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Best .40 S&W Ammo [2019]: Self Defense & Target Practice

It seems that the .40 S&W S&W cartridge has almost mystical qualities, to talk to some of its adherents. An experimental .40 caliber cartridge was the only other caliber besides the .45 ACP that the great gun guru Jeff Cooper invested time in developing. (It became the 10mm). Many police agencies adopted the .40 S&W in an effort to gain a bit more power than the 9mm was able to deliver, with the technology that was available at that time. Heck, even the F.B.I. used it. So, there must be something to it – it is still the second most popular self-defense round sold today, behind the 9mm. Its allure has faded a bit for some shooters (hence the derisive sobriquet “.40 S&W Short & Weak”), but it is still in widespread use. Where did it come from?

History Of The .40 S&W

In 1986, two F.B.I. agents were killed and five more wounded in what became known as the Miami shootout. It was after this that the F.B.I. 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 – just pop the empty magazine out and stick a fresh one in. So, 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.

.38 Special
.38 Special

Testing commenced of available 9mm and .45 ACP loads, with John Hall (Special Agent in charge of the F.B.I.’s Firearms Training Unit) running the tests. He decided to include his own 10mm Colt Delta Elite in the testing, firing his own handloaded ammunition for comparison. Tests revealed that a 10mm 170-180 grain bullet fired at 900-1000 f.p.s. gave the terminal performance the F.B.I. desired. Needless to say, the full-blown 10mm’s 1300-1400 f.p.s. with the same bullet was deemed too much of a good thing, so the F.B.I. turned to Smith and Wesson for help.

Enter S&W (and Winchester…)

The F.B.I. wanted S&W to adapt their large-frame 4506 pistol 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 F.B.I.’s requirement and also function in existing 9mm-size guns. With less airspace in the case, the powder burned a bit 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.

.40 S&W
.40 S&W

Introducing…the .40 S&W!

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…the F.B.I. 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, maybe the larger .40 S&W might be more effective than the smaller 9mm.

9mm vs .40 vs .45 ACP ammo
Photo: Youtube

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./p.s.i.), 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.

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 what I consider 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.

FMJ vs HP Ammo
FMJ vs. JHP

Why not just use your self-defense JHP ammo all the time? Well, unless you’re a famous gun writer or a You Tube 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?

The answer to that question is fairly simple to understand if you’ve ever shot light loads then turned around and put some big boomers through your gun. First, we’ll assume the FMJ and the JHP both produce the same velocities but are different weights. For the sake of the example, let’s say you’re shooting a 165-grain JHP and a 200-grain FMJ at 900 f.p.s. With the velocities the same, the heavier bullet will (most of the time) strike higher on the target than the lighter one. Why? Because the heavier bullet tends to generate more recoil which lifts the barrel higher than the lighter bullet will…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.

OK, But…

When is this not the case? When the velocities are uneven. 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. I know, it sounds confusing but just remember that it is important to look at bullet weights and velocities when buying both types of ammo. The differences on the target I’m talking about with one hitting higher than the other may or may not be that great (maybe only an inch or so), but why take the chance? If you have adjustable sights and are trying to “dial in” a setting for your carry ammo, you’re going to want your practice ammo to at least be close. Just match weights and velocities up as much as you can and you’re good to go. They don’t have to be exactly, precisely equal, just close. Another plus derived from matching things up is that recoil will be pretty much the same for both “even” loads, so you’ll get used that as well. Here’s a very generalized take-away in one sentence…faster bullet=lower target hit (most of the time…nothing is carved into stone when it comes to these things!). Now I have you thoroughly confused, let’s get off this and look at some ammo.

FMJ Ammo

We’ll start with practice ammo, FMJ rounds. I was truly amazed at how many different companies make FMJ rounds for the .40 S&W… I lost count when I was scrolling down Lucky Gunner’s .40 ammo page. Whether you want 50 or 1000, there is a box for you. Here are a few of the top loads…I picked these because of personal experience but out of the dozens and dozens of loads listed there, you might find something else you like. If so, let us know about it below in the comments section.

1. Magtech 180 Grain FMJ Flat Nose (990 f.p.s, 392 ft./lbs. energy)

Magtech is a huge international company that manufactures ammunition under different labels, in different countries. Magtech 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.

2. PMC 180 Grain FMJ Flat Nose (985 f.p.s., 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 it’s 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. Why? That’s the way the .40 S&W was developed. The old .45 ACP started out life using first a 200-grain, then a 230-grain round-nose bullet, which became the standard. The military called for a round-nose bullet, so that’s what we have with the old war horse. The .40 S&W tended to use a flat-point bullet, which it still does. The PMC round feeds well and makes for some really good practice ammo.
Reviews about this ammo are uniformly good. It is said to be reliable, always goes “bang” when supposed to, and is relatively clean to shoot. That’s been my experience with it, too, in other calibers. Check it out – you might really like it!

3. Winchester 165-Grain FMJ Flat Nose (1060 f.p.s., 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. Plus, at over 1000 f.p.s., this is no pussycat load. The .40 S&W is legal for deer in my state, and I could see using this round in at least a practice role as you get ready for deer season with a .40-caliber gun in hand. (I know, the 10mm is better, but the .40 S&W is still legal here and I’d bet some folks use it in the field).

One last point…Winchester doesn’t just toss in loose rounds in their 100-round box like they do with 9mm ammo. There are two trays of 50 rounds each that slide out when you open and tilt the box. That’s classy, and the correct way to package ammo. Give it a try and tell us what you think below.

JHP Ammo

Now we look at true self-defense rounds. I am not going to recommend a bunch of different loads…I’m sticking with what law enforcement agencies tend to issue. Why not use the same ammo the pros do? If you want something different, there are plenty of choices out there, but I’ll list a few of the proven loads that LE agencies buy.

One factor that these agencies have to factor in when they issue JHP ammo is barrier penetration. I know, from personal experience, that the .40 S&W and the right ammo are up for that job. We had, a few days ago, an incident close by our home in the town nearby where a bad guy (technical term…can’t say what I’m really thinking) got pulled over by one of that town’s finest and then, as the officer was walking up to the perp’s car, the bad guy proceeded to try to pin the officer between his bumper and the officer’s cruiser’s bumper, at speed. The officer pulled his duty weapon, a Glock .40 S&W and shot the guy through the car’s glass. The guy was airlifted to a large city hospital with serious-to-critical injuries; the cop was treated and released from the local hospital. Thank God the officer is alright…haven’t heard about the bad guy. The moral of the story is that, yes, the .40 has the punch needed to get the job done.

4. Speer Gold Dot 155-Grain GDHP Duty Ammo (1200 f.p.s., 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. Many agencies issue this round, because it works.

Speer Gold Dot 155-Grain GDHP Duty Ammo stacked up
Gold Dot Bonded Hollow Points

The bullet, a special hollow point designed by Speer, bonds the core to the jacket. This aids in penetration, especially barrier penetration. The bullets tend to stay together, unlike some 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 F.B.I.’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.

5. Federal 180-Grain Hydra-Shok JHP (1000 f.p.s, 400 ft./lbs. Energy)

The Federal Hydra-Shok uses a very unique bullet. It doesn’t have the typical hollow point cup; instead, it has a central post that aids in controlling expansion.

hydra-shok post
Federal Hydra-Shok

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 F.B.I.’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.

Federal 180-Grain Hydra-Shok JHP stacked up

You can buy it in boxes of 50, or in bulk of 1000 rounds…the price per round is the same. Let’s look at another Federal round that’s popular with law enforcement agencies…

6. Federal Premium Law Enforcement 155-Grain HST (1160 f.p.s, 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. (What the difference between permanent and temporary wound cavities? A temporary wound cavity causes damage that is only temporary, as tissue tends to “bounce back” after the initial shock. Permanent wound cavities stay that way). This round meets the F.B.I.’s protocols, uses a nickel-plated case and is reloadable (as are all of the rounds I will mention).

