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The Resurgent 9mm

sXs72By Jim Waddell

During my nearly 40 years of involvement in law enforcement, my choice of service weapons has run the gamut to nearly every conceivable handgun caliber, within reason.

Starting with the .38 Special, I graduated to the .357 Magnum, then at the height of the Dirty Harry craze, I just had to have a Smith & Wesson Model 29 .44 Magnum, blue with the 6 ½ inch barrel.  It so happened, I belonged to a department that allowed its officers to carry practically any revolver as long as it had the words Colt or S&W stamped on it and was at least .38 Special or larger.

The Smith and Wesson Model 19.  One of the true great combat revolvers.

The Smith and Wesson Model 19. One of the true great combat revolvers.

Standing 5’9” tall and weighing in at 140 lbs. at the time, reflecting back the term “little man syndrome” comes to mind.  That said, I did ok with it on the range until the rangemaster hollered out, “ok, two in the chest, one in the head in two seconds or less.”  While others on the range got to use low powered .38 wadcutters in their .38 Specials and .357’s, I had to provide my own ammunition.  I hadn’t started loading for the .44 yet and the only loads I could find were full power Remington or Winchester 240 grainers.  Due to the mighty recoil and muzzle flip, my success at two in the chest and one in the head was elusive and I failed to qualify.  Secretly I was relieved as that damned ’29 left checkered imprints in my hands after just a few shots and it hurt like the devil.

The S&W M29, in the hands of "Dirty Harry" sparked a brief craze of police .44 magnum use.

The S&W M29, in the hands of “Dirty Harry” sparked a brief craze of police .44 magnum use.

Not being able to afford much more than cheap groceries in those days, I was forced to sell a gun to get a new one.  That Smith .44 went to a local dealer in trade for a Remington varmint rifle.  I still had a Smith Model 19 in .357 and carried that as a duty weapon for the next 12 years or so.

1987 found me behind a desk after accepting a position as chief of police in a small department.  (20 sworn officers).  I had been reading and hearing about some law agencies kicking around the idea of going to semi-autos but being a traditional lover of revolvers and the very powerful loads they could digest, I dismissed this idea as a trend that would go the way of the Edsel and the 8 track.  Due to my position and administrative responsibilities I handed off the duties of gun guru and firearms instructor.  I appointed an officer who was relatively new to the department but his knowledge and interest in guns was anything but new.

The Illinois State Police adopted the Smith & Wesson M39 in 1967, the first major department to issue a 9mm Para automatic.

The Illinois State Police adopted the Smith & Wesson M39 in 1967, the first major department to issue a 9mm Para automatic.

The rangemaster (Frank) came to me one day and said we should consider going to the 9mm.  I asked him why we should consider such a move as the 9mm was obviously less powerful than the .357 and besides that it only came in an autoloader and everyone knew autos were prone to jamming which was why cops and police agencies  used revolvers.  They were more reliable.  I suggested he do something constructive like go design a better course of fire for our next qualification.

Frank saw the opportunity and he didn’t waste it.  I don’t remember now the particulars of the course he designed but it was, to say the least, ahead of its time and a very realistic combat course that included multiple suspects.  Frank realized by my attitude he would get nowhere by arguing or trying to reason but if he could demonstrate his points it might work.  It did.  Although some of my views about police weaponry were becoming obsolete, other ideas were not and training against multiple suspects was intriguing.

The fine Sig Sauer P226.

The fine Sig Sauer P226.

Frank handed me his personal Sig-Sauer Model 226 in 9mm and a couple of loaded magazines.  I emptied them and was amazed at how sweet that gun was with mild recoil.  That training day ended with me telling Frank if he was really serious about making this radical of a change, gather his information and present a justification.

Frank did just that and from that point on semi-auto pistols in 9mm became optional.  Other agencies in our area also went auto.  The only realistic pistol calibers at the time were the 9mm and the .45 ACP.  The .45 was slow in taking off in popularity but the 9mm became a hit with officers, mainly because of its mild recoil and large magazine capacities.

