Cartridge of the Week, the .40 Caliber Smith & Wesson, .40 SW

Few cartridges can have an iconic tag. What is rarer is when experts call a cartridge iconic when still in its infancy. Twenty years is just an infancy when it comes to the world of cartridges. Of all the ones we have reviewed, this is the baby of the bunch. However, the baby has achieved as close to perfection as perfection can be. Perfection is the .40 Smith & Wesson.

The .40 Smith and Wesson

A little lesson in physics. Don’t run for cover—we will make it very simple. The ultimate goal of a cartridge is to launch a bullet with enough energy to give us the desired result. For target practice, that is accuracy as well as precision. The two are not the same. That discussion is for another time and for target shooters, when the goal is repeat performance. Whereas, for those who are shooting something other than paper – getting the most bang for your buck- then Kinetic Energy is what we need to know a little more about.

Kinetic Energy – It is that simple

Kinetic Energy is the result of half the mass times the velocity squared or K=1/2MV². Let us make it even simpler. The weight of the bullet is the mass; how fast it goes is the velocity. That means if you have a 100-grain bullet you will only be able to use half of the weight in the formula thus M=50. However, with velocity, it is the square of the feet per second. Therefore, 1000 fps becomes 1000×1000=1,000,000 and V=1,000,000. Thus Kinetic Energy is K=50×1,000,000. With a little more math, we can arrive at the foot pounds of energy, but I will spare you that for now, as our brains are hurting.

It should be simple; the faster the bullet, the better, right? Here in lies the rub. Fast things tend to go through things and continue onward. When a bullet passes through the intended target, it has wasted its potential energy and is free to hit other non-intended targets. So, a big slow bullet is the best as all energy expends into the target. Not so fast now, as penetration is essential in bullets to cause internal damage to the target for the quickest incapacitation possible.

9mm vs 45 ACP. Velocity vs Mass

Now we arrive at the century-old argument of 9mm versus the .45 ACP. Is it the little and fast, or the big and relatively slow? During the late 1980s, several civilian law enforcement encounters rendered revolvers obsolete. This was due in part to to the lack of firepower and ammunition capacity. Furthermore, the 9mm, in its U.S. civilian infancy, had the firepower but lacked the stopping power required to end shootouts as soon as possible. Please spare me the hate mail;I know there really is no true knock-down power. Nevertheless, when a mule kicks you may not go down, but you will probably have some trouble while making those follow-up shots. However, big .45s lack the firepower and penetration of the 9mm.

.40 Smith and Wesson

The FBI sent manufactures back to the drawing board. There was a brief courtship with the 10mm but it didn’t last through the honeymoon. The 10mm was close, but it required too much gun for the average law enforcement officer to carry. In June 1989, a joint venture between Winchester and Smith & Wesson went to work to find that perfect balance of weight, mass, firepower, and consistent energy transfer. The new cartridge had to boast some big thump in a reasonable package.

This was a monumental task for this R&D group, which a Mr. Bersett oversaw at Winchester and a Mr. Melvin at Smith & Wesson. However, the result changed civilian law enforcement side arms across the country. The result was the .40 Caliber Smith & Wesson or the .40 S&W. We have a cartridge that can launch a 185-grain bullet, a lighter .45 ACP, at speeds close to that of the 9mm, over 1,000 feet per second.

Glock 22 .40 S&W

The next task and one still in progress is to design a weapon that can contain this mighty mouse. All internet hype aside, the Glock craze has enveloped this cartridge and with the Glock 22 in .40 S&W, it has become the weapon of Choice of the majority of all police agencies for their patrol officer. Smith & Wesson makes an equally good weapon in the M&P 40. It would be hard to choose between these two firearms.

The truth is that the majority of our story about this cartridge has yet to be written as it goes through it growing pains. Nevertheless, in my humble opinion, it is the best out there at this time. No other current caliber possess the best blend of mass, velocity, and thus energy transfer as the .40 Smith and Wesson. Now I just need some Christmas money to get one!

Small but Effective
The Mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!'s blog, The Shooter's Log, is to provide information—not opinions—to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (21)

  1. Love my .40 glock model 23. Shoot 180 grn rds. I wouldn’t want to get hit with it for sure! I like it more than my .45 glock model 36. Wouldn’t want hit with it either! The model 23 glock is perfect. Shoots great, perfect hand fit, throws a bullet at roughly 1085 fps .it will do the job for sure.

  2. I’m a civilian with zero LEO or military experiance and with my G23 in .40 I can hit an IDPA Zone D torso 8 out of 10 shots from 50 yds using a standard Isosceles stance (no rest or cheating)… many of which hit the “A” zone. So I have to call BS on the .40 not being accurate!!! If you need more accuracy than that you should be using a rifle anyway IMHO.

  3. I love my S&W model 411 in .40 caliber. You can shoot everything from a 9mm like 135 grain @ 1325 fps (581 ft.lbs.) to a .45 caliber like 200 grain @ 1116 fps (553 ft. lbs.) and everything in between. Which is plenty of stopping power in a lightweight small frame pistol (unlike the 10mm or 1911). While as someone else mentioned a .22LR may indeed bring somebody down with one PERFECTLY PLACED round. I would be willing to bet that MOST TIMES that doesn’t happen. Remember that the longer the bad guy is still mobile, he’ll be looking to cause you or your family harm. I’d rather he be put down sooner than later. Just my .02 worth of course…

  4. @Joe i’m laughing, as those were the arguments used when the .40 was first adopted….clearly you don’t shoot otherwise you’d realize that it makes NO MORE NOISE than any other caliber of gun (with the exception obviously, of the .22lr) it is no more unpleasant to shoot than any other large caliber.

