How the FBI reignited the pistol caliber war

Both the “9mm” and “.45” factions have quickly resumed their age-old talking points, seemingly oblivious to the progress of the last three decades


On July 25, 2014, the Federal Bureau of Investigation released a pre-solicitation notice for a family of pistols chambered in 9mm — and in so doing, fanned the embers of “the great debate” over pistol calibers.

Although it had finally (and thankfully) showed signs of petering out, in a flash, the “9mm versus .45” phoenix — which sold so much ink for the gun press over the years — has risen once again from the ashes. Sigh.

Some of you may wonder why the FBI solicitation caused such a commotion, and the answer is best summarized in one word: Miami.

Critical History
In April of 1986, two FBI Agents were killed and five were wounded (three of them grievously) in a protracted gun battle with two hardcore felons in an unincorporated area of Miami-Dade County (Fla.). 

In the aftermath of this horrific shooting, the FBI determined that the principal adversary had been struck with an FBI 9mm JHP bullet that penetrated his right arm, exited, and then bored into the chest cavity, damaging the lung and coming to rest just short of the heart. 

Although this “non-survivable wound” caused significant damage and blood loss that eventually took its toll, the felon remained active and mobile long enough to kill the two agents and wound at least one more. 

The FBI was unsatisfied with the performance of the bullet, largely — and probably, unfairly — blaming its lack of penetration for the deaths of the agents.

By the end of the decade, the FBI was leading a migration away from the 9mm toward larger calibers such as the 10mm and its progeny, the .40 S&W. A series of wound ballistics panels hosted by the FBI and the eventual development of the “FBI Protocol” for law enforcement ammunition testing both clearly indicated the FBI’s dissatisfaction with the 9mm ammunition available at the time, so the recent pre-solicitation notice for 9mm pistols seemed like a radical reversal and came as a shock to those familiar with the FBI’s historical aversion.

Two Flawed Arguments
There have been a variety of reactions to the announcement, and it’s perhaps inevitable that two longstanding rival camps have leapt to the fore in the newly energized debate. 

While not completely accurate, it’s handy to define these as the “9mm” and “.45” factions. Each group has quickly resumed their age-old talking points, oblivious to the progress of the last three decades.

Consider power. It’s an article of religion among the “.45 crowd” — loosely named, which also includes fans of other “major caliber” cartridges, such as the .40 S&W — that the 9mm cartridge lacks the mass and energy necessary to provide adequate terminal performance. This group conveniently ignores the incredible progress that has been made in ammunition technology since Miami — largely prompted by the FBI Protocol — and fails to recognize that today’s 9mm ammunition is vastly superior (capable of doing everything that can be reasonably expected from handgun ammunition, regardless of caliber).

Not to be outdone, the “9mm crowd” continues to beat the capacity drum, ignoring the fact that the advent of wide-body magazines for the .45 ACP — and pistols with good ergonomics to house them — and the development of the .40 S&W cartridge have largely negated the 9mm’s historical advantage in this area.

Each of these groups is mired in 30-year-old arguments.  

They’re missing the fact that the FBI’s new interest in 9mm pistols is not some kind of traitorous act and neither is it an admission that they made an error in leaving the 9mm behind decades ago. 

The truth is that they’ve conducted an honest evaluation of their requirements and the current state of technology, and found that today’s 9mm answers their needs.

Join the Club
The FBI is not alone in this respect. Executives at all the major ammunition companies have confirmed that law enforcement orders for 9mm ammunition have spiked in recent years, and the cartridge is making a serious comeback. Many agencies throughout the United States have recently adopted — or readopted — 9mm pistols, dropping the .40 S&W in the process. 

It’s not that the .40 S&W failed to deliver the terminal performance they wanted. It’s just that the new breed of 9mm ammunition can deliver similar performance without the generally snappier recoil and the accelerated wear (on both pistol and shooter), at a more affordable price. The fact that the new pistols can house more of the cartridges in the same sized gun is an added bonus.

These agencies have also taken an honest look at the demographics of their personnel, and have accepted the fact that law enforcement officers no longer come in just one size—Large. Instead, there are many officers with smaller hands and shorter fingers who find it difficult to reach the controls on larger caliber pistols with their corresponding larger frames. 

Despite all the ergonomic advances in pistol design of the last three decades, there is no way of getting around the fact that a .45 ACP pistol (and particularly a wide-body .45) is just going to be bigger in the hand and a .40 S&W in a smaller frame is going to recoil more. 

A smaller-frame pistol in a milder shooting caliber allows more officers to achieve the control necessary for good shooting, and makes sense for diverse agencies that want to standardize on a single gun and caliber.

Proper Focus
The FBI’s renewed interest in the 9mm doesn’t indicate that other cartridges are less capable or that they are poor choices for law enforcement. The truth is, with modern ammunition, any of the calibers currently in use by law enforcement will do the job — yet none of them will turn a handgun into the Hammer of Thor.

There will be a lot of ink — and hot air — expended in the coming weeks and months as this latest chapter of the ‘Great Caliber Debate’ unfolds, and while it may be entertaining to watch, we need to keep our priorities in focus.

Issues of caliber and weapon selection pale in comparison to mindset, tactics, and training. We need to dedicate our extremely limited resources (time, money) to the things that matter the most, and equipment selection is at the very bottom of that list.

As long as it’s reliable, it doesn’t matter what’s in your holster. What matters is what’s in your mind and your heart. Professionals focus on mindset, tactics, and training. 

Professionals let the amateurs bicker about minute differences in equipment.

Don’t get distracted by all the noise: stay focused on the right things, and stay safe out there.

About the author

Lieutenant Colonel (Ret.) Mike Wood is the author of Newhall Shooting: A Tactical Analysis, available in paper and electronic formats through Amazon.com , BarnesandNoble.com, Apple ITunes and gundigeststore.com . Please visit the official website for this book at www.newhallshooting.com for more information.

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