The Gun to Carry When You Can't Carry a Gun
.380 ACP Advocacy

by Chad Ward,
please contact the author at the above e-mail address with any
questions or comments

Mouseguns, poodle-shooters, back-up guns -- all names for small caliber, easily concealed pocket guns. Most tactical advocates will warn you away from anything smaller than a 9mm handgun. Many (me included) don't trust anything less than a .40. And with good reason.  Handguns are notoriously ineffective to begin with. Why lessen your chances of stopping a lethal encounter by using a marginal caliber?

Well, until a national concealed carry law is enacted, and we all get jobs at gun-friendly companies, we sometimes have to compromise effectiveness for small size, light weight and concealability. Carrying a gun every day is a major pain in the ass and requires a real commitment. That sometimes means adjustments to mode of dress, and it sometimes means carrying a smaller pistol than you're happy with in order to accommodate your work and social environment. For those who work in gun-unfriendly places or whose choices are restricted by dress code, a pocket gun could very well be the answer. Remember the first rule of a gunfight -- have a gun! If you are forced into a position where you have to defend yourself, even a sub-caliber handgun is a nice thing to have. As hackneyed as the saying is, a small gun that you can -- and do -- carry daily is much more effective than even the largest man-stopper left in the gun safe or night stand.

That is the true advantage of the .380 (also known as the 9mm Kurz, 9mm Corto or 9mm Browning). It is the smallest effective defensive cartridge, and the current crop of .380 handguns are small and light enough that you can have one with you at all times without major discomfort or concealability problems.

The Caliber The 2" .38 revolver is reportedly the most popular gun in America for personal defense.  However, even the lightest weight revolver doesn't lay as flat or conceal as well as a diminutive automatic. Unless you are very large or wear very baggy pants, a snubby revolver is tricky to conceal properly in a pants pocket, ankle holster or other method of carry suitable to a small caliber handgun. As for the .32, even the excellent Seecamp, NAA Guardian and Kel Tec pistols don't change my opinion that the .32 round is just barely better than a large rock. 

So, what are the choices? The Sig P230 .380, the Walther PPK/S, the Berretta Cheetah and the Colt Pony/Mustang are all excellent pistols chambered for the petite .380 cartridge. They are light and concealable, even in t-shirt weather. I'm particularly fond of the Colt Mustang Pocketlite with its stainless steel slide and aluminum frame. An unloaded Mustang Pocketlite weighs in at a mere twelve and a half ounces. The larger, double-stacked .380s such as the 84 Beretta and the Browning BDA seem to miss the point. If you can conceal one of these, you can conceal a 9mm or .40.

Stopping Power So, lets assume we have an adequate delivery system. We're still relying on a marginal caliber, right? Maybe.

Top of the line hollowpoint .380 rounds are fairly effective. If you buy into the Marshall & Sanow statistics, the best .380s have a 60-70% One-Shot-Stop (OSS) rating.1  Real world examples abound of ordinary folks successfully defending themselves with a .380. The Czech military even issued .380s as officers sidearms for several years. With good shot placement and a modern hollowpoint cartridge, the .380 has repeatedly proven itself an adequate defensive caliber.

However, bullet choice is critical. Factory data on the cartridge box will show .380 rounds at about 1000fps. Don't believe it. Real world velocities are much lower, especially from a barrel shorter than 3". You can expect about 800-850fps on average. That means less penetration (7-10" in gelatin) and less expansion (.36 - .60, if you're lucky) . The Federal Hydra-Shok (now the "Personal Defense"), the Remmington Golden Saber and the Winchester Silver Tip are among the most potent .380 defensive rounds. Marshall & Sanow consider the Cor-Bon 90gr JHP+P to be the best of the bunch, but I've had bad luck with Cor-Bon ammo in the past, so hesitate to recommend it.

Doing Your Part You should be practice religously with any handgun, but being fast and accurate is even more important with a small caliber like the .380. According to Mac Scott of Scott, McDouglal & Associates, a .380 shooter should be able to:
  1. Place two rounds in the "A" zone (central nervous system area of a human target) of your target at 7 yards within 1.5 to 2 seconds of beginning the draw -- and be able to accomplish this unfailingly, from all positions and conditions of awkwardness.
  2. In 2 seconds or less, place a single shot, at 5 yards, in the head area of your target, again from the draw.
  3. With the gun drawn and already in hand, knock a full second off any of the above times and do so with unfailing accuracy.

To a shooter used to IPSC or IDPA times, these time limits probably don't seem all that stringent. They are, in reality, pretty darned tough to do repeatedly and consistently, from a concealed carry position. Especially with a small, compromise handgun. Accuracy and speed like this requires a special dedication on the part of the shooter.

Summary Yes, the .380 is a somewhat marginal caliber. No, you can't rely on it to stop the fight. But the same applies to almost any handgun caliber. If you absolutely need a small, lightweight pistol that can be easily concealed -- and you're willing to put in the practice time to make the gun as effective as possible -- a .380 is your best option.

Footnote: For further evaluation of the OSS and its problems, see "The Myth of the One Stop Shot" elsewhere on this site. However, the numbers do provide valuable comparative information on the current range of cartridges available.


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