    @Will Wallace i will take the challenge. drop me an e-mail and i will give you my city, state, and phone number so you can call when you get here. also unlike you (as i’m sure you’ll be wearing your u.s. palm civilian body armor) i’ll leave my ceramic body armor (government issue) at home, and give you a fair shot……also i’ll TRY to forget my real life combat experience in afghanistan, iraq, and elsewhere throughout the world so that you can have a shot. you feel that confident drop me an e-mail. otherwise crawl back under your rock and target practice some more until you get good.

    as for the rest….i love my .45, carried a 1911 for a long time, but now that i have spinal compression, i have issues with the weight of my .45 for anything other than short term (going to dinner etc.) so i had to search for a lightweight gun i could carry with the same stopping power. consequently a glock chambered in .40 s and w was the choice. coupled with hornady xtp critical defense it makes a wonderful combination….ballistic tests i conducted through standard layers of clothing into ballistic gel yeilded wound channels of a VERY desirable size and depth.

  5. Loud, unpleasant to shoot, pushing the pressure limits as far as possible, not any more accurate (actually probably less inherentky accurate) than the 9 or .45. I have never had a use or need for this caliber.

  6. I’ll never understand why folks hate on the .40SW. Better stopping power than the 9mm, higher capacity magazine than the .45. I LOVE my 2 1911s, but as a carry weapon it’s just to much for me (I’m only 5’2 and have hips (like most women) that get in the way of a big gun. I can use them in competition where the discomfort is temporary, but for me anyway, the 1911 is uncomfortable to carry all day.

    I own a Glock 23 and an H&K USP Tactical in .40SW. They are both fantastic guns, smaller than a 1911, and the increased “kick” over a 9mm is negligible. the 23 is my carry gun, the USP is our home defense gun. LOVE 40SW.

  7. These type of debates are truly BS as we all have an opinion. Here’s the deal – shot placement. I’ve seen a single shot 22 drop a man to the floor. We all have preferences. I like 9mm for many reasons. The only real test for all you chest thumpers with your glock 40’s is 20 paces against me & a Ruger P95 9mm… no takers? We can put this to bed about ALL caliber comparisons forever… NOBODY?!… I didn’t think so.

  8. i own a s&w model 410 chambered in .40s&w and in my experience with doing police work in the military and civilian world and armed security work utilizing a variety of different fire arms and calibers. the .40s&w is the best all around cartridge for a balance of stopping power and lethality with weapon size and rounds availability during an active shooter response or other life threat

  9. Well, that brings us back to the 10mm, which truly is the perfect cartridge, possessing the very best attributes of the 9mm and the .45 with the stopping power that comes with the additional 300fps velocity on a 180 grain bullet. The only thing the 10mm lacks is a wide variety of guns which chamber it.

  10. I get a lot of arguments on this but the .40S&W actually has MORE bullet energy (“disabling power”, if you will) than all except one of the .45ACP loads (look at a ballistics table). And the .40 has more magazine capacity than the .45ACP and it is more accurate. Don’t get me wrong — I love my 1911 .45 for nostalgic purposes and my 9mm for a tiny Concealed Carry weapon but for everything else, I own EIGHT .40 S&W’s — it truely is a great cartridge!
    (For those who might be curious, my eight .40’s are: Ruger P-94; Beretta 9000; Beretta 96G; two Beretta 96D’s; Glock 22; Beretta PX4 Storm Compact; and Kahr CW40).

  11. I am deeply endebted to my Glock 23, which shoots the 40S&W. It worked so well when I need it to that I bought 2, one for each hand. In my opinion there is nothing like a 40S&W comming out of a Glock 23. One in each hand is 28 rounds of terror to the receiver.
    The 9mm is a fast bullet but no stopping power. Because of the lack of stopping power the mags mags are very large in capacity and need to be.
    I like the 45APC of course but some guns mags are shy on the capacity side.

  12. I love my Springfield XD-40 compact. Concealable, a bit top heavy, but very manageable. With the smaller mag it is a 10 plus 1. After reading about the 40 and the 45 caliber it was not difficult to decide on the 40 s&w. I wish I had your article first, but I came to the same conclusion. The Springfield XD has done a great job with muzzel flip; the only problem with the larger calibers. Good article,thanks.

  13. I remember all the excitement when the .40 was introduced. At the time I was a prosecutor and I carried a gun. Now in private practice I still do. With all the talk about riots on election day, I added a Glock 23 to my .40 lineup to supplement my Glock 27. Give Marshall and Sannow’s data on bullet performance, the .40 is a solid choice and an improvement over the 9mm in a similar-sized pistol. The recoil is pleasant, the round is accurate and the street performance is admirable. NATO should switch to the .40 and go with a Glock or Sig and dump the Beretta because we will be fighting in the dessert for the foreseeable future.

  14. I own a S&W 40 caliber Sigma Series. I love the 14 round clip that comes with it. So that’s 15 shots before loading another clip.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Your discussions, feedback and comments are welcome here as long as they are relevant and insightful. Please be respectful of others. We reserve the right to edit as appropriate, delete profane, harassing, abusive and spam comments or posts, and block repeat offenders. All comments are held for moderation and will appear after approval.

Discover more from The Shooter's Log

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading