It is quite entertaining at times to be in the company of those who know firearms. Everyone has an educated opinion and we type A personalities don’t tend to be tactful in how we represent our opinion. I’ve enjoyed listening to some truly great minds in the firearms field debate the pros and cons of the .45ACP versus the 9mm. In the past few years the debate has grown to include the .40S&W, the .357Sig and now the .45GAP. Being highly presumptuous and arrogant, I’m going to way in with my two cents worth on the pros and cons of the various calibers and loadings and offer my outlook on what I believe the best is.
I should start out by admitting that I have a bias toward the Government Model 1911 pistols. Although my first handgun ever was a revolver, when I enlisted in the Army we were still carrying the venerable 1911 .45ACP government model and it will always hold a dear place in my heart. That admitted, it was two and a half decades ago and even basic 1911 design has changed significantly since then. Now there are a number of designs that use double-stack magazines, have passive firing pin blocks and polymer frames. Anytime you increase your capacity but reduce your overall weight you’ve accomplished a good thing in my book. That cartridge capacity is why I brought those design changes up. One part of the seemingly endless debate is that contemporary 9mm handguns hold 15 or more rounds in their magazines. Heck, even the midsize Glock 19 holds 15+1. On the other hand, the Glock 21 holds 13+1 of .45ACP. Is 16 rounds of 9mm better than 14 rounds of .45ACP? I believe that either would serve you well.
But what would a minimum number for magazine capacity be? My Springfield Armory 1911 is “traditional”: 7-round single stack magazine and no passive firing pin block. 7+1 was always good enough for me when I was in the Army but that was before there were so many other options available. To make matters worse, the mid-80s saw the evolution of the .40S&W round which seemed an almost happy comproimse – the best of both worlds. Did I think so? In a word… NO.
As I understand it, the .40S&W was an evolution of the 10mm which ended up nearly mimicking the .45ACP – but not quite. In the early ’70s the 10mm was created and put into the infamous Bren Ten. Looking much like a CZ-75 on steroids, the Bren Ten was Don Johnson’s original gun in the “Miami Vice” television show. But the Bren Ten manufacturers had a hard time making enough magazines to keep up with weapon production and the weapon ultimately failed. Many other companies tried to make guns that would hold, fire and handle the powerful 10mm round, but many also failed. Eventually Smith & Wesson made a stainless steel pistol – the 1006 – that fired the 10mm round. The weapon was fairly well accepted but the recoil proved too much for some shooters to handle. The FBI – users of the Model 1006 – inquired as to the possibility of downloading the 10mm round so that it would recoil less. The 10mm FBI load was developed. Then some smart engineer some where realized that for the amount of powder that was being used in the downloaded 10mm rounds, the case could be shortened. The internal chamber pressures created by the shortened case wouldn’t be unmanageable – and the Smith & Wesson .40 cartridge was born: the same bullet diameter as the 10mm but with a case length short enough to be put into a standard double stack 9mm grip.
Now, the beginning basis of the debate about which was the better cartridge – the .45ACP or the 9mm – centered around the value of “big and slow” versus “small and fast”. No one really worried about “big and fast” because recoil and internal pressures in pistols just didn’t make “big and fast” a realistic possiblity for the average cop – and that was the market these weapons were being developed for. So it only made sense that if relatively big and reasonably fast could be created then the argument would be rendered moot, right? Wrong.
I remember some of the original .40S&W loadings being in the 185grain range – which was the same as the light .45ACP loads. Further, that .40 185g bullet was being pushed out at about 1,000 feet per second and sometimes a little faster. So what people thought was that the .40S&W was going to be the equivalent of a light .45ACP – but you could get a lot more of them in the gun. What could be better?
Well, let’s be realistic: the .45ACP and the 9mm aren’t going away. The .45ACP has been around for well over 100 years and was the military standard from 1911 to 1985. In 1985 the standard was changed to the 9mm to be in compliance with NATO. The 9mm round has been around as long as – if not longer than – the .45ACP but was largely a European cartridge. It didn’t get significant usage in the United States until the late ’50s and early ’60s. And even then, pistols were just beginning to make some headway into the law enforcement market. Revolvers were still the end all be all.
So, even as recently as the late ’80s, the argument still raged but with an added answer: the .40S&W as the compromise. You didn’t have to pick .45ACP or 9mm… the .40S&W gave you benefits of both: larger bullet, not as slow speed as the .45ACP, and a higher capacity – although not quite that of the 9mm. Then Glock got on the scene and all of a sudden you could get a 15-round Glock Model 22 in .40S&W that was the same size as your Beretta 92F in 9mm. Oh, and by the way, that Beretta 92F, also known as the M9, carried the same number of SMALLER bullets: 15+1.
Of course, Glock came out with the .40 caliber Model 22 AFTER they had released the Model 20 in 10mm carrying 15+1 and the Model 21 in .45ACP carrying 13+1. Still, for whatever reason, actual shooting data was still showing the .357Magnum round – a 125g JHP bullet fired from a 4″ barrel going about 1,400 feet per second – was still the best manstopper around. Enter the engineers at Sig Sauer…. otherwise known as SigArms – and the .357Sig was born. By using a specially formed (NOT necked down) .40 caliber case they could support a .357 bullet and push it out of a pistol at that 1,400+ FPS speed. Further, since the case used was the same base dimensions as the .40S&W cartridge, you could get the same magazine capacities as .40 caliber pistols. Now, however, you could get .357Magnum performance in that pistol. Oooh… Ahhh… I have to be very clear on this point: the .357Sgi brass is NOT simply necked down .40 caliber brass. Due to the internal pressures generated by the .357Sig cartridge, different specifications exist for the .357Sig brass. (Thanks to a reader for correcting me on this)
Now the final step in compromise has been taken but it wasn’t, I think, what many expected: The good folks at Glock realized that modern metallurgy and polymer design processes created the possibility of putting a .45 caliber cartridge into a frame that was the same circumfrence of the 9mm and .40 caliber weapons. By using the double stack magazine and shortening the cartridge case some 2mm, the .45GAP was born and the Model 37 gives you a 10+1 capacity. Now you don’t have to compromise on the .40S&W: you can have the .45 performance in a 9mm size gun. The only loss you experience is ammo count: 17+1 in the 9mm versus 10+1 in the .45GAP.
So how many bullets do you really need in a gunfight? Well, as many as I can have of course. Seriously, statistics show that the average police shooting involves less than five shots being fired. Knowing that, do we really need 18 rounds in our pistol? I still want all I can have, but if the ONLY thing stopping me from getting a Glock 37 is that it has 7 rounds less than the G17 in 9mm, then I might need to reconsider the value of those 7 bullets.
Does this in any way end the oldest debate in firearms? I don’t think so. That said, I think we’ve learned all the ins and outs of the .45ACP And the 9mm. They’ve both been around for more than a century. I’m pretty sure we’ve got them figured out. The .40S&W is just over twenty years old. The .357Sig and .45GAP are both younger than that. It will take them a long time to become as comfortably accepted by mature shooters as the .45ACP and 9mm already are. In the meantime, I’ll continue to shoot my Government Model 1911 and my Glock 19 and happily debate which one I prefer most: old, big, slow and reliable or new, small, fast and reliable. Either way, RELIABLE is what I count on and value. You?
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