For Self-Defense Look at the 9mm Versus .380 ACP


The .380 also know as 9mm short is not in the same performance category as the 9mm

The last fifteen years have seen serious changes in the framework within which regular American people obtain and use handguns for personal defense. On the unhelpful side the federal Crime Bill of 1994 limited magazine capacity and put new restrictions on ammunition manufacturers’ freedom to develop high-performance handgun loads. On the helpful side more and more concealed-carry laws are being enacted every year at the state level, with the total of states now allowing some form of legal civilian concealed handgun carry now standing at 47 and more are likely to join that list. The result has been significant change in the comparative market share and availability of various cartridges and handgun formats, with a large increase in the popularity of small, pocket-size autoloading pistols and an attendant incorporation of previous “duty level” cartridges into ever-smaller guns. The market for related firearm accessories and shooting supplies including stocks, grips, scopes, holsters, gun cases, sights, binoculars and cleaning equipment has also shifted.

When it comes to personal-defense carry, most people buy small guns. The single largest category of handguns bought in the US during the last 15 years has been petite, short-barrel, pocket-size protection models-autoloaders and revolvers alike. Overall, compact concealment-size handguns account for more than 70 percent of all current civilian handgun sales, and autoloaders account for approximately 75 percent of that number (according to the most current BATF statistics). In terms of caliber selection the two most popular choices within this main portion of the overall handgun pie are the .380 ACP and the 9mm.

In the present market, compact and pocket-size guns available for the 9mm and the .380 have essentially the same range of available features and performance capabilities-in fact, identical pocket-size 9mm and .380 pistol versions are increasingly available from the same manufacturer. You can choose among single-action, double-action, with the same type of sighting setups and safety-operating mechanisms, and choices of steel, aluminum, or molded-polymer frames for either cartridge. Which means the choice is really between the capabilities of the cartridges, not the guns. There is also a wide selection of firearm accessories like grips, sights and holsters to consider when making a choice.
So for a short-barreled, concealment-size pocket pistol, all features of the guns being equal, which cartridge choice is best for personal defense, .380 or 9mm?

The 9mm Wins without a Doubt

Some have argued that in the very short barrels (in the 3.0- to 3.25-inch range) typically found on small pistols, the apparent ballistic advantage of the longer case 9mm is canceled and the two loads’ performances are essentially the same. Actual side-by-side testing doesn’t prove that out. In fact, there really isn’t very much of a match at all. The 9mm wins hands down.

The 9mm Luger cartridge (also known as the 9mm Parabellum, 9mm NATO, and 9x19mm) is actually the oldest (1902) of today’s mainstream semiautomatic pistol rounds but because of its comparatively recent surge to popularity in the United States, most American shooters think of it as relatively “modern” in comparison to other popular autoloader cartridges like the .45 ACP (1905). The .380 ACP is nothing other than a short 9mm (its German name, in fact, 9mm Kurtz, literally translates as 9mm Short), and like the .22 Short in relation to the .22 Long Rifle, or even the .38 Special in relation to the .357 Magnum, the shorter cartridge has only a portion of the clout of the longer 9mm.

In Europe the .380 Auto/9mm Short has at different times been an official military cartridge, and it is much favored by police agencies in many nations as a principal duty round. In the US it has always been seen as a minor-power backup load. And, compared to the 9mm, that’s where it belongs.

