The History of the .380 Cartridge

By David Tong
A brief history look at the .380 Cartridge

.380 Cartridge Ammunition
.380 Cartridge Ammunition
AmmoLand Gun News
AmmoLand Gun News

USA -( John Moses Browning was America’s most prolific and successful firearms designer. He designed handguns primarily for the Belgian firm Fabrique Nationale of Liege, Belgium, as well as our home-grown maker Colt, of Hartford, Connecticut.

In 1908, he provided Colt with what is now the most prevalent round used in most blowback-action auto pistols, the so-called .380 ACP. It is also known as 9X17mm, or 9mm Kurz which is German for “short.”

.380 Cartridge or .380 Auto.

Browning 1911-.380 Black Label Pro
Browning 1911-.380 Black Label Pro

The bullets actually measure .355” in reality, such are the vagaries of marketing. The round nominally launches a 90 grain full metal jacketed, round-nosed bullet at 950 feet per second. Nowadays of course there are bullet weights between 80 and 102 grain jacketed hollow points available at your local shop, traveling between 870-1,050fps. These would be the recommended bullets for self-defense.

The “problem” with the .380 Cartridge is due to the blowback automatics it is normally chambered in. One cannot load it beyond SAAMI specs for pressure and velocity without using a short-recoil design, and so there is a delicate balance between expansion and penetration with this round. If one favors one, the other suffers.

Colt Model 1908 Pocket Hammerless .380 ACP
Colt Model 1908 Pocket Hammerless .380 ACP img:

The round is considered by most ballistic experts as the absolute power floor for use as a self-defense round, being somewhat weaker than the even older .38 Smith & Wesson Special in a two-inch snub revolver.

However, the .380 Cartridge is nearly always found in a small or very small and discreetly carried auto pistol that is flatter still than a revolver holding just five shots, while holding as many as seven rounds in a single-column magazine plus one up the spout.

The original home for the .380 Cartridge was Colt’s own “Pocket Model 1908,” and this blowback auto pistol (which lacked the more usual Browning short-recoil tilting barrel delayed locking system used for more powerful rounds) was carried by such future luminaries as General George S. Patton during WWII.

The idea for the cartridge was to provide the shooter with a pistol with a minimal exterior profile, size and weight. Besides the Colt Pocket, the recently-reviewed Savage 1915 Auto, and of course the most famous Walther PP and Walther PPK all were chambered with this cartridge.

The round was popular with European police forces for decades, and it was abandoned mostly for its lack of power. Most of these police agencies went to the more powerful 9X19 Parabellum.

PolyCase: ARX 380 Auto Cartridges
PolyCase: ARX 380 Auto Cartridges

There is some confusion about the .380 and its supposed interchangeability in your auto pistol. There shouldn’t be. This cartridge is unique, and must not be confused with the 9X18 Ultra, or the Soviet 9mm Makarov.

While these two rounds outwardly look similar, neither will chamber and fire in a correctly-sized .380 chamber. Those two rounds are hardly more powerful either, and the Makarov round is the only one that is still in wide usage today thanks to the plethora of used, surplus ComBloc pistols imported into the U.S.

The .380 Cartridge has made a huge resurgence in sales in the U.S. in the past ten years, mostly because of a slew of modern, plastic-framed micro-compact handguns that feed a market obsessed with the smallest and lightest carry handgun one can buy. Examples include the Kel-Tec P-3AT, the Ruger LCP, and the SIG-Sauer P238. Each are under five inches in length and weigh under a pound.

The disadvantages of the pocket auto is that they are harder to shoot accurately, recoil more, and do not have the surety of “stopping power” as bigger and heavier rounds do.

.380 ACP Cartridge Load Data

Some older-generation shooters also believe that the two-inch .38 revolver may still be a better choice, and they MAY have a point. These micro-compact autos do have a tendency to be less reliable than their larger brethren even though they hold more ammo.

However, the shooter who desires this very discreet mode of carry can select from literally dozens of good choices in the caliber, “when you simply cannot carry anything larger.”

