The Defensive .380 ACP: Capable Compact or Ballistic Loser?
The .380 ACP has several monikers such as 9x17mm, 9mm Kurtz, 9mm Corto and 9mm Short, but regardless of its handle, the cartridge’s traditional ballistic signature is a 95-gr. FMJ at about 950 ft/sec. Currently, factory-loaded .380 ACP is offered in weights ranging from about 70 to 102 grains and backup guns or primary weapons chambered for it remain popular with both private citizens and law enforcement officers though possibly not as much as in years past.
Designed by the great John M. Browning circa 1908, the .380 ACP debuted in the US via Colt’s pocket automatic, but was soon a favorite in Europe as well. FN’s Model 1910 chambered in this caliber was quite popular as a concealed-carry arm in its day and remained so for decades! Even in the early 1970’s these were not uncommon in the “used” section of gun shops in my neck of the woods.
Before the subcompact 9mm/40-cal. pistols we have today, the .380 ACP was about the “heaviest caliber” autoloader to be had in a “little gun”. After that, choices dropped to .32 and .25 ACP.
In more recent years, this all changed; one can have a more powerful round in nearly the same size gun as the traditional .380 ACP, causing many within the shooting community to wonder why this caliber hangs on with the availability of similarly-sized nines and forties. Despite more ballistically-potent “little guns” being available, it appears that firearms chambered for .380 ACP remain top sellers throughout much of the United States!
I do not claim a complete understanding of this, but offer my observations and what I believe might be contributing factors to the 380’s longevity and popularity.
.380 ACP pistols have been around for decades. If a newer would-be pistolero asks an older handgun owner who is not necessarily a handgun enthusiast his choice for an easy-to-hide “carry pistol”, is it not reasonable for “380 auto” to be a possible response?
Like the (slightly) more powerful 9x18mm Makarov, this caliber is approaching the maximum for a straight blowback action not requiring a gargantuan slide and/or monster recoil spring to operate safely without beating the pistol to death each shot. (Relatively few makes of .380 ACP pistols had locked-breeches, but some did.) Costing less to manufacture than locked-breech designs, quality .380 ACP autoloaders can be had for less than an equivalent nine-millimeter or forty, though some costly 380’s exist to be sure.
Probably the majority of .380 ACP autoloaders have single-stack magazines while equivalently-sized single-stack 9mm’s and .40’s seem more the exception rather than the rule. Based on discussions with both dedicated shooters and those who are not, the narrower 380’s frequently “just felt better” to them.
To the “non-gun” shopper for a petite defensive handgun, visually comparing the 9x19mm to the .380 ACP (9x17mm) can result in a very incorrect assumption; i.e.; that they are “about the same in power since they are about the same size."
The .380 ACP (left) has the same 9mm (0.355”) bullet diameter as the 9x19mm next to it, but the latter operates at considerably higher pressures. SAAMI maximum pressure for .380 ACP is 21,500 PSI, 35,000 for 9x19mm and 38,500 PSI for 9x19mm +P. ( “380 +P” just doesn’t exist despite some ammo-makers’ labeling.) Where a .380 can usually get approximately 950 ft/sec (sometimes less) with a 95 FMJ, a 147-gr. bullet can be fired from a standard pressure 9x19mm at slightly higher speeds, depending upon barrel length and considerably faster if using a specialty +P load in this weight! If using a 90 or 100 grain bullet, the 9x19mm can easily flies in the 1300 to 1400 ft/sec range. The 380 simply cannot even with the few maximum-effort loads that currently exist for the cartridge.
It is just as incorrect to assume that “from a short barrel, the 380 and 9mm are about the same” as the misconception with snub revolvers that “there’s little difference between 38 +P and full-power 357 Magnums.” We are only deluding ourselves to believe otherwise, but does that automatically translate into the 380 being a useless self-defense round?
That seems to depend upon who is asked. Some declare it an impotent loser and at least one forum will not even allow it (or other “mouse gun” calibers) to be discussed, their “battle cry” being, “Friends don’t let friends use mouse guns”…or something similar.
On the other hand, the cartridge is not bereft of supporters, who sometimes point out the similar kinetic energy figures quoted between warmer .380 ACP’s and certain .38 Special loads fired from snubnose revolvers, despite kinetic energy no longer being considered a meaningful indicator of cartridge effectiveness by several major authorities on handgun “stopping power”.
So what is the truth? Is the .380 ACP worthy of trust or will it require multiple hits to stop a fly?
