1. Sports
Send to a Friend via Email
9mm vs 380 ACP For Self-Defense: Which one is Best?
By Dick Metcalf, Technical Editor, Shooting Times.

"The 380 is simply not in the same performance class as the 9mm...."

More and more concealed-carry laws are being enacted every year at the state level, and 48 states now allow some form of legal civilian concealed handgun carry. The result has been significant alteration in the proportional market share and availability of various cartridges and handgun formats, with a great increase in the popularity of small, pocket-size autoloading pistols and an attendant incorporation of previous "duty level" cartridges into ever-smaller guns.

When it comes to personal-defense carry, most people buy little guns. The single largest category of handguns bought in the US during recent years has been small, short-barrel, pocket-size defense models-autoloaders and revolvers alike. In terms of caliber selection (not counting the sub-effective .22 and .25 chamberings), the two most popular choices within this dominant portion of the overall handgun pie are the 380 ACP and the 9mm.

In today's market, compact and pocket-size guns available for the 9mm and the 380 have essentially the same range of available features and performance capabilities-in fact, identical pocket-size 9mm and 380 pistol versions are increasingly available from the same manufacturer. You can choose among single-action, double-action, or so-called DAO mechanisms, with the same type of sighting setups and safety-operating mechanisms, and choices of steel, aluminum, or molded-polymer frames for either cartridge. Which means the choice is really between the capabilities of the cartridges, not the guns.

The 9mm Wins Hands Down

So for a short-barreled, concealment-size pocket pistol, all features of the guns being equal, which cartridge choice is best for personal defense, 380 or 9mm? Some have argued that in the very short barrels (in the 3.0- to 3.25-inch range) typically found on small pistols, the apparent ballistic advantage of the longer case 9mm is canceled and the two loads' performances are essentially the same. My own actual side-by-side testing doesn't prove that out. In fact, there really isn't very much of a contest at all. The 9mm wins hands down.

The 9mm Luger cartridge (also known as the 9mm Parabellum, 9mm NATO, and 9x19mm) is actually the oldest of today's mainstream semiautomatic pistol rounds (it was introduced in 1902), but because of its comparatively recent surge to popularity in this country, most American shooters think of it as relatively "modern" in comparison to other popular autoloader cartridges like the 45 ACP (1905). The 380 ACP is nothing other than a short 9mm (its German name, in fact, 9mm Kurtz, literally translates as 9mm Short), and like the 22 Short in relation to the 22 Long Rifle, or even the 38 Special in relation to the 357 Magnum, the shorter cartridge has only a portion of the authority of the longer 9mm.

In Europe the 380 Auto/9mm Short has at various times been an official military cartridge, and it is much favored by police agencies in many nations as a primary duty round. In the US it has always been seen as a minor-power backup load. And, compared to the 9mm, that's where it belongs.

SAAMI industry-standard catalog specifications for the two cartridges rate the 380 at approximately 950 fps velocity and 200 foot-pounds (ft-lbs) energy for JHP bullets in the 90- to 100-grain weight range while the 9mm (which is offered in a much wider range of bullet weights and styles) is specced at 1150 fps and 340 ft-lbs energy with a 115-grain JHP bullet and 990 fps and 320 ft-lbs energy with heavier 147-grain JHP subsonic loads. In raw energy terms alone, then, the 9mm has about a 65 percent advantage. (Standard four-inch ballistic test barrels are employed for the SAAMI ratings for both cartridges.)

However, in view of the fact that actual cartridge effect in target is always more determined by bullet design and performance than by mathematical energy formulas, particularly when using guns with barrels shorter than SAAMI test fixtures, I (several years ago) fired a series of commercial 9mm and 380 loads from compact pistols into 10-percent ballistic gelatin blocks calibrated to FBI evaluation standards to gauge their impact effectiveness with the gel set at a personal-defense distance of 20 feet. I was interested in determining whether these two cartridges' performance in actual guns corresponded to their "on paper" ratings.

