Back to ballistics

Why are we even contemplating carrying something smaller than a .45 ACP anyway? One good reason is the fact that bathing suits and Kimbers generally don’t mix without gun packs.


I’m back shooting gelatin again. This time, I’m using pocket sized handguns and new ammunition products. My tests revealed a trend in the ammunition industry—manufacturers have dramatically improved performance in shorter barreled guns.

A few years ago, I attended a Glock Instructor’s course. When we got on the range, Glock’s Chris Miller made a statement that I wrote down and remembered throughout my career: “When you pull the trigger on a handgun, you have to tell yourself ‘It’s not gonna work’.”

This was not to say that one’s duty handgun won’t be reliable, nor was it an expression of doubt in the variety of factors that direct shooting in general. Miller went on to tell us that, if the fight goes to guns, there has to be a contingency plan. With backup and off-duty handguns, the likelihood of needing a backup plan is much higher.

This article is about cartridges for smaller guns. Smaller guns have shorter sight radii and abbreviated handling. Usually, shorter barrels mean reduced velocity and effectiveness, brighter muzzle flash and lower magazine capacity.

There are some things we should consider first. Foremost, the goal of being off duty is to stay off duty. Off-duty conduct should be different than on-duty conduct.

Second, when we are talking about small guns that fire small cartridges (smaller than 9mm), these options are recommended when the only other option is “no gun,” which should never be an option.

Like most other badge wearers, I’ve seen a few gunshot victims. Often I wondered how a victim kept running, fighting or driving after being seriously wounded. I have seen instances where patients didn’t know or acknowledge they were injured. If we were to extract lessons from this, it would be healthy to remember that law enforcement officers march into dangerous situations with duty handguns that have capabilities that should always be considered as marginal. The military adage is true: The purpose of a handgun is to be able to fight one’s way to one’s battle rifle. In LE terms, the law enforcement officer generally uses the handgun because Big Sky is minding the long gun.

Why are we even contemplating carrying something smaller than a .45 ACP anyway? One good reason is the fact that bathing suits and Kimbers generally don’t mix without gun packs. There are appropriate places to wear gun packs, but some situations make it harder than others. For example, like many behind the badge, I enjoy a good run to maintain my fitness level. Carrying a duty gun is great for the first couple miles, but I tend to use my NAA mini revolver for distance work. It takes practice to shoot a small gun well, but it is worth it.

If the duty handgun is marginal, how effective is the backup gun? Surprisingly, new ammunition innovations have improved the prospects for the officer. For example, .380 auto performance in these tests was often better than 9mm cartridge performance 20 years ago. I consistently got around 11.5-inches in gelatin with the Hornady 90-grain 380 auto Critical Defense and Winchester 95-grain JHP Bonded 380 auto PDX1 cartridges.

If you are reading this from an iPad, you likely have already have seen the video of the Hornady 380 auto and the Winchester 380 auto bullets puncturing an older model vehicle door. (Get the iPad edition free through the app store. Search "Law Enforcement Technology" or follow the link.) I have heard many online “experts” discuss whether certain bullets can pierce a vehicle door. I shoot things all the time and I can attest that a car door is no match for the higher velocity 380 auto cartridges, unless the target is struck at an oblique angle.

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