Recently, I’ve spent a lot of time talking about selecting the right ammo for your service caliber pistol (9mm, .40, and .45) …
Almost immediately, I got a lot of comments and questions about .380 like this:
“Now, how about the best self defense ammo for the 380 cal. that almost everyone now carries for self defense? This is the report needed by most people.”
And the fact is, the .380 is becoming more and more popular.
Because of this, it pays to look into what ammunition you should use if you’re carrying a smaller gun such as this — a so called “pocket pistol”.
Let’s talk about barrel length …
In service caliber pistols, barrel length is almost never a concern. To quote Dr. Roberts again “There is really no difference in performance between a 3.5″ and 4″ barrel in 9 mm and .40 S&W. In .45 ACP, we see a reasonably significant change in performance going from a 5″ to 3.5″ or less barrels. Since almost all viable pistols in 9 mm and .40 S&W use 3.5-4.5″ barrels, there are no “short barrel” worries for serious end-users.”
On the other hand, if you are using a .380 then you need to consider barrel length …
Basically, the only reason to carry a .380 is because you want to carry a VERY small gun. Which means deep concealment of some kind, backup gun, or pocket carry.
As such, you are in the territory of barrels less than 3.5″ long. In fact, barrel lengths from these pocket guns can range from 2.5″ to 2.8″ all the way up to 3.25″ (like the “not so small” Glock G42 .380 pistol).
The point of all this?
While you only have to look at terminal ballistics of the actual projectile when choosing a service caliber ammo (9mm, .40 and .45), when choosing a .380 load, you have to look at the terminal ballistics achieved by a .380 with your same barrel length because velocity will differ.
The FBI tests as testing standards. Sort of …
As I’ve explained before, self-defense ammo must live up to a testing standard.
However, because the FBI does not carry any .380 pistols, there are (to my knowledge) no rounds that have been through the full battery of FBI tests (to include all intermediate barriers).
So what is the standard?
I’ll copy and paste what a popular blogger & youtuber “ShootingTheBull” has written about his .380 tests:
“I set as my standard the guidelines established by the 1987 and 1993 Wound Ballistic Conferences, where wound ballistics experts, medical examiners, forensic pathologists, police officers, trauma surgeons, combat surgeons, and others who worked with street shootings and bullets (and the wounds they cause) day in and day out. These were the recognized experts in their fields, and they conducted conferences to determine what properties and capabilities caused a bullet to be most effective, and how they could then develop tests that would best and most accurately reflect real-world results, so that ammo designers could then design ammo that would perform most effectively. Effectiveness was determined to be the ability to penetrate deep enough into the body to reach the vital organs (such as the heart, circulatory system, and central nervous system). A bullet that can’t reach that far, and can’t be relied upon to disrupt the vital organs, was deemed an ineffective bullet.”
“… The FBI adopted these requirements for their duty ammo selection, which is only partially related to us in the self defense community; we’re not the FBI and we don’t need FBI duty ammo, but — ammo manufacturers love to sell ammo to the FBI, so many of the modern hollowpoint rounds on the market are designed to meet the FBI requirements. Which is good for us, because what makes a bullet effective in stopping a criminal, are the same factors that make it effective in stopping someone who’s assaulting us. The FBI requires their ammo to pass additional tests of barrier penetration, including auto windshield glass, plywood, drywall, and other tests. In the self defense community, those aren’t likely realistic tests that we need our ammo to pass, so I didn’t bother with those tests, instead I focused on the two tests that are most important to self defense shooters: the bare ballistic gelatin test, and the 4-layer denim test. The International Wound Ballistic Association standardized these two tests as a comprehensive evaluation of ammo performance in best-case and worst-case scenarios, and so that is the testing methodology I adopted.”
Now, I would RATHER have a bullet that has been tested through the full range of tests — including all intermediate barriers — like the FBI testing.
But, at the current time, I’m not aware of anyone who has tested .380 ammo to that standard. Right now, the best I’m seeing from testers are the bare gel, plus the bare gel and denim tests.
Yet, as you’re about to find out … even just those two tests alone are enough to separate the best ammo from the rest.
So what .380 rounds are acceptable for self-defense?
Again, you have to think “barrel length” first, then go looking for the right ammo …
ShootingTheBull.net did an extensive test of over 30 different types of ammo with his 2.8″ barrel pocket pistol.
With his 2.8″ barrel testing, he found 5 out of the 30 loads tested met the standards. Every ammo load using the Hornady XTP JHP (jacketed hollow point) made it into the “winners circle”. Surprisingly, Federal Hydra-shoks did pretty well (even though they’re older bullet technology). The overall winner he chose was the Precision One .380 ACP 90 grain XTP. You can find his full summary of all 30 tests by clicking here.
There is also another blogger called “MouseGunAddict” who has done a lot of testing of the smaller .380 type guns. He did a series of tests on a Kahr P380 with a barrel length of 2.53″. In his tests, the Hornady XTP bullets and the Federal Hydra-Shok were also a consistent performer in the .380 with a shorter barrel length.
It’s also worth noting that the Federal Hydra-Shok did well even in the longer barrel length .380 test with a Glock 42 (3.25″ barrel length). It appears that the “lesser” expansion with the older bullet design of the Federal Hydra-Shok is a benefit to the typically under-penetrating .380 load fired from a shorter barrel.
Barrel lengths are confusing … What’s the bottom line?
It would appear that the best self-defense ammo for the .380 is some type of self-defense ammo loaded with the Hornady .380 ACP 90gr XTP hollow point projectile. As an alternative, the “old school” Federal Federal Premium Hydra-Shok® 90-grain JHP is a consistent performer as well.
As always, penetration is the first consideration for self-defense ammo performance (especially with a “weaker” load such as the .380) and these two projectiles were the most consistent and offered the best performance throughout all barrel lengths from what I have researched.