380 vs 9mm: Battle of the Calibers

The 380 is often referred to as the “9mm short”, but is it really a lesser caliber? We’re about to take a deep dive into how these two measures up.

We’ll cover the differences, advantages, and disadvantages of these two calibers. We also included their specs and some pistol examples so you can have more idea of the properties of each cartridge.

Let’s start!

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A Side by Side Look at the 380 vs 9mm

Very similar rounds… but also very different.

The 9mm and 380 are two widely used ammunition for many gun types. However, since they both contain bullets with the same diameter, many people are confused about whether they are interchangeable or not.

One of the most obvious differences between the 9mm and the 380 revolvers is the overall length of the casings. As I said earlier, the 380 is also known as the “9mm short.” because the 380 is much smaller than the 9mm, making it easy to tell them apart.

The 380 is a very compact bullet that can fit into small frame guns. It’s also smaller, so there’s not much penetration or stopping power. Think the Ruger LCP and the P238s. They’re small guns that chamber the 380, and they’re very ideal for concealed carry.

However, keep in mind that the 380 was not primarily designed for either accuracy or stopping power. This is almost the opposite of the 9mm, which has more velocity and stopping power… probably the reason why most law enforcement officers use this round.

But First… A Little History

380

The 380 Auto caliber; Image source: Wikipedia

The cartridge that we know today is derived from the earlier .38 ACP designed by John Browning. The .380 ACP features a rimless, straight-walled pistol cartridge that headspaces on the mouth of the case. 

It was first introduced by Colt in 1908 for self-defense use. The cartridge was still used in many handguns ever since. It was built with a relatively mild bolt thrust to accommodate early blowback pistols that lacked barrel locking.

Since the caliber’s introduction to the United States and Europe, armies adopted it as their standard pistol cartridge before WWII. Other countries also used the cartridge to fire their pistols, which is more powerful than the earlier .32 ACP round. 

No nation retained the use of the 380 as a service pistol after the 9mm’s introduction. However, most military use the round for backup because of its concealable size. Nowadays, most gun owners use the 380 for concealed carry and self-defense.

Also, fun fact: the 380 should be called the .355 ACP because its bullet is .355 inches in diameter.

9mm

380 vs 9mm
A photo of a .380 Auto and a 9mm Luger cartridge; Image source: Wikimedia Commons

380 vs 9mm Comparison Table

Comparison380 Auto9mm Luger
DesignerJohn BrowningGeorg Luger
Case TypeRimless, straightRimless, tapered
Bullet Weight90 to 100 grains100 to 150 grains
Bullet Diameter0.355 inches (9mm)0.355 inches (9.01mm)
Neck Diameter0.373 inches (9.5mm)0.380 inches (9.65mm)
Base Diameter0.374 inches (9.5mm)0.391 inches (9.93mm)
Rim Diameter0.374 inches (9.5mm)0.392 inches (9.96mm)
Rim Thickness0.45 inches (1.1mm)0.50 inches (1.27mm)
Case Length0.680 inches (17.3mm)0.754 inches (19.15mm)
Overall Length0.984 inches (25mm)1.169 inches (29.69mm)
Velocity1050 fps950 - 1400 fps
Penetration9 inches8-40 inches

The 380 vs 9mm Caliber: Comparison

It will become clear in the following sections that the 9mm Luger is superior to the.380 ACP in almost every area. However, this does not suggest that 9mm is the optimal caliber for everyday carry.

Now let’s compare the different characteristics of each cartridge.

Capacity

380 vs 9mm A 9mm pistol, magazine and cartridges

It’s common to think that the smaller the bullet size, the more capacity it has in a magazine. The 380 Auto has the same bullet diameter and case diameter as the 9mm. However, it is 17mm shorter in case length.

Therefore, the 380 Auto has a greater ammunition capacity than the 9mm due to its smaller size. While this is true, the rifle’s type and design to chamber the cartridge also play a role in its ammo capacity.

Recoil

The 380 cartridge is significantly shorter than the 9mm and therefore packs less of a punch. The upside to this is considerably less recoil. In fact, the 380 generates approximately half the energy of a pistol of comparable weight when it comes to recoil.

