Testing the .380 Auto

There’s good reason why this cartridge is still the cool kid in school

Let’s look at the .380 Auto, a cartridge usually carried in pocket sized pistols. During this test, we discovered something unexpected: Even a quarter inch of barrel length can change the effectiveness of the cartridge.
The .380 Auto or 9x17mm is a straight walled rimless automatic cartridge. It was originally introduced in 1908 for the Colt Automatic Pocket model. As a young shooter, I knew it as the .380 ACP (Automatic Colt Pistol).
The .380 Auto has been the subject of considerable debate in the past three years. The center of this being the fact that all of the major gun manufacturers seem to have begun offering new models.
This particular model has been stigmatized over the years, and with good reason. Although it is an original John M. Browning design, its greatest criticism is the inability to penetrate the requisite 12 inches into bare gelatin. Most users have rejected the .380 Auto as a viable off-duty round and moved on to something bigger. If there is anything we could learn from the past few years, it is that the .380 Auto has its place, and the ammo just gets better and better. Surprisingly, it was sporadically adopted in Europe as a duty round. I have put enough bullets through ballistic gelatin to recommend against anything smaller than the 9mm for duty; the .380 Auto has its place, but not on the patrol belt.
In one of my earlier articles (12 Rules for Off Duty Conduct), Rule 10 was “Carry the most effective weapon the wardrobe will allow.” In some cases, the .380 is the choice. Most officers are going to wear casual clothing while enjoying their off duty time. Some are comfortable with IWB, OWB or even appendix carry of their duty firearms. However, the majority of us carry a downsized gun that is lighter and smaller. For me, it’s at least one gun in the pocket.
There are several good reasons why the .380 enjoys great popularity. First, it is inherently accurate. It is not a coincidence that this cartridge resembles the .45 ACP. Not only were they designed by the same person, they were designed to have similar characteristics.
Second, .380s are generally very compact. The recoil impulse is light enough to use a blowback action. That is, the barrel is fixed while the slide moves under recoil. In duty guns the barrel mechanism tilts downward as the slide moves toward the rear, unlocking the chamber. This also allows the barrel to be permanently fuzed to the frame, which allows for a compact package.
Third, most of the better quality guns that chamber it are of such great quality that they are like showpieces. For example, the Walther PPK, perhaps the most well known .380, is manufactured with the same precision as a custom sports car. I should know, I personally shoot one made in 1938 regularly. My North American Arms is built in a manner that suggests several generations after me will enjoy it as a daily shooter.
Finally, the .380 Auto is very reliable. It is rimless, meaning the rim (brass base) is recessed, or actually machined, so that the part where the extractor hook grabs is the same width as the rest of the brass. If one were to compare the ratio of the dimensions between the .380 and the .45, they would find them to be almost the same. In fact, the .380 is a 3/4 (actually 78 percent) copy of the .45. Because the .380 resembles the .45 in every aspect, it is easy to inspect and manufacture. It strips off a magazine and feeds into the chamber with the same reliability. For those reading this and wishing to comment about the .380 ammunition shortage, I reload practice rounds and pour my own lead bullets. My cost is only a few dollars for 50 rounds.
The .380 bullet has a low length/diameter ratio, which suggests it is more stable while driving through tissue. That means the bullet will travel nose first rather than flipping over for a long period of time. This allows the nose-first bullet to expand reliably, if other conditions like velocity exist.
There are plenty of .380 Auto guns that are great defense pistols. Kel-Tec’s P38T weighs 8.3 ounces and has a 2.7-inch barrel. This gun is CNC machined and has an unique external extractor on the 4140 slide. The P38T weighs only a bit more than your set of house keys, and it will conceal anywhere a tiny gun can go. The trigger is typical Kel-Tec. It is double action only and lacks the smoothness of a target trigger, but it is not a target gun. Kel-Tec uses a transfer bar safety, which is inherently safe for unconventional carry. For a gun that has good combat accuracy, it is a bargain.
The Beretta Pico is the thinnest and one of the most concealable .380’s on the market, weighing 11.5 ounces unloaded. With a 2.75-inch barrel, its best characteristic is the smooth edges, encouraging a snag-free draw.
The Glock 42 weighs 13.76 ounces unloaded. Even though the 42 is longer than many of the new crop of .380’s, OAL is still shy of six inches, including the 3.25-inch barrel. It shares the same qualities as its bigger brother. In fact, the Glock 42’s strongest suit is the fact that it is a Glock. It feels like a Glock, shoots like a Glock, and will squeeze performance out of cartridge like a Glock.
The Sig Sauer P238 weighs 15.2 ounces and is a single action (SAO) model. This gun looks and feels like a miniature 1911 with a 2.7-inch barrel.
My North American Arms NAA-.380 weighs 18.72 ounces unloaded. The barrel is integral with the frame and the entire package has the fit and finish of a custom gun, entirely in stainless steel. It is a bit heavier, but its accuracy and attention to detail is top notch.
The Bersa Thunder .380, with a full 3.5-inch barrel, alloy frame and steel slide, weighs 20 ounces unloaded. There are optional 8-round and 9-round magazines. I will be testing the Bersa Firestorm, a similar product, in the next few months.
The Walther PPK has a 3.3-inch barrel and is the most well known .380 in the industry—its nearest relative is a movie star.
The Kahr P.380 weighs 9.97 ounces with a barrel length of 2.53 inches. It is a little on the expensive side as .380 Autos go, but several of my friends own one and I shoot them often. I wouldn’t think twice about the price, given the outstanding quality, but there is one thing that would prevent me from getting one: the Kahr PM9. I’ve also put plenty of rounds through a PM9 and it excels in the category checked “all of the above.”
The Ruger LCP has a 2.75-inch barrel and weighs 9.4 ounces; it is similar to the Kel-Tec in many respects.
The new Colt .380 Mustang Pocketlite resembles the older model, except it weighs 11.8 ounces with a polymer type frame. It is also SAO and can deliver accurate fire in a hurry.
One of the other things one must consider is the weight of the magazines. When I carry my .380, I also carry two magazines—the bare minimum for walking around. Almost every .380 magazine out there is made of sturdy materials and lightweight. Putting them in a back pocket is not a problem.