SAAMI industry-standard catalog specifications for the two cartridges rate the .380 at approximately 950 fps velocity and 200 foot-pounds (ft-lbs) energy for JHP bullets in the 90- to 100-grain weight range while the 9mm (which is offered in a much wider range of bullet weights and styles) is specced at 1150 fps and 340 ft-lbs energy with a 115-grain JHP bullet and 990 fps and 320 ft-lbs energy with heavier 147-grain JHP subsonic loads. In raw energy terms alone, then, the 9mm has about a 65 percent advantage. However, in view of the fact that actual cartridge effect in target is always more determined by bullet design and performance than by mathematical energy formulas, particularly when using guns with barrels shorter than SAAMI test fixtures, I (several years ago) fired a series of commercial 9mm and .380 loads from compact pistols into 10-percent ballistic gelatin blocks calibrated to FBI evaluation standards to gauge their impact effectiveness with the gel set at a personal-defense distance of 20 feet. I was interested in determining whether these two cartridges’ performance in actual guns corresponded to their “on paper” ratings. This was when down-sized 9mm pistols had just begun to enter the market in sizable numbers following the enactment of the 1994 Crime bill’s magazine limitations, and the pistols used were a 3.5-inch Star Firestar for the 9mm and a three-inch S&W Baby Sigma for the .380 ACP. When I reported the results, which were overwhelmingly in favor of the 9mm, I received response from fans of the .380 who argued that the half-inch longer barrel of the Firestar pistol gave the 9mm an unfair advantage in my comparison, and that if I’d used guns of the same barrel length the .380 would have ranked much better in comparison. I was confident of the basic “balance of power” my results indicated but also acknowledged that with short-barrel guns sometimes a very slight increase or decrease in absolute length can have a significant effect on bullet velocity, depending on particular powders and their burn rates. So when Taurus introduced its Millennium series of pocket-size compact autos a couple of years ago with identically configured 9mm and .380 versions, I set on to redo the gel-performance review. Both the Taurus Millennium model PT111 9mm and the model PT138 .380 are identical in features, size, and 3.25-inch barrel length, with the only difference between them being the actual specifications of the cartridge firing chambers.

The results of my side-by-side review firings with today’s premium defense loads are listed in the chart on page 23 and closely correspond to the Firestar versus Baby Sigma results from four years ago. Overall, the 9mm provides a 40 percent greater wounding effectiveness (based on wound channel surface area) than does the .380. When equivalent bullet designs in the two cartridges are compared directly (for example, the Winchester SXTs and Remington Golden Sabers), the distinction is obvious. The .380 is simply not in the same performance class as the 9mm, even though the subjective experience of firing the two pistols is very much the same.

If your personal-defense handgun is going to be a small autoloader, and you are buying it because the chance exists that it may someday have to save your life, the choice between a .380 or a 9mm is still a no-brainer. Get a 9mm.

9mm Vs. .380 ACP Pocket Pistol Performance
(Ranked by Wound Area)
Factory load Velocity (fps) Standard Deviation (fps) Average Upset (Inches) Average Penetration (Inches) Wound Volume (cu/in) Wound Area (sq/in)
9mm Taurus Millennium PT111, 3.25-Inch Barrel
PMC 124-gr.
1002 9 .513 13.38 2.76 21.55
Golden Saber
1009 38 .555 11.88 3.09 20.70
147-gr. SXT
900 22 .510 12.75 2.60 20.42
CCI Blazer
115-gr. TMJ
1023 18 .355 23.00 1.78 20.06
115-gr. JHP
1019 10 .433 14.00 2.06 19.03
124-gr. HP/XTP
998 20 .405 14.25 1.83 18.12
Wound Area
.380 ACP Taurus Millennium PT138, 3.25-Inch Barrel
Hornady 90-gr.
906 13 .406 11.25 1.46 14.34
Federal 90-gr.
934 12 .428 10.33 1.48 13.88
PMC 95-gr.
890 15 .468 9.13 1.57 13.42
Speer 90-gr.
Gold Dot
970 12 .501 5.88 1.16 9.25
95-gr. SXT
867 10 .500 5.75 1.13 9.03
102-gr. Golden
827 42 .475 6.02 1.07 8.98
Wound Area
*Where bullet penetration exceeds 18 inches, penetration beyond that distance
is not considered in calculation of Wound Volume or Wound Area.

NOTES: Data is based on bullets recovered after firing three rounds of
each load from each gun into calibrated 10-percent ballistic gelatin at a
distance of 20 feet. Average Upset is average frontal diameter of all three
bullets recovered for each load listed calculated on the basis of four
cross-sectional measurements of each bullet face. Wound Volume is the size
of the wound channel in cubic inches calculated for each load by multiplying
the average frontal surface area of the recovered bullets by the average depth
of penetration. Wound Area is the internal surface area of the wound channel
in square inches calculated for each load by multiplying the average
circumference of the recovered bullets by the average depth of penetration.


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