.380 ACP or 9mm? Which is better? (Pictured: Axelson Tactical Glock 19.)
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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?

A trio of handguns chambered in .380 ACP – Ruger LCP, Browning 1911 380, Kimber Micro. (Author image.)

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.

Tis the season: pumpkin entrance “wound” picture left, exit “wound” picture right. (Author image.)

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?).

Left to right: Barnes TAC-XPD .380 ACP, 9mm, and .45 ACP. (Author image.)

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.

The Walther PPQ is inherently accurate at 15 yards with Inceptor 9mm 65 grain RNPs. (Author image.)

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?

More hours than I can count have gone into chronographing and testing ammo on ballistic gel. (Author image.)

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.

Glocks chambered in 9mm, .40 S&W, and 10mm. (Author image.)

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.

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  1. Since when is 9mm vs .380 a great caliber debate? I’ve been into shooting and guns since I was very young and have never heard of this. If any debate has earned that title its easily, and only, 9mm vs .45. Even for second place on the list of caliber debates I’d put 5.56 vs 7.62.

    • The 9mm vs .380 debate was developed in recent years for the purpose of clickbait. Which is pretty much all this place is good for anymore it seems. I keep falling for it, though it’s getting tiresome. Jeremy seems to be in good form still, when he’s writing. JWT hasn’t been a letdown either in content but it seems to be drying up. I take back all my complaints about Farago. He got the best writers to do what this site was known for, quality reviews of guns and gear and analysis of today’s political fight for guns.

        • Apologies, Other Tom, for my writing dry spell. I’ve been swamped with “the real job” and working on the back end of TTAG coordinating the majority of the review guns and gear that comes in and goes back out (doing the requesting or approving, the paperwork, the transfers, the return shipping stuff, etc etc).

          I’ve committed to a review a week and intend to make that happen! I actually have a massive backlog of content — mostly gun reviews — that is ready to be written up (testing done, photos done…no words written other than my testing notes).

          As for this content, there’s a huge demand! A lot of this stuff is being created based on what people are searching for (e.g. 9mm vs .380). I realize some of it seems “beginner” or silly or whatever, but it’s filling an info gap that we know readers want because they’re regularly trying to find it on here and elsewhere. It shouldn’t happen at the expense of reviews…

      • Clickbait

        Very repetitive dump of the day EDC

        Old news published 1 to 2 weeks before on other websites

        Repetitive political comments

        Anti cop comments, the copy/paste type again, from the wannabe sovereign citizen and “patriots” of TTAG who are going to free the nation from the millions of murderers with a badge!

    • The debate is probably more in the concealed self defense trends or style, marketing, and industry. Personally from my observations, probably 10-15 years ago, if you wanted a ccw, it was basically a Glock 19 or 23. Compact size, double stack, not to big or small, $500, does it all kind of gun. Substitute HK USPc/p2000, Sig 229, Beretta storm, basically – compact duty.

      Then mouse guns started getting popular again for ccw, keltec p3at then Ruger LCP, suddenly that big double stack gun was too big, and thin was in, and suddenly everyone needs a tiny new .380 that isn’t euro milsurp and costs ~$200. A bunch of new .380 offerings from basically everyone appeared, including the Glock 42.

      I would say now it is the micro or pocket 9 in the last 3-5 years. Keltec pf9, Ruger LC9, shield, Glock 43, Sig 365, seems most are saying the .380 is a bit too little, but they want a thin, cheap, light 9mm.

      And it is less a caliber choice as a what type of weapon would you use as your ccw. Or even first, or only, gun. Go to a range or CCW class, there are probably a decent number of people with only a pocket .380 or 9mm.

      • As concealed carriers become more diverse so do the pistols and calibers. No longer relegated to OFWG carrying “all-metal” guns. I think the increase in CCers has pushed the market back towards 9mm. I only own 1 full sized pistol. The rest are compacts and even pocket sized. I can tell you that my Kahr CM40 (cal) is a SOB but actually kicks about the same as my S&W 642 with 38 SPL+p. I carry both regularly in my pocket! I wouldn’t have any reservations going to a Kahr CM9, which would be a littler easier on my hands.

    • First comment on the article and it’s about all that’s needed. Unlike the 9mm\.40\.45 debates, this one isn’t going anywhere (hopefully). People who carry a .380 (which includes me on occasion) know its limitations and benefit. It’s pretty much on the low end of ‘acceptable’ carry rounds. That said, any handgun round is comparably poor compared to a rifle.

      • (This had to go somewhere). The 9mm also used to be a marginal round. Then later it benefited from decades of improvements in powders and computer-aided projectile design. So, suddenly it’s the neoplusultra of all handgun rounds while the ‘misbegotten .40 is useless and toast’ .. as if it didn’t Also benefit from the same decades of improved components and performance. But the advancements run the other way as well. Now the .380, which previously was indeed very marginal .. now it’s putting up performance figures that could, for some uses, definitely warrant another look. The 9 has improved, but the baby9 has improved as well. The performance of any cartridge selection is simply a point along a line. None of them have a magical one-shot stop ability. Any people from the vociferous Church of Nine who would roll their eyes at someone for choosing a high-performance .380, .. now they know how 10mm, .45, .357 Sig, and .40 people feel about that bunch every time they break into their hymns.

