Recoil Comparison: Pistol Competition Cartridges

Recoil Comparison: Pistol Competition Cartridges

competition_pistol_caliber_recoil_comparison_FWhat is the difference in recoil between various pistol cartridges commonly used in shooting competitions?

Clearly, some loads recoil more than others; a .45 ACP has more recoil than a 9mm Luger. What about a .45 ACP and .40 S&W? They are more closely matched in bullet weight and power. The .40 S&W shoots a lighter bullet than the .45 ACP but at higher velocity. So, how does the recoil compare when different calibers shoot bullets of the same weight?

competition_pistol_caliber_recoil_comparison_fig_1For the purpose of this article, recoil was compared with the following semiauto pistol cartridges commonly used in practical shooting competitions: the .45 ACP, .40 S&W, .38 Super and 9mm Luger.

Four comparisons were examined:

1) Factory ammunition.

2) Caliber-typical bullet weights at factory velocities with the same gunpowder.

3) Caliber-typical bullet weights at the same power factor.

4) The same bullet weight in different calibers at the same power factor.


Comparing recoil with different calibers is tricky because you're testing different barrels which can produce different velocities even if they are the same brand and caliber, and different velocities affect the results. If one barrel is "fast" and another "slow", one could reach the wrong conclusion in this type of comparison. There's no way to avoid this. However, this should only be of concern if the recoil of two calibers is very similar, as is the case with the .45 ACP and the .40 S&W. It's less of a concern when comparing these two calibers to the .38 Super or 9mm; the .38 Super produces significantly less recoil than the larger calibers, and the 9mm produces significantly less recoil than the .38 Super. The necessary presumption is that the barrels tested are more-or-less representative of their respective calibers.

It's also tricky to compare the recoil of different factory loads because they vary so much from one manufacturer to another, even within one company's product line. Also, the ammunition might be loaded with different gunpowders, and that can affect recoil force even if they push the same bullet to the same velocity.

RELATED: How to Measure Relative Handgun Recoil


Gun weight, design, height of bore axis, and so on, all contribute to actual and perceived recoil. This test tried to control as many factors as was practical, which was gun design, weight and bore axis. Four Para Ordnance pistols with five-inch barrels were configured for this test. The .45 ACP and 9mm Luger pistols had Para Ordnance barrels, the .40 S&W had an Ed Brown barrel, and the .38 Super had a Kart barrel.

The guns were configured to be as close as possible to the same weight (Table 1). The barrels of the different calibers are different weights because the bore diameter is different and there is less weight with a larger bore if the outside diameter is the same. Weight was added/subtracted to try and equalize weight as much as possible. This was accomplished by using different recoil spring guide rods (stainless steel, tungsten) and different magazine base pads (standard or extended). The weight distribution will vary due to this, as will the weight of moving parts (barrels/slides), but in practical terms, this was the best that could be done. The maximum difference in weight across the four guns was 0.10 ounces.

Measuring Recoil

Guns were held in a Ransom Rest and recoil was measured by how far the gun moved when fired. Velocity was recorded with a Shooting Chrony chronograph at about 12 feet. At least ten rounds were fired with each load.

Factory Ammunition

The factory ammunition for the .45 ACP, .40 S&W and 9mm was CCI Blazer. The bullets were typical-weight-for-caliber: the .45 ACP was 230-grain (cat. # 5230), the .40 S&W was 180-grain (cat. # 5220) and the 9mm Luger was 115-grain (cat. # 3509). The .38 Super ammunition was Remington 130-grain (cat. # L38SUP). Measured velocities are shown in Table 2.

Ransom Rest movement from factory ammunition is shown below. The .45 ACP load produced the most movement. The .40 S&W produced similar movement and was only 4% less than the .45 ACP. The .38 Super produced 18% less movement and the 9mm Luger produced 42% less movement than the .45 ACP.



