When Does a .380 Beat a 9mm?

This is an image of a caliber comparison

Photo: author

You may have heard the phrase, “Friends don’t let friends carry mouseguns.” In fact, I’ve uttered it more than a few times myself over the years! The implication, of course, is that calibers below a certain threshold, arbitrary though it may be, are not suitable for protecting one’s life.

What that threshold is, exactly, depends on one’s point of view. For some people, anything with a caliber that doesn’t start with “.4” is a mousegun, For others, low-powered cartridges like the .22 Long Rifle and.25 ACP get the nod. But for many, the lowly .380 ACP is the most common (and most derided) of the species.

Should it be?

The fact is that you probably...

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Just Because It’s Common Doesn’t Make It Wisdom

The common wisdom goes something like this: the .380 doesn’t have much stopping power, making it a less ideal choice than the next step up the ladder, the 9mm. I’ve even heard people say that if you were to shoot an attacker with a .380, all you’d succeed in doing is making him mad!

Since modern 9mm pistols are so small these days, often very close to the size of the lowly .380, most gun folks would say that it makes little sense to bother with the mouse cartridge. If you can get a more powerful round in the same sized gun, they’ll ask, why bother with the smaller offerings?

It Isn’t As Weak As You Think

Let’s get the performance questions about the .380 ACP out of the way so we can have an intelligent discussion. While I’m not here to heap excessive praise on the .380, or even suggest that it should be your primary choice for carry, let’s start by looking at the data.

two rounds from handguns

Which round is which? Photo: author

The best database of handgun performance I’ve yet seen comes from Greg Ellifritz at Active Response Training. His results, compiled from hundreds of actual shootings over many years, show that while the .380 doesn’t work quite as well as the 9mm, .40 S&W, or .45 ACP in its job of stopping attackers, it’s also not that far off.

In Ellifritz’s studies, the “major” calibers are pretty darned close to each other in terms of actual performance. Close enough, in fact, that they are in a statistical dead heat. The .380, on the other hand, is definitely not the performer that the bigger cartridges are. But the little .380 is still remarkably effective and a whole lot better than anything smaller. In fact, the difference between the .380 and the .40 S&W, to pick one at random, is less than the difference between the .380 and the .32 ACP.

Is the .380 half as good as the 9mm? If the data is accurate, it’s actually better than that.

Facts, as John Adams pointed out, are stubborn things. The important point here is that, despite what we feel or have been told, the .380 ACP is not the complete weakling everyone would have you believe. I’ve personally met two people who successfully defended themselves with a .380. Both incidents were over within three rounds, and both defenders emerged unscathed. The same could not be said of their attackers, neither of whom are with us any longer.

The fact is that you probably can successfully defend yourself with this particular ‘mousegun’ caliber. The question is, why would you want to?

Balance of Speed and Precision

The answer is more complicated than you might think, and revolves around your balance of speed and precision. The target dictates the level of precision you need to reach, and that part of the shooting equation never changes. The variable is how fast you can deliver rounds into that area. The more recoil the gun/cartridge combination produces, the slower you’ll be able to shoot into that level of precision. This is the balance of speed (your ability to shoot multiple rounds accurately) and precision (the area of the target you must hit).

The less recoil you are forced to deal with, the faster you’ll be able to shoot to any given level of precision. That translates into being able to deliver more rounds on target in a specific time frame. In the case of an attacking criminal, the more rounds you can put into his vital areas, the sooner he’s going to stop being a threat to your life.

So What If It Hurts?

This is why so many major defensive shooting trainers have come to embrace the 9mm over the .40 S&W and .45 ACP: you’re able to deliver more statistically identical performing rounds in any given period of time to any given level of precision. It’s a great tradeoff, because there’s almost no downside. Given a choice between shooting the bad guy three times with one caliber or five times with a different caliber that has been shown to give statistically indistinguishable performance, I know which I’m going to choose!

