380 ACP: Is It any Good for Self-Defense?

The 380 ACP has been around for a long time and just might be one of the most frequently argued-about cartridges that’s currently in use. Some claim it’s perfect for self-defense while others say it is only barely sufficient. Some say it’s worthless and should never be relied upon to save your life.

Of course, technology has made a lot of ballistic advantages possible, and that always changes things when it comes to ammo. Is 380 ACP a worthwhile defensive cartridge? Read on to find out more, check out some charts, and decide for yourself.

380 ACP cartridges
The 380 ACP is a popular cartridge and there are quite a few self-defense loads available for it. (Photo credit: Kat Stevens)

Who invented 380 ACP?

This might surprise a few readers, but the cartridge was invented by none other than John Moses Browning. Yes, the same John Moses Browning that created the 1911 and 45 ACP.

A somewhat common point of confusion is the belief that its parent cartridge is the 9x19mm Parabellum. It’s true that the 9mm was designed a little bit earlier than 380 ACP, but the 9mm is not its parent cartridge. In reality, the 380 ACP was designed by Browning based on an earlier cartridge design of his, the 38 ACP (this is just one reason adding that “0” to 380 ACP is important).

Browning specifically created it for use in blowback pistols, which do not have a barrel locking mechanism. This makes the platform cheaper to produce overall but does mean the gun cannot handle higher-pressure rounds. If a gun chambered in 380 ACP is rated as safe for use with +P/+P+ ammo, odds are it has a much heavier slide to ensure that it cycles properly.

Ruger LCP II surrounded by 380 ACP cartridges
The Ruger LCP II is chambered in 380 ACP and has a far better trigger than the original LCP. (Photo credit: Kat Stevens)

Specifications

Charts are often the answer to all your ammo questions (or at least some of them). The 380 ACP’s dimensions are worth referencing, especially if you intend to compare them to other rounds. Check out the specs in the chart below and note how it compares to 9mm. The reason for this comparison is that the most common caliber debate over this cartridge tends to be 380 ACP vs 9mm.

Cartridge 380 ACP 9x19mm Parabellum
Designed By John Moses Browning Georg Luger
Year Designed 1908 1901
Production 1908-Present 1902-Present
Country of Origin United States Austria
Case Type Rimless, Straight Rimless, Tapered
Bullet Diameter 0.355 inches 0.355 inches
Neck Diameter 0.373 inches 0.380 inches
Base Diameter 0.374 inches 0.391 inches
Rim Diameter 0.374 inches 0.392 inches
Rim Thickness 0.045 inches 0.050 inches
Case Length 0.680 inches 0.754 inches
Overall Length 0.984 inches 1.169 inches
Maximum Pressure 21,500 psi (SAAMI) 35,000 psi (SAAMI)

 

As you can see, 9mm is larger than 380 ACP. You frequently hear fans of 380 ACP state that it has the same bullet diameter as 9mm, meaning it must be virtually the same round. That isn’t accurate.

The case length, overall length, and the maximum pressure of 380 ACP compared to those of 9mm tell you a great deal. 380 ACP is loaded at a pressure that’s 13,500 psi lower than that of 9mm and is significantly shorter. Sure, bullet diameter is the same between the two cartridges, but there’s a lot more to ammo than diameter.

Remington 380 ACP
Remington Golden Saber 380 ACP is a popular choice for many gun owners. (Photo credit: Remington)

Ballistics

Going by the FBI ballistic gel test standards for determining whether or not a specific load penetrates sufficiently, the results tend to vary between “not quite,” “just barely,” and the occasionally “surprisingly good.” For example, check out the following loads:

Ammunition Hornady Critical Defense 380 ACP 90-grain FTX Remington Ultimate Defense 380 ACP 102-grain JHP Federal Premium Punch 380 ACP 85-grain JHP
Muzzle Velocity 1000 feet per second 940 feet per second 1000 feet per second
25-yard velocity Unavailable 920 feet per second 949 feet per second
50-yard velocity 910 feet per second 901 feet per second 907 feet per second
75-yard velocity Unavailable 883 feet per second 869 feet per second
100-yard velocity 841 feet per second 866 feet per second 835 feet per second
Muzzle Energy 200 foot-pounds 200 foot-pounds 189 foot-pounds
25-yard energy Unavailable 192 foot-pounds 170 foot-pounds
50-yard energy 165 foot-pounds 184 foot-pounds 155 foot-pounds
75-yard energy Unavailable 177 foot-pounds 143 foot-pounds
100-yard energy 141 foot-pounds 170 foot-pounds 132 foot-pounds
Penetration Depth* 8.9-inch average 15.6-inch average 10.9-inch average

*Averages are of five shots fired into bare gelatin.