With the .380 ACP, some advocate JHP’s to enhance “wounding ability” but others recommend traditional “hardball” to ensure both adequate penetration and reliability in feeding.
Many contemporary defense-minded handgunners insist that their defensive load of choice meet (or exceed) the FBI’s penetration requirement of not less than 12” in 10% ballistic gelatin. It is unusual for .380 ACP JHP’s to regularly attain this depth of penetration and expand. Expansion simply decreases penetration with some mushrooming loads penetrating 10 or 11”, but others considerably less.
With non-expanding bullets, the 380 does pass penetration requirements but with a smaller-diameter bullet and possibly less damage to the aggressor’s body. Expanding bullet advocates believe that using FMJ results in decreased tissue-damage while FMJ fans explain, “We want expansion, but need penetration”, the idea being that the bullet must actually touch tissue to destroy it. (The late lawman, gun scribe and knowledgeable pistolero, “Skeeter” Skelton, used a hardball-loaded Walther PP as a backup gun, writing of it several times. The only loaded handgun in Uziel Gal’s (inventor of the Uzi SMG) home at the time of his (natural) death was reported to be a SIG-Sauer P230 loaded with FMJ ammunition.)
Even though most expanding bullet proponents do not associate “hydrostatic shock” with JHP’s in .380 ACP, many do support the notion that the mushroomed bullet may result in a wider wound channel, increase chances of damaging blood vessels and being less-likely of “sliding” by them than typical jacketed round nose “hardball”.
I personally see both sides to this argument. I believe that expanding bullets do generally enhance “stopping power” but this cartridge’s rather low-penetration characteristics with them are not all that reassuring if practically any intermediate barrier (like an arm in front of the torso) is encountered before entering the torso. Assuming an unobstructed frontal shot, I believe that most expanding .380 ACP bullets will penetrate deeply enough to penetrate the heart, lungs or aorta and do more damage than FMJ.
On the other hand, should we count on an unobstructed frontal torso hit? Many will say “no”. I cannot argue with their logic, but have seen the results of the .380 ACP FMJ round against human beings and have usually not been favorably impressed. In an instance or two, it did the trick but when it “stopped” because of physical rather than psychological reasons, results were fatal. In other words, whether by skill, luck or chance, the bullet was extremely well-placed, striking the heart, a major artery or the brain. The quickest non-fatal “stop” I recall was an intoxicated male who had a femur broken when shot with a .380 ACP 95-gr. FMJ. I do not remember which leg, but he collapsed and was babbling incoherently when we (police officers) arrived.
A fellow officer was shot through the chest (side-to-side) and survived. He was not instantly incapacitated and did return fire at his would-be murderer, but missed. That said, he was not able to give chase, but was quite coherent several minutes later when police flooded the scene. (He recovered fully with no permanent disabilities from the wound, and was released from the hospital 3 days after being shot.)
So again, why would anyone own a .380 ACP?
In my own case, it is because I happen to really like some pistols chambered in this caliber. In other words, I have the caliber because I wanted the gun and not the other way around. (How valid this reasoning is to the next guy is open to debate and purely subjective.) Other .380 ACP users have told me that they “just shoot better with their 380”!
How can this be?
More than a few times, I’ve read of the blowback .380 ACP semiautomatics’ “sharp” or “painful” recoil compared to more powerful, locked-breech pistols.
I believe that a major factor in the 380’s “sharp” recoil is simply its size. Super-compact versions approaching the size of some 25-caliber pistols are just going to “kick” more than those of this caliber’s traditional size such as the old Walther PP-Series, Mauser HSc or Colt. The smaller and/or lighter compact guns certainly carry and conceal more easily, but at the cost of increased felt-recoil despite their more abbreviated barrels’ usually delivering lower average velocities than the longer ones on traditional 380 pistols! Is it worth it? Once again, the “right” answer is dependent upon the individual user’s perceived needs, but for me, it is not. I much prefer the aluminum-framed Bersa 380’s or their aluminum-framed counterparts from Beretta or SIG-Sauer. (At present, I do not own a single really compact .380 ACP handgun such as Ruger’s LCP or the Kel-Tec P3AT.)
From aluminum-framed Bersas, FEG’s and Beretta 85’s to all-steel ones like the Walther PP-Series or Browning 1910’s, I have not found .380 ACP to be a “hard-kicking” round that is uncomfortable to shoot; I just haven’t and herein lies another “plus” for the traditional size 380’s: easily controlled recoil.
