Our patient was a heavily muscled young gladiator of the sort who frequents an urban emergency department. Stabbings and gunshot wounds are lamentable side effects of his day job. When he hobbled into the ER he had a bandana pressed against the lower right side of his abdomen yet seemed pleasant enough.
I forget the sordid details. Turf, drugs, or women accounted for the lion’s share of the chaos, so the impetus this evening was likely some toxic combination. Once we got him into the CT scanner we could see the 9mm round flattened against the back of his pelvis. The bullet had undoubtedly played holy havoc with the intervening entrails so the surgical residents got a laparotomy out of it, but I will never forget how calm he seemed. The round could have ricocheted or passed through some intervening barrier material to bleed a little horsepower, but its terminal effectiveness in this particular instance was decidedly underwhelming.
I have seen men killed with the 9mm round, but that experience with that thug in the ER made an impression. I like to shoot the 9mm because it is lightweight and fun. The round is cheap, produces modest recoil, and remains easy to carry. None of these attributes speaks to the crux of the issue, however, which is speedy incapacitation and expedient behavior modification.
The 9mm Parabellum is the most popular centerfire pistol cartridge in the world. Parabellum means, “If you seek peace, prepare for war.” Georg Luger contrived the round in 1902 to feed his eponymous toggle-locked handgun. 60% of the cops in America carry 9mm handguns, and the FBI relatively recently retired their .40-caliber weapons in favor of guns firing the smaller round. The 9mm is credited with the demise of the combat revolver in America in favor of high-capacity autoloading handguns.
In its military guise, the 9mm cartridge pushes a 124-grain metal-jacketed lead-cored projectile to about 1,150 feet per second. I have an acquaintance who shot a man in Iraq three times in the chest with his M9 Beretta handgun after an unfortunate surprise encounter in an alleyway. He then went on to develop a friendship with the hapless Iraqi after he recovered. When shooting ball ammo the 9mm never seemed to command respect in the ER.
The .45 ACP—Practical Tactical
This poor guy caught a .45ACP round to the head and was rapidly approaching room temperature when we met. The bullet separated from the jacket and went its own way, while the jacket lodged outbound between his skull and his scalp. The jagged scrap of copper measured 11mm on a piece of EKG paper. The job that thing did on that guy’s melon was the stuff of nightmares.
Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta employs some of the finest shooters on the planet. They called it the Combat Applications Group for a time. I think the Army’s pet name is Army Compartmented Element these days. JSOC calls it Task Force Green. The guys who actually serve there just call it “The Unit.” Delta is the best we can produce, and they are some rarefied warriors indeed. Their very existence is supposed to be a secret, but they have a Wikipedia page.
The Delta guys I bumped into back when I wore the uniform typically carried high-capacity 1911 handguns. Their pistols were built around Para-Ordnance frames and had all the bells and whistles. With 14+1 of .45ACP chaos onboard these were some of the most effective combat handguns in the world. They also must have been boat anchors to hump. I’m told there are more Glocks in those holsters nowadays, but these guys know guns and the .45ACP was their round.
The .45ACP was a John Moses Browning creation in 1905, and it pushed a bullet roughly twice as big as that of the original 9mm Parabellum. However, all that horsepower comes at a cost. The .45ACP is big and chunky to tote and a handful to run for those with modest mitts.
The .40S&W—The Grand Compromise
If there is a message to be found in the ignoble tale that follows it is that the sensible citizen should never try to run over a police officer with an automobile. The cop sidestepped the speeding car and fired a single .40-caliber round through the driver’s side window. The bullet struck the hapless felon in the chest and peeled open the left ventricle of his heart like a can opener. Had it happened in the operating room the guy still wouldn’t have survived. That high-performance police-issue expanding bullet performed exactly as it was intended. It passed through the glass, the dude’s shirt, his skin, and the intervening muscle without checking up before deploying like a miniature buzzsaw to thoroughly rearrange the guy’s chest cavity. It didn’t hurt long.
The .40S&W arose as the indirect result of the FBI’s 1986 Miami shootout. If you aren’t familiar with the details surf on over when you’re done here. Any student of small arms is well served to read up on it. Google is your buddy.
During the Miami shootout, two FBI special agents were killed and five wounded by a pair of bank robbers wielding a variety of weapons. One of the Bad Guys, in particular, took a 9mm round to the chest and went on to foment a great deal of mischief before he succumbed. With this as an impetus, S&W partnered with Winchester to produce the ideal Law Enforcement pistol round.
The resulting .40S&W was, in essence, a shortened 10mm auto cartridge. This rimless straight-walled round was short enough to fit into existing 9mm pistol frames yet pushed a 165-grain bullet to more than 1,100 feet per second. In many cases converting between 9mm and .40S&W was as simple as exchanging the barrel and magazine. The resulting magazine capacity was typically reduced from 2 to 4 rounds, but this interchangeability meant easier maintenance and a convenient transition for officers already familiar with the platform.
.40S&W does inevitably offer greater recoil than the 9mm but remains more pleasant than the .45ACP. There were some teething problems but in general, the .40S&W has lived up to its press releases. Why then might the FBI and 60% of American Law Enforcement agencies be switching back to the 116-year-old 9mm Parabellum when the .40S&W was specifically designed to replace it?
Technology Marches On
The three anecdotes related above represent a comically small sample size. I have seen a guy survive being shot with a .45ACP to the torso and another paralyzed for life with a .25ACP to the neck. Shot placement is everything, and bullet design is indeed a combat multiplier. However, there’s way more to it than that. No handgun round will reliably guarantee one-shot stops.
