Buying a .380: Choosing the One for You

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The .380 is a highly capable yet vastly underappreciated cartridge with a lot going for it. It is compact, accurate and reasonably powerful — falling just below the .38 Special in performance. It also lends itself to a wide variety of pistols suitable for concealed carry, home defense or even trail use. In fact, the .380 was considered a powerful European police cartridge until heavily armed radical Islamic terrorists began attacking targets throughout Europe.

But with there being so many choices available, how do you choose the .380 pistol that’s right for you? First, you need to decide how you want to employ your new gun — home defense, concealment or a combination of both. Second, you need to understand the two main types of .380 available today and how those types best suit your needs.

Background

I’ve had some experience carrying .380 pistols and believe them to be satisfactory for close-range self-defense, especially when paired with today’s modern expanding, high-intensity ammo. In fact, the first handgun I carried as a paid law enforcement officer was a Walther PPK/S chambered in .380 ACP. This was back in 1981, when I was working undercover for the Ohio Department of Liquor Control.

The PPK/S wasn’t the agency-issued duty handgun, although it should have been. The department issued either the Smith & Wesson Model 36 Chief’s Special or the S&W Model 49 Bodyguard (whichever they had on hand). Due to a former employee having exposed his weapon to the public, investigators didn’t get issued handguns until they’d been employed for six months.

 

The PPK/S wasn’t the agency-issued duty handgun, although it should have been.

 

My field training officers and others promptly informed me I was nuts for not carrying on the job despite the rules. So I purchased a PPK/S for its larger magazine capacity and carried it discreetly on my ankle. The Walther PPK/S continued to serve with me as an approved duty pistol after I left Liquor Control and took a position as an undercover narcotics detective.

When I purchased the .380, the Walther PP and PPK/S were really the only game in town. The Colt Model 1903 was long out of production, the Colt Mustang wouldn’t appear until 1983, and the SIG P230 debuted in 1985. Choosing a .380 pistol is much more complex these days. Fortunately, the PPK/S was, and is, a superb firearm.

4-bit gun? The common denominator of most .380s sold in the United States is small size. This reliable and affordable Kel-Tec P3AT is shown next to a Kennedy 50-cent piece for scale.

Blowback Models

A blowback pistol relies on the mass of the slide to control the action during firing. So the slide needs to be larger and heavier than on a pistol that uses a breech-locking design (in which the action control is accomplished via internal locking components). As such, locked-breech .380s are much lighter than blowback-action guns.

The blowback Walther PP, PPK and PPK/S series of pistols was introduced in 1929, starting with the PP (Poleizei Pistole). Originally designed for police service, the PP is no longer in production. The PPK (Poleizei Pistole Kriminalist), the smallest of the series, was designed for detective carry. The PPK/S has the shorter barrel and longer slide of the PPK but the longer grip of the original PP, and the PPK/S was introduced for import into the U.S. after the Gun Control Act of 1968. The PPK uses a seven-round magazine, while the PPK/S uses a six-round magazine.

 

The PPK/S has the shorter barrel and longer slide of the PPK but the longer grip of the original PP, and the PPK/S was introduced for import into the U.S. after the Gun Control Act of 1968.

 

I’ve owned two Walther PPK/S pistols over the years, both blued-steel models. The first PPK/S I described was made in Germany, and the one I currently own was made here in the USA during the Walther/Smith & Wesson joint manufacturing venture. Neither one has experienced a single malfunction with ball or hollow-point ammunition.

Today, the PPK and PPK/S are both manufactured in the U.S. by Walther alone and are currently available in .380 ACP or .22 LR and in blued- or stainless-steel versions.

DA/SA Spells Safety

One of the primary advantages of the Walther PP series .380 is its double-/single-action (DA/SA) feature. Combined with a safety de-cocking lever, the PP series is one of the safest pistols on the market.

My 4-year-old son cannot produce the 13.4 pounds required to press the DA trigger, nor can he take the safety off — making it extremely kid-safe. The long DA first pull reduces the chance of a negligent discharge for adults as well.

After firing the first shot, the action cocks the hammer automatically, and the rest of the shots fire with a 6.1-pound SA trigger pull. The external hammer can also be cocked from the down position to initiate single-action fire. Once firing ceases, the external hammer of a PP can be safely lowered with the safety/de-cock lever. The PP series can be charged and readied for fire with the safety on, again reducing the chance of an ND. Even with the safety off, it is just as safe to carry as a double-action revolver.

Accurate, With Some Downsides

The Walther’s barrel is fixed to the frame because of the blowback action. It never moves during firing. The grip frame was beautifully designed and has a legendary feel to it. Combined with the solid 23.6-ounce weight and virtually non-existent recoil, the Walther PPK and PPK/S models are real tack-drivers. But there are two issues with them.

First, the double-action first-shot trigger pull might be too much for those with hand-strength issues. Second, if you are looking for a .380 with all-day deep-carry capability, the PPK or PPK/S may not be for you. They are comparatively heavy guns for such a small cartridge, but if you’re looking for a pistol to shoot extensively without discomfort — and that will last forever — one of these models might be just the ticket. If you decide on the PPK or PPK/S, consider one of the rust-resistant stainless versions. They are not inexpensive firearms, but I found some stainless versions online for $799.

Locked-Breech .380s

The Mustang Colts were the first of the truly “compact carry,” lockedbreech .380s. They look like scaled-down 1911s, but there are some significant differences. They don’t have grip safeties, and you can apply their thumb safeties without cocking the pistols. This makes charging and clearing the pistols safer than on their full-sized brethren.

