The often neglected and under-appreciated .380 ACP (Automatic Colt Pistol) round was released by Colt Manufacturing in 1908 and developed by the legendary firearms designer John Moses Browning. This caliber, created for early blowback design pistols, is the most successful cartridge model that can increase the stopping power of a simple blowback operated semi-automatic pistol. In metric designation, it is known as a 9×17mm. This compact and light round generates a relatively low recoil but also has a relatively limited range and less stopping power than other contemporary pistol cartridges.
The .380 ACP chambering, which is still a very popular civilian cartridge in Europe, was widely used in both World Wars. Some people claim that the .380 ACP is responsible for killing the maximum number of people in the world. An FN M1910 chambered in .380 ACP was the handgun used by Gavrilo Princip to assassinate the Austro-Hungarian monarch in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, an act that arguably precipitated the First World War. Besides that well-known fatal attack, the .380 Auto is also infamous as the caliber of Beretta M 1934 used to assassinate Mahatma Gandhi in India in 1948.
In any case, despite its remarkable history in military service, a number of gun authorities consider the .380 Auto (9x17mm) a reduced version of the 9mm Parabellum (9x19mm) and the smallest recommended caliber for defensive ammunition. However, development of modern ammo technology is allowing smaller caliber rounds to deliver greater energy and expansion to their targets.
After decades of romance with combat pistols of increased capacity, in recent years there has been a trend of reviving the old concept of compact, simple sideguns that shoot a cartridge of moderate power. Are we witnessing a return to the past?
Realizing that small handguns with blowback systems and lower power chambering can achieve excellent shooting results, more and more Americans are buying pocket pistols in weaker calibers. To this end, pistols chambered in .380ACP are an extremely appealing option for self-defense while also proving to be an excellent choice for the shooter who wants less recoil or doesn’t like to carry full-sized guns.
In the mid-1950s, Italian engineers Benso Bonadiman and Ercole Montini and Beretta employee Savino Caselli emigrated to Argentina and established the arms manufacturing company known as “Bersa.” The name “Bersa” itself is made up of the initial letters of the names of its founders.
The Argentinian company Bersa S.A. is well-known for its compact, self-defense handguns intended for general civilian use, especially the concealed carry market. Bersa 380 is very popular in Latin American countries, especially since the .380 Auto cartridge is the largest one allowed for civilian use.
After several models (Model 83&95) of somewhat questionable quality, the factory has finally mastered production of aluminum alloy frames, such that Bersa pocket pistols have become even lighter, forcing an ever critical public to struggle with writing any more negative reviews. At first glance, the Bersa Thunder seems like a hybrid of PP / PPK slide, with a grip of the Beretta 80 series and Sig-Sauer extractor and adjustable combat-style 3-dot sights. Weighing less than 20 ounces (560 g) with a barrel of 3.5 inches (90 mm), the Bersa Thunder 380 is not the smallest in this caliber gun class, not to mention the plastic miniatures like the Ruger LCP and Kel-Tec P3AT. It is definitely a slightly larger weapon that exceeds the dimensions of the concept of pocket pistols.
The Bersa Thunder-380 pistols are aluminum frame simple blowback operated with the recoil spring located around the barrel, eliminating the need for a spring guide rod and reducing the slide’s overall height.
The Bersa’s barrel is fixed to the gun’s frame, a standard feature of all blowback-operated semi-automatic pistols. As with other external elements, the exposed hammer has a rounded spur, skeletonized and knurled, that is very easy to pull back with the thumb. The trigger is of a double action type with the pull measured at eight pounds, while the single-action pull is just under four pounds.
Besides the ambidextrous thumb rests, none of the other controls on the Bersa are ambidextrous. So we have a typical layout of the controls with the safety switch, magazine release button, and an unusual and unique control for the pocket pistols – a slide mounted decocking lever – all of them located on the left side of the frame. Furthermore, when the safety is on, it automatically decocks the hammer. Additionally, an internal firing pin safety blocks the firing pin unless the trigger is pressed.
