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Many gun owners choose to own a gun in .40 S&W because of its power. This caliber is perfect for both self-defense and target practice. To get the most out of your rounds, you need to use the best .40 S&W ammo. Lucky for you, we’ve reviewed some of the best options on the market. Keep reading to find the right round for you.
History of the .40 S&W Cartridge
In 1986, two FBI agents were killed and five more wounded in what became known as the Miami shootout. It was after this that the FBI decided to replace its agents’ revolvers with semi-automatic pistols. The reasoning was that the semiauto’s magazine held more ammo than the six in the revolver’s cylinder and was easier to reload under stress. As a result, the agency looked to replace their .38 Special +P loading (a 158-grain lead semi-wadcutter) with an equivalent load that would function in an autoloader.
Testing commenced of 9mm and .45 ACP loads, with John Hall (Special Agent in charge of the FBI’s Firearms Training Unit) running the tests. He decided to include his own 10mm Colt Delta Elite in the testing, firing his hand-loaded ammunition for comparison. Tests revealed that a 10mm 170-180 grain bullet fired at 900-1000 fps gave the terminal performance the FBI desired. The full-blown 10mm’s 1300-1400 fps with the same bullet was deemed too much of a good thing, so the FBI turned to Smith and Wesson for help.
S&W and Winchester
The FBI wanted S&W to adapt their large-frame 4506 pistols to fire their downloaded 10mm round. S&W figured out that with less powder and more air space in the big 10mm case, a shorter case might fit the FBI’s requirement and also function in existing 9mm-size guns.
With less airspace in the case, the powder burned more efficiently and produced velocities that satisfied the F.B.I. S&W partnered with Winchester to produce this new cartridge, called the .40 S&W. At any rate, the developmental period was over.
On January 17, 1990 the new cartridge was introduced to the public along with S&W’s new pistol that fired it — the 4006. It took them several months to actually get the pistol to dealers, during which time Glock beat them to market with their Models 22 and 23.
These guns had been announced one week before the S&W gun. (Since Glock already produced 10mm pistols, they had a relatively easy time adapting their 10mm design to fire the shorter .40 S&W which allowed them to beat S&W guns to dealers’ shelves. Both cartridges use the same bore diameter and case head which shortened R&D time).
The Glock guns were very popular, and the FBI adopted the Glock and its .40 S&W round in 1997. The .40 S&W’s popularity was enhanced by the now-expired Federal Assault Weapons Ban in 1994. This act, among other things, limited magazine size to ten rounds. Folks figured out that if they could only carry ten rounds, the larger .40 S&W might be more effective than the smaller 9mm.
Numerous police agencies jumped on the .40 S&W bandwagon and the round grew immensely in popularity. With pressures similar to the 9mm’s (35,000 pounds per square inch) and superior to the .45 ACP’s (21,000 lbs/PSI), some have called the .40 S&W the ideal cartridge for personal defense and law enforcement. Whatever your stance on that, it has certainly been tested and proven.
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FMJ vs. JHP and Other Things You Should Know
With the cartridge’s history behind us, let’s talk about the ammo itself. I will break it down into two main groups, as I have done with other ammo articles I’ve written. We will talk first about practice ammo, then will tackle self-defense rounds.
First, a quick explanation of the difference between the two. Practice ammo usually uses full metal jacket (FMJ) bullets, while self-defense rounds normally utilize jacketed hollow point (JHP) bullets that expand when they hit the target.
Why not just use your self-defense JHP ammo all the time? Unless you’re a famous gun writer or a YouTube personality who is supplied by ammo companies, it would cost a whole lot more to do that.
Most FMJ target-type ammo is cheaper to make than JHP ammo since the bullets cost less to produce. If you match your bullet weights and relative velocities (say, 180-grain JHP and 180-grain FMJ at 900 fps), you should have no problems practicing with the two different types.
Why Match Bullet Weights and Velocities?
Let’s say you’re shooting a 165-grain JHP and a 200-grain FMJ at 900 fps. With the velocities the same, the heavier bullet will strike higher on the target than the lighter one.
This is because the heavier bullet generates more recoil, which lifts the barrel higher than the lighter bullet. The lighter bullet exits the muzzle before the barrel has a chance to rise as much. A lighter-recoiling bullet doesn’t cause the muzzle to rise as much as a heavier-recoiling one, velocities being equal or close.
The rule of thumb is that a faster bullet exits the muzzle quicker because the barrel doesn’t have the chance to rise as much as when firing a slower bullet.
Best .40 S&W Ammo: Magtech 180 Grain FMJ Flat Nose
Specs: 990 fps, 392 ft/lbs energy
Magtech is a huge international company that manufactures ammunition under different labels, in different countries. It is a member of CBC Global Ammunition, a holding company that operates ammunition factories in the U.S., Brazil, Germany and the Czech Republic. (Another of CBC Global’s labels that we see on a lot of ammunition boxes in local stores is Seller & Bellot). CBC’s products are exported to over 130 countries, which makes this company one of the largest in the world. What’s that got to do with our look at the Magtech .40 S&W FMJ round? Simple — cost. They make everything connected with their ammo production, which tends to hold costs down.
I’ve shot Magtech ammo in various calibers and find it works as advertised. You can buy it in bulk or in boxes of 50. The flat nose helps in that it is just flat enough to cut nice holes in a paper target without being too truncated which might interfere with reliability.
