Here’s a conversation from a gun shop:
“What’s that in your pocket?”
“A .380 in a pocket holster”.
“Don’t you know you might as well throw rocks as shoot somebody with a .380?”
“Well, if it’s so ineffective, will you volunteer to hold the target at the far end of the pistol range? HA! Didn’t think so!”
A lot of shooters think a .380 is not nearly enough gun to carry on a regular basis. And let’s face it, the .380 is meant to be a deep-concealment “get-off-me” self-protection round, given current tactical practices and training. But, it can be so much more. Here’s a look at the .380, where it came from and what some of the best pistols are out there that are chambered for it.
The .380 – A Little History
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 numerous handguns (typically smaller, pocketable weapons), another popular name for it is the 9mm Kurz…(if you’re not up on your German, that means 9mm Short). It uses the same bullet diameter of the 9mm – .355, just in a lighter format (95-105 grains). Another moniker for this round is the 9X17, (not to be confused with the 9X18 Makarov or the 9X19 Luger). Some 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 (1911-style) action, although many newer .380s utilize just such an action.
In case you think it is a totally anemic cartridge, think again…it started WWI. Anarchist Gavrilo Princip used a .380 to assassinate Archduke Franz Ferdinand of the Austria-Hungary Empire. That got the ball rolling in 1914. Considered a fairly powerful cartridge at that time, and replacing the .32 Auto, the rise of the 9mm Luger eventually knocked the .380 into the pocket-pistol category.
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. To be sure, it is not as lethal as a 9mm (even out of a short barrel), but with modern ammo, a lot of people carry it as their main CCW.
Most .380s are, (at least in the U.S.A.) considered pocket pistols. If you lived in Central America or other areas of the globe, your .380 would most likely be a pistol the size of our 9mms, since some Central American (and other) countries outlaw the possession of a pistol that fires a military round (removing the 9mm, .40 S&W and .45ACP from consideration. Since we are able to carry a full-size pistol in mostly whatever caliber we want in (most of) the good ol’ U.S.A., the .380 pistol here can be made smaller. Some folks will carry a compact- or duty-size pistol for their primary CCW and have a small .380 in deep concealment if something goes wrong with the larger gun. Most .380 pistols will fit in a pocket holster.
Let’s look at some of the more popular .380s out there.
The Spectrum is my personal carry .380. There are several features that make it the one I don’t leave home without. Announced at the 2017 SHOT Show, delivery was delayed for almost a year as bugs were worked out. As is the case with most new guns, the Spectrum suffered its share of troubles. The resulting reputation it earned was mixed, as there are shooters who regularly carry them and others who won’t own one. Initial teething problems have, for the most part, been dealt with. One point that does not affect reliability or function, however, has not been resolved. The Spectrum is advertised as a gun that can be purchased in many color combinations…the frame one color, the slide another, and the rubber grip panels yet another color. As of this date, about three of the many advertised color combinations are available for sale. Mine is the gray frame with black slide and dark gray panels. I have a friend who wants to buy one, but he’s waiting on the teal panels/white finish. He’s hopeful it will be available by fall.
Why I Carry The Spectrum
OK… why do I carry the Spectrum? Very simply, mine works. It is very reliable, no matter what I feed it, including my cast reloads. It fires Critical Defense and other similar rounds with no problem. I’d earlier had a .380 that would not hold the slide open after the last round was fired…the Spectrum will do that. It’s got a (small) slide lock lever that does not protrude much. It really isn’t a slide release…it holds the slide back, not letting it go forward. Another plus is capacity – I carry it with the flush 6-round magazine in place with one in chamber plus the included extended-floorplate 7-rounder in a pocket. That’s 14 rounds in a gun of a caliber that’s a whole lot more potent now than it was 30 years ago. Would I trust my life with it? You bet. As the old saying goes, derisive detractors decline to be shot by one, no matter how underpowered they claim it is.
