Unending Caliber Controversies: .380 vs. 9mm

Today is the 120th anniversary of the pocket pistol1, so we’ll do the obvious thing — we’ll get people riled up by arguing about the .380 vs. 9mm (again). And anyway, the ongoing release of new firearms (including, by the way, the Browning 1911-380 in .380 ACP and SIG P320 in 9mm) always sparks new-old arguments.

The “.380 is underpowered” debate of the many ongoing “caliber controversies” in the gun-owning and -carrying community. On its face, the .380 vs. 9mm argument doesn’t seem like that’s much of an argument. The .380 ACP cartridge is “underpowered.”

Its ballistic performance, however, really isn’t the point (cue outraged comments). The .380 caliber has many detractors for a number of reasons, but then so does the 9mm. This article will serve not as my opinion on the matter (which will doubtless outrage many people) but rather serve as a collection point of other articles on it. Although I’m plenty opinionated. I’m neither a ballistician nor an ammunition SME — you’ll have to parse through the information available, perform your own due diligence, and make your own decisions.

I will attempt to help with that. As I find (or have recommended) studies and articles about the matter, I’ll drop an excerpt in here with a link back to the originating author and publication.

Before beginning that list, these are my opinions on the subject of any caliber intended to be used as a self-defense cartridge. Take ’em or leave ’em as you prefer.

I don’t care what you think, you’re a putz, take me to the articles.

 

1. Caliber arguments today are only important insofar as they are conducted civilly and academically.

The indisputable fact of the matter is, advances in metallurgy, materials, and know-how has completely altered the dynamics of ballistics article today vis-à-vis ballistics articles of the 70s and 80s. This doesn’t mean the laws of physics have changed (they haven’t, that I’m aware of), just that ammunition today is more effective than its forbearers in every caliber. There are 9mm rounds today of markedly superior performance to the ones that were around when I first began carrying a gun professionally in the very early 90s, and those same advances apply equally to most other calibers.

To wit, an advance in technology improving the potential lethality of a .380 will almost certainly yield similar benefits to a 10mm (for instance) — but this is not, as some might assert, necessarily a reason to go with the “bigger/better/faster/harder/whatever” bullet. It just means what was once the “smaller/lesser/weaker/whatever” round is now as good as or better than the one originally extolled as the superior choice a decade or two ago.

That simple fact drastically and incontrovertibly changes the bullet debate.

2. I don’t care what round you carry. *GASP* Just carry one you can use effectively based upon your abilities. But do carry one!

My preference, if asked, will be based on two considerations:

A) that you have the physical capability and skill to deliver it where it needs to go when it needs to go there, on demand vs. on command, and

B) that you have the mental, emotional, and moral fortitude to put the metal into the meat when it’s called for (the lack of which can cause as many significant problems during the Event as afterward, in your head).

My personal philosophy, when asked to teach a friend or loved one how to shoot (and particularly when asked “what gun should I buy?”) is predicated on the “support hand only” perspective.2 To wit, if you cannot drive the gun effectively within household or close encounter ranges using just your support hand, you are using too much gun. If you are able to ring head-sized steel with a 10mm at the 15-yard line but are barely able to put those rounds into a paper torso with your support hand at the same range, you need to be using less gun.

Now, a caveat. I use “less gun” colloquially. The type of weapon, its trigger, and the specific ammunition type all come into play here, both in the context of muzzle control and that of an ability to manipulate the weapon in non-shooting matters, i.e. if you can put the rounds where you want them consistently with Caliber X, but you cannot rack the slide because an old injury in your hand, you should obviously be considering whether that weapon is an appropriate choice.

3. It probably doesn’t matter which round you shoot anyway.

That’s going to get the sacred cow lovers riled up, I know. But if you look at results from actual shootings (i.e. little things I like to call “facts” and “empirical evidence”) it probably won’t make much of a difference which caliber you put holes into someone with, at least within the .380, .38, 9mm, etc. range…which takes us back around to the “gotta be able to poke holes in them in the first place” argument. Links to some ballistics studies are included below.

“Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” John Adams

 


Caliber Comparison Example: “Grandma Maximus”

Helen is a baby-boomer whose age I shall not divulge because I’m afraid she might still be willing to thrash me now the way she did when I was a teenager. Helen was looking for an appropriate concealed carry pistol that would also serve as an alternative home defense weapon to her 20ga. youth shotgun. Helen has significant arthritis in both wrists and one hand, and an old injury to her strong side elbow.

Through the course of a couple of days working through different makes and models of pistol, we determined that with most weapons of 9mm (various ammunition types) or below she could readily put rounds into a human sized torso at ranges of 15 yards or less. She was able to do so with some weapons out to ranges of approximately 25 yards, but that was contingent upon the type of sights (or optic) that were on the weapon.

