The 9mm is increasing in popularity—again—but are
the choices being made for the right reasons?
For a couple of years now, there has been a building wave, though not yet a tsunami by any means, of law enforcement agencies “powering down” from .40’s, .45’s and .357 SIG’s to 9mm pistols for duty.
I saw it clearly in evidence this year while teaching at the annual conference of the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association, and I’m seeing it in armed citizen classes as well. There are some good reasons for it, and at least one debatable rationale.
Arrowed brass and muzzle orientation show 9mm controllability
as Mas runs Ruger SR9 1-handed.
Good News 9mm
There are at least three advantages to choosing this least powerful of accepted “service calibers.” Firepower is one. When the cartridges are narrower, you can fit more of them into a gun the same size. Assuming the user has a fully loaded pistol and two full spare magazines on his or her belt, a single-stack .45 with 8-round mags puts 9 in the gun, with a total of 25 rounds at the armed person’s disposal. But the same individual so outfitted with a 17+1 9mm Glock 17 or S&W M&P9 can go 18 rounds before needing to reload and 52 rounds total on their person.
Milder recoil is another advantage of the 9mm over the larger calibers. It will be particularly important to new shooters and to the disabled shooter or one with physical strength issues.
Finally, there is the matter of ammo cost. The universal popularity of the 9mm Luger cartridge allows manufacturers to take advantage of economies of scale. Lead, copper and brass ain’t cheap, and the larger cartridge uses more of each, making the bigger rounds more expensive for obvious reasons.
On the other hand, no 9mm will give you the expanded diameter of this Federal HST +P .45 ACP,
which Mas used to instantly drop a charging hog with neck-into-chest shot.
The Power Question
A growing mantra says, “Service pistol calibers all perform the same, so the 9mm is the same as larger calibers with less recoil and more rounds on board.” I submit that this may be going just too far.
Is the 9mm adequate in terms of service pistol power potential? I think so. Our best 147-grain subsonic loads such as the Winchester Ranger and the Federal HST have been proven in Los Angeles and Portland, respectively, to be as good as the old .38 Special 158-grain +P lead hollowpoint that worked so well from Miami to Chicago and beyond. They’re actually a little more powerful, in fact, and vastly more satisfactory in performance than the old-style, cup-and-core subsonic 9mm 147, which had spotty performance. Lighter 9mm bullets going faster seem to be even more dynamic. The Speer Gold Dot 124-grain +P at 1,220 fps has delivered superb performance from Las Vegas Metro to NYPD. Winchester’s 127-grain +P+ at 1,250 fps has worked decisively from Orlando to San Bernardino County. They can be seen as equivalent to a low-end .357 Magnum.
However, new bullet technology has also applied to larger calibers. A 155-grain .40 S&W hollowpoint at 1,200 fps is awfully close to a full-power 158-grain .357 Magnum at 1,240. From LAPD to San Diego and elsewhere, the 230-grain .45 ACP (particularly in the +P 950 fps load) has earned an excellent reputation. The bigger bullet expands wider, having “more lead to spread.” Moreover, in cold weather when inert material from heavy clothing can pack a hollow bullet nose and turn it into ball, it would be good if it turned into big ball. Will a fraction of an inch in bullet diameter matter? It certainly can. We often hear trauma surgeons say, “Another tenth of an inch to the side and that shot would have been fatal.” And conversely, “If the wound path had gone a tiny fraction of an inch to the other side, it would have missed the spine.” I want those fractions of an inch working for the folks on my side.
The standard magazine of a 9mm Springfield Armory XD(M) holds 19 rounds,
for a total of 20 if the chamber is loaded. Smaller cartridges allow
higher capacity while keeping gun size down.
We all have to make our own choices. Last year I carried a .45 about a third of the time and 9mm (with 127-grain +P+) the rest, usually in double-stack Glocks or a 20-shot Springfield Armory XD(M). In jurisdictions with magazine capacity limitations, and in cold weather for the reason above, I’ll go .45. But when traveling to teach, with an 11-pound airline ammo limit, I can carry a lot more 9mm cartridges than .45 ACP.
For every agency, and indeed every individual, choice should follow rational cost/benefit analysis specific to our own unique needs. The 9mm choice can certainly make sense, but said choice needs to be made for valid reasons to answer genuine needs, and those needs are not necessarily the same for all of us, all of the time.
By Massad Ayoob