The 380 ACP gets a lot of mixed reviews as a self-defense cartridge. Truth be told, there is a reason for this and many of the “experts” have claimed that it is insufficient for stopping an attack.
Other people who I’d consider to be smart have said that the 380 ACP is likely the smallest you’d want to use for self-defense.
Which one is it?
Can the 380 Auto be used for self-defense?
Yes the 380 Auto can be used for self-defense but proper ammo selection is key. Ammo for the 380 is known to only expand or penetrate, rarely will it do both. In order to stop the threat it needs to do both, and there are a few options that do work.
Best 380 ACP Ammo For Self-Defense
- 90 Grain Hornady FTX Critical Defense (Best option)
- 90 Grain Sig Sauer V-Crown (A distant second place)
- 90 Grain Speer Gold Dot JHP (A close third)
Before we get into the specifics on the ammunition itself, let’s discuss what self-defense ammo is supposed to do, why it’s supposed to do it, and how.
Self-defense ammo needs to do a couple of things:
The reason why 380 ACP is usually frowned upon for self-defense is because it is underpowered by many standards.
- It lacks in velocity
- It lacks in energy transfer
- It’s overall design limits its capability
The conversation usually stops there, however, and rarely ever goes into any explanation as to why there are better options for self-defense.
In other words, people say it’s underpowered without actually explaining why. Let’s discuss this.
380 Expansion VS Penetration
There are a couple of things that your ammo, in any caliber, needs to be able to do in order to effectively stop an attacker from continuing his attack. Those things are,
- Penetrate into the target far enough to do damage
- Expand big enough to inflict more damage and stop before leaving
And to do each one, they need to have a couple of attributes.
- First, they need to have a certain design that allows the bullet to not get plugged up with clothing upon impact. This, in turn, allows the bullet to expand as it passes through the body. Bullet expansion is necessary because it helps the bullet slow down without over penetrating into another person or thing. As the bullet expands it creates a bigger wound inside the body and even allows all of the energy to transfer into the body of the target as the bullet stops.
- Second, the bullet needs to reach a fast enough velocity that it makes it far enough into the body to meet the minimum standards set forward by the FBI of 12-18 inches. This velocity is also essential to aid in the expansion of the bullet. A bullet that is traveling too slow will never have the needed force on the face of the bullet to make it mushroom out.
If they don’t have sufficient velocity, usually only one or the other, expansion or penetration, will happen. I do also want to state that sufficient velocity will be different from one cartridge to the next.
At the end of the day, each cartridge designer should have this figured out. Most of them don’t, which is why 380 is a tough caliber for self-defense.
Let’s take a more in depth look at why penetration and expansion matter, as well as why you need both in order to incapacitate a threat.
How far a bullet penetrates into a body matters. Too little and it doesn’t stand a chance at doing enough damage. Too much and it could pass through and hit an unintended target.
Something that can be a bit confusing, is that even “underpowered” ammo like the 380 can over penetrate. This is tricky, but 380 has enough velocity to pass straight through, but not always enough that it helps facilitate the mushrooming expansion.
The FBI has put forth that a minimum of 12 inches of penetration and a maximum of 18 inches is ideal. If your bullet goes that far, but no further and no less, that is considered to be a good depth for stopping a threat.
The problem with 380 Auto, specifically, is that they usually stop short of or go way past the 12-18 inch mark. Bullets that do a good job of expanding usually do so too soon. Bullets that don’t expand well, either don’t do it at all or take too long so they don’t stop the bullet inside the sweet spot.
In other words, while it may be counterintuitive, you need a strong velocity to stop the bullet. Of course, there is more that goes into it than that like a properly designed bullet.
There are no standards set for expansion like there are for penetration. However, I would say that there are some guidelines that you want to have met.
- First, is that the bullet does, in fact, expand.
- Second, is that it does so consistently and reaches at least a half inch in diameter.