Federal Premium Law Enforcement 155-Grain HST stacked up

Here’s a ballistic gel test of this round, courtesy of luckygunner.com:

Federal Premium Law Enforcement 155-Grain HST gel test

As you can see, this round has plenty of penetration…couple that with great expansion and you have a winner.

7. Winchester PDX-1 Defender 180-Grain JHP (1000 f.p.s, energy N/A)

The Winchester PDX-1 Defender has a pretty good recommendation going for it – its 9mm cousin was chosen as the F.B.I.’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 luckygunner.com:

Winchester PDX-1 Defender 180-Grain JHP gel test

As you can see, the penetration is just about right where the F.B.I. wants it – 4 inches past the minimum-12-inch penetration depth and 2 inches shy of the maximum-penetration depth of 18 inches – and its expansion is amazing.

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. We’ve all heard the old saying “how much is your life worth?” … well, I’d like to think that mine would be worth $1 a round. 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 one heck of a carry round for you. Let me know below what you think about this round.

Conclusions

So, what conclusions can we draw about .40 S&W ammo? I’ve tried to look at some of the most popular ammo out there for both practice and self-defense. You may have a different brand or type of ammo that works well for you…my list cannot be exhaustive, simply because there are too many great loads available for the .40 S&W. What I did try to do was to maybe acquaint you with some decent practice ammo you may not have tried, and then show you what I (and a lot of police agencies) consider some of the best JHP ammo for protection or self-defense purposes.

As I’ve mentioned a few times above, I would be interested in your experiences with ammo for this caliber. Please feel free to leave a comment below. You don’t have to agree with me…I’m just interested in what you think. We know the caliber can be effective – at least I know of that one bad guy above who would agree – so as you experiment to find the right ammo, remember that you are trying out some of the best ammo money can buy. Happy shooting and be safe!

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John D.
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John D.

Another very impressive article, Mike. I always appreciate your efforts. Thanks so much. A bit more perspective about the Miami-Dade FBI five minute firefight on 11 April, 1986. The two bank-robbing homicidal maniacs they were pursuing were William Matix and Michael Lee Platt. The latter was a veteran who had served as an Army Ranger. Several involved FBI agents were armed with 9mm semi-autos (Ben Grogan, Jerry Dove, who were both killed, and Ron Risner) while their colleagues (Gordon McNeill, Jake Hanlon, Eddie Mireles, and Gil Orrantia) carried .357 magnum six-shot revolvers, and in the case or Mireles, also a… Read more »

Officer Obie
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Officer Obie

I was right there with you thru your recap of that shoot-out, right up until you loaded your gun with .357 magnum. FBI policy, (just like my dept’s policy) stated .38 +P as our ONLY approved round. Well, we know how things happen. I was involved in a shooting that was justified in every way but one. My weapon was loaded with .357’s in the first two cylinders and the rest were .38+P’s. Why? Because we all “knew” .38’s bounced off winshields. I only fired twice. Both were hits on a running, closing man. He fell, got up just as… Read more »

John D.
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John D.

Thanks for your perspective. I had no knowledge that .357 magnum ammunition for .357 magnum revolvers was proscribed at the time of the Miami-Dade Shootout (4/11/86). They way I view it is that both Matix and Platt were known killers. They were the subject of ongoing efforts to capture them. The 8 FBI agents that did the felony car stop on Matix (who was driving the stolen Monte Carlo) and Platt at 9:30am on April 11, 1986 were woefully outgunned. Indeed, the fight really centered around Platt with his Ruger Mini 14 rifle against 7 agents (Manauzzi was never in… Read more »

Darrell
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Darrell

Good info Mike, Thanks for clearing up some misconceptions about the .40 SW