Handguns > Semi-Auto

Concealed Carry: 21st Century Style

Review of nine compact .380 semi-automatic handguns.

The lure of the little gun is stronger than ever. The ranks of new CCW permit holders are growing steadily, and few choose a big gun for daily carry. Although weight and size invariably accompany a gun that is the best possible choice for defensive use, most people simply won’t make a habit of carrying a heavy, bulky gun.

It is obvious that smaller and lighter handguns may be a compromise of a sort, but they nonetheless place respectable power into more of the right hands. In this article we’ll look at the characteristics and performance of nine different guns that represent a new trend toward the lightest, smallest pistols chambered for the century-old .380 ACP cartridge. Most are new to the market, and all are examples of modern gunmakers responding to consumer demand.

But first let's look at the .380 ACP cartridge. Also known as the 9 mm Corto, 9 mm Kurz and 9x17 mm in Europe, the .380 was first used in an American pistol: the Pocket Model Colt of 1908. It is a short 9 mm round using bullets of 0.355 inches in diameter and 80 to 110 grains in weight at approximately 900 fps from the muzzle. In the United States, the cartridge has a long-standing association with some pretty classy semi-automatics from Colt, Remington and others. Many quality .380 pistols came from Europe in the first half of the century, either by import or in the duffle bags of G.I.s returning from our two European wars. After World War II, many other pistols came to America from Spain, Italy, Germany, Austria and France.

American ammunition companies load the .380 ACP with a variety of bullet types. Recoil of the .380 ACP is bearable for almost all CCW holders, and most guns for which it is chambered are easy to carry. For most of the lifetime of the .380, the guns that used it were simple blowback designs in which a combination of slide weight and recoil spring tension held the breech closed until the bullet left the muzzle and pressure dropped.

In the nine pistols reviewed here only two use this system, which requires a fairly heavy slide. The other seven are recoil-operated guns using some form of tilting barrel lockup. In short, these .380s use an operating system that is also found on similar pistols chambered in 9 mm Luger, .40 S&W and other cartridges. In this way, the .380 pistol manufacturer can reduce its weight and bulk. Several in the lineup are very compact pistols that weigh less than 10 ounces. This effectively fills the bill for shooters who demand light weight, compact dimensions and overall shootability in their CCW gun. If they can accept the limitations of the ammunition, it is an appealing concept.

The guns are—in alphabetical order—the Kahr P380, Kel-Tec P3AT, Magnum Research Micro, North American Arms Guardian, Rohrbaugh R380, Ruger LCP, SIG Sauer P238, Taurus 738 TCP and Walther PK380. There is a great deal of variety, with prices running from a low of $318 to a high of $1,150. Weights range from a low of 8.30 ounces to a high of 19.72 ounces. Following is a description of each gun in capsule form.

Shooting the Guns
Each pistol tested got an equal shot in the evaluation process. I fired the American Rifleman protocol of five consecutive, five-shot groups, plus a half-dozen or so magazines of informal shooting. That’s roughly 100 rounds per gun. These guns are intended for sudden crisis encounters at very close range. For that reason, I would not be too concerned about the performance of the guns at 25 yards. When I report that the average group size is more than 6 inches, that means the gun doesn’t compare very well to, say, a S&W Performance Center M1911. It is apples and oranges. I can tell you they will all cluster seven rounds into a group the size of your hand at 5 yards.

I am concerned about the number of cycling malfunctions, most commonly failures to feed and chamber. With one exception, every gun experienced these problems. Even here, we have to put matters in context. Kahr Arms, for example, includes the same manual with each of its pistols, regardless of size or chambering. That manual tells the buyer that he or she needs to run at least 200 rounds through the pistol before pressing it into service. That is coldly realistic advice that all of the other manufacturers would be well-advised to emulate.

With most of the guns, the greater number of glitches came when they were new out of the box. As the shooting wore on, the frequency of malfunctions declined. I would also suggest that when breaking in your chosen .380, you should make sure the gun is well-lubricated, perhaps even over-lubricated. Shoot until malfunctions stop.

