In this Article:
You may be wondering “why do a best-of article on ammo for a marginal carry gun” … it’s because of popularity.
The .380 is here, stronger than ever, with many folks carrying them – myself included. Its popularity has surged over the last few years to the point where many claim it to be a viable self-defense caliber. I remember back a few decades ago, I had a friend whose dad carried a .380, probably a Walther PPK since he was a military collector. I often wondered, being the brand-new “caliber expert” that I was, why he would carry a lowly .380 when he had 9mms (best 9mm ammo) and .45s (best .45 ACP ammo) at home. I now think I know why. He could put it in a pocket. Maybe a coat pocket, but a pocket nonetheless. That fulfills the old dictum of always having a gun with you, or maybe the cliché ‘it’s better to have a .22 in your pocket than a .45 on your nightstand.’ At any rate, he was armed. But what about the ammo? Was there any modern, self-defense .380 ammo in the 1970’s? The company Super Vel, along with a few others, made specialized self-defense ammo. The Shelbyville, Indiana company, headed by Lee Jurras, made niche ammo that focused on light-for-caliber JHP bullets moving at very fast speeds. The .380, if memory serves, shot an 88-grain bullet at between 1100-1200 fps. You would not want to shoot very many of those in a session, for sure but for sheer power, at that time it was about the best going in that caliber. Let’s look at the evolution of the .380 and its ammo.
The .380’s History
A shot from a .380 was the catalyst, the final straw, that started WWI. Radical Serbian nationalist and anarchist Gavrilo Princip used an FN Model 1910 .380 to assassinate Archduke Franz Ferdinand of the Austria-Hungary Empire and his wife.
He was a Bosnian Serb member of Young Bosnia, a Yugoslavist group dedicated to ending the Austria/Hungarian rule of Bosnia and Herzegovina. He thought that, by shooting the Archduke, A/H rule would end. One thing led to another, to another, etc. and in 1914 the “War To End All Wars” commenced. (It obviously didn’t end all wars). Considered a fairly powerful cartridge at that time, it replaced the popular (in Europe) .32 Auto as the carry gun of choice. The rise of the 9mm Luger eventually knocked the .380 into the pocket-pistol category.
Introduced in 1908 by Colt for use in its Colt Model 1908 pocket hammerless semi-automatic, the .380 ACP round has been a popular self-defense cartridge ever since. Seeing worldwide use in many handguns, another popular name for it is the 9mm Kurz (9mm Short). It uses the same bullet diameter of the 9mm – .355, just in a lighter format (95-105 grains). Another name for this round is the 9X17. Most pistols for this cartridge are of blow-back design, not unlike a .22 LR. Usually it does not generate enough pressure to require a locked-breech action, although some newer .380s utilize just such an action. If you want to know more about guns chambered in .380, read my article about them here.
Fast-forward to today…the advent of modern self-defense rounds brings the lowly .380 out of obscurity. With modern defensive ammo, the .380 proves to be a viable self-defense cartridge. Some experts equate its stopping power with that of a 158-grain .38 Special lead round-nose cartridge. It is not as powerful as a 9mm (even out of a short barrel), but with modern ammo, a lot of people carry it as their main CCW gun.
The ammunition scene is very different from what it was even 30 years ago (read my handgun caliber guide here). There are .380 JHP loads that will penetrate a foot or more of ballistic gel, and FMJ rounds that will go pretty far into the gel block.
Before the advent of such JHP loads, folks who carried a .380 tended to carry 95-grain FMJ ammo. The reasoning was that, since the .380 is on the lower end of the power spectrum and may not be relied upon to expand, a JHP would at least penetrate far enough to hopefully stop an attacker. There are guys who still carry FMJ bullets in their .380 pistols in lieu of a JHP. There is something to be said about expansion, but I think they figure that at .380 velocities expansion can’t be guaranteed.