Like their kin though, these are designed to be carried cocked and locked. Unlike some of the compact/micro .380s, the Mustangs have full big-pistol functionality. This is evident in their ability to lock their slides back on the last shot, which can be released via the slide release levers.

 

The Mustang Colts were the first of the truly “compact carry,” lockedbreech .380s. They look like scaled-down 1911s, but there are some significant differences.

 

I carried a blued Mustang Pocketlite in the late 1980s as an off-duty gun. It weighed a feathery 12.5 ounces and, although Mustangs initially had a reputation for poor accuracy, I had no problem passing firearms qualification with mine. It was also totally reliable. Today, the Colt Pocketlite is only available in nickel-finished stainless steel, and Colt has improved the gun’s accuracy. A lighter, less expensive, polymer-frame version — the Mustang Lite — is also available and has a more 21st century look to it. MSRP of the Mustang Pocketlite is $699, while the Mustang Lite is $599.

Kel-Tec Enters the Fray

In 2004, Kel-Tec kicked off a major renaissance in .380 popularity by developing the first truly micro lockedbreech .380: the P3AT. This paved the way for numerous other micro .380s. The use of a mechanical breech-locking mechanism and polymer frame resulted in a pistol that weighs in at a truly miniscule 7.7 ounces. The P3AT is a double-action-only pistol without an exposed hammer and no manual safety. This means that it can be carried anywhere on the body and drawn without snagging. Trigger pull weight is 5.5 pounds. While the P3AT isn’t a 100-yard gun, it can be carried in the pocket of light summer shorts without printing. Of course, make sure you never carry this, or any handgun, in a pocket without a dedicated pocket holster.

Despite the small size, it packs the same punch as the larger, heavier .380s, though recoil is obviously sharper. That is the trade-off for “holster-anywhere” comfort. My P3AT performs flawlessly and is more than accurate enough for any standard-distance deadly force encounter, but I wouldn’t want to take it into an active-shooter situation as anything but a holdout piece. Magazine capacity is six rounds, and MSRP is $339. A Crimson Trace Laserguard grip is available for the P3AT for $180, which I highly recommend since the sights are tiny.

Two Micro Rugers

Other companies soon caught on to the advantages of the locked breech, resulting in a flood of micro .380 pistols. Ruger came out with the LCP, which was very much like the P3AT in size and design. The LCP is 2 ounces heavier than the P3AT at 9.6 ounces, but magazine capacity is also six rounds. Sights are fixed, like the P3AT, and trigger weight is similar. Ruger offers the LCP in multiple frame and slide color combinations. I tested one of the first LCPs to come out. It was a great carry piece but, like the P3AT, not a long-distance piece. MSRP is an amazing $259.

Ruger recently introduced the LCP II to make up for the distance the LCP lacks. The LCP II features a larger grip, more prominent sights, an integral trigger safety and a last-shot-hold-open feature. Laser sights, as well as multiple color choices, are available for the LCP II. Weight is up to 10.6 ounces, and MSRP is slightly higher at $349. Of the two, I prefer the original LCP, though the trigger on the LCP II is quite good.

You Can’t Go Wrong With S&W

Of all the locked-breech micro .380s, the S&W Bodyguard is my top pick. The accuracy is astonishing for a pistol that weighs only 12 ounces, though that does make it one of the heavier micros. My test gun had an integral Crimson Trace laser mounted in the frame. Trigger pull was very good, and the optional manual safety is a sound choice for folks who have young children at home. MSRP on the Bodyguard with integral laser is $449. Without the laser sight, MSRP is $379 with or without the manual safety.

Let’s Shoot the Bull

Not only does Taurus make its own similar micro-locked-breech Spectrum .380 at a very good price, it also makes the Model 380 five-shot double-action Mini-Revolver (for those of you who are die-hard revolver fans). This stainless-steel/alloy gun weighs in at 15.5 ounces and uses Taurus Stellar (moon) clips to facilitate loading and unloading. It has an MSRP of $513.79.

It All Comes Down to Personal Choice

The models I mentioned have inspired several variations throughout the modern gun market. If you are recoil-shy, remember that the light .380s, especially when loaded with top-end loads, bark and bite quite a bit. If you are recoil-shy but don’t want to go top-end with the Walther PPK, then the S&W Bodyguard .380 at 12 ounces might be a better choice. Better still might be the Taurus .380 revolver.

 

For an ultimate deep-concealment pistol, a lockedbreech .380 is the way to go. Not only is it light and compact, but it also needs little attention to detailed maintenance. The only problem might be that it’s so light that you might literally forget you have it on you.

 

But if you decide your need is for an ultimate deep-concealment pistol, a lockedbreech .380 is the way to go. Not only is it light and compact, but it also needs little attention to detailed maintenance. The only problem might be that it’s so light that you might literally forget you have it on you.

In any event, what you should do is evaluate your needs and situation, then go to a range where you can rent a number of different .380s. You should be able to tell in 10 rounds whether a gun is right for you. And remember, even the micro .380s can serve as home-defense guns

Sources

Walther: WaltherArms.com

Colt: Colt.com

Kel-Tec: KelTecWeapons.com

Ruger: Ruger.com

CrimsonTrace: CrimsonTrace.com

Smith & Wesson: Smith-Wesson.com

Taurus: TaurusUSA.com

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