.380 ACP vs 9mm: The Concealed Carry 9mm Showdown

Written by Sam Jacobs Subject: Gun Rights

When it comes to picking your next semi-automatic everyday carry (EDC) handgun, two calibers that you should consider are the .380 ACP (Automatic Colt Pistol) and the 9mm Luger (9x19mm NATO, 9mm Parabellum). Both cartridges fire the same 9mm (0.355") diameter bullet, but the .380 ACP has a shorter overall case length and is, therefore, the more anemic round.

Some Internet pundits will proclaim that the 380 ACP does not have enough stopping power for self-defense and the 9mm round is clearly the better choice. While others will counter that the .380 ACP has less recoil and enhanced handling capabilities as reasons for picking the cartridge.

No matter how you slice it, the 9mm is clearly the more powerful cartridge; however, does this mean that you should completely disregard the .380 ACP for your next CCW pistol?

Decidedly not!

We're going to take a detailed look into the origins of each handgun cartridge, their advantages/disadvantages, and the criteria you need to consider when buying an EDC handgun in either caliber.

What is .380 ACP? Browning's Concealed Carry Prodigy

The .380 ACP was developed by John Moses Browning and was introduced in 1908 by Colt. The .380 ACP is also referred to as the .380 Auto, 9x17mm, 9mm Browning, 9mm short, and 9mm Kurz. However, in the context of this article, we will stick with .380 ACP and .380 Auto.

Colt marketed the cartridge in its new Colt Model 1908 Hammerless Semi-Automatic as a self-defense round. Since its release, the .380 Auto has become a very popular cartridge for use in semi-auto subcompact pocket pistols.

Browning designed the .380 ACP with a blowback mechanism in mind. A blowback recoil mechanism is one that uses the rearward motion of the cartridge case to cycle the slide of the handgun.

When a round is fired in a blowback pistol, the resulting gas pressure pushing back on the case will be enough to cycle the handgun. Blowback pistols are very simplistic in design, which makes them less expensive than a locking barrel design like those used in the Glock 17, Smith and Wesson M&P, and Sig Sauer P226.

A blowback action is typically very accurate as the barrel can be fixed to the frame. Several popular blowback handguns include the Walther PPK, Ruger LCP, Bersa Thunder or Firestorm .380, Beretta 84, and the Sig Sauer P230.

For a blowback pistol, most of the recoil energy is absorbed by the weight of the slide and the recoil spring. Therefore, blowback pistols usually utilize lower muzzle energy and muzzle velocity ammo as anything larger than a .380 Auto would require a heavier slide and recoil spring, making it less than a locking barrel system.

However, there are several locking barrel .380 ACP pistols, such as the Kel-Tec P3AT, Remington Model 51, and the Glock 42.

Prior to World War II, there were five European countries that adopted the .380 ACP as their service pistol ammo: Italy, Yugoslavia, the Netherlands, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary. After WWII, most of these countries opted for more powerful 9mm pistols.

However, the .380 ACP remained in service for numerous European law enforcement agencies well into the 1970s. Again, being replaced by the 9mm Luger (are you seeing a trend?)

In the United States, the .380 Auto was never adopted as a law enforcement or military caliber and has been primarily relegated to personal defense pocket pistols.

What is 9mm? The Self-Defense Standard

The 9x19mm Parabellum was designed by the Austrian gunsmith Georg Luger in 1901. Luger derived the 9mm Parabellum from his previous design, the 7.65x21mm Parabellum.

In 1903, he presented the 9mm Parabellum to the US military for consideration at the Springfield Arsenal. However, the 9mm was not adopted by the US military until much later and was instead picked up by the German Imperial Navy and Army in 1904 and 1908, respectively.

The 9x19mm Parabellum is also referred to as the 9x19mm NATO, 9mm Luger, or simply the 9mm.

After World War I, the 9mm Luger became one of the most popular handgun cartridges in the world for both military and law enforcement. However, the United States was late to the party as it clung to the idiom, "Bigger is Better" and our beloved .45 ACP until the 1980s with the adoption of the Beretta M9 Service Pistol by the US Army.

The popularity of the 9mm Luger really exploded in the United States during the 80s and 90s with the introduction of reliable semi-auto pistols, such as the Glock 17. The 9mm has become synonymous with law enforcement and home defense for its high magazine capacity, stopping power using jacketed hollow point ammo (JHP), and low overall cost per round.

There is no denying that the 9mm Parabellum has become the self-defense round of choice for many CCW permit holders, but is it the right choice for you? Let's compare these two 9mm caliber pistol cartridges.

9mm vs 380: The Difference Between .380 and 9mm

Although the .380 ACP is often referred to as the 9mm Short and both the 9mm Luger and .380 ACP fire the same diameter bullet, they are very different handgun cartridges.

In the following sections, you'll see how the 9mm Luger outperforms the .380 ACP in almost every category. However, that does not imply that the 9mm is the best everyday carry caliber. Let's find out why!