Consequently, shooting a 380 pistol has up to 94% less recoil than firing a 9mm handgun, even when both guns are the same weight.

Not only does less recoil mean a more pleasurable shooting experience, it also makes it easier to place follow-up shots on target.

So for the recoil and shootability round, the 380 caliber wins. However, this is only part of the accuracy story as we’ll see next.

Accuracy and Performance

380 vs 9mm Target shooting session
Target shooting session; Image source: Traveloka

Pistols packing the 380 are usually compact and designed for concealment. They, therefore, come with a short barrel. This, of course, often results in less accuracy.

If you’re looking for “battle precision,” then 9mm Luger pistols are your best bet. At 10 to 25 yards, they can generate 3-to-5-inch groups with regular off-the-shelf ammo. Now, go for the 9mm advertised as “match” and you can get some very accurate ammo.

Now, saying that your firearm is going to be a bigger factor in the accuracy of your shots than the cartridge, but most weapons firing 9mm rounds are going to be more accurate than most of the ones firing a 380 round.

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Penetration and Stopping Power

380 vs 9mm An example of a wound  ballistics gel test
An example of a wound  ballistics gel test; Image source: Active Response Training

Almost all of us are familiar with the FBI standard for ammunition testing, which was developed from their ballistic testing standards and is based on a 10 percent ballistic gelatin solution poured through five layers of fabric and expanded by 1.5 times.

Generally, a bullet that fits this criterion is more likely to provide consistent results when fired at a moving target.

Because the 380 ACP is a light bullet with slow velocity, it fails to fulfill FBI criteria. Depending on the load, bullet mass, and firearm, the 380 has a penetration range of 6.5 to 17 inches.

More powder and bullet mass is stored in a 9mm cartridge, and unsurprisingly it has a lot more penetration and stopping power. Its penetration ranges from 8 to 24.5 inches.

Availability and Price

380 vs 9mm Hornady 380 and 9mm ammo
Hornady 380 and 9mm ammo; Image source: Diffen

Because there is less raw material in the 380, you’d expect that 380 ammunition would be the more affordable option. However, the 9mm caliber’s popularity means that they are produced in such large quantities that they are generally less expensive. 

So for this round, the 9mm wins.

So… Which One is Better for CCW?

Photo of a man with a CCW gun; Image source: KMBC News

Some of the smallest semi-automatic handguns on the market are chambered in.380, making them ideal for concealment. Pistols such as the Sig Sauer P238, Smith & Wesson M&P Shield EZ, and Glock G42, make an excellent self-defense or backup gun.

When deciding on a handgun, consider how you want to carry it. More clothing usually means it is easier to conceal a bigger gun. You got a small fancy pack or purse, then a smaller gun is the ticket.

Also think about what you’re physically capable of shooting. In terms of power, the 9mm has a significant advantage over the .380 cartridge. However, the 380 is much more manageable.

It is also typical for a weapons manufacturer to make a 9mm and a.380 variant of the same pistol. The.380 version is at least a bit smaller in these instances.

380 vs 9mm: Which Caliber Wins?

As always, it really depends on your preference. Say.. you’re someone who wants to carry a gun that’s compact and easy to control — go for a .380. But if you’re someone who needs more firepower and accuracy, then the 9mm’s your buddy. 

Looking at law enforcement agents neatly sums it up. The Glock G26, and the Smith & Wesson M&P 9 M2 are some of the common 9mm pistols used by law enforcement professionals. Therefore, the 9mm is the caliber of choice for the main duty weapon.

On the other hand, they use the .380 as their usually smaller and well concealed backup pistol.

Wrap Up

The 380 is a small caliber pistol that can be easily concealed. While it may not have much stopping power, it’s excellent for short ranges, and you won’t need to worry about overpenetration. It also has less recoil than other guns in the same category, making firing more accurate with each shot.

On the flip side, the 9mm is a bigger round with more stopping power and accuracy, but cannot be as well hidden on your person unless you’re wearing something baggy enough to conceal it.

As a gun enthusiast, I, of course, say go for both. No more 380 vs 9mm battle. What is your choice? Let us know in the comments below.

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