Where does the .380 ACP come into this?

If we take two guns of roughly the same size and weight, one in .380 and one in 9mm, the 9mm will recoil more than the .380. This is to be expected. A markedly heavier bullet, fired at a higher velocity, will produce substantially more recoil and will more obviously affect your balance of speed and precision. It’s also going to be painful to practice with, which means people might not do so.

a small Walther 380 acp

This small Walther-esque .380 ACP has an aluminum frame and would be much more difficult to control if chambered in 9mm. Loaded with high-performance ammunition, it can be surprisingly effective. Photo: author

“It doesn’t matter,” people often say, “because in a real fight, the adrenaline dump will mask the pain.” That’s partially true, but it’s also immaterial. When you’re in the midst of dealing with an attack, the reduction in blood flow to your hands (along with the chemical changes in your body) will likely result in an increase in your pain threshold. You probably won’t feel as much pain in your hands or joints when the rounds go off as when you’re practicing on the range. That much is true.

The issue, though, isn’t your pain level. The issue is that the recoil doesn’t go away, it just doesn’t hurt as much. It still affects your control of the gun, and while that heavy recoil won’t bother you as much, it will still present the same level of physical disruption in your shooting. Your balance of speed and precision isn’t going to get better just because your pain receptors have been temporarily numbed. The gun’s recoil will still affect how quickly you can shoot to any given level of precision. Just because you can’t feel it doesn’t mean that recoil is no longer an issue!

This is the root of the decision we face with the choice between 9mm and the .40 S&W. In that case, the performance of the rounds is much closer — a statistical dead heat, remember — so it becomes a choice of shooting more bullets of equal effect than fewer bullets. More bullets win, because it’s the number of rounds we can get on target that have the greatest effect on an attacker.

Making a Logical Choice

The recoil effects in a small gun are profound. A number of micro 9mm pistols I’ve tested range from quite unpleasant to downright uncontrollable in a realistic string of fire. A gun of the same size but loaded with softer-shooting .380 projectiles is much easier to control and results in more rounds landing accurately on target in a shorter period of time. We’re back to the idea of shooting more rounds to any given level of precision.

Of course, the difference in this choice is that the .380 is definitely not at the same performance level of the 9mm. We’re giving up some effectiveness, though as I pointed out, it might not be as much as we’ve been led to believe. But when we factor in the controllability of the gun, the smart choice for some people may very well be the smaller round.

As mentioned earlier, I’ve fired some micro 9mm guns that were very difficult to control. In fact I tested one such gun that squirmed in my tightest grasp so much that the first round was on target, the second was on the right side of the target, and the third was off target! Admittedly I’m no Jerry Miculek, but I’m used to shooting very heavy-recoiling handguns at speed, and this particular pistol was impossible for me to control in a realistic string of fire. No one else on the range that day could either, and these weren’t newbies but experienced shooting instructors!

Still, I was the only one who came away with a negative opinion of the test gun. If I shot sedately, as everyone else who tested and proclaimed the gun to be a “winner” did, it was controllable. It wasn’t until I shot it in a realistic string of fire (rapid multiple rounds) that it showed its less desirable traits. In my hands it was just difficult to control, but in the hands of someone who doesn’t have my experience and skill, the results might be tragic: missed shots and endangered bystanders.

The problem is that these are the kinds of guns too often sold to newcomers. They’re touted as small, light, and “packing a punch.” Buyers are told they shouldn’t settle for a “weak” .380 ACP of similar size when they can step up to a 9mm in the same (or nearly the same) package. It’s a good sales tactic, I must admit!

Still, I caution people to think very carefully about that neat new subcompact. “It packs more power in a smaller, lighter frame” is seductive advertising copy, and a lot of gun reviewers get very excited about such things, but it’s important to think through the ramifications of that choice.

