A Critical Look at Police Pistol Cartridges

Mike Boyle

Since the early part of the 20th century, the quest for the ultimate law enforcement handgun cartridge has generated all sorts of debates.

For the better part of that time, the .38 Special reigned supreme and it wasn’t until the wholesale switch away from revolvers to semiautomatic pistols that the picture began to change. By the late 1980s, departments all over the country were transitioning to autopistols and, more often than not, they were chambered for the 9mm Parabellum.

Although autopistols had been on the scene for many years, American law enforcement was slow to embrace them. Much of it had to do with the fact that they weren’t especially reliable, especially when fed a diet of hollow point ammunition. The turning point occurred when the US Armed Forces began searching for a 9mm pistol to replace the 1911 and began a process of reviewing more modern designs. Securing this bid would be a windfall and the world’s major handgun manufacturers rose to the challenge and came up with some very reliable designs to submit for the trials. Just about all of them were equipped with a double-action trigger system and magazine capacity twice that of the 1911. In the end, Beretta secured the contract with their Model 92 (M9) which served for over 30 years.

 In fairly short order, there was a wide selection of reliable, self-loading pistols available and they immediately captured the attention of the law enforcement and commercial markets. The vast majority were chambered for the 9mm, a mid-bore cartridge with power levels similar to the .38 Special.

On April 11, 1986, an event occurred which forever changed the police perspective on ammunition and handguns. In Dade County, Florida, seven FBI agents went up against a pair of hardcore bank robbers in a gunfight which lasted several minutes. In the end, two agents were killed, four were wounded and both criminals were killed. In the aftermath, it was determined that one of the criminals took a hit to the chest early in the gunfight which caused a nonsurvivable wound. Unfortunately, it did not cause instantaneous incapacitation. Had the bullet penetrated just a bit deeper on this cross torso shot, more than likely it would have resulted in a quicker stop which would have averted much of this tragedy.

More Is Better

In their assessment of the Dade County shootout, the FBI identified the lack of penetration of a Winchester® 115-grain hollow point as a contributing factor in the failure to bring this conflict to a quick resolution. There, of course, are other factors which came into play, but the Bureau soon dedicated a great deal of their resources to coming up with the ideal law enforcement cartridge and handgun. Over the next several years, the FBI conducted extensive testing on the available handgun cartridges. Their test protocol involved firing rounds into calibrated 10% ballistic gelatin to test for penetration and expansion. Rounds were fired into bare gelatin and through barriers common in police action shootings, such as heavy clothing, windshield glass and sheet metal, and into the gelatin to assess performance. Expansion and penetration between 12 and 18 inches was considered optimum.

To cut right to the chase, there wasn’t a great deal of ammunition available 30 years ago which met the FBI standard, but that began to change. The ammunition manufacturers were soon turning out premium quality loads to meet the challenge and today’s offerings represent a quantum leap in performance over what was available in the past.

There is absolutely no question that the FBI has a great deal of influence on American law enforcement agencies. Most of us were more than a bit surprised when the FBI selected a mid-range 10mm load along with the S&W 1076 pistol for general issue to their agents. Overnight, the concept of “bigger is better” had taken hold and many outfits began to second-guess the capabilities of their 9mm pistols. In 1990, the picture became even more complicated with the introduction of the .40 S&W cartridge which duplicated the performance of the mid-range 10mm. The factor which put the .40 S&W over the top was the fact that it could be chambered in a 9mm size platform, unlike the 10mm which requires a larger frame.

There were still quite a few agencies out there which couldn’t see the point of reinventing the wheel and felt a .45 ACP pistol was still the way to go. The true believers of the FBI test protocol were quick to note that the better .45 ACP loads were right at the top of the heap and we were clearly in the “bigger is better” era. Over the next few years, law enforcement agencies began swapping out their 9mm pistols for copies in .40 S&W and .45 ACP. The odd thing about it was the fact that it had very little to do with street performance.