Most of the thugs I have encountered feed their cheap crappy guns the cheapest ball ammo they can steal. As a result, the downrange effects can indeed be underwhelming. By contrast, trained Law Enforcement Officers running the finest antipersonnel rounds money can buy generally find their tools to be markedly more effective.
In 2014 the FBI produced a report that detailed how improvements in powder efficiency and bullet design had generated 9mm performance that was in some cases superior to comparable .40S&W and .45ACP Law Enforcement loads. Given that 9mm ammo is cheaper and produces less recoil, this equates out to less expensive training and better accuracy, particularly with small-statured officers. As a direct result, Law Enforcement agencies across our great republic seem to be tripping over themselves to trade out their .40S&W handguns for the 9mm sort.
Statistically, trained Law Enforcement Officers shooting under the stress of a life or death situation connect with their targets with one round in five. As a result, a softer-shooting handgun that yields better follow up accuracy can itself render a combat advantage so long as penetration is adequate. However, that takes us full circle to Miami, wherein a determined assailant hit in the chest with a bullet that rendered adequate penetration went on to kill two federal agents before he expired. What conclusions should we mere civilians draw from all this?
The Real Skinny
Whenever I am not asleep or in the shower I am invariably armed, but I’m not a cop. I carry my handguns concealed or in a vehicle and don’t expect to engage an armed assailant as part of my day job. However, I have a difficult time getting past the image of that guy standing in the exam room with the bandana on his groin.
The 2014 FBI report is itself fascinating reading, and it makes some great points. However, I’m personally not quite ready to cash in my .40’s for something smaller. I have carried most everything at one point or another, and I do prefer toting a compact 9mm as I wander through my daily sojourn. However, when I travel or am someplace static the game changes. If I have two otherwise identical handguns sitting on the table, one in 9mm and the other in .40S&W, it’s most typically the .40 that ends up in the center console of the truck.
A Few Options
Most popular modern combat handguns sport polymer frames and striker-fired triggers. The Glock 22 is the industry standard. The Glock 22 packs 15 rounds in its magazine and sports the raked grip-to-frame angle and low bore axis for which Glock has become justifiably famous. The sole external safety is a blade in the trigger, and the gun is arguably the most reliable autoloading handgun ever made.
The Smith and Wesson M&P offers an oblique grip-to-frame angle more akin to that of the 1911 and a pivoting safety as part of the trigger body. The M&P has interchangeable palm swells and a 15-round magazine. The M&P comes standard with steel sights and is a dream on the range.
The Steyr L40A1 is the “Other Austrian Combat Pistol.” Featuring the same raked grip-to-frame angle and low bore axis as the Glock, the L40A1 has an extended slide and barrel for enhanced accuracy. Magazine capacity is limited to 12 rounds, but the gun looks like it fell off the set of a science fiction movie.
The HK VP40 offers the most customizable grip of any combat pistol in the world with three interchangeable backstraps and six side panels of various thicknesses. The slide also includes polymer ears the company calls “charging supports” to enhance your grip when sweaty or rushed. There is the obligatory trigger safety, and the gun is available in black or FDE. The VP40 carries 13 rounds in its magazine. The VP40 is the most expensive gun of the four profiled, but it also sports a legendarily smooth crisp trigger.
All things being equal I shoot a bit better with a .40S&W than I do a .45ACP. I also shoot a little bit better with a 9mm than a .40S&W. However, taken to an illogical extreme, I shoot even better than that with a decent .22LR. Life is all about compromises, and the .40S&W was designed from the outset to balance power and portability. As a result, I think until I can lay my hands on a phased plasma rifle in the 40-watt range I’ll hang onto my full-sized .40-caliber handguns. They all punch deep, but the .40 seems intuitively destined to make bigger holes.
Glock 22 S&W M&P Steyr L40A1 HK VP40
Caliber .40S&W .40S&W .40S&W .40S&W
Barrel Length 4.49in 4.25in 4.5in 4.09in
Overall Length 8.03in 7.6in 7.4in 7.34in
Weight 25.59oz 27.9oz 28.8oz 28.93oz
Mag Capacity 15 15 12 13
MSRP NP $569 $575 $719
About the Author – Will was born and raised in the Mississippi Delta, having been immersed in hunting and the outdoors since his earliest recollections. He holds a degree in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Mississippi and is the product of a traditional American nuclear family. Where most normal American kids get drunk to celebrate their 21st birthday, Will bought his first two machineguns.
Will served eight years as an Army Aviator and accumulated more than 1,100 flight hours piloting CH47D, UH1H, OH58A/C, and AH1S helicopters. He is scuba qualified, has parachuted out of perfectly good airplanes at 3 o’clock in the morning, and has summited Mt. McKinley, Alaska–the highest point in North America–six times (at the controls of a helicopter, which is the only way sensible folk climb mountains). For reasons that seemed sagacious at the time he ultimately left the Army as a Major to pursue medical school.
Dr. Dabbs has for the last dozen years owned the Urgent Care Clinic of Ox-ford, Mississippi. He also serves as the plant physician for the sprawling Winchester ammunition plant in that same delightful little Southern town. Will is a founding partner of Advanced Tactical Ordnance LLC, a licensed 07/02 firearms manufacturer and has written for the gun press for a quarter century. He writes solely to support a shooting habit that is as insensate as it is insatiable. Will has been married to his high school sweetheart for more than thirty years. He and his wife currently have three adult children and a most thoroughly worthless farm dog named Dog.