Gun Review: Kel-Tec P3AT .380

Kel-Tec’s P3AT is one of the most popular pocket pistols pistol purveyors purvey. And no wonder. It’s small, light and cheap. And . . . there you have it. For most buyers, it’s enough; size, weight and price are the only three boxes a mouse gun needs to check. Especially one chambered in the doyenne of downsized destructive devices: 380. Of course, skin-flint gun enthusiasts want more. Safety. Reliability. Accuracy. Beauty. Ergonomics. Well, you can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometimes, you just might find, you just might find . . .

An ugly gun. While the P3AT isn’t “knock-a-dog-off-a-gut-wagon” ugly, buying this weapon for its looks would be like marrying Kendra Wilkinson for her intellect. To be charitable, Kel-Tec set out to manufacture the lightest, most concealable .380 Auto in creation—not a beauty queen. Nonetheless, all the old 1911 guys can now forgive Glock for mainstreaming ugly guns and pray that the spirit of John Browning will smote Kel-Tec’s ballistic blasphemy.

Would The Great One really decry the Kel-Tec, given its engineering? He would have marveled at the miniaturization: Kel-Tec ditched the straight blowback design favored by mouse gun manufacturers in favor of a locked breech system. (Just like grown-up pistols!) Consequently, the P3AT doesn’t need a heavy slide to whoa nellie the action’s blowback.

Even though its name sounds like a “strong” password, the P3AT’s real strength is its ergonomic adequacy in the face of such fierce dimensional constraints. A size that was barely do-able as a .25 Auto just a generation ago is now the new .380, as manufacturer after manufacturer has followed Kel-Tec’s pint-sized polymer lead and introduced similar semi-autos of their very own.

Yes, a new niche has definitely formed. Its offerings are starkly different from the mini-nines of just a few years back. Our present subject draws perhaps the starkest contrast from this group. To wit: at café Kel-Tec, de-contenting is the dish du jour. No thumb safety, no trigger safety, no grip safety and no heavy, revolver-like double-action trigger pull (the P3AT is DAO).

True, the six-round, single-stack magazine yields an ultra-narrow grip; but the grip is so short that even in my small hands, only my middle finger and half my ring finger were able to grasp it. Finger extensions and extended, higher-capacity magazines are available from Kel-Tec, but each one makes the gun a little larger than the original design. Which renders the P3AT increasingly pointless.

Another niggling negative: the slide doesn’t lock back after the final shot. And another: the molded plastic grip frame means that you either learn to love the somewhat uncomfortable, hard plastic texture, or wrap it with some home-brew arrangement of soft rubber.

Handicapped thusly, it’s easy to see why someone might prefer something a little more conventional for workaday personal protection. Someone like a friend who owns one, but doesn’t use it as his everyday carry piece. Even before firing the Kel-Tec, I was beginning to understand why he carried a Kahr 9mm instead of the little Kel-Tec. But a funny thing happened on the way to a negative gun review…

After getting past the initial shock of a gun that muzzle-flipped me the bird on my first go, I rethought my hand position. I mentally prepared myself for the upward motion and tugged the trigger again. This time, the gun didn’t try and jump out of my hand and scurry away into a dark corner. It wasn’t so bad. Not bad at all.

The P3AT’s trigger stacked a little and exhibited a bit of over-travel, but it’s not the pinchtastic finger-maimer some claim. Speaking of travel, it’s long-ish, but not the pack-your-bags journey some would have you believe. Despite forumistas’ testimony that the P3ATs trigger has enough grit to please an 18th century miller, the current iteration makes mythical the myriad moans expressed by first-gen P3AT owners. Are there better mouse-gun go buttons? Absolutely. Is the stock trigger a deal-breaker? Not by a damn sight.

Regarding sights (damned or otherwise), the P3AT’s merely suggest rather than pinpoint the target. For two-thirds the price of a second P3AT, Crimson Trace can help. Does that make the P3T a snub-nosed semi-automatic belly gun for combat distances? Sure—just as long as you don’t make make muzzle contact with your foe.

The more lead I sent downrange, the more Kel-Tec’s slim semi-auto fulfilled all the expectations I’d set for it over the years. Shooting to point-of-aim better than I could, the P3AT’s 21-foot accuracy was almost on-par with a much heavier and well-controlled S&W J-frame .38. And once I learned to wrap my left index finger around the front of the trigger guard, my confidence and precision improved dramatically.

The P3AT’s has quite a checkered reputation as a temperamental toddler. Failure to eject is, perhaps, the most egregious fault you’ll find. There were no feeding or extraction problems with this example in over 200 rounds. Clearly not a picky eater, the P3AT devoured cheap, reloaded FMJs as well as hot defensive hollow points with equal verve. The only misbehavior: the occasional brass flying more backwards than to the side.

Criteria by criteria, my mind’s mental checklist kept saying yes – yes I could afford a gun like this, yes it would be easy and safe to pack (especially with my friend’s excellent trigger-guard covering pocket holster), yes I could be comfortable practicing with the P3AT every few months, and yes I could be accurate and effective enough to warrant staking my life on it every day.

Logically, I can’t honestly say that the Kel-Tec surpasses (or even really equals) the best compact 9mm pistols in terms of ergonomics or functionality. Designed to push the downsizing envelope, there’s no denying the fact that it’s got more compromises than a 1960’s GM union contract. But the constraints and idiosyncrasies that make the P3AT one of the smallest, lightest .380 Auto pistols in the world are hardly insurmountable. All you have to do is ignore them, which is more easily done than you’d imagine. Especially if you had to.


Model: Kel-Tec P3AT
Action type: Double Action Only
Caliber: .380 ACP
Capacity: 6-round magazine
Barrel length: 2.7″
Overall length: 5.2″
Weight: 8.3 oz. unloaded; 11.1 oz. loaded
Grips: Polymer; integral with frame
Sights: Fixed notch rear (integral with slide) and fixed front blade
Slide Finish: Blued, Parkerized, or Hard Chrome
Frame Finish: Polymer; various colors available
Current Value: $250-$350 depending on options


(Out of five stars)

Style  *

Nearly any small gun looks better.

Ergonomics (carry)  * * * * *

The undisputed champion size- and weight-wise. Safety is really your only concern here.

Ergonomics (firing)  * * *

A bit jumpy with an imperfect trigger, but overall, not bad. Once you become proficient with it, these minor annoyances become ever more minorer.

Reliability  * * *

Even though Kel-Tec has done a good job of improving this model over the years, you still hear about quite a few that have issues right out of the box. This particular example functioned flawlessly, though.

Customize This  * * * *

There’s more out there for this little guy than you would think (some of it available from a cottage industry spawned by Kel-Tec owners). Grip slips, lasers, mag extensions, numerous holsters, etc.


Viewed in its proper context (as the be-all, end-all of small and light), it’s an absolute winner. Viewed in the context of larger alternatives, it still holds its own, despite some peculiarities.