380 ACP (380 AUTO)


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A Look at the .380 AUTO and Some Ammunition Recommendations

The .380 AUTO round (sometimes called the .380 ACP) is not known to be a powerhouse by any standard, yet it fills an important niche in the self defense market.  This compact cartridge allows some very compact firearms to be developed to fire this round.  Developed over 100 years ago by the legendary gun man John Browning, the 380 Auto is now gaining a resurgence in popularity due to the increasing number of guns available for it.  Popular handguns like the Ruger LCP, the Keltec P-3AT, S&W Bodyguard, and a variety of other guns designed to shoot the .380 ACP have increased interest in this ballistically modest bullet.  With the more powerful rounds rated at around 200 ft*lbs of energy coming out of a short handgun barrel, the 380 has about 1/2 the knockdown power as the more popular 9mm Luger round.  Both the 9mm LUGER and 380 ACP are in fact 9mm rounds.  It's just that the 380 AUTO has a shorter case that contains less gunpowder.  The .380 is also sometimes referred to as the 9mm Short since it has a 17mm long case (9x17mm), whereas the 9mm Luger has a 19mm long case (9x19mm).  The lighter powder charge of the shorter case is matched to a lighter bullet which gives the 380 ACP less ballistic energy.  Even so, the .380 AUTO is chosen by many because ultra compact handguns like the Ruger LCP (shown below) are easy to conceal and carry in the pocket for those that have a concealed carry permit.


Given the fact that the 380 ACP is not the most powerful round available, and also given the fact that it is a very popular round for use in ultracompact handguns, then it would be beneficial to try to figure out which choice of ammunition would be best.  That's what I tried to do and I'll share some of my research here in case it helps any one else.  First of all, I'll outright state that I am a big fan of the Speer Gold Dot handgun loads.  I think they are proven performers and they have been carefully designed to be very effective in just about any caliber for which they are available.  They are used by law enforcement officers for a reason.  If a person were to choose the Speer Gold Dot ammunition, then I think it'd be safe to say that they have made one of the best choices available for self defense ammo.  With that being said, I do think that it's still possible to find a particular bullet in a particular caliber that might be slightly better than the Gold Dots.  In my opinion, that's the case with the 380 ACP. 

Another detail to clarify up front is that I will not be considering any of the extra hot loads (+P) available for the 380 Auto.  It's not that they are inferior in terms of ballistics, but many gun manufacturers like Ruger specifically state NOT to use them in guns like the LCP.  So, for the sake of safety and preventing handguns from blowing apart in the shooter's hands (and face), we'll just stick with the advice of gun manufacturers like Ruger and leave the +P ammo for other heavier built guns.  If you happen to have such a heavy duty .380 pistol from a manufacturer that clearly states that +P is acceptable, then go for it.  On the other hand, you probably can't go wrong with the suggestions below even if you have a gun that can handle +P loads.  In terms of standard pressure loads, below is a list of my favorite choices for .380 pocket pistols (in the order of my preference) with some data obtained from shooting into uncovered ballistic gelatin.  There are a lot of other rounds available, but unfortunately many of them (even popular brands) can fall short in some critical area such as: ballistic energy, expansion, and penetration.  As a result, the long list of other 380 ammunition available will not be picked through in great detail.  Let's get past the uncertain choices and move on to some of the best.  Below are my favorite choices for the 380 AUTO.

Remington Golden Saber 102 grain (GS380B) 176 ft*lbs 0.63 in. 14.0 in.
Speer Gold Dot 90 grain (23606) 163 ft*lbs 0.59 in. 11.0 in.
Federal Hydra-Shok 90 grain (PD380HS1H) 158 ft*lbs 0.63 in. 11.5 in.

