In Praise of the [Clearly Superior] .40 S&W Cartridge

by Tommy Grant

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O .40 S&W, you are being driven from your throne.
Thou, from when you graced the world,
The world has loved and hated thee.

10x22mm is your measurement,
Both strong and true.
Sadly many have insulted you as short and weak.

You pack the needed punch
With the capacity we wanted.
Though many claim to hate you,
My love for you is true.

The .40 S&W, released to the world on January 17, 1990. It was credited as the Second Coming by some and hated as if it were the antichrist by others. The haters claim that the cartridge is just too snappy with too much recoil. At the same time, many of those same critics make bold statements claiming that it’s short and weak. So which is it, too powerful or too weak?

The truth is .40 S&W is neither…it’s perfection. The cartridge replicates the most popular Old West cartridge, the .38-40 Winchester, considered in its day an ideal “all-around” cartridge. It was actually a heeled .40 caliber projectile and was later modernized by the great John M. Browning himself with the 9.8mm Colt cartridge in the 1911 for the Romanian Army at the turn of the 20th Century.

Even further, the original design for the Hi-Power was as a striker-fired pistol chambered for a .40 caliber projectile replicating the 9.8mm Colt and the .38-40 Winchester. But Mr. Browning’s passing lead to the Hi-Power falling into the hands of ‎Dieudonné Saive (designer of the modern Hi-Power, SAFN/FN-49, FN FAL) who made it a 9mm.

Time marched on and folks toyed with the idea off and on until Paul Liebenberg of South Africa came to the United States. Many know him for his work in Smith & Wesson’s Performance Center and the excellent craftsmanship he he performed there. But when he first arrived in the US he started working for Pachmayr Gun Works where he worked on a side project known as the Centimeter Cartridge. It was to replace the .38 Super for IPSC purposes and was part of Whit Collins’s .40 G&A, the first .40 caliber auto cartridge.

Liebenberg left Pachmayr and founded his own company, Pistol Dynamics. From there he made a friend, Tom Campbell. The pair worked on the Centimeter Cartridge project and tried to get Smith interested in it. They were eventually successful. The president of the company at the time, Steve Melvin, approached Liebenberg about converting a couple of their new thrid generation 5906s. Liebenberg obliged and the .40 S&W we know today was born.

The energy of the .40 S&W exceeds that of standard-pressure .45 ACP loads, generating between 350 and 500 foot-pounds of energy, depending on bullet weight. Both the .40 S&W and the 9mm operate at a 35,000 pounds per square inch SAAMI maximum, compared to a 21,000 pounds per square inch maximum for .45 ACP.

The .40 S&W was originally loaded at subsonic velocity (around 980 ft/s (300 m/s)) with a 180gr bullet. Since its introduction, the cartridge has been marketed with a variety of loads, the majority being either 155, 165 or 180 grains.

The 9mm round truly reigns supreme now. That was solidified after the FBI decided to ditch the .40 S&W. But what many don’t realize is that the .40 S&W is actually still a better cartridge since the new FBI load is really just a re-hashed 147gr Speer Gold Dot load. The super-hot 9mm loads that internet commandos claim beats .40 S&W far exceeds the pressure curve due to these being +P+ loads.

There are three reasons for the .40 S&W’s superiority:

1. You can get mild loads that rival 9mm powder puff plinkers
2. It still has better barrier penetration than 9mm or .45 ACP
3. You can get loads that rival some 10mm loads

You can get all of the above in a compact, lightweight pistol that’s smaller than any 10mm and .45 ACP chambered gun. With my GLOCK 22 I get 15+1 in a gun that weighs less loaded than an empty 1911. Follow-up shots are easy and the pistol handles like an extension of my body. I compete in GSSF with my G22 and even bring out my G24 for bowling pin matches and hunting.

I carried a GLOCK 22 as my primary duty gun for the majority of my LE career and it never failed me. The .40 S&W has and will do the job. The gold standard 180gr JHP loads from Winchester, Speer, Remington, Hornady, and Cor-Bon are all dependable.

While some deride it as the amateur’s caliber, I believe it’s just the opposite. It’s increasingly the cartridge of the discriminating shooter, the true believer of the “master of one gun” mindset. You get compactness, capacity, power, and penetration all without the issues of excessive recoil or weight.

Some complain about the price of .40 S&W. It is more expensive these days, but its advantages justify the extra cost. Reloading it on a press is a breeze. With its flexibility, I can load powder puff plinkers or big game stoppers. I’ve actually used my G24 to hunt hogs and deer, and that’s with the factory 180gr Winchester Ranger SXT load.

For protection from armored meat eaters like Florida’s numerous gators, crocs, and bath salt-addicted zombies, the .40 S&W does the job there, too. A 200gr Hardcast Solid from Double Tap does the job against those pesky marine meat eaters and two-legged predators alike.

The fad of shooters jumping back to the 9mm seems to be a fait accompli at this point. It’s one of those things that gun owners inevitably go through from time to time (remember the .380 mouse gun craze?). Who knows? Soon 9mm may be viewed as weak and the tide will turn toward .45 ACP. Or 10mm. These things tend to change over time.

Meanwhile, the .40 S&W keeps chugging along after a third of a century of service. The cartridge isn’t going anywhere. Its popularity may wane and the cool guys may move on to something else, but this dyed-in-the-wool, tried-and-true devotees ain’t going anywhere. I’m sticking with .40 S&W and I thank you for leaving more options on store shelves for me when the next panic buying comes.



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