BY Dustin Gladwell – SOFREP
Who doesn’t love a good debate? The firearms community is full of them. Like the Glock 19 versus the Sig P320, for example. Both of those guns are chambered for 9mm, so it’s an orange-to-orange comparison. Even more to the point today, 9mm has become more or less the default caliber for most handguns and everyday carry (EDC) options. Should other calibers also be considered? The debate between .380 vs 9mm still exists, and one I hear all the time. To be more specific, the .380 ACP (Automatic Colt Pistol), versus the 9mm NATO (also known as 9mm Luger and 9mm Parabellum).
As popular guns chambered in 9mm like the Glock 19, the Sig P320, and the FN 509 have set the standard for modern semi-autos, it’s almost as if the market has settled the debate. With that said, the question remains of what is better in the consideration of .380 vs 9mm. I also hear that question a lot within the conversation about which are the best handguns for women.
Until not too long ago, the popular saying within the firearms community was “if there isn’t a ‘4’ in front, it’s worthless.” Or some variation along those lines. Meaning, if it’s not a .40 S&W, .45 ACP, .44 Magnum, etc, it’s not worth consideration because it lacks “stopping power.” If that is true, then both .380 and 9mm are out of the question. However…
Let’s load up a few magazines’ worth of information, and dive into some background on all these points. I might not solve this debate for you here. What I will do is point you in the right direction and give the best recommendation possible. And I will dispel a few myths at the same time.
I hate to be the bearer of bad news… Actually, I don’t. I love being the bearer of accurate information and setting the record straight. Especially when it’s about training, tactics, or things that can amount to life and death.
Stopping power is a myth. Wait. What?
Yes, stopping power is a myth. As is the notion of “one shot, one kill,” or dropping someone instantly in their tracks with a big bullet. This is especially true in the world of handguns, civilian defensive shootings, law enforcement, and supported by years and years’ worth of data. On average, according to FBI statistics, it takes at least three rounds to kill or fully incapacitate an attacker — in any caliber. Also, “incapacitate” does not mean “kill,” so it’s important to make the distinction.
In almost any scenario, instant incapacitation would require a headshot or a well-placed shot to the Central Nervous System (the brain or the upper spine). Even then, it’s not 100 percent guaranteed. Multiple studies over multiple years by multiple law enforcement agencies, cannot and do not come to a consensus.
One consideration that must be taken into account for any pistol caliber decision, is the type of round. Meaning, using an FMJ (full-metal jacket) round or “ball” ammo, or using a JHP (jacketed hollow point) round. For defensive purposes, JHP ammo is always preferable. It creates a larger wound track, more internal trauma, and is far less likely to over-penetrate and leave the body of the intended target.
There are so many factors and variables in defining “stopping power,” that a true determination does not exist. In measuring terminal ballistics in any round of any caliber, one variable will always become the constant: shot placement. And that, my friends, is all on you.
The .380 ACP was designed by none other than legendary gunsmith and firearms engineer, John Moses Browning. Among other things, he is responsible for the creation of the lever-action rifle, pump-action shotgun, and semi- or auto-loading guns. And of course, for creating the venerable Colt 1911.
From the very beginning, the .380 was designed as a defensive round, with a concealed carry gun in mind. It was first presented in 1908 by Colt, in their 1908 Hammerless Semi-Automatic pistol. It was also adopted by various military and law enforcement agencies around the world.
For the .380, the size and the caliber of the bullet are both a pro and a con. The .380 being small, and the majority of .380 guns being very small pistols provides a huge advantage for everyday carry (EDC). Simply put, the guns are easy to conceal, and more comfortable to carry than a larger gun.
However, a small size comes with a price. The smaller bullet, and more accurately, the shorter bullet casing, means less gun powder. Less powder means less energy behind the round, less force, and less velocity. Less velocity also equates to less expansion in hollow point ammo once it makes contact with soft tissue. And expansion is a necessary attribute for those rounds to maximize their effectiveness and lethality.However, this takes us to the next positive trait of the .380, and perhaps the best of all: less felt recoil. Recoil matters for comfort and for taking follow-up shots, if necessary, and is a valuable consideration. We call this “shootability,” and it does matter to some degree or another. If fired from the same exact gun, for example (if that were possible), the .380 has over 90 percent less felt recoil than a 9mm.
The 9mm has become the most popular and ubiquitous handgun caliber in the world. It was designed in 1901 by Austrian engineer and gunsmith Adrian Luger. In use today by thousands of militaries and law enforcement agencies around the world, it was first adopted by the German army (1904) and navy (1908).
It is well known that the US military opted to use the .45 caliber for its standard sidearm ever since adopting the Colt 1911. It might not be as well known that Luger actually presented his new 9mm Parabellum round to both the British and the US in 1902 and 1903, respectively. The US adopted the Beretta M9 pistol in 1985, chambered in 9mm NATO, which is used and manufactured by 70 countries around the world.
Over the years, opinions about the 9mm have changed. At least, for many people in certain circles. During some periods many experts and agencies felt the 9mm was not effective enough, and inferior to other calibers, such as the .45 ACP. In recent years, thinking has changed again, as technology has advanced and bullets are now better. Better terminal performance emerged in the 9mm from better gun powder and overall bullet design, for instance. The FBI switched back to 9mm a few years ago, given that the caliber performs just as well as .40 and .45 in ballistic tests.