I’ve mentioned JHP and FMJ – what are they? Let’s look at a quick explanation…
A full metal jacket (FMJ) bullet is made up of a lead core covered with a copper “jacket”, or gilding layer. This jacket may or may not cover the bullet’s base. The advantage of this type of bullet is that it will not deform, usually, when it hits the target and will drill straight through to its full penetration depth. The exception would be be if it hits bone, at which time it can skew and go at an angle thereby causing more damage. Many military weapons use FMJ bullets, as they tend to feed very reliably in full-auto guns, plus they were mandated by international ruling (below). They usually do not expand, but tend to remain the same diameter all the way through the target.
On the other hand, jacketed hollow point (JHP) bullets are designed to upset and peel back their jacket, exposing the soft lead core in the nose of the bullet in order to aid expansion. Some JHP bullets have weakening scores on their jackets in order to facilitate easy expansion. The ideal form a JHP bullet can exhibit after being fired and expanding in a target is a to look like a flower, with the lead “petals” pulled back which extends the bullet‘s diameter. This is done to create a larger wound channel, hopefully increasing the bullet’s ability to stop an attacker.
The JHP was prohibited for international use during warfare by the 1899 Hague Convention’s “Early Warfare Ruling” against it that banned its use on the battlefield. Even though the U.S. didn’t ratify the agreement, it has followed the guidelines laid down anyway. Our military does seem to be getting away from its voluntary ban on JHP bullets, as the Army has experimented with these JHP loads. Consequently, the Army has considered switching to JHP bullets for its small arms. The thinking is that modern combat participants are not necessarily going to “play by the rules” so let’s keep our soldiers safer by issuing them ammo that tends to have more effect on a hostile target shooting back than a FMJ bullet.
What’s this got to do with what you and I carry in our .380 pistol? Not much. I just wanted to illustrate that JHP bullets are being used more and more in our world. Civilians and police have been carrying them for decades and now it looks like the Army will carry them, too. They tend to be effective, especially in a lesser-powered cartridge like the .380. Let’s look at some different types of .380 ammunition now.
I’ll list good buys that use both types of bullets – both FMJ and JHP. Most folks tend to use .380 FMJ rounds for practice but carry JHP for defense. As with any defense ammo, you should try a couple or more different types to see what is reliable and accurate in your gun. When you practice, shoot the lesser-expensive FMJ for the bulk of your session, but end by shooting a magazine or so loaded with your defense ammo of choice. That way, you’ll be familiar with it. If it should hit to a different point of impact on the target, you’ll know it and be able to compensate. It may present more recoil than your FMJ load, so you’ll get used to that, too. Another point to consider is that it is usually cheaper to buy ammo in bulk (more than 50 rounds at once). The price-per-round goes down a little, which may make JHP ammo a little easier to come by and you’ll get more practice in with it.
One note for reloaders…all of the loads I mention here use reloadable brass cases. I didn’t list any Berdan-primed or steel-cased ammo on purpose. It’s cheaper, but I believe you get what you pay for.
Even though this uses a 90-grain bullet instead of the more-common 95, this ammo rates very highly for its reliability, accuracy and value. Whether you want 50 or 1000, you can get it for a reasonable price. PMC (Precision Made Cartridges) ammo is distributed out of Houston, Texas. All their ammo is made to either SAAMI or military specifications.
The ammo tends to be reliable in whatever firearm it’s shot in. It is probably not the cheapest out there (the steel-cased Russian ammo is cheaper), but if you are looking for a solid practice round that goes bang pretty much every time you want it to, this ammo is a good bargain.
Speer has been in the ammo business for many years. Their Gold Dot JHP load is used by many police agencies, not to mention the civilian carriers that buy it.
Even though it is lesser-expensive than the PMC load listed above, it is put together to the highest specs. Speer manufactures everything that goes together to make up this cartridge. They have total in-house control over the quality of their loaded ammo. Not only do they sell some excellent loaded cartridges, they also sell reloading components. I can’t begin to figure up how much I’ve spent on Speer primers, reloading manuals, etc. over the past 40 years. My heavy-duty single-stage press is an old RCBS Jr. It has loaded thousands of rounds of .38, .380, 9mm, .44 Special, .44 Magnum, .45 ACP., 223, 8X57 and .45 Colt ammo and shows no signs of needing replaced. Why do I mention the reloading stuff that Speer makes? Just to show that they are in it to the hilt in terms of shooting support. If something of theirs is broken or doesn’t work as advertised, they’ll make it right. If you are looking for inexpensive (not cheaply-made) practice ammo for your .380, here you go.
