40 S&W: Dead Cartridge or Useful Round?

It’s a frequently asked question and, in fact, you might have had the thought yourself when you saw the article title: Isn’t 40 S&W dead and gone? Is it relevant at all? Some of those answers come down to a matter of opinion but a lot is also based on fact, and that’s where we come in with a pile of facts sprinkled with some op-ed details.

9mm vs 40 S&W
Is 40 S&W still a relevant cartridge or has it been totally replaced by 9mm? (Photo credit: AmmunitiontoGo.com)

Wondering if 40 S&W is worth your time? We think it is, and we’ll tell you why. First, let’s take a look at why and how the cartridge came about in the first place.

1986 FBI Miami Shootout

The headline of the Miami Herald in the aftermath of the 1986 FBI Miami Shootout.
The headline of the Miami Herald in the aftermath of the 1986 FBI Miami Shootout. (Photo credit: Flashback Miami)

1986 FBI Miami Shootout

It’s impossible to talk about 40 S&W without mentioning the 1986 FBI Miami Shootout. The event that’s so commonly referenced when talking about tactics and caliber took place on April 11, 1986, in Dade County, Florida. On that day a pair of violent serial bank robbers—William Matix and Michael Platt—was spotted by FBI field agents who were searching for the murderous team. Matix and Platt had shot and murdered people, robbed banks, and otherwise been breaking the law for some time.

14 FBI agents were involved in the rolling stakeout looking for the criminals and of those, eight were present for the shootout. Although this firefight is an event worth learning about, we’re going to keep it brief in this context. The shootout lasted about five minutes and in that short time, at least 145 shots were fired.

Miami shootout guns
A look at the guns used during the FBI Miami Shootout. The criminal’s four firearms are on the orange mat while the agents’ guns circle it. Some guns pictured weren’t used by the agents during the firefight. (Photo credit: FBI Database via Recoil Web)

Matix and Platt were armed with the following weapons:

  • Ruger Mini-14 (5.56 NATO/223 Remington)
  • Smith & Wesson Model 3000 (12 gauge)
  • Smith & Wesson Model 586 (357 Magnum)
  • Dan Wesson revolver (357 Magnum)

As for the field agents, they were armed with:

  • Remington 870 (12 gauge)
  • Smith & Wesson Model 459 (9mm)
  • Smith & Wesson Model 36 (38 Special)
  • Smith & Wesson Model 19 (357 Magnum)
  • Smith & Wesson Model 686 (357 Magnum)
  • Smith & Wesson Model 10 (38 Special)
9mm handgun owned by Special Agend Jerry Dove, after the Miami shootout.
Three FBI field agents were armed with semi-automatic 9mm pistols. This one was owned by Special Agent Jerry Dove, who was killed in the firefight. You can see where a bullet went through the slide and disabled the gun. (Photo credit: FBI Database via Recoil Web)

Some other firearms were present that were not used in the firefight for various reasons. When taking note of the calibers used, remember that this was in 1986 and ballistics then were not the same as today. In many ways, this was the event that prompted the change to speed itself along.

When it ended, both bank robbers were dead, but so were two FBI agents. Furthermore, every FBI agent had been shot. The robbers had been shot early on in the shootout but it turned out the calibers being used were wholly inadequate when it came to actually stopping a threat; Matix and Platt continued to fight back long enough to do serious damage.

The upside here is that the FBI admitted the duty guns of their agents weren’t good enough, but they weren’t sure how to fix it. This led to three things: the creation of FBI ballistic gel standards, the temporary use of 10mm for agents, and the invention of the 40 Smith & Wesson.

Smith & Wesson Model 4006
The Smith & Wesson Model 4006 was the first gun designed for the 40 S&W but not the first gun to be ready for manufacturing. (Photo credit: Drury Guns)

40 S&W History

As the FBI began testing their options, they enlisted the aid of Smith & Wesson. They’d come to the conclusion that 10mm was their cartridge of choice, but it was a little too much when it came to felt recoil. Basically, the agents shooting them were having some issues. They asked the gun maker to design a handgun to go with their lesser-powered 10mm selection.

