380 ACP (Automatic Colt Pistol), also known as 9x17mm, 9mm Browning, 9mm short... and the list of different names goes on... is a popular self-defense cartridge. And rightly so.
380 pistols are dominating the pocket pistol firearm category. Whether you're purchasing your first firearm or looking for the best self-defense round, lightweight, pocket 380s are a great choice.
Developed by the great John Moses Browning in 1908, the 9x17mm is a rimless, straight-walled cartridge used in smaller, semi-automatic pistols.
High demand for the .380 ACP really took off with the Ruger LCP, a quality pocket pistol that launched other name brands to develop similar models. Today you'll find a variety of great 380 pistols including the Sig Sauer P238, Glock G42, S&W Bodyguard .380, Bersa Thunder 380, and more.
Here's the thing: you'll find 380 ACP cartridges to be ballistically inferior to those larger rounds with better performance factors (9mm, .45 ACP, .40 S&W, etc.). But, when it comes to personal protection, you're not going to need all those ballistic benefits. At the end of the day, you need a reliable gun that can protect you and that's exactly what the 380 guns and relative ACP rounds provide.
Their smaller stature makes them super easy to conceal in a bag or smaller pocket holster. This provides comfort and convenience you won't get with other guns. They are a great beginner gun for those who want protection on the go and offer less recoil than other compact pistols. If you have a little 380 ACP pistol or are thinking of buying one, finding the right ammunition to feed it is important.
.380 Auto Ammunition
.380 ACP is small, compact, and light. Compared to the heavier bullet options for 9mm or .45 ACP, it has a shorter range and less stopping power, but the performance will all depend on the manufacturer and load of the cartridge.
Finding the Best 380 ACP Ammo
There are a lot of factors that contribute to making a good self-defense bullet including bullet weight and muzzle velocity. When it comes to self-defense, we like to highlight a bullet's penetration and expansion.
Let's look at some ballistic gelatin testing data to compare some of the current 380 ACP defensive rounds and find our top recommendations for this diminutive round. We'll also hit on some good recommendations if you're looking for practice ammo.
Hollow Point Bullets Are Designed To Expand
Hollow point bullets are widely recommended for for self defense over ball ammo (aka Full Metal Jacket/FMJ ammo).
The top reasons for using a quality hollow point bullet are:
1. Safer for you - The expanding bullet will be more effective at stopping the attacker because all of its energy will go into wounding instead of zipping down the street after it over penetrates.
2. Safer for bystanders - A bullet that doesn't penetrate through and through the attacker will not go on to injure anyone downrange.
3. Safer for the attacker - The fewer times the attacker must be shot to be stopped, the more likely they are to live. Remember, in self defense the goal is not to kill but to stop.
Ammo Testing Protocol
Ballistic Gel Testing Shows Bullet Penetration and Expansion
Clear synthetic ballistic gelatin provides a consistent medium for the testing of bullet performance. Test rounds were fired from a distance of 10 feet and were measured for expansion and penetration.
The ideal range for bullet penetration is between 12 and 18 inches according to the FBI. This is best applied to the average of several shots since individual bullets can penetrate more or less than the average.
The 380 ACP (also called 380 Auto) is essentially a shortened 9mm round. The bullet is the same diameter as a 9mm bullet, but it will generally be lighter in weight and will have less velocity. A lighter bullet travelling slower will deliver less energy to the target and for that reason proper ammo selection is critically important.
Heavy Clothing Barrier
In line with the FBI testing protocols, and to more realistically simulate real life shootings, layers of cloth were placed in front of the ballistic gelatin. This creates a challenge for hollow point bullets because a hollow point clogged with material can fail to expand. Unexpanded hollowpoints act like ball/FMJ ammunition and have deep penetration, often far deeper than the ideal 12-18" range.
For some reason, 380 ACP ammo has been very hard to find lately. If you cannot find what you are looking for, be sure to click the Notify When In Stock button that most online stores have to get an email notification when that product comes back in stock.
Pro Tip: In-Stock Updates
If you cannot find what you are looking for, click the "Notify When Back In Stock" button that most online stores have to get an email when that product is available.
