380 ACP : Is It Truly The Replacement Of The 38 Special?

By Mike Searson
. 380 ACP brief over view and history.

380 ACP
380 ACP
Mike Searson
Mike Searson

USA –  -(Ammoland.com)- One of the most popular rounds for Concealed Carry Weapon ( CCW ) holders in the United States in recent years is the lowly 380 ACP (Automatic Colt Pistol).

Its numbers seem to have eclipsed a few of the more traditional conceal carry rounds like the 38 Special, however it is still touted as a marginal round made for questionable pistols by many.

Or is it?

Twenty years ago it was definitely the case, but let’s take a look at how the round and the firearms for which it is chambered have changed over the past 100 or so years since its introduction.

History of the 380 ACP

The 380 ACP cartridge was designed by John Moses Browning in 1908 as a compromise between 2 of his earlier designs: 25 ACP and 45 ACP. The dimensions of the cartridge lie approximately midway between the aforementioned rounds. The round is sometimes referred to as 9mm Kurz, 9mm Corto or 9 X 17mm and was popular in Europe for decades.

Designed as a low-powered round intended for fixed barrel blowback pistols without a barrel locking mechanism, the round has evolved as manufacturers offer locked-breech pistols in this caliber.

In order to counter recoil, the slide of a blowback pistol has to be made heavier than a short-recoil operated pistol. This allows the pistol to be made cheaper and for decades many 380 pistols suffered a reputation for being “cheaply made”. This brought the stigma of unreliability (both real and imagined) and the round was often sneered at by most shooters.

Archduke Ferdinand would probably disagree.

380 ACP a Renaissance Round

The little round went through a renaissance as manufacturers moved away from the blowback design and turned to the concept of using a locked breech pistol for 380 ACP. This means that the round can be loaded a bit hotter as well as lightening the slide. We see this in the Sig P238, Colt Mustang, KelTec and a few others.

We suspect the reason to be twofold: The rise of concealed carry reform in the United States and non-US countries prohibiting military calibers such as 9mm and 45 ACP for civilian handgun ownership.

The latter lead manufacturers to offer traditional service size pistols (or pistols very close to that size) typically chambered in 9X19mm in the shorter cartridge. The former was an answer to making a smaller, lighter and more powerful personal defense pistol to meet the needs of shooters who wanted to carry a concealed pistol that weighed less than a pound.

Firearms in 380 ACP

By far the most common 380 ACP pistols will be the older Walther PPs, PPKs and PPK/S models and their clones. Sig Sauer introduced a pistol of this size as the P230 and updated it with the P232. Of course they dropped that model altogether in favor of the P238 which is superficially a single-action clone of the Colt Mustang.

Other 380 ACP handguns include Ruger’s LCP and LC 380, the pistols by Kel-Tec and of course the almost service size pistols made by Beretta in the 84 and 85 series. North American Arms released a 380 Guardian and Seecamp rolled out a 380 LWS after years of folks clamoring for one.

Beretta 84 & 85 Series Pistols both in 380 ACP
Beretta 84 & 85 Series Pistols both in 380 ACP
LaserMax CenterFire WeaponLight for Glock 42
LaserMax CenterFire WeaponLight shown on a Glock 42

One of our favorites is the Glock 42. It is on the large size for a 380, but its size tames recoil and makes the pistol very pleasant to shoot.

The big advantage is that most of these pistols can benefit from higher pressure loadings than the standard 85 to 90 grain bullet traveling a little south of 1000 feet per second.

As ammunition manufacturers are aware of the dearth of older pistols that cannot handle these hotter loads, you may have to hunt a bit to find them.

Replace the 380 ACP?

When most shooters look at ballistics, they tend to see velocity as king and the higher velocity of the 380 ACP when compared to 38 Special looks like a winner. Velocity unfortunately is only part of the equation. Bullets for the 380 tend to be lighter than the 38 Special and the mass makes for the main difference in the force equation.

