The Almighty 380 ACP Cartridge | Gunmagopedia

The 380 ACP is a diminutive cartridge that has long been the center of caliber debates. This cartridge has well over a century of use behind it and shows no signs of going away or being replaced anytime soon. It’s used for everything from target shooting to self-defense to home defense and even occasionally comes in handy for shooting varmints and pests. Keep reading to learn more about the cartridge.

30 ACP hollow point cartridges
380 ACP is favored by a lot of gun owners for self-defense use. (Photo credit: rhuged.com)

Contents

The Company Behind the Cartridge
380 ACP History
Does the 380 ACP have other names?
Has the military ever used 380 ACP?
How is 380 ACP different than 9x19mm Parabellum?
How accurate is 380 ACP?
How far can you shoot with 380 ACP?
Personal Defense with 380 ACP
380 ACP Specifications
Available 380 ACP Ammunition
Handguns Made in 380 ACP
Should you get a 380 ACP?

The Company Behind the Cartridge

When it comes to the 380 ACP, it’s less about the company behind the cartridge and more about the man. Of course, when John Moses Browning invented it, he was with Colt. This is the company that seems to be behind the creation of a lot of significant cartridges and firearms platforms.

Colt was founded in 1855 by none other than Samuel Colt. That wasn’t the year Colt started making guns, though; before the company was officially founded there had already been a couple of decades of design and early production. The company is understandably credited with many of the early advances in firearms technology, especially those associated with revolvers. By the time the 380 ACP came along, nearly 70 years had passed since Samuel Colt patented his first revolver, and 50 had passed since the company’s founding.

John Moses Browning with rifle
Did you know John Moses Browning invented the 380 ACP? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

380 ACP History

This is a cartridge with a history that can be traced back to 1908 (or further, considering 1908 was the year it went into use in the United States). It was designed by John Moses Browning, the man behind the invention of the 1911, as a slightly more powerful version of Browning’s 38 ACP.

The cartridge was made for blowback pistols, and for good reason. By creating a round that could function in a blowback system, Browning was able to use a simpler and more affordably priced platform. Today there are pistols chambered in the cartridge that do not have blowback actions such as the Glock 42, which has a locked breech.

Originally, it was meant for Browning’s Colt Model 1908 pocket pistol. As its name suggests, the gun was made to be carried in the user’s pocket and expected to be used at close ranges. It never saw widespread use by our nation’s military or law enforcement. In fact, most 380 ACPs have been carried by civilians. Interestingly enough, many off-duty officers have and do use pistols chambered in 380 ACP as backup or pocket-carry weapons.

Walther PPK, 380 ACP pistol used during World War II, in case with magazine, three cartridges, and tool
The Walther PPK was a popular 380 ACP used during World War II. (Photo credit: Rock Island Auction)

 

Does the 380 ACP have other names?

There are quite a few other names for it. They include:

  • 9mm Kurz
  • 380 Auto
  • 9x17mm
  • 9mm Browning
  • 9mm Corto
  • 9mm Short
  • 9mm Browning Court

 

Has the military ever used 380 ACP?

The cartridge has not seen widespread or standard use in the United States Military, but other countries have adopted it. Perhaps the most famous use of the cartridge was at the hands of Germany, which used the Walther PPK extensively through World War II.

Other countries that used the cartridge for their duty weapons before or during World War II were Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Italy, Germany, The Netherlands, and Yugoslavia. Members of European law enforcement also used the 380 ACP for its service weapons for years. However, it was eventually replaced by the 9x19mm Parabellum.

 

How is 380 ACP different than 9x19mm Parabellum?

A statement that’s thrown around all too often is that 380 ACP and 9x19mm Parabellum are basically the same cartridge. Spoiler alert: They’re not. The one thing the two cartridges do have in common, however, is bullet diameter. Both have a bullet diameter of 0.355 inches. That’s where the similarities end.

9mm and 380 ACP
What’s the difference, really? (Photo credit: The Gunners Den)

For contrast, consider the overall length (OAL) of the two. The 380 ACP has an OAL of 0.984 inches; the 9mm has an OAL of 1.169 inches. Then there are the case lengths; 380 ACP has a 0.680-inch case length and 9mm has a 0.754-inch case length.

These measurements are relevant because they speak to how much powder the cartridges hold, which has a direct impact on ballistics. Even its maximum loading pressure is far lower with 380 ACP at 21,500 psi and 9mm at 35,000 psi. Just because the bullet diameter of two cartridges is identical does not mean the cartridges themselves are the same.