Snub .38 vs. .380 Automatic is not an unusual choice for people interested in compact carry guns, and I submit that the harder-kicking lightweight 38 snub’s greater felt-recoil continues to sell more than a few 380-caliber semiautomatics! Other potential buyers will be swayed to the traditional size .380 ACP’s because they hold more shots between loadings than snubs.
But can we actually defend ourselves with a .380 ACP, even the easier-to-shoot less-compact ones?
In my opinion, the answer is a qualified, but not enthusiastic “yes”. Even though potentially lethal, .380 ACP just is not going to garner accolades as a “decisive manstopper” and its ballistics will never take top-billing for punching intermediate barriers such as laminated windshields or sheet steel and then reliably decking an opponent behind them.
…but it may just be a viable choice for a person with weakened arthritic hands. While Beretta .380’s do tend toward stout recoil springs, Bersas do not nor do SIG-Sauers. As a concealed handgun licensing instructor, I have seen people who could not readily hand-cycle some of the more powerful autoloaders’ slides, do just fine with a SIG-Sauer P230/232 or Bersa Thunder. (The same also held true for folks using the older locked-breech Star Model S or Colt Government Model in .380 ACP.)
Shown here is a Bersa Series 95 .380 ACP. It is a straight blowback design and is about the size of a Walther PPK/S but has an aluminum frame. This one has an electroless nickel finish. It is a traditional size 380 and the predecessor to the popular Bersa Thunder. I suspect most parts will interchange between the two. This pistol is capable of both double and single-action. It is not capable of Condition One Carry (“cocked-and-locked”), but relies on either a double-action first shot or the hammer being manually cocked. Either way, subsequent shots are single-action. Bersa 380-caliber pistols are modestly-priced in my opinion and offer good value. Though statistically invalid, the three that I owned have proven reliable, accurate and with surprisingly smooth double-actions! The double-action trigger-pulls on my current Series 95 and Thunder are considerably lighter and smoother than my Walther PP’s. In my experience, Bersa 380’s are comfortable and with proper practice, easy to shoot well. Because of this brand’s wide-distribution, I’ve seen more than a few of these pistols used on both police (backup guns) and CHL (primary carry guns) firing lines. The pistols were reliable and seemed popular with users ranging from folks barely old enough to buy a handgun to (very) senior citizens. I do not recall any of my older licensees being unable to load or cycle the slide on either the Bersa or SIG-Sauer 380 autos.
In any event it remains my belief that if you opt to use a traditional size 380-caliber handgun, you absolutely must be capable of quick and accurate fire. It is generally accepted that even powerful defensive handgun calibers can fail without proper placement, and I believe this to be even truer with less potent ones! In other words, the defensive .380 ACP user must be competent in its use to stop a felonious attacker for physical rather than psychological reasons. While this is sound advice when using handguns for self-defense in general, I believe that our “allowable margin for error” while still delivering an effective hit decrease with the potency of the caliber/load being used.
Shown are four different .380 ACP loads. From left to right: Georgia Arms 95-gr. FMJ, Corbon 70-gr. Pow’RBall, Federal 90-gr. JHP and Fiocchi using a 90-gr. Hornady XTP bullet. There are other similar loads available but before using any ammunition, be sure that it is proven reliable in your individual pistol and with any magazines that might be used. Reliability is more important than any possible ballistic advantages one load might have over another. Reliability is non-negotiable and absolutely essential to the defensive pistol, 380 or not.
In the end, it is my opinion that 380’s can be successfully used for self-protection in competent hands against felons minus any intermediate barriers. Some may flee at the sight of the pistol and seek more helpless prey, but against those who will not, skill at arms and quick, accurate hit(s) will be essential. In my opinion, the .380 ACP has no “surplus power” and every bit of what it has must be effectively directed. A full-power .357 Magnum grazing the heart is probably more likely to inflict greater damage than the .380 ACP in exactly the same place. (This is moot if the shooter cannot handle the magnum but can the .380 ACP.)
I rate the .380 ACP (with any load) as barely adequate even with decent placement and it is not my first choice for defense, but it is offered in some very useable traditional size pistols. For reasons other than ballistics, it seems to remain a popular choice for many. In trained determined hands, I believe that it can do the trick, but only with proper bullet placement and probably accurate multiple hits.
Unless there is a reason for sticking with the .380 ACP cartridge, I suggest going with something more powerful. On the other hand, I do not claim to know what’s best for every single shooter. Each of our situations is governed by differing parameters. If after serious consideration, you find that a 380 automatic best suits your needs, no arguments here.
…but learn to use it efficiently.