When choosing a handgun cartridge for defensive use, common sense tells us that bigger is better because a properly designed expanding bullet from a big caliber creates a larger permanent wound cavity than small calibers.
But for concealed carry, smaller is often the only logical option—the smallest and lightest autoloading pistols in .45 ACP are larger and heavier than the smallest pistols in 9mm Luger. Most handguns in .380 ACP are smaller and lighter still. Ease of carry and the suitability of a gun for concealment sometimes override optimal cartridge effectiveness. There are people who for various reasons and circumstances must choose between carrying a pocket-size pistol and not carrying at all. And as the old saying goes, a .380 in the pocket when something really bad happens is better than a .45 left at home.
Weight & Recoil
The .380 has long been king of the pocket pistol cartridges. Guns in 9mm Luger are getting smaller and lighter, but they are still larger and heavier than pistols in .380, such as the Ruger LCP, Kel-Tec P3AT, and Kahr P380, whose fully loaded weight is 11 to 12 ounces. In addition to being bigger, the smallest 9mm pistols start at an empty weight of about 15 ounces and usually exceed 20 ounces with seven rounds on board. Some examples of thin, single-stack 9mms in this category are the Kimber Micro 9 and Solo, Glock 43, SIG P938, Kahr CM9, Ruger LC 9, S&W M&P9 Shield, Taurus PT709 Slim, Beretta 9mm Nano, and Kel-Tec PFP.
Also, there is recoil to consider. The .380 has less than the 9mm, but the difference likely would seem neglible to someone who frequently shoots handguns. While shooting the two Kimber Micro pistols featured in this report, my wife, Phyllis, and I found the .380 to be a bit friendlier to the hand than the 9mm, but both were comfortable to shoot, and we shot one as accurately as the other.
Not everyone has the time or the opportunity to shoot as much as we do. A friend of ours who pocket carries a double-action .380 pistol is a good example. When shooting the Micro 380, he quickly became sold on its single-action trigger and kept all rapid-fired bullets inside the A-zone of an ISPSC target at 10 yards. He also shot the Micro 9, but his accuracy with it was not as good, and he quickly passed on it due to the difference in recoil.
Weight matters, and the maximum weight that is tolerable varies among shooters. I front-pocket carry a Remington RM380 quite often, more during summer than winter. To me its weight is hardly noticeable, but Phyllis describes it as “too bulky and heavy” for pocket carry. Her fully loaded Ruger LCPC weighs just 12 ounces. She easily tolerates more heft when carrying her Glock 26 in a Galco handbag. Filled with 11 rounds of 9mm, it weighs 26.3 ounces, and she never complains about weight when carrying it or about recoil when using it to ventilate paper targets during practice.
Opinions on the best .380 ammunition for defensive use are divided. Many prefer full-metal-jacket bullets, and they are not all wrong because even when fired from the short barrel of a pocket-size .380, a non-expanding bullet usually meets the FBI’s heavy clothing penetration tests. On the downside, the permanent wound channel left behind will be much smaller than one left by an expanding bullet. A flatnose FMJ seems more inclined to track straighter than one with a roundnose, but some of the older pocket pistol designs function more reliably with roundnose bullets.
This is where the .380 always has been and always will be inferior to the 9mm for defensive use. When ammunition loaded with the latest in expanding bullet designs is used, the 9mm easily meets the FBI’s penetration requirements while leaving behind a much larger permanent wound cavity than an FMJ fired from the .380. And this applies to 9mm guns with barrels as short as 3 inches. Another advantage offered by the 9mm is that its heavier bullets are less likely to be deflected off course during penetration.
While some prefer FMJ bullets in the .380, others opt for bullets that expand. Through the years the ability of hollowpoint bullets to increase in frontal diameter has been measured by firing them into various materials, with 10 percent ballistic gelatin commonly being used today. Most bad guys wear clothing, so I don’t place a lot of stock in penetration/expansion tests using bare gelatin. Requiring a bullet to first pass through multiple layers of fabric prior to entering the gelatin makes more real-world sense. While it might seem that this would decrease bullet penetration, just the opposite can be true. If the nose cavity of a bullet becomes plugged with fibers, failure to expand can cause it to penetrate about the same as an FMJ. Wound channel size will also be about the same.