The heavier 38 Special bullets make that round more desirable for self-defense. Yet the 380 typically offers the advantage of higher capacity (even if by only 1 or 2 rounds) plus the ability to reload quicker.

The tradeoff is that most self defense ammunition offered in 38 Special will yield 25% to 45% more power than the 380 ACP. As mentioned previous, there are 380 rounds available that will improve this, such as the rounds produced by Buffalo Bore, but these are not meant for every pistol on the market in that caliber and they do not come as close as some would make you believe.

For someone making the choice between a 38 special and a 380 ACP we recommend choosing the handgun that is more accurate for the individual.

Sig Sauer P230 Pistol in 380 ACP
Sig Sauer P230 Pistol in 380 ACP
FEG SMC 380 ACP Handgun
FEG SMC 380 ACP Handgun

Ballistics and bullet profiles aside, surviving a deadly encounter that involves putting down a bad guy comes down to shot placement. Five shots of one caliber through the bad guy’s aorta will trump missing a vital target by inches.

In our estimation, the 380 ACP may be more prevalent than 38 Special revolvers in today’s holsters among concealed carriers. More modern shooters are starting out on semiauto pistols than on revolvers and will naturally go to a familiar, but smaller design instead of opting for a revolver. Unfortunately, to try to compare the performance of a 380 ACP ballistically to a 38 Special does a disservice to both rounds.

380 ACP Load Data

380 ACP (Automatic Colt Pistol) Load Data

About Mike Searson

Mike Searson's career as a shooter began as a Marine Rifleman at age 17. He has worked in the firearms industry his entire adult life as a Gunsmith, Ballistician, Consultant, Salesman, Author and was first certified to teach firearms safety in 1989.

Mike has written over 2000 articles for a number of magazines, websites and newsletters including Blade, RECOIL, OFF-GRID, Tactical Officer, SWAT, Tactical World, Gun Digest, Examiner.com and the US Concealed Carry Association as well as AmmoLand Shooting Sports News.

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  • 75 thoughts on “380 ACP : Is It Truly The Replacement Of The 38 Special?

    1. I conceal appendix carry a Taurus Raging Judge Magnum, helps get the girls cuz they see a “big load” under my tight jeans. Only need one shot at 10ft for me bad guy to drop! Plus I get laid more! Can’t beat that (literally) lol!

    2. I carry wherever I go. And I have done a lot of ballistic testing. Forget about caliber or number of rounds. They say you may never use deadly force. But I always have the ability to use it. And i’m fully aware of the sights and sounds that may deceive. Unless you have the ability to administer these techniques, no caliber will be better than the other.

    3. Carrying a gun is no different than having a spare tire some are rated for no more than 55mph and some are regular tires if maintained they will both get you to a service station one just a little faster than the other
      You cant plan for a fight because you dont know whats going to happen until it does
      Just know if it does you will be taken off guard
      You can stop an attack with a rock
      Choose what you choose and have confidence in your decision
      I hope that non of you guys ever have to use your spare tire

    4. i carry a Bersa model 85 .380acp. (ppk clone)
      Incredible pistol, i love the .380. enough power to stop a crook in their tracks, and if you need it the Bersa sports 13 round magazines. My personal opinion, it is the perfect self defense caliber. affordable ammunition, and if anything hits you at 980 fps you aren’t going to just keep coming. especially knowing there are more of them that could come your way. Shot placement is king with any caliber, but blood loss and pain have stopped many a crook and with 17 inches of travel in ballistic gel the .380 certainly has enough juice to make nice round holes and send a crook to the morgue….. I hear so many people saying a .380 isn’t powerful enough. and i realize that those complaining about the .380 probably have never been shot. I have been shot twice, once with a .25 automatic and once with a .22 pistol. both times it hurt and made me want to go the other way. though the .25 did just enough damage to need a bandaid and the .22 had enough penetration to cause serious pain and need medical attention. (shot in the arm and it hit and lodged in the bone) Let me make it clear… unless one is on serious drugs (heroin, pcp etc..) they are not going to charge into any firearm much less a .380… If you want to be an expert on firearms… GO GET SHOT BY ONE SO YOU CAN UNDERSTAND THE PAIN INVOLVED. But don’t just blindly bash any caliber.