The limitation of comparing factory ammunition (unknown gunpowder) can be solved by using the same gunpowder in handloads. Ramshot Silhouette gunpowder was loaded with the same bullet weights as the factory ammunition (Table 3). Three different charge weights were loaded for each bullet to allow analysis for a specified velocity with linear regression. For this analysis, the Ransom Rest movement was calculated for the same velocities produced by the factory ammunition.


The relative amounts of Ransom Rest movement with the same gunpowder was very similar to what the factory ammunition produced (illustrated below). The .40 S&W produced 2% less movement than the .45 ACP. The .38 Super and 9mm Luger had 26% and 44% less movement, respectively, than the .45 ACP.


The .45 ACP ammunition was a little slower than what is usually advertised for this bullet weight, the common velocity being around 850 feet-per-second (fps). Calculating the movement for this velocity shows the .45 ACP producing 8% more recoil than the .40 S&W. Perhaps the .40 S&W numbers should be adjusted, too, since advertised velocities for 180 grain bullets are around 1000 fps from a four-inch barrel. The test gun had a five-inch barrel, which would raise the velocity by 40-to-50 fps. If this adjustment is made, then a 850 fps .45 ACP would have 0.3% less movement than a 1050 fps .40 S&W.

Factory ballistics for the .45 ACP and .40 S&W with these bullet weights varies depending on the manufacturer and intended purpose (target, defense), but the results suggest that the general level of recoil of these two calibers is not dramatically different. On average, the .45 ACP might produce a little more recoil than the .40 S&W, but it depends on which ammunition you compare.

Some people say that the .45 ACP's recoil feels like a slower push than the .40 S&W which feels snappy. This could be explained by the different bullet weights. The .40 S&W generally uses lighter bullets and at higher velocities than the .45 ACP. Faster bullets are in the barrel for less time which produces a faster recoil impulse. This might explain why the .40 S&W feels snappy by comparison.

Power Factor

Competitors in some shooting sports must load their ammunition to a minimum power level, known as power factor (bullet weight X velocity / 1000). The factory .45 ACP and .40 S&W had similar power factors, 189 and 180, respectively.

How does their recoil compare when loaded to the same power factor of 165, the value required for Major scoring in USPSA and Custom Defensive Pistol and Enhanced Service Revolver divisions in IDPA. Again, 230-grain bullets in the .45 ACP were compared to 180-grain bullets in the .40 S&W, which tend to be common weights used in these calibers by competitors. The 230-grain bullets must achieve 718 fps and the 180-grain bullets must achieve 917 fps.

The recoil of .38 Super and 9mm Luger was compared when loaded to the same power factor of 125, the value required for Minor scoring in USPSA and Standard Service Pistol and Enhanced Service Pistol divisions in IDPA. These cartridges are essentially the same caliber (.38 Super is .356 and 9mm Luger is .3555 according to SAAMI specifications). A 130-grain bullet was used in the .38 Super compared to a 115-grain bullet in the 9mm Luger. The 130-grain bullets must achieve 962 fps and the 115 grain bullets must achieve 1087 fps.

competition_pistol_caliber_recoil_comparison_fig_4The Ransom Rest movement for the .45 ACP and .40 S&W was essentially the same. This comparison was run twice. One test showed the .45 ACP produced slightly more movement than the .40 S&W, while the other test showed it produced slightly less movement. The values were averaged (pictured on the right), with the .40 S&W averaging slightly more movement than the .45 ACP. The average difference in movement between the two calibers was 0.3mm after having moved 55mm. That's close enough to call them the same. (Note: different components were used for the two tests, and this could explain the different results, because some bullets are faster/slower than others even though they are the same weight and design/construction.)

The 9mm Luger had 1% more Ransom Rest movement than the .38 Super. It differed by the same distance as the larger bore comparison, only 0.3mm after having moved 32mm. That's close enough to call them the same, too.

A previous test compared the recoil of bullets of different weights in the same caliber (.45 ACP) at the same power factor and found that light bullets had more recoil than heavy bullets because they required more gunpowder to reach their higher minimum velocity.