There are different factors that you should consider when choosing a load for self defense purposes.  One of the factors is the energy.  One way of looking at the energy is that it is the "punch" that the bullet provides when hitting the target.  The higher the energy then the harder the punch.  This is only true assuming that the bullet does not zip right through the target and exit out the other side.  If that were to happen, then the energy of the bullet would not be completely deposited into the target and that would not be good.  Not only would it create a hazard with stray bullets potentially hitting unintended targets, but the full punch (energy) of the bullet would also not be utilized.  In order to minimize the risk of this happening, self defense bullets are predominantly Jacketed Hollow Point (JHP).  The bullet is designed to expand when it hits a target and the larger diameter of the expanded bullet is less likely to zip all the way through it's intended target and more of the bullet's energy will be utilized effectively.  Energy and expansion diameter are important, but there is another factor that is also extremely important and this is the penetration of the bullet.  In the case of the data listed above, the penetration number is the distance (in inches) that the bullet travels before stopping in the ballistic gelatin.  It is commonly accepted that a self defense load should be able to penetrate at least 12 inches in order for it to be effective.  Again, too much penetration is not good if the bullet shoots right through the target.  I don't have any scientifically proven numbers, but my impression is that penetration in the 12-18 inch range would probably be acceptable.  Too much past that and you might risk over-penetrating and creating the problems discussed above.  In the chart above, you will notice that only the Remington Golden Saber .380 load has over 12 inches of penetration.  Earlier in this article, you will remember that it was stated that a 380 AUTO round is not known to be a powerhouse.  Some would say that it is marginal for use in a self defense situation.  It is true that the 380 ACP is less powerful than some larger caliber guns, and that's why I think it is especially important to choose the ammunition very carefully.  In other words, there isn't a lot of extra ballistic energy to spare with the .380, so you want to make sure your choice will extract the full potential of this round.  If you had a more powerful gun like a .357 Magnum or .40 S&W, then just about any modern JHP round would probably be sufficient for the task, because there is more power to spare.  Granted, any handgun load is no match for the ballistic superiority of a long gun (rifle or shotgun), but in terms of concealable self defense guns, handguns chambered with rounds like the .357 Magnum or .40 are probably good choices.  They will have sufficient power to increase the likelihood of being able to stop a dangerous threat in a reasonable amount of time.  This may not be the case with the modest 380.  Even so, it's hard to beat the concealability of a compact pistol like the LCP, and therefore it is my opinion that the 380 is still a cartridge worth considering in certain self defense situations. 

You can see from the chart above that the Speer Gold Dot and the Federal Hydra-Shok are both quite close in terms of their performance.  By comparison, the Remington Golden Sabers are a step above the rest with good bullet expansion, good penetration, and slightly higher energy levels.  In my opinion, it's easy to see that the Golden Sabers are worth considering as a self defense round in a compact 380 AUTO pistol.  How accurate are they?  They are plenty accurate.  See the video below of me shooting 7 rounds of the Remington Golden Saber .380 at a small steel plate at 10 yards.  I was also able to hit a larger steel plate target out at around 30 yards, although I was not able to hit it every time like I could the smaller plate at 10 yards.  Considering that this is coming out of an ultra-compact Ruger LCP with such a short barrel and without much in the area of sights, then I would say that this is a testimony to the accuracy of the Golden Sabers (and the LCP as well).  As always, practice is the key.  When I first got the LCP, I could hardly hit anything with it.  Practice and getting used to a gun is very important for proficiency.  Of course, ammunition with good accuracy potential is also an important factor.         

IMPORTANT NOTE:  While shooting the Remington Golden Saber GS380B in my Ruger LCP, I had a problem with occasional jamming.  At first, I thought that this was due to the shape of the Golden Saber bullets.  To test this theory out, I switched to another type of full metal jacket ammunition that I've shot before, and I had the same sporadic jamming problems.  I did a thorough cleaning of my LCP (it has been a long time since I last cleaned it) and that made a difference.  Even so, I still had an occasional jam where the slide would not go all the way forward on a follow up shot.  I'd quickly rack the slide and it would be fine.  Since I have shot a lot of rounds through my LCP, I concluded that the recoil springs were starting to lose some of their spring force through use and fatigue.  I ordered a new set of recoil springs and expect that this will greatly help increase the reliability of my LCP.  The jamming was not a problem earlier when I first got my LCP - especially with the full metal jacket bullets - so I suspect that the recoil springs can be a factor on a gun that has been shot as much as this one.  Speaking of reliability, one of the reasons that I like the Speer Gold Dot 380 AUTO round is that I find the shape of the bullet to make it very reliable in feeding in my LCP.  If there is any question in the future as to the reliability of the Golden Saber bullets in my LCP, then I'll fall back on the tried and true Gold Dots.  The point to all this is:  MAKE SURE THAT WHATEVER AMMO YOU CHOOSE FUNCTIONS RELIABLY IN YOUR PARTICULAR GUN.  It doesn't matter how superior a round is in terms of its ballistics if it doesn't cycle reliably in your gun!  With that being said, if you find the Remington Golden Saber to cycle reliably in your handgun, then I believe it is a worthy 380 ACP round to consider for self defense purposes in a compact pocket gun.

