Head to Head: .32 ACP vs. .380 ACP

For those who are new to the game, “ACP” stands for “Automatic Colt Pistol.” The .32 ACP was developed by John Moses Browning — the greatest firearms inventor of all time — in 1899 for use in the M1900 and later the M1903 semi-automatic “pocket pistol.” It became popular in the United States but was most popular in Europe, where it’s known as the “7.65mm Browning.”

 

If you already have a .32 ACP pistol in good condition and are considering it for self-defense, test it with some Hornady .32 XTP ammunition. A .32 ACP self-defense pistol may be worth considering after all.

 

It was adapted to a wide variety of pistols over the years, including the Walther PP and PPK. Although it is considered low-powered by American standards, the .32 ACP found service with European law enforcement agencies and armies through the 20th century, including Hitler’s armies. It was only taken out of service as the threat from heavily armed and armored Islamic terrorists arose in Europe and government forces realized they needed a more powerful service weapon to counter them.

Lest we think that the Europeans were foolish to use such a puny caliber for their service weapons, remember that when Theodore Roosevelt was Commissioner of the New York City Police Department, he opted for Colt New Police Revolvers chambered in .32 Long Colt as the first standard-issue revolvers.

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Arms chambered for the .32 ACP came and went over the years, with the Colt M1903 and Walther PPK being among the more popular. I remember how the new sheriff of Licking County, Ohio, after winning his first election in 1980, carried a Walther PP in .32 ACP even in uniform. I was a brand-new auxiliary deputy then and asked him about it. He told me he could “at least keep their heads down with it.” He never had to fire that gun in the line of duty.

The popularity of the .32 ACP waned amid stiff competition from the .380 ACP until 1996, when the Beretta Tomcat, a slightly enlarged version of the .22 LR/.25 ACP Bobcat, was introduced in .32 ACP. It was a very compact and lightweight pistol with a unique “tip-up” barrel system that allowed easy loading of an additional eighth round of ammo. While the .32 ACP Seecamp pistol had been available since 1981, it was very hard to come by and very expensive. (I never actually held one in my hand until two years ago.) Conversely, the Beretta Tomcat was readily available and relatively inexpensive. About that time, there were a number of different hollow-point rounds on the market as well, thus making the .32 ACP more appealing for those seeking a compact and easy-to-shoot defensive handgun.

The .32 ACP got another boost in popularity in 1999 with the introduction of the Kel-Tec P-32, a micro-sized pistol designed to be carried and hidden anywhere on the body. Weighing in at only 8 ounces unloaded, the P-32 was the hot backup and holdout gun to have for a while, as it was very reasonably priced and held eight rounds. Unlike the Beretta Tomcat, Walther PP and Seecamp .32, the P-32 was a locked-breech design, which was what allowed the designers to make it so small and thin.

 

The .32 ACP got another boost in popularity in 1999 with the introduction of the Kel-Tec P-32, a micro-sized pistol designed to be carried and hidden anywhere on the body.

 

Ironically, the success of the locked-breech design of the Kel-Tec P-32 is what indirectly led to yet another decline in the .32 ACP’s popularity: In 2003, Kel-Tec used the same design for the only slightly larger P-3AT in .380 ACP. While many people felt that the .32 ACP was too underpowered (even with hollow-point ammunition) to be adequate for close-range self-defense, they considered a properly loaded .380 pistol as the minimum acceptable self-defense caliber. Now they could have a pistol of the almost same micro size (8.3 ounces in weight) as the P-32 that was chambered for a more-powerful caliber, although magazine capacity was reduced by one round. The P-3AT began flying off the shelves. My testing proved the P-3AT to be reliable and more than accurate enough for any reasonable self-defense distance.

The Kel-Tec locked-breech system was soon adopted by other manufacturers for their versions of a micro .380 self-defense pistol. Since the more-powerful and widely accepted .380 could be chambered in small guns like the Ruger LCP, newcomers to the locked-breech micro-pistol game did not bother with a .32 ACP chambering.

Bench Blast

While carrying micro .380s is a breeze, shooting them is a somewhat different story. They bark, especially when loaded with full-power defensive ammunition. After firing a few full magazines at the range for practice, I often find that the Kel-Tec P-3AT and the Ruger LCP exceed my “fun threshold.” I basically end up saying, “OK, I get the point! The gun shoots dead-on and cycles perfectly. I’m done.” In fact, I don’t recommend either of these otherwise fine pistols for new or inexperienced shooters.

