The .380 Auto: A Three-Quarter Forty-Five

A rose, by any other name, is still a rose, yes? So, then, is a .380 Auto by any other name still a .380?

The .380 Auto cartridge has been around for more than 100 years. It's also known as the .380 ACP, 9mm Browning Short, 9mm Corto, 9mm Kurz or 9x17mm. Corto is Italian, Kurz is German; both translate to "short" in English. Because of these European names, some mistakenly believe the .380 Autois a shortened version of the 9mm Luger and that it is of German origin. Neither is the case.

While both the .380 Auto and the 9mm Luger use the same .355-diameter bullet, the .380 case is smaller in diameter. Its case rim measures 0.374 inches and the case rim of the 9mm Luger measures 0.394 inches. The 9mm Luger case is also longer and was introduced 6 years prior to the .380. The 380 is loaded to an average pressure of 21,500 psi. The 9mm Luger has a maximum average pressure rating of 35,000 psi.

Doubletap’s mild recoiling 80-grain load is one of the top five defensive loads for the .380.

John Browning designed the .380 cartridge for a Colt pistol about 1908. The confusing thing, at least to me, is why did Browning not just shorten a 9mm cartridge case? No doubt he had one on his workbench. This is possibly because when shortened, 9mm case walls would be too thick to accept the .355 bullet without bulging. Still, Browning could have gone with the 9mm Luger exterior case dimensions and just thinned the case walls. He didn't.

The more plausible explanation is one I stumbled on while playing with some numbers. Like a friend says, “When you get out the calculator, you learn stuff.” You see, a .355 bullet is about 78 percent the size of the .451-caliber bullet used in the .45 Auto cartridge, which Browning had already developed. If you take all the dimensions on a .45 Auto cartridge and reduce them proportionally, guess what? You end up with a .380 cartridge. In essence, a .380 Auto is 78 percent of a .45 Auto. In hillbilly terms, Browning shrunk the .45; the .380 Auto is a three- quarter .45.

Speer’s Gold Dot loads are a good option for any defensive handgun cartridge and their 90 grain .380 load is no exception.

As A Handgun Cartridge
Regardless of how it got here or what’s it’s called, the .380 has become a very popular defensive handgun cartridge. This is primarily because it will work in handguns that are small enough to be carried all the time without undue discomfort. You would think the most important criteria for a defensive handgun would be effectiveness. Yes, that is important—but if your handgun is so large you do not carry it, its effectiveness is of no consequence. The .380 fits in small handguns, and small handguns are what most folks like to carry.

The Winchester Silvertip load has been around for a long time for a good reason. It provides good terminal performance and is reliable in most compact handguns.

The .380 is not in the same class as the 9mm, .40 S&W or .45, but terminal performance is comparable to many .38 Special loads. Having tested most every commercial defensive handgun load for the .380, I’ve found five that are, in my opinion, the best of the lot and one that is king of the hill.

Like the Winchester Silvertip, the Federal Hydra-Shok is nothing new but it works very well in the little .380.

A+ .380 Ammo
Doubletap’s 80-grain Barnes Bullets’ TAC-XP load has a muzzle velocity of about 1,100 fps and will penetrate to a depth of about 10 inches in 10 percent ordnance gelatin. Recoil is mild and expansion is wide at an average of about 0.63 inches. Speer’s 90-grain Gold Dot load is a little slower, penetrates about an inch deeper and expands to about 0.55 inches. The Winchester Silver Tip and Federal Hydra-Shok offer almost identical performance, and the 102-grain Remington Golden Saber will penetrate the deepest, driving to almost 14 inches.

The standout is the Buffalo Bore 90 grain JHP +P load. It has a muzzle velocity of about 1,130 fps, penetrates to about 11 inches and expands to more than 0.60 inches in diameter. Recoil is snappy in compact handguns, but tissue damage is noticeably increased when compared to the other loads.

Remington’s Golden Saber load for the .380 is one of the deepest penetrating expanding bullet options available for this cartridge.

One thing's for sure: Never before have pocket pistol options been so diverse, and when it comes to what pistol is the easiest to conceal and carry, the new breed of .380s have no equal—they are getting smaller, lighter and more reliable all the time.

High velocity makes the JHP +P load from Buffalo Bore one of the best for the .380. But, with increased power comes increased recoil.

They might not be the most lethal option, but they are about 75 percent as effective as a .45 Auto. Terminal performance testing and actual street results bear this out. And, that's as it should be, because that's just as John Browning designed it: the .380 is a three-quarter .45.

The .380 Auto (left) is about 78 percent the size of the .45 Auto (right). Street results suggest it is about 78 percent as effective. The real advantage is the .380 cartridge will fit in smaller handguns than the .45 Auto or the 9mm and .40 S&W (center).

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