I am going to start off by saying that just the subject of carrying anything less than a 9mm or .38 special sparks off an internet controversy that has created pages and pages of debate. There is ballistics testing by actual subject matter experts, and of course internet “experts” weighing in on the subject. One subject matter expert is someone who is well-respected in the industry and someone whose work I have a lot of respect for, Dr. Gary K. Roberts. His quoted opinion on the .380 cartridge follows.
Handguns chambered in .380 ACP are small, compact, and generally easy to carry. Unfortunately, testing has shown that they offer inadequate performance for self-defense and for law enforcement use whether on duty as a back-up weapon or for off duty carry. The terminal performance of .380 ACP JHP’s is often erratic, with inadequate penetration and inconsistent expansion being common problems, while .380 ACP FMJ’s offer adequate penetration, but no expansion. All of the .380 ACP JHP loads we have tested, including CorBon, Hornady, Federal, Remington, Speer, and Winchester exhibited inconsistent, unacceptable terminal performance for law enforcement back-up and off duty self-defense use due to inadequate penetration or inadequate expansion. Stick with FMJ for .380 ACP or better yet, don’t use it at all. The use of .380 ACP and smaller caliber weapons is really not acceptable for law enforcement use and most savvy agencies prohibit them.
While I agree with Dr. Roberts and others that the .380 is a marginal round, I also agree that all handgun rounds are marginal at best. When given the choice I would rather have a rifle. However, in the reality of civilian concealed carry, we do not have the same options as law enforcement or military personnel. Sometimes we need to be discrete. Sometimes our manner of dress requires us to change the way we carry, such as wearing a suit and tie all day. For these situations, I truly believe the .380 has it’s place. To quote the internet, “it is better to have a firearm and not need it, than need a firearm and not have it.”
That being said I eventually decided that a “mousegun” .380 was needed in my carry rotation for times when I needed to be discrete or I could not leave my shirt pulled out to conceal one of my other rotation pieces. So I began my search.
There are many options for pocket .380’s such as the Ruger LCP, Sig Sauer p238, Smith & Wesson Bodyguard, Kahr P380, Taurus TCP, ad my choice the Keltec P3AT just to name a few. My opinion on these .380’s is that I personally do not believe one is any better than the other. Pages and pages of forums exist with owners of all makes and models reporting issues with them. My general opinion is that due to the size, tolerances, and pressure these little guys experience that there are bound to be problems with a sampling of them. So my suggestion is to buy what you want, and has the features that you want, shoot it enough to declare it reliable and be done with it. If you find one that is unreliable, send it back to the factory for repair and go trade it in or sell it and buy another until you find one that works out of the box with no “fluff and buff”, no factory repair, and no modifications.
My requirements were simple: light, small, and no external safeties. I got lucky back in 2008 when I decided to purchase one and I found the Keltec P3AT at a local shop. It has given me over 800 trouble-free rounds, many which were reloads or “+P” self-defense rounds. The +P is in quotes because although manufacturers such as Magtech and Buffalo Bore advertise that their product are +P, there us no SAAMI spec on .380 ACP +P. The Keltec I bought, while not as fit and finished as other ones such as the Sig Sauer and Ruger, has proven to be a reliable little addition to my concealed carry rotation.
Keltec has this to say about “+P” ammo:
AMMUNITION: The P-3AT Pistol is designed and chambered for the .380 Auto
cartridge. Do not use any other ammuntion. The P-3AT will accept +P
ammuntion, however not with continuous use.
The weapon itself is very easy to clean and take apart. Drop the magazine and verify the weapon is clear. Pull slide back part way back, pop out the pin using fingernail or flat head screwdriver, slide comes off. Has the same tilting barrel design as a 1911/Browning. Comes apart the same way except it does not have a locking slide so you have to hold it back while you remove pin, lining it up to reinstall is the same as the Browning or 1911. Put the slide on until the barrel link lines up then insert the pin. The only difference is guide rod sits in a spring inside a spring so there are two recoil springs. Easy to clean and lube. I use Slip 2000 EWL or Wheel bearing grease on all my carry weapons.
