Compared: .380 ACP Pistols
By the Guns and Shooting Online Staff
We recently reviewed a Walther PPK, SIG SAUER P238 and SIG SAUER P232, so a comparison of these three pistols came naturally. They are all deluxe models, chambered for the .380 ACP cartridge, highly recommended for concealed carry / personal defense and we had them all at the range together. The stars were correctly aligned for this comparison!
The purpose of this article is to compare and contrast the advantages and disadvantages of these three pistols. It is not to pick a "winner." That we leave to you, gentle reader, after you finish reading this article and the individual reviews of each pistol, which can be found on the "Handgun Articles and Reviews" index page of the Handgun Information page. Different users have different requirements and one person's first choice is another person's also ran.
The PPK is only offered in the all stainless steel configuration that we reviewed. However, the two SIG SAUER pistols are available with a choice of aluminum alloy or steel frames and a variety of finishes, including all black, two-tone, all stainless and (in the case of the P238) rainbow titanium. The all steel models are heavier and thus more comfortable to shoot, while aluminum alloy frames make for a lighter pistol that is more comfortable to carry. We opted for aluminum-framed models of our SIG test pistols, reasoning that .380's are usually carried more than they are fired. Here are some relevant manufacturers' specifications for our comparison pistols.
SIG SAUER P238 Rainbow Titanium
SIG SAUER P232 Two-Tone
Walther PPK Stainless
As mentioned at the beginning of this article, these are high quality pistols designed for long service. There are plenty of cheap (in both quality and price) .380's available, but these three are not among them. These pistols are likely to be chosen by knowledgeable or professional shooters who take their side arms seriously. They are, for example, used by members of the Guns and Shooting Online staff and popular with police officers for off-duty concealed carry or as back-up pistols. Following are some areas of comparison that we found relevant, in alphabetical order. At the end of this article, we will include a Summary and Conclusion.
We have found in the past that intrinsic accuracy is not the strong suit of most .380 pistols, or generally of lightweight pistols that are designed primarily for personal protection and concealed carry. We tested each pistol with four different factory loads. The SIG P238 had a strong preference for its favored ammunition (Federal Premium 90 grain Hydra-Shok JHP) and did not like inexpensive FMJ loads, while the Walther PPK and P232 were less ammunition sensitive. We found in our individual reviews of these pistols that they can produce 25 yard groups, fired from a solid rest, averaging three inches or less with ammunition they prefer; usually a premium brand. (Almost all of the .380 pistols we have tested shot best with premium loads.)
Although they come with good, easy to align, Patridge type sights, none of these pistols have a trigger pull conducive to accuracy. In addition, their relatively short sight radius amplifies shooter errors, making flyers a common occurrence. However, we judged them adequate for personal defense, in the hands of a good shot, at 25 yards. At typical altercation ranges of seven yards or less, they are more than sufficiently accurate. Here is a summary of our shooting results, taken from our full-length review of each pistol.
For fun, three shooters (Chuck Hawks, Gordon Landers and Jim Fleck) shot a "combined" group with each pistol using Winchester/USA .380 FMJ ammunition. The way we did it, we put up three slow fire pistol targets at 25 yards, one for each pistol. Each shooter fired two shots with each pistol from a Pistol Perch rest at that gun's target, forming a six shot composite group after all three shooters had taken their turn. The results were pathetic, since every shooter holds a gun differently and, with handguns, how you grip them and with how much tension determines their point of impact. The lighter the gun (shooting any given load), the worse the effect of changing grips usually is. In the event, all three composite groups showed excessive vertical stringing. Anyway, here are the results of our foolishness:
All of these pistols are sufficiently accurate for their intended purpose and none of them are target pistols. If you are choosing between these pistols for self-defense, you will need to look beyond accuracy to make a determination.
Convenient long-term carry is mostly a function of weight (lighter is better) and size (smaller and thinner is better), in that order. On that basis, the SIG P238 is the easiest gun in our comparison to carry. It even comes with a nifty, high ride belt holster suitable for the purpose. However, it is a single action autoloader, the only single action in our comparison. As such, it has more possible carry modes (three) and this might make it more confusing to a beginner. Here is a description of P238 carry modes:
Condition One, called "cocked and locked" is the carry method usually favored by SA auto aficionados. However, it means that you are relying on a manual safety and we have seen manual safeties fail and guns fire with the safety still on. A point to consider for a daily carry pistol. After all, you are probably not going to be alone in the field, but often surrounded by other people and an accidental discharge could have grave consequences for yourself and others.
