Why Carry a .380? Why Not!

Release Date: 10/31/2014

This article is a discussion about the topic of 380 AUTO ammunition effectiveness when used in a self-defense situation. There are many opinions on this subject. In this brief article Browning staff writer Scott Engen explores the issues and give his own opinions. Publications, CCW trainers/instructors, gunwriters, ammunition companies and many others have varying ideas on the subject of 380 AUTO ammunition. We hope this viewpoint contributes to the discussion.

Is bigger always better? Dissecting the evolving 380 ACP.

Americans tend like things big and loud, like V8 hemis, NASCAR and the space shuttle. The same goes for our tastes in firearms and ammo, with bigger bullets fired from bigger cases going down bigger bores (as in Dirty Harry’s 44 Magnum, the Lone Ranger’s 45 Peacemaker or Uncle Sam’s 45 Automatic). It’s as American as baseball and apple pie.

Since we’re talking about big vs. small bullets, let’s do a quick retrospective of the defensive caliber debate. The ‘big bore is always best’ school of thought goes back more than 100 years prior to the adoption of the 45 Automatic as the US Military standard. At that time, with ammo choices limited to non-expanding round nose lead or treaty-mandated full metal jacket bullets, it probably made sense. If you’re going to have to rely solely on the diameter of the bullet to determine the size of the hole, then sure, bigger is better.

A pistol bullet showing optimal expansion.

Thus the ‘bigger is always better’ mindset quickly entered the lore and legend of American shooters, and there it remains firmly entrenched to this day. Admittedly most of the early attempts at lead hollow points, jacketed soft points and even jacketed hollow points left plenty to be desired when it came to adequate penetration and predictable expansion. What that mindset doesn’t take into account is that over the fast decade or so ammunition companies have made enormous progress in defensive bullet design and performance.

It really doesn’t matter if you favor the stopping power of the 45 ACP if it’s sitting in your gun safe.

While nobody argues the inherent physics of large, heavy bullets, we should ask ourselves if we really need all that big bore horsepower, especially when we consider it comes at the price of having to carry a larger, heavier sidearm with its associated muzzle blast and stout recoil. As a matter of practicality, all too often we decide to leave our bigger guns at home, or locked in the car or stowed in the desk drawer instead of having them readily at hand. (It really doesn’t matter if you favor the stopping power of the 45 ACP because it’s sitting in the gun safe in your den right now.)

Mike Stock reviews the results of the FBI protocol gel test for W-Defend 380 Auto ammunition shot from a Browning 1911-380. 

In turn that brings us to the ongoing 9mm vs. 380 ACP debate. Again, let’s be clear – simple physics show the 9mm packs more punch than the 380 ACP. It also brings up the question - is the 380 ACP adequate for self-defense? With modern defensive ammo the answer, quite clearly, is yes.

According to the FBI, the ideal range of bullet penetration in ballistic gel is 12 to 18 inches. We should all be aware that being law enforcement-oriented, the FBI’s protocols tend to favor bullet designs that can reliably punch through intermediate barriers like windshield glass, auto body panels, drywall and very heavy clothing. For most of us, having a projectile that is on the lower end of these penetration ranges is probably more suitable for the ‘real world’ than a projectile that rated to slam through a laminated windshield or car door and then take out the leather-clad bad guy trying to run a police roadblock. 

Browning 380 Gel Block penetration test with Winchester ammunition.

So just how do modern 380 ACP defensive bullets perform, especially when fired from the 4¼ inch barrel of the 1911-380? (Remember, a 4¼ inch barrel is the same length as a full scale “Commander-sized” Model 1911, long considered by many defensive experts as the ideal defensive carry pistol.)

In penetration tests recently performed by Browning Firearms and Winchester/Olin Ammunition (and observed by several noted gunwriters) we found that the Winchester 95 grain W Defend JHP bullet penetrates a consistent 8 to 11 inches through bare ballistic gel, and an impressive 8½ inches after punching through four layers of typical clothing (t-shirt, woven shirt, fleece and denim). These numbers point to the modern 380 ACP defensive round offering very credible ballistic performance without undue concern for over-penetration, an important consideration in urban and residential settings.)

Add in the fact that, due to the sharp recoil, excessive blast and blinding flash, touching off full-house defensive loads in most micro-sized 9mm, .40 and .45 pistols is a decidedly unpleasant experience for most shooters. That generally equates to less range time spent mastering the smaller guns, and thus something less than a mastery of marksmanship, especially under the stress of a defensive confrontation.

In comparison, firing modern 380 ACP defensive ammo in the Browning 1911-380 with its 4¼ inch barrel produces more modest muzzle blast and flash along with minimal felt recoil that’s easily managed by almost any shooter. All of these qualities contribute to faster and more accurate follow-up shoots.

In summary, the 1911-380 isn’t your grandpappy’s trusty GI 45. It’s not meant to be. It’s a compact, comfortable and concealable single-action autoloader that fills an important niche in today’s handgun market. It’s shootable, accurate, reliable and feature-packed. It’s the right size, the right shape and it offers the right level of power. In short, it’s The Right 380.

Slow motion video of the actual gel test. 

Article Copyright Browning, 2014. Written by Browning staff writer, Scott Engen. Images copyright Browning and Winchester Ammunition, 2014. Thanks to Winchester Ammunition and Mike Stock for assistance with the FBI protocol gel tests.