This is an image of a .380 pistol being held by its owner demonstrating combat accurate hits - Best personal defense weapon

This .380, which its owner can control, making rapid combat-accurate hits, is a better choice for her than a similar-sized 9mm that she may not be able to control. Photo: author

Am I Saying the .380 Is Always a Better Choice?

No, I’m not. But in some very specific cases, it may be. The shooting world should stop and think about the end use of the gun, not how much raw power it produces.

Back when I was of the “More power!” persuasion, I met a lady who carries a Browning BDA. The BDA is a double-stack .380 ACP pistol holding 13 rounds. It is, as you might expect, fairly large and heavy for a .380. At the time the micro-9mm fad hadn’t yet started, but even then there were a number of 9mm pistols available that were the size of the BDA and lighter to boot. I actually tried to steer her away from her BDA and to one of the 9mm guns, but she wouldn’t hear of it. She’d tried them and, due to some weakness in her hands, simply couldn’t control them (even with my expert instruction).

For her, being able to deliver all 13 rounds on target in a very short time frame (which she could do) was a significant advantage over delivering only a few 9mm rounds. My mistake was not recognizing that. Thankfully, I failed to get her to change. She knew her needs better than I did, and if we were to have that discussion today, I would simply help her become as competent with her gun as I possibly could. I understand the issues better and have reined in my macho opinions.

If I had to choose between a micro 9mm and a .380 in the same size and weight class, I might choose the smaller round if the difference in controllability were significant. In the case of the test gun I mentioned earlier, I’d frankly rather have a .380! Yes, it was that bad. Yet the gun sells well and the manufacturer reports they can’t keep up with demand. I’m positive that many of those buyers are making a bad decision, and probably for the wrong reasons.

Before you sneer at that lowly mousegun, stop and really think about the job it is intended to do. Understand the real task: to get combat-accurate hits, with an effective bullet, on target as fast as you can get them. In some cases, that “little” .380 might be better at the task than anything else.

Comments
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659 Responses to “When Does a .380 Beat a 9mm?”

  1. Geroncio Ajoc jr

    This is an eye opener to those shying away from .380 i owned one and it is easy to control….

    Reply
  2. john voorhis

    I am retired Army and former L.E. I shoot competitive IDPA and have had real world experience in deploying my weapon. I carry a Glock 23 as my main CCW and my jacket gun always has a Ruger LCP max 12+1=13 rounds of 380 ACP. I wear it when I am doing a quick run to the store etc. I know just what a 380 can do with a JHP and properly placed rounds. It’s LETHAL. my favorite round is the 10mm/40 S&W. then 9MM/45ACP. but make no mistake, the 380 acp will do the trick and do it well.

    Reply
  3. Stanley Rogers

    I own a Walters PK380 and love the feeling of that gun. I’ve had operations on both of my hands that makes both of my S&W M&P’s hurts mewhen i shoot them. You are correct in more shots from a lighter weight round.

    Reply
  4. David bachman

    Yes. The 380 for me is better than micro nines for all the reasons stated. Hate the snap of the little9s. I have read that 380s have a good reputation as 1shot stops. I guess the 9 is more powerful for longer distance but aren’t ranges for confrontations close in. Shoot the pistol that you can shoot best still is good wisdom. But to carry I‘lol stick to my 80’s. I

    Reply
  5. notes

    This is exactly why I got a 308 for my daughter and wife to keep in the house. Neither one are experienced shooters, and I didn’t want them to be scared off by too much gun. Doesn’t do any good to have a gun for protection if you can’t keep putting rounds on target till it runs dry

    Reply
  6. sala

    Excellent article! I’m recommending this article on our FB page. ~ Pastor Dave, The Patriot’s Pastor, former Peace Officer.

    Reply
  7. Tim

    No one here will stand in front of a .22 short, much less a .380. If carrying a .380 is what you need to do, get good with it through practice and it will serve you well.