The Walther PPK and SIG P232 are SA/DA revolvers. They are intended to be carried with the hammer down on a loaded chamber. The P232 has no manual safety and none is needed, because the long DA trigger pull itself effectively prevents accidental discharges. The P232 has only a hammer drop lever to lower its rebounding hammer from the full cock position when desired. This is the simplest of our three pistols to operate. To fire the P232, either pull the trigger through its DA stroke or thumb cock the hammer for a lighter, shorter SA trigger pull.
The PPK has a slide mounted manual safety that also serves to lower the hammer and block it from contacting the firing pin. Putting the safety ON with the hammer cocked automatically lowers the hammer to its safe carry position. If you want to shoot, you must remember to switch the manual safety OFF before pulling the trigger. With the hammer down on a loaded chamber and the safety switched OFF, the PPK can be fired by simply pulling the trigger through its long, DA stroke. Alternatively, the hammer may be thumb cocked for a shorter and lighter SA trigger pull.
Design and Operation
The PPK is a chopped version of the seminal Walther PP SA/DA pistol with a shorter barrel and grip frame. The P232 is SIG SAUER's interpretation of an "improved" PP type pistol. Both are fixed barrel, blowback operated pistols. They differ in relatively minor ways, such as the method of releasing the slide for takedown and the location of the manual safety (the P232 doesn't have one), but conceptually they are similar. Because they are blowback pistols, they require very heavy slide return springs. This makes the slide difficult to rack. People with weak hands may not be able to do it at all. We strongly recommend manually cocking the hammer before attempting to rack the slide, so you do not have to fight the heavy hammer spring as well as the slide spring.
On the other hand, the fixed barrels of the PPK and P232 are undoubtedly an asset in terms of intrinsic accuracy and both have good reputations for accuracy. Unlike the PPK and P232, the P238's barrel moves downward and rearward to unlock its action. This probably accounts for its greater ammunition sensitivity. (See "Accuracy" section, above.)
The SIG P238 is not a blowback pistol. It is a Browning pattern, recoil operated, SA pistol actually designed by Colt, long time manufacturer of 1911 pistols for the U.S. Government. It is, in effect, a simplified, miniature, 1911 Commander type pistol. Colt sold the rights and the machinery to manufacture the P238 to SIG SAUER. This is the only locked breech .380 with which we are familiar. The .380 ACP cartridge was designed specifically to pack the maximum power practical for blowback-operated pistols, which are simpler in operation and therefore cheaper to manufacture than recoil operated pistols, although the latter can potentially handle higher pressures.
The P238's recoil operation does have advantages, though, even in .380 caliber. The most important is that it does not require such a heavy slide spring, since the action is locked closed, not simply held closed by the inertia of the slide and a powerful spring at the moment of firing. The P238's slide is, by far, the easiest to rack of our three pistols, an important consideration for many people.
A single action trigger mechanism may not be as (theoretically) safe as a double action trigger, but it has the advantage of simplicity. This (theoretically) can allow for a lighter, shorter and cleaner trigger pull. Unfortunately, SIG totally dropped the ball with the P238 trigger. Perhaps a good gunsmith who is familiar with the P238 trigger mechanism can improve it to the point it has a better release than our other two pistols, but out of the box the P238 had the worst SA trigger pull of the three, by far. Just to make it useable, Guns and Shooting Online Gunsmithing Editor Rocky Hays had to replace the (very heavy) stock main spring with a Wolff spring and polish the sear engagement surface. We stopped there, because that is as far as we figure most owners could take it and our intention was not to review a customized pistol. Even so, the P238's trigger remains too heavy. So much for the advantage of a single-action-only trigger. (See additional comments under "Trigger Pull.")
A nice design touch is SIG's use of slightly "melted" edges on their pistols. This slight rounding of sharp corners makes the guns more user friendly to handle.