If you are looking for a lesser-expensive practice round, give the Magtech a try — they make good stuff.
Best .40 S&W Ammo: PMC 180 Grain FMJ Flat Nose
Specs: 985 fps, 388 ft/lbs energy
PMC, a South Korean company, manufactures all kinds of different ammunition from small arms to artillery shells. The company was founded in 1968 and is a large supplier of ammunition to not only the South Korean military but to civilian shooters around the world. I chose this brand because itâs a well-made .40 S&W cartridge that is reliable, accurate and reloadable.
PMC, like Magtech and other manufacturers, use a flat-point FMJ bullet instead of a round-nose. The old .45 ACP started out life using first a 200-grain, then a 230-grain round-nose bullet, which became the standard.
The PMC round feeds well and makes for some really good practice ammo. Reviews about this ammo are uniformly good. It is reliable, always goes bang when supposed to, and is relatively clean to shoot.
Best .40 S&W Ammo: Winchester 165-Grain FMJ Flat Nose
Specs: 1060 fps, 412 ft/lbs energy
Winchester is one of America’s oldest ammo manufacturers, and was in on the original development of the .40 S&W. It only makes sense to include their 165-grain FMJ load here, because not everybody shoots 180-grain defensive ammo. 165 is a popular weight as well, so you can get practice ammo to match your carry load.
The flat nose is a bit more pronounced on this load than on some others. What that helps accomplish is that it tends to tear its way through the target, whether paper or other. Round nose bullets make ragged holes as they push their way through the target. That’s why full- or semi-wadcutters are the choice of paper target shooters and hunters.
This round won’t cut like a semi-wadcutter, but it would do better than a round nose in making definitely-round-shaped holes in the target.
Now we look at true self-defense rounds. I will not recommend a bunch of different loads as I’m sticking with what law enforcement agencies tend to issue.
Best .40 S&W Ammo: Speer Gold Dot 155-Grain GDHP Duty Ammo
Specs: 1200 fps, 496 ft/lbs energy
The Gold Dot 155-grain GDHP (Gold Dot Hollow Point) is one of the premier duty rounds carried by police today.
The bullet, a special hollow point designed by Speer, bonds the core to the jacket. This aids in penetration, especially barrier penetration. The bullets stay together, unlike others that shed their jacket and don’t penetrate as far because of the separation of jacket and core.
The round was designed to meet the FBI’s penetration standard: 12 inches minimum, 18 inches maximum. It was also designed to go through car windshields, a job it performs admirably. If you want to carry what the cops carry, give this a try. It also comes in a 180-grain version if you want a heavier bullet.
Best .40 S&W Ammo: Federal 180-Grain Hydra-Shok JHP
Specs: 1000 fps, 400 ft/lbs Energy
The Federal Hydra-Shok uses a unique bullet. It doesn’t have the typical hollow point cup. Instead, it has a central post that aids in controlling expansion.
The post partially fills the cavity, while a scored jacket helps the jacket peel back and the bullet upset when it hits the target. However, it penetrates as it should, meeting the FBI’s penetration protocol.
If you are concerned about penetration (as you might be in the winter where folks wear heavy coats), then this Federal round should ease your mind a bit.
You can buy it in boxes of 50, or in bulk of 1000 rounds and the price per round is the same. Let’s look at another Federal round popular with law enforcement agencies.
Specs: 1160 fps, 463 ft/lbs energy
The Federal HST is one of the more popular issue rounds for LE agencies. With its pre-skived jacket that aids in producing the flower-petal effect that good hollow points are known for, this round tends to cause a large permanent wound cavity.
A temporary wound cavity causes only temporary damage, as tissue tends to bounce back after the initial shock. This round meets the FBI’s protocols, uses a nickel-plated case, and is reloadable.
Here’s a ballistic gel test of this round, courtesy of Lucky Gunner.
As you can see, this round has plenty of penetration, couple that with great expansion, and you have a winner.
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Best .40 S&W Ammo: Winchester PDX-1 Defender 180-Grain JHP
Specs: 1000 fps, energy N/A
The Winchester PDX-1 Defender has a pretty good recommendation going for it. Its 9mm cousin was chosen as the FBI’s main service load. This round, the most expensive of all we’ve looked at, uses a bonded-core bullet that retains its weight as it penetrates and expands. Let’s look at a gel test of this round, courtesy of Lucky Gunner.
As you can see, the penetration is just about right where the FBI wants it — four inches past the minimum-12-inch penetration depth and 2 inches shy of the maximum-penetration depth of 18 inches. Its expansion is also impressive.
A lot of folks may balk at paying over $1 a round, but this ammo is considered one of the very best rounds out there for personal defense. It is accurate, feeds and extracts reliably, and tends to get the job done at the terminal end.
Remember, if you buy one box of twenty, you can buy matching practice ammo like we discussed above. I would think two or three boxes of this ammo, coupled with plenty of practice ammo, would suffice. Just make sure that both types are accurate and reliable in your gun.
The whole point of practicing with ammo similar to what you carry is familiarization. Recoil, sight acquisition, handling, muzzle blast, and flash. All these factors need to be similar between both types of your ammo. Once you’ve figured that out, the PDX-1 Defender might be a carry round for you. Let me know below what you think about this round.
I’ve tried to look at some of the most popular ammo for both practice and self-defense. You may have a different brand or type of ammo that works well for you. Experiment to find the right ammo and practice. Happy shooting, and be safe.