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For The New Gun Owner: 9mm VS .380 ACP

380 vs 9mm

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.

There are numerous factors to consider when choosing which caliber to carry; the first being how you plan to carry and which size pistol works best with that decision. Many people like myself, choose to pocket carry for the ultimate in concealability and maneuverability.

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.

Need more caliber wars? Marines settled the 9mm vs .45 ACP debate a while back. Looking for a primer on the trusty forty five? Check out: Because sometimes old, fat, and slow works just fine.

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26 Responses to For The New Gun Owner: 9mm VS .380 ACP

  1. Patrick Sesto October 17, 2017 at 9:30 am #

    Thank you for informing article

  2. Greg Pugh October 17, 2017 at 9:48 am #

    Two of the most obvious things were left out of this article.

    The first is cost. Before you buy a gun, price the ammo. Anything a .380 will do a 9mm will do better, and for half the cost. Plus, you can more easily buy 9mm in bulk and it keeps.

    The second is because of the first. Shot placement is more important than caliber and that requires practice. (A hit with a .22 beats a miss with a .45). The easier it is to carry, the harder it is to shoot, so expensive ammo and a gun too small to get a grip on means very little practice. The nine wins here too.

    A third thing that is less obvious is the doomsday scenario. If you are miles from home and out of ammo you’ll be able to get 9mm from almost anyone. .380, not so much. Unlikely? Yes, but while not probable it is possible and might be worth considering when deciding what to carry. Just my 2 cents.

    • Joshua October 17, 2017 at 9:56 am #

      All good points! Thanks Greg.

    • Mikial October 17, 2017 at 3:43 pm #

      All god points, Greg.

      I agree with the author’s points about the two calibers, but I’m glad you added this. Along with your comment there’s the fact that if you really do need to have a very small gun to fit your carry situation you can get 9’s that aren’t really noticeably bigger than a .380. As long as you can handle the recoil, I would always recommend a 9mm over a .380.

    • JAT October 24, 2017 at 8:06 pm #

      Wow, Greg, Com’on Man! Lighten up. Joshua wrote a very entertaining piece. And, some people, believe it or not, shoot for…fun. Most are not preppers or paranoid and enjoy shooting little .380s because just like golf, chipping is as much fun as driving. I love target shooting with a 1911 Colt .45 but after a few hundred rounds, my sig 380 keeps me on the range instead of packing up and going home way too soon. Also, if you can afford a car payment, the cost of ammo is…irrelevant. Your points are valid, don’t get me wrong, but shooting is also a sport and .380s are fun as hell to play with on a calm day. (btw- I carry .357 when I seriously need protection and trust me, the cost of ammo is the last thing on my mind). So, I say, line up the bang bangs from big to small and work through your whole bag…twice! Who cares if the car gets repoed. Life is short baby! Cheers.

  3. JJ October 17, 2017 at 10:17 am #

    Nice read

  4. steve October 17, 2017 at 10:23 am #

    If when using a SW .380, one was to use a R.I.P. Radically Invasive Projectile (G2 Research) as ammo, would results be better?

    • Leonard October 17, 2017 at 10:47 am #

      The G2-RIP is the ammo that I use in my .380 and .45…. But I use my .380 as a back up and the .45 as my primary…

    • Joshua October 17, 2017 at 10:54 am #

      Steve,

      The most important aspect with any firearm that you’re going to carry for self-defense, is to make sure you’ve got ammunition that works in your gun. What that means, is that you’ve got to actually go to the range and test-fire your gun with your chosen self-defense ammo. A good friend of mine a few years back settled on a Kahr CW-380, chose Lehigh Defense ammunition, and this was his primary defense gun with an extra mag. The issue, is that the gun would not cycle the ammo and he carried that for several months before he realized it.

      I have personally not tested RIP in your gun, but if I were you, I’d make sure it cycles properly before you settle on it for defense.

      Thanks for the comment,

      Josh

      • steve October 17, 2017 at 11:05 am #

        Thank you… The ammo I purchased is rather expensive with lots of “promises” so I haven’t been using it for practice… I’ll use it today and see how well it works

        • Scott Key October 18, 2017 at 5:39 am #

          Steve,

          I have tried the G2 RIP in my S&W .380. I did have the occasional feed problem with the ammo. Granted it wasn’t often, but one time is too often in a self-defense situation. For me personally, the cost of the ammo and the reliability issue equaled a “No”. I have found that Any of the Federal or Hornady ammo works very well in my gun.
          Just my two cents worth. Hope it helps. Happy shooting!
          Scott

  5. bwjr October 17, 2017 at 10:42 am #

    If you are going to carry a .380, the choice of ammo is critical. I have the Glock 42 and 43 and use Lehigh ammo exclusively. Here are the stats for the .380:

    Cartridge: 380 Auto
    Bullet weight (gr): 90
    FTM – Fluid Transfer Monolithic
    Box qty: 20
    Velocity (fps): 950
    OAL (in): 0.950
    Penetration (in): 17.0
    Wound cavity (in): 1.00
    A full inch wide hole at 17 inches.