This is another handgun that does not have a slide lock. It also does not lock back on an empty magazine like its little cousin the P32 does. I expect this was due to size, weight, and real estate as this is one of the smallest .380’s of the bunch. Here are my Keltec’s stats:
Weight, no mag: 7.90 oz
Weight, with empty mag: 8.97 oz
Loaded Weight, 7 rounds Buffalo Bore 90gr speer gold-dot JHP: 11.36 oz
Width: .826 in
Length: 5.137 in
Height: 3.599 in
It has a very long trigger pull and breaks at about 8lbs. It smooths up a but with use, but the double action only trigger is long and slightly spongy with a bit of overtravel and no real reset. It takes some getting used to but is manageable and can be very accurate one-handed while moving.
I have 8-850 rounds through the P3AT at this time. There has been no abnormal wear or cracks present. One issue that I have is the finish has worn off pretty good after years of carry. It is not a very durable finish. I may send it off to get the slide coated in the near future as rust builds up slightly where the handgun makes contact with my body if I am not wearing an under-shirt and I need to use Kroil to remove it. This seems to be a common complaint.
Here is the rust:
I would estimate that 300 of the 800 or so rounds I have fired are my carry round, Buffalo Bore 90gr +P JHP. I chose this round after doing my own research and reading tests done on the product. Some people argue that FMJ is better for penetration. The FBI considers 12 inches the minimum penetration. It is the best we have right now, that and folks like Dr. Roberts doing after shooting ballistic research for the Military and Law Enforcement. I used the 12″ as a baseline in my decisions full well knowing the .380 is a small underpowered round.
The Buffalo Bore 380 Auto +P 90 gr. Jacketed Hollow Point is rated by the manufacturer at 1200fps M.E. 288 ft. lbs. My chronograph tests put it more at 1100FPS out of the P3AT. Here is a chart courtesy of http://www.shootingillustrated.com/ and their Smith&Wesson Bodyguard .380 which pretty much supports my tests:
Also some backyard tests were done by the folks at http://www.thektog.org/forum/ using ribs and other media:
For those in a hurry, here’s the bottom line: Tested Buffalo Bore Gold Dot and Hard Cast – the two highest energy cartridges available in 380. The Gold Dot penetrated much more than the Hard Cast, and mushroomed uniformly to an impressive .585 inches.
Description: Compare Buffalo Bore ammunition from 2 types of carry : 40 caliber from a Kahr PM40 (at 470 ft-lbs energy) and 380 from a P3AT (at 236 ft-lbs energy). Measure penetration depth and maximum bullet diameter. Fire 3 rounds of 40 cal Buffalo Bore type 23A/20 155gr Gold Dot bullet. Fire 2 rounds of 380 Buffalo Bore 100gr hard cast. Fire 2 rounds of 380 Buffalo Bore 90gr Gold Dot.
Target layering: (distance – 15 ft from muzzle)
1 layer denim pant leg
pork spare ribs, meat side out, room temp, fresh from market
2 boxes of sheet rock plaster – 33lb/box “lightweight” type
– 9.8 inches of pre-mixed plaster + 0.2 inches of cardboard each
– 19.6 inches of plaster total
All rounds easily broke through the pork ribs. All shots hit bone. All 40 cal and 2 380 passed completely through the first 9.8 inch box of plaster into the 2nd box. All of these were of the Gold Dot bullet design. 1 of the hard cast 380 did not make it through the first plaster box, a fragment of the other hard cast did.
Penetration: 40 cal = 17.8″, 17.1″, 16.4″; 380 cal = 13.8″, the other 3 bullets were not recovered.
The male sternum (breast bone) ranges in thickness from 1/4 to 1/2 inch, and contains a spongy marrow filled center. Pork spare ribs match this design in thickness variation and content, so should be a suitable target for replicating a shot against a BG. Plaster, on the other hand is anybody’s guess as to how good a simulant it might be. It is dense, inexpensive, available to everyone, and easy to shoot (large area, no leakage). However, a followup test with ballistic gel would provide more accurate results.
I had no trouble finding the three 40 cal and one 380 bullet by feel. I have no idea why I could not find the other 380 Gold Dot, but it clearly went into the 2nd plaster box in an expanded state as evidenced by the appearance of the holes in the 2nd box. I suspect that the hard cast broke apart. Performance of the 1 380 Buffalo Bore that was recovered was much better than I expected. The 380 penetrated 20% less than the 40 caliber, but did penetrate an incredible 13.8 inches of plaster – after passing through denim, meat, ribs, and 3 layers of cardboard.