What’s interesting, looking back, I was a pretty decent shot with a 6 inch revolver, having shot competition for several years.  When I started shooting an auto that was anything but muzzle-heavy, I had a difficult time shooting it accurately when at the range and shooting at bullseye targets out at 20 yards and beyond.

training72Most of the officers in our department, after transitioning to the auto started shooting better in the combat courses.  At first, I was a bit perplexed about this phenomenon but then realized they found it easier to control a mild recoiling 9mm than full powered .357’s and .38+p’s.  In close quartered combat shooting, the emphasis is not shooting for score but getting that gun out in a hurry and getting rounds in center mass.  The 9mm was hard to beat in that category.  Adding to that, flinching was reduced substantially.

From the late 80’s on, the semi-auto pistols have all but totally replaced wheel guns in our nation’s police agencies.  With that movement, the FBI and other larger agencies wanted something bigger than the 9mm as countless reports of officer involved shootings had the cops coming out on the short end where the 9’s weren’t putting the bad guys down quickly enough.

There were many instances where suspects were hit in the torso, often with multiple hits from so-called premium bullets that ended up being fatal.  The problem was, the suspect being high on drugs, alcohol or just plain adrenalin stayed upright and functional long enough to shoot, stab, choke or otherwise injure or kill innocents.  It’s much the same as a deer or other big game animal being hit in the heart or lungs with a bullet that’s fatal but the wounded animal can travel amazing distances before going down to stay.

One has to keep in mind it’s not the intent of the cops to kill a suspect.  Any officer who testifies in court he tried to kill a suspect certainly wasn’t coached or trained well.  An officer who shoots an offender has one thought in mind and that’s to stop the guy as quickly as possible.  In most cases, the hit that will stop the suspect the quickest is usually fatal.  This may seem like a trivial issue but in our litigious society, the officer’s intent at the time he shot and killed a suspect will mean all the difference as to the outcome of a wrongful death lawsuit, even if the coroner’s jury or the prosecuting attorney clears the officer of criminal charges.

Jeff Cooper

Jeff Cooper

With American law enforcement having on-going issues with the 9mm’s questionable stopping ability, the movement to “go bigger” started in earnest in the late 80’s when the FBI adopted the 10mm.  The 10 was designed in 1983 by Jeff Cooper.  This .40 caliber bullet came in weights that included 155 and 175 grains and produced velocities over 1300 fps and higher in some loadings.  It was intended to be the ideal bullet and caliber to satisfy all the requirements of a defense load.

The Bren Ten never really got off the ground.  This is their rare Special Forces model.

The Bren Ten never really got off the ground. This is their rare Special Forces model.

There was a bit of a flaw in this thinking.  It matters not if the missile weighs a pound and travels at the speed of light.  If the shooter jerks and cringes, closes his eyes tight in anticipation of the mighty blast and kick, thereby missing his intended target, the assailant continues to stay in the fight.  It’s the same thing that happened to me years earlier when I was unable to qualify with the .44 Magnum.

I didn’t take long for the police administrators to realize the 10mm wasn’t the answer.  Not just female and smaller framed male officers but just about everyone found the blast and recoil of the 10 to be unmanageable.  In addition, the guns that chambered this powerful round had to be made large and heavy.

I know from personal experience as I purchased a Smith & Wesson Model 1006 in the 10mm, soon after it came out.  It was fun putting about 200 full powered loads through that monster but it was immediately obvious this was just not practical as a police service weapon.

Along came the .40 S&W, a shortened 10mm.  The FBI adopted the .40 and so did the California Highway Patrol.  I don’t know how many agencies across the country adopted the .40 but to say it became a popular law enforcement round would be an accurate statement.  It filled the void between the 9mm and the .45 ACP.

Now a quarter century later, the .40 S&W is being replaced by the caliber it was designed to replace, the 9mm.  Not because the .40 has been a bad performer but the old issues of recoil and muzzle blast are keeping a lot of cops from prevailing in gun battles.

The ubiquitous Glock 22 and smaller Glock 23 in .40 S&W.

The ubiquitous Glock 22 and smaller Glock 23 in .40 S&W.

The FBI realized this a few years ago and has requested a tidy sum of $85 million to replace their Glock 22 .40 S&W’s with 9mm’s.  It seems they want to stay with the Glock based on the language in their request for proposal (RFP).  The specifications they list fit the Glock models better than O.J.’s glove.

