The Return of the 9mm (or Why I Hate 40 caliber)


One of the results of the fabled and oft studied Miami Shootout of 1986, where two FBI Agents lost their lives when attempting to take down two violent felons, was the conclusion that the 9mm round used by agents at the time failed to adequately perform its job to incapacitate its target. As a result, the .40 caliber round rose from the aftermath and eventually worked its way into law enforcement agencies across the nation, with the notion that it had the “capacity of a 9mm, and the stopping power of a 45.” But this alleged increase in terminal performance did not come for free. Over the years, the louder report and snappier recoil made it hard for many trainees and officers alike to qualify, the ammunition costs more (than 9mm), and there is increased wear on the pistol (as well as the hands and elbows of the shooter.)

Fast forward to 2014, and the same agency that shunned the 9mm two decades ago issued a solicitation for a family of 9mm pistols for its agents. This is not surprising, as I have always found the 40 caliber to have a very snappy recoil that was more fatiguing to shoot for extended periods of time than even a 45 caliber pistol. I found that 40 caliber pistols were more accurately characterized as “the stopping power of a 9mm with the recoil of a 45.” I say that in jest, but what I have learned is that with decades of advancement in ballistic technology, high performance handgun rounds in any major service pistol caliber have performed adequately in testing and the field, given the limitations of handgun calibers as a whole.The purpose of this piece is not to devolve into another 9mm vs 45 debate, as both calibers have merits. The point is that 9mm, when a proper defensive load is selected, is a solid performer that makes sense for police agencies and individual shooters. While ammunition prices have increased across the board, but 9mm remains the most economical cartridge of the big three. The decreased recoil means the shooter can shoot more often and longer with less fatigue and reduced risk of long term injury from wear and tear (such as tendinitis in the wrists and elbows.) Split times are generally reduced in 9mm thanks to reduced muzzle flip and recoil, and all things being equal, the shooter has less anticipation from recoil simply because there is less of it.

Police departments have recognized that 9mm is easier to shoot, since many agencies that mandate 40 caliber or 45 ACP will allow officers that have trouble with qualifications to switch to the 9mm in order to meet accuracy standards.

It is interesting to note that the rise of the 40 caliber among police agencies was also linked to the 1994 Crime Bill signed into law by then-President Biill Clinton. By the stroke of his pen, he turned a 15-round Glock 17 magazine (sorry, I meant 17-round magazine here that a kind FB reader pointed out – cranking out an article in the middle of the night means unintended typos/errors) into a $100-175 commodity on the open market, since all magazines manufactured after that magic date in 1994 were stamped and no longer legal for civilian ownership. Magazines owned prior to that date were still legal to be bought and sold. Firearms dealers and manufacturers recognized this, and realized police agencies were sitting on a gold mine of magazines. So they offered police departments a straight trade: brand new pistols chambered for the better 40 caliber cartridge with magazines in exchange for those tired 9mm pistols and their magazines. What a great deal for the police department, and an even better deal for the dealer.

Now that the sun has set for the Crime Bill for over a decade, this is no longer an issue and many departments are still using the same 40 caliber pistols since they are already in the system.

Regardless of why the 40 caliber has had such a meteoric rise, the fact remains that the best ballistic testing we have indicates that with modern high performance defensive ammunition, they all perform about the same. Are there differences? Sure, but they are minor. Skill at arms is a much more significant determining factor than ammunition or even pistol selection. Keeping that in perspective, I select my caliber based on terminal performance, capacity, cost, and my own ability to perform. So bust out that shot timer, hit the range, and choose accordingly.

This entry was posted in Ammunition by Tim Lau. Bookmark the permalink.

About Tim Lau

Tim Lau has over a decade of experience as an end user, armorer and instructor. He has worked for several well known firearms training organizations, and holds multiple firearms instructor certifications. He owns and operates 10-8 Consulting, LLC, which provides industry consulting services as well as marksmanship and specialized firearms training to qualified civilian, law enforcement and military personnel.