      1. I agree with this statement completely, I also have been shot, granted it was by a .38 special at 3 feet in the arm, I was lucky enough that it hit the bone and continued to go around the humerus *your bone from elbow to shoulder , incase some don’t know* and exited the back of my arms and proceeded to travel 3 more feet into a with heavy plaster , for another 8 feet!! And it the time I didnt feel it due to adrenaline *was getting robbed* and didnt know I was hit until I felt “wet” between my fingers , from running down my arm. Before I noticed I was hit, I was more pissed about this asshole shooting me and the hole he just put into my newly painted wall!!! But man when I finally saw the wound, fuck me it hurt * sorry language * definitely not like Hollywood when they say it burns, and he was so close I received powder burns as well…. oh dont get my started on them debriding the pieces of shirt and tiny bone fragments, didnt break or shatter, but chipped it something fierce lol…..sorry rambling on…..but Ben is right , even with my adrenaline and only being hit once, I would imagine if I was hit a second time , within seconds I would have ran my big ass outta there !! And I didn’t care if it was a .380 or 38 special or a .50cal barret, it hurt !! So to this day my concealed carry is a .380 , still open carry a 9mm or my 45 , but I trust that little 380 to stop the bad guy on at least the 3rd shot.

    5. Stick to the subject,it’s most informative, to read from experience pros.school yard remarks are a waste of great space & time.sonny,the marine vet.

    6. Good write up ..
      I have SD carried for 40 years and I’m a BIG 38pl fan.once upon a time the only pocket SD firearm I would have considered was a small frame 38spl 5 shooter !
      But with the small 380acp pistols evolving in very very realiable firearms and with newer SD ammo , I have began to useing the small pocket sized 380 pistols ..

      The small 380’s have more capicity.. Weigh less , and cost less.
      When comparing the 380acp performance to the 38 spl .. You need to compare there performance from similar length barrels ..
      The 38spl out of the 2 inch barrel is very underwhelming…
      While watching gel tests realiable sources online , such as “Lucky Gunner” you will see the 38 spl is at its best with lighter bullets with realiable expansion and pentration…
      The 380 acp with 90gr XTP and 90 gr FTX perform well .. They are several soild designer bullets that both perform great in the 38spl snubbies and pocket 380’s..
      And now for recoil conscious shooters ,, they are several great standard pressure 9×19 offerings that work perfectly in micro- 9’s the Hornady 115 gr FTX and the Federal 124gr HST…
      Just something to ponder..

    7. I have a S&W360, 36, BG380, glock27 and Kahr CM 9. Each was purchased for concealed carry in the quest for the perfect carry gun. Guess what? None are perfect. The 360 is too light the 36 is too heavy. The 27 is too fat the cm9 is just about right but a bit too big for Pocket carry. The BG380 is the right size to insure I have it with me all the time. The problem is the trigger doesn’t make it easy for precision shots. Precision shots are needed for marginal rounds like the 380. I’m still practicing with the 380 so I’m hoping that it pans out. I will say that the J frames are way more accurate than they should be. The 380s are probably responsible for more people being armed than ever before and that’s a good thing.

    8. Most of these pistol caliber arguments about stopping power amount to how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. The differences in energy between most cartridges for carry guns are hardly worth arguing about. When you get to something like a hot loaded .357 magnum from a minimum 4 inch barrel, maybe then you have a power level worth caring about. Maybe.

      When it comes to cartridges for carry pistols what you should care about is reliability and accuracy more than power. In that context there are aspects about .380 vs .38 special which are very important.

      I like the fact a .380 pistol with a decent single action trigger pull can be very accurate and easy to shoot. But a .38 J frame revolver can be loaded with exactly the power level which is comfortable to the shooter yet with perfect reliability, and be fitted with a grip which exactly fits that shooters hand. That customizable factor for the .38 revolver may outweigh the fast shooting advantage of the .380 pistol.

