Is A .380 Good For Self Defense?

When you buy via links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission at no cost to you. Learn more.

The .380ACP has a dedicated following, and rightly so. The compact dimensions of the .380ACP chambered pistols have gotten many law enforcement officers and civilians out of a sticky situation. John Browning created the fantastic .380 ACP for the Colt Model 1908 pocket hammerless semi-automatic pistol.

Loaded with appropriate ammunition, the .380 ACP is a formidable self-defense caliber. The compact size makes the .380 ideal for concealed carry and backup. Ammo loaded with a 90gr FMJ, hollow-point, or Solid copper bullets, traveling at 1,100 ft-ps meets the .380 FBI penetration requirements.  

The .380 ACP is available in several pistol configurations and even more ammunition options. Let’s explore if the .380 in its standard form is suitable for self-defense.

Is A .380 Good For Self Defense

Is a .380 Pistol Good for Self Defense?

The .380 ACP, also known fondly as the 9mm short, 9mm Browning, 9mm Corto, 9mm Kurtz, and 9mm Browning Court, was introduced in 1908 as a self-defense cartridge. The cartridge is a formidable self-defense caliber despite being slightly shorter than the 9mm Luger.

Both cartridges use the 9mm (0.355 inches) diameter bullet heads. The .380 ACP cartridge length is 0.984 inches (9x17mm) vs. 1.168 inches for the 9mm Luger (9x19mm). Bullet weights for the .380ACP range from the blisteringly fast 45gr RBCD TFSP, which runs at 1,835 ftps, to the 100gr Buffalo +PHC-FN at 1,160 ftps. The most popular bullet weights are 90, 95, and 100gr.

The 9mm Luger is slightly more effective than the .380ACP due to the marginally longer case, which allows more propellant to be loaded into the bullet. Bullet weights range from the 60gr RBCD TFCP bullet that travels at 2010ftps to the 124gr Norma Envy FMJ, delivering 1,345 ftps. Most popular is the 124gr bullet weight.

Seeing as volunteers that don’t mind being shot are few and far between, the FBI penetration standards are a solid measurement to use when deciding on the viability of a .380ACP as a self-defense cartridge.

The FBI standard requires the bullet to deliver at least 200ft-lbs energy, 12 inches penetration in ballistic gell after passing through heavy clothing.   

Bullet choice is vital with the .380ACP when looking at a self-defense option. Not only do you need to meet the FBI standards to be sure the cartridge will perform well, but you also need to ensure the weapon you’re using reliably feeds the ammo.

Let’s look at some stats below of likely candidates for self-defense as they meet the FBI penetration standards.

ManufacturerBullet TypeVelocity (ft/s)Penetration (Inch)Energy (ft-lb)Bullet Weight (Grains)
Atomic AmmoBonded JHP1,1001224190
UnderwoodSolid Copper Extreme Penetrator1,1001824290

Bullet penetration is a factor of the bullet’s velocity and bullet weight. The heavier the bullet, the better the penetration will be, provided the velocity is high enough. The 90gr bullet has developed an excellent reputation in terms of reliability.

My pick is the Underwood Solid Copper Extreme Penetrator of the above cartridge choices. This bullet design is a good compromise between FJM penetration and the effectiveness of the hollow-point designed bullets.

The copper bullet head does not expand or deform, meaning it loses less velocity than expanding bullets. Keeping the resistance as low as possible ensures better penetration. Underwood got it right with the Extreme Penetrator, which produces class-leading penetration of eighteen inches in ballistic gel.

The Underwood bullet unique is in its grooved outer surface and leading edge. The grooves create an effective cutting edge as the gullet spins its way into the target while the bullet’s velocity causes damage to the surrounding tissue, much the same way as an expanding bullet would.

Choosing The Right .308ACP Pistol For Self-Defense

Ruger LCP .380
Ruger LCP .380

Choosing the right pistol for self-defense is like telling you which shoes I think will be good for you. Factors such as personal taste, material preferences, and size are as relevant to buying a weapon as other personal items.

However, we have a few essential considerations to ensure you weigh up the available options carefully to make the right buy for your needs. Let’s go through the choices that I consider crucial.

Pistol Size

Most if not all .380ACP chambered pistols fall into the compact category, meaning they’re physically smaller than most standard 9mm Luger chambered pistols. The pistol size is important as the pistol grip needs to fit the size of your hand.

I don’t enjoy shooting pistols where you only fit two or three fingers onto the grip. One of the main complaints when shooting a pistol that is too small to accommodate your grip is the slide rails biting into the web of your hand as the pistol cycles.

The .380ACP is by no means a heavy kicker but does have a notable recoil if you can’t get a proper comfortable grip on the weapon. Try out a few pistols before buying something that will forever be a compromise in terms of an appropriate fit for you.

Pistol Material

Pistols are, of course, made from a variety of materials. All steel, steel, and composite, as well as stainless steel pistols, are available. The materials that the pistol is made of are important as this determines the weapon’s weight, which determines your comfort level and holster choice.

The material choice also affects the amount of time you’ll be spending on maintaining the gun to prevent issues like rust. Carry weapons are often carried up against or close to the skin, which gives off moisture.