If you are looking for an inexpensive (real-world price around $250, house colors) .380 that rides unnoticed in a pocket holster until needed, give the Spectrum a look. It comes with a lifetime warranty and a year’s membership in the NRA. This is not a “carry-much-shoot-seldom” type of gun…there are many ruptured 2-liter bottles that will testify otherwise at my backyard range!
Kel Tec P3AT
The P3AT is a bare-bones pocket pistol. Manufactured in Florida, Kel Tecs are very popular with shooters. In addition to .380, Kel Tec also makes a nice .32 ACP and two small 9mm pistols worth checking out. I owned a PF9 9mm and the P3AT .380 for a while and carried both of them. I was impressed with the quality of the gun, considering the price. Kel Tec’s customer service is very good, as I discovered when I had a problem with my .380 and had to send it back. They basically replaced most of the parts and sent the gun back to me. It worked fine after the return. I kept it a while then sold it.
Why did I sell it? One of my criteria for any semiauto pistol is that the slide locks back on an empty magazine. The P3AT’s slide doesn’t do that. I would fire 6 rounds from the magazine (or 6+1 if you put one in the chamber), and then pull the trigger the next time, with the slide forward in battery.
Nothing. Click. Of course, I didn’t count my shots. That’s why all my semiautos lock the slide back when they run dry. Did I know that the P3AT wouldn’t lock back on an empty magazine? Yep, I ignored my own criteria. I thought I could overlook that due to the miniscule size of the piece and the attendant ease of carry. The small size initially won over the non-locking-slide, in essence. But, after shooting it a lot, I just couldn’t get used to it. So, I sold it.
Was it reliable? You bet…it would run no matter what I put through it, factory loads or my handloads. (I am one of those strange people who is left-handed AND who reloads .380). It digested my loads, factory ball, defense loads, whatever I fed it. The extractor is external, attached with a Torx-type screw. This makes it easy to replace the extractor if you break one. There is no thumb safety, which I appreciate on pocket-type pistols – they are sometimes swiped off accidentally as the gun goes in or out of your pocket. The trigger pull is fairly long and stiff, which is in itself a form of a safety. Mine was around nine pounds. If you are looking for an inexpensive (real world price around $230) pocket .380 that’s made in the U.S., the P3AT is one to look at.
Ruger LCP/LCP II
The Ruger LCP is a pocket-type pistol that reminds me of the Kel Tec in the way it looks and handles. It is very close in size to the P3AT but feels a bit different in the hand. The grip is molded with a different type of texturing than the Kel Tec. It sits in my hand very comfortably. As with most small .380s, the LCP’s sights are wart-like protuberances milled into the slide…definitely not adjustable. But, given the purpose of the gun, they suffice. Another shared feature with the P3AT is that the slide will not lock open after the last round is fired. But…it’s a Ruger, and Ruger has a reputation for building guns that last. Making available models with a specially-sculpted or roll-engraved slide, plus a burnished bronze slide variation, Ruger has shown some artistic initiative in its design of the LCP.
All In The Family – The LCP II
If you like the LCP but wish it was just a bit more ergonomic, look at its first cousin, LCP II. Ruger, as it is known to do, listened to its customers and dealers and brought out the LCP II. This gun is very similar to the LCP, but it has some significant differences:
- It is just slightly wider (some folks complained the LCP was too skinny for a good grip);
- The slide is a bit longer with forward and rear serrations;
- The trigger is much improved and utilizes a Glock-style bladed safety;
- The grip has new, textured areas that resemble those of the American and Security 9 pistols;
- The sights are easier to pick up;
- The front of the trigger guard is textured;
- The slide locks open after the last round is fired.
Rohrbaugh. There’s a name that means a lot to die-hard pocket pistol devotees. Rohrbaugh was a player in the high-end pocket pistol niche market until 2014, when Remington Outdoor bought them out. Remington immediately stopped production of Rohrbaugh’s $1200 R9 pocket pistol and appropriated its design, which had been named Shooting Illustrated’s 2005 Gun Of The Year. Remington then introduced their own version of the R9, the RM380 which is almost identical to the Rohrbaugh but with a few differences. The goal was to take a fairly expensive pocket pistol and model a lesser-expensive version of it to be sold in the mass market. They have evidently succeeded in that endeavor.
