An article on this topic was pointed out to me and I was asked my opinion of the cartridges specified. I started to answer, but thought, ‘Hey, I should do my own version for my blog.’ So here it is. I might add a cartridge or two even.
Mind you I am restricting myself to cartridges that were once popular or were recently introduced but fell flat. There are a host of others that are clearly already obsolete, never attained any real popularity or were never offered in a commercial platform. I’ll be building one of those very soon, so you’ll get to read all about it before too long.
So, in order of diameter…
.25 Auto/ 6.35mm
People like small, clever things. These days it’s electronics, but at the turn of the 20thC. it was pistols.
.22 revolvers had been around since the mid-19th C., but semi-autos were the New Hotness. Sadly .22 LR of the time was not a good choice for tiny autos; no one had any depth of experience adapting it to the platform and a rimmed cartridge in a semi-auto isn’t an intuitive match. John Moses Browning designed a cartridge specifically to fill the role of .22LR in tiny self-loaders, and it worked. By that I mean that tiny guns could be made to function with it. Like the .22LR it was always a marginal prospect for self-defense.
But as time marched on people largely lost interest in micro-pistols, and had learned to make .22 LR work in them for the small market that remained.
Since the GCA68 basically killed the importation of these guns the cartridge has been fading into obscurity. .25 ACP has received no meaningful development since it’s introduction, and while it can be improved on there’s been little impetus to try. Given the millions of guns chambered for it in circulation it’s likely to continue to hang on for a long time, but it is definitely fallen entirely out of relevance.
.32 ACP/ 7.65mm Auto
Famous for equipping a fictional spy and killing a dictator far too late, this was the first wildly successful semi-auto pistol cartridge.
This cartridge has a long and storied history, and was used as a duty weapon well into the 1970’s. It was replaced in service by 9x19mm, not because it wasn’t working but because it was felt to have inadequate penetration against emerging threats.
.32 ACP has two issues: One, it doesn’t quite have the power to make hollow-points both work and penetrate deeply enough for reliable use and two, it only works effectively if you can shoot. Ball ammunition has to be placed precisely to be effective regardless of caliber. and people are convinced that they can substitute diameter for skill. They can’t, but since they almost never have to actually shoot anyone the idea persists.
.32 ACPs final problem is .380 ACP. It has just enough power to make hollow-points work and penetrate deeply enough if you shop around, and you just can’t make a .32 enough smaller than a .380 to justify the perceived lesser effectiveness of the smaller round. Let me be clear- a modern hollow-point bullet that both expands and penetrates adequately is better than ball ammo, but that doesn’t mean non-expanding ammo can’t do the job… if you can shoot.
Like the .25 Auto there are millions and millions of these pistols in circulation, and while ammo is likely to remain available for decades this cartridge’s day has passed.
.32 H&R Magnum
Let’s make one thing perfectly clear from the start. This is a fake magnum that only exists because Harrington & Richardson didn’t want to admit their normal .32s weren’t capable of realizing the full potential of .32 S&W Long without suffering a premature death.
Older reloading manuals show loads that equal or exceed the power of .32 H&R Magnum for .32 S&W Long, but there were a lot of crappy guns sold that wouldn’t hold up to prolonged use with these loads. These .32 S&W Long loads are decent, low-recoil equivalents (in power) of .38 Special, and in a J-frame you get an extra shot. So H&R made the cartridge slightly longer, made a gun as good as it should have been all along and pretended they’d done something new.
It’s hung on by it’s figurative fingernails for decades, but the death-knell was struck when the .327 Magnum came along with 150-200% more power in the same size package. While .32 S&W Long remains a popular caliber for target shooting, small game and even self-defense in the rest of the world it’s popularity has waned in the US. Despite being more recent the .32 H&R Magnum isn’t as popular even in the USA, let alone the rest of the world. Buy one if you like, but be prepared to handload for it, because it’s slipping away.
At some point it occurred to someone at Sig that they could bottleneck a .40 S&W to .357 and have an equivalent to .38 Super that would fit in a 9mm frame.
