Who doesn't love a good debate? The gun community is full of them. Like the Glock 19 against the Sig P320, for example.
Both of these guns have a 9mm chamber, which makes comparison very difficult. More so today, 9mm has become more or less the default caliber for most handguns and everyday carry (EDC) options.
Should other calibers be considered? The debate between .380 and 9mm still exists, and I hear it constantly. To be more specific, the .380 ACP (Automatic Colt Pistol), compared to the 9mm NATO (also known as 9mm Luger and 9mm Parabellum).
With popular 9mm chambered pistols like the Glock 19, Sig P320 and FN 509 having set the standard for modern semi-autos, it's almost as if the market has settled the debate. That being said, the question remains as to which is better in consideration of the .380 versus the 9mm. I also hear this question often in conversations about 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 a variation of that. In other words, if it's not a .40 S&W, .45 ACP, .44 Magnum, etc., it's not worth considering because it lacks "stopping power". If that's true, then .380 and 9mm are out of the question. However...
Let's load up some newsmagazines, and dive into the context of all these points. I may not solve this debate for you here. What I will do is point you in the right direction and give you the best recommendation I can. 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 like being the bearer of precise information and setting the record straight. Especially when it comes to training, tactics or things that can be a matter of life or death.
Stopping power is a myth. Wait. What ?
Yes, stopping power is a myth. Much like the notion of "one shot, one kill", or instantly downing someone in your wake with a big bullet. This is especially true in the world of handguns, civilian defensive shooting, and law enforcement, and it's backed up by years and years of data.
On average, according to police statistics, it takes at least 3 bullets to kill or completely incapacitate an attacker - regardless of caliber. Also, "neutralize" does not mean "kill", so it's important to make the distinction.
In almost every scenario, the instant incapacitation requires a headshot or a well-placed shot to the central nervous system (the brain or upper spine). Even then, it's not 100% guaranteed. Multiple studies conducted over several years by numerous law enforcement agencies have failed to reach a consensus.
One consideration that must be made in any decision regarding gun caliber is the type of bullet. This means that you must use an FMJ (full-metal jacket) cartridge or a ball ammunition, or a JHP (jacketed hollow point) cartridge.
For defensive purposes, JHP ammo is always preferable. They create a wider wound, greater internal trauma, and are far less likely to over-penetrate and exit the intended target's body.
There are so many factors and variables in defining "stopping power" that there is no true determination. In measuring the terminal ballistics of any cartridge of any caliber, one variable will always become the constant: shot placement. And that, my friends, is up to you.
The .380 ACP was designed by none other than legendary gunsmith and firearms engineer, John Moses Browning. It is to him that we owe, among other things, the creation of the lever-action rifle, the pump-action shotgun and semi-automatic loading rifles. And of course, he created the venerable Colt 1911.
From the beginning, the .380 was designed as a defensive cartridge, with a view to carrying a concealed weapon. It was first introduced in 1908 by Colt, in their 1908 Hammerless Semi-Automatic Pistol. It has also been adopted by various military and law enforcement agencies around the world.
For the .380, the size and caliber of the bullet is both an advantage and a disadvantage. Because the .380 is small, and the majority of .380 pistols are very small pistols, it has a huge advantage for everyday carry (EDC). Simply put, pistols are easy to conceal and more comfortable to carry than a larger pistol.
However, the small size comes at a price. The smaller bullet, or more accurately, the shorter bullet jacket, means less gunpowder. Less powder means less energy behind the ball, less force and less velocity. Less velocity also means less expansion in hollow point ammunition once it comes into contact with soft tissue. However, expansion is a necessary attribute for these munitions to maximize their effectiveness and lethality.
However, that brings us to the next positive feature of the .380, and perhaps the best of them all: less felt recoil. Recoil is important for comfort and for tracking shots, if needed, and is an important consideration. This is what we call "ease of shooting", and it is important to one degree or another. If fired with the same gun, for example (if that were possible), the .380 has 90% less recoil than the 9mm.
The 9mm has become the most popular and widespread handgun caliber in the world. It was designed in 1901 by Austrian engineer and gunsmith Adrian Luger.
Used today by thousands of armies and law enforcement agencies worldwide, it was first adopted by the German Army (1904) and Navy (1908).
It is well known that the US Army chose to use 45 caliber for their standard handgun since adopting the Colt 1911. It is perhaps less well known that Luger introduced their new 9mm Parabellum cartridge to the British and to the Americans in 1902 and 1903, respectively. The United States adopted the Beretta M9 pistol in 1985, chambered in 9mm NATO, which is used and manufactured by 70 countries worldwide.
Over the years opinions on 9mm have changed. At least, for many people in certain circles. At times, many experts and agencies felt that the 9mm was not effective enough and was inferior to other calibers, such as the 45 ACP. In recent years the thinking has changed again as technology has advanced and the balls are now better.