    9. For years I carried a Sig P230 as a duty back-up weapon. Shot well, gave me some measure of reassurance in the event my duty weapon (P220) was lost in a scuffle or major malfunction. Went to a .38 airweight prior to retirement, and now carry either a kimber Micro, or a S&W Shield .40, depending on the activity I’m involved in. For comfort, I holster both in a Versacarry slide holster which I really like.
      What I don’t like is jerk-offs trying to disrupt an otherwise worthwhile conversation and comparison.
      So, Clark, find a safe space please, and stay there until a new batch of video games comes along.


    11. How did this conversation go from a discussion on whether or not we agree that the .380 is replacing the .38 Special into a whining attack on a person’s character and if he knows how to insert earplugs.
      I do believe that people who attack others in such a manner are themselves most assuredly lacking in character.

    12. Wow, what a lot of jibber-jabber this article has generated.
      As a shooting instructor, I’ve developed a set of rules for self defense with firearms.
      Rule 1: Any gun is better than no gun.
      Rule 2: A reliable gun is better than a less reliable gun.
      Rule 3: More bullets in your gun is better than less bullets (capacity).
      Rule 4: Larger caliber guns ( the largest you can safely handle) are better
      than smaller caliber guns (which make smaller holes).
      Rule 5: A gun you will actually carry every day, is better than a gun you will
      often leave home because it’s to heavy, and uncomfortable to carry around.
      I have more rules in my list, but for the sake of the above article, these will do for now.
      How effective any particular gun is depends on bunches of things. Barrel Length, velocity of
      a particular weight of bullet as it leaves the muzzle, how thick the clothing is that the bullet
      needs to penetrate, if the bullet hits a bone, so many many things.
      Which caliber you literally are betting your life on, is, well, your responsibility and your business.
      I’m an old guy. I carried a 6 shot .38 special for a few years, because in those times, semi-
      autos were very often unreliable. Ask anyone from those days. No, really, ask.
      I shot an armed robber one time, at point blank range with a .380 PPK. The first bullet (hollow point) went clean through his shoulder, and blew out the window behind him. The second bullet penetrated to his spine turning him into a paraplegic. The gun jammed (turns out that this particular gun only likes FMJ bullets), and I had to bluff
      the bad guy out of his gun. It took me a while to trust semi-autos after that.
      Now almost all semi-autos, that receive reasonable care by their owners are tremendously reliable. You’re lucky
      to live in a time when you can choose to depend on either for your life.
      But Jes fellows, take another minute to reread my list. There’s a lifetime of wisdom in it.

      1. Never confuse experience with wisdom. ‘Good judgment comes from experience, which comes from bad judgment’ – Old Farmer’s Almanac.

          1. Old Clarkie thinks he’s superman. His mom even bought him a cape. His job is to invade sites that he knows nothing about, and leave snarky comments. He lives in mom’s basement, then finds a phone booth when she’s not looking.

            1. I grow weary of play ground insults. They add nothing an otherwise informative debate, and they are not sophisticated enough to be entertaining. Come on Clark, there must be some bit of science, technology, or personal experience that you can contribute.

        1. First you try to knock Searson, now you’re going after, Lou.
          I have a question, are you on a Ruby Red Mountain Dew binge? Will mother bring you more cheetos, you poser!

        2. In a self defense scenario bad judgement will kill you before you gain wisdom. You need to get out of your mom’s basement more often

    13. I have carried as a “Back-up”, an L.W.SEECAMP .32 ACP PISTOL for years.
      the Winchester .32 SILVER TIP is a great performer in gel tests.

