Dollars at Work!

The .40 S&W cartridge generates a lot of emotion. Shooters either love it, or they won't touch it with a ten foot pole. It has been referred to as a hard-kicker and an 'Answer in search of a question.' I have seen it ridiculed as inaccurate, or because no SAAMI 'Plus P' standards exist for it. I have even had a little fun at the .4o S&W's expense, myself.

When the cartridge was introduced in 1990, I was the Sgt. and ‘firearms guy’ for a rural MO Sheriff's Department. When a deputy would rave about their new .40 S&W, I would politely ask to see an example of the wondrous new invention. While they were thumbing a round from a magazine, I was clearing my Ithaca 1911 and locking the slide open. I would then hold my pistol with the barrel pointed skyward and drop their entire .40 cartridge, nose down, through the barrel of my 1911. As it dropped out the ejection port and landed on my desk, I'd say "Looks like they made it a little undersized; believe I'll just keep what I've got."

Despite my early disinterest in this cartridge, it is a sound concept. The .38-40 Winchester broke ground for it in 1874 and it achieved fair popularity in that firm's rifles and the various Colt revolvers. Again in 1963, the basic concept was championed by Elmer Keith, Bill Jordan and Skeeter Skelton as the 'ideal law enforcement cartridge'- the .41 Magnum. Their original idea of a .41 bullet, at moderate velocities, was entirely sensible. Unfortunately, it was also lost in the rush to make their new .41 just as powerful as the .44 Magnum.

This '.41 Magnum Mistake' sort of reversed itself in 1986, but this time in a true .40 caliber. The FBI had undertaken adapting Norma's (and Jeff Cooper's) 10mm Auto for law enforcement use. While it handily 'split the difference' between the .38-40 and the .41 Magnum, it recoiled more than The Bureau liked and they watered it down some. It didn't take long for clear thinkers to realize that these ballistics could be accomplished in a shorter cartridge than the 10mm- making it tenable in mid-size service pistols. The .40 S&W cartridge was the eventual result and those interested in the details of its development should reference Charlie Petty's fine article on that very topic. Charlie was there and you simply won't find a better account.

I finally accepted the .40 Smith & Wesson, partly because it wasn’t going away; but mostly because it just makes sense. I have used a lot of handgun cartridges over the years and I'm impressed with how well its ballistics overlaps many of them. For example:

Proponents of the 9mm cite reduced ammo costs, and suggest that the +P+ 9mm can do anything the .40 S&W can. The first argument is flattened by the fact that many .40 S&W autos can easily be converted to 9mm- but the reverse is not the case. I personally don't think that a 147 grain 9mm does the same damage as a 155 grain .40, at significantly higher velocities; but I'll admit to being predisposed in favor of bigger, heavier bullets in most cases.

The 125 grain .357 hollowpoint is widely thought to be the standard by which defensive pistol cartridges are judged; from packable revolvers, it achieves around 1350 fps. The .40 can match this with a bigger bullet. Typical 158 grain loadings of the .357 generally run about 1250 fps; the .40 will do it with 155's. On the other end of the spectrum, Alaska Backpacker's 200 grain hardcast .357 load produced 970 fps from my 2 1/4" Ruger SP101. Double-Tap offers a 200 grain .40 S&W load, with a similar bullet, that does 1050 fps from a Glock 23. Unless you load the .357 heavy, from a long barreled revolver- it's a fair statement to say the .40 S&W can run right along side of it.

Comparisons of the .40 to the .45 Auto frequently degrade into a loose approximation of 'theological discussions ' between Afghan warlords. Yet I must point out that in my own unscientific tests, the .40/180/JHP compares quite favorably to the .45/230/JHP. I was surprised to find that even Remington's 180 grain flat-point FMJ load disrupted water jugs significantly better than .45 hardball- and it often ‘riveted’ to a degree in the process.