The single stack steel magazine holds seven 9mm Short (.380) cartridges with the base forming a finger extension for the grip. To complement the safety, the trigger is disengaged when the magazine is removed from the pistol, meaning that Bersa cannot be fired if any round remains in the chamber.
Unlike its ultra-light rivals, when shot, the Thunder .380 has a surprisingly low felt recoil and a reasonably loud report. This feature makes the Bersa a real choice for recoil-sensitive men and women with the additional possibility of quicker target acquisition times between shots.
Although the Bersa .380 isn’t as subcompact as its competition, with several useful features including accuracy, reliability, and versatility, the Thunder has earned a worldwide reputation of quality and is truly one of the best performing pistols on the market with a low price tag as well.
The long-awaited Glock 42 was announced in 2014 as a model with all the bells and whistles. This was to be the new Glock 9mm subcompact model, but it fetched a lukewarm reaction from the American shooting population. The main reason is the caliber which was not the eagerly anticipated powerful 9mm Para but a modest 9x17mm (.380 Automatic). This provoked an avalanche of comments in specialized gun magazines, such as: “A big disappointment for a small gun,” or “a bad joke from Glock.”
It is the opinion of many American shooters that the main drawback of the Glock 42 is its caliber, the 9×17 mm Browning Short (.380 Automatic). The truth is, many experts feel that the cartridge is quite sufficient for effective self-defense, especially when you take into account the format of the weapon. However, the U.S. arms market has its own rules, and what it currently demands is a powerful caliber with compact dimensions. And we all know the common trade maxim –”The customer is always right.”
Announced as a pocket model with an overall length of 5.54 inches and a height of 4.13 inches, the Glock 42 looks bigger than expected. It is almost as if Glock decided to make a pistol that would actually be comfortable to shoot. This concealable pistol, weighing in at 0.86 lbs. (390 g), is pocketable, but, if you are not a 7-foot tall guy with massive pockets, it is better to carry the Glock 42 in a discreet holster on the belt, because that is what it was created for.
In fact, the main feature and primary advantage of the Glock 42 compared to similar models from the same house are the thickness of the gun which is no more than that of a wallet. Paired with the appropriate holster, Glock has really made this pistol suitable for discreet wearing without attracting attention even under a summer shirt. Unlike other well-known compacts, the baby-Glocks 26 or 27, the new model is narrower by more than 0.15 inches (4 mm), and it feels comfortable with a firm grip.
Handguns of this concept are primarily intended for self-defense at close range, and such situations typically dictate a one-handed grip. Comfortable handling and a good angle between the grip and the barrel are, therefore, more important than a larger capacity, and that is why this new pistol uses the single-stack magazine.
The polymer frame with decreased width was given an additional recessed area in the zone directly under the pistol slide, making it easier to handle and control. Even people with small hands have no problem in comfortably engaging the trigger.
Other selling points of his pistol are features such as a trigger pull of about 5.5 lbs. (2.5 kg), trigger travel of 0.49 inches (12.5 mm) and a clear reset after firing which is common to all Glock pistols, so users do not have a problem in getting used to another model from the same manufacturer. This similarity is intentional and offers a big advantage, considering that Glock is one of the most widely used serviceable pistols in the United States. Many law enforcement personnel, when choosing a weapon to carry off duty, favor the one with which they are already familiar.
It should be noted, however, that some shooters have complained about the lack of a classic manual safety for which Glocks are known (the two-piece trigger external safety). But there are even more serious complaints from the shooting ranges. Unlike other models, the Glock 42 is quite unreliable when it comes to some types of ammo loads. The heavier, higher pressure ammunition of certain manufacturers have reported jams. However, these jams are sporadic, and once you determine that your self-defense round makes your G42 worked perfectly, you can be confident of the expected Glock reliability.
The company from the small Austrian town of Deutsch-Wagram believes that this new gun will sell over a million pieces! This figure may seem to be bordering on fantasy, but the Glock is a well-positioned brand in international markets, and if the sales results of past decades are anything to go by, this confidence is not misplaced. Certainly, you have to acknowledge a giant who is quick to respond to market demands and does not hesitate to modify existing models and adapt to the needs of the consumer. Time will tell whether this is enough for the success of the Glock 42.