    Reply
  8. Harold Shelton

    Just got my carry permit I would like to test fire multiple guns to see which one is best suited for me to carry any suggestions to where I should start something in the revolver line

    Reply
  9. vincent

    Well written article. I have a .380 in my carry “wardrobe” as well as several other calibers. I have never felt the .380 was a lesser round to protect my family or myself.

    Reply
  10. 380 ACP

    Great article! I’m a big fan of 380 ACP for CCW and personal defense. Don’t get me wrong shooting a 9mm is great and all, but when you have to defend yourself(most likely in pretty close range). It ofc takes more practice to use 380 since shot placement does matter with less powerful round, but so does any gun.

    Reply
  11. Miguel

    Would have been nice (and helpful) to have provided some ballistics of various 9mm and .380 rounds…especially the best defense loads! Otherwise insightful and helpful article!

    Reply
  12. Joe

    Over 49 years ago we carried a 380 as a backup gun. This how we felt about it. It was similar to the 38s. The 38 came in two different variations. There was the 38 special and the 38 round. The special round was larger than the 38 round. We used the same comparison with the 380 and 9 mm. Basically all gun barrels look extremely large when looking down one. It still boils down to shot placement regardless of caliber. If someone has a better shot placement with a 380, then they might be better off carrying one.

    Reply
  13. David

    Excellent article! I’m recommending this article on our FB page. ~ Pastor Dave, The Patriot’s Pastor, former Peace Officer.

    Reply
  14. Mark A

    Good article. I carry a chambered Sig P238 on a regular basis. Much more concealable than my Sig P226 MK25. When I am at the range both are accurate. With the P238 I experience less fatigue after shooting 50-100 rounds. I always carry it chambered so it is ready to go.

    Reply
  15. Bill

    .380 beats 9mm when it’s the firearm an individual has because he/she wasn’t willing to carry something bigger. First rule “have a gun”

    Reply
  16. David Nissen Kahn

    This is a valid, cogently presented, thoughtful analysis, albeit now eight years old. It begs a couple of thoughts:

    First, all small, light pistols and revolvers are relatively more difficult to shoot, irrespective of chambering and cartridge. I have relatively small hands (size seven surgical gloves), so the newish wave of “baby nines” are a fairly good fit for me and manageable. That said, I’ve found them harder to control, as Mr. Cunningham says, and less facile to run their controls, especially with magazine exchanges. That’s doubtless idiosyncratic, but I’ll bet that I’m not unique. I decided continue with whatever Glock 19 sized guns are called now. In fact, I’ve adopted the Shadow Systems MR920L as my daily AIWB pistol. It’s butt dimensions that arbitrate concealability, much more than than barrel/slide length, which is why full-sized stocks on little short-barreled revolvers kill their raison d’être, concealability. FWIW, there’s an excellent, extremely well thought out series of videos linked to the Philster Enigma system’s website (philsterholsters.com) that discusses the oft-not considered aspects of concealment. Everyone who carries a concealed firearm–or anything else–should consult them.

    It seems to me that there’d be a market for medium-sized pistols, such as mine above, chambered to 380 ACP for those, like me, an old man with bad shoulders and very poor hand and upper body strength, to allow even more recoil mitigation and easier operation. I’m not sure why they don’t already exist.

    Bottom line: For many people, a bigger, 9x19mm gun PROPERLY concealed is a better recommendation than small 380 pistols. Easier to manipulate, easier to hold onto, easier to manage recoil. If 9mm ballistics are imperative.

    Second, in the vein of the above, the Federal 30 Super Carry cartridge emerges as a viable alternative, I think. If a small gun is the recipe, apparently it’ll be easier to shoot and have less recoil. And tote more rounds. If a bigger, heavier gun, such as mine, is the ticket, it might well be a panacea chambering 30 SC: notably more rounds, notably less recoil, nearly 9mm performance at the target. Hmm…

    Reply
  17. Gideon Rockwell

    I have had a Walther PPK/s a number of years. My Springfield Hellcat is just a little larger, but with 124 grain H.P. defensive load has a lot more recoil. I love them both and at times still carry the Walther loaded with Hornady FTX Defensive Loads. I don’t feel under armed with the Walther. Low recoil and highly accurate with my chosen loads.

