Skip to main content

Why You Should Choose a .380 ACP Semiauto for Self-Defense

Why You Should Choose a .380 ACP Semiauto for Self-Defense
In the .380's favor for pocket carry or backup use are guns that are smaller and lighter than the smallest and lightest 9mms. When both are fully loaded, Kimber's Micro 380 (left) is 5.5 ounces lighter and half an inch shorter than the Micro 9 (right).

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.


380Auto
The non-expanding, solid-copper 99-grain Xtreme Penetrator loaded by Underwood penetrates like an FMJ, but flutes machined into its nose cause it to disrupt more tissue. It comes closer to duplicating 9mm Luger performance than any other .380 ACP load Layne has tried.

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.

Ammunition Options

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.


380AcpSpecs

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.


380autoshells
When fired into bare gelatin, all these .380 bullets expand to similar frontal diameters, but when required to travel through layers of fabric prior to entering the gel, older designs, such as Hornady's XTP and Federal's Hydra-Shok, don't expand as much as more recent designs. This enables them to penetrate deep enough to reach the FBI's penetration requirements.

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.

380ACPcarry
Pocket-size autoloaders can be ammunition sensitive, so trying various factory loads will determine which feed with 100 percent reliability. The Kimber Micro 380 used for this report functioned perfectly throughout the shooting sessions.

Size Matters

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.

 
 

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Recommended Articles

See More Recommendations

Popular Videos

The Glock 21

The Glock 21

Frank and Tony from Gallery of Guns spice up the Glock test using their non-dominant hands.

Black Hills Evolution of Rifle Cartridge: .308 Win. 175 Gr. Match

Black Hills Evolution of Rifle Cartridge: .308 Win. 175 Gr. Match

David Fortier talks with Jeff Hoffman of Black Hills Ammunition about the evolution of the .308 Win. 175 Gr. Match bullet.

All About .300 Blackout

All About .300 Blackout

The .300 Blackout is here to stay, and we take some time to look at new technology surrounding this cartridge. Next, we pit subsonic rivals against each other before stretching the legs of this CQB round out to 600 yards from a short 9-inch barrel.

The Future Of Special Operations Small Arms

The Future Of Special Operations Small Arms

We're taking a look at what the Army's Elite Units are using for service rifles and what the future of SOCOM sniping looks like.

See More Popular Videos

Trending Articles

Cutting-edge projectiles provide unprecedented performance in the venerable old workhorse, the .30-06.Get the Most Out of the .30-06 Ammo

Get the Most Out of the .30-06

Joseph von Benedikt - April 01, 2019

Cutting-edge projectiles provide unprecedented performance in the venerable old workhorse, the...

While the 6mm-caliber cartridges that can be considered “great” are few in number, some have long and storied histories.12 Great 6mm Cartridges Ammo

12 Great 6mm Cartridges

Steve Gash - August 20, 2020

While the 6mm-caliber cartridges that can be considered “great” are few in number, some have...

Red-dot sights may be just what the doctor ordered for lever-action fans of “a certain age.”Best Red-Dot Sights for Lever-Action Rifles Rifles

Best Red-Dot Sights for Lever-Action Rifles

Payton Miller - December 28, 2020

Red-dot sights may be just what the doctor ordered for lever-action fans of “a certain age.”

The .22 Magnum revolvers are still poppin' and still popular—and some are made for self-defense, while others are built for hunting small game and plinking.Best .22 Magnum Revolvers Available Right Now Handguns

Best .22 Magnum Revolvers Available Right Now

Payton Miller - January 06, 2021

The .22 Magnum revolvers are still poppin' and still popular—and some are made for...

See More Trending Articles

More Handguns

The painful part about Brian Lohman Manufacturing's new YMIR Model 1911 is that it carries a retail price of $6,999. Not many of us can afford to pay that much for a pistol, but if you think of this gun as being a piece of art, one that you can actually use and then pass down to an heir, then maybe the sting of its price is tolerable.Lohman YMIR 1911 Review Handguns

Lohman YMIR 1911 Review

Joel J. Hutchcroft - June 16, 2020

The painful part about Brian Lohman Manufacturing's new YMIR Model 1911 is that it carries a...

The new .22 LR Ruger Lite Rack LCP II is an ideal rimfire trainer to the popular .380 ACP LCP II pocket pistol.Ruger Lite Rack LCP II Review Handguns

Ruger Lite Rack LCP II Review

Joel J. Hutchcroft - June 01, 2020

The new .22 LR Ruger Lite Rack LCP II is an ideal rimfire trainer to the popular .380 ACP LCP...

The Springfield Hellcat is also available in the OSP (Optical Sight Pistol) version, which has the same open sights as the standard model but a 0.190-inch-deep mortise machined into the top of the slide is a snug fit for a micro red-dot sight. It comes with a removable steel plate that fills the mortise, giving the user the option of using the gun with or without a red-dot sight. Embedding the optic allows the open sights to be viewed without having to make them uncommonly tall.Springfield Hellcat OSP Review Handguns

Springfield Hellcat OSP Review

Layne Simpson - June 18, 2020

The Springfield Hellcat is also available in the OSP (Optical Sight Pistol) version, which has...

The FX 1911 Military DDEF G10 produced by American Tactical Imports (ATI) exclusively for Davidson's has a bunch of nice features, including a Davidson's Dark Earth Cerakote-finished frame and textured Pachmayr G10 grip panels.ATI 1911 FX Military DDEF G10 Review Handguns

ATI 1911 FX Military DDEF G10 Review

Joel J. Hutchcroft - June 08, 2020

The FX 1911 Military DDEF G10 produced by American Tactical Imports (ATI) exclusively for...

See More Handguns

Magazine Cover

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Digital Now Included!

SUBSCRIBE NOW

Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services

PREVIEW THIS MONTH'S ISSUE Arrow

Buy Digital Single Issues

Don't miss an issue.
Buy single digital issue for your phone or tablet.

Buy Single Digital Issue on the Shooting Times App

Other Magazines

Special Interest Magazines

See All Special Interest Magazines

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Phone Icon

Get Digital Access.

All Shooting Times subscribers now have digital access to their magazine content. This means you have the option to read your magazine on most popular phones and tablets.

To get started, click the link below to visit mymagnow.com and learn how to access your digital magazine.

Get Digital Access

Not a Subscriber?
Subscribe Now