European and American shooters differ greatly in taste when it comes to evaluating the caliber of pocket pistols. While Europeans are happy with a 7.65 mm (.32 ACP) caliber sidearm (which by the way, experts say, since its inception has killed more people than the atomic bomb), in the United States, the .380 Automatic (9x17mm) is accepted as the lower limit in cartridges.
The modern handgun market demands more power packed into an increasingly minimalistic package. Therefore, SIG has shifted its focus from combat-style full-sized pistols and have recently begun offering a new range of concealed carry models. One of these is the stylish and compact the P-238 in 9×17, which is an extremely reliable, well-designed, and high-quality pocket pistol. Of course, comfortable handling with good accuracy comes at a price, which is not always measured in money, but also in weight and dimensions, so at 13.76 oz. (390 g) the SIG is the heaviest pistol on our list.
At first glance, the SIG P-238 wins many admirers with its classical looks that resemble a facelifted Colt Mustang – i.e., a miniature M 1911 Commander type pistol. Based on a beavertail style frame, this all-metal frame pocket-sized pistol is made of an anodized alloy with stainless steel slide featuring the popular Sig Sauer slide serrations.
While not as small as some of the other .380s on the market, the SIG Sauer P238 has the advantage of being small enough to fit in a front pocket, but also large enough to feel comfortable while shooting. Other features that enable easy drawing and shooting are the fluted polymer grips that provide comfort and a secure firm hold during rapid-fire usage.
Based on the Browning pattern, the SIG P238, unlike most of its competitors, is not a blowback pistol but rather a recoil operated single-action pistol. Locked breech .380 pistols are very uncommon because the .380 ACP round was designed mainly to pack the maximum power practical for blowback-operated guns, which are simpler in operation and therefore cheaper to produce than recoil operated handguns. This means the P238’s slide is the easiest to rack compared to other blowback pistols. On the other hand, the P238’s barrel moves downward and rearward to unlock its action, affecting the gun’s accuracy and ammunition sensitivity.
Some critics, especially .380 aficionados, regards the P238’s nominal eight-pound trigger pull as the worst out-of-the-box trigger pull. Such an atrocious trigger pull is rather unusual for a single action design, but it could be easily modified by replacing the mainspring with an aftermarket lighter spring.
The all-metal pocket SIG is an aesthetically beautiful piece of Swiss craftsmanship which blends a well-balanced weight with adjustable SIGLite Night Sights, making this pistol the best .380 handgun for practice shooting on the range.
Although not as miniature as the Ruger LC380 or the Beretta Pico, the more expensive SIG 238 is the perfect summer gun for deep concealment and one of the softest shooting .380 pistols ever made.
A relatively new U.S. company, Kel-Tec (with an extremely aggressive marketing plan) released a diminutive .380 pistol dubbed P3AT in 2003. Interestingly, Kel-Tec failed to protect its design through patents and soon the market was flooded with almost identical guns produced by the respectable arms manufacturer, Ruger, and called the LCP (LCP stands for “Lightweight Compact Pistol”). It is very uncommon for such a well-known and reputed arms manufacturer to copy the innovation of a newcomer, but even more interesting is the fact that Ruger has protected its LCP design with a patent. Surprisingly, there haven’t been any lawsuits yet because both gunmakers are successfully selling their models in the US market.
In any case, Ruger upgraded the gun with apparent improvements in dependability compared to its counterpart, the Kel-Tec P3AT. Unlike the Kel-Tec model, the LCP is equipped with a Glock-style oversized extractor and incorporates an external slide stop. Weighing in at 9.4 ounces empty, the LCP is slightly heavier than the Kel-Tec (8.3 oz.), possibly accounting for the better overall feel.
In line with its reputation as a manufacturer of robust and durable weapons, the Ruger LCP pistol frame and two-finger grip are made of high-quality, sturdy glass-filled nylon and hardened alloy steel. The perfect finish is in stark contrast to Kel-Tec’s which has noticeable traces of casting all over the pistol surface.