    Reply
  18. Doug

    First off, I would like to say, I enjoyed your article. Being an instructor myself and read a lot of articles from many other instructors some good and some not so much. I would like to talk to you privately to discuss my views on many subjects, based on my experience and SF background. We were trained in real world gun fighting tactics. A lot of what I have seen over the years, would set people up for failure and might cause them to be killed if they used some of the training being taught by some of these schools. Again, I enjoyed the article, never stop in your pursuit of finding the answers to common solutions.

    Reply
    • adams

      First off, I would like to say, I enjoyed your article. Being an instructor myself and read a lot of articles from many other instructors some good and some not so much. I would like to talk to you privately to discuss my views on many subjects, based on my experience and SF background. We were trained in real world gun fighting tactics. A lot of what I have seen over the years, would set people up for failure and might cause them to be killed if they used some of the training being taught by some of these schools. Again, I enjoyed the article, never stop in your pursuit of finding the answers to common solution

      Reply
  19. Lorick

    Well written and absolutely matches my experience.
    A decade or so ago, I had been out of the US for about 8 years and had no chance to stay current. I arranged for a day with the Range Master at a LEO range. Asked if I should consider upgrading my current 9mm to .40. He response was close to verbatim of yours. I have a small hand. The Kahr MK-9 and SIG 239 single stack that I own work well. If I decide want something smaller, I will absolutely go with the .380 -> WHY? Because my when “shall issue was a fairly new concept (1995), I went out an bought a S&W titanium frame .38. I shot 20 rounds, my wrist hurt so badly, there was no way I could put 100 rounds through it. I could shoot my S&W Model 36 more accurately and indeed on the rare occasions I carried my Model 19 (357), I used carried .38+P because I was far more accurate.
    I would probably actually consider going back to something like a Model 36, although honestly, the MK9 is as easy to conceal.

    Reply
  20. Ralph Martinsen

    Nice article. I must admit, I have been showing friends the difference between 9 and 380 and saying, if you feel comfortable enough, go with the 9. Then too, I need to borrow a 380 of the same mfg as my 9 for direct comparison. My bad. Several have stayed at 380, which I have supported, because I do say the best gun is the one you feel most comfortable handling.
    My results, 2 @ 9 and 2 @ 380. Of note ALL S&W EZ’s (their choice), all 65+, all ladies.

    Reply
  21. Stephen Knepp

    In many self defense scenarios the perp has a knife, blunt object, or no weapon at all. ANY gun beats NO gun nearly every time.

    Reply
  22. Mordecai

    I love my Beretta Cheetah in .380. I had a friend giving me grief about it. He declined my invitation to stand in front of it while I squeezed off a few rounds. Nuff said!

    Reply
  23. Jim May

    When you compare guns of the same size you are mostly correct. Unfortunately most people (at least that I know) carry a much smaller .380 when they carry a .380. I have an LCP, very small .380. It has a short sight radius and because of it’s small size it beats you up when you shoot it. On the other hand, it disapears in a pocket (and holster) allowing one to be armed when otherwise it would not be possible. You pays your money and takes your chances. I almost always carry a 9mm (occasionally a .45) but there are occasion when the tiny .380 is the only choice.

    Reply
  24. Daniel G Long

    007 used a .380!! I have 9 ‘s and a .40 but I really love my .380’s most as well as my .45/.410 derringers.