      • No, I’d rather see — Caliber Wars: .45-70 Govt vs .45-75 WCF, or
        .44 Russian vs .45 Colt

        Or something like that.

      • The 380 auto is most DEFENETLY worth mentioning, if it wasn’t…it wouldn’t even be in production to this date, also remember that ” Shot placement ” is what really matters. Even Ex Governor : Rick Perry of Texas, carried a 380cal when he would go for his daily jogs.
        Not sure if he once killed a coyote, or shot at it only, either way, he had a gun for defense.

  2. There are plenty of people who are no longer walking around after having been shot at bad breath distances with a .380. No doubt its lethality is greatly reduced with distance, but at mugging range it will do the trick. And it has excellent penetration with copper solids, for example from Lehigh.

    • Yeah, 380 isn’t great but it’s better than nothing. This article makes the usual mistake of survivorship bias. The cited doctor reports that people shot by handguns can walk around just fine because they don’t ship the corpses to her. I believe jwtaylor made the same mistake in his screed against .223 and 9mm.

      • +1

        Was surprised to hear the doc say bullet size and penetration were the most important. Even more surprised someone with extensive knowledge would write that…

        It’s shot placement that’s most important, then and pretty much only then does penetration and expansion play a part. Plus, the type of bullets play a part as well. It’s pretty much “proven” anything less than a .45 will need some type of expanding bullet to keep up.

        I bet most of those gunshot wounds were the person survived came down to poor (not aimed) shot placement and shooting FMJs.

        Plus, unlike the movies the majority of folks shot by a handgun survive.

        Like you said, they don’t ship the corpses to the ER or ICU…

        And when has there ever been a caliber war over 9 Luger and .380 ACP? At least in regards to power…Most debates with .380 vs whatever I’ve seen usually revolve around size, weight, capacity and recoil of the pistol to that of a larger cartridge.

      • You need to either read closer or remember better.
        No such screed exists. What I said in my first ever article at TTAG is that, compared to rifle rounds, all pistol rounds suck, and the 5.56NATO round made ice pick wounds. Note that, in that same article, I mention that the world changes quite a bit with a 5.56 and a soft point bullet, as opposed to FMJ or the light AP rounds we are given.
        Also, unlike the doctor you mentioned, I have no survivorship bias. I get the dying, the dead, and also, the big difference, I’m often the one that shoots them.

        • “I get the dying, the dead, and also, the big difference, I’m often the one that shoots them.”

          Eyes rolling, but cool story. If you think you don’t have survivorship bias then you don’t understand what that is.

    • People used to happily carry .25s and .32s as well. Most folks don’t want to lug around a blaster on the off, off, off chance you run into the Hulk. Throw some lead while you beat feet more like.

  3. Caliber debates are gay. A massive bull was taken at 1550 yards last week in Utah with one shot and it died nearly where it stood. It’s all about shot placement.

    • And some drugged rebels in Africa survived several rounds of some pretty decent caliber, guns are useless carry a slingshot for SD instead…

    • When I butcher cattle, I do the deed with a .22RF solid lead 40gr. It drops a 900 pound steer like a sack of potatoes. They don’t even twitch, and I’ve never seen one move as much as one step after the bullet hits their brain. Just face the target straight on, and draw a mental “X” between their eyes and ears. The center of the X is the location of the brain on a cow.
      A .22 RF is enough to kill almost anything on the planet, given PERFECT shot placement. Lacking having the animal(either the two or four legged varieties) in a corral with all the time in the world to line up the shot from close range, when we hunt we know we won’t be able to guarantee that perfect shot, so we attempt to make up for that with larger calibers. This is what the “caliber wars” are all about, and why its gone on for so long, and will probably continue forever.

      • Your “draw the x” comment reminded me of a story my grandfather told me a long time ago. He was born in the mid 1920’s and grew up on a farm. When he was about ten his dad gave him the task of killing a pig he had taken as a pet for the purpose of butchering (and eating). Of course he had no business treating this pig that way, the pig just kind of took to him from a young age and he responded by treating him differently than he did the other pigs.
        When the time came to do the deed he took the 22 and walked up to the pig, drew the ‘X’ and…hesitated. When he pulled the trigger the pig had just enough time to move that he missed the ‘X’ and his mortally wounded pet was running around squealing and bleeding. When he told me this 60 years later he said it still bothered him that he botched the shot and made him suffer. The chops were tasty though.

        Ok, the last part I added.

  4. theres been times where ive slept with a .380 on the headboard and theres times when i slept with a 9mm on the headboard

    got the same amount and quality of sleep either way

    would not want to get shot in the torso or head or arms or legs or hands or feet with either one

    would bet the farm the guy coming through the front or back door at 2 am feels the same about the difference between being shot with one or the other being negligible

  5. 9×17 is a decent enough caliber, but leaves no margin for error. That’s the problem with it.

    Nathuram Godse scored three hits center mass at point blank range. Gavrilo Princip, with his .380ACP FN Browning Model 1910, put one in Archduke Ferdinand’s neck for the kill at about 5 feet.

    The .380 is underpowered compared to almost any other self-defense round. A defender might not have enough time to shoot thrice or be so lucky as to hit a vital spot with the first shot. In which case, said defender is finito.

