For about twenty-years the .40 Smith & Wesson cartridge was the second-most popular pistol round available. Known as the 40, it is an outgrowth of the FBI handgun tests that followed the 1986 Miami shootout. The Bureau contracted with Smith & Wesson to supply a handgun to fire the reduced 10mm Auto loading the FBI had decided to use. S&W realized that the reduced load would fit in a shorter case about the same length as the 9mm Luger, and the .40 S&W was born.
The 40 S&W provides greater stopping power than the venerable 9mm while still fitting into the same-sized handgun frame. More power in a smaller package can be good, but the cost is much sharper recoil. For this reason, I think it is best suited to full-sized pistols make the best .40 cal handgun rather than compact or smaller models.
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Ammunition for the 40 can be found in bullet weights from 115-grains up to 200-grains and with velocities from 900 feet-per-second (fps) to 1400 fps. The most common loading is a 180 or 200-grain bullet that leaves the muzzle at around 1000 fps. FBI testing showed this weight, diameter, and speed of bullet to provide their desired performance on target and still have a manageable level of recoil for most agents.
If you have a bear or wild boar problem, Buffalo Bore and Underwood Ammo sell loadings with 200-grain hard-cast lead bullets that will penetrate to the next paycheck. Federal has the Personal Defense HST 180-grain hollow-point round at 1010 fps. If that is not enough power, Nosler catalogs a 200-grain hollow point at 1050 fps. These numbers are nothing to scoff at. The standard 45 ACP loading is 230 grains at less than 900 fps, and out of a handgun, that extra 100 fps makes a big difference.
As I said earlier, I prefer the 40 in a full-sized handgun for controllability. Most 40 S&W pistols are no different from their 9mm stablemates, except for having a larger hole in the barrel. Others, Like the Browning Hi Power, have a beefed-up frame and slide to hand the higher pressure of the 40. Below are several of my favorite picks for the best .40 cal handgun.
The venerable Glock 21 was the first pistol to market chambered in the 40 S&W cartridge. After S&W announced the 40, Glock did some simple engineering wizardry. Modified the slide of their 10mm Model 20 to fit the frame of the 9mm Model 17, and voila, an instant 40 pistol. Glock’s Model 17 was already a favorite with law enforcement, and the Model 22 proved no different. For approximately twenty years, it seemed like every sheriff’s deputy and city cop had one on their hip. And because it was good enough for the police, it was good enough for many civilians. I would run out of fingers and toes if I tried to count all the people I know who rely on a Glock 22 for home defense. I would not argue with anyone who said that this was the best .40 cal handgun.
Possibly one of the least popular 9mm to 40 conversions, the Beretta 96 is nonetheless a well-built and accurate pistol. Early versions of this pistol were rumored to have issues with the frame cracking near the dust cover after 10k rounds, but verifiable data on this is difficult to come by. Word on the web is that Beretta added some meat to the dust cover, and the new 96FSA1 is especially beefy there. If this was a problem, most non-competitive shooters will not fire enough rounds through the weapon to cause it.
Created for the 1984 pistol trials that lead to the adoption of the M9 Beretta, the Sig 226 was the only other pistol to complete the trials. A reliable and robust handgun, the Sig 226 chambered in 40 S&W is a happy combination of weight, bulk, and firepower. The Navy Seals carried the 9mm version if you need an endorsement of dependability. Sig no longer catalogs the 226 in 40 S&W, so if you find one, scoop it up!
I couldn’t leave John Browning’s last gift off this list. Even in 40 S&W, the Hi Power is a trim combat pistol. It was not affected by the 1994 bill limiting magazines to 10 rounds because that is all that would fit anyway. If you want vintage cool, this is your gun. Like the Sig 226 in 40, it is sadly out of production. As a teenager, I wanted the two-tone Practical version with the chrome frame and adjustable sights, but sadly, these were out of reach financially for the broke college student I was when I turned 21. They haven’t gotten any more affordable over the years either.
S&W M&P 40 2.0
The Smith & Wesson M&P has quietly made a name for itself as a reliable, accurate duty weapon. The new M&P 2.0 is no different. It is available in multiple configurations with either a 4.25- or 5-inch barrel and with or without a manual safety.
Originally developed for the German army as the P8, the Heckler & Koch USP is a large combat handgun. The magazines hold 13 rounds, and the mag release is ambidextrous. The USP is also an inch and a quarter wide. That’s more than an eighth inch thicker than the Glock 22. So why would you want such a brick? For durability and controllability. If you can wear out a USP, your ammo budget is much larger than mine.
The 40 Smith & Wesson Cartridge and the pistols that house it provide a balance of power and capacity that have won it a permanent place in law enforcement and self-defense circles. Some consider it to be the perfect defensive round. Despite this, sales have dropped off, leaving fewer options for new 40 S&W pistols on the market. If you want to add a 40 to your collection, this dip in interest is a plus. Used 40 caliber pistols are selling for slightly less than their 9mm or 45 counterparts. Now go get yourself one!