28 thoughts on “The Return of the 9mm (or Why I Hate 40 caliber)

  1. The 40S&W never bothered me until I developed tendinitis three years ago at a high round count class. Now I have to watch it when shooting my duty firearm at training. I’m 6’2 and lift on a regular basis but the 40 cal beats up my forearms. I use my 9mm whenever I can.

    • Thanks for sharing. Armchair warriors beat their chests about being handle the recoil but high round counts take their toll over the years on both the shooter and the gun. If you tell them to measure their performance (i.e. split times) with a timer at intermediate distances and they’ll just give you the ol’ deer in the headlights.

      • Yes, in my experience when someone says that they “shoot 40 as well as 9” they really mean they shoot 40 as poorly as 9, and they also mean shooting really slowly at a target really close.

  2. “… the louder report and snappier recoil made it hard for many trainees and officers alike to qualify …”

  3. I remember, in the late 1990s, desperately searching my local gun show and then paying $100 for a 15-round Glock 19 magazine. And being damn happy for being able to find it at all. Those few magazines are still running strong.

  4. Well stated, and IMHO dead on. Of course I would think that, since it’s pretty much the same opinion I share with people on the subject.
    Great minds and all that…..

  5. I don’t notice much of a difference with target ammo out of my M&Ps and Glocks as far as noise and recoil goes. The cost per box of 50 is only $1-$2 more, so I am stocked up on both. I do notice when I am shooting my dueling tree that the .40 always knock the steel around so that is a nice advantage. Also, why would anyone care what police agencies think? If you can’t make your own opinion, you need to shoot more.

    • I care what LEO’s shoot because they are a very large group of “beta-testers”, and if it works for them it will work for the common citizen. I transitioned from the .40S&W to a 9mm three years ago. I should mention that I never had any issues in qualifying with the .40, but I never enjoyed shooting it. If you take a look at “bud’s gun shop” you’ll notice that they only have .40 LE-trade-ins for sale–the 9mm is on the move.

  6. I have not fired my Glock 22 .40 cal much, (haven’t owned it long either), but I found that the 165 gr. bullets are fantastic, I fire the 180 gr. and my accuracy suffers, and the firearm does not handle well.

  7. Man you are really beating a dead horse here… Terminal ballistics plus capacity modern 9mm JHP in civilian scenarios beats 40/45 all day everyday.
    But i still carry FMJRN in a glock 21, just for that extra margin of feeding reliability

  8. In support, I love N frame revolvers, but they are poor choices (other than in .38/.357) for prolonged shooting. I also like .45acp and have carried .40S&W, but 9MM is easy to carry and shoot well. My wife isn’t recoil shy, but a 9MM is what often is what resides in her handbag, or is on her hip. And she will hit with it. The most important thing is to have a gun when you need one, be it .22 or .460 Wetherby Mag.

  9. I switched to 9mm after I ruptured a tendon sheath in my palm doing deadlifts. I could not shoot the .40S&W without extreme pain that was akin to carpal tunnel syndrome. I switched to 9mm because I could still shoot it, for my edc, got better hits and can carry more ammo with no hand or arm pain.

    9mm is the way to go. Millions of ghosts can’t be wrong.

  10. Hi, I´m IPSC shooter until 1984 and have shoot any kind caliber handgun from 9MM, 38 Super, 45 and 40 SW, and have participate in some many matches throught these years. I adopted THE .40SW at 1997 year as My preffered caliber because it a great power factor and accurate. So I can tell to that people that suffered injured with .40SW is because a bad grip o false shooting position. I have a lot of matches like the IPSC World Shooting and shot about 1,000 round in five days and never get any injurie. I suggest take a good Shooting instructor.
    Best Regards

    • Good for you. A bit presumtuous of you though, to proudly state that your sample size of one shooter, allows you to make the proclamation that everyone else is just shooting wrong.

