One of the most talked about topics in the gun world, is the never ending caliber war. I usually try to avoid it if at all possible, because it just causes arguments. Still, one of the most popular questions I'm asked, revolves around caliber choice and “stopping power.” This time around, we discuss two of the more popular carry rounds, .380 vs 9mm. Of course, this isn't meant to re-hash that old, timeless argument, but help those of us out who are newer to the concealed carry arena be more prepared when they get to the gun store.
People have a way of asking certain questions, and it's our job, the writers and editors of this fine website, to make sure they get the right answers. So, keeping in mind who this article is actually written for, let's discuss the 9mm vs .380 ACP for self-defense.
The .380 is not as powerful as 9mm, but is still quite popular because it is smaller and still packs enough of a punch to get the job done in a self-defense situation. The .380 cartridge itself is only about 2mm smaller, hence one of its names, the 9mm short or 9 x 17. The 9mm Luger is 9mm x 19mm. For a visual, 2mm is about the thickness of a dime.
Some of the smallest semi-automatic pistols on the market are chambered in .380, making them great choices when concealment is the most important factor. It should be said here, that it is common for a firearms manufacturer to produce very similar guns, with a .380 version and a 9mm version. In these circumstances, the .380 version is at least a little smaller. One such gun manufacturer that comes to mind is Sig Sauer with their P238 and P938, chambered in .380 ACP and 9mm, respectively. This, as we'll see in a moment, comes at a price.
Your personal style and mode of carry also plays a part if you need to choose between a pistol in 9 or 380. If you are wearing tighter fitting clothes, you will need a smaller gun to help conceal it. If you live in a climate prone to colder weather, the multiple layers in those seasons lend better to greater concealment. Many people carry a smaller gun in the warmer months and a larger one when it’s cooler out.
Of course, as a side note, there's something to be said about muscle memory and self-defense. You need to make sure that you've gotten your draw stroke down so your muscles take over. More on that, here.
Another vital consideration for choosing between 9mm vs .380ACP pistols is one’s ability to manage recoil. There is less gunpowder (with a lighter weight projectile) in a .380 cartridge and, in theory, should have less perceived recoil.
This, of course, is highly dependent on the gun, the actual load, and shooting mechanics. As a rule of thumb, a heavier pistol will absorb more recoil than a lighter one. There are many polymer framed pistols that are lighter than their steel or alloy framed alternatives. Naturally, the polymer will tend to feel more snappy than the steel framed pistol.
There are other attributes at play, such as slide construction, barrel ports, bore axis, and the like, but we can get into those areas in another article, if needed. New shooters, small framed shooters, children, shooters with disabilities, and others with special circumstances may need a less powerful caliber to shoot proficiently and confidently. These two issues conflict with each other because the heavier and larger the pistol is, the less recoil is felt, but the more difficult it is to conceal.
In short, the most important factors are how you’re going to carry and what you physically feel comfortable shooting. The undisputed factor when comparing these cartridges is power, and for the typical cartridges in these calibers, the 9mm is more powerful.
This translates to a much greater likelihood that a shot from a 9mm will incapacitate an attacker, quicker, putting a stop to the threat. I'd be remiss to say that this is always the case, though, because a person hopped up on methamphetamine may not feel anything at all. Still, 9mm is likely the better choice if all you looked at was power.
However, many people use .380 pistols to successfully defend themselves and should not be thought of as an incapable cartridge of defending you or your loved ones.
I can't answer which one you should choose. What I can do, however, is tell you why I chose 9mm for my own self-defense and choose to not own any .380 guns. As a base, .380 projectiles weigh in at about 95 grains, with a small range of bullet weights. 9mm bullets, on the other hand, tip the scale starting about 20 grains more at 115 with a larger range of bullet weights. Because the case is also bigger, the 9mm holds more powder and therefore, propels the bullet to faster speeds.
I'm far from an expert in physics, but a heavier mass traveling at a faster speed usually equals a bigger punch on the receiving end.
Lastly, the practical nature must come into play as well. One will need to assess their self-defense needs. Someone who spends a large amount of their time in high crime areas is in a much different situation than someone who lives in a suburban or rural area with low crime rates. Does it make more sense for you to carry a high capacity firearm with more powerful rounds in an inside the waistband holster? That's up to you to decide. Of course, some people would rather have a more powerful cartridge no matter the scenario.
At the end of the day, one thing remains to be true … any caliber is better than none, and the best is the one that you feel comfortable with and have on you in the time of need.