One of the first thing Remington changed was the magazine release – on the R9, it was in the European position, at the heel of the grip. Remington put it where (as the saying goes) God and John Browning intended, behind the trigger guard in the grip. It is ambidextrous, as well. Some checkering was added to the grip and a slide stop was fitted – the R9 would not lock back on an empty magazine but the RM380 does. Add in the nested recoil springs which takes the place of the infamous Rohrbaugh spring you had to replace about every 200 rounds and you get an improved version that could be sold for less.
While I don’t have a lot of experience with the RM380, I do know that it sits very nicely in my average-size hand. Obviously, the attention to ergonomic details that the R9 employed were maintained. Given its two six-round magazines (one with a finger extension) and the slide stop/release, the RM380 occupies a place in the pocket .380 world a notch above the Kel Tec P3AT and the Ruger LCP, neither of which supply an extra magazine or a slide stop. It is marginally larger than either of those two guns, but not so much that you couldn’t carry it in a pocket holster. I do recommend you take a look at one – the real-world price hovers around the $300-330 mark.
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Glock 42 Gen 4
Glock was a little late to the single-stack.380 game, but once involved, they produced a very popular gun among concealed weapon carriers and law enforcement. Police tend to carry it as a back-up (along with its more-powerful stablemate, the 9mm G43), while a lot of concealed weapon carriers use it as their primary weapon. It is small – some even pocket-carry it – but most put it in a belt or ankle holster.
One of the main reasons this little guy is so popular is – you guessed it – it’s a Glock. Consequently:
- All controls are in the “right” places;
- Takedown is the same;
- Trigger is pretty much the same so no having to adjust to a new system;
- Sights are standard Glock outline/dot
The G42 holds a single-stack 6-round magazine and comes with two of them. As with its bigger brothers, there are aftermarket parts available if you want to spruce yours up a bit. The stock Glock (sorry) is enough gun in its shipped state for most users. One concern, if you can call it that, is that the G42 is larger than other 6-round .380s. but not by much. Some shooters like the fact that it’s a bit larger…it gives them more to hang on to, especially with the included finger extension magazine.
How Does It Shoot?
With the standard Glock “cup-and-ball” sights (very visible on this gun, I might add), it shoots like most any other Glock. No surprises here. The gun’s weight is enough to control all but the wildest .380 rounds and will allow you to settle back on the target quickly. The ergonomics are familiar to Glock owners, so again, nothing new there. It’s just your standard Glock but with a skinnier frame and fewer rounds at your fingertips. So – if you are a Glock lover, this is for you! For the rest of us who only own one or two Glocks, this would certainly work for its intended purpose and deserves a look. The larger size seems to be a mini-trend in the .380 game – see below for the Smith & Wesson 380EZ and you’ll see what I mean.
Expect a real-world price of around $400-$430.
Smith & Wesson M&P Bodyguard 380
The S&W M&P Bodyguard 380 started out life in 2011 without the “M&P” in its moniker. It was just the plain Bodyguard 380. You could get one with an Insight laser. In 2014, S&W upgraded the gun by:
- Ditching the Insight laser and going with Crimson Trace for those guns so equipped;
- Roughing up the texturing on the grip;
- Refining the trigger;
- Etching “M&P” on the slide.
Otherwise, it is pretty much the same gun as the pre-M&P version.
It’s All About Controls
The controls on the M&P Bodyguard 380 are pretty much like those you’d find on any M&P semiauto pistol: thumb safety (very small), slide lock (that actually works as a slide release), magazine release behind the trigger guard. The control that is missing is the take-down lever; the Bodyguard uses a rotating push-through pin that you line up with the slot to release. The push-through pin take-down system is fairly common on a lot of 380s and even some 9mm pistols, but it isn’t a captive take-down lever…so don’t lose it!