Ultimately, through more experimentation, we determined that within the confines of the weapons we had available to try, the weapon she was best able to put rounds on target (in this case head-sized steel) using her support hand only, within 10 yards, was a Glock 42 chambered in .380. That was then her weapon of choice until a later range excursion when she discovered she could effectively drive a “Dougified” S&W 9mm Shield within those same parameters. She changed her carry preference as a result.3

So, in her case, was a .380 or a 9mm better? Clearly the .380, for a while, because a 9mm wouldn’t have done her a damn bit of good if she was unable to put the rounds where she needed to under stress. Later, the 9mm became the superior choice, for the articulated reasons.

If her hand, wrist, and elbow continue to deteriorate, we’ll adjust again. It’s entirely possible that a .22 of some kind will become her Very Best Caliber. Or a .32. Or a .25 — I don’t know, we’d have to do some research and spend some time on the range.

Ultimately the individual will need to decide what their best caliber is. A little due diligence should keep them from winding up with something terrible like the SW380 or Lorcin L380.


 

What does that have to do with .380 vs. 9mm?

Simple. That example was made to help demonstrate the fact that any caliber debate can only be conducted within an “all things being equal” context.

If you can…

• drive the gun chambered in Caliber X as well as Caliber Y

• manipulate the Caliber X weapon as easily as Caliber Y

• conceal the Caliber X weapon as easily as Caliber Y (if that’s a consideration)

• afford to buy (and train with) the Caliber X weapon as easily as Caliber Y

then by all means, go with the Caliber X weapon. If not, you may need to consider Caliber Y (or a different firearm in Caliber X).

Now, drop different calibers into that framework.

Caliber X = 9mm & Caliber Y = .380

Caliber X = .40 & Caliber Y = 9mm

Caliber X = 10mm & Caliber Y = .45 ACP

We could do that all day (or at least until we ran out of ammunition types).

Hardware shouldn’t be a crutch when it comes to lack of training and skill, but we’d be foolish not to use it when available to overcome physical issues (or to make ourselves more accurate and efficient overall).

And THAT, boys and girls, is the lens through which to view caliber controversy

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pay attention to ballistics.4

For many of you reading this, all things are equal (more or less). Thus it behooves you to pay attention to both inter- and intra-caliber tests.

But this has gone on about a thousand words longer than I intended. Here are some different resources for you to consider.

Facts are facts and will not disappear on account of your likes. Jawaharlal Nehru

1. An Alternate Look At Stopping Power

Greg Ellifritz, Active Response Training

I think the most interesting statistic is the percentage of people who stopped with one shot to the torso or head. There wasn’t much variation between calibers. Between the most common defensive calibers (.38, 9mm, .40, and .45) there was a spread of only eight percentage points. No matter what gun you are shooting, you can only expect a little more than half of the people you shoot to be immediately incapacitated by your first hit.

The average number of rounds until incapacitation was also remarkably similar between calibers. All the common defensive calibers required around 2 rounds on average to incapacitate. Something else to look at here is the question of how fast can the rounds be fired out of each gun…It is my personal belief that there really isn’t much difference between each of these calibers. It is only the fact that some guns can be fired faster than others that causes the perceived difference in stopping power. If a person takes an average of 5 seconds to stop after being hit, the defender who shoots a lighter recoiling gun can get more hits in that time period. It could be that fewer rounds would have stopped the attacker (given enough time) but the ability to fire more quickly resulted in more hits being put onto the attacker. It may not have anything to do with the stopping power of the round.

Another data piece that leads me to believe that the majority of commonly carried defensive rounds are similar in stopping power is the fact that all four have very similar failure rates. If you look at the percentage of shootings that did not result in incapacitation, the numbers are almost identical. The .38, 9mm, .40, and .45 all had failure rates of between 13% and 17%.

Read the entire study on ART5: http://www.activeresponsetraining.net/an-alternate-look-at-handgun-stopping-power

2. When Does a .380 Beat a 9MM?

Grant Cunningham, Personal Defense Network

[Excerpted] The recoil effects in a small gun are profound. A number of micro 9mm pistols I’ve tested range from quite unpleasant to downright uncontrollable in a realistic string of fire. A gun of the same size but loaded with softer-shooting .380 projectiles is much easier to control and results in more rounds landing accurately on target in a shorter period of time. We’re back to the idea of shooting more rounds to any given level of precision.

Of course, the difference in this choice is that the .380 is definitely not at the same performance level of the 9mm. We’re giving up some effectiveness, though as I pointed out, it might not be as much as we’ve been led to believe. But when we factor in the controllability of the gun, the smart choice for some people may very well be the smaller round.

As mentioned earlier, I’ve fired some micro 9mm guns that were very difficult to control. In fact I tested one such gun that squirmed in my tightest grasp so much that the first round was on target, the second was on the right side of the target, and the third was off target! Admittedly I’m no Jerry Miculek, but I’m used to shooting very heavy-recoiling handguns at speed, and this particular pistol was impossible for me to control in a realistic string of fire.

