Last week I explained why everyone should have a 9mm. This week I’m going to explain why no one needs a 380. I realize this is going to upset some people, but the truth is the truth, and I’ve done enough research on this topic to have confidence I know the truth about this topic.
Now, first thing: just because I say you don’t need a 380 doesn’t mean I disapprove of you wanting or having a 380, or even a bunch of 380’s. We all have pet calibers and guns that we own and shoot for the sheer pleasure of it, and there’s nothing wrong with that. I have a couple little 32 H&R Magnum revolvers that are a hoot, for example. But I for damn sure don’t carry them as defensive tools.
A handgun is a relatively anemic fighting tool when compared to more serious combat arms such as rifles, shotguns, and crew-served weapons. Those of us who carry handguns for defensive purposes should do so with the understanding that the fighting handgun is not a definitive solution, but a practical one. The fighting handgun is a compromise between compactness and portability on the one hand and lethal force utility on the other. In other words, a handgun is the smallest and most packable firearm you can get, but it’s also the weakest firearm you can get.
So since we’ve already hobbled ourselves by carrying something that’s less effective than a long arm, my view on this is that we shouldn’t give ourselves an extra handicap by carrying a handgun chambered for a cartridge that is demonstrably ineffective.
I often refer to the “service calibers” in my work. These are the calibers that are carried by law enforcement and military personnel here in the USA, and abroad. These calibers have all been tested and found to be adequate in gunfighting both in the ballistics lab and on the street. These calibers are 9x19mm (9mm Luger), 357 Sig, 40 S&W, and 45 ACP, in autopistols, and 38 Special, 357 Magnum, and 44 Special in revolvers. (There are a few bigger calibers out there such as the 41 Magnum, 44 Magnum, 45 Colt, 50 AE, and others that are carried by a lawman or two here and there, but they’re not commonly issued calibers, so I exclude them from the general term of Service Calibers.)
All of the above-named service calibers have been thoroughly tested and meet the FBI ballistics protocols established in 1986. Jacketed hollowpoint (JHP) bullets in these calibers will penetrate 10-12″ of standard ballistic gelatin after passing through 4 layers of denim, and the bullets will expand reliably. Moreover, most of these bullets will penetrate intermediate barriers (e.g. laminated automobile glass) and still perform to an adequate standard in gelatin.
However, almost no 380 ACP ammunition that I have personally tested or witnessed being tested will meet the FBI ballistic performance minimums. I was at a class last March at a SWAT conference at which a ballistics test expert from Federal/ATK gave a very impressive and thorough demonstration of the performance of various LE ammo (from Federal/Speer as well as other manufacturers). He shot ballistic gelatin blocks with all kinds of guns and ammo, through all kinds of intermediate barriers, and favorably impressed the class attendees with just about everything, even little 38 snubbies. But when it came to the 380, the results were dismal. One member of the class had his new pocket BUG, a Ruger LCP 380, and we watched it perform. The little 90 gr bullets barely penetrated 5 inches of bare gelatin, and half of that through 4 layers of denim.
Folks, that’s not performance you can stake your life on.
It may be comfortable to carry a tiny 380 caliber pistol, but it sure as hell ain’t comforting when you know how anemic this cartridge is. And it simply doesn’t make sense to down-grade to a 380 when there are ultra-compact pistols like the Kahr PM9/CW9 chambered in 9x19mm that are as small as most 380’s.
As my good friend Mas Ayoob often says, “Friends don’t let friends carry mouseguns.” I think that’s good advice for all of us, and if you’re a member of my website, you’re a friend, so I need to pass this bit of wisdom on to you. Don’t carry a 380 for personal defense. Just don’t do it.