A Reversal of Fortune

Just when you thought the 9mm was headed for the scrap pile, the tide began to turn as a number of factors came into play. As indicated earlier, .40 S&W pistols are essentially 9mm designs with a bigger hole in the end of the barrel. That may sound all well and good on the surface, but when you are firing a fairly intense, high pressure cartridge with a heavier bullet, things are going to break. And they did! Many of the first generation .40s turned out to be absolute train wrecks, while their identical size 9mm cousins ran like tops. I would submit that the manufacturers finally got the bugs worked out and today’s .40 S&Ws are pretty solid performers. But, service life will never be as long as an identical size 9mm.

Quite frankly, I have lost track of the various “ammo shortages” we have suffered over the last dozen years or so, but, rest assured, when demand returns to normal, there will be a significant price increase. This may not be a big deal for the individual officer buying a box or two, but it is a very big deal for departments which buy tens of thousands of rounds. Locally, the price for .40 S&W and .45 ACP was roughly 30% higher than 9mm.

One thing there is absolutely no getting away from is the fact that the bigger bores have a greater recoil impulse and more pronounced muzzle flip. For the gun guys and girls, this is not an issue. But, exactly what percentage of your officers are committed shooters? I daresay, most cops only go to the range when they are paid to do so. Even the less committed shooters will still be able to qualify on a slow-paced course of fire, but I would submit that only represents part of the picture. Can they efficiently control that pistol when shooting at “game speed” in a real-world confrontation? And, what about challenged shooters who, time after time, barely squeak by? For many, there may in fact be some significant benefits to shooting a user-friendly cartridge such as the 9mm Parabellum.

Back to the Future

Let’s fast-forward to the present time. Two decades ago, the .40 S&W was the most popular cartridge used by police. Just about all of the 14 or so local agencies which used my range were carrying .40 caliber pistols, as were many of the federal agencies. But, today, the 9mm is once again king of the hill. So exactly what brought about this 180 degree turn?

The resurgence of the 9mm came about largely because of a combination of the factors outlined earlier. Without question, running the .40 S&W cartridge in a 9mm size pistol will accelerate wear and shorten service life. Exactly how much is open to suggestion, but I suspect that increased wear will be significant. On the other hand, most cops simply don’t shoot their pistols enough for that to be an issue. If you only fire a couple hundred rounds a year, that pistol may last an entire career.

We would be naïve to think that cost doesn’t enter into the picture. Pistols chambered for 9mm and .40 S&W generally command the same price. When you consider tight training budgets, the 9mm starts to make more sense and literally gives you more bang for the buck.

Like many agencies, the FBI settled on the .40 S&W back in the 1990s. Unlike smaller departments, the FBI has the resources to conduct extensive studies on firearms, ammunition and human performance. We may not always agree with the results, but the Bureau typically gets all their ducks in a row before stating their case.

A few years back, the FBI began evaluating shooter performance with pistols chambered for 9mm and .40 S&W. What they discovered was that shooters of average ability were able to shoot the 9mm copy significantly better than a .40. They did acknowledge that the .40 S&W cartridge still holds a slight advantage in terminal performance, but this is largely overshadowed by the fact that the shooters performed to a higher standard with the 9mm pistol. Improved ammunition capabilities in 9mm also narrowed the performance gap.

One can’t help noting that, in the not so distant past, the FBI was telling us to go big. But much has changed in the last 30 years. Since the original FBI test protocol, handgun ammunition performance has increased by leaps and bounds. Premium loads such as Federal HST, Hornady® Critical Duty®, Remington® Golden Saber®, Speer Gold Dot®, and Winchester Ranger® SXT® strike an ideal balance between penetration and expansion – even when fired through barriers common in police action shootings. Quite frankly, there is nothing out there now, or in the foreseeable future, which will stop an armed assailant with a single hit, but terminal performance is just about as good as it can get.

Weird Science

I own pistols chambered for 9mm, .40 S&W and .45 ACP and have shot them quite a bit. Like many baby boomers, I grew up with the notion that bigger was indeed better and this thought process carried over to firearms. Personally, I never felt that the .40 S&W or .45 ACP were hard kickers and certainly more pleasant to shoot than my old .357 Magnum service revolver. However, I did discover that those larger caliber pistols had a cumulative effect when you fired several hundred rounds in a single session.