Shooting The Bodyguard
This gun shoots pretty much like other small, two-fingers-on-the-grip .380s. The grip texturing is OK, although I prefer grips that feel like somebody glued 100-grit sandpaper to the gun. I use stairstep no-slip tape from the hardware store, or stipple my plastic grips, if that gives you any idea of the traction I prefer. The Bodyguard isn’t quite there, but it’s not bad. The laser is a bit hard to use much past about five yards due to the bounce it gets from the recoil, but at least it’s included. Once sighted in, it is useful; you just have to basically gorilla-grip the little gun to hold the red dot on target. As is the case with lasers on any handgun, your sight picture “jumpiness” is exposed more so than if you were using iron sights, so practice is the key. Regardless, the gun works and is backed by the S&W warranty, one of the best in the industry. Another M&P feature is that you can get one with or without a thumb safety. Expect a real-world price of around $340 without the laser and $400 with it.
The S&W Shield 380EZ
I saved the newest for last. The new Shield 380EZ is a true paradigm shift in gun design. We “seasoned” shooters who have been around the block a time or two tend not to get excited about a gun clearly made for newbies, folks who may not have shot a handgun before. Here is a gun manufactured to be easily-controlled and operated by new shooters. Hence the “EZ” in its name.
What’s So “EZ” About It?
The single-stack Shield family of autoloaders comes in 9mm, .40 S&W and even .45ACP. Recently, the second generation of M&Ps hit the market with many improvements. Suffice it to say that the EZ is definitely one of the M&P family. Now… the EZ part…
The Shield 380 EZ has most of the controls of the regular Shield line (including a take-down lever and optional thumb safety), but has some new features:
- The slide is WAY easier to rack. A lot of first-time shooters are older folks (don’t make fun of us) who may not have the strength to pull back a slide pushing against a 20-pound recoil spring. I couldn’t find specifics on the weight of spring used in the EZ, but it is “soft” – I racked the slide and was literally shocked at how easy it was to do that.
- Loaded chamber indicator – a lever-type chamber indicator is standard, and slightly larger than similar levers.
- “Wings” on the rear of the slide – sprouting from the rear edge of the slide serrations are a pair of protruding “wings” that allow the user to grab the slide with wet hands and not have it slip. S&W didn’t originate the idea – the Taurus TCP 738 and the H&K VP9 both utilize the same type of feature. But…they DO help with slide traction!
- Grip safety – the EZ uses a grip safety similar to that of a 1911, except that it is hinged at the bottom. This feature alone distinguishes the EZ, at a glance, from other Shields.
- The EZ is slightly larger than the other .380s listed here – more fit for a belt holster – but by being so, it allows newbies to have more fingers on the grip which increases likelihood of hitting the target and hence more confidence. It also helps better control the (soft) recoil. Expect to pay around $300-$350 on the street.
The guns above are ones that I have had experience with and are solid buys. The .380 is considered a marginal self-defense round to begin with, so the gun you choose to carry it in had better be reliable and accurate – these guns fulfill those criteria. But, here are a few others that are also capable concealed-carry weapons…
No matter which gun you choose, get some decent ammo and practice a LOT before you take the gun with you to town. The .380 may not be a .44 Magnum in stopping power, but as our two friends in the gun shop above would both agree with, a .380ACP in your hand is most assuredly better than the 1911 in your nightstand. With modern ammunition, you will not be under-gunned for most purposes.
Have fun, and go out and shoot!
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Mike has been a shooter, bullet caster and reloader for over 40 years. Never one to be satisfied with the status quo, he is often found at his reloading bench concocting yet another load. With a target range in his backyard and after 40 years of shooting, his knowledge of firearms and reloading is fairly extensive. He is married, with four sons and daughters-law and 8-and-counting grandkids.