    • You raise a good point that no one else seemed to notice, that the lower powered rounds better suit an attacker, rather than a defender.
      An attacker picks the time and place of the attack, and so, much like Ferdinand in 1914, when you take a bullet in the neck from 5 feet away, it doesn’t make a whole lot of difference what caliber it was. Death is the likely outcome, whether it be a .22 or a .460 WBY. The WBY will do a lot more damage, but then how do you make a target MORE dead? The WBY mag would likely have taken his whole head off and splattered it around the landscape, but Ferdinand wouldn’t be any more dead than the .380 made him.
      A defender, on the other hand, starts out at a severe disadvantage. He has no idea what direction the threat is coming from, or when, or where. Much like the hunter vs the steer in a corral, in my other post on this page, the defender can make up some of this disadvantage with a bigger gun. With more power he might be able to stop the threat, even without perfect shot placement and angle, which he will not be able to set up. The attacker gets to do that, just like me killing my steer in my corral, at the time and place of my choosing, so I can eat steak and ribs. In this analogy, I’m the assassin and the steer is the Archduke. I can do the deed with a .22, or a .380., or a .460 WBY. More power doesn’t benefit me, the way it does a defender.

  6. I think .380, 9mm and 38 Special produce similar and effective results AT SELF DEFENSE DISTANCES. I have a .380, 3- 9mm and a couple of 38 Specials that I have trusted to protect me. However, I have gotten old and I have switched to simple and easy to use. I feel more comfortable with my hammerless snub nose 357 Magnum revolver because I know it will fire if I pull the trigger regardless of my feeble mind. I also know the recoil will get my attention far more than anything else I can shoot. There is a time I would have made fun of anyone that had a snub nose revolver with a 5 round capacity but I have evolved.

    • Do yourself a favor and trade in the .357 snubby for a .327 Fed Mag Ruger LCR or LCRx, both snubbies, or SP101 with 3 in barrel. Approaches very close to .357 level power, way less recoil, and a 6th round.

  7. Meh…I’ve had both. They make some tiny 9mm gats. 9mm is cheaper and much more available for now(I was around in the great ammo famine of 2013 when 40 was around and little else). Hilarious when someone comments “would you volunteer to be shot by a 380?!?” I don’t want to be shot by a BB😏

    • I don’t want to volunteer to blow a dude, it doesn’t mean your D is good for self defense! Now if the dude is a bro who operates, if he is fit and tactical, we may or may not blow each other after a workout.

    • My usual counteroffer to that old cliche is that I’ll happily let them shoot me with their mousegun, so long as while they do it, they let me run up and stab them over and over until I bleed out.

      No takers on that one, either.

  8. I picked up a pocket .380 this last summer, and was at the local range. I had also picked up one of those new loaders that can take a row of rounds at once, and load the into magazines. So, I was shooting a (9 mm) Glock 17, and all of a sudden, for the first time ever (after several thousand rounds) it was only cycling on maybe every other round. Making it worse, the second magazine ran great, but the third started choking again. Went back to the truck to figure out what was going on. And noticed that the bullets in the remains unshot portion of that 3rd magazine were too short. Turns out that the boxes of 9 mm and of .380 looked identical, except for the caliber marked on them, and I hadn’t noticed that the .380 rounds were too short, because I had loaded the magazines a row (10 rounds) at a time. Still, I was impressed that the Glock had done as well as it had, shooting the wrong caliber ammunition.

    I have fallen in love with carrying that .380 pocket pistol as a backup. I usually carry it in my right front pants pocket, and have to remember it is there when I go somewhere where I am not supposed to be armed. And to load everything else into my left front pocket. And it shoots decently well, esp at self defense distances. The recoil is almost comparable to 9 mm in a compact handgun.

    • 380 ACP cycled a G17? I’m really impressed.

      That’s pretty much why I don’t take .380 and 9mm to the range at the same time anymore though.

  9. I, for one, can not understand why anyone would carry a 9mm when the 50AE is available.

    . . . oh, because, at some point, we have to say, “enough is enough!” I I have reached that point with the 9×17.

    . . . but really, I probably should be carrying a 50AE.

    • You like the unreliability that goes hand-in-hand with the .50AE’s rebated rim? Well, there’s no accounting for taste. Good luck finding a .50AE that functions.

  10. There are many people not walking around today after being shot with .22 and .25. Why don’t you compare .38 to 9 mm or 9 x 19 with 9 x 21 or 9 x 23? Of course it is a stronger round, it is bigger, has more powder to push the projectile.
    A pocket pistol in 9 x 19 is a little much and is not really fun to shoot. The .380 or even the Mak round are pretty snappy in a small handgun – I really do not want more there. The .32 ACP has been used for a century as a police sidearm and has done the job.
    There will always be those that are shot with high cal rounds and survived as well as those that die from a tiny caliber or even a slingshot.

    I have yet to find any volunteer who will allow me to empty a 6 round clip of .380 into his/her body at 50 ft.

    • My Sig P938 (9mm) is incredible to shoot for such a small pistol, standard 9mm ammo feels like +P on Glock 19 I would say. It is manageable.

  11. A .380 in the holster beats in .50 AE back home in the gun safe.

    I had for years carried a .45 but am now back to a smaller caliber. So far I haven’t had to shoot anyone with either. That fact pertaining to just about everyone suggests that concealability and comfort should be major deciding factors.