Best 380 ACP Ammo - Self Defense
#1 Speer Gold Dot 90 gr
Gold Dot bullets are a "gold standard" in the world of modern ammunition, performing very consistently as a rule. This 90 gr round is a good example of that.
In testing, this lightweight round penetrated less than the 12" FBI recommended minimum depth, but just barely at 11". We feel this is close enough to be an insignificant criticism.
In fact, in 380 ACP it is often the case that the only bullets that reach to 12" and beyond are the ones that do not expand. Expanded 380 Auto bullets rarely hit that 12" mark.
For that reason, we accept the lesser penetration of this lower powered round and still recommend the hollow point designs that consistently expand like this 90 gr Gold Dot.
Expanded Diameter: 0.49"
Speer 90 gr Gold Dot Bullets Demonstrate Uniform and Ideal Expansion in Ballistic Gel
#2 Winchester 85 gr Silvertip
This 85 gr Silvertip bullet comes from a long line of famous Silvertip bullets reaching back many decades. With it's distinctive silver colored bullets this round delivers on the Silvertip performance promise.
With generally consistent expansion this is another round that only goes 11" in the ballistic gel. We expect this as par for the course when a 380 ACP bullet expands.
This is a quality choice for the defensive 380 ACP pistol.
Expanded Diameter: 0.52"
#3 Remington 88 gr HTP
This Remington High Terminal Performance (HTP) round is one of the few that manages to make it past 12" in the ballistic gel. This is because it is failed to expand in the Lucky Gunner testing.
Because of the low mass and velocity of the bullets, they also did not over penetrate.
This ammo would be a good choice if you are worried about under penetration of the other 380 ACP loads that expand and fail to penetrate reach 12" in the ballistic gel.
Expanded Diameter: 0.35"
Remington 88 gr HTP Bullets Did Not Expand in Ballistic Gel
Conclusion on the Best 380 Ammo for Self Defense
That rounds out our top recommendations for self defense 380 ACP ammo. What we saw was that due to the low power of the 380 ACP round, the general rule is that you can have expansion or you can have penetration past 12 inches, but not both.
In 9mm by contrast, there are a bunch of quality choices that both expand and get into the 12"-18" penetration depth sweet spot. If that is important to you then the 380 ACP may not be the right round for you.
If, however, you can accept that the 380 ACP is not a death ray and that you will not get the same results that are possible with the more powerful calibers, then 380 ACP may just work for you.
By accepting the limitations of the round you can avail yourself of the large selection of available 380 ACP pistols that are both lightweight and small. These 380 ACP pistols are easy and convenient to carry concealed when a larger, heavier pistol would just stay in the closet at home.
It's important to test any ammunition that you plan to use for self defense in the gun you plan to use it in. By shooting 50-100 rounds you can determine if it is going to be reliable as well as how much recoil you can expect. These are both things that are best discovered before you have to depend on that particular gun/ammo combo to protect you.
If you're like me and enjoy quality, well researched information on ammo performance, I highly recommend the Lucky Gunner Handgun Self-Defense Ammunition Ballistics Test at the Lucky Gunner Labs. They have extensive data from ballistic gel testing on many calibers complete with photos, video and specifics for over 100 different self defense handgun ammunition loads.
Many thanks to Lucky Gunner for allowing the use of their data and many of their photos for this article.
Best 380 ACP Ammo - Range and Target Shooting
Choosing 380 ACP ammo for range and practice use is much easier than choosing self defense ammo.
If you are just looking to plink, anything that is reliable in your gun will probably work just fine.
Here are our choices for practice and range 380 ACP ammunition.
#1 PMC 90 gr FMJ 380 ACP
PMC is a well known ammunition brand that often delivers quality, consistent ammo at an affordable price. This PMC FMJ ammo is no exeption. Unlike defensive hollow point ammo that is often only available in the small 20 round boxes, FMJ ball ammo usually comes in the larger 50 round box.
#2 CCI Blazer 90 gr FMJ 380 ACP (Brass Case)
I've lost track of the many thousands of rounds of Blazer ammo I have fired in practice and competition. It works and is very competitively priced.
It would be hard to do better than Blazer Brass 380 ACP FMJ ammo.
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