Many handgun aficionados will have noticed the resurgence in popularity of pistols chambered in .380 ACP in recent years, and wondered why handguns chambered in this outdated caliber have become such a big thing.
After all, gun writers have long touted calibers such as the 9mm and .38 Special as being the barest minimum for effective self defense, going so far as to label any handguns in calibers smaller than these as “mouse guns.”
Provenance of the .380 ACP
The .380 ACP cartridge (also known as the .380 Auto, 9mm Browning, 9mm Corto, 9mm Kurz, 9mm Short, and 9x17mm) is, after all, a fairly old cartridge, derived from a design by John Moses Browning that dates back to the first decade of the 20th century. It was originally intended for use in Colt’s Model 1908 hammerless semi-automatic, a compact-sized pistol designed to fit easily in a coat or trouser pocket. The gun was popularly advertised as “hammerless” because it didn’t have a hammer spur that could snag on clothing during the draw.
The gun itself was issued to US Army and US Air Force general officers from World War II through the 1970s. The Shanghai Municipal Police issued the M1908 to its officers in the 1920s and 1930s and it was a popular model with police in the United States, as well. The New York City Police Department issued these pistols as duty guns for its officers.
Criminals likewise favored the gun for its concealability. It is said that Al Capone always carried one in his coat pocket. Bonnie Parker used one to break Clyde Barrow out of jail after smuggling it into the jail by taping it to her thigh. Bank robber John Dillinger was allegedly carrying this model of pistol when he was shot by FBI agents outside the Biograph Theater on July 22, 1934.
While it is true that the .380 ACP isn’t as powerful as the 9mm cartridge, it is fully capable of generating muzzle energies from 210 to 337 foot-pounds, when fired from a 3.75-inch barrel. This is right within the power spectrum of the .38 Special cartridge, when that round is fired from a 4-inch barrel.
The .380 ACP’s main advantage over the 9mm, of course, is that it requires a simpler blowback mechanism to fire the round. 9mm handguns require locking receivers with tilting barrels to safely handle the high pressures generated by modern 9mm loads; a .380 ACP handgun can have a simple, fixed barrel which is also inherently more accurate.
The .380 That Started It All
The gun that precipitated the current .380 pistol craze is probably the Kel Tec P-3AT, which was introduced by Kel Tec CNC Industries in 2003. Based on the company’s iconic P-32 (a .32 ACP pistol), the pistol used a polymer frame with an aluminum insert to guide the slide in order to save on weight.
The only steel components in the gun are the barrel, the slide, the magazine, and the springs. The P-32 was, and probably still is, the lightest production pistol in the world, weighing a mere 8.3 ounces (240 grams) unloaded. Unlike Colt’s original pistol, it is also much smaller, roughly the same size as many .22- and .25-caliber pistols.
Predictably, the Kel Tec P-3AT’s light steel slide did not have sufficient mass to control the .380 ACP cartridge in simple blowback operation. Kel Tec’s designers solved this problem by adapting the locked breech, tilting-barrel design used for 9mm pistols in their gun’s mechanism. This ensured that even with a relatively light slide, the gun’s chamber pressure dropped to a safe level before the breech opened to receive the next round from the magazine. The gun was also configured to fire double-action only, to further maintain the rate of fire at “safe” levels.
An Idea Whose Time Had Come
While Kel Tec’s design did not represent any significant innovation insofar as firearms technology is concerned, it fulfilled a very real need within civilian concealed carry circles. Here was a small, lightweight pistol capable of delivering 6+1 shots in a compact, lightweight package that could be easily concealed.
Users of the gun remarked that once you slipped the pistol into your pocket, it was easy to forget that it was there. It didn’t bulge or drag your clothing down the way that most pistols in the subcompact category did.
Police officers also liked it because it offered one shot more than the .38 Special Smith and Wesson j-frame revolvers which they traditionally carried as backup guns. Not unpredictably, Kel Tec developed a large and loyal following, and this popularity was not lost on Kel Tec’s competitors.
