The 9mm Parabellum vs the .40 Smith and Wesson vs the .45 ACP, by B.F.

I recently wrote a letter to SurvivalBlog suggesting that preppers who were looking to upgrade their handguns consider some of the bargains currently available in .40 S&W. In recent weeks, I have seen police trade-ins dropping even more in price with Sig Sauer P226s and P229s selling for as low as $305 and Glock 22s selling for $279. Hugh asked me about my experience with the .40, and I sent him back a note that covered a bit of ground on that topic. I’ve been shooting and reloading for the .40 S&W since Glock introduced the G35 in 1998. That got me to thinking about some of the passionate discussions you hear, whenever gun guys and girls get together, about 9mm vs .40 vs .45. Usually it goes something like Big Heavy Bullet vs Light Fast Bullet and higher capacity vs something in the middle that either is the best of both worlds or is the worst compromise ever. The armchair experts talk a lot of theory, comparing the knock down power of the .45 vs velocity and hydrostatic shock for the 9mm, and the .40 having both depending on load.

Which of the three service cartridges is the best pistol cartridge for a prepper? That is a topic for a discussion without end. There are many different bullets available for each caliber today, and ballistics experts are constantly designing new ones that are increasingly effective. If you were to consider revolvers, the list of cartridges gets even longer, including the .327 Federal, 38 S&W Special, .357 S&W Magnum, the .41 Remington Magnum, the .44 S&W Special, 44 Remington Magnum, and .45 Colt, not to mention those chambered in pistol calibers, like the 9mm, the 40 S&W, the 10mm, and the .45 ACP. Revolvers have their place, but that is a different article.

The FBI recently decided to switch from the .40 S&W to the 9mm. It had adopted the 10mm in 1989 following what was considered poor performance of the .38 special and the 9mm in the Miami Shootout where two agents were killed and five wounded. It then found out that some agents could not effectively shoot the more powerful 10mm and reduced the load, which led to Smith and Wesson shortening the 10mm to the .40 S&W, matching the reduced power load in a cartridge that would fit into standard frame pistols. Now the FBI is satisfied that improvements in projectile design mean that the 9mm is again an effective man stopper.

There are a couple of schools of thought, when it comes to trying to determine handgun cartridge effectiveness.

One school represented by some folks, like Dr. Martin Fackler, tend to use data and calculations to try to show the theoretical effectiveness of various cartridges.

Others, like Evan Marshall and Edwin Sanow, look at actual shootings and are based on the facts they are able to identify or impute, drawing conclusions about the shooting.

I am not an expert on either of these methods, and although I have read articles and papers by both camps, I am far from any point where I can draw meaningful conclusions from them.

I am not looking to get into a discussion of terminal or wound ballistics. To my thinking, the 9mm, .40S&W, and .45ACP are all about equally effective or ineffective. All three depend on bullet design and more importantly on shot placement to neutralize a threat. If you have been shot with all three, please feel free to share your first-hand knowledge. I will instead go with the belief that while handguns are much less effective stoppers than rifles, the handgun on your hip is way more effective than the rifle in your closet or back in your truck.

The other thing that is mentioned regarding which one to select is price. Using the website, I can find 9mm ammunition for $0.17 per round, .40 for $0.21 per round, and .45 ammo for $0.24 per round. Compared to the price of 9mm, it comes to $40 per case more for .40 S&W and $70 more per case for .45 ACP. To me, the difference is not that significant.

So other than opinion, can I add anything to the debate? First, let me share a little about me. I have been a gun nut all my life and was raised on WWII and cowboy movies back in the 1960s. I got my first gun, a .410 shotgun, handed down from my great uncle to my father to me when I was nine years old and my first .22 when I was 11. I shot competitively in ROTC in college and later in the Army. I spent three years as a 45 Bravo Small Arms Repairman. Stationed in Germany in the mid 70’s, I got to spend a lot of time at the ranges in Hohenfels and Grafenwoehr, supporting everything from 1911’s to 4 deuce mortars. I also shot on various Army and Army Reserve shooting teams over the course of 20 years. I have continued shooting competitively since I got out of the Army, and I currently shoot various action pistol disciplines as well as three gun competitions. I am also an NRA instructor and NRA range safety officer.

After thinking through what I could to compare the calibers that would be relevant and repeatable, I thought I’d try some timed shooting drills using a Competitive Dynamics shot timer with similar guns, holsters, and mag pouches in all three calibers. I also wanted to try a couple of different gun designs to see how that affected the results, as well as cartridges at the extreme ends of the pistol power range.

The guns I selected for the test were three Glocks– a Glock 34 in 9mm, a Glock 35 in .40 S&W, and a Glock 21 in .45 ACP. For fun, I thought I’d mix in a compact Glock 27 in .40 S&W and a Glock 20 in 10mm (using full power loads).

For a bit of variety, I also ran the drill using a Ruger 22/45 in .22 LR, a 1911 in .45acp, a Browning Hi-power in 9mm, a Sig p220 in 10mm, a Sig P228 in 9mm, and two Sig P229s in .40 S&W and .357 Sig, and the least practical a Desert Eagle in .50 AE. I was going to throw in some revolvers for variety but decided to save that for another article, if there is interest.

El Presidente scores

The holsters used for all of the guns were “Avenger” type open top leather belt holsters made by a local retired sheriff’s deputy with matching open top mag pouches. With so many similar guns, some of which could chamber the wrong cartridge from another gun, I took special care to only have one gun uncased at a time, and I put away all of the ammunition and accessories for it before I took out the next one.

The drill I decided on was one of the more common drills called the El Presidente. This drill was introduced by Col Jeff Cooper back in 1970 to provide a basis for evaluating shooter proficiency, requiring both speed and accuracy. Later it was adopted by the USPSA as a standard competition course of fire. It consists of three standard silhouette targets placed 10 yards down range with one yard between them. The shooter stands with arms at the side, back towards target, handgun loaded and holstered. On the signal, the shooter faces the target, draws, and engages each target with two rounds, performs a reload and engages each target again with two rounds. The original version of the drill used Par time to score it. Modern versions use a combination of score and elapsed time. Top shooters can do this in under three seconds. I am definitely not a top shooter. For the purpose of this article, I will use the original scoring system as follows: To score this drill, five points are awarded for every hit in the 8-inch center ring and two points for all other hits on the target, for a possible score of 60. Five points are added to the score for every full second under 10 and five points deducted for every full second over 10. Because of the time factor, the potential exists to score more than 60. Revolver par time is 12 seconds instead of 10.

The results are shown on the attached .PDF file. I know we try to avoid photos and illustrations on SurvivalBlog, but I could not think of a better way of displaying the results.

As you can see, not surprisingly the guns that recoiled least performed the best in this drill. The emphasis is on the word “drill”. This is not combat, where adrenaline overwhelms fine motor control and where the shooting is done on a two-way range. I think that the conclusions you can draw from this is that there is little if any significant distinction between the calibers in the real world and that all three of them make an adequate defensive cartridge, the main purpose of which is to allow you to get to your rifle.

Please feel free to ignore the armchair quarterbacks who will vehemently argue the effectiveness of one cartridge vs the other and buy a gun or two that work for you. So to answer the question from earlier, “Which of the three service cartridges is the best pistol cartridge for a prepper?”, the best one is the one you can afford and the one that works for you that you can shoot well.