Back when I worked retail gun sales, I found myself steering new shooters away from these models, not wanting their starting point in concealed carry or home defense to induce flinching and destroy the desire to practice. I usually moved them toward a snub revolver with light loads, or a larger .380 or even 9mm, which would not be anywhere near as punishing as the aforementioned micro .380s. Developing good shooting habits and accurate shot placement is more important for the new shooter than carrying a minuscule pistol, but after those skills are developed, the micro .380 makes great defensive company.

But did the .32 ACP really deserve to be kicked to the curb for the .380 ACP? I don’t think so and was able to confirm that when testing Colt’s newly reintroduced M1903 .32 ACP Pocket Hammerless General Officer’s Model Pistol.

 

After firing a few full magazines at the range for practice, I often find that the Kel-Tec P-3AT and the Ruger LCP exceed my “fun threshold.”

 

Made under license for Colt by U.S. Armament Corporation, this 8+1-round, 24-ounce, all-steel pistol is crafted in exacting detail. Firing it is much like shooting a .22 LR pistol in terms of recoil. Accuracy, despite the original (and small) fixed sights, is excellent, facilitated not only by the robust weight of the M1903 but also the light break of the single-action trigger.

In order to test this pistol and determine its potential as a shooter and carry piece, I ran it over my chronograph and also fired it into my standard 25-pound block of modeling clay to determine bullet performance. My load of choice was Hornady Custom .32 ACP loaded with a 60-grain XTP (Extreme Terminal Performance) jacketed hollow-point.

The XTP bullet was introduced by Hornady back in 1990 and won a Product of Merit Award from the National Association of Federally Licensed Firearms Dealers. Even though it has been eclipsed by the newer FTX polymer-tipped JHP bullet loaded in Hornady’s Critical Defense line, it is still an outstanding defensive ammunition choice. The FTX is not available in .32 ACP because there is not a high level of demand for it, but even if the FTX was loaded in .32 ACP, I seriously doubt that there would be any noticeable performance difference.

The Colt M1903 features a 3.75-inch barrel length as compared to the 2.68-inch barrel of the Kel-Tec P-32, making the M1903 capable of better ballistic performance than the Kel-Tec. Hornady rates the 60-grain XTP with a muzzle velocity of 1,000 feet per second, with corresponding muzzle energy of 133 foot-pounds. Clearly, the .32 ACP — even with these ballistics — is no giant-killer, and it produces a muzzle velocity similar to that of the .22 LR cartridge when fired from a rifle. However, it can still do the job.

Over my chronograph, I found that the actual ballistic performance was less than advertised, which is not uncommon in the ammunition world. My chronograph registered an average velocity of 932 feet per second for the .32 XTP, which produced 116 foot-pounds of muzzle energy. But how did those figures relate to performance in a bullet-testing medium? The quick answer is better than I thought.

I use 25-pound blocks of moist modeling clay purchased from Hobby Lobby for around $15 after I get hold of the weekly coupon. Moist modeling clay gives me an inexpensive and easy-to-work-with method of comparing pistol and rifle bullets to each other. The use of ballistic gelatin is expensive and messy, plus it really gives no more accurate measure of bullet performance in the human body than modeling clay does.

After all, both test mediums are homogenous lumps of material with no bones, muscle, sinews, organs or brain inside — and the ballistic gelatin must be kept at 55 degrees for proper performance. Last time I checked my body temperate, it was 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. In the end, ballistic gelatin only provides a consistent method of comparing one cartridge to another.

 

Moist modeling clay gives me an inexpensive and easy-to-work-with method of comparing pistol and rifle bullets to each other. The use of ballistic gelatin is expensive and messy.

 

Modeling clay also provides an easy-to-measure bullet path. After the shot is made (only one per block), I cut the block in half to measure the diameter of the bullet path at various points. The effect is often very dramatic, and it’s easy to photograph. I tell you all this so you will not only understand my methodology and reasoning but so you can do your own easily conducted ballistic comparisons. Recently, I was pleased to see that NovX ammunition is now using clay blocks for testing and demonstration on their website to show their products’ ballistic performances.

