On January 30, 1948 a Hindu nationalist advocate by the name of Nathuram Godse secured his claim to infamy by carrying out an assassination. At 5:17 PM Godse used a Beretta M1934 he’d apparently stolen to shoot Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi in the chest – three times – point-blank.
By doing this Godse sealed his own fate – he would be hanged just one year later, in 1949 – and made Gandhi a martyr to his cause. Perhaps Godse hadn’t thought through the end results of his actions (or maybe he had).
The Beretta was chambered in 9x17mm Corto, which is just another designation for the cartridge you know as .380 ACP (or perhaps .380 Auto). This wasn’t the only assassination involving the .380 ACP, either. It was simply one of many instances – famous and otherwise – where the cartridge has been utilized with fatal results. So, does that mean .380 ACP is all-powerful or is it only deadly on rare occasions?
The .380 ACP was designed by John Browning more than a century ago for the era’s blowback pistols – specifically the Colt Model 1908. Blowback-operated pistols lack a barrel locking mechanism; the combination of the slide’s mass and the recoil spring’s strength bear the brunt of recoil.
Today, many pistols chambered in .380 ACP remain true to the original blowback design, but some have a locked-breech action in which the slide and barrel initially recoil in tandem. Then the barrel stops moving while the slide continues rearward (of course, variations abound). Browning’s design may date back more than one hundred years, but it still influences the firearms world to this day.
When it comes to .380 ACP, gun owners tend to fall into one of two groups – love or hate – with middle ground being uncommon. Many feel it’s undersized and it is, indeed, a diminutive cartridge. It has an overall length of .984”, a bullet diameter of .355”, and a maximum pressure of 21,500 psi. If you compare it to something like 10mm Auto the contrast is enormous.
If you hold it up against 9x19mm Parabellum it might not seem quite as impressive, but the difference is still there. The 9mm round has an overall length of 1.169”, a bullet diameter of 0.355”, and a maximum pressure of 35,000 psi. Yes, the two cartridges have the same bullet diameter. The 9mm predates .380 ACP – 9mm was designed by Georg Luger in 1901 and entered production in 1902 – and has a landslide of ballistic advances to back it.
Right about now you’re probably thinking the same advances in ballistics that have favored the 9mm also apply across the board to .380 ACP and in some ways you’d be right. .380 ACP has certainly improved, especially in recent years, but guess what? 9mm still has it beat. It’s bigger, faster, and leaves larger, deeper permanent wound cavities.
I won’t bore you with endless charts and tables. Suffice to say over the years I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time with chronographs, ballistic gel, and more load variations than I can count. It’s more than part of my job – especially when you consider I actually had a full-time career before this one took over – it’s part of my makeup as a ballistic geek. I do love knowing those minute details.
There is too much. Let me sum up (come on, any Princess Bride fans out there?).
Ballistic gel is used to test the terminal ballistics of bullets. Protocols are based on the FBI’s ammunition tests the agency undertook three decades ago following the Pyrrhic victory of the 1986 FBI Miami Shootout (two agents were killed and five were wounded in a firefight against a pair of serial bank robbers.
If you’re unfamiliar, check out the new book from Ed Mireles “FBI Miami Firefight”). The shootout raised questions in law enforcement regarding caliber capabilities and the FBI ended up creating their ballistic gel protocol to answer those questions. Years later we still follow their lead.
According to the FBI protocol bare gel or gel covered by things like heavy clothing, automotive sheet metal, wallboard, plywood, or automotive glass should be shot from 10 feet away (this is a distance measured from the muzzle of the gun not the body of the shooter).
To pass muster, bullets must penetrate to a minimum depth of 12” to be considered effective, a number based on anatomical averages and the understandable belief erring on the side of too much is better than too little. When the FBI performed their tests in 1989 they used 24 tons of gel and measurements were made blind – agents didn’t know what caliber they were measuring – for statistical accuracy.