The 9mm has much lower recoil than .40 and .45 and is, therefore, easier to shoot. In fact, the snappy and somewhat heavier recoil of the .40 is noticeably harder to control, and many shooters will continue to opt for 9mm. Paired with the right ammo, the 9mm is very effective, and here stay.
.380 vs 9mm: Initial Considerations
Putting these two rounds head-to-head is slightly difficult since the majority of the guns that fire them are or can be quite different. With that in mind, in some ways, this is a valid debate, and in other ways… not so much. Not so much, because…
I say again: stopping power is a myth. Knowing this helps to bring the conversation back down to earth to some degree and cuts through a lot of clutter. At the same time, that does not mean that bullets or calibers do not matter. It’s not to say that they are all the same, either. That is certainly not the case.
As always, just about anything and everything in the firearms and tactical world are about trade-offs. To gain something, almost in every situation or instance, something else is lost. This does not mean the tactical world is a “zero-sum game.” It does mean that pros and cons have to be considered. For something to be worth the trade-off, the pros need to outnumber the cons.
Bottom line recommendation: do not select or rely on anything smaller than a .380 for defensive purposes. With that in mind for the debate of .380 vs 9mm, this creates the foundation and a baseline.
.380 vs 9mm: How Much Does It Really Matter?
Once the baseline is established, it’s time to weigh out the pros and cons, and those highly-relevant trade-offs.
The starting point is in the bullet diameter itself. Both rounds are the same size: 9mm. And a .380 really isn’t .38” — it’s .355” just like the 9mm. The bullet height and overall weight — which matters — is where they diverge. The .380 is a shorter bullet than the 9mm. And therefore, the 9mm is a heavier bullet weight or grain.
The bullet case — the shell — is also taller on the 9mm. A taller case, of course, means more powder, with means more velocity and energy. The .380 case is 17mm tall, and the 9mm is 19mm tall. That small difference in case height, however, is more significant than it appears.
On average, a normal load for a .380 will have 3 grains of gun powder. The average .380 bullet is between 90-100 grains, and in a +/- 3-inch barrel, flies at around 850-900 feet per second. This provides about 150 ft-lbs of energy on impact with a target.
A typical load for a 9mm will have 6 grains of gun powder — double the load of the .380. The 9mm is a heavier bullet, so that does not automatically mean that the 9mm is twice as fast and twice as powerful. However, it is significantly more powerful, and it delivers more energy. Energy is what matters most in this consideration. Most 9mm rounds are between 115 -147 grains, that fly around 1,000-1,100 fps. The heavier, faster bullet produces about 255 ft-lbs of energy.
With modern hollow point ammunition, it’s the combination of speed and energy that help cause the bullet to mushroom. The mushroom effect is what creates the larger wound cavity and creates more internal trauma in the human body. The heavier, faster, and longer 9mm, has more energy and expansion, which causes more physical damage than the .380.
.380 vs 9mm: Let’s Shoot Straight
In this debate and weighing the pros and cons with the .380 vs 9mm, we have to shoot straight. Literally and figuratively.
Because of the math behind all this data, this is also why a 9mm can perform as well as the larger .40 or .45. In the end, the 9mm can cause as much internal damage and penetration, even with the smaller diameter and lighter bullet. Again, speed and energy plus expansion matter quite a bit. So in the consideration between .380 vs 9mm, this is the biggest factor of all.
Of all the pros and cons, the main thing going for the .380 and the only significant advantage is in the amount of recoil. Does this matter? Yes, it does, 100 percent. Is it enough to make up for the other cons of the round, in comparison to the .380 vs 9mm? In many ways, that is up to you to decide.
Lighter recoil means better, more accurate follow-up shots and effective shot placement. With that in mind, that is why the 9mm is just as good against the .40 and .45, as well. Combine that with the fact that 9mm semi-autos carry more rounds than all the other three calibers, the trade-offs and pros start to outweigh any con, in favor of the 9mm.
Another reality is that in a gunfight, you can, you will, and you should shoot more rounds than you think. Four, five, or six, or even more, well-placed and accurate .380 rounds, are better than a less accurate shot from any of the larger calibers. The same is also true of the 9mm. Four to six accurate 9mm rounds, with ten more in the magazine, is better than a few .45 rounds, with only three or four left in the magazine.
I will throw one more curveball at you, to wrap up this ball game. Would you rather shoot a bigger gun that manages a heaver recoil relatively well, with more rounds, bigger rounds, and more energy? Or a smaller gun with much lighter recoil, a smaller barrel, that’s harder to hold and aim properly, with fewer rounds, and less energy? I know my answer to that. It starts with “9” and ends with “millimeter.”
In the end, the consideration that matters most, with the baseline we have established, is shot placement. Period. Every time. That comes from training, both mental and physical. Get out and shoot your gun, and get in the proper mindset.
If you ever have to use your gun, your mindset is more important than any caliber will ever be.
*Dustin is a 12-year US Army Veteran, having served a mix of reserve and active-duty time. In Afghanistan, he served as an Infantry Advisor and Embedded Tactical Trainer (ETT) to the Afghan National Army (ANA), where he was operationally attached to the 3rd Special Forces Group. He is a recipient of the Bronze Star. He has a Master of Arts in International Relations and National Security. He is a certified civilian firearms instructor and competitive shooter in the IDPA. Dustin instructs on defensive and tactical pistol and carbine.