The pistols metal coating can be more important to consider if you live in a hot, damp climate as the likelihood of metal parts rusting would be higher than in a cool, dry environment. Polymer pistols take this worry out of the equation in frame construction, but the slide is still prone to damage due to environmental factors.

Sight Requirements

Many old-school compact and sub-compact pistols were fitted with pretty useless sights. Many rear sights were merely a slight slit machined into the top of the slide, which was hard to see. The same applies to the front sight, which was often nothing more than an afterthought and resembled the edge of a coin.

Fortunately, today we have many options to choose from. Most sights have a self-contained light source built in, which is invaluable for accurate shooting in low light conditions. Most pistols are designed to replace standard factory sights with aftermarket sights. Replace them with quality sights if you like the gun but don’t like the sights.

When it comes to the physical sights, make sure that they don’t stand too proud. There’s nothing worse than having to fight with your pistol to get it out of its holster or pocket. When drawing the pistol in a hurry, this delay could cost you your life in a self-defense situation.  

Magazine Capacity

Most .380ACP subcompact pistols have a magazine capacity between six and eight rounds. These are called single stack magazines and hold about the same bullets as a standard revolver. The magazine capacity is kept low to ensure the pistols’ overall size and width are kept as low as possible.

Many folks will argue that if you can’t resolve the situation with six shots, then you’re probably done. However, most folks would fall into the “the more, the better” category, necessitating looking at the ten or even fifteen-round double-stack pistol options.

Barrel Length

Barrel lengths in pistols are generally very short as pistols are designed for close-up work, so unless you require a specific velocity out of a particular bullet, don’t let the barrel length put you off one specific gun. How the pistol fits you is more important.

Most .380ACP barrel lengths fall into the two and a half to three and a half-inch range. A few may have barrels an inch or so longer. The barrel length determines the overall size of the pistol while also influencing the bullet’s velocity. The shorter the barrel of the pistol, the lower the velocity generated.

The length of the slide influences your sight picture. The sights are, of course, attached to the front and rear of the slide. As a rule, the further the front and rear sight are apart, the more accurate you can place your shots. Also, consider that the shorter the barrel, the shorter the pistol’s slide will be.

Action Type

When deciding on a pistol with specific features relating to the action, the most common things to look at are single action, double action, exposed or concealed hammer, or hammerless. Your personal preference would be your guide here. Bear in mind that exposed hammer spurs can snag when drawing the pistol.

Many people find smaller pistols difficult to cock because they have tight mainsprings. When purchasing a .380ACP self-defense pistol, make sure you can easily cock the gun and consider those who are likely to shoot the gun regularly.

Safety Features

The safety mechanism of a pistol falls into two main types. The first is the traditional safety lever type, usually slide mounted and blocks the firing pin or trigger mechanism or both and prevents the weapon from firing when activated.

The second type of safety mechanism doesn’t have an external lever that must be shifted to the “fire” position before the gun can fire. Instead, the trigger becomes the safety mechanism and requires the trigger to be pulled before the weapon fires.

Various additional safety features like a trigger block lever, firing pin block, and anti-drop safety features ensure that the pistol can not fire unless the trigger is pulled.

Some pistols also employ the grip safety, as found on the 1911 type pistols, as an additional feature.

.380ACP pistols are available in various options when it comes to safety features, so choose the one that suits your needs the best. Bear in mind that a safety lever needs to be manually disengaged before the weapon can shoot.

Unless you regularly practice disengaging the safety so that it becomes second nature and so doing build muscle memory, and don’t have to look away from your assailant to disengage the safety, you may consider the Glock type feature. The advantage of trigger-only or concealed type safety is that it’s fast into action without first disengaging a lever before being able to fire the gun.    

Below are eight popular pistol options worth considering if you’re looking to buy a .380ACP for self-defense. Many more options are available, so hunt around and don’t be influenced by a pushy salesman to take what they have available.

MakeMagazine CapacitySafetyBarrel Length (inch)Manufacturing Materials
Glock 426Safe Action3.25Steel & Composite
Seecamp LWS 3806Trigger Pull2.06Steel
Browning 1911 – 3808Lever4.25Steel
S&W EZ Shield8Grip Safety3.675Steel & Composite
Kahr CW3806Trigger Pull2.58Steel & Composite
Bersa Thunder Plus15Lever3.54Steel
Walther PK3808Lever3.66Steel & Composite
Sig 238 Nightmare6Grip & Lever2.7Steel

The Seecamp is the smallest of the selected pistols but may be too small for the average shooter. For concealment purposes, this pistol may well be the best option. My pick is the Bersa Thunder Plus due to its excellent magazine capacity. The Browning 1911 followed by the S&W and the Walther PK would be my following pics.

The Glock 42 is most popular in sales and is a great weapon. I struggle with the long trigger pull and stiff mainspring, making cocking the pistol difficult. I’m sure you’ll love it.

Remember to add one round each to the above for a chambered round.


The .380ACP is fast becoming a favorite in terms of a primary self-defense weapon for civilian use. The compact size of the weapon is a real advantage without sacrificing performance.

Using appropriate ammunition for the intended purpose turns the backup gun of old into a formidable primary self-defense option. 

Related Articles