John Browning’s Versatile .380 ACP

Designed by John M. Browning (b. 1855, d. 1926) and introduced to the world in 1908 in Colt’s new-at-the-time Model 1908 pocket hammerless semi-automatic pistol, the .380 ACP is an old round. Despite its age, the .380 ACP is still popular today for concealed carry in small, sub-compact pistols. Small and lightweight, these pistols generally weigh around eight to 13 ounces and have a capacity of six to eight rounds.

There are larger guns in this caliber, too, falling into the compact- or mid-sized pistol category. In fact, the Model 1908 pocket hammerless is mid-sized at seven inches long and 24 ounces. Current mid-sized .380 ACP guns include Browning’s 1911-380, Beretta Cheetah Models 83 through 86, Smith & Wesson M&P380 Shield EZ and Walther PK380, for example.

The .380 ACP (center) looks like a scaled down .45 ACP (right). It’s a little shorter than a 9 mm (left).

The .380 ACP (Automatic Colt Pistol) goes by other names because it has been produced in many countries around the world. Other monikers include the .380 Auto(matic), 9×17mm, 9mm Browning, 9mm Corto, 9mm Kurz, 9mm Short and 9mm Browning Court.

It’s a rimless case that headspaces on the case mouth. It has a minuscule taper, with the base measuring 0.374 inch and the case mouth 0.373 inch, according to SAAMI (Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers’ Institute) maximum specifications. In practice, it is straight-walled, with overall length just shy of one inch and maximum length of 0.984 inch.

The .380 ACP shoots a 0.3565-inch bullet according to SAAMI specs. This makes it a .38-cal. round by current nomenclature (ie, 0.356 inch, also used in the .38 Super). A 9mm bullet is 0.355 inches. It’s splitting hairs, because they can both be used in 9 mm/.38-cal. pistol cartridges. Today’s ammo and bullet manufacturers use 0.355- or 0.356-inch bullets in the .380 ACP, which both work fine.

.380 ACP cartridge examples

Many types of bullets can be found in modern .380 ACP ammo. From left: Browning 95-grain FMJ FP, Remington 95-grain FMJ RN, Winchester Ranger 95-grain JHP, Remington 102-grain JHP Golden Saber, Lehigh 65-grain Xtreme Defense (handload, but available as a factory load) and NovX 56-grain polymer and copper matrix Extreme Self Defense.

Most factory bullet weights run from 85 to 102 grains with the most common weight at 95 grains. But there are more exotic rounds that run lighter bullets at higher speeds, such as the NovX 56-grain polymer and copper bullets at 1,300 fps, G2 research 62-grain RIP bullet at 1,250 fps and the Lehigh 65-grain Xtreme Defense running at 1,150 fps and faster. Handloaders can use heavier bullets, such as 115 to 124 grains, for which there is load data.

A moderately powerful cartridge, .380 ACP has a SAAMI maximum average pressure limit of 21,500 psi, placing it between 9 mm, which has a pressure limit of 35,000 psi and .38 Spl. with a pressure limit of 17,000 psi

Ballistically, the .380 ACP produces in the neighborhood of 200 foot-pounds of muzzle energy. A standard load uses a 95-grain bullet traveling at 950 to 1,000 fps from a 3.75-inch barrel, with energy ranging from 190 to 211 foot-pounds.

The .380 ACP has roughly the same power as the .38 Spl., which pushes a 158-grain bullet at 755 fps from a four-inch barrel yielding 200 foot-pounds of muzzle energy.

380 ACP and 38 special rounds

The .380 ACP (left) has about the same power as the .38 Special.

Some companies load +P .380 ACP rounds for additional power and performance. SAAMI recognizes +P ratings and pressure limits for some cartridges, however no such +P rating exists for the .380 ACP. This means that consumers don’t know what the pressure is and whether it will be safe in their gun, and should contact companies directly to inquire whether the ammo is safe in their gun. In any case, since the pressure exceeds industry standards, the shooter likely assumes all risks. And since this +P ammo will produce more recoil than standard rounds, it will work the gun harder and increase wear.