    • J J,
      Are you reloading your .40? Equivalent to duty ammo? I’m speculating here, but I don’t think you are loading your IPSC rounds to duty spec. The article is based around agencies that issue full power duty ammunition. I can tell you from over a decade of experience with high volume of full power duty ammo, it has taken a toll on my elbows. I personally wouldn’t mind running .40 in competition for the PF, but I certainly would not load it to duty spec.

      • Hi Ray,
        the power factor of IPSC for load .40SW is 170; if means that a bullet with 180 grains must travel above 950 FPS, I reload my ammo usually travel 960FPS and 980FPS and give me a PF 175. it is very hard and above the duty spec.

  11. We made the switch after over a decade of trying. Street results are the same, remedials are down, and it is cheaper to shoot. That ” 1 to 2 $ ” difference doesn’t seem like much when you are buying a hundred rounds or so, but when you regularly purchase it by the pallet it adds up quick. Have to concur with the comment about the “I can handle it” comments. Sure, when your shooting fifty rounds a month. In our academy program the recruits are knocking out 2500-3000 rounds over a 48 hour block of training (four hours a pop spread out over 11 days ) It is not uncommon for me to shoot 500 rounds in a training day. Over the years, that has taken its toll. I’m over the half century mark now, and at about 300, even with 9 I start to feel it. .40 causes too much agony in my slowly developing arthritis. Love the .40? Rock on with it. Your choice and I don’t care. Just don’t delude yourself over its performance and more importantly, don’t spread myths.

    • Back when I was shooting a lot (for me), I shot about 1000 rounds a month. Since I have to pay for my own ammunition, that two dollars a box becomes $40 per case. That adds up quick for something that really doesnt buy me anything especially when shooting on the flat range.

    • Sounds like my old agency. A full 8 hours at the range twice a year. We were probably shooting 250-400 rounds each time. At the end of the day I would have to ice my hand down, it would be swollen from the recoil. And sit in the shower trying to recover.

  12. Years ago (’92-’94) when my agency of 2500+ officers transitioned to the GLOCK platform, we were issued either a 19 or a 26. The pistols ran just fine throughout the years and the 9mm did just fine in many OIS including one involving me. But the guns were getting a bit old…
    We fell into the “trap” Tim referred to: trade in all of those old and worn Gen2 and Gen3 pistols and their three magazines for the new Gen4 23/27. Holster and pouch compatibility. Same maintenance and operation. And better stopping power too! Such a deal.
    Scores are down, confidence is down, wear and tear on the shooters and pistols is up. The course of fire has been reduced from 60 rounds to 50 rounds (and made easier to boot) and a new box of fresh carry ammo now every third cycle as opposed to every cycle.
    Thanks Tim for a great article!

  13. IMHO…As an individual try out multiple handguns in whatever varied calibers that you like. Many ranges will rent handguns. The muzzle flip and felt recoil can vary between guns of the same caliber. Regardless of what the LEOs, military, or your favorite firearm instructor carry it is up to you to decide what works best for you. As example: My wife started as a LEO in the mid ’80s with a 357 wheelgun and before her retirement the big-city counties ran the gamut of 357, 9mm, 40, 45 mandated duty weapons plus whatever she qualified with to carry as backup and off duty. Her preference was/is the 45, she shot marksman in all caliber/weapons, and she is a small framed women. That does not mean you should run out and get your 5’4″ wife a sub-compact 45 (unless that is what she wants).
    Listen to the advice of the experts but don’t rely solely on that as a substitute for your own experience. Only you know what you are comfortable with.
    Above all, whatever caliber/weapon you choose, become proficient with it as though your life depends on it; one day it just might.

    • I agree that individuals should base their choices on what works for them. Unfortunately, what I’ve found is that most shooters, cops included (or maybe especially,) simply don’t have the experience or knowledge base to choose what is truly best for them. Subjective “feel” can be deceptive, and felt recoil effects may be due to errors in grip or technique. What seems to work best, may not be the best. But I agree, whatever ends up in your holster, shot placement is key and shooter proficiency is much more a determining factor than equipment choice.

Comments are closed.