.380 vs 9mm: Recoil

This is one of the few categories where the .380 ACP is superior, and it is a big one! Felt recoil for a .380 ACP is approximately half that of 9mm Luger. That's huge, to say the least!

However, you'll hear 9mm fanboys from gun stores to message boards state that the 9mm Parabellum has very low, manageable recoil. Often in the same breath, they'll refer to a .380 Auto as a mouse caliber.

So, does that reduced recoil make up for the .380 Auto being considered an anemic round? I'm going to go out on a limb and say "Yes."

Let me explain!

In any personal defense situation, shot placement is the key to walking away alive. Or to put it another way, "A 9mm in the hand is considerably less lethal than a .380 ACP to center mass."

Where you hit the bad guy matters, and many shooters will find that they are more accurate shooting a .380 ACP, especially smaller framed shooters. The reason is because of recoil.

Developing a recoil flinch (anticipation) is an easy habit to develop and can be a difficult one to break.

Many handgun manufacturers have begun producing extremely small size handguns, some of which are chambered in 9mm. The Glock 43, Smith and Wesson Shield, Sig Sauer 938, and Kel-Tec PF9 all come to mind.

These subcompact 9mm pistols are often touted to potential buyers as being "super light and packing a punch". They aren't joking, but proponents of these handguns fail to mention that the punch they are packing is going to be delivered to your hands.

Let me tell you another story.

The first subcompact handgun I ever purchased was a Taurus PT709 Slim chambered in 9mm. I thought it made a lot of sense as a CCW handgun: it was lightweight, thin, easy to carry, and it had the power of a 9mm behind it.

Sounds great, right? Yeah, not so much.

I'm going to put aside the fact that the gun was more of a picky eater than my 9-year-old daughter – the recoil was simply painful and uncontrollable.

I'm not a small man and I can handle some recoil, but shooting this subcompact was nothing short of a nightmare. I literally dreaded practicing as it physically hurt to do so.

Herein lies the main problem with many new shooters and subcompact handguns, uncomfortable and painful recoil makes for uncomfortable and painful practice sessions. This equates to an incentive to NOT practice a perishable skill.

The typical retort to this argument is, "Take the pain" or my other personal favorite, "The adrenaline dump will make it so you don't feel it!" Let's break those down for a minute.

To the "Take the pain" crowd, I can see your point. You are sacrificing the comfort of practice for the comfort of carrying. There's no denying that today's subcompacts have high concealability with their small size and lightweight construction.

However, all that pain you are going to experience during practice is going to directly translate into a flinch. This is doubly true with a new shooter.

With the aforementioned 709 Slim, I was sending rounds consistently low and to the left. By mixing in snap caps (inert plastic rounds that cycle like real bullets) into my magazines during practice, it was simple to diagnose that I was dipping the muzzle before every shot. I was prematurely anticipating the recoil.

Pain aversion is a natural human reaction, and a flinch is difficult to break once engrained through muscle memory. It became clear to me, for the reasons explained above, that particular handgun was not a good fit for me.

Sure, I could "take the pain", but at what cost? Developing a flinch and not being able to reliably hit what I was aiming at? Seems like a really BAD trade to me.

Now onto the old "adrenaline dump" argument.

During a self-defense situation, you will experience an adrenaline dump, there's no denying this. One major effect of adrenaline is that it deadens your nerves to pain, so you can either stay in the fight or getaway without being debilitated by pain.

This is why many law enforcement officers and civilians in self-defense shootings do not report being injured immediately after the engagement as they literally can't feel it.

Although adrenaline can deaden your feeling of pain, adrenaline will not alter muscle memory and poor shooting habits. In addition, adrenaline will inhibit your fine motor skills and your instincts/muscle memory will take over.

So yes, you won't feel the pain of the recoil energy, but you're still going to flinch because that's how you practiced.

So, what happened to my first handgun purchase?

In the end, I sold the pistol at a loss and got a Glock 17 and I've loved 9mm ever since.

Now let me throw a curveball into this conundrum. What if that 709 Slim had been chambered in .380 ACP instead of 9mm Luger?

Of course, there is no way we can go back into the past and know for sure. However, I've fired several .380 ACP subcompact handguns since, and I've enjoyed the experience.

The bottom line is that recoil matters and a small gun will have heavier felt recoil energy than a larger gun.

Does that mean that every 9mm subcompact is a piece of garbage? Absolutely NOT! With the right training regimen, grip, and focus on the fundamentals, there's no reason you can't be a surgeon with a Glock 43, M&P Shield, or 709 Slim.

However, for some shooters, it will simply be too much no matter how often they practice. In that case, the .380 Auto is the better choice.

Know your limits and don't let anyone try to talk you out of which cartridge is best for you.

Continue reading about the differences between 380 ACP and the 9mm here.