Written by: Greg Ellifritz
I received this question (edited for brevity) from a police firearms instructor last week:
“A lot of my guys on the department are going with .380 pocket guns for off duty carry instead of carrying their issued Glock 26 9mm pistols. Our policy will not allow officers to carry anything smaller than a .380. I was wondering, what you think about this round? I have heard issues about under-penetration in clothing (especially winter time). I think carrying any gun is better than nothing, but I’m concerned about the lack of “stopping power” in the little .380s.”
It’s not just off-duty police officers who are interested in the .380 acp. The single most viewed article of all time on my website is A Comparison of .380 Pocket Pistols. That article alone has 40% more page views than the next most popular article on my site. People are very interested in the .380 auto! The guns are popular because they are easy to conceal. Unfortunately, they aren’t as reliable or “shootable” as their larger counterparts.
The issue of stopping power gets somewhat complex. As most of you know, handgun bullets do nothing more than make holes. As bullet holes get bigger and deeper, the likelihood of the bullets hitting a vital organ increases. The larger wound channel also creates more blood loss, which will eventually cause an attacker to stop his violent attack, even if a vital organ isn’t struck.
Ballistic experts look for a couple of key factors when evaluating handgun bullet effectiveness. To ensure that the bullets reach deep enough to hit a vital organ if the attacker is very fat or muscular, we want a bullet that penetrates at least 12″ of ballistic gelatin. We also don’t want the bullet penetrating so deeply that people standing behind the attacker are in danger. The maximum a handgun round should penetrate is 18″ of the same gelatin.
Beyond looking for this 12″-18″ penetration range, we would also like to see a bullet expand. Expanding bullets make larger holes and reduce the chance of overpenetration. An expanding bullet is generally deemed acceptable if it expands to 1.5X its initial diameter. For a .380 ACP (with a starting diameter of 0.355″) we want to see a bullet that expands to roughly 0.53″. Almost every service-caliber defensive loads will meet the 1.5X expansion and 12″-18″ penetration tests. It doesn’t matter if the round is 9mm, .40 S&w. or .45 ACP, all the good hollowpoint bullets will pass the test.
How does the .380 do? Take a look at some of the more comprehensive gelatin testing reports available:
Denim and Gel Testing 380 Ammo
Final Results of the .380 ACP Ammo Quest
What do you see? For most defensive loads that penetrate deeply enough to reach the desired 12″ level, we see limited expansion. When the bullets violently expand, we see inadequate penetration. The problem gets worse when we use more stringent testing standards like the FBI’s four-layer denim test.
That’s why so many gun writers have labeled the .380 cartridge as “marginal” over the years. It meets some of our standards, but not all. It will probably work fine in the “average” gunfight. But if any barriers must be defeated, if your attacker is wearing heavy clothing, or if you have to take a cross body shot that penetrates the arm before reaching the vital organs, there is a much higher incidence of failure as compared to the standard “service caliber” weapons.
The “winter clothing” issue requires some additional discussion. Most people assume that heavy winter clothing will limit penetration in flesh. The EXACT OPPOSITE is what actually happens. Heavy clothing plugs hollowpoints and inhibits their expansion. A plugged hollowpoint acts the same as a ball (full metal jacket) round and will actually penetrate MUCH DEEPER. The round will fail to expand in heavy winter clothing. It won’t fail to penetrate.
Although the.380 ACP isn’t a ballistic powerhouse, I’m more worried about the reliability of the guns chambering this round than I am its lack of ballistic performance. the gun has to go “bang” every time the trigger is pulled. I haven’t seen many .380s that pass my standards for reliability. If you are going to carry a .380, I would avoid the KelTec. I’ve seen more problems with that gun than any other .380 auto. I’d also avoid carrying the PPK or PPK/S if you want to use modern hollowpoint ammo. Those guns seldom perform well unless ball ammunition is used. Take a look at the new Glock 42 or the Kahr. Those seem to run the best of the lot. The S&W Bodyguard is usually fairly reliable, but the trigger pull is horrible and those of you with larger hands won’t like it. The Ruger LCP has been hit or miss. I have one that works very well, but I’ve also seen a lot of them puke on the range.
I would rather see you guys carry either a slim 9mm auto (Kahr PM-9 or S&W Shield) than any .380 out there. If those guns are too big, look at an airweight .38 revolver. I think you would be happier with the performance of either the 9mm or the .38 spl than any .380 currently on the market.
The leading wound ballistic researcher in the world, Dr. Gary Roberts, recently weighed in on the issue in a wound ballistics briefing for the FBI. Here is his advice:
“Many small, easily concealed semi-automatic pistols which are recommended for law enforcement backup or concealed carry use fire .380 ACP or smaller bullets. While these small caliber handgun bullets can produce fatal wounds, they are less likely to produce the rapid incapacitation necessary in law enforcement or self-defense situations.
Handguns chambered in .380 ACP are small, compact, and generally easy to carry. Unfortunately, testing has shown that they offer inadequate performance for self-defense and for law enforcement use whether on duty as a back-up weapon or for off duty carry. The terminal performance of .380 ACP JHP’s is often erratic, with inadequate penetration and inconsistent expansion being common problems, while .380 ACP FMJ’s offer adequate penetration, but no expansion. All of the .380 ACP JHP loads we have tested, including CorBon, Hornady, Federal, Remington, Speer, and Winchester exhibited inconsistent, unacceptable terminal performance for law enforcement back-up and off duty self-defense use due to inadequate penetration or inadequate expansion. Stick with FMJ for .380 ACP or better yet, don’t use it at all. The use of .380 ACP and smaller caliber weapons is really not acceptable for law enforcement use and most savvy agencies prohibit them. While both the .380 ACP and .38 spl can obviously be lethal; the .38 spl is more likely to incapacitate an attacker when used in a BUG role.
BUG–Infrequently used, but when needed, it must be 100% reliable because of the extreme emergency situation the user is dealing with. Generally secreted in pockets, ankle holsters, body armor holsters, etc… Often covered in lint, grime, and gunk. By their very nature, usually applied to the opponent in an up close and personal encounter, many times involving contact shots. A small .38 spl revolver is more reliable in these situations than a small .380 ACP pistol, especially with contact shots or if fired from a pocket.”
I can’t disagree with any of Dr. Roberts’ conclusions. While I think that a .380 auto is far better than having no gun at all, an officer (or armed citizen) who wants to increase his chances of success in a gunfight would be better served by carrying either a .38 special revolver or a 9mm auto instead of the .380 ACP.