.380 ACP Resources

  • .380 ACP Ammuntion :
  • .380 AUTO Ammo Videos :
  • 23 thoughts on “The History of the .380 Cartridge

    1. Police used .32 for many years around the world and got the job done. We don’t all need 550+hp pick up trucks, when an S10 will do. Yes, I like more power, but sometimes the package is too big. While LEOS say they may have someone violent hopped up on angel dust, this happens so rarely, that carry of over 9mm is overkill. If they are a bad situation, they should have time to get the AR from the trunk.
      Giving LEOs 19 or more shot capacity in a handgun just has them spray and pray. This is militarization of po po. I think that 95% of suspects give up as soon as they are told to, the others who are stoned may need a minute to think about it(I am speaking about those that have no firearm. Any sane person, when shot with a .32 or .380 is going to give quarter. We should be locking those that are insane like we did in the 50s and 60s.

    2. An otherwise informative article spoiled by the writer’s clear biased against the cartridge and somewhat outdated information. Modern .380 Pocket Pistols like the P3AT and LCP are short-recoil operated, not blowback, and the advent of such short-recoil operated .380 pistols has resulted in most factory loaded self-defense ammunition being loaded hotter than it previously was because the action can handle it. In addition, said hotter actually tends to work better in European blowback operated pistols like the Walther PPK because .380 ammo has always been loaded hotter than domestic ammo.
      Lastly, it is possible to use blockback for hotter ammo than .380 ACP, it’s just that the required weight of the slide and recoil spring begins to become impractical. For example, there have been 9mm Luger blowback operated pistols in the past such as the H&K VP70, and there are even certain gas-powered blowback operated 9mm pistols on the market today such as the Walther CCP.

    3. I am sure that more civilians have been killed with .22 or .25acp than any other round. I do not want to be in front of even a flobert cap. Some 9mm kurz ammo was very hot and made for guns designed with locking barrels in the 20s.

    4. I carried a 1935 Beretta for over forty years and was teased about my mouse gun all the time. But the funny thing was NO ONE was ready to stand up to my mouse gun. At the range of most assaults, a .22 is lethal.

    5. Thanks for the informative article. I bought a Keltec P3AT nearly as soon as they came out. I remember Keltec caught a lot of flak. Now there are a number of similar pistols – gotta love it!

      I carry mine ALL the time. Without getting into all the religious arguments about ‘stopping power’ I do know that it will do much better than any of the 40 S&W (Glock, Firestar, Ruger) that I have but are just too bulky /heavy to carry particularly in the hot southern summers. The old saying what is the best carry pistol? The one you actually carry – is operative here.

      I carry mine in a Universal holster that is square leather ( apparently they no longer make it) and does not print at all. Since it is so light and comfortable (I carry it in a back pocket so it looks like a wallet. I doubt if I even show any ‘tells’ that I am armed.

      Mine is loaded with Underwood xtp as mentioned. I am usually 7+1. The mag in the holster is a 7 rd. but I carry two 9 rd. mag’s for reload. The 9’s are better to shoot with but they do change the ‘print’ factor.

      The downsides are pretty much as mentioned. Being small it has pretty useless sights but at short range I don’t see that as a problem.

      The recoil is harsher than my .40 Glock as would be expected with its low mass. As a result i don’t shoot a lot of rounds at the range with it. I really don’t like the long trigger pull either in the P3AT. I am getting a new trigger, hammer and heavier recoil spring from Galloway.

      So I am pretty satisfied with the .380 overall.

    6. The author says the pocket pistols have more recoil. More recoil than what? My LCP doesn’t move off target when I shoot. Great little BUG.