  12. Several years ago, ShootingTheBull410 tested many .380 defensive cartridges using the FBI protocol of heavy denim fabric in front of ballistic gelatin. His results show that .380 can penetrate well or it can expand well but not both. The obvious reason is that it doesn’t have enough energy to do both. He found the best .380 cartridges use Hornady XTP bullets. They penetrated an average of at least 12″ and expanded moderately. Second choice was Federal Hydra Shok which penetrated deeper but expanded less. Cartridges using FMJ bullets overpenetrated by about 6″. While .380 isn’t as effective as more powerful calibers neither is it ineffective provided you select good cartridges.

    • ammo choice is everything, if it passes, its good to carry. also 9×17 and 32 auto ended the lives of a great many people between 1914 and 1918. people tend to forget that these rounds were fielded by major militaries.

      • The .32acp was the official police caliber, for most of the 20th century in most of Europe. Europeans seem to have sidestepped the American predilection towards; “bigger is always better”.

      • This should be the meat of the discussion: bullet selection.

        There are plenty of .380 ACP and 9mm Luger loads that perform VERY poorly — especially in short-barreled pistols.

        The key is selecting the right bullet technology/construction.

        When I carry a small pistol chambered in .380 ACP, I carry 100 grain hardcast lead bullets from BuffaloBore. Those WILL achieve sufficient penetration no matter what outer garments an attacker is wearing. I’ll take sufficient penetration over impressive expansion (with insufficient penetration) every time.

    • Alternate JHP and FMJ in the mag, best of both worlds. If I have to shoot my LCP II you better know I’m dumping the mag

    • Some time later, STB410 tested Lehigh all copper ammo, and found it best of all. Penetration was 13-15 inches and wound cavity from bullet design (doesn’t expand at all) was quite satisfactory. How this test ended up with zero ammo reaching 12 inches is a mystery.

      AND!!! If you are going to rattle on and on about gel penetration and similar, TELL US THE BARREL LENGTH YOU ARE FIRING!!! Without it, the other info is useless.

  13. Well if you’re goal is to assassinate a 90 pound septuagenarian politician the .380 has plenty of stink if you deliver 3 to the chest at close range. 9mm would probably work on someone a little larger, stronger and younger. But if you need to stop a full grown twenty-something man who’s been binge huffing jenkem for a week, you’ll need a .357 magnum.

    • if you can actually put rounds on target when your heart rate is 150 and your hands are shaking from the adrenline dump as you pull that 12lb trigger and recovering from the recoil. And since you are shooting at him with a snub nosed 2.25″ barrell which is weaker than a 9mm round like the Winchester PDX1 shot from a similar sized G19 I am sure you will do just fine.

      • 10# DA trigger, 3″ barrel and 600ft/lbs of muzzle energy.

        A little heavier than a G19, but carries about the same otherwise.

        • Actually, the 10# trigger is more like stock. After the WC hammer and trigger return springs you’re probably more like 8#.

        • Do I have to post the Ballistics by the Inch table again. No off the shelf .357 round shot out of a 3″ barrel cracks much over 400lbs. You lose too energy through the cylinder gap and not enough barrel length to make up for it. Ant increase in charge yields only a small increase velocity since a good deal of energy gets bliwn out tge barrel to no effect. But here is the chart. Go argue with the data.


        • Good God TD, a .357 and 9mm run the same pressure but the .357 has literally twice the case capacity. More once you deduct the case space taken up by the bullet. Do I really need to spell this out again? ALL of the Win/Rem/Fed loads are reduced pressure in .357. There are, to my knowledge, no commercially loaded +p .357 loads. Buffalo Bore, Double Tap, etc are simply just standard loads.

          So, by my observations, you generally need about 5″ of barrel to match advertised velocities for 4″ ‘test barrels’. A G19 with non +p am mo is going to net somewhere around 340ft/lbs of muzzle energy (less with 147gr). Now, it’s not that I don’t take BB and DT’s numbers without a grain of salt either. Personally I think they leave the am mo out on the dash in the hot sun for a couple hours then advertise the fastest round out of the box. But the load I use is advertised as achieving 544ft/lbs out of a 1-7/8″ S&W and 688ft/lbs out of a 4(.2)” GP 100. That’s far more than BB, DT, etc advertise for +p+ 9mm out of a 4″. Taken with a giant grain of salt I figure 600ft/lbs out of the 3″ and that’s a 158 grainer that will penetrate through any bad guy you choose to shoot at any angle you choose to shoot him. If you don’t believe that, then come on up to IA and I’ll put it in your hands and you tell me that it has no more recoil than a 9mm. It’s totally f-u-c-k-i-n-g obvious. Even the Win/Rem/Fed stuff will net you 475-500ft/lbs out of a 3″ barrel.

          Now if you feel more comfortable with 17+1 round of 9mm over 6 rounds of .357, you have a valid point. But when you start claiming that 9mm is as powerful as .357 out of even a 1-7/8″ snubby, it simply displays that you don’t know what you’re talking about.

        • Also, the cylinder gap doesn’t amount to jack in snubbies. A 1-7/8″ 9mm snubbie will achieve similar velocities to a 3″ semi-auto. The bullet just doesn’t stay in the barrel long enough. Now when comparing say 6″ to 8-3/8″ or something, the longer barrel doesn’t always net more velocity, especially if the cylinder gap just happens to be a thousandth of an inch or so bigger than the shorter barrel.