Winchester white box (“WWB” on the forums) ammo has one of two reputations…really good and just-plain good. What do I mean by that? Some forum participants seem to want to run this ammo down (though, to be fair, they are usually talking about 9mm, .40 or .45) as being unreliable in some of their guns. Others tend to like it very much. I fall into that last camp. I don’t know how many boxes of WWB I’ve bought for various calibers. I think, dollar-for-dollar, this is some pretty good ammo.
One thing you’ll notice as you look at the loaded bullets here is they are not round-nosed. They are flat-nosed. This alone makes me want to try this particular load. The flat point just hits with a little more authority than the round nose. That’s why semi-wadcutters are so popular, especially in the revolver world. From my experience, they sure do a good job on game animals. I can imagine that the flat-nose .380 version would pop a full gallon milk jug with authority.
For practice or just general shooting, the FMJ will do nicely. If you are at the range and you have a round with a bad primer, you simply rack the slide and load a new one. This is OK for range work, but not for self-defense. That ammo has to do four things every time:
Be reliable. There is simply no room in your carry gun’s magazine for any ammo that has shown itself to be unreliable in that gun. Even a few duds out of 100 are too many. There are too many brands and types of other cartridges out there to put up with unreliable ammo. In addition to misfires, you may also have stovepipe jams or failures to feed or extract. Experiment with different loads to see what works best in your gun.
Be accurate. I’m not talking bullseye-at-50-yards-accurate, but it does need to be able to keep its shots on a B-27-type of target. Those are 24X45 inches – at 7 to 15 yards, you should be able to put your shots in the kill zone. This is not the place to talk about training, drills, timings, etc., so just make sure your ammo is at least that accurate out of your gun. If it doesn’t shoot to your gun’s sights, get them adjusted so that your defense ammo is going where you’re looking.
Have sufficient penetration. The F.B.I. protocol for duty ammunition penetration in ballistic gel is between 12 and 18 inches. Fewer than 12 inches of penetration and the round may not cause an attacker to stop, while more than 18 inches may allow it to exit the intended target and hurt a bystander. Not all .380 ammo will meet this criteria, so some experimentation is in order on your part. Plus, only you can decide if the F.B.I. protocol is important for you to follow. This is your call.
Have sufficient expansion. Not all .380 ammo is going to be pulled out of a soft target perfectly mushroomed. You need to examine your priorities about this. First, decide if “flower petal” type of expansion of the fired bullet is important to you, and if expansion is important to you, you need to experiment with different loads to find one that does expand consistently. If perfect expansion is not a priority, almost any .380 ammo should satisfy your requirement, even FMJ rounds. Remember, I mentioned above that some guys carry their .380s with FMJ bullets – they are counting on penetration alone to stop the attacker, figuring that a lot of .380 ammo will not expand at the typical velocities it produces. That used to be the case, but not so much with modern bullet technology. Again, your call.
Let’s look at some JHP ammo for the .380 now…
Summary of Ballistic Gel Test Stats: 12.4 inches of penetration, .511 inch expansion
The SIG V-Crown has proven itself many times over. You know they’re serious about it when they print ballistics information on the box (below). This round is one of not too many that will pass the F.B.I.’s 12-inch minimum penetration benchmark plus expand reliably while it does so. This round should satisfy the person who carries a .380 and relies on expansion and penetration both.
SIG has recently come out with their V-Crown line of ammo that is supposed to do well in shorter barrels. I think this was spurred when, after its introduction, the 9mm P365 with its short barrel was less than reliable with some brands and types of ammo. SIG fixed the problem by designing a round specifically for short barrels. It evidently worked, as the V-Crown series of ammo generally receives good reviews.
