Despite there being more potent handguns available in similar size packages, these two calibers continue to take a significant portion of the defensive handgun market share. As both remain popular, we see debate on a regular basis concerning which is the "best."
Rightly or wrongly, both calibers seem to remain popular. Which is best between these two calibers?
The answer depends primarily on a couple of things:
1. Which caliber do you think is the more potent "stopper"?
2. Which type handgun do you prefer, revolver or automatic?
As I see it, the .380 might be a little short on penetration when JHP ammunition is used and it expands. It seems that the average penetration depth for most JHP's in this caliber is about 7 to 9 inches in ballistic gelatin. For a frontal, face-to-face shot, this might very well be sufficient, but for an angled shot or one passing through an arm first, it very well might not. It seems that there's just not enough bullet weight at .380 velocities to push the expanded slug deeply enough. While there certainly are felons who'll "stop" simply because they are shot, there are also those who will not unless they're physically unable to continue.
In conventional JHP, .380 bullets weigh from 85 to 102 grains.
The .380 ACP remains popular to this day. Even when compact 9mm and .40's exist that rival their small size, the round continues to sell. Shown are .380 ACP rounds as loaded by Corbon (left) with their 80-gr. DPX next to Remington's 102-gr. Golden Saber. Both of these rounds' bullets have expanded nicely for me when fired into water or super-saturated newsprint but neither penetrates deeply enough for me.
From a snub .38 Special, HP bullets weigh from about 95 to 158 grains. These can be had with gilding metal jackets or pure lead in some cases. Where the .380, depending upon barrel length, will throw 90-grain JHP's at about 950 to 1100 ft/sec, the .38 will hit similar velocity levels with 110 grain bullets and approximately 800 ft/sec + with the 158-gr +P loads. These do offer more penetration in 10% ballistic gelatin when they expand. Both are capable of through-and-through penetration in a human torso if they do not.
This Model 642 fired these three 38 +P rounds into super-saturated newsprint. All penetrated deeper than any of the expandning 380 loads. From left to right: Corbon 110-gr. DPX +P, Speer 135-gr. GDHP +P and Remington's 158-gr. LSWCHP +P.
Neither is a powerhouse ballistically and most opine that either is about as low on the ladder as one should go for a viable defensive handgun. I agree. Unless there's some compelling special reason, I personally will not go below either .380 or .38 Special for self-protection.
For those interested, more information might be found here:
Those favoring the automatic will cite that it holds more rounds and that today's pistols are reliable. Reloading via loaded magazines is also both easier and quicker with the automatic. The fact that the .38 will have more recoil is also mentioned. The revolver team cites round-to-round performance and the historical reliability of the revolver, particularly when compared to the small automatics.
If limited to the choice of the .38 vs.380, I prefer the snub revolver. This is simply because I believe the thirty-eight offers a little more ballistically than does the little automatic round. I do agree that with some pistols, the .380 is easier to shoot well and it is quicker to reload, but I try and make up for this in frequent practice, including reloads.
Neither is optimal and both might be considered at least adequate for self-protection, but either must be shot accurately to stop an aggressor.
If you're pondering this choice and simply cannot get the hits with the snub and cannot find the time for instruction and practice, you might find the .380 an easier pistol to shoot. (I'm not speaking of the really small ones, but those the size of the Walther, Bersa, or even CZ .380's.) If you go this route, I believe that you're at the absolute lower limit of "protection power."
Frankly, either is probably best as a back up gun, but like so many, my orbits are tame and I find the snub .38 my primary defensive handgun. If you opt for this too, I strongly suggest practice.
Either gun can serve, but I'll cast my lot with the .38 Special.