The FBI ballistic gel tests set a minimum penetration depth of 12 to 18 inches. Penetration under 12 or over 18 is considered less than ideal and the so-called “sweet spot” is typically between 14 and 16 inches. That doesn’t mean rounds that penetrate under 12 inches are worthless for defensive purposes, just that they will not penetrate as effectively as certain others.

380 ACP in ballistic gel
380 ACP in ballistic gel. (Photo credit: Hornady)

Generally speaking, 380 ACP doesn’t penetrate deeply. It’s also important to note that different defensive loads are designed for varying uses, which means the outcomes will differ. For example, Hornady Critical Defense is made for fantastic, consistent penetration, but the heaviest emphasis is not on penetration depth. The Hornady Critical Duty line is made specifically to deliver excellent penetration, especially through barriers. It all depends on the specific load’s design.

As you can see in the chart above, 380 ACP tends to be a little underwhelming for penetration depth. That does not necessarily mean it’s a bad idea for self-defense use.

three pistols chambered in 380 ACP
There are a wide variety of guns available that are chambered in 380 ACP. (Photo credit: Kat Stevens)

What do medical and law enforcement professionals say about the cartridge?

There are many opinions on 380 ACP out there, and they’re all colored by the life experience of the person being asked. For this reason, an emergency room doctor might tell you they’ve never seen an attacker dropped by 380 ACP—only wounded. Another surgeon might say they do see an inordinate number of 380-ACP-related deaths. An LEO may have seen a lot of successful self-defense incidents involving 380 ACP, but does that directly translate to the 380 ACP being superior to other cartridges? Not exactly.

cutaway look at the inside of a Hornady Critical Defense bullet
A cutaway look at the inside of a Hornady Critical Defense bullet. (Photo credit: Hornady)

According to the gunsmith and now-retired police Sergeant and US Army veteran Tim Crawford, his experiences made up his mind fast on the cartridge:

Never 380 ACP as a defensive round. I made a run one night on a guy who had been shot 7 times with a 380 ACP. It was a drug deal gone bad. [After being shot] the guy whooped the shooter’s a** and took his gun away from him. Made my mind up on it. And the guy lived.

In these cases, the common-use factor comes into play. Which cartridges are most frequently used for self-defense? Probably 380 ACP and 9mm, although there are no official records to back it up.

380 ACP cartridge next to ruler
The 380 ACP has smaller dimensions than the 9mm, aside from having the same bullet diameter. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Is 380 ACP better than 9mm?

380 ACP cartridges
How does it compare to 9mm? (Photo credit: Ammo.com)

If we’re speaking ballistically, the 9mm does outperform 380 ACP. The days when the only micro-compact pistols available for deep concealment were chambered in 380 ACP—or smaller—are gone. Today, all manner of micro 9mms are on the market.

For felt recoil, 380 ACPs tend to be snappy little guns. There are some heavier, larger-framed models where their sheer size helps mitigate felt recoil, but overall it wouldn’t be accurate to say the 380 ACP is “easier” to shoot than 9mm. Even if you run a micro 380 ACP and a micro 9mm alongside one another with identical platforms, you’re not likely to find the 380 ACP to be a flatter shooting gun.

Ruger LCP, lavender frame
The Ruger LCP is chambered in 380 ACP. (Photo credit: Ruger)

Should you get a 380 ACP for self-defense?

It’s a matter of personal preference whether you own a firearm in this chambering for self-defense use. You can examine the charts in this article and comes to some conclusions about its effectiveness. Of course, with the right gun and ammo combination, you’ll get better performance out of the cartridge for penetration and expansion. Here’s the question: If you have to stretch to make it work, is it worth it?

What do you think? Tell us your thoughts about the 380 ACP in the comments section below.

Kat Ainsworth Stevens is a long-time outdoor writer, official OGC (Original Gun Cognoscenti), and author of Handgun Hunting: a Comprehensive Guide to Choosing and Using the Right Firearms for Big and Small Game. Der Teufel Katze has written for a number of industry publications (print and online) and edited some of the others, so chances are you've seen or read her work before, somewhere. A woman of eclectic background and habits, Kat has been carrying concealed for over two decades, used to be a farrier, and worked for a long time in emergency veterinary medicine. She prefers big bores, enjoys K9 Search & Rescue, and has a Master's Degree in Pitiless Snarkastic Delivery.

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