When firing some of the dynamic drills in our training, I also noted my elapsed times with my .40 caliber pistol was just a tad or two slower than when firing the same drill with a 9mm. These drills consist of a relatively modest round count and emphasize striking a balance between speed and practical accuracy. Depending on the scenario, more than one target might be utilized and may be obstructed or moving. Targets are set at relatively short range. No matter how hard I bear down, I always seem to run the 9mm pistol faster.

In an attempt to quantify this, I conducted a simple test. Three service-size pistols were used, including a GLOCK® 17 9mm, a GLOCK 22 .40 S&W and a GLOCK 21 .45 ACP. All of the pistols sported high visibility aftermarket sights and Ghost Inc. five pound connectors. Service quality ammunition was used throughout the test and consisted of Federal 9mm 124-grain HST, Federal .40 S&W 180-grain HST, and Black Hills Ammunition .45 ACP JHP.

Five repetitions of three different exercises were performed with each pistol and firing was done from a low ready, muzzle depressed position to eliminate holster bias. An electronic shot timer was used to start each firing sequence and no “warm-ups” were allowed. Pistols were fired in a random order to avoid stacking the deck.

The drills used were as follows:

  • Phase One: three yards – two shots in one second using strong hand only
  • Phase Two: five yards – three shots in 1.5 seconds using two hands
  • Phase Three: seven yards – four shots in two seconds using two hands

Forty shots were fired from each pistol and I was able to make the par times by a comfortable margin. The name of the game was to place all hits inside the A zone of an IPSC. The A zone may not be anatomically correct, but it’s smaller than the high value area of most police targets. I wish I could report that I scored an A zone hit with every shot fired, but that wasn’t the case. Oddly enough, I scored the highest point value (596 out of a possible 600 points) with the .45 ACP pistol, but posted the slowest overall time. Performance with the .40 S&W pistol was very close to the .45 ACP. Much to my chagrin, my point total with the 9mm pistol was the worst with 589 points, although I posted the fastest total elapsed time.

What does all this mean? As I suspected, the light kicking 9mm is easier to control when firing at speed. My less than stellar performance with the 9mm can probably be attributed to overconfidence and the results may be slightly different if I repeated the test on a different day. I may have lost a step or two over the years, but I probably shoot a pistol more than most. With an infrequent shooter, the performance disparity between the 9mm and big bore pistols would probably be greater.

Déjà Vu

A good argument can be made that the 9mm Parabellum is still the best pistol cartridge for the law enforcement professional. The law enforcement workplace has grown more diverse in recent years and this moderate recoiling cartridge will prove much easier to manage for shooters of every skill level.

Both the .40 S&W and .45 ACP cartridges remain viable choices and, if truth be told, I’m not down on either one. There is just no getting around the fact that they buck in the hand just a little more, but that may not be a factor for a great many officers. However, when outfitting large numbers of officers of different sizes, skill levels and aptitudes, the 9mm is the clear choice.

Cartridges such as the 10mm, .357 SIG, and .45 GAP all had their ten minutes of fame, but have pretty much vanished from the law enforcement scene. At the 2020 SHOT Show® , I couldn’t help but note that many of the new variations in autopistols were only offered in 9mm with no .40 S&W variants being made. Before the recent panic buying of firearms, the used gun market was awash with used police .40 caliber pistols. That pretty much tells us where we are headed. The fact that the 9mm boasts a larger onboard ammunition capacity, is cheaper to run, and allows shooters to perform to the best of their abilities has sealed the deal.

Captain Mike Boyle served with the New Jersey Division of Fish & Wildlife, Bureau of Law Enforcement, and has been an active firearms instructor for more than 30 years. He has been an assistant police academy director and remains active as an academy rangemaster and instructor. Mike has served on the Board of Directors of the International Association of Law Enforcement Firearms Instructors (IALEFI) since 1996. He is the architect and coordinator of IALEFI’s Master Instructor Development Program.