AM I SAYING THE .380 IS ALWAYS A BETTER CHOICE?

No, I’m not. But in some very specific cases, it may be. The shooting world should stop and think about the end use of the gun, not how much raw power it produces.

Back when I was of the “More power!” persuasion, I met a lady who carries a Browning BDA. The BDA is a double-stack .380 ACP pistol holding 13 rounds. It is, as you might expect, fairly large and heavy for a .380. At the time the micro-9mm fad hadn’t yet started, but even then there were a number of 9mm pistols available that were the size of the BDA and lighter to boot. I actually tried to steer her away from her BDA and to one of the 9mm guns, but she wouldn’t hear of it. She’d tried them and, due to some weakness in her hands, simply couldn’t control them (even with my expert instruction).

For her, being able to deliver all 13 rounds on target in a very short time frame (which she could do) was a significant advantage over delivering only a few 9mm rounds. My mistake was not recognizing that.

Read the rest of the article at PDN5: https://www.personaldefensenetwork.com/article/when-does-a-380-beat-a-9mm/

 

 

3. The .380 vs the 9mm [Battle of the Nines]

Brandon Harville, Pew Pew Tactical

[Excerpted] While the.380 might just look like the 9mm’s shorter cousin, but in actuality, these two rounds function quite differently. Keeping that in mind, it’s unfair to place the .380 up against the 9mm and ask which is better. Instead, what we should be asking is “which caliber is better for you?” ///

Generally speaking, one of the biggest advantages to the 9mm is that it’s an easy-to-handle cartridge – at least when compared to the bigger calibers out there. Indeed, the 9mm does have a lot to offer in terms of power and control, making it one of the most well-rounded handgun cartridges in my opinion. However, when we’re looking at shootability between the 9mm and the .380, the 9mm loses this round.

If you’re looking for a powerful caliber that’s easy to handle, the .380 delivers in every way. It may not have the same expansion or penetration as the 9mm, but it does have lower recoil.  ///

At the end of the day, part of buying a gun is finding the right fit for you. Now that you’ve learned a little bit about the 9mm and the .380, you should hit the shooting range and give both calibers a test to see which one you like best.

Read the rest of the article at PPT5: https://www.pewpewtactical.com/380-vs-9mm/

 

4. Handgun Self-Defense Ammunition Ballistics Test

Chris Baker, Lucky Gunner Labs

…a handgun can quickly and definitively stop a determined attacker only if two conditions are met:

  1. Adequate shot placement: The gun must be fired at a so-called “vital area” of the attacker. This usually means the heart or the brain/spine. Hits to the lungs and other organs can also be effective, but results may be slower.
  2. Adequate penetration: The bullet must have the ability to penetrate whatever is between the muzzle and those vital organs in order to disrupt their function — for non-uniformed civilians, this typically includes clothing, tissue, and bone.

…The first condition depends on the person operating the gun. No amount of bullet technology can make up for a miss. But as for the second condition — how do we know if the ammo we have in our self-defense gun is up to the task?

// .380 ACP Ballistic Gelatin Tests

As expected, .380 ACP turned in the weakest overall performance of the four calibers we tested, but a few loads fared surprisingly well. Most loads showed either good penetration but no expansion, or decent expansion with sub-par penetration. Only a couple of loads managed to show decent numbers for both. There’s a reason that .380 ACP is often considered “underpowered”, but careful ammo selection can help to mitigate its deficiencies to some degree.

…keep in mind, even though the gelatin tests can tell us a lot, there’s plenty of things they don’t tell us. Ballistics testing doesn’t tell us anything about the felt recoil of a load. We also haven’t addressed accuracy or muzzle flash (which can be an issue in low light). And maybe most important of all, no gelatin test can tell you if a given load will run reliably in your own self-defense pistol. This is all stuff you’ll have to test on your own at the range with your gun.

Once you find a load that works, whatever you decide, try to keep all of this in perspective. Choice of caliber and bullet are not the most important aspects of successful self-defense. Awareness, proper mindset, marksmanship, and discernment of when to use your firearm are generally far more critical to your survival than choice of gear. Having said that, knowing your carry ammo works not only provides peace of mind, there’s a chance that choosing a solid defensive load could be the one factor that tips the scales in your favor in a fight for your life.

Read the entire article on Lucky Gunner Labs5: https://www.luckygunner.com/labs/self-defense-ammo-ballistic-tests/

5. Better for CCW – 9mm or .380?

Jeff Johnston, NRA Family

If all things are equal, more velocity means greater penetration. A 9mm Luger typically out-penetrates .380 Auto bullets, but not as much as you might think. That may be due to the fact that the 9mm’s extra energy causes its bullets to expand to a slightly greater diameter, and expansion retards penetration due to greater surface area. But if two bullets penetrate the same distance, the one that has greatest surface area is best because it produces more tissue damage. No doubt, due to its advantage in velocity and energy, the 9mm Luger is the clear winner in terminal performance.

