How the S&W “Shorty Forty” came to be
Left to right, the venerable .357 Magnum, the vaunted .45 ACP, the 10mm, the .40 S&W and the popular 9mm.
Such was the genesis of the .357 Magnum, which was named for a large cask of wine, and was the result in the 1930s of extending the length of the ubiquitous .38 Special by 1/10th of an inch, increasing its velocity by about 50 percent.
In the 1950s, Elmer Keith, one of the icons of gun writing and a huge believer in big-bore, powerful handguns, extended the length of the .44 Special, thus giving rise to a whole series of Dirty Harry movies and making the Hollywood future for a young, up-and-coming Clint Eastwood, who pulled a 6-inch barreled Smith & Wesson Model 29 .44 Magnum, pointed it at a hoodlum and uttered those famous words, “…the most powerful handgun in the world…”
But few handgun cartridges have a more interesting history than the .40 Smith & Wesson. As the semi-automatic took over as the police handgun of the 1990s, so the .40 S&W (the “Shorty-Forty”) gained immense popularity and became the choice of calibers for police departments across the land.
Whether the .40 S&W deserves the popularity it has gained as a self-defense round remains to be seen — the real deal-killer for me is ammo costs more, thus making the purchase of practice bullets more expensive than the ever-popular 9mm.
But one thing cannot be argued — the .40 S&W is a showpiece of efficiency compared to its parent cartridge, the 10mm semi-auto round.
To see how this cartridge came into being, we have to go back all the way to April 11, 1986, and the now infamous FBI shootout in Miami with two bank robbers/armored car robbers.
William Matix and Michael Platt met in the Army, and embarked on an orgy of murder and mayhem, killing civilians and armored truck personnel with methodical glee.
When the FBI team finally caught up with these two determined shooters, they were woefully unprepared to go up against hard-core, heavily armed criminals, who had long decided they would go out shooting before they would be taken alive.
Before five minutes and 145 gunshots had ended, two FBI agents would be dead and five more seriously wounded. Matix took four hits before expiring. Platt was shot an incredible twelve times, and ended the life of two special agents before being killed while trying to drive from the scene.
One of the serious hits taken by Platt was from an agent’s 9mm pistol. It entered under his arm and traveled to within 1 inch of his heart before it stopped. When the autopsy was performed on him, his chest cavity was filled with blood. Yet he had managed to fight on, and kill and maim seven FBI agents.
Aghast at the carnage and the public-relations nightmare that ensued, the FBI announced that the whole situation would have been quickly resolved if only their agents had been armed with more powerful handguns. The infamous 9mm round that didn’t immediately incapacitate was blamed, and the search was on.
The board instigated by the FBI was like nothing ever before designed to research cartridges and stopping power.
Ballisticians, emergency-room physicians, pathologists, experts of every related field pooled their immense talents in the search for the perfect handgun cartridge, the one ultimate man-stopper so the FBI could build the perfect handgun and never again experience the incredible refusal to-just-stop-shooting it met with William Matix and Michael Platt.
The board finally came to a conclusion, and presented their findings to the FBI and the world. They said the ultimate manstopper, the bullet to end all arguments and put a stop to a gunfight was — the 10mm.
The FBI contracted with Smith & Wesson to produce the 1076, a stainless steel semi-auto on a large frame, which was necessary to contain what was essentially a magnum in .40 caliber, fired from a semi-auto handgun.
Almost immediately problems started occurring.
The one-size-fits-all didn’t. The gun is too large for agents with small hands and most women agents.
In addition, in full-bore capacity, as it was designed, the 10mm rips out of the handgun in the 1,300 fps range, surpassing the velocity of the vaunted .357 Magnum, which is only .36 caliber and pushes bullet weights ranging from 125 to 160 grains.
Pushing a .40-caliber 165-grain bullet at those velocities causes the gun to push back. The recoil impulse was so fierce, many agents found the gun uncomfortable to shoot, and accuracy suffered.
The FBI made a momentous decision — the velocity of the 10mm would be reduced, bringing the velocity down from over 1,300 fps to just over 900 fps. Recoil would be reduced, accuracy would be enhanced, everyone would be happy.
Thus was invented the infamous 10mm “FBI Load,” sometimes sneeringly referenced in gun circles as the “10mm Lite.”
The joke in those same circles was the FBI and S&W spent $16 million reinventing the .45 ACP — only not as well.
The FBI eventually dropped the package as its preferred handgun, and the 10mm seemed headed for the defunct cartridge pile of history.
But the 10mm in full bore capacity remains an excellent self-defense round, and it has found a niche in hunting circles as a top-notch handgun hunting cartridge.
S&W proved once again why they are the top handgun manufacturer in the world. They spotted the anomaly of reducing the power of a big-bore cartridge but still needing a large gun to handle its longer case.
So — brilliant marketing move here — S&W reduced the length of the 10mm, retaining the same power and velocity of the FBI reduced load, and brought about the .40 S&W, a shortened 10mm round.
Early on, some of those same gun circles reacted again to the history of the new cartridge, disparagingly calling it the “.40 Short & Weak.”
S&W surmised they could put more horsepower in 9mm-sized guns, and for a while everyone was retrofitting their 9mm semi-autos to the hot new round.
But the return speed of the slide with the new cartridge was much faster, frames started cracking, and industry-wide it became necessary to redesign new, stronger and slightly larger-framed semi-autos.
Once the design problems were worked out, the marriage of high-cap semi-autos and a new cartridge with more power than a 9mm was a foregone pairing.
The “Shorty-Forty” became the police caliber of the 1990s, much like the .38 Special had taken the profession by storm in the early part of the century.
Today, the .40 S&W has taken its place next to all the other great handgun rounds used for self-defense.
Is it a better choice than 9mm for personal self-defense?
Since the best gun to have in a gunfight is the gun you bring, I don’t feel the need.
And as I mentioned earlier, 9mm is a lot cheaper to buy in bulk, and practice counts a whole lot more than caliber.
It all boils down to what makes you feel better and more confident — and if a .40 S&W will affect that and make you shoot better, then by all means, carry a .40.
Just remember that confidence will bring about the most important deciding factor in any gunfight, no matter the caliber.
Bullet placement counts a whole lot more than bullet weight and bullet speed.
Read more about guns, shooting and politics on Hutchinson’s blog at www.theshootist.net, or his website at www.gordonhutchinson.com
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