        • Let me translate your response into plain English for you. “I don’t care what the actual data says, the .357 is super powerful no matter what the barrel length is.”

          Let’s compare the loss in velicity with barrel length with a 10mm cartridge since most common loads are about the same muzzle velicity as .357.

          The loss in velocity between a 4″ and 3″ barrel is 1/3 of the loss for a .357. Even at 2″ the 10mm has a higher velocity than a .357 from a snubbie. It is a myth not born out by actual data that 17/8″ snubbie is equal to a 3″ auto.
          The cylinder gaps leaks a significant amount of energy in a short barrel no matter what you think Go watch Hickock45’s video on why you keep your fingers away from the gap.

          The Magnum cartridges are designed for long barrels. The data show a significant degredation in velocity and muzzle engery below 4.”. The data doesn’t suppiry your bluster.

          Lawyers say when facts are on your side pound the facts. When the law is on your side pound the law. And when neither the facts nor the law is on your side pound the table. All you are doing is pounding the table.


          Why don’t go and tell BBTI why calebrated day is wrong.

        • I have to hand it to you, you’re as ignorant as you are obstinate.

          Where did I say you don’t lose energy out the cylinder gap? What I said is that a 1-7/8″ snubby in 9mm will net similar velocities as 3″ non-vented barrel. I made this statement based on several reviews of 9mm LCRs that had chrono results. Now it doesn’t take a rocket surgeon to realize that a 1.6″ (cylinder) + 1.875″ (barrel) = 3.475″ which is longer than 3″. Therefor yes, you do lose energy through the cylinder gap. However, once the bullet has left the barrel, you will no longer lose energy out the cylinder gap because there’s a much larger breech at the end of the barrel. I really can’t see why this stuff is so hard to comprehend.

        • BTW, I agree that 1-7/8″ barrels are far from optimum in .357 magnum. Partially because you do lose a lot of ME compared to even a 2-1/4″ or 3″ barrel, but also because the recoil is going to be pretty severe. But you’re delusional if you think that more than twice the powder isn’t going to yield more muzzle energy.

        • I don’t want any part of this discussion, because you both have valid points, but IMO its only a misunderstanding.
          All I care to say is that tdiinva must not have ever been in a real shooting, or hunted any big game. If he had, he would know that the shakes from an adrenaline dump don’t happen during the incident, but only afterwards, when all that pent-up energy in your bloodstream has nothing to expend itself on, and nowhere to go.
          Similarly, if he had ever hunted he would know that one shooting at game never feels the recoil(no matter how large), or trigger pull(no matter how heavy), or the blast(no matter how loud), etc. Those are things you feel at the range, without the adrenaline dump that disables your pain receptors.
          This is not to suggest that lighter triggers are bad, or more recoil is good, or range practice is useless, etc. I only state that time at the range(or a match) is NOT a real fight, but is just a game. Games have rules, fights do not. For this reason a match is better than range time, because the competition adds stress to the mix, which is a good thing because in a real fight you will be under plenty of strain. But it still isn’t a fight. Just a game. Or, perhaps, a sport if that sounds more acceptable to some.
          I find that just a shot timer adds about as much stress as a match, so I recommend that every shooter who can afford it, and believes in practice, should have one. They also help you to get faster, if you use them correctly. They’re only around a hundred bucks.

        • Kenneth, while I’ve never been in a gunfight, I think you’re right. Twenty-five years ago I did experience a motorcycle accident that involved an impact at a combined closing speed of 85mph and from witness accounts some pretty spectacular aerial acrobatics. Didn’t feel a thing for probably 60 seconds. Everything slowed way down.

          Inversely, I very much believe that if you shoot someone who’s pumped up with adrenaline you will find the same thing happens when you’re shot as when you bounce your motorcycle off the front of an oncoming car. There’s a very good chance that if he’s determined to do you harm he won’t realize he’s dead until he’s really dead.

  14. So if I got all this straight, a 9MM is barely adequate, the .380 auto is too slow and weak so….. does that mean I can swat .25 ACP bullets out of the air as they get close to me?

  15. Gotta love the hypocrisy that some (NOT ALL) 9mm fanboys exhibit when it comes to this very debate compared to the same debate over 9mm vs .45ACP. Even the writer of this article said it herself: “As for 9mm itself, well, this article isn’t about what handgun calibers out-do 9mm. This is about .380 ACP vs. 9mm.” You can smash their forehead against a ballistics chart for hours and the 9mm fanboys will never admit that the terminal ballistics of a .45ACP make it a better choice than 9mm in many cases, but the second you bring up .380, they suddenly make quick friends with the “bigger is better” argument as if they weren’t just denying it 5 minutes prior.

    And for you wiseasses out there, I carry all three calibers.

  16. Great analysis, Kat. Many folks start with .380 b/c the recoil milder than .38’s in snubbies, plus more rounds. Plus they are generally cheaper than 9’s. Helpful info. Thanks.

  17. I carry a .380, and don’t feel poorly equipped.

    I need something I can carry in my pocket, no matter what I’m wearing, that isn’t conspicuous. I don’t want a potential bad guy to know I’m armed so that he can ID me as the guy who needs to be taken out first; I want to preserve the “element of surprise” to the extent that I can.