Ballistic gel test for this round Summary of Ballistic Gel Test Stats: 13.5 inches of penetration, .482 inch expansion
Hornady always has at least one round in any “best of” ammo roundup. The FTX bullet has proven itself time and again, both in the lab and on the street. Many police agencies use it as a duty round in whatever-caliber-pistol they carry, and thousands of civilian carriers won’t carry anything else.
The Critical Defense brand, in several calibers including revolver rounds, is known as a top-notch round in terms of reliability and performance. The flex-tip bullet (the “FT” of the “FTX” name) is a soft polymer gel substance that, after striking the target, pushes into the bullet’s nose and then does two things. It helps initiate expansion by literally shoving itself into the soft lead bullet core. It then helps that expansion from being terminated by not allowing debris or other material to plug the hollow point. I have seen many hollow point bullets I’ve shot not expand because they filled with dirt or something else, effectively turning that bullet into a sort-of FMJ solid-nose. The polymer plug prevents that. This is one .380 round that consistently expands. Couple that with the penetration that it achieves and you have a winner.
Ballistic gel test for this round Summary of Ballistic Gel Test Stats: 25.9 inches of penetration, .355 inch expansion
When you mention the term “hydra-shok” to any handgunner who’s been around a while, it immediately brings to mind the bullet with the post in the middle…
This post is there to control expansion. The Hydra-Shok bullet is known for its great penetration and expansion. But…why do the stats above say that basically the bullet didn’t expand in ballistic gel? It pretty much leaves the barrel at .355 inch – so why did it not expand? Not having been there when they tested it, I don’t know. I have seen other shots of expanded Hydra-Shok bullets that were almost half again their diameter. So why would I include a round that does not show much, if any, expansion in a ballistics gel test? There are two reasons. The first is that the good folks at Lucky Gunner got that result on the day they tested, and it may or may not have the same result on another day. The second is that some folks like their .380s to penetrate. I know that I have, on occasion, carried mine with FMJ bullets for that penetration factor (especially this time of year in the Midwest, when bulky coats are the norm).
Here’s a diagram from Lucky Gunner that shows an unfired bullet at the center of several fired bullets. Notice the nose did expand, just not in the typical “flower-petal” way.
I would not hesitate to carry this ammo in my .380. With its penetration about double that of the other rounds here, I would feel protected. Another thing to remember is that you might carry this ammo in the winter if you live in a bulky-coat climate and maybe something else in the summer if you’re worried about over-penetration. That’s the beauty of experimenting with different types of ammo … you can find two or three different loads that will meet your requirements. The final thought is that you should conduct your own tests with whatever ammo you’re thinking about carrying. It doesn’t have to be ballistic gel…it could be wet newspapers, filled gallon jugs, whatever. Just keep the results relevant – compare only what you’ve shot with others you’ve shot into the same media and don’t try to extrapolate results. If you get, say, 14 inches of penetration consistently with this load in packed, wet newspapers, don’t claim that it will perform the same way in ballistic gel or animal tissue. At least you’ll have an idea of how your ammo will do when shot into whatever you test with, and that can at least give you an idea of which load expands/penetrates better than other loads, in your tests. Compare apples to apples and that should help you decide on what to carry.
So now we look at one of the most popular self-defense rounds out there. There are police agencies that use the PDX-1 in other calibers, and it has a good reputation on the street. If you look at the stats above, you notice that this round’s numbers are almost backwards from the Hydra Shok’s numbers above. The penetration with the PDX-1 was 9.8 inches versus the almost 26 inches of the Federal round, while expansion was .622, greater than the others’ .355. That’s a 57% increase. If you are looking for a bullet that expands rather violently, this may be your first choice to test. The PDX-1 has a reputation for getting consistently good reviews. It also tends to be low-flash. Tested at dusk, the flash isn’t very pronounced and is definitely less than some other rounds discussed. Since most defensive shootings occur after dark, not blinding yourself before follow-up shots are needed is a good thing.