Better terminal performance has emerged in 9mm through improved gunpowder and general bullet design, for example. The FBI reverted to 9mm a few years ago, as this caliber performs just as well as the .40 and .45 in ballistic tests.
The 9mm has much lower recoil than the .40 and .45 and is, therefore, easier to fire. In fact, the snappy and somewhat heavier recoil of the .40 is noticeably harder to control, and many shooters will continue to opt for the 9mm. Combined with the right ammunition, the 9mm is very effective, and it will remain so.
.380 vs. 9mm: Initial Considerations
It is a bit difficult to compare these two cartridges because the majority of guns that use them are or can be very different. With that in mind, in a way it's a valid debate, and in another way... not so much. Not that much, because...
I repeat: stopping power is a myth. Knowing this helps bring the conversation down to some extent and avoids a lot of clutter. At the same time, that doesn't mean bullets or calibers don't matter. Nor does it mean that they are all the same. This is certainly not the case.
As always, in the world of firearms and tactics, it's all about compromise. To gain something, almost in every situation or instance, something else is lost. This does not mean that the tactical world is a "zero-sum game". This means that the advantages and disadvantages must be taken into account. To make the tradeoff worthwhile, the pros must outweigh the cons.
In conclusion, we recommend that you do not choose or rely on guns smaller than a .380 for defensive purposes. With this in mind for the .380 vs. 9mm debate, this creates the foundation and baseline.
.380 vs 9mm: How Much Does It Really Matter?
Once the baseline is established, it's time to weigh the pros and cons, and make the necessary trade-offs.
The starting point is the diameter of the ball itself. Both cartridges are the same size: 9 mm. And a .380 is not really a .38", but a .355", just like 9mm. It is in the height of the ball and its total weight - what matters - that there is divergence. The .380 is a shorter bullet than the 9mm. And therefore the 9mm has a heavier bullet weight or grain.
The bullet casing - the shell - is also higher on the 9mm. A higher case, of course, means more powder, therefore more speed and energy. The .380 case is 17mm high, and the 9mm case is 19mm. This small difference in the height of the case is, however, more important than it seems.
On average, a normal load for a .380 contains 3 grains of gunpowder. The average .380 bullet is between 90 and 100 grains, and in a +/- 3 inch barrel it flies at around 850-900 feet per second. This delivers approximately 150 foot-pounds of energy on impact with a target.
A typical load for a 9mm contains 6 grains of gunpowder - double the load of the .380. The 9mm is a heavier bullet, which does not automatically mean that the 9mm is twice as fast and twice as powerful. However, it is significantly more powerful and delivers more energy. Energy is what matters most in this context. Most 9mm bullets have a caliber between 115 and 147 grains, which fly at around 1000-1100 fps. The heavier, faster ball produces approximately 255 foot-pounds of energy.
With modern hollow point ammunition, it is the combination of velocity and energy that helps to cause the bullet to mushroom. The mushroom effect is what creates the largest wound cavity and creates more internal trauma in the human body. The heavier, faster, and longer 9mm has more energy and expansion, causing more physical damage than the .380.
.380 vs. 9mm: Let's get it straight
In this debate and weighing the pros and cons of .380 versus 9mm, we have to shoot straight. Literally and figuratively.
Because of the math behind all of this data, it's also why a 9mm can perform just as well as a .40 or .45. In the end, the 9mm can cause just as much internal damage and penetration, even with a smaller diameter and lighter bullet. Again, speed, energy and expansion matter a lot. So, in choosing between the .380 and the 9mm, this is the most important factor of all.
Of all the pros and cons, the .380's main strength and only significant advantage is recoil. Is it important ? Yes, 100%. Is it enough to compensate for the other disadvantages of the cartridge, compared to the .380 compared to the 9mm? In many ways, that's up to you.
Lighter recoil means better, more accurate tracking and effective shot placement. This is why 9mm is as good as .40 and .45. Add to this the fact that 9mm semi-autos can carry more rounds than the other three calibers, and the tradeoffs and pros start to outweigh the cons, in favor of the 9mm.
The last shots
Another reality is that in a shootout, you can, you will, and you must fire more bullets than you think. Four, five or six, or even more, well-placed and accurate .380 bullets are better than a less accurate shot from any of the larger calibers. This is also true for 9mm. Four to six accurate 9mm bullets, with ten more in the magazine, are better than a few .45 bullets, with only three or four in the magazine.
I'm going to throw you a curve ball again, to conclude this ball game. Would you rather shoot a bigger gun that handles stronger recoil relatively well, with more rounds, bigger rounds, and more energy?
Or a smaller weapon with much lower recoil, a smaller barrel, which is harder to hold and aim properly, with fewer bullets and less energy? I know my answer to this question. It starts with "9" and ends with "millimetre".
In the end, the consideration that matters most, with the baseline we've established, is shot placement. Period. Everytime. It comes from training, both mental and physical. Go out and fire your gun, and get yourself into the proper frame of mind.
If you're ever going to use your weapon, your mindset is more important than any caliber.