Soon enough, models with very similar features came onto the market, chambered in the very same caliber. These included the Ruger LCP, Kahr’s P380, Smith and Wesson’s .380 Bodyguard, Taurus’ 738 TCP, and the metal-framed SIG Sauer P238. The .380 ACP cartridge, once completely overshadowed by the 9mm, suddenly got a new lease on life.
Ruger’s .380 LCP
Always having admired Ruger firearms (being acquainted their ruggedness and their reliability first-hand), my default choice was the Ruger LCP (Ruger’s acronym for Light Compact Pistol). At 9.4 ounces (266.5 grams) empty, this pistol weighed more than Kel Tec’s original creation, but featured a Glock-style extractor, an external slide stop, and a loaded-chamber indicator.
Like Kel Tec’s P-3AT, the Ruger holds six rounds of .380 ACP ammunition plus one in the chamber, for a total of 7 shots available. Having gotten used to carrying significantly more ammunition than this in my regular EDC guns, I purchased two additional magazines to give me 19 rounds on tap. (The gun arrived from the factory with only one magazine.)
Unlike the new LCP II coming out these days, my Ruger LCP doesn’t lock the slide in the open position after the last round leaves the chamber. After dumping the empty magazine and inserting a fresh one when you reload, you actually have to rack the slide to chamber a round. Still, my original LCP is 1/8 inch narrower than Ruger’s latest iteration of the LCP. It also weighs 1.2 ounces less, which suits me just fine.
I suppose that the thing that really bothered me when I first got my first-generation LCP was the very small sights. They were configured so low on top of the slide that I could barely see them. My first impulse was to to install a laser pointer on the LCP to improve its defensive aiming capability. And while waiting for the Crimson Trace Laser to arrive, I dabbed a bit of white paint on the gun’s front sight to make it stand out from the very shallow rear notch (which was also black, like the original front sight).
The white paint on the LCP’s front sight helped me shoot decently-sized groups out to 10 meters (like the one in the photo above). I considered this OK for defensive applications. After fashioning a simple holster for the pistol, I began carrying the gun in the right-hand back pocket of my jeans, together with two extra magazines in the left rear pocket to counterbalance the gun’s weight.
When the CTC laser arrived, I found that I could readily duplicate my 10-meter performances at 15 meters, while firing the LCP slowly from the hip. My laser investment had been worth it, and my personal LCP pistol has worn one ever since. (The current CTC unit is the gun’s second. Laser units can and do wear out, so don’t hesitate to replace them as required.)
I now own close to 2,000 rounds of .380 ACP ammunition, as a result of my experimentation with the Ruger LCP I carry. My supply now includes everything from ARMSCOR full metal jackets to Hornady’s new Zombie Max rounds, with almost every other manufacturer in between. My LCP has fired every brand and loading I could lay my hands on, including moly-coated lead reloads. I have experienced no failures to load, fire, or eject at any time. Pretty awesome reliability, in my humble opinion!
It is also more accurate (with the laser) than I can hold it. The only thing you need to do is keep the laser’s point steady on the target as you squeeze off the shot, and that’s exactly where your bullet will land.
The only other bone I have to pick with my first-generation LCP is its grips, which are a function of its diminutive size. The most that I can get on the grip (using regular magazines) is two fingers (middle and ring fingers). I only have medium-sized hands, but my pinkie winds up folded under the magazine when I grip the gun, trying to push up against the magazine’s base plate to stabilize the pistol.
I have found that Ruger magazines with extended base plates don’t alleviate the problem much, except to make the pinkie-under-the-magazine position more uncomfortable. (The extended base plates have two ridges underneath, which leave marks on my pinkie finger when it presses against them.) I simply take refuge in Clint Smith’s declaration that a carry gun isn’t supposed to be comfortable—it’s supposed to be comforting (!)
Anyone who is used to carrying a full-sized pistol as a primary weapon may also find the trigger action on the Ruger LCP a bit disconcerting. The pistol fires double-action only, an operation which may take some getting used to.