    14. I have carried a ROHRBAUGH R9 – 9MM PISTOL for years now.
      Take a look at it, small, reliable, but expensive.

    15. Never shot (or handled) a 380. My CCW’s are a S&W 9MM and a S&W 38spl snubby. A lady that I’m trying to assist since she got her CCW has been practicing with my 22LR and 22WMV pistols. I’m soon going to move her up the the 9MM to get a feel of more recoil.. Not the 38 tho, as it could undue all the work she’s done.
      Are there any medium sized 380s that would have less, or at worst similar, recoil than my 9MM? She’s moderately small so the idea of a small pistol is appealing, but recoil is the enemy. Any good ideas???

      1. Sig p938 9mm and use federal low recoil ammo. Great package.
        Nice to see a poster from my home state

    16. A really nice .380 is Sig’s P250 compact. Holds 15 rounds and carries nicely. Bought one as a HD in a townhouse but subsequently sold it after moving. Now regret giving it up.

    17. I thought that Sig “discontinued” the P232 due to stupid import laws. Not because the P238 is so much better. In fact, it is just the opposite. There is not a P238 that can hold a candle to the P230/P232 series of guns.
      The 238 is the worst example ever of a single action gun. The trigger pull is horrendous! a S&W Sigma has a better trigger pull. Why can’t Sig import German guns, when other companies can?

    18. I have seen a .380 that failed to penetrate a skull at close range, just going under the skin from the forehead to the back of the head, did not even knock the victim out. Better a .22 than a .380, I will keep my pocket 9.

      1. Stories of .380 failures are legion enough that many of us will need a lot of convincing. So we read articles like this and wonder, “Maybe this time they really will keep their promise…” Or maybe I’ll stay with 9mm or .38.

      2. Dude, if your going for headshots in a high intensity, high adrenalin and pressure situation you need further training. Center mass….always center mass.

        Are you related to the rambo clark kent poster above?

    19. Don’t look at me….I tend to carry 9×18 mm guns(Makarov or P64, suitably resprung).

    20. You cannot make a silk purse from a sows ear. No matter what new space age bullet you stuff on top, the 380 is and never will be what a 38 special can be. The 380 is very light in comparison to the 38 Special. Both having similar velocities makes the 38 special a much better penetrator and a much better self defense round as a whole. The 380 is borderline at best for S/D in comparison to other rounds that can be had in guns of similar size. Yes, you can buy a very tiny 380 but they are not easy or fun to shoot. My advice is to skip the 380 with it’s light in the ass projectiles and get something only slightly larger and heavier that will more reliably get the job done. 380 vs 38 special is an easy choice……38 special and larger all day long.

      1. Not true.
        Buffalo Bore makes standard load 380 at 300ft #energy.
        That’s coming close to standard 9mm. 16 inches of penetration. And hollow points just under that n
        This Exceeds 38special loads. Buffalo Bore makes loads for 38Special as well though.
        No sane person would volunteeer to get shot by that round.

    21. gentlemen PLEASE the only real answer here is placement, placement & placement- second thing to consider is distance, wither you are USING a 380 or a 45 it only matters if are carrying your weapon when you need it and how much faith you have realistically in your ability to use your weapon in a STRESSFUL situation. THAT means practice practice, practice, until you feel comfortable with your weapon and then practice some more. I carry (depending on sit., clothing, etc) either my lcp lc9 38-357 DA snubby or 45 mod 2 and yes I do practice with each because some day my life or one of my loved ones lives might depend on my ability. So get real people any of these weapons inside 25 yds. is a weapon of choice!

      1. WRONG! You want a caliber that will STOP THE THREAT PRONTO! Faith in your weapon means NOTHING to your assailant. Fuggitabout the 22 LR, 25 ACP or 32 ACP for self defense.

      2. Actually, a very valid concern is over penetration. Your point about placement is quite correct, though

      3. Yeah right. I’ve heard that joke so many times I could puke. I don’t care how good you are with a gun. When it comes to crunch time in a gunfight, some of your best trained police officers struggle just to even hit the target with an adrenalin rush trying to hit moving targets taking cover who are shooting back at you. You won’t guarantee shot placement in a gunfight. But you’re right about practicing. A large caliber handgun easy to control and plenty of ammo is a very good friend in a gunfight. And best of luck. It is very possible the man you kill in a gun fight may have also been well trained.