A report coming from the FBI Firearms Training Unit in Quantico, Virginia explains the agency’s decision to change back to the 9mm.  Excerpts are as follows:

  •     Cops miss between 70 and 80% of the shots fired in a shooting incident
  •      The 9mm Luger now offers select projectiles which are, under ideal testing conditions,   out-performing most of the premium line .40 and .45 auto projectiles tested by the FBI
  •      The 9mm offers higher magazine capacities, less recoil, lower cost, (both in ammunition and wear and tear on the weapons) and higher functional reliability rates (in FBI weapons)
  •     The majority of FBI shooters are both FASTER in shot strings fired and more ACCURATE shooting a 9mm vs a .40 in similar sized weapons.
  •      There is little to no noticeable difference in the wound tracks between premium line projectiles for law enforcement from the 9mm Luger through the .45 Automatic.

In the FBI report, they claim the .40’s are too hard on the guns as well as the shooters.  An armorer from a local police department here in California says the same thing about the .40 caliber, they’re too hard on guns and make them prone to early retirement.  Like the FBI, this department likes the Glock and has already replaced the .40 and gone back to the 9mm.  This department will allow officers who have their own .40’s and .45’s to continue to carry them.

It’s not my intent to discuss the Glock pistol in this post but it makes one wonder if the Glock, being made simple and of course with the polymer frame is prone to wear and tear more than other brands.  It’s an interesting question but having carried a Glock 22C on patrol duty for five years, I loved that gun and found nothing wrong with it.

A word or two about stopping power.  Is there such a thing?  I’m not going to even try to dissect that term or define what it means.  The only type of hit from ANY type of bullet fired from any caliber of semi-auto pistols in the calibers discussed that will positively put a human being down instantly is a shot to the brain or the central nervous system, meaning spine or spinal cord.  What are the odds of a police officer hitting those areas intentionally (or not) during a gunfight?   Maybe 40% and that’s being optimistic.

The only other type of hit that I can think of that would bring instant results in stopping the fight would be a hit to the suspect’s arm that’s holding a weapon.  As I mentioned earlier referring to a hit on big game, if an officer hits a suspect in the lungs, the heart or anywhere else in the torso that does not include the spine or central nervous system, it becomes very likely the suspect will have enough gas left in his tank to ruin someone’s day.  It may only be a few seconds but how many seconds does it take an angered and determined man to sprint 25 yards with a knife?  (inmates practice and teach this in prisons).

When the 9mm first came into use way back when, one of the first problems police trainers encountered was what they termed, “spray and pray.”  With magazines stuffed with 13 or more rounds, officers tended to send a barrage of fire downrange, hoping to score a hit.  I know this happened on the training ranges, if it happened in gunfights, I just don’t know.  Police administrators have a valid concern that every bullet coming from an officer’s gun is a potential lawsuit.

Since that time, emphasis has been more toward trying to make that first shot count which can be paradoxical when the officer through training, is told his gun/ammunition may not do all he hopes it will do in the first few seconds of a shooting incident.  Thus, the double tap, or two in the chest, one in the head.

I’m not saying any of this is the best way to look at calibers or training methods.  I’m pointing out they are all things that have to be considered.  The FBI went further in their RFP to talk about temporary and permanent wound channels, fragmentation and the psychology of the suspect when hit.  It’s all interesting stuff and easy to locate on the internet if one has an interest in studying this further.

My question is this.  If the newer premium 9mm bullets whether they be Remington Golden Sabers, Speer Gold Dots, Winchester SXT or Federal’s Hyda-shok, are so improved, why wouldn’t the same bullets in the .40 and .45 calibers be just as improved?

Shield72As for me, I’m retired and the issue doesn’t affect me as much as it does cops still on the job.  If I were still working, I would have to think long and hard about all of this stuff before I decided which to carry, if I had the option.  I still carry concealed, all the time, if not on me within reach in my vehicle and at home.  I have an S&W M&P Shield in 9mm that I’ve had for a year.  I love that gun and feel very well protected by it.

oldtime training72