These three pistols come with two-piece grips that are secured to the frame by screws. Without doubt, the P238's rosewood grip panels are the most attractive and have the nicest feel; the grips on the other two pistols are black plastic. Unfortunately, the P238's grip frame is too short to accommodate all three fingers of the shooter's hand; the little finger curls beneath the grip's butt. The PPK's grip is also too short, but the PPK's magazine comes with an extension that provides a rest for the little finger. The P238 should be supplied with an alternative (second) magazine of this sort, but it is not. The P232 has a larger, hand-filling grip that provides space for all three fingers. The grip panels wrap around and cover the back strap, making the P232 the most comfortable pistol to handle and shoot.
The P238 and PPK have loop or burr (rounded, spurless) hammers, while the P232 has a small, partially shrouded hammer with a conventional hammer spur. All are unlikely to catch on clothing during a draw and they allow thumb cocking (or decocking). We found the P232's hammer somewhat easier and more certain to manipulate.
Another difference between these pistols is their magazine releases. The PPK and P238 use American style push button magazine releases located behind the trigger guard and in front of the left grip panel. The Walther's magazine release is located high on the frame, just below the slide, while the P238's release is about even with the bottom of the trigger, in 1911 fashion. The P238's stainless steel magazine drops freely from the frame when the release button is depressed, in the manner popularized by competition shooters and countless movies. The P232 uses a heel clip magazine release and the magazine stays in the frame until manually removed. This system is simple, eliminates a control from the left side of the pistol and prevents inadvertently dropping the magazine, but magazine changes are a bit slower. All three magazine releases work fine, it is just a matter of personal preference.
Since gun weight is an important factor in determining recoil and the P238 is the lightest gun, we expected the P238 to be the hardest kicker. However, at least subjectively, the P238 kicked less than the PPK, the heaviest gun in our comparison. We attribute this to the P238's locked breech, recoil operation. The middleweight P232 has the largest and most hand filling grip and got our vote as most comfortable pistol to shoot. None of these .380's, however, are hard kickers.
These should be reliable pistols. Certainly, Walther and SIG SAUER are among the most respected brands in the industry. As it happened, in the course of our shooting the P232 had a stovepipe jam, a couple of failures to feed and several times the slide did not lock open after the last shot. As we related in our individual review of the gun, we attributed these malfunctions to lack of proper lubrication, as they went away after we applied a small amount of the cleaner/lubricant sample that came with the pistol to the slide and frame rails. (Over lubrication can be as bad as no lubrication.)
The P238 quit shooting twice when its slide locked open before the magazine was empty. We attributed this to the shooter's thumb accidentally pushing up the slide lock during recoil. The P238 is a very small pistol and it is easy for the thumb of the shooting hand to bump the slide lock upward under recoil. Make a conscious effort to keep your thumb down when shooting this pistol. Perhaps this helps to explain why the PPK and P232 do not have manual slide locks. (They do have internal slide locks that are automatically activated by the magazine follower after the last cartridge is fired.)
The PPK had no malfunctions of any kind, a fine performance. This may be partly because it is the personal pistol of one of our staff members and has therefore been fired more than the others. The two SIG's were right out of the box and had not been "broken-in" by firing 100-200 rounds, as is commonly recommended for autoloading pistols.
Firearms safety is fundamentally between the ears of the gun handler. These are all well designed, high quality pistols that are mechanically safe when used properly. It is the shooter's responsibility to handle them in a safe and appropriate manner. You could argue, and we would agree, that the DA autos are inherently a little safer to carry with the hammer down on a loaded chamber than a SA auto carried cocked and locked (Condition One). However, they are not safer than a SA auto carried in Condition Two or Condition Three.
The P238's manual safety is a good one, positive and easy to use. It is unlikely to be moved inadvertently. An automatic firing pin block serves as a drop safety. There is a half-cock notch in the hammer to keep it from hitting the firing pin, should it slip from the shooter's thumb while being cocked. A small notch in the rear of the chamber allows the rim of a chambered cartridge to be seen through the ejection port. This little pistol has the most numerous and crowded manual control layout. There is the safety, magazine release button and slide lock lever, all on the left side of the frame.
The P232 has no manual safety and none is needed, because the gun's rebounding hammer and long DA trigger pull effectively prevent accidental discharges. The P232's sole manual operating control, aside from the trigger, is a hammer drop lever on the left side of the frame that is used to safely lower its hammer from the full cock position. There is also an automatic firing pin block to insure against discharge should the pistol be dropped. The extractor serves as a visual and tactile chamber loaded indicator; it is raised slightly above the surface of the slide when there is a cartridge in the chamber. This is the simplest of our three pistols to operate and it is about as safe as an autoloading pistol can be.