    Easily concealable pocket pistols do exist in larger calibers. But in that size of a pistol, they are hard to shoot accurately and are a chore to practice with. I have a burly friend who carries a very compact 9mm Parabellum, but even he complains about how the recoil makes recovery for accurate follow up shots difficult. My .380 is a pleasure to shoot and I can hold tighter groups with that than I ever could with my previous carry gun, a .38 snubbie.

    So with my .380 ACP, I’ve got concealability, plus accuracy (mine has great sights).

    As to power, I know very well it ain’t no Dirty Harry gun. But without accurate shot placement, even a big hand cannon is useless. The .380 is powerful enough at realistic self-defense range that well-placed shots can be plenty effective. I practice a fair amount and I expect that accuracy on my part will compensate for the comparatively weaker round.

    At home, of course I don’t have to conceal anything, so my “castle” is defended by a full-size .357 revolver (which also gets its share of range time).

    But out and about, wearing shorts, jeans, or a suit, my streamlined .380 has to do the job. Hope I never have to find out, but I am confident it will perform as required.

    • I love 380s, full stop. For a carry gun I think the Sig P365 has made it unnecessary as a carry gun though.

    • So you can’t shoot a revolver and you think every criminal is there to murder random people in broad daylight, so you have to make sure special ops murderer criminals can’t see a slight bulge on your waist.

      • I live in a very low crime area. I’m not concerned as much about a garden variety street thug (but I allow that is possible and I’ll deal with them as well) as much as I am concerned about Johnny Jihadi; we have a relatively large Moslem population here and a couple of people have already been arrested for terrorist-related activities.

        I shoot my .357 revolver extremely well. I even shot my .38 snubbie pretty well under good lighting when I could get a decent sight picture. But my .380 has excellent tritiums, and I shoot that better…and I get three extra rounds.

        But I’m sure you know way more than me about my situation and what’s best not only for me, but for everybody else.

        Few things more annoying than a self-appointed firearms know-it-all…

  18. Pocket pistols are going to have considerable limitations. Better to have one than not have one, regardless caliber.

  19. The problem isn’t the round, it’s with the pocket pistol with a sub 3″ barrel. Shot out of a Browning 1911-380 or a Beretta 84/Browning BDA it is an effective round.

    And I note that Kat references a trauma surgeon who says penetration and mm count. In otherwards 45 rules and 9mm drools. So why am I walking around with a 9mm these datts? Velocity. In a dynamic situation speed may mean the difference between a good shoot and collateral damage. If life was like a square ranfe or I could shoot like Jerry Miculek I would carry a 45 but life happens fast and I am an average shot so i will take every advantage I can get.

  20. Really in an ideal self defense situation I want my mossburg or Bennelli.

    I was given a .380 Bersa thunder plus 15+1 and it has grown on me as a high capacity very compact carry. I like that I can pocket carry it in my overalls without a holster.

    However, most .380 are not offering much if any additional magazine capacity over comparable size 9mm, so why would you go with the weaker cartridge all other things being equal?

  21. Hardly anybody thinks .22LR is the preferred choice for defense, but it’s certainly not harmless. It may still holds the record for most murder victims, but I haven’t seen new stats in over a decade. I know families that slaughtered their own cattle with a .22 at the X between eyes and ears. Effective with a CNS hit, but pretty worthless otherwise. An old roommate was shot with a .22 for tipping cows, and it penetrated his jacket and only bruised his chest. Anecdotes mean nothing.

  22. Yup. Conclusion: Carry .40 or .45.

    Somehow, I had managed to accumulate three .380s over the years: Bersa, Llama, and Walther PK. I don’t carry any of them very much any more, but would have no compunctions about doing so had they not all been victims of a tragic boating accident. All were great fun at the range and played an important role in introducing new shooters.

  23. We can come up with a hundred different scenarios that would put this or that caliber pistol at a disadvantage. No bad guy wants shot. No bad guy knows what caliber the gun that’s pointing his way is. I promise a single shot by either the .380 or 9mm into a human torso is going to make for a very bad day. We can hypothesize until the cows come home but either caliber is an equalizer and will/can provide the break you need to escape.

  24. Put two thru the heart, then one in the head and that way you know for sure that they’re dead. I would never have a .380 auto, it’s just not enough gun. But the most important thing is bullet placement. Practice, practice and then when you get really good then practice some more. End of speech.

  25. a balance has to be struck. if I was the open carry type I’d have a .458 socom ar15 pistol strapped to my chest. fact is I’m not an open carry type, and with the small pistols I can comfortably conceal I can move lead downrange with a .380 quicker and more accurately than I could with a 9mm. shot placement is more critical than terminal ballistics with any pistol caliber anyway, so unless your defensive piece is a desert eagle, carry more bullets to give yourself more chances to get that shot placement right.

    to anyone who claims that .380 is inadequate, I challenge you to stand on the wrong side of one. even standing on the wrong side of a .22 feels not much different from standing on the wrong side of a .45

  26. And when has there ever been a caliber war over 9 Luger and .380 ACP? At least in regards to power…Most debates with .380 vs whatever I’ve seen usually revolve around size, weight, capacity and recoil of the pistol to that of a larger cartridge. We all know the .380 isn’t close to being as powerful as a 9mm Luger.

