December 2001

.40 S&W Semis Compared: We Like Beretta’s Midsized Cougar

In testing two lesser-known .40-caliber pistols, we found that Beretta’s $700 Cougar is a very good choice, but we had a couple of problems with the polymer Steyr M40.

The Cougar produced mixed results when we
tested the .45 version. We were very pleased
with how the gun performed in .40 S&W.

Whether it be guns or automobiles, it is inevitable that some models will flourish and others will be pushed aside in the minds of the buying public. For example, when you mention the name Beretta, the series 92 pistol immediately comes to mind. The fact that the United States military (as well as many other forces around the world) have adopted the 92/M9 version of this pistol suggests that Beretta makes only one pistol. But the smaller Cougar is another pistol in the lineup that we hear little about.

The Cougar, available in 9mm, .357 SIG, .40 S&W, and .45 ACP, produced mixed results when we tested the .45 version (model 8045) in December 1999. But we felt revisiting this frame in another caliber might show us a different personality. We found a foil for the Cougar in the Steyr M40 pistol, a product that suffered a setback when Steyr’s U.S. representative (GSI) temporarily stopped importation. Thus, we were willing to pass on the Steyr pistols, until advertising for the complete line started showing up in wholesale/retail journals such as Gun List and Shotgun News. Apparently, many NIB (new in box) pistols were already here in the states and for sale at reduced prices

So, GSI in Trussville, Alabama, is once again importing and selling the Steyr line of firearms. Having tested the 9mm version of this pistol with very good results, (GT April 2001), we felt it was necessary that we evaluate the Steyr in forty to let our readers know if the stouter version was still a worthwhile purchase.

Range Session
After inspecting each pistol thoroughly, we felt that the Steyr with its full-length slide might have too much of an advantage over the Beretta in terms of sight radius. Our policy to date has been to test full-size guns at 25 yards and downsized models at 15 yards or closer. However, during our break-in shooting we determined that the Cougar would be up to the challenge of printing groups at maximum distance.

Click here to view Accuracy and Chronograph Information

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Since these pistols are very different in lower frame design and hold, we did a fair amount of preliminary shooting from a sandbag rest as well as standing unsupported. Our test ammos included the Winchester 180-grain SXT “Personal Protection” hollowpoint, Black Hills 165-grain JHP-EXP, and a 180-grain FMC (full metal case) round from the Brazilian manufacturer Magtech. Here’s what we found:

Steyr M40, $709
When last tested, this design was chambered for 9mm and topped with Steyr’s trapezoidal sights. For this test we used a model with a notch and post system with a three-dot tritium system installed by GSI. However, this service is no longer available directly from the distributor. GSI recommends contacting PT Nightsights at (800) 334-3573. Cost is $85 per set plus an installation fee of $15. Adding this option brings the MSRP of our two pistols dead even at $709.

Click here to view the Steyr M40 features guide

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The Steyr M40 has the advantages of polymer (light weight, low maintenance) and the consistent trigger of a single action. Safeties on the M40 include a Glock-like safety in the face of the trigger, which leaves the firing mechanism inert unless the trigger itself is pressed. Also, hinged from the bottom of the frame inside the trigger guard is a safety that is pulled down to safe from the sides of the frame. It is released by pushing it up with the trigger finger. We’re not too enthusiastic about it, but at least taking off the safety can be done with only one hand on the gun. When this safety is engaged, a white dot is visible from either side. There is also a loaded-chamber indicator that protrudes from the rear of the slide when ready to fire. Additionally, the trigger system can be locked by a two-pronged key from the right side of the frame just above the trigger. To operate, the key is inserted and pushed inward then turned. This lock will only operate when the gun has been cocked, however. Two keys are provided.

While some of the above mechanisms are unique or at least unusual, the operation and design of this pistol is simple and straightforward.

A track to mount a small flashlight is unobtrusively molded into the lower portion of the frame underneath the muzzle, generally referred to as the dust cover. The grip is raked and undercut to create a beavertail effect that aids in recoil. We found this pistol was easier to hold than the earlier model when we complained of the backstrap being too flat or too hard. One of our staffers even went so far as to work up an arched clay filler that when taped into place would fill the hollow of the hand. But, we didn’t feel a need for this on the Steyr M40 pistol.