Overall, 380 ACP is a smaller cartridge than the 9mm.

 

How accurate is 380 ACP?

This cartridge is broadly accurate but not typically precise. That means you can hit what you’re aiming at, but a tight bull’s eye group is less likely. If you’re shooting from the bench using a Ransom Rest, you’ll certainly produce tighter, more consistent groups than you will by firing offhand. As with any gun, factors such as barrel length also matter for accuracy.

Browning 1911 in 380 ACP
Browning has a 1911 in 380 ACP that’s incredibly accurate. (Photo credit: Browning USA)

There are exceptions, such as Browning’s 1911, which produces beautifully precise five-shot groups at 15 yards. If you’re interested in superior performance, get your hands on the right gun. But because these guns are usually designed to be generally accurate at close ranges, they tend not to be made with an eye for impressive precision.

Remington 380 ACP pistol, holstered on belt
The nice thing about 380 ACPs is that they’re usually very easy to conceal. (Photo credit: Kat Stevens)

 

How far can you shoot with 380 ACP?

This cartridge is ideal for close quarters. It’s possible to ring steel with it at greater distances, but in order to get the best performance out of a round of this ammo, move in close. You’ll find this cartridge delivers its most accurate performance at 15 yards and under. It’s also well worth shooting your personal gun at longer distances to find out how it does. Things like barrel length and ammunition choice directly impact how well your 380 ACP will do.

Generally speaking, if you’re not shooting for defensive purposes, the 380 ACP should be ringing steel at 50 yards or more. However, its effective range for stopping an immediate, credible threat is shorter. But when it comes to paper or steel, if you know the drop and drift, you can basically slingshot the bullets into the targets at pretty big distances.

 

Personal Defense with 380 ACP

Can you use a gun chambered in this cartridge for defensive purposes? Absolutely. Although technology and availability have advanced to the point where larger cartridges have become standard for self-defense use, 380 ACP does have a place. Shot placement matters and any coroner will tell you they’ve done a lot of autopsies on people hit with one or more rounds of 380 ACP.

Ruger LCP II surrounded by 380 ACP cartridges
Is 380 ACP a valid choice for defensive use? (Photo credit: Ammo to go)

That doesn’t mean it is the ideal personal defense round, because it’s not. Most 380 ACP loads fail to meet, or barely meet, the minimum set by the FBI for penetration depth. This matters because it means the bullets aren’t going to do as deep or penetrate barriers as effectively as certain other calibers can and do.

There’s an old saying that the best gun for self-defense is the one you have, and there’s truth to it. If a gun chambered in 380 ACP is what you have on hand or what you’re comfortable shooting, then, by all means, use it. Of course, if you’re able to run something a little larger, do so.

Bottom line? Use what you have, and if that’s a 380 ACP, take care to select ammunition designed to perform better for defensive use. Brands like Barnes TAC-XP and Federal Premium Punch are examples of newer loads that perform a bit better than older designs.

Do some research but also do your own testing. Don’t just load your carry gun with a random load and go on. Shoot it. Become familiar with what it can and cannot do. Make sure it cycles well in your gun. Then use it for carry.

 

380 ACP Specifications

diagram of 380 ACP dimensions
Dimensions of the 380 ACP. (Photo credit: Wikimedia)
Name: 380 Automatic Colt Pistol  
Designer John Moses Browning
Designed In 1908
Produced 1908 to Present
Country of Origin United States of America
Wars Used In World War II
Parent Case 38 ACP
Case Type Rimless, Straight
Cartridge Type Centerfire Handgun
Bullet Diameter 0.355 inches (9.0mm)
Land Diameter 0.348 inches (8.8mm)
Neck Diameter 0.373 inches (9.5mm)
Base Diameter 0.374 inches (9.5mm)
Rim Diameter 0.374 inches (9.5mm)
Rim Thickness 0.045 inches (1.1mm)
Case Length 0.680 inches (17.3mm)
Overall Length 0.984 inches (25.0mm)
Primer Type Small Pistol
Recommended Maximum Pressure 21,500 psi (SAAMI)
 

 

Available 380 ACP Ammunition

Federal Premium Personal Defense 380 ACP
Federal Premium Personal Defense is a quality defensive ammunition. (Photo credit: Federal Premium)

There are a lot of different 380 ACP loads on the market. This is not meant to be an exhaustive list but should, instead, give you a general idea of what’s available:

  • PMC 90grain FMJ (Full Metal Jacket)
  • Magtech 95 grain FMJ
  • Sellier and Bellot 92 grain FMJ
  • Blazer 95 grain FMJ
  • Speer Lawman 90 grain TMJ (Total Metal Jacket)
  • Federal American Eagle 95 grain FMJ
  • Fiocchi 90 grain JHP (Jacketed Hollow Point)
  • Federal Premium Personal Defense 99 grain Hydra Shok JHP
  • Sellier and Bellot grain XRG Defense
  • Remington UMC 88 grain JHP
  • Winchester Silvertip 85 grain JHP
  • Federal Premium Punch 85 grain JHP
  • CorBon 90 grain JHP
  • SIG Sauer V-Crown 90 grain JHP

 

Handguns Made in 380 ACP

The cartridge was originally designed for the blowback pistol and while many of today’s designs remain that type, there are some exceptions. There are countless sizes and types of guns being manufactured chambered in this cartridge. That’s due in part to its overall popularity but also because it’s been around a long time and has carved out a seemingly permanent spot in the industry.

This is a selection of a few of the models offered chambered in 380 ACP.

Smith and Wesson M&P Shield EZ

This particular gun is a larger-framed one; whereas many 380 ACPs are tiny, this is not. The M&P Shield EZ was created to be easier to operate for shooters with weaker or arthritic hands. It has an overall length of 6.7 inches, a height of 5.0 inches, and an empty weight of 18.5 ounces. Its 8 +1 capacity is not enormous, but it’s within the average range for a single-stack pistol in this category.

Smith and Wesson Shield EZ in 380 ACP
The Smith and Wesson Shield EZ is a larger frame option designed for weaker hands. (Photo credit: Smith and Wesson)

The great thing about the Smith and Wesson M&P Shield EZ is that its bigger size and heft help make felt recoil and muzzle rise less noticeable. For many guns in this chambering, the snappiness of the cartridge is only heightened by the small size of the guns, but in this case that’s not an issue. It has proven itself as a reliable pistol that’s comfortable to shoot and accurate, too.

Ruger LCP II

The Ruger LCP II just might be the most popular pocket-sized 380 ACP on the market. It has a barrel length of 2.75 inches, an overall length of 5.17 inches, and a height of 3.71 inches. This is a gun that can easily be concealed in pockets in non-permissive environments.

Ruger LCP II pocket pistol
The Ruger LCP II is a pocket pistol that’s the second generation after the original LCP design. (Photo credit: Ruger)

The one downside of its tiny size is its recoil. It’s a stereotypical snappy little pistol, but that doesn’t mean it can’t get the job done. This version is the next generation of the original LCP and has been improved in ways that make it far more useful. For example, the trigger of the LCP II is significantly better than the factory trigger of the older LCP.

Because this is meant to be a pocket or backup-style pistol, it needs to stay slim. That means it only has a 6 +1 capacity. You can certainly carry spare magazines for this gun, but if it’s being used as your backup rather than your main carry weapon. there’s not going to be as pressing of a need for a spare. Keep in mind this pistol is best utilized at close ranges.

Kimber Micro Two-Tone

Although the Kimber Micro Two-Tone has the general appearance of a 1911, it isn’t one. Rather, it is a semi-automatic sub-compact, or micro, pistol created for deep concealment. It has an extended beavertail, enabling the user to get a high, firm grip without worrying about slide bite, and checkered rosewood grips for a solid grasp even with wet or sweaty hands. It has a 7 +1 capacity.

Kimber Micro two-tone
The Kimber Micro Two-Tone is a nice little pistol. It’s a semi-automatic, not a 1911, despite what it might look like at first glance. (Photo credit: Kimber)

This pistol is about 5.6 inches in length, making it a little larger than the LCP II. The gun ships with standard 3-dot tritium night sights in a low-profile style to reduce snagging. It has a nice trigger that resembles the standard 1911 design and has a clean break. Like most little guns in this chambering, it’s somewhat snappy and does take practice to control and fire accurately.

 

Should you get a 380 ACP?

Choosing guns is a matter of personal preference. You need to consider what you plan to do with the gun in question and what it must be capable of handling. Guns chambered in this cartridge tend to be best used for deep concealment in non-permissive environments or as backup guns (BUGs).

It’s a good idea to spend time shooting a gun in this caliber before getting one for yourself. It’s also wise to run more than one model. 

What do you think? Tell us about your experiences with this cartridge in the comments 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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