    Reply
  25. Bob Sikes

    I own two 380. They will get job done if I need them to. I own a nine which will work too. Only difference I find is ammo cost 9 mm is cheaper and more available. But 380 does work well for reasons pointed out in this article

    Reply
  26. Jonathan Swift

    The first gun I bought was a Jimenez 380. I sold it after a few months. Then got a Walther PK-380 and a Walther P22, because I wanted a similar gun to train with using cheaper ammo. When my wife goes with me to the range, I only get to shoot the PK-380 when my wife is done. After shooting the Walther PK-380, I would never buy anything smaller.
    Trivia fact: “9mm Kurt” or “9mm Short” is the German name for 380 ACP.

    Reply
  27. Clarence Cochran

    A very well written article, and one I happen to agree with 100%. Enough so that, for nearly 25 years, a Walther PPK/S in .380 was my CC Weapon. It was retired to Range Baby status only because of my aging eyes. I could no longer make out the sights in Low Light Drills. To this day, it remains the most accurate pistol in my modest collection. Capable of 1″ groups at 50′ across a rest. Not even my M9 is quite that good. With modern Defensivw Loads like the Fed Hydro-Shock, Speer Gold Dot Lawman, and my favorite the Hornady Critical Defense, the .380’s no slouch. I like the SIG P365 I’ve carried for the last 4 years, bit it took considerable effort on my part retraining myself to use it.

    For those that remain unimpressed by the .380, I always ask them to name me any other caliber responsible for starting a War. It’s not a 9mm or a .45. Two bullets from an FN Model 1910 ended the lives of Austria’s Archduke and his wife. The event that started the ball rolling for World War One.

    Reply
  28. Pa John

    Do a YouTube search for the channel called “Active Self Protection”, or “A.S.P.” for short. They post videos of real world shootings of all types, be it car jackings or armed robberies or home invasions, police shootings and so on, and from all over the world, as recorded on security cams, dash cams, police body cams, videos captured by witnesses and so on. The narrator does a very good job of pointing out various lessons to be learned for the home / self defender. The point of posting this HERE, is that as you watch perhaps a few hundred of the countless real world shooting videos they’ve posted over the years, you will personally witness how very common it is for people who are shot with a handgun to initially not even slow down, and in many cases the bad guys can continue fighting for eternally long seeming seconds and minutes until they bleed out enough to finally get tired and have to sit down. There is no need to argue and reason and hypothesize about what we might or might not imagine would be the case: You can STUDY how real people actually reacted when they were initially shot with a handgun and you can do so for FREE right there on YouTube. The moral of the story is simply that regardless of what caliber handgun you carry, you do not want to be all shocked and taken off guard when the attacker you are forced into shooting just initially seems to just get even angrier over being shot, rather than instantly falling down and becoming completely motionless as is so often portrayed on TV and in the movies. Be prepared to shoot – and to continue shooting just as police are trained to do – as required until the threat is _stopped_…. Sometimes that first hit may not – initially – seem to have much desired effect at all, even in cases where that wound later proves to be mortal. Watch a bunch of real world shootings and see for yourself. You can afford free.

    Reply
  29. John

    My wife has problems with her hands and uses a .380 auto.
    I have it loaded with Black Hills Honey Badger ammo.

    Reply
  30. Roger

    Great comparison and advise…. Your handling and accuracy can do more to protect you then big bangs and poor accuracy which may not have a outcome in your favor….. I concur with what you stated……

    Reply
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  31. Chris

    A friend gifted me a Glock 45 and a 380 Beretta 70s. Over time I came to severely dislike the 45 for it was bulky to handle and the recoil w intense. The 380, however, felt comfortable and smooth when I shot it. It wasn’t until years later and ran across this article that my decision to get rid of the 45 was cemented. While I traded it in for a 9mm and gifted it to my wife, I keep and trust my 380 for a myriad of reasons.

    This article was well written and I’ve passed out along to anyone I know interested in purchasing a gun to help them understand why bigger isn’t always better.

    Reply
  32. Jeffrey D Edwards

    The thing that most people don’t understand about the 380 is Browning designed it to be fired from the Colt automatic pistol which had a barrel length of 4-1/2″. This will significantly increase the round performance.

    Reply