We have two very popular self-defense semi-automatic calibers that we’re going to examine today. Both shoot a .355” diameter bullet, and their case lengths are within 2 millimeters of each other… 17mm (.380) vs. 19mm (9mm).
Given those parameters, both of these should be pretty equal in power, right? Not so fast, Herkimer! They are not the same in either velocity or energy. But… I said they were both very popular. How can that be, if one is ahead of the other in the power/velocity curve? Let’s explore.
Before we jump to more comparisons, let’s take a quick look at each cartridge’s history. First, the 9mm…
9mm Parabellum History
I’ve written so much about the 9mm that I can almost quote its history without reference to other resources. It is one of the all-time greats, but it didn’t impress many of us over on this of the pond until fairly recently when updated technology allowed companies to produce JHP or other defensive ammo that bumped its effectiveness into the same neighborhood that the .40 S&W and the .45ACP live in.
Nowadays, the 9mm is the king of the concealed-carry world. Not only do citizens carry it by the hundreds, but most law enforcement agencies arm their agents with it as well (including the F.B.I. again), up to 60% or more of them. Why? Where did it come from? What does “parabellum” mean? OK - that first.
I took Latin in high school and had teachers who most certainly had taught Julius Caesar himself. Well, they looked that old… Anyway, parabellum comes from the Latin motto of the Deutsche Waffen-und Munitionsfabriken (DWM) company, the outfit that Georg Luger worked for: Si vis pacem, para bellum (If you want peace, prepare for war). Now, onwards…
Georg Lugar designed the 9mm Parabellum/9x19/9mm Luger in 1901 for his brand-new Luger pistol.
He presented it to the British Small Arms Committee in 1902 and sent some Luger pistols to the U.S. in 1903 after he heard that we were looking for a new military semi-auto. Imagine that… those 1911s in all those holsters might’ve been Lugers! Well… maybe not, but it’s an intriguing thought.
The 9mm caught on and fought from the time of WWI onwards. It has grown to be one of the best-selling calibers out there. I daresay that if you, dear reader, are like me and have gotten onto a few email lists from companies that sell ammo, you get more notices about 9mm ammo buys than any other caliber… I know I do.
After WWI, other countries hopped on the 9mm bandwagon. As bullet technology improved, so did the adoption rates of the 9mm. The very first state police agency to adopt the 9mm was our neighboring state of Illinois, in 1968. They arranged for troopers to carry that round housed in the new S&W 39 pistol. The F.B.I. adopted it, along with the S&W 459, in the early 1980s.
Getting away from the 9mm for a while after the “Miami Shootout” in 1986, the F.B.I. returned to it in 2014. It hit another of several high points in 1985 when the venerable .45ACP 1911 was replaced, by our military, with the 9mm Beretta M9. They have since gone to the M17/M18 Sig Sauer – a version of the 320 – but it’s still a 9mm.
I’m a reloader and bullet caster. Even with my love of revolvers and their calibers, I’ve probably reloaded more 9mm than any other caliber. I know, it’s pretty cheap to buy, but I’m cheaper…
The is here to stay. I can’t see it being replaced by LEO agencies or civilians anytime soon.
.380 ACP (9mm Kurtz) History
The .380 is the only pistol cartridge to my knowledge that started a world war. Wow. This little fellow isn’t the most powerful round on the block, but it was enough to assassinate Archduke Franz Ferdinand of the Austro-Hungarian Empire by Gavrilo Princip, a Serbian nationalist, on June 28, 1914 in Sarajevo.
The Serbs were tired of the way that the A-H powers-that-be were treating them and decided to do something drastic about it. The Archduke and his wife were riding in an open-top car, along a publicized route. (Two things not to do if you don’t want folks who may hate you knowing where you’ll be!). This event was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back that led, later that summer, to WWI starting. The gun used was an FN Browning 1910 .380 pistol.
The cartridge itself was the brainchild of the legendary John Browning.
Introduced in 1908 along with the Colt Model 1908 Pocket Hammerless pistol…
… it was an updated version of his .38 ACP, which was only a little more powerful. The .380 headspaces on the case mouth, as do all shoulderless, rimless cartridges.
