What's The Best 380 Ammo For Self-Defense?
Load selection is critical if carrying .380 ACP, but what's the best .380 ammo? After all, you want to carry the best carry ammo you possibly can.
Partially it depends on your gun. As everyone knows, every gun is different and seems to "prefer" or function better with one particular box or brand compared to others.
It also depends on the ammunition itself and how it performs in the real world or at least in testing. Granted, tests in ballistic gel only tell you so much but it can be an indicator of how well ammunition will perform if called upon to save your bacon.
First, Let's Qualify A Few Things About The Best 380 Ammo
It's not necessarily so simple as just naming a few brands and boxes and declaring one or two the best .380 ammo. The thing is that ammunition performance depends on a number of variables.
.380 ACP has gotten a bad rap over the years, which isn't its fault. If you were to fire a .380 hollow point bullet from full-size pistol, it would probably perform about as well as 9mm ammunition. Granted, it will move slower and carry less energy, due to the .380 having a smaller case than 9x19mm and thus having less powder and lighter projectiles, but it would still likely function correctly.
That said, the Walther PPK and Bersa Thunder are about as big as most .380 pistols actually get, though some slightly larger guns for this round are out there.
Since, however, most .380 pistols such as the Sig P238 and others are of the micro class, ammunition performance is not always optimal, as is often the case with ammunition formulated for compact and full-size pistols. Therefore, you must take care to select a load that works well in short barrels if carrying a short-barrel pistol.
What Makes For Good .380 Ammo?
When selecting a defensive load - whether it's in .45 caliber or the best .380 ammo - there are certain attributes you should look for.
Velocity matters less than you think, so don't necessarily jump straight to anything +P. It can, but it's far from the end-all, be-all.
Instead, you want to find ammunition that has been found in testing to penetrate to sufficient depths and reliably expands. For defensive ammunition, penetration of about 12 inches into a 24-inch (2 feet) block of ballistic gelatin, and preferably through barriers of clothing in an approximation of FBI tests, would be a minimum. Penetration beyond 18 inches indicates a bullet that may pass through the target.
Now, a little less in terms of penetration is okay. With the .380 round, it's probably likely. Therefore, if tests show it penetrates to 10 inches...that's fine. Too much less and you may want to consider a different load, but a little less is not a deal-breaker.
As to expansion, the .380 uses a .355-in diameter bullet, just like 9x19mm. Bullet size is actually more universal than you'd think, incidentally; among rifle rounds, for instance, the 7mm-08 Remington, 7mm Remington Magnum, 7mm Shooting Times Westerner, .280 Remington and 7mm Weatherby Magnum all use .284-in diameter bullets. (Grain weights, powder charges and cases are different, though!) A .355-in diameter bullet should expand to at least 0.4 inches in diameter if not to 0.5 inches or larger. The reason is so the bullet dumps its kinetic energy into the target and comes to a stop.
Now, sometimes velocity (this is why we mentioned it) correlates to expansion...but sometimes it doesn't. Bullet design plays a serious part in it too.
Grain weight...is up to the shooter. Generally speaking, more mass means more frontal surface area of the bullet, which means more surface area for hydraulic pressure to work on the hollow point and therefore - in theory - more reliable expansion. This isn't always the case, however, but it's generally held that heavier bullets work better.
More mass also directly correlates to greater recoil. Since Force = Mass x Acceleration, more force is generated by a heavier bullet.
With that said, typical grain weights of the best .380 ammo for self-defense are 85 grain and 90 grain loads. Some in-betweeners are out there (the odd 88-grain load) and even some larger, such as the odd 100-grain and 102-grain bullets. However, 85 and 90 are most common, and there are known performers of both.
Speer Gold Dot 90 Grain JHP
Speer Gold Dot popularized the bonded hollow point upon being released in the 1990s and makes some of the most reliable carry ammo, including the Gold Dot 90-grain JHP load in .380 ACP. Some might argue it isn't the best .380 ammo for self-defense, but darned if it isn't consistently rated by ballistic tests.
