The Popular .380 ACP (9x17mm, 9mm Browning Short)

By Chuck Hawks

.380 ACP
Illustration courtesy of Hornady Mfg. Co.

The .380 Automatic Colt Pistol cartridge was introduced in 1908 by Colt for their Pocket Automatic. It is the most successful of several attempts to design a cartridge that will maximize the stopping power of a simple blowback operated semi-automatic pistol. In Europe it is often called the 9mm Short or the 9x17. (9mm being the bullet diameter and 17mm the case length.) It uses the same .355" diameter bullets as most other 9mm (.35 caliber) pistols. The 9mm Makarov (9x18) is a Russian attempt to do the same thing, and its ballistics are almost identical to the .380 ACP. The SAAMI pressure limit for the .380 ACP is 21,500 psi.

Higher pressure cartridges, like the 9x19 (9mm Luger) are more powerful, but require a locked breech pistol, which increases the complexity and expense of the gun. Theoretically, any cartridge can be fired from a blowback-operated gun, but the size and weight of the breechblock and recoil spring quickly become prohibitive. For example, the 20mm Oerlikon anti-aircraft machine gun used by the U.S. Navy in WW II was blowback operated, but it was not something you could pick up and walk away with.

There are any number of excellent .380 pistols on the market, from the very expensive Walther PP and expensive SIG P-232 to the inexpensive Russian IJ-70 (Makarov), which is available chambered for the .380 or the 9mm Makarov cartridge. The IJ-70 is basically a Russian copy of the PP, somewhat simplified and improved, and probably represents the best buy available in a self-defense pistol today. It is well made, extremely reliable, comes with adjustable sights (which are very rare among .380 pistols), and is as accurate as any .380 I have ever fired. The IJ-70, P-232, and the Walther PP (which stands for "Police Pistol") are all double-action, compact duty sidearms about the overall size of a Glock 19, not pocket pistols. But they are slim and easy to conceal in a shoulder holster or fanny pack, and much easier to shoot accurately than the pocket pistols (which tend toward seriously undersize grips).

The .380 is most popular in compact pocket pistols. These are also available in a wide price range, from the expensive double-action Walther PPK to cheap and crudely made items like the .380 Raven. The smallest .380 I know of was the Colt Mustang PocketLite, a single action .380 auto with an aluminum frame that fired from a locked breech and looked like a miniature 1911 Government Model. It weighed only 12.5 ounces. It was discontinued a few years ago when Colt drastically scaled back their civilian production to concentrate on military contracts. .380 pocket pistols are widely carried by civilians with concealed carry permits and off duty police officers. As a class they represent the smallest and lightest practical self-defense sidearm. (As opposed to the .22, .25, and .32 caliber pistols sneeringly referred to as "mouse guns.") The good news is that most pocket pistols chambered for the .32 ACP are also available in .380 ACP.

As loaded by the major ammunition companies, the .380 ACP delivers an 85-95 grain FMJ bullet at 955-960 fps with 190 ft. lbs. of muzzle energy. These are figures developed in a 4" barrel, and represent the performance of the cartridge from a compact service pistol like an IJ-70 or PP. Far better for personal protection are the JHP bullets that generally weigh 85-95 gains (the Remington Golden Saber JHP weighs 102 grains). These are loaded to MV of 940-1000 fps, and while their kinetic energy is about the same as the FMJ bullets, their expansion puts them in an entirely different class in terms of stopping power.

Marshal and Sanow found in their study that the .380 FMJ bullet was about a 51% one shot stopper. But the Remington Golden Saber was a 64% stopper, the Federal 90 grain JHP a 69% stopper, and the Cor-Bon +P (at a MV of 1030 fps) a 70% stopper. These are serious numbers, similar to the best .38 Special revolver loads when fired from a snub-nosed revolver.

The trajectory of most .380 loads is quite similar, so I am going to use the Remington 95 grain FMJ bullet's trajectory as representative. The mid-range rise is 1.4" over 50 yards. Most .380 pistols are not very accurate at such distances, and few are available with adjustable sights, so the trajectory can be considered essentially flat over normal .380 ranges of 10 yards or less.

One long range accuracy tip that sometimes works is to try the heaviest JHP bullet available (usually 95-102 grains) if a pistol does not shoot the common 85-90 grain FMJ practice ammo accurately when the range is extended. I have seen guns that put 85 grain FMJ bullets all over the target at 25 yards (including some "keyholes" or bullets hitting the paper sideways) shoot acceptable groups when fed 102 grain Golden Saber bullets. Sometime just changing from an 85 grain FMJ to an 88 grain JHP does the trick, as the JHP bullet is longer for its weight due to the hollow cavity in the nose.

The .380 is about the smallest auto pistol cartridge that is widely reloaded. According to the 26th edition of the Hodgdon Data Manual a 90 grain JHP bullet can be driven to a MV of 839 fps by 3.2 grains of W231 powder, and 920 fps by 3.5 grains of W231. These velocities were measured in the 3.2" barrel of a Walther PPK/S pistol.

While not a powerhouse cartridge, the .380 is not a "mouse gun" cartridge, either. It is reasonably effective and easy to shoot accurately at combat ranges. Bullet placement is by far the most important factor in stopping power, and the .380 is easier for most shooters to hit with than such highly regarded "stoppers" as the .40 S&W and .45 ACP.

Back to the Handgun Cartridge Page

Copyright 2001, 2006 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.