I was surprised with how well the 60-grain XTP did, even with the 70 or so fewer feet per second than was advertised. At first, I was not so impressed with performance, as I had not sliced the block in half carefully enough and a portion of the bullet’s path was not visible. When I trimmed away more clay, I found an initial cavity that was 3 inches at its widest point, forming a tear-drop-shaped cavity. The cavity tapered down to an inch in diameter and penetrated the 10-inch block to a depth of 9 inches without exiting.

At this point, my opinion of the .32 ACP as a defensive round (at least with XTP ammo) began to rise. But how would it compare to a .380 version in testing over the chronograph and a modeling-clay shoot?

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Speed Kills

Two factors were important for a valid comparison: First, both pistols had to be reasonably close in barrel length. As it turns out, the length of the barrel of my .380 test pistol — a Walther PPK/S — is 3.3 inches (as opposed to the Colt M1903’s 3.75-inch length). A half-inch is not significant enough to make a major difference in the modeling-clay test.

Second, the ammunition tested had to use the same bullet by the same manufacturer to be valid. For example, if I tested the .380 using Liberty Ammunition Civil Defense .380, which launches a 50-grain monolithic copper bullet downrange at 1,383 feet per second from the PPK/S, and compared it to the slower, heavier Hornady 32 XTP, the test would be invalid.

I purchased a box of Hornady Custom .380, which is loaded with a 90-grain XTP bullet. The muzzle velocity of this .380 load was also listed at 1,000 feet per second, with 200 foot-pounds of energy. On paper, these figures give the .380 a decided edge over the same XTP load in .32 ACP.

When fired from the PPK/S, the average velocity of the .380 XTP was 853 feet per second. This yielded muzzle energy of 145 foot-pounds, putting actual performance of these two rounds and pistols much closer than one might imagine. So how did the .380 XTP perform in the clay block? Almost exactly the same as the .32 XTP.

 

What was interesting was that the .380’s cavity tapered down to a half-inch in diameter as it approached the exit, as opposed to the 1-inch diameter of the .32.

 

One variation I do find in the clay-block test is that sometimes the blocks are not exactly the same length. Most are 10 inches long and 8 inches wide. The block I happened to use to test the .380 was about 9 inches in length rather than a full 10.

The .32 ACP’s extra 100 feet per second of muzzle velocity helped outweigh the advantage of the .380’s additional 30 grains of bullet weight. Had the ballistics that I obtained with my chronograph matched the advertised ballistics, then such would not have been the case.

The .380 XTP, or parts of it, exited the 9-inch block. The cavity at the widest point was exactly like that of the .32 ACP: 3 inches. What was interesting was that the .380’s cavity tapered down to a half-inch in diameter as it approached the exit, as opposed to the 1-inch diameter of the .32. Had the barrel length of the PPK/S been the same as the M1902, the .380’s exit path might have been a bit wider. Still in all, the performance in the clay block was pretty intriguing and has me calling the performance of these two XTP rounds — from these two pistols — a draw.

Consider the .32 ACP

Perhaps we should give modern .32 ACP more respect than it’s gotten of late. After all, it survived as a police and military cartridge in Europe for around 90 years. It is easier to shoot out of the same model gun than the .380 (the later Colt Model 1906 was chambered in .380), and it generally allows the addition of one more round in the magazine and has less recoil.

If you are looking at micro-sized pistols, have another look at the Kel-Tec P-32 or the larger Beretta .32 Tomcat and feed it the right ammo (like the Hornady XTP). North American Arms makes its fine stainless-steel Guardian pistol in .32 ACP, or you might consider a new-manufacture Colt M1903. The Walther PPK/S has not been produced in .32 ACP for many years, but you might find the occasional used specimen available. If you already have a .32 ACP pistol in good condition and are considering it for self-defense, test it with some Hornady .32 XTP ammunition. A .32 ACP self-defense pistol may be worth considering after all.

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Sources

Browning Ammunition: BrowningAmmo.com

Walther Arms: WaltherArms.com

Beretta: Beretta.com

Kel-Tec: KelTecWeapons.com

Ruger: Ruger.com

Colt: Colt.com

U.S. Armament Corporation: USArmamentCorp.com

Hornady: Hornady.com

Liberty Ammunition: LibertyAmmo.com

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