.380 ACP is a pain in the butt. It’s convenient, and you can make obscenely small and handy guns that can handle the caliber, but it’s a borderline cartridge in terms of performance. I’m guessing it gives ammo manufacturers fits. Why?
It’s a light bullet. Generally, 380 ACP rounds are about 90 grains in weight, or roughly ¾ the weight of a 9mm self-defense projectile and just 40% the weight of a .45 ACP bullet.
Velocity is limited to about 1,000 feet per second for 90-grain loads. You can only pack so much powder and pressure into that little cartridge without blowing up your micro gun.
Recoil has to be manageable in micro mini guns weighing less than a butterfly’s left leg.
Worse yet, with all those limitations, we expect a .380 ACP round to level a city block should we ever need to use it for self-defense.
I guess it just shows how we humans emphasize hope. There are guns that are tiny and easy to carry, so we hope (and assume) that they will provide enough oomph to get the job done.
With all that said, I guess it’s not surprising that most of the .380 rounds I test don’t compare to their 9mm and larger siblings. It’s simply a physics nightmare to produce a round that does what we want within the constraints of the cartridge. Sure, if you look at the ads, you’ll see lots of impressive pictures of perfectly expanded .380 ACP bullets, but did you read the fine print? I could probably get a can of spackle to expand if I fired it into water or uncovered ballistic gelatin. Most any bullet will make a picture perfect mushroom when fired into bare gel. The trick is making it perform that way after passing through clothing or other barriers.
The folks at the new Sig Sauer ammunition factory are pretty proud of their V-Crown bullets, so I’ve been testing different loads and calibers. A few weeks back, we looked at the 9mm 124 grain V-Crown bullet and it showed impressive performance. Will the 90-grain .380 ACP perform equally well? Let’s find out.
The box says muzzle velocity is 980 feet per second, but you never really know what that means. Velocity is largely dependent on the barrel length. Is that the speed from a 2-inch barrel? 3-inch? 4-inch? To find out, I tested velocity using a Shooting Chrony Beta Master Chronograph placed 15 feet downrange. I used two different pistols to represent common barrel lengths popular in the .380 ACP world. For the micro pistol, I used a Ruger LCP .380. This tiny little gun has a 2.75-inch barrel and much of that is the chamber, so it’s comparable in useful barrel length to a snubby revolver. The other test gun was a Walther PPK/S. While not a common carry gun anymore, it’s got a 3.3-inch barrel, which is pretty common.
Shooting a bunch of shots through the chrony with both pistols, I observed the following average velocities, 15 feet down range.
Walther PPK/S: 970.8 feet per second
Ruger LCP: 881.5 feet per second
Based on these results, I’m guessing the factory listed velocity is for a 3.5-inch barrel. Also, they measure at the muzzle, with more sophisticated technology than I have at my disposal.
Penetration and Expansion
It’s time to shoot the jello. That’s what really matters, right? Again, I chose to use both pistols rather than pick one. There are a whole lot of micro .380 ACP guns being carried out there, so I wanted to see how the Sig Sauer V-Crown bullets performed from tiny guns with short barrels.
As usual for this series, I set up Clear Ballistics gelatin blocks and covered the front surface with the official FBI four-layer fabric. This is intended to simulate multiple layers of clothing including denim, cotton, and insulation.
First up was the Ruger LCP. Might as well start with the most challenging first, right? I fired three shots into a fresh gelatin block covered with my now-perforated FBI fabrics. All three projectiles penetrated to depths between 13 and 15 inches. This is good – right where you want it. When I dug the bullets out of the jello, I found that all three showed partial expansion. Two of the three projectiles expanded to .52 inches in diameter, while the third struggled a bit more, with .40-inches of expansion. All three looked like they really wanted a few more feet per second. Expansion started normally, but there just wasn’t enough energy to keep things moving. Welcome to the challenges of .380 ACP.
Next, I fired three more into a fresh gel block with the Walther PPK/S. With over a half-inch more barrel length, I figured this would provide those few extra fps. And it did. All three projectiles expanded perfectly and fully, as far as I could tell. I measured .47, .48 and .55-inches for these. The only reason they measured smaller than a couple of the LCP projectiles was that they went through a complete expansion, getting even larger, followed by the petals filing back on the body of the bullet. Penetration was 13 inches for one, 14 inches for another and 16 inches for the last. Excellent results.
I have to say I was pleasantly surprised. I can’t tell you how many .380 ACP bullets I’ve fired into gel through fabric barriers. Almost all of them fail to expand properly with any type of .380 ACP pistol. These performed well in the smallest of guns and the worst velocity scenario. In a slightly larger pistol, with just ½-inch more barrel length, they performed perfectly.