It is capable of being used in blowback-action guns but nowadays is usually built for the same locked-breech, short pistol actions that more powerful rounds utilize. The advantage of using a locked breech is that the gun’s slide doesn’t have to be heavy in order to retard slide velocity for blowback operation but can be made smaller and lighter. This results in a smaller, lighter pistol.
The .380 has benefitted from bullet technology advancements, just like the 9mm. It used to be that the only load you could find was the ol’ full-metal jacket. Not so much anymore… up higher is a photo of two boxes of Fiocchi ammo that utilize nice JHP bullets that expand as they should and penetrate just enough.
Comparing ballistics between the two calibers, we might come up with velocity/energy/trajectory charts and tables and get all geeky about it. I prefer a little more shirtsleeve approach. Which one of these is preferred for concealed carry? Which does the better job?
We will look at energy figures. (See the Luckygunner link below for penetration data). Remember: the 380’s most common bullet weights are 95 – 105 grains while the 9mm’s most common weights are 115 – 124 – 147 grains. Heavier bullets tend to generate more energy, all things being equal.
I found a fairly representative chart that, on first glance, looks really complicated but it isn’t. It’s from Ammoland.com and shows results for five loads: Hornady’s Critical Defense and American Gunner, Inceptor ARX, Remington Ultimate Defense and Speer Gold Dot.
Notice the energy figures. At no point do the .380 loads break the 200 ft/lb mark, while the 9mm numbers never go below 200. The Inceptor ARX consistently rode the top of the chart, most of the time. I once reviewed the NovX load, which is basically the same as the Inceptor. It used a very-light-for-caliber bullet… like, around 65 grains … at hyper velocity, around 1800 fps if memory serves. Its bullet was a solid copper number with a big “+” on the end that did the cutting when it hit the target.
For all those out there interested in penetration tests, LuckyGunner.com does a great job at publishing ballistic gel tests for all popular calibers. Many different loads are shown. Click on the caliber to be taken to those specific tests:
Draw your own conclusions. As for me, I tend to carry both of them – not at the same time, but a 380 on one day, with a 9 later in the week. I’m familiar with both. I have the .380 with me today, that Ruger. I also have a Springfield Armory Hellcat RDP 9mm that makes the rotation.
Carry what you like… just remember that the .380 cannot compare with the 9mm in terms of energy, so that bullet placement becomes paramount. I carry the 380 for one main reason – it’s sitting in my pocket, in a holster. Many 380s are small enough to be pocket pistols, but please do put them in a holster. I would rather have 10+1 rounds of my favorite .380 load in my pocket than a fully-loaded, 9mm duty-sized pistol… in its holster at home.
Which is Better for What?
The 9mm is the top dog in the concealed carry arena today and has been for a while. But, the .380 is not just marking time… its usage has grown by leaps and bounds, as more effective ammo has been introduced. So… let’s look at which cartridge is better for what usage. I think a simple chart, with an explanation, will work best for this…
It seems that more check marks are in the 9mm column than in the .380’s. That only stands to reason, given the effectiveness of modern 9mm ammo, and its availability in bulk for reasonable prices.
However, don’t count the .380 out. The improved bullet technology that helped boost the 9mm also has worked wonders for the .380. The availability of small, pocket-sized guns with 10- or 12-round capacity has never been greater.
Also, don’t discount those shooters who simply haven’t the hand strength to rack a tightly-sprung 9mm but can get a .380 into battery with little effort. As the old saying goes, "you pays your money and you makes your choice"… both are good for some usages.
Each of these calibers is useful, and should be considered. The 9mm is the obvious winner in terms of energy. It also comes in first in terms of availability and price. It is cheaper and easier to find and buy 9mm than it is .380.
Reloading helps in both those regards, but not everyone is a reloader. Also, I don’t carry my reloads – I carry only factory ammo. So, the price does come into play. Plus, like I just said, availability is important. I shop a lot at our local Rural King and Academy Sports. I find reasonably-priced 9mm in proliferation in both stores, with the .380 a close second.
Choose which one you want, but mostly choose what you can hit with – that’s what counts. As for me, I chose both a long time ago, and carry both at different times. Let’s hear from you below about your experiences with both of these calibers!