This diverse lineup of .380 ACP pistols provides many choices to the defensive handgunner who wants a light, small, shootable handgun at a conservative price.

Be sure to view the gun-by-gun results in the Concealed Carry: 21st Century Style Photo Gallery


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10 Responses to Concealed Carry: 21st Century Style

Km wrote:
June 12, 2013

All experienced problems ehh? Translation, the kel tec was a jam-omatic so let's say the rest were too. Or let's take the lowest number of malfunctions they all shared and downplay the less reliable ones. My reading anyway

Mat Neu wrote:
May 17, 2013

I have had a Sig p230 SL for 18+ years thousands of rounds. Only 2 misfeeds the first hundred rounds. Bullet placement most important but never in a zombie fight.:)

Molly wrote:
March 11, 2013

I wish that the breakdown articles on the individual weapons gave specs on dimensions: length, grip height, weight, etc. If I am researching a CCW, this is info I need to narrow my selections down. My Walther PPK is too big for me to comfortably carry concealed, this article does not give me any info to compare that too.

Richard wrote:
January 14, 2013

My diamondback 380 does not fail with blazer ammo. Every shot hits the target.

RayB wrote:
December 10, 2012

Is the .32 APC a better round? Do you not get feed jams like the .380 APC?

Sky wrote:
April 27, 2012

Life long gunner: does it really matter who's gun is bigger? The "little" .22 can kill someone if a person has accuracy and so can a .380. I fail to see the importance of the size of the attackers gun because you shouldn't even be thinking about his gun but focused on killing/disabling him which you know your gun (greater than or equal to the .22) can.

Paul Cooley wrote:
December 15, 2011

You expect it to go "bang" with each pull of the trigger. "Concerned" about failure to feed! Recomendation of firing hundreds of rounds till it works? They ALL should go back to drawing boards for WORKING design. Imagine having to fire hundreds of rounds to see if you Revolver works! All my Beretta semi-automatics (.380/9mm/45acp) work - period, just like revolvers.

Life long gunner wrote:
December 15, 2010

You now think a .22 will do OK.. that is until you are toe to toe with a crack head armed with a .40 caliber. The .380 is a tiny back up caliber.. that is the only purpose I have for a .380.. a 3rd boot/pocket gun for a running gun battle/zombie war. My BACKUP/2nd gun is a 9MM ! No man has ever been in a gunfight and wanted a smaller caliber!!

Bernie Wieczorek, Norfolk,Va wrote:
November 17, 2010

I concur ith Mr Humphreys, the Bersa is a fine weapon, I ave one with lase sights, and i think its great. I have had no malfunctions{well lubed with white lith)and have achieved better accuracy out to 25 ft or more, range timecanmean alot, and beinga senior citizen,I try to get as much as I can, great weapon!

Carl Humphreys Sr. wrote:
September 13, 2010

To me at least it is a shame that mr.Clapp didn't try a Bersa Thunder with three and a half inch barrel. This pistol is not the smallest or lightest .380 out there,but mine is a very reliable gun. After about four to five hundred rounds of various types I have had only one jam.And that was with the cheapest Russian ammo I could find.I believe it ran about $13.95 per 50 fmj 91gr/steel cased/berdan primed. Now with the hornaday 90gr.XTP(Extreme Terminal Performance)advertised as 1,000 FPS muzzle velocity,which are hollow point copper jacketed made to 'flower petal',I have great confidence in my little pistol. Heck,even my numerous makes of FMJ practice rounds are deadly if need be. lots of practice and shot placement make all the difference in the world. I bought my bersa used for less than two-hundred dollars,and I have already fired around three-hundred dollars worth of ammo through it. Only the price of bullets has held me back from shooting more. From 15 to 21 feet(five to seven yards)I get consistent 8 round groups at least as small as my hand. Would I like a larger caliber and higher priced pistol with more magazine capacity?Sure I would,but for now I am content and cofident in both my abilities and those of my little gun. P.S. I am still looking to purchase a semi-auto in .22 with a four or five inch barrel.Even a .22 round will do in a pinch! Peace be with you all,Carl Humphreys Sr. in Navarre Florida