Long story short, Smith & Wesson found out they could downsize the 10mm case to meet the FBI’s specifications for powder. If they left the case as it was but loaded it weaker, as the FBI wanted, they were left with unwanted airspace inside the case. They ended up teaming up with Winchester to create the new, shorter cartridge which became the 40 S&W.

The 40 S&W was launched in January of 1990 alongside the Smith & Wesson Model 4006. However, the handgun wasn’t quite ready to go, and in the end, Glock beat Smith & Wesson by releasing the 40 S&W-chambered G22 and G23. The FBI ended up officially adopting the G22 in 1997.

Hornady Critical Duty 40 Smith & Wesson ammunition.
Hornady Critical Duty 40 Smith & Wesson ammunition. (Photo credit: Bradford’s Auction Gallery)

Is the 40 S&W Dead?

This is a bit of a crash course in 40 S&W history, but it gives you an idea of how it became popular when it was new. Not only do gun owners tend to follow the cues of law enforcement when it comes to cartridge selection but as a new cartridge, the 40 S&W offered more ballistically than, say, 38 Special or 9mm.

The FBI went back to 9mm in 2015 when ballistics had come far enough to make it a far more capable round than it had been in 1986. Various agencies can be slow to make changes, but currently, most law enforcement agencies in the United States have made the transition to 9mm for duty weapons.

There are pros and cons to using 40 S&W, just like with any round. It does burn out barrels more quickly than 9mm and, of course, it produces more felt recoil. However, 40 S&W has a slight edge over 9mm for velocity and energy. It’s also accurate, has less felt recoil than its 10mm parent cartridge, and enjoys a following among competition shooters. In fact, it’s preferred by a lot of people who shoot matches.

The short answer to our original question is no, the 40 S&W isn’t dead. It still has its uses and there are quite a few gun owners who enjoy it. Handgun hunters prefer it over 9mm because it delivers ethical one-shot kills on animals like feral hogs, which isn’t something 9mm does reliably. Many self-defense shooters like the edge it has over 9mm for energy and velocity. The additional felt recoil is negligible enough not to bother a lot of gun owners and many also don’t shoot high enough round counts to worry about barrels wearing out.

Speer Gold Dot
9mm or 40 S&W? The choice is ultimately yours. (Photo credit: AmmunitiontoGo)

However, the 9mm has outpaced the 40 S&W for popularity by miles. Changes in technology and clear leaps and bounds in ballistics have turned 9mm into a fantastic self-defense cartridge. It’s no wonder law enforcement uses 9mm (and so do a ton of gun owners who are focused on self-defense). The 9mm produces less felt-recoil, it’s accurate, guns chambered in it last longer, and it absolutely delivers as promised for defensive use. Sure, it’s smaller than 40 S&W, but it’s mighty.

Should You Get a 40 S&W?

Getting a gun chambered in 40 S&W is a personal choice. They’re certainly great for their uses but the ammunition can be more expensive and harder to come by than other options. And then there’s the issue of the way they wear out faster than guns like 9mms.

40 S&W guns can be both fun and practical depending on what you need to do with them. It does seem like the cartridge is largely used by competitive shooters and handgun hunters at this point but there are some holdouts who continue to carry the guns for defensive purposes. Does it work? Yes. Do the cons outweigh the pros? In many ways, they do, but that doesn’t mean you should entirely discount 40 S&W. After all, isn’t being a well-rounded gun owner about having at least one gun chambered in every cartridge?

Kat Ainsworth Stevens is a long-time outdoor writer, official OGC (Original Gun Cognoscenti), and author of Handgun Hunting: a Comprehensive Guide to Choosing and Using the Right Firearms for Big and Small Game. Der Teufel Katze has written for a number of industry publications (print and online) and edited some of the others, so chances are you've seen or read her work before, somewhere. A woman of eclectic background and habits, Kat has been carrying concealed for over two decades, used to be a farrier, and worked for a long time in emergency veterinary medicine. She prefers big bores, enjoys K9 Search & Rescue, and has a Master's Degree in Pitiless Snarkastic Delivery.

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