    Was surprised to hear the doc say bullet size and penetration were the most important. Even more surprised someone with extensive knowledge would write that…

    It’s shot placement that’s most important, then and pretty much only then does penetration and expansion play a part. Plus, the type of bullets play a part as well. It’s pretty much “proven” anything less than a .45 will need some type of expanding bullet to keep up. With modern day American made expanding bullets with proper or even mediocre shot placement in 9mm, 40 S&W and .45 ACP, you’ll be hard pressed to notice any kind of a tangible real world difference.

    I bet most of those gunshot wounds were the person survived came down to poor (not aimed) shot placement and shooting FMJs.

    Plus, unlike the movies the majority of folks shot by a handgun survive.

    And really, we’re going to say size matters and then the author talks about how great an 85 grain 9mm Parabellum is??? Yeah, should have stopped reading right there.

    Regarding the Doc, unless the gun was recovered at the scene (doubtful) and a cop told the doc the caliber of said gun (even more doubtful), I doubt the doc could honestly tell the difference between 9mm, 40 S&W and .45 ACP while the patient is under the doc’s care. Plus, as someone else mentioned they don’t ship the dead bodies to an ER/ICU doctor.

    • Right. Even better, let’s see the doc ID .38 Spl, .357 mag, .380, and 9mm taken from a body! .355, .356, .357, all manner of bullet weights in each.

  27. The marginal .380 makes sense in mouse gun where range is limited anyway. You are more likely to miss or nick the target with a mouse gun so extra penetration is not really wanted. The lower pressure of the .380 makes a smaller / lighter gun. Once you get up in size to compact, the 9MM has advantages of power and lower cost that are hard to bypass. The exception I see is something like the SW380EZ which is intended for those with weak hands and are recoil sensitive. Having a choice is a good thing!

  28. who cares about opinion in this gun is better than or worse than debate, it’s what is comfortable and affordable to the person using it.
    Years ago lot of Old timers thought the .22 was considered perfectly fine for Pest control of all kinds most of them were combat war vets!

  29. Count me in as one of the uncommon middle grounders on .380. I carry an LCP most of the time, just out of convenience. I know it’s not as potent as one of my guns in 9MM or .45, but it disappears in my pocket so easily. I guess I’m sort of indifferent towards the round. But a small gun is better than no gun. Also, it’s loaded with Federal HST.

    • Me, too. I own a .380(Mauser HSc), and have been eying the Ruger LCP for a while now. But I have 3 9mms, and a pair of .45acps. I use almost all calibers, because some are better than others… for certain things. I shoot steers with a .22RF, but I hunt deer(and slightly larger game) with a .257WBY, a .270WIN, or a .30-06.
      IMO, the .30 bore size is apx. for moose, elk, or the big bears. .270 can stretch to elk and moose, but just not quite to the big bears. The .25 bore is perfect for deer sized game. Different situations are better for different gear. That’s a big reason why there are so many calibers.
      The same with handgun rounds. Its just easier to articulate and be clear when talking about hunting. Handgun situations are much more fluid. With a rifle, you know what game you are going hunting for, and where. With a handgun the exact situation is largely unknown. So the primary considerations, for me, are: Ease of carry, ‘adequate’ power, and speed to deploy.

  30. A) There are plenty of 380 rounds that meet the FBI request. And Underwood has recently been making them even hotter (of course not to SAAMI spec but, they exist).

    12 out of 20 .380 rounds tested met the FBI threshold.


    2) The goal of self defense is not to necessarily kill the attacker. It is to disuade them from further attack, to get them to go away and leave you alone so you can retreat. Two or three sufficiently penetrating rounds of 380 to the center of mass or the face will accomplish that goal.

      • I’ve gotta agree with BCE56.

        .380 ACP vs .38 special.

        Those two are a lot closer in power then they are to 9mm Luger. Plus, now a days most guns chambered in .380 and .38 are geared towards the CCW crowd.

        No one really buys a full size .380 or .38 pistol in this day and age.

  31. And once more, inadvertently maybe, the .45 acp proves to be the best defense cartridge.

    The main place it fails is number of shots available. Most I’ve seen is 10 without an extended magazine.

    Whereas with my 9mm i’ve got 15 shots. 18 if I want to stress the spring in the mag.

    I was taught to shoot by the military and the general idea was that the .45 was the best for stopping power. And it was designed with that in mind.

    • The .45 ACP Colt 1911 was desired by U.S. military brass, while many of the rest of the world’s military units bought the 9mm Browning Hi-Power. I’m not saying who was right or wrong, only that there certainly was no consensus on how big the pistol bullet needed to be.

      Whatever their opinions were based on, they have since been rendered obsolete by superior propellants and expanding bullet technology.

    • A lot has changed since the 1970s/1980s when you were back in the military.

      Even more has changed since 1911…

      In 2018 pretty much any American made self defense ammo in 9mm, .40 S&W and .45 ACP will do the job and you’d be hard pressed to spot any real differences. No, a tenth of an inch (bullet size or wound channel) won’t honestly make a difference.

      (And we’re not military so we aren’t relegated to ball ammo.)

  32. Personally, I think handgun caliber debates only cover part of the story. Of course 45 outperforms 9mm and 9mm outperforms .380, all other things being equal. But they’re not equal. The rule should be the largest caliber that you’ll shoot accurately and consistently carry.