RELIABILITY UPDATE:  I changed out my worn out factory recoil springs with a stronger set of aftermarket recoil springs.  After installing the new recoil springs, the LCP was 100% reliable with the Remington Golden Saber 380 rounds.  I shot 50 rounds without a glitch of any kind.  I now have full confidence in this ammunition and keep my mags loaded with it.  Test it in your gun.  If you have any problems with the slide not going fully forward (not going into battery), then consider changing out your recoil springs.  In case your interested, I installed aftermarket Wolff 13# recoil springs in my LCP and I am very happy with them.  Factory recoil springs are supposed to be around 9#.  The stronger Wolff springs do increase the force needed to rack the slide back.  No problem at all for me.  For someone that has arthritis or other strength issues with their hands, then the 13# springs might not be ideal.  Wolff also makes a 11# and 12# recoil spring set for the LCP which might be a better choice for some people.  If you have a well worn gun that has fired a lot of rounds, then just replacing the springs with new factory ones would probably also help.  By the way, another benefit of the stiffer 13# Wolff springs is that they absorb more of the recoil and there's a little less kick felt by the hand.  In any case, I'd highly recommend the Golden Saber 380 ACP ammunition if you verify that it feeds reliably in your gun.

ANOTHER UPDATE:  The above ballistic test results were conducted in bare ballistics gelatin.  When conducting ballistics testing with heavy denim in front of the gelatin, some people have found that the hollowpoint cavity of the Golden Saber 380 bullets can plug up with denim.  If this happens, then the bullet can behave more like a FMJ and may not expand properly.  If this happens, then the unexpanded bullet will penetrate much farther.  Depending on your point of view, the extra penetration may or may not be a good thing.  With the 380, some people even load their pistols with FMJ bullets because they feel that the penetration of any expanding, hollowpoint 380 bullet is insufficient.  It is true that the 380 ACP is not known to be a powerhouse, and so penetration of an expanding bullet can sometimes be less than ideal.  That's why some people prefer to load a non-hollowpoint bullet in their 380 handgun.  All that to say, it appears that the Golden Saber will expand very well and have decent penetration as long as their isn't heavy fabric involved.  If there is heavy fabric involved, then the bullet may not expand and it might penetrate much further.  Some people might not mind this.  If you don't like this possibility, then you might consider something like the Buffalo Bore 380 +P 80gr Barnes load with the all copper bullet.  The all copper 80gr Barnes 380 bullet has proven to be a good expander in almost all situations while still having decent penetration.  Just be sure that your pistol is safe to handle the +P ammunition.  If you don't want +P ammunition and prefer to stick with standard pressure ammo, then the Golden Saber can still be a decent choice as well as the Gold Dot or Hydra-Shok discussed above.  With their open hollowpoint cavities and less than stellar velocities, they might also be prone to plugging and not expanding properly with heavy fabrics.  Another possibility for standard pressure is the Hornady Critical Defense 380 ammo because it has a polymer tip that fills the hollow point cavity, and this is supposed to help ensure more consistent expansion by preventing the hollowpoint cavity from plugging.  In testing, some people have had good results with this Critical Defense ammo, and it seems to expand more reliably than some other 380 loads, but some people have found that it may then not penetrate far enough.  All this to say, there is no single perfect choice for the 380 for all situations.  The 380 ACP really is marginal when it comes to consistently good performance with expanding bullets.  It's not like the 9mm where there is a larger margin for error, because the larger case can pack more powder which in turn can propel a heavier bullet to higher velocities.  Most 380 loads just do not have enough power to provide both good expansion and good penetration with a hollowpoint bullet.  In many cases, it seems that you can get one or the other, but it's harder to find the perfect blend of expansion and penetration with the 380.  Even so, based on my personal research I'd probably gravitate towards the Buffalo Bore 80gr 380 +P Barnes load if my gun could handle the +P, or consider the Remington Golden Saber or Hornady Critical Defense for a standard pressure 380 AUTO load.