Sunday, December 15, 2013

Interesting speculation about the FBI's pistol caliber

Shooting enthusiasts and those who train to use firearms for law enforcement and self-defense will be interested in speculation that the FBI may be considering downsizing its issue pistol caliber to 9mm. Parabellum.  If true, it'll be the latest development in a saga that had its origins in an infamous 1986 shootout in Miami.  Two heavily-armed suspects fought eight FBI agents, hitting seven of them, killing two and injuring five before the suspects died of wounds.  A detailed forensic analysis of the gunfight may be found here, and another useful reconstruction here.  A dual video report - the first part reconstructing the shootout, the second containing reflections by agents who survived the incident - may be viewed here.

Following the Miami shootout, the FBI concluded - along with many other law enforcement agencies at the time - that its issue weapons were no longer adequate against better-armed suspects.  This led to the widespread adoption of high-capacity semi-automatic pistols, replacing the revolvers that had been standard police issue in the USA for decades.  The FBI felt that the 9mm. Parabellum round, in the loadings available at the time, was not sufficiently powerful;  but the .45 ACP, long used by the US military and considered more powerful in contemporary loadings, was also a much larger round, restricting magazine capacity, and its heavier recoil was harder for some officers to control.  The agency wanted a round that offered greater power than the 9mm., but was smaller and more controllable than the .45.  The eventual result was the .40 Smith & Wesson, which came to dominate the US law enforcement market during the 1990's and 2000's.

However, ammunition designers haven't rested on their laurels over the past two decades.  They've been refining their designs, tweaking their materials, and producing better-performing rounds.  The best 9mm. loads now equal or exceed the muzzle energy of typical .40 and .45 loads, and perform very well upon impact.  The Winchester Ranger T-series 127gr. +P+ (my current load of choice in 9mm.) and Speer's Gold Dot 124gr. +P rounds have excellent 'street' records.  More recently, Federal's latest-generation HST 124gr. +P round has begun to produce good results in law enforcement hands.  The latter load is reportedly under consideration by the FBI.

If the performance of 9mm. loads has improved to the point that premier law enforcement agencies are considering switching back to that cartridge, it's good news for regular shooters too, as these high-technology rounds are bound to filter through to us, sometimes under different brands.  (For example, an equivalent to Federal's P9HST3 standard-pressure 124gr. HST law enforcement load is already available as the P9HST1S load in its Premium Personal Defense product lineup.)  Regular readers will recall that a couple of years ago, I recommended consideration of higher-capacity handguns in the light of the changing urban self-defense environment.  Developments such as these make that transition much easier to justify.



Rich said...

Have you heard anything about whether .40 rounds have been undergoing a similar evolution?

Peter said...

@Rich: Yes, they have, and other calibers too. For example, Federal's HST 165gr. JHP in .40 S&W is now regarded as one of the top rounds in that caliber - so much so that I recently bought a case of it, to make it my standard defensive load in that caliber. 'Street' results - rather than laboratory or ballistic-gelatin testing - had shown it to be markedly better than earlier-generation rounds, so I decided to upgrade. I no longer use .45 ACP as a carry round due to physical limitations, but I have a couple of boxes of Federal's HST round in that caliber as well, 'just in case'.

(I haven't switched in 9mm. yet, because it seems any of the top three rounds are so close in performance that there's no standout among them. The HST round is certainly one of the top three, though, and once I've worked through my current stash of Winchester, I may seriously consider a case of that as a replacement - particularly if the FBI adopts it.)

Anonymous said...

If you recall, prior to settling on the .40 S&W the FBI adopted the 10mm in the S&W model 1076 DA/SA autopistol. Although highly regarded by street agents, it was decided that the 10mm had too much blast and uncontrollability among smaller (read; female)agents. As one agent explained to me, ex-military and ex-street police agents loved the 10mm, ex-accountants did not. I use my S/'7W model 1086 DAO steel-framed 10mm for daily carry and for hunting. Great handgun, with one-shot kills on whitetails out to +55 yards for me.

Keads said...

Thanks for sending me down the rabbit hole today Peter! I downloaded and read the "Forensic Analysis Of The April 11, 1986, FBI Firefight" today. An eyeopening read.

Oh, I thoroughly enjoyed your books!