  6. Ron Schlatter October 17, 2017 at 11:03 am #

    Thank you for the article. The points that you made are valid. Ergonomics plays a role in my selection process. The one size fits all doesn’t work for me in gun selection. I carry a 92SF full time and a 1911 both are comfortable for me to carry. When selecting a hand gun for my wife we focused on ergonomics. We looked at a SIG Sauer P226 9MM, M&P Shield 9MM and Remington RP9. All of these are excellent choices, however I felt she needed one that felt like it belonged in her hand. The M&P 9MM is the one she selected. I referred to this as a haw moment and her comfort level was met. On the range right out of the box she was spot on. As her skill has improved so has her shot grouping.

  7. Dan October 17, 2017 at 11:15 am #

    Good Article – I appreciate your quote below which really is and should be the bottom line.

    “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.”

    Several factors impacted my decision to a carry 380. I live and work in an area not always friendly to CCP so deep concealment is important. Additionally, my wife carries a 380 which she is both comfortable and proficient with – this gives us ammo compatibility. This is also a calculated risk that I fully understand and accept.

    Another thought, with over 32 years of carry experience (Military and Law Enforcement), I have never met anyone who in the heat of the battle really cares what the caliber of the lead is that’s flying at them. A larger caliber does not guarantee a hit nor a stop.

    I have met many a caliber snob that talks a good game and will tell you all the virtues of that big bore man stopper they have – until you find out they keep it at the house, in the car or some other inaccessible place.

    There are enough anti gun folks that we need to contend with – lets not bicker among ourselves

  8. David L Clarke October 17, 2017 at 11:19 am #

    I think proficiency with your firearm & projectile placement would be the 1st 2 determining factors for whatever size you choose to carry be that .22-.380-9- or 45.
    MOST encounters will occur at less then 15-20 feet so do we care if the projectile will go a mile? Not if we place it where we’d like for it to go.

  9. Don October 17, 2017 at 12:32 pm #

    Good article and good commentary. Gives good information for each to make their own decisions on the best solution.

    • Joshua October 17, 2017 at 12:36 pm #

      Thanks, Don!

  10. Dennis Henderson October 17, 2017 at 12:44 pm #

    All great points in this article. Now you can do an article comparing the 9 mm to the 40 cal. The results would be very similar. Back in the 80s and 90s many police depts issued the 9s to their officers. This resulted in many criminals not being stopped due to the lack of impact.

    Today the majority of police departments are issuing the 40. I dumped my little S&W Bodyguard because of its lack of stopping power and difficulty to hold because of its small size. I went right past the 9 mm and got the S&W M&P 40. I really love this pistol.

  11. Matt October 17, 2017 at 1:16 pm #

    I carry the P938 for deep concealment and I usually practice 115G FMJ Winchester Ammo. I also have practiced with my carry load, the 135G Hydro-shock JHP. I’ve shot .380, and find it enjoyable, but question the lower caliber and lower velocity. I might consider one for a backup.

  12. Leo G Penkala October 17, 2017 at 5:02 pm #

    I guess I’m old fashion. My off duty weapon of choice is still the Walther PPK in .380.

    • gandolf October 22, 2017 at 8:28 am #

      Have you ever had to use your Walther for self defense? I have had one for many years and have only fired it at the range. Until I could keep it in my head to place my hand below the slide it bit me a few times. The sights are the other drawback. It will reliably shoot whatever you feed it though.

  13. Daryl October 17, 2017 at 5:42 pm #

    This debate has existed for decades and I’m pretty sure it will continue. While I won’t bash either caliber, I will say that I have carried concealed as a part of my profession for nearly 30 years. I. Ersonally carry a .380 so I can wear just about anything without risking muscle memory. The advice I will give is, although you should always carry high quality ammo, regardless of what you carry, it is even more important to carry very high quality ammo is your carrying a .380. If you carry a .380 with cheap, light load, ball ammo, your putting your life on the line. Stay safe!

  14. PowderKeg October 17, 2017 at 8:05 pm #

    My made my choice all dated from an article which has stayed true to me for years.

    The was a written analysis of every handgun caliber from .22 LR to 45 ACP and its effectiveness. It stated anyone can survive a hit from any one of the calibers, with only one exception a 100% kill rate – 9MM.

    That’s what impacted my decision. Besides is it the most popular ammunition, other than the .22 LR, the leader. Easy to reload too!

    I would only consider a .380 as a back-up gun. That is after I have used up 2 magazines and 24 rounds. Highly, unlikely I would be able to use it!

  15. Skip October 18, 2017 at 12:18 am #

    Caliber is important. Bullet configuration is important. Even bullet weight and velocity are important, But the MOST IMPORTANT thing is SHOT PLACEMENT. Being able to put the bullet where you want it to go. I’ve heard it many times over the years, “Carry the most powerful handgun you can shoot well and discreetly conceal.”

  16. Tommy Reeves October 18, 2017 at 3:42 pm #

    The Hornady ‘Critical Defense’ 90 gr is rated at 1000 fps. That’s what I carry loaded in mine. Also at http://www.buffalobore.com one can find .380 ammo loaded as hot as 1400 fps. I checked with S&W about using it in the Bodyguard. They said that it would take the extra power but a constant diet of it would shorten the life of the gun.

  17. HB October 21, 2017 at 2:41 pm #

    I bought a P238 because at the time it was the only conceal able small gun that would fit in my pocket, easy to rack and ambidextrous. As a lefty its slim pickings. Since then the 938 came out but remember 8 years ago there were much less in what a left handed shooter can select from.

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