One thing that sets this round apart from some others is that it uses a bonded bullet. The bullet’s jacket is bonded by a proprietary method to the lead core, which prevents separation upon impact. Holding the core to the jacket increases the retained weight of the bullet, which usually equals deeper penetration and expansion. The PDX-1 has been serving as the F.B.I.’s 9mm duty load for a while now, in its 147-grain form. If the technology in 9mm is good enough for the F.B.I., I’d think the .380 version would be good enough for the rest of us.
Summary of Ballistic Gel Test Stats: 16.5 inches of penetration, .347 inch expansion
The Golden Saber is another storied load. Chosen by police agencies for duty weapon carry, purchased as the only self-defense round that many people will buy, the Golden Saber does a very good job in its intended role. This ammo tends to function in a wide variety of guns, which endears it to those who may have more than one .380 in their safe. It has a good track record.
One thing that separates this round from all the other JHP loads discussed is that this load uses a 102-grain bullet. There are those knowledgeable shooters out there who will always shoot the heaviest bullet for caliber that they can find…the 147-grain 9mm, the 230-grain .45 ACP, etc. This 102-grain bullet isn’t necessarily a big change from those that weigh 95 grains, but every little bit helps. The cast bullet that I load for my .380 weighs 103 grains. According to my energy calculator, a 95-grain bullet at 985 fps yields 205 ft./lbs. of energy with the 102-grain bullet adding 15 more ft./lbs. As I said above, every little bit helps (especially in a lower-powered round like the .380).
Notice the angled score marks on the jacket to aid in starting expansion
The Golden Saber .380 is a good choice for a carry load. Remington has been making ammo for decades and they have it down pretty well by now. Add in the professionals that carry it in one caliber or other and you have a quality solution for your carry needs.
There are SO many good .380 loads out there that this article could go on and on. However, I’ll stop now but mention a few other good loads that you may want to look at. Remember what makes a good load…reliability, accuracy, expansion and penetration. If I had to pick just one of those four, I’d go with reliability. Gel tests are nice, but if that certain cartridge that expanded to 5 times its diameter and penetrated through 10 gel blocks won’t function in your gun, what good is it?
So… here are a few others for your consideration…
Let’s pretend (or it may be true) that you’ve just taken a new .380 home and are wondering what to shoot in it…what do you buy to start off with? I recommend a FMJ load or two to help break it (and you) – in. Guns chambered in .380 are pretty small and take some getting used to. Make sure it shoots whatever you put through it reliably, and only then begin your search for carry ammo. Buy two or three different boxes of JHP ammo (if that’s what you want to carry – as I said above, some carry FMJ – that’s your call).
Once you’ve found a load or two that functions well in your gun, narrow it down to one brand and practice with it. You need to shoot it enough to where you feel comfortable with it and are used to its recoil, point of impact and other characteristics.
At the range, shoot your practice ammo for most of the session but make sure you end up with your defense ammo. It won’t require you to shoot 50 rounds or more each time. A magazine or two through your gun of your chosen self-defense ammo should suffice, if you shoot regularly. It’s like any other skill you’re practicing…doing it once a month probably won’t do much to ingrain the right habits. You need to shoot weekly if possible, or even more. That’s easy for me to say since I have a range in my backyard but still shoot as often as you can. And, don’t just shoot bullseye-style. There are drills galore on the internet (check YouTube in particular) for defensive-shooting drills that, if practiced regularly, will certainly help your skill development. Should you take a class? Only you can answer that. It sure couldn’t hurt, if it’s the right class. (That’s a whole separate article).
The .380, aside from helping to start WWI, is nowadays a very popular and viable self-defense weapon. Many of us carry a .380 when we go out because it’s easy. I can slip my Taurus Spectrum in its pocket holster and be on my way without fiddling with belt holsters (Best Concealed Carry Holsters). If you have one (or are thinking about one), hopefully this article gives you a place to start in your quest to feed it. Please leave a comment below about your experience with .380 ammo.