February 2013

40 S&W Ammunition Tests: Black Hills 155s Are Best Buy

We compared ten loads in five bullet weights to find the round we’d prefer to carry for self-defense. Black Hills 155-grain and 180-grain loads were among the top choices for the task.

The history of American 10mm service cartridges is a bit strange. We began with the right idea, got off on a tangent, and returned to the right idea. The right idea is a short-case 40-caliber cartridge suitable for use in handguns previously deemed 9mm sized. The premise of a .400-inch bullet in a moderately sized handgun was begun with the 40 Guns & Ammo round about 1972. A Browning Hi-Power 9mm was converted to fire a special short-case cartridge made by shortening a rifle case and fitting on it a 180-grain bullet. The result had a velocity of about 1000 fps. The bullet used was the same diameter as the one in the 38-40 revolver cartridge. Experiments were promising. There was a lot of interesting experimentation in those days, and the 40 G&A and the 38 Super Cooper were worthwhile loadings.

Somehow, the concept evolved into a longer cartridge with considerably more power. The 10mm auto could not be chambered in a 9mm-size handgun; instead it demanded a 45 ACP-sized frame. The 10mm Bren Ten debuted with a hot Norma loaded cartridge topping 1200 fps with a 200-grain bullet. The Bren Ten debacle is well documented. Colt resurrected the 10mm with the Colt Delta Elite, and the FBI first adopted then discarded the cartridge. Without shorting the many personalities and technicians involved, let us suffice to say that the 10mm was not the service cartridge of tomorrow, but it has survived with better distribution than the 41 Magnum, another round hailed as the police cartridge of tomorrow.

Afterward, the 40 Smith & Wesson was developed and shoehorned into a 9mm-size handgun. The 40 S&W is much closer to the original concept. While early 40s beat themselves to death, the design eventually worked. The short case required a small primer instead of the large pistol primer used in the 10mm, largely because the cartridge case rides rather close to the 9mm size ejector. You simply do not need to have an ejector close to a large pistol primer — ditto for the 45 GAP, another innovation and shoe horn job. The 40 battered some 9mm-size handguns, and even today, many believe 40 S&W handgun life is shorter than 9mm and 45 ACP handguns. The 40 suffers pressure spikes according to respected authorities, and this may be the cause of several well documented 40 S&W blow ups. Another cause may be the heavy use of lead bullets in a polygonal barrel. We have learned not to do this as pressure builds rapidly. With a cartridge already running at the top tier in pressure, a bit of bore restriction is all it takes to push the pressure envelope over the edge. The 40 develops high pressure like the 9mm, but also has a heavy bullet that has more momentum, further stressing the action. The 40 isn’t alone in this regard. When the 357 Magnum revolver was current, cops used tons of soft lead wadcutters in training. Firing a few jacketed Magnums “to clean the bore” often cracked the forcing cone. You simply have to keep the bore clean in a high-pressure-cartridge handgun.

The bottom line most shooters want to get to is this: does the 40 Smith & Wesson offer enough advantages to overcome the shortfalls?

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