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Pocket Pistol Shootout: .380 ACP vs .38 Special

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In the United States, the two most popular handgun calibers for ultra-compact defensive handguns are arguably the .38 Spl. and .380 ACP. It’s fair to point out that these days, rimfire compact pistols (or other centerfire guns such as .32 ACP) are making waves, but still aren’t as popular as either .38 Spl. or .380 ACP. Due to both cartridges’ popularity, I wanted to practice with both guns. I chose my Glock G42 and Taurus 856 as test guns because both represent their respective categories well, while being reasonably priced and easy to find nearly everywhere in the US. Both guns were shot in completely stock condition, other than the XS Sights Standard Dot orange front sight for the Taurus 856 (which makes life easier with an already challenging-to-shoot gun). For exercises requiring a draw from concealment, I worked with either my PHLster Enigma for the Glock G42 or the Dark Star Gear Apollo Holster for the Taurus 856.

.380 ACP and .38 Special 

.380 ACP is a rimless straight-walled pistol cartridge dating back to 1908 and was originally designed by John Moses Browning as an improvement over his previous .38 ACP pistol cartridge, which had a semi-rebated rim. This semi-automatic 9 mm diameter cartridge is typically loaded with lighter bullets that weigh between 80 to 100 grains and its case is 2mm shorter than a standard 9 mm cartridge. With lighter bullets and less case capacity, the .380 ACP has less recoil and less kinetic energy than the typical 115-grain 9mm round. Throughout its service life, its diminutive size and power has kept it relevant among smaller pocket pistols.

The .38 Special, or .38 Spl, is one of the world’s longest lived and most ubiquitous handgun cartridges. Like the .380 ACP, this rimmed revolver cartridge also has a nominal 9mm diameter and has been used from everything from military and police service, sport and self-defense, and all for a very long time. Because revolvers are manually actuated and not reliant on any type of semi-automatic mechanisms, .38 Spl cartridges can be loaded with varying amounts of smokeless propellants and various bullet weights. The classic weight is 158 grains, but defensive ammunition is also available with bullet weights ranging from 110 to 130 grains. Comparing .380 ACP versus .38 Special, the latter is the more powerful cartridge. This is something to keep in mind, even for small carry guns.

The Three Drills

Shooting drills

The 5×5 Drill

Gila Hayes’ 5×5 drill consists of having five seconds to fire five rounds at a distance of five yards (at a 5-inch circle). This drill was first introduced to me as “the basic HS diploma” of handgun shooting. In other words, clearing the 5×5 is a reasonable first milestone for a beginner. To officially “pass”, shooters must take five separate attempts from a ready position. The total time must total 25 seconds or less, and all 25 rounds inside the 5-inch circle.

Failure To Stop

Originally known as “The Mozambique Drill”, the “Failure to Stop” drill is a classic CQB drill, immortalized by Gunsite Academy. LAPD SWAT’s Lawrence Mudgett and John Helms are also partially responsible for turning it into a household drill. The drill consists of firing two shots at center-of-mass and one at the head box of a target. The standard IPSC A-Zone areas or IDPA Down-0 areas on their respective targets work well. The idea behind Failure to Stop is to train the shooter on how to stop active threats immediately by targeting the central nervous system in event that center-of-mass shots fail to stop the threat initially. All of my drills were done from concealment, the way it’s assessed in the Gabe White Standards. Beyond a defensive context, the drill is a great skill builder as it forces transitions between two sizes of targets.

The 5 Yard Round-Up

Justin Dyal’s 5 Yard Round-Up is an all-encompassing short-distance assessment involving drawing from the holster, shooting from a ready position and shooting from both strong and weak hands. Dyal’s drill is divided into four parts and only requires 10 rounds, and the par times for each part are only 2.5 seconds. This drill specifically uses the NRA B8 10-ring scoring zone which measures 3.36-inches in diameter. Despite the distance, it keeps all shooters honest with those brief par times. Shots outside of the 10-ring are recorded as misses and cost shooters 10 points. To clean this drill, the shooter must not only score all of the 100 possible points, but put all shots inside the 10-ring. Dyals’ basis for the distance, par time and size of the scoring area are based on speed, distance and time averages of real-world defensive firearms use. His Round-Up does an excellent job of distilling defensive shooting fundamentals while also being flexible enough to be shot with most any handgun.