I don’t mean that you need to buy ballistics gel and shoot a bunch of ammo at it to see which one expands. In cases like this, it is okay to stand on the shoulders of giants and take it from where they’ve left off.
For example, I cite the Lucky Gunner ammo tests regularly. The ammo I recommend in this article for 380 ACP is based on my own experience and research, coupled with what I’ve learned from them.
But, to get back to the point, I like to see a 380 Auto bullet expand to about a half inch in diameter from the .35 that the 380 starts out as.
However, it can’t just be a one off thing, it has to expand consistently across several shots, which is why I’ve chosen the ammo I have for my own 380 ACP guns, and are the ones I recommend here to you.
The thing about 380 Automatic is that the bullets usually do one or the other. They either expand to depths that are not acceptable but mushroom out great. Or, they penetrate to acceptable depths (or further) but don’t expand.
For any self-defense round, you really need to have both attributes for it to be effective.
This is the reason why there are only three different ammunition makes on this list of the best 380 ammo for self-defense. In an ideal world, any ammo you choose for self-defense needs to be able to expand and reach the proper depths.
Now let’s dissect each make of ammo more in depth to see why they made this short list.
Hornady 90 Grain Critical Defense FTX
For some reason, the Critical Defense line gets a lot of hate from the “experts” but I’m not entirely sure why. I think it’s because of the mainline calibers like 9mm or 45 Auto and the fact that there are better options in those calibers.
But for outliers like 380 ACP and even the best 357 magnum ammo for self-defense, the Critical Defense always ranks near the top.
At least one of the reasons why is because of the way the bullet is designed. It consistently expands to over a half-inch in diameter and the average depth across five shots was 13.2 inches.
All of the shots landed in the 12-18 inch zone. Average velocity across the five shots was 910 feet per second.
If you look closely at the above pic, you’ll see a little red bit inside the hollow point. That little red piece makes it so the bullet doesn’t get plugged up with clothing when impacting the target.
If you were to look closely at the other rounds tested in their lab, you’d see that clothing was a big problem for expansion purposes.
90 Grain SIG V-Crown
Next up we have the SIG V-Crown 380 Auto rounds. I state above that these are a distant second. The reason why I said it like that is because while the average depth is 12.8 inches. A couple rounds fall outside the desired depth.
Two of the rounds only made it 11 inches.
But the thing is, Lucky Gunner fired into the ballistics gel with four barriers of clothing. One of those barriers was denim. I don’t see people walking around with denim shirts or even jackets anymore, so I’d say that their test was overkill.
At least, it was overkill for warmer climates.
Even though that is technically true, the rounds still expanded beautifully. The average expansion across 5 shots was .51 inch.
While they don’t have the little red tip that Hornady’s bullets have, they’ve got something going for them. The shape of the hollow point itself helps it keep clear of debris. Because it doesn’t get clogged up it expands correct.
Finally, the speed of the bullet was 861 FPS.
Speer 90 Grain Gold Dot
I debated with myself about putting this one on here. I call this a close third, but it doesn’t reach any of my requirements.
The average depth into gel after passing through 4 layers of clothing is 11 inches. In fact, they all made it to about the 11 inch mark.
Then, the bullets only expand to .49 inch. That is close, but not quite there.
So, why are these included?
I included them because they perform consistently. They consistently expand and penetrate. And I bet that if they removed the denim that they’d be there depth wise.
Nobody wears jean jackets anymore, and most people only wear one or two shirts.
So for that reason alone, I included the Gold Dots.
And, the fact that smaller 380 guns are finicky about ammo, you may need a third option. In that case, this is a proven cartridge in many smaller guns.
At the end of the day, the right ammo matters. You should always choose the best ammo for your chosen handgun. And, you should also test it to make sure it works. What good is the best 380 self-defense ammo if it doesn’t work in your gun?
This means you must fire your ammo out of your gun to make sure it cycles properly. Small 380 guns are notorious for this.
Read more on why you should shoot your hollow points, next.
Check out the Lucky Gunner Lab here.