Many excellent bullets of modern design are available. The Federal HST, Hornady FTX, Speer Gold Dot, and Winchester PDX1 rank high in popularity. They were designed to resist nose cavity plugging, and when fired from short-barrel 9mm pistols, they seldom fail to expand picture-book perfectly. They also consistently meet the FBI’s penetration requirements. Lower the impact velocity and reduce the weights of those designs—as must be done in the smaller .380 ACP case—and while expansion will remain quite impressive, penetration falls considerably short of the 9mm. I am no expert on the subject, but after studying the results of various heavy clothing/gelatin penetration tests, going old school with the roundnose FMJ just might be a better option for the .380.
As I mentioned earlier, the hollow noses of some .380 bullets of older design fail to upset when passing through various fabrics, and they end up penetrating like an FMJ. Others have a tendency to expand just enough to punch a larger wound channel than an FMJ while reaching or exceeding the 12-inch FBI minimum. They don’t expand as much as the latest designs, but they usually do expand some, and penetration is deeper. Among bullets in this category, the Federal Hydra-Shok HP and the Hornady XTP HP, both weighing 90 grains, are, in my opinion, the most reliable performers.
More modern designs, such as the Federal HST and Hornady FTX, are superior in the 9mm Luger, but as expanding bullets for the .380 ACP go, the Hornady XTP and Federal Hydra-Shok are my top choices. I’m not saying those are the best choices for everyone, nor am I saying everyone should agree with my opinion. Each person must make his or her own choice.
Another recent option for the .380 is the non-expanding monolithic bullet with a fluted nose designed to penetrate more deeply than expanding bullets while disrupting more tissue than an FMJ. An example is the PolyCase 56-grain ARX, which is an injection-molded blend of epoxy and powdered copper.
Lehigh Defense bullets are similar in concept, but they are CNC-machined of solid copper. Radial nose flutes are machine-cut. Two versions are available in the .380 ACP. Black Hills loads the 60-grain Xtreme Defense to 1,150 fps. To avoid confusion, I will mention that Underwood loads a 90-grain version of that same Lehigh Defense bullet in the 9mm Luger but calls it Xtreme Defender. Underwood offers the .380 with a 90-grain Xtreme Penetrator bullet at 1,100 fps. Its design is basically the same as the Xtreme Defense and Xtreme Defender, but it has a large flat at its nose, and its flutes are shallower. All things considered, including penetration and wound channel size, the Underwood 90-grain Xtreme Penetrator load comes closer to equaling 9mm Luger performance than any other .380 load I have tried. It easily meets the FBI’s penetration requirements while being more disruptive in tissue than an FMJ. Despite the high velocity, it is not rated by Underwood as a +P load.
Regardless of whether the .380 or 9mm is chosen, small autoloaders can be ammunition sensitive and should be thoroughly function tested for reliability with as many rounds as possible. The more rounds fired the better, but a gun has to eat 200 rounds of a particular load without a single malfunction for me to begin trusting it. That sounds expensive—and it is—but it is nowhere near the cost of a malfunction when a gun is being called on for personal-defense use.
Will I stay with the .380 for pocket carry? The fully loaded weight of the lightest 9mm pistol I have shot is 22.9 ounces, including a Galco Pocket Pro holster. That’s 4.6 ounces heavier than my fully loaded .380 with Crimson Trace Laserguard and the same pocket holster. While 4.6 ounces doesn’t sound like much, an additional quarter-pound is quite noticeable in front-pocket carry, especially when I’m wearing casual hiking shorts on my daily early-morning jaunts during the heat of summer. The smallest 9mm I have shot was also 0.75 inch longer than my .380, and that difference also is quite apparent. So for now, I will stick with the .380 for some pocket-carry duty and then switch to a 9mm when size and weight don’t matter.