Is a 9 mm the Top Gun?

posted on July 23, 2018

I hate to keep saying bad things about the FBI. But a little while ago, the FBI came out with a position paper saying the 9 mm was as good as the bigger calibers. Well, they didn’t say so, but a lot of people thought they did. What they said was the 9 mm makes more sense for law enforcement than the bigger calibers do, and they backed up that opinion.

The reasons that can be called right are: capacity, recoil and service life. There is also the cost factor, which is a real problem for law enforcement, but one we don’t always have to deal with.    

For any given pistol size, it will hold more 9 mm Luger rounds than .40 S&W rounds. Given that the hit percentage of law enforcement in gunfights is around 20 percent mark, the more rounds you have, the more likely you are going to hit. The difference might not be large, but it can matter.      

The miracle here isn’t that the FBI said, “We have found the perfect balance point, and the 9 mm sits right there at the center.” No, the miracle is that they didn’t go smaller than the
9 mm.

Recoil is the big thing, and it drives all the rest. A .40 is going to recoil more than a 9, or it isn’t doing its job. This drives down the hit ratio, makes training more difficult and decreases service life of pistols. The hottest 9 mm load out there, the 127 +P+, does not recoil like a warm-ish .40, let alone the ,40 equivalent of a 155-grain jacketed hollow point. The milder 9 mm loads are even easier to shoot.     

So, with the 9 mm being easier to shoot, it means a greater likelihood of getting hits. It also means a greater likelihood of passing the qualification course.      

Most gun owners like to shoot. Many of us are very competitive, and look forward to a match. There are a lot of people in law enforcement who are not gun people. They want to do good, but they didn’t grow up with firearms, and to them it is just another tool. To them, a day at the range is a day out in the hot sun—or the cold and rain. It’s another way to interrupt their focus on the case they are working, or screw up their vacation plans. In other words, shooting is an onerous chore.       

Then there are the people who aren’t good at shooting, who dread the qualification course. Any qualification course is hard enough, but to shoot it with a hot .40 load in a relatively compact carry gun is even more work. And if they don’t pass, they have to do it over again, or be put on desk duty with a black mark on their record. The training cadre hate it, because they have to fill out the paperwork, go through remedial training with the person and put up with the complaints of “close enough” when someone is a point short.    

And that extra shooting costs. It costs time. It costs ammunition. It costs in lost man-hours or overtime. Targets, staples, pasters. It all adds up.     

The miracle here isn’t that the FBI said, “We have found the perfect balance point, and the 9 mm sits right there at the center.” No, the miracle is that they didn’t go smaller than the 9 mm. We can only be thankful that there aren’t any duty-level, high-capacity pistols available in smaller calibers, or the FBI might well have talked glowingly of them.      

The one detail the FBI used as justification for the 9 mm that I found unsupportable was that they could see no differences in the terminal ballistic track, in ballistic gelatin, between 9 mm, .40 S&W and .45 ACP. Think about that. The FBI couldn’t see any difference, therefore there must not be any difference. And what high-tech, computerized volumetric measuring system did they use to determine the volume of gelatin disruption between these calibers? Oh, why, none.      

And this ignores the use of ballistic gelatin, which in intended to measure both gelatin disruption and bullet performance. Disruption was useful, but in the long run we found out that the bullet was everything. Why? Because the human eye can’t measure volume of the gelatin disruption well enough to draw any conclusions. Oh, we can see the difference when the difference is marked. But when it is close, the noise in the signal can overwhelm the differences.      

How can we know that the statement “We can’t see the difference, therefore it must not exist” to be untrue? Simple: Sir Isaac Newton. If we take two bullets, equally constructed, with different amounts of energy or momentum (pick one, either will do) or size or weight (again, pick your poison) and we plow them into ballistic gelatin, what would you expect? The one with more will do more. It has to, or else Sir Isaac would be spinning in his grave. We can argue what that “more” represents. Does a high-enough velocity make up for less mass? Can a smaller, lighter bullet do as well as the larger, heavier one? And if it can, what is the cost there?      

That you cannot see the difference matters not to the uncaring laws of physics. That you cannot see the difference simply means that the measuring method is unsuited to the task at hand. You can’t beat the laws of physics.      

What might prove the difference? A detailed survey of shooting incidents, where the caliber used was noted and the results logged. That’s what Marshall and Sanow attempted to do a couple of decades ago, and they were roundly scorned for it. The problem with that methodology is not one of physics, but the legal system—and that proved insurmountable.   

The conclusion we can take from this is simple: if you want to shoot a 9 mm, do so. If you are comfortable with it, and can shoot well with it, go forth in confidence. But do not, under any circumstances, try to kid yourself that what you are carrying is the full equal of a larger cartridge. It isn’t, and the FBI saying it is won’t change that.


Sen. Chuck Schumer caricature
Sen. Chuck Schumer caricature

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