This week saw a watershed event in the never-ending debate about pistol calibers.
But first, let’s put this week’s development into historical context and perspective. Until the 1980s, most police departments were issued with six round revolvers, usually chambered in .38 Spl or possibly .357 magnum. A few police departments were cautiously – indeed, hesitantly – experimenting with semi-auto pistols; in particular, early model Smith & Wesson semi-autos, chambered in 9mm. And, overlaying it all, particularly in departments where officers could choose their own handgun, there were .45 M1911 type semi-autos as well.
The hesitancy on the part of police departments to shift from revolvers was due to several reasons. One of the more prominent reasons were a concern about reliability – it was felt that a revolver was close to 100% for-sure guaranteed to always shoot when called upon, whereas some of the early model semi-auto pistols were significantly less reliable, and in a typical close-range police encounter, the officer seldom/never has time to safely do a clearance drill if his weapon malfunctions at a critical point. Another prominent concern was a need for more hours of training for officers to become proficient with a semi-auto, and a related point was of safety – both for the officer and for the general public.
All these pistols held relatively few cartridges, by modern standards. Early S&W Model 39 pistols held eight rounds, a standard M1911 magazine held seven, and of course a revolver typically had six (and some departments had a policy restricting officers to only having five rounds loaded, with the hammer resting on an empty chamber).
The FBI mirrored the practice of most police departments and generally issued its agents with similar revolvers and occasionally semi-autos as well.
In 1982 the winds of change were starting to blow, with Glock’s totally revolutionary design first appearing, although it took a while for this to start to have an effect in the US. Not only did the Glock have a new type of cocking mechanism and carry condition, but it also offered 17 round magazines. Prior to then, the highest capacity magazines were on Browning Hi-Power pistols, with 13 rounds. Both the first Glocks and the Hi-Powers were chambered for 9mm cartridges.
It was not until 1986 that this slow-moving evolution of sorts switched to obvious and sudden change. This was the year of the infamous FBI Miami shootout, which saw two FBI agents killed and five wounded in an extended gun battle with two bank robbers. The two robbers also eventually died, but they each absorbed multiple hits and remained in the fight, continuing to effectively continue exchanging fire with the eight FBI agents, until finally succumbing to their wounds.
This was a shocking outcome and caused a colossal re-think on the part of the FBI and law-enforcement in general – a re-think that was of course echoed by private shooters as well. New focus was given to ‘stopping power’ and the desire of ‘one shot stops’, as well as greater consideration attached to larger magazine capacities.
After studies and stopgap temporary fixes, the FBI first settled on a 10mm cartridge as being the ‘ideal’ cartridge for their agents, and then after finding that the 10mm was ‘too powerful’ (ie too difficult to shoot well) they eased back a bit and determined the .40 S&W cartridge (which is basically a lower-powered 10mm cartridge) to be the ideal compromise, and designated the Glock 22 and 23 as the two official carry-pistols for their agents, in 1997.
Police departments also started to rethink their standard sidearm issue, which both saw the end of revolvers, being phased out in favor of higher capacity semi-autos, and a shift up in calibers. While 9mm remained common, it was no longer as dominant as it once was. It was quickly decided that the earlier concerns were less important or could be resolved, as of course they could be and were. These days you almost never see any law enforcement officer with a revolver.
While this was all happening, a surprising opposite transition was occurring in the US military, which after a lengthy evaluation decided in 1985 to replace their venerable M1911A1 pistols with the new M9 – a Beretta 92S-1 model double action semi-auto pistol chambered in 9mm, and with a 15 round magazine.
This was a very controversial decision in every respect – the decision to go ‘down’ from a heavy big .45 round to a smaller lightweight 9mm round, and spurning the M1911A1 design and all American gunmakers in favor of an Italian made pistol.
While gun owners might agree on many things, the one thing guaranteed to always cause an argument would be a discussion of what is the best handgun caliber. People would quote semi-scientific studies that could be selectively found to ‘prove’ just about any preference, and the conflicting moves of the military down-sizing to the 9mm while police departments were upsizing to larger calibers gave everyone plenty of ‘facts’ to prove whatever their personal preference was.
But, and although it took decades to occur, a new perspective slowly emerged, and we’re now seeing a reversal of what has happened to date. As background to this, it is necessary to explain one very important fact. All pistol rounds are inadequate and unable to guarantee a significantly high level of one shot stops. The only difference between them might be shades of inadequacy, and the choices are not involved with finding the best caliber but instead with finding the least worst caliber.
Recent FBI testing – well, a couple of years old now – has shown that the most important factor that corresponds to the effectiveness of any caliber is not the caliber itself, but the ability of the person using the firearm to shoot the pistol ‘well’ – ie, accurately (and, to a lesser extent, quickly, with second shots quickly delivered, also in a controlled well-aimed manner).