Once again it worked pretty much as planned. They overlooked one small thing though. Except for competition shooters in the 1980’s that figured out they could use .38 Super to game the rules of IPSC nobody wanted a .38 Super, and they didn’t want .357 Sig either. More expense, muzzle blast and recoil than 9mm without a demonstrable increase in effectiveness sufficient to justify it.
Various Law Enforcement agencies flirted with it for a time and it has its fans, but essentially it’s dying of apathy. There’s nothing wrong with it really, it’s just that no one cares. It might not vanish from the scene, but it’s well along the path to obscurity.
.40 S&W Auto
No photo for this one… the only .40 S&W I own is a HiPoint I bought for $75, and I’m embarrassed to show you. Just imagine a 9mm; that’s what they all look like anyway.
This cartridge is the answer to a question that would never have been asked if people had better sense, or at least it’s parent cartridge the 10mm Auto was. In the 1980’s the 9mm was perceived as having failed the FBI in the 1986 Miami shootout. It didn’t; tactics, training and doctrine did, but we needn’t go into that here. It was felt it was easier to address caliber than training and culture, and so the 10mm auto was adopted.
Essentially this was a .41 magnum that fit in a Government model or other service-sized handguns. Like .41 Magnum (which we’ll discuss later) it was too much for the job for most people. It’s an excellent cartridge, but it’s recoil demands serious training to master. S&W shortened the 10mm to fit in a 9mm magazine and lowered it’s power to make it easier to train with and a star was born. The FBI and other LE agencies adopted it in droves. It did the job and everyone and their sister Sally was enamored of it. But…
It offered slightly fewer shots than 9mm, with more recoil, greater cost and a steeper training curve without any evidence that it actually worked better… at least not enough better to justify it’s deficiencies. Eventually the FBI threw it under the bus and went back to 9x19mm. Law enforcement agencies followed in droves.
Thing is, it’s a perfectly good caliber, and with the glut of surplus duty guns flooding the market it’s not going away any time soon… but it’s another peg without a hole and it’s likely to fade away in time.
The .41 Magnum
Despite owning the distinction of being nearly the only cartridge that is actually the diameter it claims to be, the .41 magnum was never supposed to be.
In the 1960s hollow-point ammunition was not well developed or particularly reliable, and a bunch of boffins got together and said, ‘wouldn’t it be great to make a gun more effective than a .38 Special with less recoil than a .44 Special or .45 Colt for police duty?’
It wasn’t a bad idea, and they proposed a .41 caliber cartridge that would launch a 200gr LSWC at 900 fps from a duty revolver. Remington agreed, and took up the idea and ran with it… straight down a rabbit hole. They upped the power enough to negate the cartridge’s advantages as a police duty round, but not far enough to really compete with their .44 Magnum. Well played, Remington. Well played.
A few agencies adopted it briefly, but recoil and penetration were excessive and it took dedicated training to master… all to do nothing that .357 magnum wasn’t already doing just fine, thank you.
Again, it’s a great cartridge. It can be loaded light for self-defense, heavy for big game or anything in between; it’s quite versatile. I personally love this cartridge and think it’s wonderful, but while it has always had its fans it never set the world on fire. A lot of younger shooters have never even heard of it. It hangs on as a niche cartridge, developing just enough new fans to keep staggering along. Predictions of it’s demise have been made routinely since the 1970s and it’s still with us. I’m not sure it’s ever going to completely go away.
At some point it occurred to the folks at Glock that with modern propellants there was no need for .45 ACP to be as long as it is. Consequently if they made it short enough to fit in a 9mm magazine they could easily adapt their existing platforms to it.
It worked just fine. The problem was basically people that wanted a .45 didn’t want a Glock. The operation was a success, but the patient died. Not much more to say about it.
That’s my round-up of cartridges teetering on the brink of the dumpster of history. I hope you enjoyed it and maybe found it educational.
Take care and stay safe.
Michael Tinker Pearce, 15 may 2021.