Computing the damage volume as recovered bullet area times penetration depth gives 5.73 cubic inches to the 40 caliber and 3.71 cubic inches to the 380 – a 35% difference. The energy difference between these 2 rounds is 50%, so damage volume isn’t quite the whole story – but does account for most of the energy dissipation. My guess is that the remaining 15% energy difference between the 40 cal and 380 cal was eaten up by a larger “temporary cavity” volume surrounding the 40 cal bullet’s path. The effects of this shock wave area can be seen on the back of the 40 cal 2nd plaster block where 1 of the bullets’ shock wave was sufficiently powerful to break out a bit of the cardboard, even though the bullet itself was 1.8 inches away from the cardboard when it stopped.
* Bullet energy determines would path volume – bigger is better. Bullet design determines wound path diameter, and reliability of expansion, at a given velocity against a given target. Looks like BB has found a good balance of these 2 competing forces with the Gold Dot, against a BG target – for the P3AT.
* The P3AT with BB Gold Dot is a formidable defensive weapon – penetrating almost 14 inches of plaster with a half inch+ diameter wound path after going through denim and rib cage. Compare the P3AT with BB Gold Dot at 236 ftlb actual measured energy with a S&W SnubNose 38cal +P Double Tap Gold Dot at actual measured 199 ftlb. I’ll take the P3AT any day.
* Buffalo bore with the Gold Dot bullet is now my only carry ammo in 380, 357, and 40 Grin
* Some day, I’ll repeat this using 380 only – replacing hard cast with BB flat nose FMJ – using my precious Vyse gel.
I wish I would have taken pics of this raw roast. When the Buffalo bore Dots would hit, it looked like modeling clay blowing apart. Just gaping holes in some pretty serious thick meat. The entrance hole looked like an exit hole. It is obvious that this bullet, as you can see from the pics, is being driven way faster than its designed capabilities. Forgot all the talk of gold dots being bonded and not falling apart, if this round hits bone, it blows up into 20 pieces. Like a little bomb. even when it didn’t hit bone, it’s going to go into some fragmentation like a Triton quik shot
So I think that is why the rib tests show more penetration, in that test the rounds are going through just 2 inches of rib and dry plaster. These new tests show that with thick meat, then a soupy substance under it, you are looking at more like 7-8 inches of penetration. With thick meat and thick bone, it’s going to be a mere 5 inches no matter how big and bad the 380 load. And also that Buffalos do overexpand. Is that good or bad is a point of view, nothing more. They are powerful rounds make no mistake, and it is my opinion that I would not shoot more than 20 in my little gun, just to test it, and then carry it if so inclined. They feel like magnum loads in the tiny guns.
Next up were Buffalo bore hot loads, 90 grains advertised at 1100 FPS in a KT/LCP. Those are the middle two bullets. This is a handful. It blasted an inch and a half entrance wound, moved the entire box setup, and went in 8 inches. It blows off chunks of meat. The recovered bullets are starting to tear apart badly. Not good.
I shot one Buffalo bore into the thickest meat, it went in 5 inches, hit bone, shattered the bone into shards and the bullet completely disintegrated.
Hard to control for quick followups, this round felt like shooting a magsafe or some similar frangible. Awesome wound track, but the bullets DO tear themselves apart going as fast as they are.
I decided that was the round for me. I have done a lot of training both out of the pocket and from AIWB and as I noted in earlier reviews decided that I will carry AIWB when I can and only pocket carry when I have to. I bought a Desantis Nemesis pocket holster for the P3AT and the LCR and they work great. I wanted a low ride AIWB holster and kept it simple with a Galco Stow and Go that has served me well since 2008.
Here is an example of my issues while pocket carrying, now add into the mix, an attacker and movement while parrying and you can see how pocket carry may not be the best solution. Force on force classes woke me up to this.
Shooting on the move is accurate with training. The weapon is easy to handle and get followup shots even using the hot loads and it is accurate even with it’s small imitation of sights. It is a true vest pocket gun in the old Colt 1908 fashion. A no nonsense in your face self defense weapon. I think it is perfect when carried AIWB
Here is static accuracy from 5 yards one handed from a draw, rapid fire:
From 10 yards one handed from a draw, rapid fire:
From 15 yards, one handed from a draw, rapid fire:
and from 22 yards from a draw, one handed, rapid fire:
So in conclusion, I feel the .380 has a place in everyone’s carry rotation and you should not feel “under-gunned”” with it. Recently a senior in South Florida ran off two armed bad guys robbing an internet cafe with a .380. But if you are planning to go in harm’s way, I would in no way recommend the .380, grab a rifle.