This ‘discovery’ should astonish no-one, except the semi-skilled shooters who hoped they could find a ‘magic’ caliber cartridge that would excuse them the need to develop decent skills. Unfortunately, there is no such magic cartridge, and the bottom line shows that really there’s not much difference at all between any of the main pistol cartridges – the big difference is in the shooter, not in what he is shooting. That’s something that we’ve always agreed with ourselves.
So, if the issue becomes one of shooting proficiency rather than cartridge effectiveness, which cartridge is easiest to master, and which cartridge can be carried in greatest quantity in any given size of pistol?
The answer to that, as determined by the FBI research, is 9mm. The 9mm has the least amount of recoil and is the smallest ‘full size’ pistol cartridge. Typically a modern double-stacked pistol will carry two more rounds of 9mm in a given size magazine than it would .40 S&W.
Some two years later, the FBI are finally putting their money where their mouth is, and this is reflected in their preliminary notice of an upcoming tender for 9mm pistols, published just this week. It is expected the formal tender will be officially announced probably during the first quarter of next year – clearly this is not something the FBI are rushing into!
A move back to 9mm has already been occurring in police departments around the country. The .40 S&W round might have more energy and maybe even more stopping power, but it is harder to shoot well, and untrained shooters are more likely to flinch due to the greater muzzle blast and recoil, meaning that fewer of their shots land effectively on target.
The appalling accuracy of police officers is the thing of legend throughout the firearms training industry (generally quoted as being around about 25%, depending on if you include such things as guaranteed single shot hits in police officer suicides), and part of the reason for this is that many police officers are not gun enthusiasts, and never use their firearms for recreation, and dread their annual or more frequent qualifications in their .40 caliber semi-auto. So if/when they ever need to use their firearm ‘for real’ they are poorly trained and their shooting reflects this.
It is better public policy for police officers to shoot fewer bullets and more accurately. Here are just two examples (one two) where innocent bystanders have been hit by police fire – nine pedestrians in the first case and two in the second. With only one ‘bad guy’ in each case, it is beyond bad that an exchange of fire with a single gunman saw the police wound nine innocent civilians.
This is where better training with the 9mm might really pay dividends. If the police only fired eight instead of 16 rounds in the first of the two preceding examples, then clearly there’d be no way they could injure nine innocent civilians, and if indeed the 9mm round is less ‘lethal’ than a .40 caliber, the chances of fatal injuries on innocent bystanders also drops.
The same issues apply equally to ourselves. Even if we train more rigorously than police officers, the additional overlay of adrenalin and fear will destroy much of the ‘skill’ we have calmly obtained in a relaxed safe training class at the local range, and we too may be wildly firing rounds everywhere except on target.
Just like police officers and federal agents, we not only need good training but we also need a firearm that is easily controlled and operated. And, for 99% of people, no matter how well they say they can shoot a .40 caliber pistol, the chances are they can shoot the same pistol in a 9mm chambering even better and more effectively.
The really amusing part of this story? At the same time that the FBI and many police departments are returning back ‘down’ to 9mm, the military is once more having another look at its M9 and considering a shift back to a larger caliber. Some special military units still use (or have returned to) .45 caliber pistols, but these units tend to be very highly trained, where the abilities of their personnel and their training more than compensate for any extra difficulty in controlling the higher powered pistols. But for your average infantryman who also seldom turns to a pistol, it remains unclear if the military will switch back to .45 or some other caliber, or stick with 9mm.
Bottom Line Summary
We’re not saying that any pistol caliber is better than any other pistol caliber. Indeed, if we had to be pinned down to a statement, we’d say that all pistol calibers are bad, and we’d definitely say that you should spend your energy in training, not in seeking a pistol caliber that will spare you the need for training.
But, having made that comment, we do agree with the new FBI finding that a larger number of well placed 9mm rounds will always be more effective than a smaller number of poorly placed larger caliber rounds, and we agree with their decision to return to the more easily handled 9mm caliber.
Our favorite pistol is a 9mm Glock 17. We also have Glock 19, 26 and 34 pistols, so we have all four of the double stacked Glock 9mm pistols. We do have other caliber pistols too – .40, .45, revolver calibers, and smaller semi-auto calibers too, all the way down to .22 and .32. We love our M1911 .45 semi-auto and sometimes carry it, but most of the time, our Glock 17 is our first choice.
Our .40 (a Glock 22) stays in the gun safe and is never touched, other than for when demonstrating to friends why the 9mm is so much nicer and easier to control than the .40!
We own other brands of 9mm pistol also, and have shot just about every major style of 9mm pistol. Some are nice and some are nasty, but no matter what else we sometimes trial, we always come back to our Glocks.
As preppers, you want to have an ultra-reliable, easy-to-maintain pistol that uses a standard caliber of cartridge. Glock pistols chambered in 9mm come close to max on all three of those scales. Others might get close, but we feel that overall the Glock 9mm remains a prepper’s best choice.
Please see our four part series on choosing a prepper pistol for a detailed discussion on the entire topic of how to find a suitable pistol.