Ammunition test

I tested the following ammunition:
DoubleTap Ammunition’s .380 ACP 95-grain Controlled Expansion JHP;
.380 ACP 80-grain Barnes TAC-XP Lead Free;
COR-BON 90-grain Self-Defense JHP, of the COR-BON DPX Handgun line; and
Winchester PDX-1 95 Grain Defender.
The COR-BON 90gr Self-Defense JHP is solid copper, which eliminates any issues of the jackets separating from the core in barrier tests. Fired through almost any .380, it performs. The most notable consideration about this cartridge is the consistent 150 percent expansion and the aggressive bearing surface created when the bullet expands. The Winchester PDX-1 95 Grain Defender is the choice for short barrel .380s like the Kahr P.380.
The biggest criticism of the .380 Auto is the lack of penetration of the bullet, but this one-sided criticism has several facets. That is, we found barrel length and design is critical in cartridge choice. The more significant issue is cartridge design. The other issue is the handgun design itself.
You see, our tests had the DoubleTap 95-grain bullet penetrate 17.75 inches because it didn’t expand. Does that surprise anyone—the bullet can cover more than 17 inches in bare gelatin when unencumbered? (In a bare gelatin test, the minimum penetration is 12 inches before the product is considered effective.)
The DoubleTap 80-grain TAC-XP Lead Free bullet did not expand, either. It penetrated 12.9 inches.
I walked away from the range scratching my head. I have been around when someone else was shooting these bullets into ballistic media and, not only did they both expand, they were pretty consistent performers.
What’s the difference? About 1/4-inch of barrel length. The last time I saw a DoubleTap .380 in ballistic gelatin, the shooter was using a SIGSAUER P232 and its performance was impressive.
Both the COR-BON 90-grain Self-Defense JHP and the Winchester PDX-1 95 Grain Defender penetrated 10.1- and 10.9-inches respectively. I have shot the Winchester PDX-1 95 Grain Defender more than any other .380 and it definitely performs in my North American Arms Guardian. However, the extremely short barrel does not allow the DoubleTap Ammunition to perform. Shot through a Walther PPK, the DoubleTap Ammunition’s .380 ACP 95-grain approaches marginal 9mm performance.
To put this into perspective, I carry my NAA Guardian with a magazine full of COR-BON and a magazine of Winchester.
The DoubleTap Ammunition .380 ACP 95-grain is the correct choice for the Glock 42. This firearm is also definitely the choice for officers who carry a Glock 22 for duty.
For the LET tablet and smartphone app, I have included a video of my shooting a Hornady .380 Auto 90-grain FTX Critical Defense and a Winchester PDX-1 95 Grain Defender through a truck door. (Editor’s note: you can download this and previous LET issues free at the App Store/Google Play).
The .380 Auto may be one of the most controversial rounds made, but it has its place as a deep concealment choice. Users of the .380 Auto should carry them with confidence, but understand the limitations of the round. The guns are generally smaller and flatter and designed for unconventional carry. Above all, know how your ammunition performs in your gun.  ■

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