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The .380 ACP in Review: A Critique of the American Rifleman Review of 9 New 380s.

06/12/2010 @ 2:44pm

The .380 made an unlikely comeback. You could credit James Bond and M, switching from the .25 cal to the Walther PPK, but I’d say more credit goes to your insistence on the resurgent right to keep and bear arms–with the emphasis on “bear.” Really, actually, carrying a gun–not just owning one.

Now, the dilemma we all love to talk about: Which gun to carry and where do I put it?

People with more experience than I will tell you that the equipment you choose depends on the mission, but that surely you recognize a certain floor on effective firepower and should start from there. There is no way that, in this article, I will even begin to get into the continuing debate over the optimal death-dealer caliber and whether the .380 should even be in the contest. Regardless of the never-ending arguments over whether the .38 Special going to +P sufficiently rehabilitates it, and whether improvements in the .380’s bullet make it a respectable personal defense round at all, here is the reality you “calibers that begin with 4″ guys have to acknowledge: the public has voted and the .380 ACP has achieved market popularity.  Why? Concealed carry.

Concealed carry is huge, and is big business. The demand brought forth the supply and now, the .380 Automatic Colt Pistol cartridge is a hot commodity, a highly sought after item. So hot that the .380 round disappeared from analog and cyberspace retail stocks in 2008 and it is still hard to find. My sponsor,, got its start scouring the market for supply and offering .380, 9mm and 5.56 when others back-ordered customers, or led customers down the primrose path to the Checkout Cart, only to discover after many mouse-clicks that the rounds were “out of stock.” So, the boys at Lucky specialized in advertising ONLY what they had in stock and locating hard-to-find ammunition. Back to .380: they have to stalk for .380 still.

I’ve owned a couple. Hey, I’ll admit it: I bought a Grendel. Don’t remember this one? No problem. It was highly forgettable. It was cheap and you got what you paid for. The gun was junk. Then, I owned a Colt Mustang. Cool, huh? You collectors just salivate away. Owned a Pony Pocket-Lite, too. Then, I got rid of them both: Why?

The Mustang malfunctioned and the Pony bit you in the pad of your trigger finger, putting your trigger fingertip in a vicious pinch between the trigger guard and the back of the trigger. Sorry, Colt fans, that is the hard reality. The self-defense gun is for critical-moment killing, not collecting.

I moved on, but I’m willing to reconsider the .380. Indeed, as the NRA’s flagship and official publication observes, there has been a “…sea change in manufacturers’ efforts to provide the concealed carry handgun market with exactly what license holders have been clamoring for: a light, compact, personal protection handgun that won’t be left at home.” (American Rifleman, February 2010, p. 47)

The American Rifleman reviewed 9 new .380 ACP pistols. I let this article go, but have returned to it. Why? Here’s why: Shooters, I’m troubled by the article, that’s why.

Wiley Clapp has been writing for years. I value his career and I appreciate his work. However, this article reviewed guns men and women intend to stake their lives on: carry guns. Probably, the owners will never need to deploy the pistol but…. The gun owner will desperately need utter reliability–the gun must not fail. MUST not fail. Carrying is nice; having the thing go “BANG” at the critical moment is the sine qua non, the sole reason, for packing it in the first place.

Wiley reviewed the following: Kahr P380, Kel-Tec P3AT, Magnum Research Micro Desert Eagle, North American Arms Guardian, Rohrbaugh R380, Ruger LCP, Taurus 738 TCP (pictured on cover), SIG Sauer P238, and Walther PK380. These guns ranged widely in price, from $318 to $1,150. Wiley describes them in detail, and notes details that shooters realize are important only after buying it and putting some rounds downrange, things like poorly finished edges that bite your hand.

But, here is what bothers me: during the test, he fired each gun only about 100 rounds.

In a separate, colored print box, Mr. Clapp expressed his own concerns about the number of malfunctions he experienced shooting these guns. “I am concerned about the number of cycling malfunctions, most commonly failures to feed and chamber.” (p. 53) Worth mentioning, he wrote, “The Rohrbaugh did not malfunction.” (p. 50)

Mr. Clapp cautions, “Shoot until malfunctions stop.” Mr. Clapp gives some benefit of the doubt, quoting Kahr’s manual cautioning the shooter to break the gun in with at least 200 rounds.

My Glock didn’t need breaking in. I’ve experienced one ammunition failure malfunction in 9,000 rounds. None with my S&W J-frame. One with my Taurus .38 revolver and I’ll never forget the shock. Guns you rely on to save your life in extreme circumstances must fire reliably. You can’t test a gun’s reliability firing only 100 rounds. Based on the test, I’d cross every gun off the list but the Rohrbaugh, and then it would get 400 more rounds. After 1,000 malfunction-free rounds, I’d be confident in the equipment. Granted, spending a range-day with a .380 is not great ergonomic fun. Ouch. But, neither is a close encounter with the demented kind fun. Hire some college kids to pull triggers and blast away, regardless of what’s hit and get some rounds through these combat pistols. Note every malfunction, record the type, the load, and when it occurred in the string of fire. Or, are these sea-change offerings really combat pistols at all?

I’d like to have seen a scathingly critical conclusion, admonishing the manufacturers to make guns that not only sell, but also shoot–every time–out of the box.