All three drills are easy to set up and run, even by yourself. They’re shot at either 5 or 7-yards and don’t require much ammunition or other peripherals besides a shot timer. Most importantly, all three incorporate the basics of defensive shooting while requiring accuracy and speed to pass. None of these exercises are reliant on high capacities, so they work well with either a semi-auto or any revolver. Because of this, they’re a good way to compare shooting the .380 ACP vs. .38 Special in a defensive situation.

Shooting Results

Before shooting for record, I ran the drills with both the Taurus 856 and the Glock G42 a few times to warm up and get a feel for how they shot. I had no trouble clearing the 5×5 for either gun, but I did come very close to dropping a shot with the 856. Failure To Stop was easy with the Glock G42, but I had to slow down and confirm my sight picture on the third shot which requires some precision on my part. Shooting clean runs with the Taurus took considerably more work, as its double action trigger on this revolver must be properly managed while dealing with the pressure of the shot timer. As a result, scoring some clean Failure to Stop runs with this revolver felt very rewarding due to its relative challenge. Even “warm,” I still failed to clear Dyal’s 5-Yard Round-Up with both the 856 and the Glock G42. This shows how difficult the Round-Up can be, especially with the smallest of carry guns. The marginal recoil of the Glock G42 didn’t matter, because shooting a gun of that size well requires proactive gun-handling. While conducting these assessments, I realized that drawing and building a good firing grip with a gun smaller than your hand is also quite a challenge, no matter if it fires .380 ACP or .38 Special.



5×5 Failure
To Stop
5 Yard Round Up
1. 2.60 sec. 3.33 sec. 2.09 sec.
2. 2.42 sec. 3.31 sec. 2.05 down 1
3. 2.65 sec. 3.08 sec. 2.21 sec.
4. 2.47 sec. 3.66 sec. 1.95 down 2
5. 2.36 sec. 3.39 sec. 70 pts




5×5 Failure
To Stop
5YD Round Up
1. 2.89 sec. 3.38 sec. 2.02 sec.
2. 3.11 sec. 3.88 sec. 2.31 down 2
3. 3.10 sec. 3.54 sec. 2.34 down 1
4. 2.63 sec. 2.96 sec. 2.24 down 1
5. 2.59 sec. 3.16 sec. 50 pts


The Takeaway

Having the opportunity to run two guns and shoot them for score and time under the stress of a shot timer can be a great way to evaluate them on a square range. I had no doubt that the .380 ACP Glock G42 was generally easier to shoot and had less recoil. It’s also true that trying to get good scores with the Taurus 856 meant that I had to work harder due to its double-action trigger. However, simply declaring the Glock G42 as the winner won’t cut it. I spoke with Chuck Haggard of Agile Training & Consulting, who is arguably one of the foremost experts who covers both snub-nosed revolvers and small pocket pistols in his training curriculum. He pointed out that it can be easy to take semi-auto reliability for granted on a square range, but in a defensive entanglement, it’s a completely different animal. Things like the back of the slide snagging on the draw from the pocket or the gun jamming via limpwrist come to mind. Revolvers can’t be limp-wristed, even if held at odd angles, and they will always “cycle” whatever is loaded in the cylinder. A revolver might be harder to shoot, but it is more contextually reliable. The other might be extremely easy to shoot but may require more “attention” in a defensive encounter. As always, there is a trade-off between either kind of gun. It’s also easy for defensive-minded shooters to list different pros and cons all day long, but an expert like Mr. Haggard will freely make use of both systems. He would also remind you that ultimately choosing one or the other will depend on other factors, like mode of carry and style of dress. So which should you chose, .380 ACP or .38 Special? That’s for you to decide.

Article by P. E. FITCH

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