    7. I am probably the first Federal officer to actually carry a 380. I carried a PPK for 3 decades with special permission thru 5 or 6 different agencies. I loved my 380. It did more then enough for me and I qualified easily with total accuracy. I was willing to give up the power and dimension of caliber as I already knew that speed and accuracy beats size and speed any day so after some paperwork all agencies I worked with allowed me to carry my trusty Walther.
      I finally gave it up to the nightstand drawer a few years back to a G-19 but the desire to use 380 still lingers. I know it is a stopper and with current ammo like Lehigh and Polycase (see picture above in article) it will easily compare with more standard types of ammo
      Dr D

    8. I carried a Beretta mod 1935 for forty years, It was an accurate, reliable firearm. I didn’t use it for targets, or long range. It was not meant for that. It was a highly concealable EDC weapon. In those forty years I only had to draw it twice, and never had to fire. I took a lot of ribbing about my mouse gun, but when asked if they would take a round from my mouse gun, I had no takers.

    9. GR: You entirely missed the point. Game usually is not attempting to assault you with deadly intent. ‘Center mass’ is the correct aiming point for a human suspect but CANNOT BE COUNTED ON as a ‘normal kill zone’. What is required is a round/shot that STOPS THE IMMEDIATE THREAT AGAINST THE VICTIM. Death of the suspect is incidental.

    10. You totally missed the point, GR. Game normally is not attempting to assault you with deadly intent. ‘Center mass’ is the proper aiming point against a human suspect but it CANNOT be guaranteed to be a ‘kill area’. What you want is to STOP THE IMMEDIATE THREAT. Loss of the life of the suspect is incidental.

    11. To Clark Kent: You don’t hunt I take it. You say there is no “normal kill area”. Well then, where should one aim?

    12. I have a Bersa Mod. 38, that I bought before Texas had a CCL available, and carried it in the car, going to and from work. I have used it when I shot for the CCL test, and it has never failed. Nice, safe little gun, that is easy to conceal, and accurate to a fault!

    13. If you don’t like the semi-auto .380’s then give the Taurus M380 Revolver with a bobbed hammer a try…. they are reliable and shoot ANY .380 round that you can put in it, unlike semi-autos….

    14. I have 2 Ruger LCP’s. One shoots everything I put through it. The other one doesn’t like hollow points. I have polished the slide with some success. The ramps are very small and steep. I just use FMJ in the one that gives me trouble. I prefer the FMJ in this small round for penetration anyway. A hole is a hole. I like the LCP this time of year. It doesn’t pull my shorts off. And I can ride my bike with it no problem. Bad man probably doesn’t expect a bike rider to be packing. Couldn’t do that with my .357 snubby.

    15. I still think that the .380 is a good back up firearm. I have had a M1910 Browning in .380 for a number of years and find that it is a good traveling companion to my .45.
      OBTW, before any laughs at the supposed “mouse gun” as completely ineffective, the Browning M1910 in .32 caliber was supposedly the gun used by Principe when he shot Archduke Ferdinand and his wife Sophie in Sarajevo. One of the triggers for WWI. I suppose that modern EMT response could have save Ferdinand, but that’s a totally different subject.

    16. I used to have a Sig Sauer semi automatic pistol chambered in 380, the 232 model I believe. It was a solid firearm, and one of those I regret selling.

      The only problem I found with the blowback action was that hollowpoint bullets tended to hang up on the loading ramp. Perhaps polishing the ramp could have addressed this problem, and I trust that more modern firearms do not have it.

    17. Define ‘normal kill area’. Hint: you can’t. By the way, the purpose of a defensive handgun round is to STOP THE THREAT PRONTO; whether the suspect dies or not is up to the E.R. docs.

      1. Normal kill area is the HEART or BRAIN, and a decent shot can hit either or BOTH within a few seconds. So don’t give me any sh*t about that I fing CAN’T define something, wiseass!

    18. I’m surprised you didn’t mention the interesting fact that the .380 acp cartridge is a perfectly scaled down .45 auto which browning did on purpose.

    19. I have a friend that got half his left ear blown off by a .380 at the range 5 years ago. If it was half inch to the right (got hit from behind) he was history. The range settled with him for big bucks too !

    20. 90 grains of hot metal going 950 feet per second is about 645 miles per hour-I don’t care who you are–get hit in any normal kill area and you get dead!

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