Ask 10 shooters the difference between two popular calibers, and you’ll get 11 different answers. Caliber debates are one of my favorite conversations to have with other shooters, and they can occasionally get heated. I’ve been a fan of 9mm handguns for years, and it’s my go-to choice for carry-gun calibers. 

I’ll admit, however, that I’ve never given much thought to carrying a .380 ACP handgun for self-defense. It is a popular choice for many of my very experienced friends, and while I’ve shot several over the years, I’ve just always assumed 9mm was the way to go for me. 

Recently, I’ve taken a closer look at the .380 ACP, and I’m willing to admit I may have dismissed it too soon. While both the 9mm and the .380 ACP are both solid choices for a self-defense round, I thought I’d take a deeper dive into the differences between .380 ACP and 9mm when used for self-defense.

Some Background and Similarities


380 and 9mm Bullets
Sure, the size difference might seem small between the .380 round on the left and the 9mm on the right, but there is a lot more to it than just that. How the rounds perform can be quite different, and the design of the bullet can shake things up, too. (Photo: Paul Peterson/

Although they have the same diameter, the .380 ACP and the 9mm are very different cartridges both in length and ballistics. Both are reliable, popular cartridges. Both have a strong fan base that will defend its favorite cartridge till the cows come home. Both also have their own pros and cons when used for self-defense. 

Modern handguns in both .380 and 9mm from the same manufacturer generally have the exact same size frame – and, if not exact, most are very, very close. Glock, SIG Sauer, Smith & Wesson, etc., may change the model number to differentiate the caliber, like Glock does with the Glock 42 (.380 ACP) and Glock 43 (9mm), but the frames are virtually identical. 

A Case for .380 ACP for Self-Defense


Ruger LCP Max
The .380 does allow for a smaller package that is still light and very concealable. Take this 10+1 Ruger LCP Max, which fits in a pocket but is also light enough to take on a jog. (Photo: Paul Peterson/

Because the round is smaller in length, it’s a slightly lighter cartridge when compared to the 9mm. Because of this, the .380 ACP generally has less recoil when compared apples to apples to the 9mm using a handgun with the same barrel length. Handguns chambered in .380 are available in micro-compact size making them very easy to conceal with an inside-the-waistband or pocket holster

Due to their small size, .380s are also a very popular choice for a backup gun. Because they offer less recoil, most shooters will get their second shot on target faster because of less movement of the muzzle. This could save your life. 

A Case for 9mm for Self-Defense


9mm Pistols
There are no shortages for 9mm handguns in various seizes, price points, or brands. Plus, as a general rule, it is one of the more affordable and commonly available ammunition picks. (Photo:

Generally, 9mm ammunition is very mass-produced ammo and widely available. The 9mm round is more powerful than the .380 ACP in direct comparison (see below). Simply put, the 9mm is a heavier cartridge that puts out more energy upon firing. 

It generally is also slightly less expensive to purchase when compared to the .380 ACP, both in defensive ammunition and regular target/practice ammunition. The ballistics of the 9mm when used as a self-defense round have been studied ad nauseum.

Ballistic Comparison Across a Single Brand


In most head-to-head comparisons, the larger 9mm (right) offers data-based performance. But there is more to consider. (Photo: Paul Peterson/

To fairly compare the ballistics between .380 ACP and 9mm, I chose a popular self-defense round from Liberty Ammunition. Liberty Ammo makes a powerful round no matter what caliber you need it in, and it’s available on our website. To further compare the two accurately, Liberty uses the same weight of 50 grains for both the .380 ACP and 9mm in its Civil Defense line

Let’s take a look at the ballistic differences in a head-to-head comparison at similar self-defense ranges of 25 meters. 

Liberty Ammunition Civil Defense .380 ACP

  • Weight: 50 grains
  • Kinetic Energy: >250 FPE
  • Velocity: >1,500 FPS

Liberty Ammunition Civil Defense 9mm 

  • Weight: 50 grains
  • Kinetic Energy: >450 FPE
  • Velocity: >2,000 FPS

Ballistically, both calibers will get the job done when used for self-defense. The .380 ACP has lighter recoil, and that can be an important plus for some shooters. Ballistics, regardless of manufacturer, will always put the 9mm as superior to the .380 ACP because of higher kinetic energy and velocity. That said, defensive ammunition ballistics also depend on how the cartridge was designed. 

In my ballistics comparison above, I chose Liberty Ammunition for a very specific reason. If you look at the ballistic velocity using Liberty Ammo in a .380 round, it’s much higher (1,500 FPS) than the velocity of many other popular defensive rounds such as Hornady Critical Defense (1,000 FPS) or Speer Gold Dot (1,040 FPS). 

What’s my point? You can very successfully depend on .380 for self-defense if you choose a handgun that you’re comfortable with and ammunition that packs a punch. 



Franklin Armory G-S173 Binary Trigger Glock 17
Sure, 9mm can be a bit more snappy, but it's within the realm of most shooters to manage with the right ammo and gun – like the image above that shows three rounds fired with a fourth ready to go inside the gun before gravity can pull the cases down. The advantages of .380 ACP, on the other hand, might fit more specific needs. Neither round seems to be lacking potential when you look deeper at them, and it's only the user who can say what fits. (Photo: Paul Peterson/

At the end of the day, whichever you’re more comfortable with and can get the most rounds downrange and on the target will be the best choice for your self-defense handgun. Whichever your choice, train with your gun and test your self-defense ammo in it. While your choice of caliber and ammunition is important, proper shot placement and muscle memory are what’s going to matter should you ever need to draw your handgun in a self-defense situation. 

revolver barrel loading graphic