    22. I enjoyed the article, I also carry a KelTec 380 in a pocket holster, works great in any pants I have. I also have a Glock 43 that I carry in a front pocket holster and it works great in most of my pants, but the KelTec goes everywhere I go, even to church.
      I have been shooting the Ruger ARX in the KelTec without any problems.

    23. CCW for me is a 32NAA. Six years old now. Never a burp. Gelatin shots show a minimum of eight inches. Got the extended clip and it works good for my oversize hand. I know it may have a few shortcomings but eight inches in the right spot is gonna stop any bad guy.
      And did I mention I love it.
      Back then it cost me around $600.00 and months to get one. Id do it all over again. Hornaday hollow points are brutal in the .32NAA. If you havent tried it, dont knock it.
      It fits in my hand, invisible. Its that small. It is built solid. I’d say it should be the number one CC pistol anywhere.
      Anything I dont like about it? Nope.
      Look it up if you dont know about it. It is a .38 brass necked down to a .32 slug. Velocity over 1000 fps. Wicked.


      1. A rough translation… my spanish is not very good… however:


        1. Not a bad translation.
          Amplifying on the last sentence: “It’s enough to put the enemy out of the combat, so that he should be looking for emergency help”; I will add: for his wound.

    25. I just bough the LCP. My reason for choosing .380 is simple. The only gun that can save your life is the one you carry. The 380 fits in an Uncle Mikes pocket holster in all of my pants and shorts. So it goes with me. Sometimes I carry a 5″ 1911 .45, sometimes a compact 9mm, but that all depends on if I can hide the gun in the clothes I’m wearing. The .380 is just plain easy to hide.

      1. George C. I carry my Sig P238 in a Uncle Mikes Pocket Holster #2 and it hides well in all pants or shorts.

    26. I own a Browning M1910 in .380. It will fire the modern rounds with zero problem and I really would hate to be standing downrange from that “mouse” gun.
      It was the Browning M1910 in .32 caliber that took out Arch-duke Ferdinand and his wife Sophie in Sarajevo and was one of the triggers for World War I.
      It’s a great little gun and the person I got it from used it as a backup to his 9mm duty pistol in the Mid-west.

    27. I have carried a BERSA Model 85 380 ACP for 25 years, it has never failed and is very very accurate and easy to carry

    28. Have older SW wheel gun loaded +P and Walther PK380. Carry Walther and very satisfied.

    29. The Seecamp LWS380 loaded with modern defense ammo is a good choice if you’re carrying a .380 ACP.

      1. @Janek: I have a SIG 232 and a KAHR P380 I carry a lot for CCW. I usually load with Horandays. Have good results at the range. Enough I would trust the package for my Life.___ I would like to try the SEECAMP, never have got my hands on one.though.

          1. Oh good! If you were using hard candy instead of bullets, things really would be tougher than I knew.

    30. The author ignores 38 Special +P rounds. He also does not know how to correctly insert foam ear plugs into his ear canals. Methinks he is a poser.

      1. He admits .38 Spl is 25-45% more powerful. What else did you need?

        Without a shot from the side, it’s hard to tell how the plugs were inserted. It will depend on their length, the depth and shape of his hear.

          1. It seems to me that the reason he did not have the ear plugs properly inserted was so that he could hear the photographer give him instructions to get the best picture. He probably chose to keep the plugs in his ear because he was not finished shooting the day that the picture was taken and would potentially adjust the plugs properly before continuing to fire guns.

        1. Well THAT was the most ignorant, irrelevant comment of 2016 so far this year. Congrats! P.S. ‘Peobably’?

      2. He says it’s a brief overview. That means, every detail is not covered. Earplugs don’t need to be screwed in for a picture, unless it is intended to show how they should look when properly inserted.

          1. Well, just to take a photo of someone with ear plugs in, maybe? You know, just to demonstrate.
            Sometimes people just need a cover photo for whatever reason.

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