Buffalo Bore and Double Tap both offer loads that take the .40 to its full potential. All the major ammo outfits offer suitable defensive ammunition with expanding bullets ranging from 135 to 180 grains. My personal preference in this application is a 165 grain or heavier holllowpoint, going as fast as it can be safely driven.

I’ve reached the point with this cartridge where I can carry it and not wish for something bigger, regardless of whether it's loaded with ball or hollowpoints. I just wish DOD would pull its head out of its ass and catch on to this fact. Flat-point FMJ in the .40 S&W would make a perfect military pistol cartridge, generating considerable 'thump' while retaining significant magazine capacity.

Some complain about the .40's recoil and I have to wonder what they've been shooting, to draw such a conclusion. If they’d ever fired heavy-loaded .44 Magnums or .45 Colts, they'd scarcely notice the little dab of recoil that the .4o S&W generates. It's a given that top-heavy plastic pistols are going to jump around a little when firing loads suitable for service or defense. The answer to this problem is to build some hand strength, perfect your technique and learn to shoot the damn thing. I know petite females who have managed to do this. Does this require further explanation?

As to the .40 being 'inaccurate'? This cartridge went from inception to introduction is six months. Gun and ammunition manufacturers were working round the clock to get hardware on the market for it. There may well have been 'bugs' in the early offerings but they are long dead and the cartridge itself is as accurate as any other service cartridge- including the venerable .45 ACP.

‘Reloading the .40 S&W’ would warrant a separate article and it would be one which has already been written, by authors much more knowledgeable than myself. One need only reference the various powder manufacturers’ websites, for more loads than you’ll ever care to try. I took my usual simplistic approach to reloading it- which means W231, lead bullets and velocities more in line with the .45 ACP. My 'general use' .40 loads consist of a lead SWC and just enough W231 to work the action reliably. I put these up in range pick-up brass and because much of that shows signs of being previously hot-loaded and fired in, er, 'ample' Glock chambers- I wouldn't load those casings hot anyhow.

This first attempt produced good accuracy at 25 yards, from the Glock Model 23 they were to be used in. I also wanted to see if it the load's trajectory would suffice for a 50 yard shot at a varmint while working around the farm; so I stapled up a business envelope and let five rounds fly in its general direction. I did throw one shot off the edge of the envelope; maybe an inch and a half. It was a called flier, but the gun & load sure held their own.

I've only owned a couple of bone-stock service pistols that shot this well and I believe this is the first one I've had that beats 3 inches using bulk reloads, in range-mongrel brass. This is all we can ask of any service pistol cartridge.

I can honestly say 'Thanks' to the FBI for their re-invention of the 10mm- which ultimately led to the introduction of the .40 Smith and Wesson. I don’t even mind the fact that we taxpayers funded the effort. In this case at least, those tax dollars were used for an excellent investment.

Author’s note- Since starting this article, I had occasion to use the .40 to ‘permanently discourage’ a 100+ pound pit bull, in a flat-out charge, from chewing off valued parts of my anatomy. He was almost too close when I saw him and the shooting was rushed, as is usually the case when a pistol is called upon to resolve an emergency. The round gave a good account of itself in this little difficulty and if anything, my confidence in it has risen.


Blogger Unknown said...

U.S.C.G. went to the .40 dropping the Beretta 9mm

Friday, September 09, 2011 9:30:00 PM  
Blogger NameBrandFaucets said...

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Bulk 9mm Ammo

Thursday, November 24, 2011 6:54:00 AM  
Anonymous rjf415 said...

Because of my LE duties I have been exposed and have carried a Glock 27 for the last 8 years. At first I thought it was just a gimmick, but after a couple of shooting incitements within the past two years my respect has gone up substantially…the .40 S&W has taken away any thought of replacing it with a 1911 in .45 ACP…I too think that our Armed Forces would be well served with the .40 S&W…

Friday, January 04, 2013 1:39:00 AM  

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