(Footnote: I’ll admit I got excited and reviewed the .22 cal CMMG conversion kit for my AR-15, after only 150 rounds. I just couldn’t contain the excitement. I’ve gone back out and the kit has proven astonishingly reliable. I’d have welcomed a few malfunctions; they would force more carbine manipulation. But, the kit is a stalwart. And, more to the point, I don’t rely on my AR-15 loaded up with .22 LR to kill anything but cardboard and time.)

  • Shooter

    I choose to cary all 3 of my pistols all of the time. If I could get away with it //i would also cary my AR-15. :-)

  • Mike

    If you don't mind revealing the caliber(s) carried, would you mind commenting on whether any of those is a .380 and which one(s) might be close at hand? I no longer own a .380 but lots of acquaintences do. I'm curious at their experiences with the different models. I had 1,000 rounds through my Mustang before I gave up on it and found it a new home.

  • Liston

    At about 80 rounds, my KelTec P3AT started to function perfectly, and has done so ever since.

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  • aczarnowski

    Short of obvious manufacturing flaws, or catastrophic failures speaking to basic workmanship, any reliability information in a review like this still wouldn't be helpful. Every gun is different. Yours is the one that has to shoot 100% of the time, not the one that got reviewed. There's no way a statistically valid test could be setup under the time and budget constraints of a magazine.

    Once a manufacturer meets a basic level of craftsmanship, the the gun you have will have to be proven out by you whether it went 20k rounds for somebody else or not.

  • Arthur

    I have a Kahr P380 that when I first bought it wouldn't feed anything – at all. The leading edge of the extractor was so square and sharp that it would bite into the rim and jam the works up tight.

    I pulled the extractor, rounded the leading edge and polished it and since then have run 500 rounds though it with no failures.

  • Colin Mollenhour

    That's great, but why on earth didn't Kahr do this? Sounds like they don't test their firearms once they've been put into production.

  • FormerFlyer

    My KelTec P3AT had 2 feeding malfunctions in the first 50 rounds. It has since fired over 6oo rounds without malfunction. Ammo was a mixture of Remington UMC ball, CorBon Pow-r-ball, and CorBon +p JHP. I did not try the JHP's until over 300 rounds had been fired first, and have fired just over 100 rds of them since.

    This follows closely my experience with my previous KelTec P32, which is the predecessor to the P3AT and comes in .32 ACP. It had only one malfunction in about 1200 rds, due to the .32 ACP's semi-rimmed cartridges getting “rimlocked” in the magazine. The malfunction was mine, because I did not exercise proper care in how I loaded the magazine, but still I decided to trade it for the rimless .380 immediately.

    My two cents worth. YMMV.


  • Mike

    600 rds of a variety of bullet shapes and loads is good enough endorsement. Thanks.

    I do agree with writer below that a magazine gun reviewer is not likely to take a random sample of sufficient size and develop rigorous testing criteria like the manufacturer's quality control lab should do. I wouldn't expect a statistically valid study. But, I would have expected a scathing conclusion that the manufacturers had better sit up, take note, and get diligent about proving the utter reliability of their little guns out here in the field. I note that we got the 25 yard group results in the article, but not even the number and kind of malfunction.

    I appreciate all of you guys giving your personal feedback experience with your own .380. While yes, it's true that what counts is that your gun fires reliably, these reviews done right can help us shop, unless we just want to buy one of each. Sure, I'd like to but I'm not gonna be doing that. A little bit more disturbed by the results, and a little bit more range time, with a little bit more work, and maybe Mr. Clapp could have reported that–after firing 200 rds each–all of the guns fired another 200 flawlessly.

    I'm concerned that we the shooting market are too forgiving of a few semi-auto malfunctions here and a few there. I've had guns that I made excuses for, over several years. I've finally decided that up-and-running out of the box matters; problems right out of the box are like problems early in a romance–these are called “clues.” Ha. With that tenuous and dangerous analogy, I'm done.

  • Chambhc

    my PPK/S is my absolute favorite back-up and fits so well in the SOB holster. my 640 with +P is everyday carry and nightstand. of course the 12 ga. and the RRA tactical are always nearby.

  • Guest

    It is true every gun is different. In the police academy in 2005 I shot a Glock 17 that would fail to feed, fail to extract, and stovepipe just about every other round. Everyone thought it was me until I let everyone else shoot it, including ALL the instructors. Turned out it was a new Glock that sucked! They assigned a new one to me, and had ZERO problems. That was my first experience with a Glock. However I now own a Glock 22 and love it. I just got a bad apple. That's why you must test it first. That being said, I'm going to by my Kahr P380 right now.

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  • Arcticcow

    I’ve put about 200 rounds through my Bersa Thunder 380; had a problem only once! But the problem was the round, cheaply made ammo from the gun show. When using name brand FMJ, never a problem.

  • Johnny

    Any manufacturer selling a do-or-die EDC pistol owes it to the consumer to have EACH gun thoroughly tested and tweaked to provide reliable performance from the get go. It is simply too risky from a liability standpoint to release such pistols into the wild, promoting them as “ideal” EDC pistols with them knowing full well that some of their EDC guns off the production line will be duds.

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