Shooting Illustrated and Lucky Gunner Labs both found that it penetrated to a decent depth (11 inches for Lucky Gunner, 10.8 inches for SI) and expanded reliably to around a half-inch (0.49 inches for LG, 0.55 inches for SI) in gelatin. Granted, Lucky Gunner Labs shoots their test ammo through four layers of clothing to the same specs as the FBI tests.
Average velocities were 905 and 937 feet per second, respectively. Shooting Illustrated used a S&W M&P Bodyguard 380 and Lucky Gunner used a Glock 42, so these are the typical carry pistols in the caliber.
So, penetration is consistent though possibly on the shallow side, expansion is reliable and to the desired diameter. Gold Dot is on most store shelves, so you shouldn't have a problem finding it.
Winchester Silver Tip 85-Grain JHP
Another consistent performer among the best 380 ammo is the Winchester Silver Tip 85-grain JHP load. Silver Tip is another classic hollow point design, having been around for a few decades. While an oldie...it's still a goodie.
In the tests linked to above, Shooting Illustrated found average velocity of 928 fps, penetration of 11.5 inches and expansion diameter of .56 inches. Very good for bare gelatin. Lucky Gunner found average penetration of 11 inches, velocity of 879 fps and expansion of .49 inches. Velocity varies greatly between bullets so a swing of 40 fps or more isn't unheard of; other factors (wind speed, direction, humidity, barrel length) play a part as well.
Winchester PDX1 95 Grain JHP
Another good load found in various testing roundups is Winchester PDX1 95 grain JHP. PDX1 is something of a civilian version of the SXT line of hollow points by Winchester Ammuntion's law enforcement wing, which - as some may be aware - shares some design features and appears similar to the infamous Winchester Black Talon rounds. It is, however, sans the black Lubalox coating.
There are a lot of stories surrounding the old Black Talon rounds, most of which are utter nonsense. However, what isn't nonsense is that PDX1 is a very serviceable carry round.
Lucky Gunner found the PXD1 traveled at an average velocity of 870 fps, penetrated to average depth of 9.5 inches and expanded to .63 inches. A little shallow, but very serviceable. Shooting Illustrated found average velocity of 860 fps, penetration depth of 9.8 inches and expansion of 5.9 inches.
This is a touch on the shallow side, but .380 ACP ammo tends to not penetrate as deeply as larger, faster calibers. Those that do tend to not expand.
Quality 380 Ammo Performs Well In Testing...And Your Gun
Ballistic tests for the best .380 ammo are all well and good. What were some other rounds you can look up, though?
Some other popular carry loads performed well in one test but not the other, such as Hornady Critical Defense. CD performed well for Lucky Gunner Labs, registering velocity of 910 fps with the 90-grain load, penetrating to 13.2 inches and expanding to .52 inches. However, in bare gel SI found velocity of 928 fps, penetration of 9.3 inches and expansion diameter of .42 inches.
Other examples of same included Remington's Golden Saber 102-grain load (outstanding in bare gelatin, not very good through cloth barriers) and Federal Hydra Shok 90 grain, which followed the same pattern. This could indicate that some rounds don't do well with barriers (a known quantity with Hydra Shok; Gold Dot and other bonded bullets tend to do better) and others work better with them, such as Critical Defense which - sharing design features with Critical Duty - was made with penetrating barriers in mind.
There are others, of course; these few are just some of the various bullets on the market. However, the on-paper bits only tell you so much. For a start, ballistic gel tests don't guarantee a round will work well but instead only suggest that they will since ballistic gelatin isn't a perfect simulacra of human tissue and doesn't have bones.
Additionally, tests don't tell you what will work with your gun. Hornady Critical Defense gives some pistols fits as the case length is shortened a tiny amount to set the polymer-tipped bullet, for instance; other brands just don't seem to digest in certain guns.
Therefore, you'll want to try a few different boxes with your .380 caliber carry gun. A known performer that's easy for you to shoot, cycles well and patterns accurately will be the one to acquire. After all, the best .380 ammo for self-defense is the .380 ammo you have on you.