The .380 ACP, also known as 9mm Short, 9mm Kurz, or 9x17mm, is one of the most important calibers of the last few years, probably even the last couple decades. Why? Simple: it’s gotten more people to start carrying than virtually all other calibers combined.
The .380 has seen a massive increase in popularity thanks to the still-exploding concealed carry market. The guns are small, light and easy to carry…qualities that many new carriers look for in a personal defense gun.
The fact is, .380 ACP is rarely used for anything besides self-defense. There aren’t many competitions where it’s an advantage. It isn’t much good for hunting. It’s not especially great as a range round due to ammunition cost. But what it is great for is carrying all day, around the clock, thus making it one of the most trusted rounds out there.
I read and write about 9mm constantly and why it’s a great choice to carry. That doesn’t come from loyalty or a sense of superiority. To be honest I don’t even own a 9mm, a .45 ACP, or a .40 S&W. I’ve owned and shot many of them over the years and have been dissatisfied with all, save one or two.
Today I carry a .380 SIG SAUER P238 and I love it to the point of not wanting anything else. So despite my recommendations for the 9mm in previous posts, I actually believe that, for all its many benefits, 9mm isn’t as good a choice for the beginner as .380ACP.
The .380 has its downsides in cost and ballistic performance compared to 9mm. But it offers something that even 9mm can’t — extreme compactness and ease of use. Those two things are why it’s so popular and that popularity has come with some interesting byproducts.
The .380’s popularity has caused an ammunition revolution. The small size of both .380 bullets and the guns that shoot them drove advancements in ballistic performance. With the limits of the .380 ACP came major steps forward in new bullet designs. The caliber went from a somewhat underpowered, last-ditch option to a reliable mainstay in a matter of a few years.
That development resulting in modern masterpieces like the Hornady Critical Defense and Lehigh Xtreme Penetrator. These are two very different bullets that do dramatically different things, but both lend their superior performance to the .380 and make it a very viable personal defense caliber.
A beginner looking at .380 ACP will see these huge benefits:
- Compact size. The author’s SIG SAUER P238 weighs just over a pound loaded and easily fits in a pant or jacket pocket. .380 pistols are even smaller than 9x19mm versions in virtually all cases and even a 10% reduction in size makes a big difference.
- Very powerful new ammunition. Buffalo Bore offers some truly amazing .380 ammo today. Some of their offerings include a .380 +P that can deliver an 80gr bullet at over 1200fps from a micro-compact pistol. The author carries Buffalo Bore 90gr +P that fires at just under 1150fps.
- Easy to manipulate slides. This may come as a surprise to many macho dudes out there, but the ladies and most regular people don’t want a slide that’s difficult to rack. Most .380 pistols have easy-to-use slides that don’t take a tremendous amount of strength to pull back.
- Low recoil. This is a significant benefit that will dramatically lower training time. The relatively low recoil of the .380 is something that makes it feel ‘weaker’ than other options out there. Make no mistake, a jacketed hollowpoint at over 1100fps isn’t a joke, even if it feels light in the hand.
How about downsides to the .380? There aren’t many because of how purpose-driven this cartridge is, and most have been addressed as much as technology will allow.
- Comparatively high ammunition cost. While substantially lower than .40 S&W and .45 ACP, .380 ACP ammunition is generally more expensive than 9mm. That’s due to the fact that there are fewer cheap practice options for it. Ammo cost has come down quite a bit in the last few years. Today practice ammo can be had for about $0.25-0.30 a round with carry ammo being more.
- Lower capacity pistols. Sure, a regular snubby revolver holds only five rounds and most .380 pistols pack at least 6+1, but it’s a complaint for some people. I find that the SIG P238 with the pinky extension gives me excellent capacity for the weight and size at 7+1 rounds. And pocketing a spare .380 magazine is easy.
Some of the best .380 ACP pistols out there include the following:
- SIG SAUER P238 I can’t say enough about this pistol. I enjoy the SIG quality and the attractive appearance of this little piece. I’ve never had an issue with it over the course of a couple thousand rounds and it just keeps chugging and carrying easily. It also has the easiest-to-use slide of the guns on this list. A manual safety is also a plus for pocket carry.
- GLOCK 42 GLOCK did a great job with this gun and it could be thought of as the first of their Gen 5 line. I have owned and shot several of this pistols over the years and have enjoyed their light and compact frames. Compared to the SIG P238, the G42 has a bit more top-heavy and isn’t as fast on target and the slide is stiffer to pull for someone with weak hands.
- Smith & Wesson Bodyguard These are good pistols and benefit from being extremely compact. That comes at a cost, as the slim profile can be hard to hold onto for some, and for many the double-action trigger can feel stiff. There’s a new model from S&W called the Shield EZ. This is a .380 single-stack that has features meant to be easy for new shooters, the disabled, and elderly.
Modern .380 ACP ammo to take a hard look at come from the following makers:
- Buffalo Bore These guys truly rock. Buffalo Bore is always going above and beyond when it comes to performance. They really make stuff that is as powerful as it should be. I love what they are doing with .380 and I will continue to test and carry it as long as I can.
- SIG SAUER’s V-CROWN line is state-of-the-art and is made to work. The nice part about it is that it has a corresponding FMJ line that is nearly identical in features, but priced for practice. You can sleep well knowing that you can practice for cheap and carry for keeps.
- Hornady makes some of the most popular carry ammo in the world today. Critical Defense is all that many people carry. Also look for their great American Gunner line that offers excellent ammo at affordable prices.
- Lehigh Defense has some of the most radical and best-perfomring bullet designs out there today and their projectiles can be found in ammo lines like Black Hills Honey Badger series. These bullets can be pushed hard and fast, typically around 1100-1200fps.
There are few cartridges that I would recommend as heartily for the beginner as .380 ACP. The latest advanced personal defense ammo and the modern guns that fire it are essential to self-defense and should be a regular item in your pocket, just like your knife, wallet, and cell phone.
Because .380 ACP chambered guns are so easily carried, new shooters are more likely to have one with them than something larger, bulkier and heavier. The realities of the world are such that you never get to choose when and where you’ll have to protect yourself or others, and a .380 in your pocket or on your hip trumps a .45 ACP at home every single time.