Many gun experts totally dismiss the viability of the .380 ACP (Automatic Colt Pistol) cartridge AKA 9x17mm, 9mm Short, 9mm Corto, 9mm Kurz, as a viable self-defense cartridge, while other experts, such as Massad F. Ayoob of the Lethal Force Institute and John S. Farnam of Defensive Training Solutions consider the caliber to be marginal, the absolute bare minimum acceptable defense caliber.
But, as the saying goes, “A hit with a .22 beats a miss with a .44 Magnum,” and the .380 is damn sure more powerful than the .22 LR, and certainly beats the hell out of having no gun at all. (Pssst! Don’t anybody tell the big-bore cultists this, but the cartridge was developed back in 1908 by the same late great John Moses Browning who gave us the beloved .45 ACP cartridge!) With that in mind, let’s take a look at what I consider to be the best .380 ACP pistols out there.
Walther PPK and PPK/S
Yes, I know, Agent 007 carries the .32 ACP (7.65mm) version of this gun, and being the big-time James Bond fan that I am, that’s the chambering I chose for my so-called “Orr-senal of “Democracy” (see what I did there?). But I’ve fired the .380 PPK as well, and it offers you the same Old World quality and craftsmanship that the .32 does, along with a tad more power. It also has the same disadvantages as the .32 version, such as the heavy and grating double-action (DA) trigger pull. The biggest advantage for American gun owners in selecting the .380 over the .32 is that ammo is much more readily available for the former than the latter caliber.
The PPK and PPK/S (the latter combines a Walther PP frame with the PPK barrel and slide, making for a slightly heavier weapon) are traditional DA autos with slide-mounted hammer dropping safety catches that allow the slide to be cycled whilst the safety is engaged.
SIG Sauer P230/232
Believe it or not, I’ve yet to fire a SIG .380 (I’ve fired plenty of rounds through SIG guns in 9mm, .40 S&W, and .45 ACP plenty of times), but I’ve heard so many great things about the P230 and P232, I just had to include them here. The SIG P230 came first, produced from 1977 to 1996 – though it wasn’t first imported into the United States until 1985 — followed by the P232 from 1996 to 2015. The P230 in particular earned Mas Ayoob’s praise in his 1987 book “The Semiautomatic Pistol in Police Service and Self-Defense” for its reliable function with Winchester Silvertip hollow points.
As is typical of the SIG Sauer pistol product line, the P230 and P232 are DA autos that utilize a decocking lever instead of a manual safety. Unfortunately, neither model is in production any longer, but there are plenty on the used gun market. As Francis Borek put it in a March 2015 article for Guns.Com: “This is the kind of gun where you where you make sure there is a holster to match your business suit or formal wear. It is a gun that you can rely on to turn heads on the range, and to help defend your life.”
Colt Government Model
I hold a sentimental soft spot for this one, as it was the very first gun I ever shot, at the now sadly defunct Santa Anita Firing Range in Monrovia, California, back on 28 October 1989 at the tender age of 14. It’s the only single-action (SA) autoloader to make this list. Alas, it’s no longer in production, but as with the SIG .380s, they’re still readily available via the used/surplus gun market; I paid $500.00 for mine back in February 2020. It’s the only .380 I’ve ever actually owned.
I’ve been impressed by the little Colt’s accuracy and reliability. 7-yard head shots and 15-yard center-torso shots were a breeze, whilst 25-yard head shots were doable but required some considerable Kentucky windage on my part; nonetheless, not bad for a gun and cartridge that weren’t designed to target-grade tack drivers! As for reliability, she made it to round count #438 without being cleaned before finally jamming for the first time, which is remarkable when you consider that these “sub-caliber” weapons aren’t typically built to the same military-grade tolerances as larger-caliber autopistols.
Believe it or not, Part Deux: so many Glocks I’ve either outright owned or at least fired thanks to either rental ranges or shooting buddies making them available to me…and I’ve yet to fire the Glock 42, though I plan to rectify that within the next 24 to 48 hours after I finish writing this article! As with the SIG P230/232, I’ve heard enough great things about it to include it herein. In the manufacturer’s own words: “The G42 packs all the features GLOCK customers have come to appreciate – from the GLOCK SAFE ACTION system with its multiple integrated safety features to the brand’s proven reliability and durability.”
This is the lone striker-fired pistol on the list.
Beretta Model 84F/85F “Cheetah”
As I previously noted, the Colt Government Model is the only SA autopistol on this list; however, the two Berettas I’m discussing now are DA autos that – akin to the CZ-75 and earlier models of the Taurus PT-92 – allow for cocked-and-locked carry just like an SA due to the frame-mounted safety that doesn’t decock the hammer when applied.
Beretta is the world’s oldest gunmaker, so you know they must be doing something right. The Cheetahs (and their present-day successor model) utilize the same open-top slide as the Beretta 92/96 series that goes a long way in eliminating stovepipe jams; the 84F has a double-stack magazine of 13+1 rounds, whilst the 85F is a single-stack 8+1-shooter.
I fired an 85F way back in June 1990 and found it to be very pleasant to shoot, as well as perfectly reliable and sufficiently accurate to get a consistent “clang” on steel targets at 25 yards.
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.