This was when down-sized 9mm pistols had just begun to enter the market in sizable numbers following the enactment of the 1994 Crime bill's magazine limitations, and the pistols used were a 3.5-inch Star Firestar for the 9mm and a three-inch S&W Baby Sigma for the 380 ACP. When I reported the results, which were overwhelmingly in favor of the 9mm, I received response from fans of the 380 who argued that the half-inch longer barrel of the Firestar pistol gave the 9mm an unfair advantage in my comparison, and that if I'd used guns of the same barrel length the 380 would have ranked much better in comparison.

I was confident of the basic "balance of power" my results indicated but also acknowledged that with short-barrel guns sometimes a very slight increase or decrease in absolute length can have a significant effect on bullet velocity, depending on particular powders and their burn rates. So when Taurus introduced its Millennium series of pocket-size compact autos a couple of years ago with identically configured 9mm and 380 versions, I resolved to redo the gel-performance review. Both the Taurus Millennium model PT111 9mm and the model PT138 380 are identical in features, size, and 3.25-inch barrel length, with the only difference between them being the actual specifications of the cartridge firing chambers.

The results of my side-by-side review firings with today's premium defense loads are listed in the chart below and closely correspond to the earlier Firestar versus Baby Sigma results. Overall, the 9mm provides a 40 percent greater wounding effectiveness (based on wound channel surface area) than does the 380. When equivalent bullet designs in the two cartridges are compared directly (for example, the Winchester SXTs and Remington Golden Sabers), the distinction is obvious. The 380 is simply not in the same performance class as the 9mm, even though the subjective experience of firing the two pistols is very much the same.

If your personal-defense handgun is going to be a small autoloader, and you are buying it because the chance exists that it may someday have to save your life, the choice between a 380 or a 9mm is still a no-brainer. Get a 9mm.

9mm Vs. 380 ACP Pocket Pistol Performance
(Ranked by Wound Area)

Factory load

Velocity (fps)
Standard Deviation (fps)
Average Upset (Inches)
Average Penetration (Inches)
Wound Volume (cu/in)
Wound Area (sq/in)
9mm Taurus Millennium PT111, 3.25-Inch Barrel
PMC 124-gr.
Starfire
1002
9
.513
13.38
2.76
21.55
Remington
124-gr.
Golden Saber
1009
38
.555
11.88
3.09
20.70
Winchester
147-gr. SXT
900
22
.510
12.75
2.60
20.42
CCI Blazer
115-gr. TMJ
1023
18
.355
23.00
1.78
20.06
Federal
115-gr. JHP
1019
10
.433
14.00
2.06
19.03
Hornady
124-gr. HP/XTP
998
20
.405
14.25
1.83
18.12
Average
Wound
Volume
2.35
Average
Wound Area
19.98
380 ACP Taurus Millennium PT138, 3.25-Inch Barrel
Hornady 90-gr.
HP/XTP
906
13
.406
11.25
1.46
14.34
Federal 90-gr.
Personal
Defense
934
12
.428
10.33
1.48
13.88
PMC 95-gr.
Starfire
890
15
.468
9.13
1.57
13.42
Speer 90-gr.
Gold Dot
970
12
.501
5.88
1.16
9.25
Winchester
95-gr. SXT
867
10
.500
5.75
1.13
9.03
Remington
102-gr. Golden
Saber
827
42
.475
6.02
1.07
8.98
Average
Wound
Volume
1.31
Average
Wound Area
11.48

*Where bullet penetration exceeds 18 inches, penetration beyond that distance
is not considered in calculation of Wound Volume or Wound Area.

NOTES: Data is based on bullets recovered after firing three rounds of
each load from each gun into calibrated 10-percent ballistic gelatin at a
distance of 20 feet. Average Upset is average frontal diameter of all three
bullets recovered for each load listed calculated on the basis of four
cross-sectional measurements of each bullet face. Wound Volume is the size
of the wound channel in cubic inches calculated for each load by multiplying
the average frontal surface area of the recovered bullets by the average depth
of penetration. Wound Area is the internal surface area of the wound channel
in square inches calculated for each load by multiplying the average
circumference of the recovered bullets by the average depth of penetration.

This article was originally published in Shooting Times magazine.

Product Reviews

You can opt-out at any time. Please refer to our privacy policy for contact information.

Discuss in my forum

©2014 About.com. All rights reserved.