The PPK has a left side, slide mounted, manual safety. When the safety lever is up, it is in the "fire" position and when the lever is down the safety is on, the opposite of the P238 safety. Putting the safety on with the hammer cocked automatically lowers the hammer and blocks it from hitting the firing pin. Some shooters feel uncomfortable carrying any pistol, even a DA model, without a manual safety. If you are among them, the PPK is for you. The magazine release button is located on the left side of the frame. The PPK's loaded chamber indicator is a small pin that protrudes from the hammer notch in the rear of the slide. This indicator pin is parallel to and located just above the firing pin.
Carried as intended, the PPK and P232 are very safe. You can drop them, throw them across the room, hit them with a hammer or do practically anything else to them that could possibly happen accidentally and they will not discharge. The same can be said for a P238 carried in Condition Two or Condition Three.
For casual target shooting and plinking, the P232 would be the best choice. It has the best trigger, longest sight radius and a full size grip that is comfortable and handles recoil well. It would actually be a pretty good plinker at distances out to about 25 yards. Shooting is a sport and it should be fun. The P232 is the most fun of our trio to shoot. The all stainless steel version of the P232, weighing an extra 5.1 ounces, would be an even better recreational shooter than our aluminum framed Two-Tone, but correspondingly more of a burden to carry concealed.
Unlike many small pistols, these come with good Patridge type combat sights. They are fixed sights, although the rear sight can be drifted laterally in its dovetail to (crudely) adjust windage. The sights on the two SIG SAUER pistols are equipped with tritium inserts that glow softly in the dark, providing a "three green dot" aiming pattern. An optional extra for many fine pistols, these SIGLITE sights are standard equipment, a very nice bonus.
The P238 had the worst out of the box trigger pull, which is unusual for a single action design. SA pistols, especially of the 1911 type, are supposed to have better triggers than SA/DA pistols, or so 1911 partisans claim. Unfortunately, that did not prove to be the case with our P238. What we did to improve the P238's atrocious trigger pull was to replace the mainspring with a lighter Wolff aftermarket spring and polish the sear engagement surface, a relatively minor fix that most experienced shooters should be able to accomplish for themselves. This reduced the P238's nominal eight-pound trigger pull to a more manageable 5.5 pounds. After those modifications, it might have been slightly better than the PPK's trigger, or maybe not. At least, after modification, the P238 was useable. We'd call the P238 and PPK a tie in the SA trigger pull sweepstakes; both are too heavy.
The P232 had the lightest and (subjectively) best SA trigger pull of our three pistols. It is overweight at 4.4 pounds and there is too much take-up and over-travel. However, it is closer to acceptability than the other two. None of these .380's, however, comes close to a good revolver's SA trigger pull.
The double action triggers of both the PPK and P232 serve their primary purpose of allowing safe carry and operation with a fully loaded gun (cartridge chambered). In terms of pull, they are strictly for use at contact range distances. At any distance greater than across a card table, you need to cock the hammer and shoot single action if you want to hit something. The P232's heavy DA trigger pull is better than the PPK's very heavy DA trigger (faint praise, indeed), but we still would not want to shoot the P232 in DA mode.
Summary and Conclusion
As can be seen from the foregoing, each of our comparison pistols has unique features, advantages and disadvantages. All pistols are a balance of conflicting design requirements and reflect the goals and biases of their designers. We found these three pistols well suited to daily concealed carry and, indeed, various Guns and Shooting Online staff members use them for that purpose.
If your personal emphasis is on shootability, we would be inclined to recommend the SIG P232 with its larger grip, as long as you don't mind the SA/DA trigger mechanism. It is also the simplest design with the fewest operating controls to potentially fumble
If your emphasis in on deep concealment, we'd be inclined to recommend the very small SIG P238, as long as you don't mind carrying a single action auto pistol and relying on a manual safety. Its slide is also noticeably easier to operate for loading and unloading.
The Walther PPK is the heaviest pistol in this comparison, but intermediate in overall size and it incorporates a SA/DA trigger mechanism with a manual safety. (A "belt and suspenders" approach.) As we said in the beginning, they are all good pistols and the final choice is yours.
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