Project 380: The Best Compact .380 Pistols

Over the past ten years or so, there have been two interesting trends develop in defensive pistols.

The first is the rise of the pocket-sized .380 pistol, epitomized by guns like the Kel-Tec P3AT and the Ruger LCP.

The second is the rise of the single stack or subcompact 9mm pistol, like the Smith & Wesson M&P Shield and the Glock 48. 

Its easy to see why these two types of guns are so popular. They’re small, lightweight, and easy to carry, yet they have enough firepower to keep you safe when things get dicey. But neither type is perfect. If you carry a pocket .380, you can have a gun with you pretty much anywhere you go.  This is due to the pocket .380’s small size compared to that of the generally bigger and heavier 9mm subcompact. But, you’re giving up a significant advantage in magazine capacity and penetration.

The 9mm subcompact has a significant edge in firepower over the pocket .380, but the added size and weight can make it impractical to carry in some situations.  Some 9mm subcompacts can also be difficult to shoot. Recognizing the limitations of both the pocket .380 and the subcompact 9mm, gun manufacturers sought to develop a gun that had the best of both worlds.  This led them to develop the compact .380 pistol.

In this article, we’ll take a look at the compact .380 to see if it is a legitimate option for concealed carry. We’ll also test several compact .380 models to see if one stands out from the crowd.

Why Choose A Compact .380 Pistol?

Popular compact .380 models include the Walther PK380 and Ruger LC380.  They are about the same size as a subcompact 9mm, but they fire the lower-powered .380 ACP round common to pocket pistols.  At first glance, these pistols don’t seem to make a lot of sense. If you can carry around a 9mm Ruger LC9, why would you want to carry a similarly-sized Ruger LC380 that shoots a lower-powered .380 ACP cartridge?

Sometimes, Less Is More

My current choice in carry guns is a 9mm S&W Shield.  I carry mine on my hip in a Blade-Tech holster. I’ve carried this gun for about a half- dozen years now.  While it’s been a proven performer for me, something interesting happened on a recent shooting outing with my father.  My dad, in his mid-70s, just couldn’t summon the strength to grasp the slide of my Shield and pull it back to charge the gun. He was fine with the recoil and could shoot the gun once I got it rolling for him, but getting into battery after emptying a magazine was too much for him.

This mirrored my experience working in a gun shop here in Florida. When people came into the store looking for a defensive pistol, we’d initially steer them toward something like a Glock 19. But many retirees found those guns difficult to operate. They were also hesitant about the long, stiff trigger on most defensive revolvers. As a result, many of them ultimately settled on the Sig Sauer P238 because (a) it’s small and cute, (b) it comes in a rainbow of colors, and (c) they could operate all the controls on it much easier than they could on a Glock 19. Would that gun be my first choice for a defensive pistol? No. Was it a bad choice for my customers? Considering that I saw a fair number of them return to the range to practice with their new guns, I’d say they made the correct choice.

Compact 380s vs. 9mm Pistols

Ammunition choice is important in a compact .380

9x19mm vs. 9x17mm: That 2mm makes a big difference.

Aside from being easier to operate, compact .380s have other advantages over their 9mm brethren. The lower power of the .380 round makes it a breeze to shoot. The recoil from a small 9mm can get quite vigorous at times, but a similarly-sized gun chambered in .380 can be quite enjoyable to shoot. Also, the lower recoil impulse of the .380 makes for faster follow up shots and a more pleasant experience overall. This may seem trivial, but if a gun is fun to shoot, people tend to shoot it more often. Shooting a pocket .380 for an extended length of time can be a brutal experience. But in my experience, it’s quite easy to shoot 200+ rounds from a compact .380 with no ill effects.

Go Big Or Go Home?

There are some times when a compact 9mm makes more sense than a compact .380. First, and most obvious, is that 9mm is a more powerful round than .380 ACP. Your chances of having a penetrating, stopping hit with a 9x19mm round are better than they are with a 9x17mm round.

9mm also allows you to shoot more effective defensive ammunition. Because of the lower power of the .380 ACP round, you might be considering using a full metal jacket (FMJ) round rather than a jacketed hollow point (JHP) in 9mm.

Most .380 ACP JHP rounds do not have the power to punch through ballistics gel in order to reach the FBI-suggested penetration depth of 16 inches. But, that’s easily reachable with most .380 ACP FMJ rounds. However, the power of the 9mm round comes at a price. Newton’s Third Law of Motion tells us that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. If you have a 124 grain 9mm bullet leaving your gun at 1150 feet per second (fps), it’s going to deliver more kick and recoil than a 90 grain .380ACP bullet leaving at 850 fps. This means that for any two guns of equal size and weight, the one chambered in .380 ACP will be easier to shoot and control.

Granny Get Your Gun

The innately lower recoil of the round it fires and the easier to operate slide make the compact .380 ACP an excellent choice for people who are looking for something that’s easy to shoot and easy to own. While bigger than their smaller cousins like the Sig P238 and LCP, they are still easy to carry on your waist or pack away in a small safe for home protection. In the next few articles, we’ll look at five compact .380 ACP pistols: the Kahr CT380, the Ruger LC380, the Smith & Wesson M&P Shield 380EZ, the Sccy CPX-3, and the Walther PK-380. We’ll see how each one stacks up against the others to find their strengths and weaknesses. We’ll also shoot 500 rounds through each one to set a baseline of reliability. Then, we’ll shoot a series of tests for accuracy and recoil control to see how they work as defensive firearms.