“Where it began, I can’t begin to knowin’…” I choose the opening of Neil Diamond’s classic song “Sweet Caroline” even though in this case I actually do know where it began – my shooting hobby, that is: the very first firearm I ever shot, the Colt Government Model .380 ACP single-action semiautomatic pistol, at the now-defunct Santa Anita Firing Range in Monrovia, Calif, back on October 28, 1989. Granted, my rookie performance wasn’t much to write home about accuracy-wise – most of my students whom I’ve taught how to shoot have done better on their first range sessions than I did on mine – as I had yet to refine my trigger squeeze and breath control techniques, but hey, we all gotta start somewhere, right? Fast-forward to February 2020, and I decided to take the proverbial trip down memory lane by purchasing a surplus Colt .380 for $500 from Vienna Arsenal in Vienna, Virginia.
- Colt Government Model .380 ACP. Image Credit: 19FortyFive.
Brief History of Gun and Cartridge
The .380 Automatic Colt Pistol (ACP) cartridge aka .380 Auto, 9×17mm, 9mm Browning, 9mm Corto, 9mm Kurz, 9mm Short, and 9mm Browning Court, dates back to 1908, six years after its more powerful ancestor, the 9mm Parabellum. As noted by the Genitron.Com website:
“Designed by John Browning and introduced by Fabrique Nationale of Belgium, this cartridge has achieved worldwide acceptance and has even been adopted as the standard pistol cartridge by several governments. One reason for the round’s success is that it is the largest practical cartridge that can be easily adapted to small automatic pocket pistols. Ballistics fall far short of even the 9mm Luger but still prove adequate for most self-defense situations. The round has established quite a niche position in this role, often being chosen over more traditional small calibers such as the .25 and .32 Autos.”
Many experts consider .380 to be the absolute bare minimum acceptable handgun caliber for self-defense, but it still beats the hell outta no gun a’tall.
As for the pistol itself, the Colt .380 Government Model – first introduced in 1983 and discontinued sometime in the 1990s – is basically a scaled-down version of the more famous Colt Government Model, the M1911 and M1911-A1 .45 ACP; the former is roughly 78 percent the size of the latter. However, naming traditions notwithstanding, the littler gun doesn’t completely emulate the characteristics of its “big sister” (so to speak): yes, the separate barrel bushing and recoil spring plug are still there, as are the 7-round magazine and the frame-mounted thumb safety that permits cocked-and-locked carry; however, there is no more grip safety, and the swinging barrel link of the M1911 has been replaced by locking lower lugs with angled camming surfaces.
After Colt discontinued the .380 Government Model, they continued to make another .380 ACP autopistol dubbed the Mustang Pocketlite for a period.
Personal Shooting Impressions
Luckily, I was able to get in my first 31-year reunion/range session with my Colt at Silver Eagle Group (SEG) in Ashburn shortly before then-Governor Ralph Northam imposed his conveniently COVID-justified shutdown of firing ranges in the Commonwealth of Virginia. The overall impression after all those decades was fairly positive, but not perfect …
- Colt Government Model .380 ACP. Image Credit: 19FortuyFive.
Reliability-wise: right off the bat, if you loaded the magazine to its theoretical full 7-round capacity, the last round simply wouldn’t chamber properly, bumping into the bottom of the feed ramp instead. So I downloaded to 6 rounds, and from there, she fed, extracted, and ejected flawlessly with 50 rounds of Geco 95-grain FMJ. With 50 rounds of Aguila 90-gr JHP, there was one premature slide lock (round count #2).
Accuracy: delightful at 21 feet, with all hits in the X-ring and only one proverbial “black sheep” straying from the flock of a one-hole group. At 50 feet, shot a bit high but still kept her rounds within the torso. With my personal litmus test for longer-distance accuracy, i.e. head shots at 75 feet, it shot way high; I had to take “Kentucky windage” on the bad guy’s jawline in order to keep my shots within the face and forehead. Trigger was a tad gritty and creepy but still acceptable, and the sights were excellent.
Granted, pocket pistols aren’t meant for long-distance tack-driving accuracy, but nonetheless, my 9x18mm Makarov gives me both tighter groups and shoots more to point-of-aim at those same distances. And as slim and compact as my Mak is, she looks, feels, and sounds like a beast compared with the Colt.
Shortly thereafter, I supplemented the factory magazine with three aftermarket stainless steel Metalform mags from MidwayUSA – these functioned perfectly at full capacity. I also upgraded the rust and wear and tear-prone factory blue finish to a more durable Cerakote finish, courtesy of the top-notch gunsmiths of Sterling Arsenal (yet another Northern Virginia-based business). For the hell of it, I put the gun through a mini-torture test to see how many jam-free rounds she could endure without being cleaned; she made it to round count #438. I would guesstimate I’ve put a total of 1,000 rounds through the gun.
A few months back, I took the pistol back to SEG for an updated range report – this time using 50 rounds of Federal American Eagle 95-gr ball – and the accuracy results were pretty consistent with the previous experiences: 7-yard head shots excellent, 15-yard torso shots good, and 25-yard head and torso shots … er, marginal (shooting way high again).
Bottom Line: Yea or Nay?
So then, to repeat what I said on my Facebook page years ago, “(T)his little Colt definitely wouldn’t be my first (or even second or third) choice for home defense or CCW, but it still is a fun gun for range knockabout work.” I’d recommend it as a hidden gem on the used gun market.
Christian D. Orr has 33 years of shooting experience, starting at the tender age of 14. His marksmanship accomplishments include: the Air Force Small Arms Ribbon w/one device (for M16A2 rifle and M9 pistol); Pistol Expert Ratings from U.S. Customs & Border Protection (CBP), Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE), and the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC) Criminal Investigator Training Program (CITP); multiple medals and trophies via the Glock Sport Shooting Foundation (GSSF) and the Nevada Police & Fires Games (NPAF). Chris has been an NRA Certified Basic Pistol Instructor since 2011. In his spare time, he enjoys (besides shooting, obviously) dining out, cigars, Irish and British pubs, travel, USC Trojans college football, and Washington DC professional sports.