The Ruger LCP operate as a Double-Action-Only (DAO) pistol and uses the same locked breech mechanism as the Kel-Tec P-3AT, holding six rounds in the magazine with a similar takedown method. The slide of the pistol has a somewhat blockish appearance, akin to the full-sized SIG handguns. However, the slide does not lock back after the last round. The biggest disappointment is the smooth but very long trigger pull of around 6 pounds, which takes a while to get used to. Additionally, the integrated and barely visible sights are there more to fulfill the spec list, because the primary use of this ‘”toy gun” with a 2.75-inch barrel is instinctive shooting at shorter distances. It is worthwhile to note that accidents with the early series LCP were determined to be from dropping the guns on the muzzle with a cartridge in the chamber that caused them to fire. Ruger undertook an urgent recall and the next generation of these guns was produced with the misfire issue fixed.
Designed as a concealed deep carry gun where even the hammer doesn’t protrude, the tiny Ruger LCP remains a top seller in the US market as an off-duty backup for law enforcement officers and as a defensive handgun for civilians with concealed carry needs.
Though some gun authorities describe the Ruger LCP and the Kel-Tec P-3AT as novelties with passing value, they both present a more affordable .380 option for people who prefer comfort and reliability over the bulk and size of larger handguns and want a gun that won’t burn a hole in their pocket.
There is an unwritten marketing rule that manufacturers should release two or even three new models simultaneously on the market. To this end, the venerable German arms producer, Carl Walther GmbH Sportwaffen on Ulm River launched two pocket-sized models in 2009. One of these was the exceedingly popular compact PPS (Polizeipistole Schmal / Police Pistol Slim) in 9×19 Para and the second was the PK 380 in .380 Automatic caliber, the subject of this review. Both handguns present futuristic, ultra-modern, high-quality pistols with the frame and grip of a lightweight, ergonomic polymer and steel slide and barrel.
After the great crisis of the last two decades of the 20th century, the Walther Arms factory continued the tradition of the legendary PP and PPK models, the icons amongst pocket pistols that are now license produced by American gun giant Smith & Wesson.
At this point, it should be noted that the PK380 doesn’t have the fit and finish or the same level of quality that you would expect and get from the PPK, but remember, you can get it for about half the cost of the somewhat pricey PPK.
The double action PK380 ultimately has its roots in the P99, featuring a boxy and edgy slide which makes it feel a little cumbersome or awkward for a purse. The PK380 employs the SIG locked breech short-recoil method, which means that the pistol locks the barrel and slide together using an enlarged breech section of the barrel locking into the ejection port. The implementation of the modified Browning system is very unusual since the 9×17 short cartridge does not require locking the barrel. While this modified system has no functional disadvantages compared to the original system, the tilt-barrel design, paired with the PK380’s relatively moderate chambering, makes it easier to rack the slide on the PK380 and shoot it with a very light recoil.
This pistol is small and good looking in the manufacturer’s words; however, weighing in at about 19 ounces (575 g), compared to just 8 ounces for the Kel Tec 3AT, it is not the lightest 380 pistol out there. In fact, it falls in the same category as the more recent Glock 42.
The PK380 has a thin and well-contoured grip that enables short trigger reach. The double action trigger isn’t bad, but isn’t great either. It has a long but smooth pull of 10 pounds in DA, while the single action takes only four pounds and helps with accurate, rapid fire. As for the added accuracy, the PK380 incorporates a Picatinny-style rail for mounting a laser or flashlight.
This gun is truly ambidextrous with an extended paddle-style magazine release located on both sides of the trigger guard that works well even with gloves and the ambidextrous safety. However, the safety is placed on the rear of the slide, which is common in some European-designed handguns.
Magazines with a large plastic finger-rest butt plate are proven single-stack design, holding eight rounds which are two more than most of the micros and one more than the PPK.
Of course, the PPK has some drawbacks. Some of the first pieces were part of a safety recall. Moreover, American shooters maintain that its safety moves are not the most intuitive, though they are consistent with other Walther designs.
Of the four brands listed above, serious shooters have found that the PK380 is an excellent carry gun in all aspects – it is comfortable in the hand, it is well balanced, it has a soft recoil, and it is very accurate.
The Walther is a perfect pistol for those with larger hands who only want a .380 caliber.