While .380 ACP is sufficient for self-defense, some consider it the least powerful round usable for this role. Others opine that the .380 ACP is not powerful enough. However, Greg Ellifritz’s data from different handgun rounds shows .380 ACP is roughly as effective at stopping a threat as more powerful semiautomatic rounds, eg, 9 mm, .40 S&W and .45 ACP. Intuitively it might be difficult to accept that the .380 ACP can perform as well as those more powerful rounds, but it’s hard to argue against actual data.

Shooting .380 ACP

The .380 ACP’s moderate power produces half the recoil of a 9 mm and about twice the recoil of a .32 ACP in guns of the same weight. How the recoil feels depends on the size, weight and design of the gun.

Gun design contributes significantly to felt recoil. Many .380 ACP pistols are blowback type. That is, only the slide moves during the recoil cycle, not the barrel, such as in the Beretta Model 84.

Other .380 ACP pistols are locked-breech designs, where the barrel is locked with the slide when in battery and moves a short distance along with the slide during the recoil cycle. One example is the Smith & Wesson M&P380 Shield EZ.

With four .380 ACP pistols and 100 rounds, I headed to the range to compare recoil. Three semi-automatic guns were a Taurus PT 738, Beretta Model 84 and Smith & Wesson M&P380 Shield EZ. The fourth gun was a Taurus 380 UL revolver.

380 ACP revolvers

Taurus PT 738 (left) and Taurus 380 UL revolver, which uses moon clips because the .380 ACP is rimless.

The Taurus PT 738 is a micro-compact pistol that holds 6+1 rounds and weighs 10.2 ounces. The Beretta Model 84 and M&P380 Shield EZ are both mid-sized pistols. The Beretta is the heaviest at 23 ounces, and the M&P380 Shield EZ weighs 18.5 ounces. The Beretta holds 13+1 rounds and the M&P380 Shield EZ holds 8+1. The Taurus 380 UL five-shot revolver weighs 16 ounces.

I loaded all the guns and took turns shooting a few rounds from each in a side-by-side comparison until I ran out of ammunition.

Taurus’ PT 738 is a locked-breech gun just like the M&P380 Shield EZ, but lighter and smaller, and a little rough when fired. The felt recoil was similar to the larger Beretta 84. Perhaps the recoil from the Beretta is so bad because it’s a blowback design, or maybe the recoil from the Taurus is so good because it is a locked-breech design. Either way, these guns have about the same felt recoil.

As for the Taurus 380 revolver, felt recoil seemed to be a little less than the Taurus PT 738 and Beretta Model 84. Recoil impulses from revolvers are a little different, in that recoil is “instantly” transferred to the gun frame, because it does not have a slide to spread out the recoil over a few milliseconds as the slide travels to the rear. I expected felt recoil from the lightweight revolver to be a little snappier, and possibly more than the PT 738 and Beretta, but it wasn’t.

Recoil from the M&P380 Shield EZ was quite different from all the other guns. Here is where the difference in recoil impulse between a blowback and locked-breech gun is obvious, because the Smith & Wesson is similar in size to the Beretta. The felt recoil from the M&P380 Shield EZ was much softer than from the Beretta, this in spite of the Beretta being heavier.

The M&P380 Shield EZ was the most pleasant gun to shoot with its softer recoil impulse. A benefit of softer recoil is that one is less likely to develop a flinch from anticipation. It helps you to concentrate on getting a good sight picture and a smooth trigger pull.

.380 ACP semi-autos

Two .380 ACP mid-sized pistols: Smith & Wesson M&P380 Shield EZ (left) and Beretta Cheetah Model 84.

Different shooters don’t always agree about felt recoil. But, there is general agreement among the majority of shooters that blowback guns have a sharper (snappier) recoil impulse than locked-breech guns. Only you can determine what it feels like to you. To me, recoil from the Beretta Model 84 felt about the same as the Taurus PT 738, which sounds surprising given the Beretta Model 84 is larger, weighing more than twice that of the Taurus. Gun design can have a significant effect on felt recoil.

John Browning’s .380 ACP has much to offer. It’s available in a selection of gun sizes, from mid-sized to micro-compact models. It’s powerful enough for self-defense and is a good plinker round for the range. In the right gun design, the .380 ACP is a delight to shoot.

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