Basically, what this means is a relatively long and heavy trigger pull before the gun will fire, with no transition to light single-action trigger pulls after the first shot. The technique for effectively employing the LCP is actually more akin to shooting a revolver like Smith & Wesson’s j-frame, than to operating a regular semi-automatic pistol. You go through the long trigger squeeze while keeping your sights on target, and wait for the surprise break to occur. The drawn-out process is repeated for every shot, until you’ve fired 7 (instead of 5 or 6) rounds.
Personally, I consider this sort of trigger action perfectly appropriate for a gun designed for pocket carry. The long trigger pull virtually eliminates any possibility of an accidental discharge occurring while the gun bounces around in a coat or trouser pocket. Still, it makes perfect sense to carry the pistol in a holster that completely covers the gun’s trigger, and to carry nothing else (no pens, car keys, or coins) in the same pocket as the gun.
Practice, Practice, Practice!
As I immediately discovered, it takes a measure of determination to actually practice shooting the LCP, as everyone who carries one needs to do. These days, I will usually fire 25 to 30 rounds with it at the range (after doing 50 rounds with my primary carry piece) before I’m done.
My favorite training routine these days is the Mozambique Drill shot straight from the holster. This demands that I draw the pistol from concealment smoothly, and then fire the pistol three consecutive times in carefully-controlled cadence (viz.- two quick shots to the torso, followed by a more deliberate third shot to the head of a silhouette target).
When I first got the LCP, I would fire off 50 rounds per session, and nurse my gun hand afterwards. But I certainly got the hang of shooting it! And I didn’t stop until I could consistently do convincing Mozambique Drills at 7 meters, every time.
After all, I don’t expect the .380 ACP to deliver the same down range punch as the Glock 23 or the S&W M&P9 I regularly carry. Being able to deliver consecutive hits in rapid succession gave me the confidence I needed to put my faith in this less than optimal gun-and-cartridge combination.
I believe that the most important thing to bear in mind when using a .380 ACP pistol is to keep on shooting until the threat is down, and to concentrate on getting as many center-of-mass hits as possible. When relying on a six-plus-one shooter like the LCP, it also helps to carry an extra magazine (and an extra two magazines is even better). That extra ammunition doesn’t weigh much, but it will give you a better chance of making it through safely, especially if you’ve missed your latest weekly practice session.
Concealed Carry at Home?
Now that I’ve been carrying it for several years, it’s actually easy to believe what people say—that you actually forget that the little gun is there once you stick it in your pocket. That goes for the two extra magazines that go with it, as well.
I’ve noticed that even when I remove my primary carry piece at the end of the day, the LCP has a distinct tendency to remain in my back pocket. This effectively means that I wind up carrying concealed at home, which top security experts insist is an excellent idea. It prevents the mad scramble to get to a gun when a breach of your home’s security occurs.
If you’ve ever had problems finding a handgun that you can have with you all the time, taking a good, hard look at today’s new breed of .380 ACP pistols may just put an end to your worries. Almost every major manufacturer you can name has gotten into the game, with their own iteration of the genre.
Like many concealed carriers, you’re liable to discover that the small size and negligible weight of these handguns is exactly what you need to always stay prepared—especially where you’re most vulnerable—which is in your own home.
While some would have you believe that such small guns have marginal stopping power, it helps to consider that the .380 ACP cartridge was relied upon and effectively used by military and police forces worldwide during the past century.
Even if the cartridge itself never became famous for being a man stopper, today’s modern loadings put it in the same ball park as the .38 Special cartridge, which is but another (previous) law enforcement favorite rendered obsolescent by today’s wonder nines and high-capacity 10mm pistols.
A pistol chambered in .380 ACP definitely fulfills the first rule of gun fighting, which is, to have a gun. And if you practice with it as conscientiously as you do with your primary carry piece, it can serve you just as well when push comes to shove, during unexpected life-threatening situations. It will certainly beat the 1911 you left on your night stand, the 12-gauge coach gun left standing in the corner of your bedroom, and the AR-15 stashed in your closet.