.380 Ammo For Defensive Use

.380 Ammo For Defensive Use

Let’s look at what the facts say about the .380 ACP and its capabilities as a defensive option.

  • .380 ACP bullets averaged 9 to 18 inches of penetration at distances less than 30 feet.
  • This is according to data the author gathered.
  • Some deep penetrations were due to bullets not expanding upon reaching their target.
  • The author advises care in choosing the proper .380 defensive round
  • But he states there are many solid options that will perform, even at lower velocities.

Based on ballistic gel data that I gathered from multiple sources, the .380 ACP bullets averaged somewhere between 9 and 18 inches of penetration in ballistic gel at defensive distances under 30 feet (with 12 inches of penetration with proper bullet expansion being considered effective for personal defense).


In large part, the deeper penetration results were a result of bullets that did not expand and retained their profile as they passed through the test. Failing to expand is good for producing deep penetration on ballistic gel, but it’s bad news in real-life defensive situations because a bullet that doesn’t open properly doesn’t create as much hydrostatic shock or tissue damage. Only a portion of a bullet’s kinetic energy is transferred to the target if the bullet passes through, and unless that bullet strikes a bone or nervous tissue, it might not stop the attacker immediately, which can be disastrous.

Bullet expansion results from a combination of factors. First, the bullet’s construction plays an important role. Second, the velocity at which the bullet is traveling is critical. Lastly, any barriers to the target will affect performance. You can’t choose the wardrobe your attacker will be wearing, but you can choose your bullet and gun.

More information on the .380 ACP:

  • Concealed Carry: .380 Pistol Options For Self Defense
  • Concealed Carry: Is The .380 ACP Enough For Self-Defense?

There are a number of great personal defense .380 loads, and they vary in construction. Some expand reliably at lower velocities, while others require a stronger push to initiate expansion. Based on my personal tests, both Federal’s HST and Hornady’s Critical Defense will expand when fired from light, compact pistols at close range into bare gel, and I’m sure that there are several other loads that will do the same. Pistols with longer barrels have an edge in terms of velocity, and that ups the odds of expansion.

Editor's Note: This article excerpt originally appeared in the September 2017 issue of Gun Digest the Magazine.


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  1. In my opinion, ballistic gel data is often an unreliable predictor. A much better way to gauge caliber performance in my point of view is the Buckeye Firearms Association study from 2010.

    Instead of gel tests, it uses data from 1,800+ bodies involved in actual shootings. The revolations about the effectiveness of the most popular cartridges was rather eye-opening.

    It revealed the failure to incapacitate rates of all the major cartridges, but it also tracked how many rounds it took to incapacitate someone on average.

    I’m going to post them for people to see. Both the failure % and average number of rounds to incapacitate will be in parentheses:

    .22LR (31%, 2);
    .25 ACP (35%, 3),
    .32 ACP (40%, 2),
    .380 ACP (16%, 2);
    .38 Special (17%, 2);
    9mm (13%, 3);
    .357 SIG/Magnum (9%, 2);
    .40 S&W (13%, 3);
    .45 ACP (14%, 3);
    .44 Magnum (13%, 2);
    Rifle (all centerfire) (9%, 2); and
    shotgun (90% being 12 ga.) (12%, 2).

    If we assume a 3% margin of error, the .380 ACP is essentially right there with the most popular calibers and certainly a step above the smaller ones.

    Moreover, it is a very popular notion that FMJ’s should be used for .380 ACP, but testing reveals that over penetration is common with these rounds. Over penetration is exactly what we don’t want to see, and it’s even more important than expansion in my opinion. We can see this with the results of the .44 Magnum which was more accurate than any other pistol cartridge, yet it failed to incapacitate at the same rate as 9mm. That’s because this powerful round usually leaves the body taking most of its energy along with it.

    If you use a significantly more powerful .380 ACP ammunition and superior bullet design, such as a 65 or 90 grain Underwood Xtreme Defender (which does NOT rely on expansion and creates twice the size permanent wound cavity than any other caliber hollow point), it should be absolutely as good as any of the others as a standard short-range self-defense pistol cartridge.

    Bodies don’t lie. It’s an infinitely better predictor in my opinion than the myriad ballistic gel tests that are seldom performed correctly anyway.

  2. I feel that it is very important to discuss the non-expanding .380 defensive rounds such as projectiles produced by Lehigh Defense as Extreme Defender and Extreme Penetrator(which are also sold to Black Hills and Underwood for inclusion on their cartridges). Browning, also, is producing an equivalent projectile.. These non-expanding defense arounds have extraordinarily dependability in semi-autos and repeatable penetration between 15 and 18 inches. The volume of their wound cavities is about 2 1/2 times that of the best expandable .380s, such as FEDERAL HST and HORNADY Critical Duty. These rounds are definitely not gimmicks and are revolutionizing terminal ballistics. One of these rounds in .380 is equivalent to one of the very good expanding bullets in 9 mm. For the first time, I can now recommend (as an instructor) .380 for self defense if equipped with these extraordinary defensive rounds!


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