    The smaller the gun’s form, the more likely the user will carry it consistently. Smaller calibers lead to smaller guns, which in turn lead to more consistent carry. For example, how many of us leave the 1911 at home when we go for our daily run? But I know several runners who carry their mouse guns while running or working out. That’s just one use case… there are others. The point is that the .380 that you have when you need it beats the .45 sitting back at the house when you’re out and about.

    About the shooting accurate element, one example is the “I’m getting old” situation. Personally, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve got pain in my hands that prevents me from even being able to hang on to a 1911 when fired. That same pain also causes a pretty significant flinch when I fire a 9mm, which destroys my accuracy. But I can accurately shoot .380 or 9×18 Mak all day long. So that’s what I carry these days. The .380 Bersa Thunder lives on my hip and the CZ-82 resides in my truck. Would I prefer to still be carrying .45? Of course. A .45 hit will do the most damage of the three choices here. But you have to work with what you’ve got. .45 is no good if I can’t hit anything with it.

    The largest caliber that you can shoot accurately and that you’ll consistently carry… that’s my two cents. Oh, and one more thing… growing old sucks.

  33. Instead of rehashing semiautomatic pistol caliber wars (380 vs 9mm, 9mm vs 45), how about some more interesting caliber wars that include revolver calibers or pistol-caliber carbine calibers?
    It’s much harder to find information online that include revolver calibers, so how about:
    a) .357 Magnum vs. .45 Colt in pistols? Same question for carbines?
    b) .44 Special vs. .45 Colt?
    c) 9mm vs 44 Special?
    d) .38 Special vs .44 Special?
    e) 357 Magnum vs 44 Magnum?

    All the above comparisons could be done for both pistols and carbines, because revolver ammo is frequently used in lever-action rifles, which give a velocity boost which (according to some people) turns a .357 Magnum bullet out of a 16″-20″ rifle barrel into nearly a 30-30 (that’s debatable, but that’s my point, let’s have the debate!)

    By the way, a .44 Magnum bullet out of a compact, 16″ lever-action rifle can kill an ELEPHANT (and has done so), so revolver-caliber lever-action carbines are nothing to sneeze at. With a .44 Magnum lever-action rifle, you get 11 rounds of elephant-killing power in a compact package that is legal in all 50 states, not banned by even the most extreme “assault weapons” bans. Twice the capacity of a shotgun, shorter than any shotgun (other than bullpups), and 11 rounds that can each kill an elephant (or a home invader), that’s what a lever-action .44 Magnum carbine you, and yet Diane Feinstein will never ban lever-guns because they don’t “look scary.”

    You can skip .45 ACP vs .45 Colt because the performance is basically equal (although .45 ACP benefits more from newer bullet design).
    You can also skip 9mm vs. .45 Colt for the same reason, because it’s the exact same battle as 9mm vs .45 ACP which has been rehashed millions of times.

  34. “Caliber debates” are for amateurs and gun magazine advertisers.

    There’s no constructive purpose in them, other than attracting eyeballs to a website.

  35. ok, while I would not go big game hunting with the 380, I would like to ask the barrel lengths involved on the test guns for the 380. full size 380s get more velocity . and also there are more rounds that he did not test. like rounds from buffalo bore , corbon, and I would not be surprised if double tap has one. those rounds would sizzle out of a PPKS size gun ( or my Colt gov’t model) . and I am wondering about the Remington Golden Saber 102 gr. ammo, out of a PP/PPKs size gun ( I don’t have any microdot 9s or 380s).

  36. I do get it. The guns are better and the ammo is WAY better … but the .380 is still more of an entry level defense round. The small 9s can be a little snappy with sharp recoil and many may prefer the .380 for ease of shooting. I’ll just stick with my old school J-frame Airweight with +P ammo for EDC. It’s easy to carry and I can shoot it. And the some of the new .38 spec. ammo, made for short barrels is amazing compared to the old police loads of yesteryear (158gr lead round nose).

  37. I’ve read many comments on the .380 caliber vs. 9mm… Yes 9mm. is the caliber of choice. But in Nam we learned, that a Viet Cong (VC) would stay down at 30 yards by aiming at the belly button/pelvic shots. (If anyone invades my home it’s a (BALL BLOWER SHOT). Shooting at the belly button gives latitude of missing , only to hit …. aorta, liver, heart, lungs or downward… penis/balls or main leg arteries. They bleed out fast.. I know… I’ve watched first hand. We used to take .30 caliber bullets and take our knife, making a small hole in end of the bullet. It will expand on exit quarter/ up size! The .380 caliber will kill just as fast as a 9mm.. just shoot correctly. A .38 caliber at 25 to 30 yards can be wicked also. (LWDE)

  38. The author needs to do quite a bit of homework. The 380 is a excellent caliber and this is just a rehash of the constant debate geared to just generate comments. I highly suggest she visit Lucky gunner and his series about Pocket guns especially what Claude Werner, aka The Tactical Professor. “In the interview excerpts below, he talks about why so-called “mouse guns” have often been the object of derision in the self-defense training world”
    Pocket guns in 380 bring a lot to the table. It is NOT just about big Holes. And not to mention the 380 is advancing constantly as seen with the new Federal round that was announced last shot show.

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