The magazine release is out of the way, and it drops the magazine enthusiastically when. The slide release is the only lever on the left side, so finding it does not require a decision-making process. The frame includes a contour beneath the slide release to prevent this lever from snagging and also to maintain its sleek profile.

One contributing factor to the Steyr’s accuracy was that the trigger was predictable in take-up, short in movement and did not vary from first to second shots the way that TDA (traditional double action) or even the Glock pistols are designed to operate. In firing the Steyr, it is always easy for the shooter to know exactly where he is in the firing sequence.

Accuracy was best firing the lighter 165-grain round from Black Hills. Only one group measured more than 2 inches center to center. The smallest group of the test (1.5 inches) was shot in this session, which bested the Beretta’s best effort by 0.2 inch. The 165-grain JHP-EXP round also produced the highest velocity and greatest muzzle energy (445 foot-pounds) when fired from the Steyr M40. Close behind was the performance of the Winchester round with groups of 1.9 to 2.0 inches.

The gun’s only hitch was a failure to ignite on two different occasions. Light hits on the Black Hills ammunition proved to be a mystery. With the exception of these two instances, it struck us that the Steyr M40 pistol is a well thought out tactical weapon that may well be ahead of its time.

Beretta Cougar 8040, $709
Our first look at the Cougar lineup was chambered for .45 ACP and was not very popular with our staff. The big .45 round is inherently heavy, slow moving, and boasts a great deal of bearing surface. In our estimation this did not match well with the mechanism of the Cougar 8045. Because ammunition runs the gun, we felt that going to the .40 Smith & Wesson would show us a whole new Cougar pistol, and we were right.

Click here to view the Beretta Cougar 8040 features guide

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With the .40, slide speed is optimal, and our ability to control the 8040 proved far easier than the 8045. The Cougar pistols operate with a first shot double action with follow-up shots available in single action. This changes the position of the trigger substantially after the first shot. The .40’s lighter and faster return from muzzle flip proved less disruptive to the firing sequence. Even with the double-action trigger at 12 pounds, we found it easy to transition quickly from double to single action and produce two accurate hits on target at combat distances.

The trigger can be returned to double action by depressing the decocker. The decocking lever is made more accessible by the addition of a relief in the grip on each side. The decocker is ambidextrous, but the protrusion of this lever is more prominent on the right side. It would appear that the right-side lever could be removed if one preferred a slimmer profile. Once the decocker is down, the gun is now on safe, so returning to double action requires two strokes, one down and one up.

The sight system is a three-white-dot design, but Beretta has created a combination that offers enough light so that the shooter has the option of aligning not just the dots but the light bars that surround the front sight as well. We mention this because we often see supplied sights that favor one system over the other, which we feel is a dangerous compromise.

The Cougar turned out to be a very comfortable gun to hold and shoot. While the 92 (or M9) seems to be a perfect match for 9mm, in .40 we prefer the Cougar to the model 96, which shares the same design as the 92. Accuracy from the 8040 was consistent throughout. Firing the inexpensive Magtech rounds, we found it difficult to record anything but 1.8- and 1.9-inch groups at 25 yards. The Winchester Personal Protection SXT round showed a little more variation, but still averaged five-shot groups of 2.1 inches. The lighter 165-grain round from Black Hills varied from 2.1 to 2.6 inches. Velocity and muzzle energy were down a little from the Steyr’s, but barrel length is a consideration. Keep in the mind the differences here were relatively small. The Cougar pistols tend to be heavier than its polymer rivals. In this case, the Cougar was 5 ounces heavier than the Steyr. Some of this extra weight, beyond the use of an alloy rather than plastic frame, could be attributed to the extra mechanisms.

Gun Tests Recommends
Steyr M40, $609 to $709. Conditional Buy. We had to downgrade our buy rating one step because of the two incidents of malfunction. Otherwise, this design is a good step in bridging the gap between the advantages of the single-action 1911 pistols and the high-capacity polymer design.

Beretta Cougar 8040, $709. Buy It. This gun shot easily, comfortably, and accurately. It’s among the better midsized .40s we’ve tested.