Police departments have shifted away from the .40 S&W. Here's why.
In the history of metallic cartridges, the 40 S&W is unique. Like a boy band pushed to prominence by millions of teenage girls, cops across the United States made the .40 S&W incredibly popular. Shortly after its introduction in 1990 it was the most popular cartridge for the law enforcement handgun. However, it turned out the .40 S&W’s half-life was only about 25 years. It’s quarter century reign as the policemen’s pistol was ended by the very agency that inspired its creation.
Birth of the .40 S&W
The 1986 FBI shootout in Florida was a pivotal event as far as defensive handguns are concerned. The failure of a single 9mm bullet prompted the FBI to begin a comprehensive study and experimentation into the terminal performance of defensive handgun ammunition. Initially, the agency concluded that a downloaded 10mm cartridge offered the best terminal performance. This prompted Smith & Wesson to team with Winchester Ammunition to develop the .40 S&W pistol cartridge. The idea was to create a shortened version of the 10mm that would fit in handguns sized for the 9mm.
.40 S&W Advantages
The .40 S&W offered a balance of performance and capacity right between the 9mm and the .45 ACP. In terms of velocity and energy, the .40 S&W’s common 180-grain load split the difference between the best 9mm and .45 loads. In duty size handguns the .40 S&W allowed for a capacity that was 15 percent greater than the .45, and only 11 percent less than the 9mm. And the .40 S&W recoiled about 18 percent more than a 9mm but about 13 percent less than a .45. If a compromise between the two most popular defensive handgun cartridges was what you wanted, the numbers said the .40 S&W was the answer.
During the .40 S&W’s reign – 1995 to 2015 – there were some other things that were happening that would ultimately lead to the cartridge’s fall from grace. By exploiting the performance characteristics of individuals cartridges, bullet engineers eliminated the small terminal performance differences between the 9mm and .40 S&W. With the popularity of civilian concealed carry climbing, so too did the demand for ultra-compact, high-capacity pistols. And finally, the physical makeup of law enforcement officers began to shift from burly men to something better representing a cross section of our population.
Shot Placement is King
With the projectiles we have today, and the ultimate realization that shot placement is maybe most important when it comes to stopping bad guys, the slight terminal performance advantage the .40 S&W offered was marginalized. Civilians wanting to carry concealed all day, every day, know that in the ultra-compact guns that are the easiest to carry, a 9mm provides the most capacity. They also know that in these itty-bitty guns, .40 S&W recoil was substantially harder to control. With these same realizations, the FBI concluded that their agents could get better hits, quicker, and that were just as effective, if they carried 9mm handguns that would also hold more ammunition.
FBI Goes Back to the 9mm
For all these reasons, in 2015 the FBI announced it was returning to the 9mm pistol as the issue sidearm for its agents. This was a change-the-world decision. Today, seven years after the FBI’s revelation, most major law enforcement agencies have also reverted to the 9mm. This major shift in police practice quickly bled over to the civilian world. And this, especially combined with the civilian demand for ultra-compact, high-capacity, concealed carry handguns, put the .40 S&W in its coffin.
Ironically, as the .40 S&W began to slide into oblivion, we began to see a resurgence in the popularity of the 10mm, the cartridge from which the .40 S&W was spawned. Much of the rejuvenated interest in the 10mm is associated with hunting. But just this year Smith & Wesson and Springfield-Armory both introduced new 10mm handguns and one of them is even a compact pistol. Similarly, the number of new loads offered for the 10mm has been increasing ever since the FBI abandoned the .40.
The .40 S&W is not dead; but as every day passes it’s like a new nail is being pounded into its coffin. Without law enforcement support, and with the current concealed carry phenomena sweeping the country, there’s no real place left for the .40 S&W to thrive. It’s still every bit as good – with modern munitions it’s even better – as it was when it was introduced in 1990, but for today’s cops and armed civilians, that “good” is just not good enough.