Here’s a random collection of .380 ACP stats. In bare gelatin one of the most impressive performances I’ve seen was from DRT 85 grain Terminal Shock JHP. It had an average depth of 11.40”; Sinterfire 75 grain Frangible HP was right behind it at 10.90”. Conversely, Barnes 80 grain TAC-XPD was the shallowest with a penetration depth of 7.75”.
Your average assailant won’t run at you naked, though, so here’s more. With heavy clothing over the gel, Hornady Critical Defense 90 grain FTX had the best average penetration at 10.25”.
So, what does it mean? Following the FBI’s protocol requiring a minimum penetration depth of 12” frangible HPs like DRT and SRSP Team Never Quit come oh-so-close – but not quite – while rounds like Barnes’ TAC-XPD fall noticeably short. Before you think I’m dumping on Barnes, I am not. Barnes makes some of my favorite hunting ammunition – in larger calibers. This is all about .380 ACP and its penchant for underperforming.
Nine millimeter is another story. In bare gel DRT 9mm 85 grain JHPs had an average penetration depth of 13.3”. Hornady Critical Defense 9mm 115 grain FTX averaged 13.7” on bare gel and 14.9” with layered denim; Hornady Critical Duty 9mm 135 grain FlexLock +Ps penetrated an average of 14.2” on bare gel and 17.4” through layered denim (interesting side note: Critical Duty does penetrate more deeply but Critical Defense bullets had an edge for expansion).
Jump to Barnes TAC-XPD 9mm 115 grain +Ps and the numbers drop a bit with an average depth of 14.1”. For fun we’ll throw in Remington Black Belt 9mm 124 grain +Ps which averaged 13.5” in bare gel. You might have noticed the DRT frangible hollow points had a penetration depth on par with that of +P HPs – interesting, right?
So we’ve established the 9mm round passes the FBI requirements for a penetration depth beyond 12” and .380 ACP typically does not. Here’s the other thing: those 9mm bullets also created larger permanent wound cavities. Not sometimes but always.
The human body runs on fluids. During an attack you need to stop the threat be letting that fluid out hard and fast. Which one do you think can get it done better, .380 ACP or 9mm?
A little medical parting food for thought. I’m originally from Washington State where our medical pride and joy is Harborview Medical Center. It’s the only Level I trauma center in the state. Dr. Andreas Grabinsky is the program director for emergency and trauma anesthesia at Harborview and he has some thoughts on this particular debate.
He said approximately 76% of gunshot wounds Harborview treats are from handguns. Dr. Grabinsky also said two of the most relevant wounding factors are bullet diameter and penetration depth (they both directly correlate to tissue damage). Tissue damage refers to both the temporary and permanent wound cavities bullets create; the immediate, temporary cavity occurs when the bullet first penetrates but it collapses fast, resulting in the permanent cavity. Dr. Grabinksy has repeatedly stated the significance of penetration.
He says millimeters matter for damaging vital organs, blood vessels or arteries. In his extensive experience treating single and multiple gunshot wounds, victims shot by 9mm and smaller – such as .380 ACP – have had no problem walking around and functioning anywhere from seconds to minutes after being shot.
Simple question: do you want your assailant to keep on coming after they’ve been shot?
This so-called Great Caliber Debate is really no debate whatsoever. Bottom line is 9mm clearly out-performs .380 ACP. A .380 ACP pistol makes a fine BUG – backup gun – but if it’s your main concealed carry piece for self-defense, perhaps you should be examining your life choices more closely.
Is the carry gun you have better than no gun at all? Of course. Should you work on carrying a gun chambered in a more effective cartridge? Also of course.
As for 9mm itself, well, this article isn’t about what handgun calibers out-do 9mm. This is about .380 ACP vs. 9mm pistols. But perhaps next time we’ll discuss .40 S&W and the ludicrous manner in which so many gun owners have dismissed it. Until then, remember the first rule of a gunfight is to have a gun. Maybe the second rule should be to have a bigger gun.