But for the same reasons, the .380 wins in shootability, with one caveat. Because the 380 has 94 percent less recoil (if fired from an equal-weight gun), it’s easier to shoot. But, you must consider that 9mms are typically a few ounces heavier than guns chambered in .380, and so the extra weight reduces that 94 percent figure considerably. Also, the smaller the gun, the smaller its grip and the more recoil it has. So a .380’s advantage in shootability is somewhat negated when fired from the smallest guns available. You should also remember that “shootability” isn’t everything, or we’d all carry peashooters. Carry caliber choice, until the laws of physics are altered, boils down to finding a tradeoff between shootability, gun size and power that works for you. It’s important to remember that the bigger gun you get, the tougher it is to conceal, but the easier it is to shoot.

Read the rest of the article at NRA Family5: https://www.nrafamily.org/articles/2017/5/23/which-is-better-for-ccw-9mm-or-380/

 

4. “Mouse Gun” Gelatin Testing Results

Greg Ellifritz (w/ Chuck Haggard, et al) on Active Response Training

You’ll notice that I didn’t provide any expansion data.  That’s because NONE of the .380 or .38 special rounds expanded at all! All of the bullets except for the two 9mm rounds could have been reloaded and fired.  They had no expansion whatsoever. ///

Many knowledgeable handgun instructors have noted that there really isn’t much significant difference in stopping power between most of the rounds people shoot at criminals.  Is there any wonder?  Look at the .38 and .380 rounds we tested.  All penetrated the same distance and remained .35 caliber.  Bullets with identical performance in gelatin should have similar performance in human bodies as well.  It just doesn’t make much difference what round you carry in your “mouse guns.” ///

Maybe we shouldn’t be arguing so much about caliber and bullet performance when there really isn’t much difference between carry loads.  If you are carrying a .38 snub or a sub-caliber pistol. pick the load that is most reliable, accurate, and controllable in your particular carry gun.  The bullets probably won’t expand.  Rely on good shot placement instead of magical bullet construction to stop your attacker.

Read the entire article on ART5: https://www.activeresponsetraining.net/mouse-gun-gelatin-testing-results

Chuck Haggard is online as AGILE Training & Consulting, q.v.

Remember, as Grant Cunningham says: “Just because it’s common doesn’t make it wisdom.”

 

 

1 The patent date on the Colt’s Manufacturing hammerless pocket pistol, designed by John Moses Browning, is stamped April 20, 1897. That was a .32. The .380 cartridge itself made its appearance in 1908 thanks to the Union Metallic Cartridge Company (and St. Browning).

2 I have absolutely no idea if this is a Thing anywhere else, it’s just a construct I use based upon what I’ve learned and seen over the years. If I find cogent arguments against it, I’ll post them here or in a separate article. Could be I’m completely misguided.

3 There were other factors in this decision-making process, among them her ability to draw and a modification to her stance. At a course in Alliance, OH, Steve Fisher of Sentinel Concepts worked with her to adjust her stance (to better handle the recoil, thus allowing the weapon to cycle) and her drawstroke (she switched to a crossdraw appendix carry draw, which mitigated the issues she had with her strong side elbow). I later used the same methodology Fisher taught us to help my youngest and smallest nephew handle a .380 that had previously been too much for him. I can write more on that later if there is an interest, or ask Steve too.

4 Real ballistics, and studies with empirical evidence. Don’t blithely accept range lore and conventional wisdom with doing some research. Yes, the .22 has killed lots of people, including Robert F. Kennedy. Stipulated, the .380 killed Archduke Ferdinand and Mahatma Gandhi. Granted, Anton Cermak and Park Chung-hee were murdered with a .32. Those are singular cases; there is always a counter. Ronald Reagan survived being shot with a .22. Pople John Paul II was hit four times with 9mm rounds and lived. My friend Andy shot a gangbanger five times center mass with a .45 (and was shot himself); said gangbanger is currently in prison, albeit enjoying life with a colostomy bag. The point is, it’s easy to find individual examples and manipulate them to fit the opinions of so-called “conventional wisdom.”

5 If you’re truly serious about making an informed decision on this or any other topic, you need to take a look at the original article (or video, or soundbyte). Any chucklehead can cherrypick a quote and manipulate it to support his opinion. These excerpts are here to support my contention and to pique your interest in reading further, but that’s what I would be expected to tell you, right? Make decisions within the totality of all the information you can gather.

*This goes for far more than gun topics mind you. Chris Hernandez put it best when he said, “People, if the only day you apply critical scrutiny to what you read on social media is April 1st, we have a problem.”

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