The argument about what handgun round is the best has been going on for a long time, and doesn’t look like ending any time soon.
Since the end of the Second World War 9mm Parabellum has become pretty much the standard chambering worldwide but alternatives still have their devotees.
That helps keep a wide choice of guns and ammo on the market but it can be confusing to shooters, especially those who just want a reliable handgun that does what it’s asked to do.
One popular alternative to 9mm, especially in the USA, is the .380 ACP round. This was developed by the legendary John Browning and dates back to 1908, seven years after Georg Luger developed the 9mm.
On the surface it’s a similar round; the bullet diameter is identical and there’s only a minor difference in case length, coming in at 17mm compared to 19mm for the German cartridge.
A range of handguns have been chambered in .380, including some well-known ones – it was a popular choice for the Walther PPK, for example – and although its popularity faded slightly after WW2 it’s been making a comeback recently.
More people are choosing to carry concealed and there are a lot of nice compact handguns available in .380.
The question is, how does it compare with the 9mm as a survival round?
The first thing to say is that while the two look pretty similar, they’re not. The 9mm is a much higher-pressure round and generates far more energy – usually around twice as much.
The average 9mm round delivers about 430 ft lb compared to just over 200 ft lb for a .380. Of course energy isn’t everything; caliber, plus the weight and design of the bullet, are important too.
These two rounds are the same caliber however, so that isn’t a factor, and the 9mm can launch a heavier bullet – usually about 115 grain, compared to around 95 grain for the .380. In terms of effects on the target, then, 9mm is a clear winner – it’s a far punchier round.
On the other hand it doesn’t matter how effective your survival weapon is if you don’t have it with you when you need it, and just like the .22 caliber handguns, this is where .380 comes into its own.
The lower energy of the round means it can be fired from an unlocked breech, and that translates into flatter, more compact weapons.
This is why it’s so popular in carry pistols and backup guns – there’s just no way to make a 9mm pistol that’s as small as some of the .380s on the market which is why it’s also popular for many women to carry with them in their purses.
The 1911-styled Colt Mustang and S&W Bodyguard 380 both offer a 6+1 capacity in a small package; both are under 5.5 inches long. The SIG-Sauer P238 is an inch longer but a lot flatter, making it particularly easy to conceal, and gives you 6+1 as well.
Any of these, and plenty more, gives you reasonable firepower in a smaller package than any 9mm.
There’s another advantage to .380’s less powerful loading. The recoil from a 9mm is moderate but if you have weak wrists, or don’t get to practice your shooting much, it can still be a handful.
Some people do have trouble getting a 9mm back on target quickly for a follow-up shot, and if you find that you’re struggling with it a .380 is likely to suit you much better. The recoil is much milder even in a compact handgun.
So which caliber handgun would we pick?
In a long-term survival situation resupplying with ammunition is going to become an issue, and here the 9mm wins hands down. The gun is bigger, making it harder to conceal carry, and harder to store appropriately, but from a survival standpoint, it has way too many other benefits.
It’s the most common handgun chambering in the world by a long way; the majority of US police departments and federal agencies use it (most of those that adopted 10mm or .40 S&W have since switched to 9mm) and also the standard US military and NATO pistol round.
Any gun shop will have ample supplies of it and, in general, it’s the pistol cartridge you’re likely to encounter. That’s not to say .380 is rare, but 9mm is much more common.
So it’s clear that the 9mm has significant advantages that make it a superior survival round; it’s more effective on the target and a lot easier to find. A good high-capacity 9mm is pretty much the ideal practical handgun and isn’t likely to let you down.
That doesn’t mean there’s no place for the .380 though. If you’re looking for a more compact weapon it wins there, and its lower recoil also makes it easier to handle for those with less physical strength or experience.
The .380 is a less effective round but not an ineffective one, and if size and manageability are factors in your decision it’s worth taking a look at a good pistol in that caliber.
Overall, then, the 9mm wins as a survival round from our opinion but don’t go trading in your .380 quite yet – it has plenty of strengths, and for many people that want to keep guns that are compact and easier to store than rifles, it’s the solution they’re looking for.