Having considered the .25 ACP and the .22LR, and briefly mentioned the poorly represented .32 Long/ACP, we move up to the first caliber I would really consider as a purpose defensive round, the .380 ACP. I noted in my basics post about firearms that a centerfire handgun is the one firearm I think every person serious about preparing for difficult times needs to have. Caliber and type are not nearly as important as having a weapon that the defender can use effective and carry consistently. No firearm does any good if it is not available when it is needed. A .50 BMG in the safe is not going to help when one is confronted by predators in the field. A person is better served by a less potent weapon that is always available.
This is one of the great advantages of the .380. It is not an overly powerful caliber, but it is chambered in smaller weapons that are easily and unobtrusively carried. Firearms chambered for the .380, however, are usually not so small as to be difficult to grasp and operate – even for a fat-fingered klutz like me. Walther, of course, produces the PPK. I used to see a lot of Bersa .380’s, and they appeared to be decent weapons. Ruger makes their LCP in .380; the Kahr P380 is highly regarded as is the Sig-Sauer. Kel Tec makes a very reasonably priced double-action only .380 called the P-3AT. I am unfamiliar with this one but I have heard that is better than might be expected for the price. The Kahr .380’s are going to more expensive – in the range of $600+ MSRP. A Sig-Sauer P232 is roughly the same range. If the .380 were the only handgun, or the only firearm period, that I owned, I would probably opt for the Sig, or maybe the Kahr depending on which fit the hand better. For me it would be the Sig. Sig also makes a model P238 in .380 that is a little smaller and lighter – the Nitron version with night sights would also be a good choice on the higher-end.
Given that I have a number of firearms, including a full-size autoloader, if I were to purchase a .380 for discreet or more convenient carry, I would probably choose something on the low end like the Kel Tec that would be easy on the budget. These do not need to be target pistols. They are meant to be used at ranges of 10 to 20 feet – not yards but feet, across a room. As long as they reliably go ‘bang’, they are good.
So, how effective is the .380? Surprisingly effective – at least it surprises me. From the Ellifritz study we see a fatality rate of 29% -- a little lower than the .357. The average number of hits to incapacitation is also very similar, 1.76 for the .380 versus 1.7 for the .357. One shot stops are identical at 44% -- not bad at all. Accuracy is respectable at 76% -- not too hard to get these little guns on target. Again this is likely a function of the short distances at which they are deployed.
The percent actually incapacitated by one shot is an astounding 62%, up there with the .357 (61%) and better than the .40 (52%) and the .45 (51%). It is hard to believe. Still, I think we are talking about across-the-room shootings for the most part. The little .380 is moving a 90-grain bullet out the barrel at around 1000 fps generating muzzle energy of about 200 foot-pounds. These rounds will penetrate and do some damage.
Another factor in the effectiveness of the .380 ACP is the fact that these rounds were designed for short barrels. The bullets expand consistently at the typical velocity and range for which they are built. Those who use the .380 are aware of the need for an expanding bullet, generally, and avoid ball ammunition. When I look at the relatively poor performance of calibers up the line from the .380, I suspect that the culprit is really poor ammunition.
When we discuss the ubiquitous .38 Special,
which does not fare well in this study (thinking of the 9mm when I said this), I will point this out again. The best choice for a .38 is a four-inch barrel. A snubby .38 DA revolver is not only difficult to shoot accurately in double-action without a good deal of practice, but standard pressure .38 ammunition optimized for two inch or two-and-a-half inch barrels is hard to come by. For the 9mm and the .40 S&W, I suspect that the rates are worse because of the cheap ball ammunition available in these calibers. I use FMJ .40 for practice because it is economical, but I also carry it a lot when I am working around the place. That is probably not a good idea. If I had to defend myself against something bigger than a squirrel with fascist tendencies, I would probably end up using the hardball with no expansion, and that would be bad.
Full-metal jacket ammunition is generally forbidden for hunting (not counting solids on African big game) due to over-penetration and the high-probability of wounded game getting away to suffer and die slowly later. The “cleanness” of an FMJ wound is also the reason it was required for military use by the rules of the Geneva Convention. Thus it is NOT a good idea to use FMJ ammunition ever in a self-defense situation. An attacker wounded by ball ammo is often still capable of fighting. Some autoloading handguns seem to function reliably only with hardball rounds. This is a good argument for revolvers – or for better autoloaders.
Summarizing, the .380 ACP is a good choice for a self-defense firearm where a smaller, lighter, more compact weapon is needed or preferred. Recoil will not be an issue for most people, even the smaller and more fragile among us. It is a mistake to think of the .380 as a “woman’s gun”. They are serious defensive firearms with serious capabilities. Adequate weapons can be found new in the $200 to $300 range. Ammunition is fairly common and widely carried, although it was hard to find anywhere in 2010.
As always, it is a good idea to do some research to find the best ammunition for any given handgun with reliability being of utmost concern. Practice diligently and pack consistently.