However, when the comparison involves different calibers, the results are different. The heavy .45 ACP bullet required more gunpowder (6.2 grains) than the light .40 S&W bullet (5.5 grains) to reach it's power factor. Thus the smaller caliber is more efficient.

Knowing how much gunpowder is required allows you to calculate the recoil force. Plugging the numbers into a recoil formula shows that the .45 ACP's 230-grain bullet produces 3% more recoil force than the .40 S&W's 180-grain bullet when driven at the same power factor. That's not much of a difference, and the Ransom Rest had difficulty distinguishing between them, suggesting that shooters would find them difficult to distinguish as well, except for the faster, lighter bullet having a snappy feel.

The .38 Super and 9mm Luger comparison is slightly different. They are essentially the same caliber, but have different overall lengths. In this example with different bullet weights, the .38 Super required 5.2 grains of gunpowder and the 9mm Luger required 5.4 grains. If the 9mm Luger was loaded to the same overall length as the .38 Super, the lighter bullet in the 9mm Luger would require more gunpowder, and would produce more recoil than the heavier bullet in the .38 Super. But because the 9mm Luger has a shorter overall length, the bullet is seated deeper, which increases pressure and velocity, making it more efficient because it requires less gunpowder. In this case, the 9mm Luger required only a little more gunpowder and produced no practical difference in Ransom Rest movement.

The math indicated that the 9mm Luger produced 1% more recoil force than the .38 Super in this example. It would be difficult to detect that small of a difference, though the 9mm Luger might feel snappier because of it's lighter, faster bullet.

Same Bullet Weight, Different Caliber and Different Overall Length

Is the recoil the same if different calibers shoot the same bullet weight? This was tested by comparing the Ransom Rest movement with 200 grain bullets in the .45 ACP and .40 S&W, and 180 grain bullets in the .40 S&W and .38 Super (Table 4). These were also loaded with Ramshot Silhouette and were also compared at a power factor of 165. An additional comparison was made with 130-grain bullets in the .38 Super and 9mm Luger at a power factor of 125.


The 200-grain bullets in .40 S&W produced 5.3% less movement than the same weight in the .45 ACP (pictured below). The same effect was found comparing 180 grain bullets in the .40 S&W and .38 Super. The smaller diameter .38 Super produced 11.2% less movement. The 130 grain bullets in the 9mm Luger produced 7% less movement than the 38 Super.


Why does the same weight bullet produce different amounts of recoil in different calibers? Once again, a major player is the amount of gunpowder required to reach the same velocity. In this case, the larger caliber required more gunpowder to reach the same velocity.

competition_pistol_caliber_recoil_comparison_table_5The .45 ACP required 6.9 grains of powder, while the .40 S&W required only 4.7 grains for the same speed with 200-grain bullets (illustrated on the right). With 180-grain bullets, the .40 S&W required 5.5 grains of powder, while the .38 Super required only 4.8 grains. Here again, the smaller caliber is more efficient.

Comparing the recoil with the same bullet weight in the .38 Super and 9mm Luger is, again, an overall length comparison. Bullets seated to a shorter overall length require less gunpowder for the same velocity. The results were consistent with this principle. The 9mm Luger required only 4.7 grains of gunpowder to push the same 130-grain bullet to the same speed as the .38 Super, which required 5.2 grains.


The .45 ACP and .40 S&W produce similar amounts of recoil, with the .45 ACP having a little more at typical factory velocities. But it's a small difference, and any difference will depend on the specific ammunition due to variation in the gunpowder and it's power level. The .38 Super and 9mm Luger have noticeably less recoil than the bigger calibers.

When the .45 ACP and .40 S&W are loaded to the same power factor with caliber-typical bullets (230- and 180-grain), their recoil is indistinguishable as measured by Ransom Rest movement, but the .45 has slightly more recoil force. The 115-grain bullets in the 9mm Luger produced marginally more recoil than 130-grain bullets in the .38 Super at the same power factor.

When comparing the recoil of the same bullet weight in different calibers, the smaller caliber produces less recoil, which is greatly influenced by requiring less gunpowder.

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