380 Shoot Off
September 24, 2010
Small pistols in this caliber are all the rage, so we took five recent examples to the range and tested them head to head.
If there was one trend on display last year, it was the ascendancy of the .380. The .380 ACP (Automatic Colt Pistol) was a product of the fertile mind of John Moses Browning and first saw the light of day in 1912 when it chambered in Fabrique Nationale's Mle. 1910 pistol. On this side of the Big Pond, Colt quickly offered its Model 1908 pistol in the same caliber.
As originally loaded, the .380 consisted of a straight walled, rimless case 17mm in length topped with full-metal-jacket bullets weighing 85 to 95 grains traveling at approximately 900 to 1,000 fps.
Over the years, the round--also known variously as 9mm Browning Short, 9mm Kurz, 9mm Corto and 9x17--became very popular and was even adopted as a service cartridge by several European armies and police agencies up until the 1960s.
In the U.S., however, it has generally been regarded as a low-end self-defense cartridge. While a far better performer than the .32 ACP--and usually chambered in pistols of the same size--it never achieved the same level of popularity until recently.
In the past few years, three trends have caused a dramatic increase of interest in .380 pistols: materials, ballistics and the expansion of concealed carry.
In the past, quality .380 pistols such as the Colt M1908 and the Walther PP/PPK were made of 100 percent steel and were quite heavy. The use of polymer frames in this class of pistols has lightened them significantly, making them much easier to carry all day.
The SIG Sauer was a favorite in many cases because of its similarities to the 1911, which all the testers shoot extensively in competition.
The use of improved propellants and high-tech jacketed hollowpoint bullets have dramatically improved the effectiveness of the .380 cartridge, making it a much more practical choice for defensive purposes without any real increase in recoil.
Last, as more and more states have adopted "shall issue" concealed carry laws, the demand for small, lightweight handguns has skyrocketed.
With all the new .380s on the market, the time seemed right to get a few of them and shoot them in a head-to-head test. We selected five: Ruger LCP, Kahr P380, Taurus TCP 738 SS, Walther PK380 and SIG Sauer P238 Nitron.
All five have steel slides and are locked-breech designs. The Ruger, Kahr, Walther and Taurus use polymer frames while the SIG Sauer's is made of aluminum alloy. The Kahr, Ruger and Taurus have double-action-only triggers while the Walther is a DA/SA and the SIG Sauer is a single action. All except the Walther have a 6+1 capacity; the Walther is 8+1.
The Walther is a midsize handgun, but all the rest are subcompacts (see chart for dimensions). The Kahr, Ruger and Taurus sport no manual safeties; the Walther has safety levers on both sides of the slide; and the SIG Sauer features a 1911-type thumb safety.
| Accuracy Results |
|Pistol || Muzzle Velocity (fps) ||Standard Dev. || Avg Group (in.) |
|Ruger LCP || 811 || 37 || 3.9 |
|Kahr P380 || 788 || 33 || 2.6 |
| Walther PK380 || 863 || 34 || 2.6 |
| SIG P238 || 798 || 41 || 3.2 |
|Taurus 738 SS || 802 || 43 || 3.5 |
|Note: Group size is the average of three-five shot groups fired with Winchester 95-grain FMJ flatpoint ammo from an MTM Predator rest at 10 yards. Velocity is the average of five rounds measured with a Chrony chronograph 10 feet from the muzzle. |
Many of the Ruger's low scores were due to its rudimentary sight setup. It was, however, highly ranked for concealment.
Sighting equipment varies drastically from the large, easy-to-see, three-dot sights of the Walther and SIG Sauer to the rather decent white dot/bar setup on the Kahr to the almost nonexistent sights found on the Ruger and Taurus.
Last, the Walther P380 and Taurus 738 both feature key-operated, internal safety locks that prevent unauthorized use.
Despite tight ammo supplies, I managed to secure enough FMJ and JHP loads for the test thanks to Winchester, Remington, Federal and Black Hills. My good friends Paul Brinkman, Larry Mefford and Dick Cole--all of whom are avid action pistol competitors and hold CCW licenses--volunteered to do the shooting. Our hand sizes range from rather dainty digits to ham-fisted paws.
Each pistol was inspected and lubed before we began, and that was all the maintenance they received. If they choked, we attempted to clear the problem and keep shooting.
Our first task was to see if the pistols would digest different types of ammunition. This involved running several magazines each of Remington FMJ, Winchester FMJFP, Black Hills JHP and Federal Hydra-Shok through each pistol.
We experienced a few failures to feed with the Winchester flat points in the Kahr and SIG Sauer, but that seemed to sort itself out by the third magazine. Aside from that, the five pistols ate up whatever we stuffed in their magazines and spat out the empty cases without fail.
We then fired each pistol from a rest at 10 yards with the Winchester load to see what kind of basic accuracy they provided. I had assumed, because of their larger sights and lighter triggers, either the Walther or SIG Sauer would win this--and I was wrong.
The Kahr proved the accuracy champion of the day. I credit this to the high visibility bar/dot sighting system and because both Larry and I use Kahr pistols as our regular carry guns and have quite a bit of experience with this type of trigger.
The Walther and SIG Sauer were close runners-up but, as I had expected, because of their rudimentary sights, the Ruger and Taurus finished at the back of the pack.
That being said, at the close distances at which these pistols would be used in a defensive situation, all five provided more than adequate accuracy.
Our offhand testing consisted of the following, three timed drills performed on IPSC targets supplied by Dave Zimmerman at the Target Barn (targetbarn.com). Drills were run at the "real life" distances of three, five and seven yards. All pistols and spare magazines were carried and drawn from concealment. We used a Galco IWB holster for all the pistols except the Walther, which was too large. I dug up an old no-name belt slide holster for that gun.
Walther's entry was by far the largest gun, which got it high marks in most handling categories.
El Presidente. Draw pistol and double tap on each of three targets at seven yards. Perform a combat reload and repeat. Reload magazines as necessary and repeat one more time.
FBI Drill. Draw pistol and fire two body shots and one head shot on a pair of targets at five yards. Perform a combat reload and repeat.
One-Handed Drill. Draw pistol and engage three targets at three yards with two rounds each, firing all rounds with a one-handed grip. Perform a combat reload and repeat.
Once the smoke cleared, each of us graded the five pistols on eight criteria, with one being the poorest and five the highest. Scores are found in the accompanying charts. Here's a summation of what we found.
Ergonomics. It should come as no surprise that the Walter PK380 won this because it was the largest and heaviest of our test pistols and the only one to have a full-sized grip. To be perfectly honest about it, the PK380 is of a size more suitable to a 9mm or .40.
As our crew all shoot 1911 pistols extensively in competition, it's hardly shocking that the SIG Sauer 238 finished a close second. The tiny, lightweight Ruger and Taurus brought up the rear.
Trigger Control. Our bias for 1911 pistols was again evident here, with the single-action SIG Sauer 238 finishing first. That being said, several of us thought that if we were going to carry any of these as defensive guns we'd opt for one of the DAO designs, and among those, the Kahr P380 won hands down.
Recoil Control. There's no denying the laws of physics, so the large and heavy Walther won here. But the all-metal SIG Sauer was close on its heels. The Kahr and Taurus tied, while the Ruger was a distant fifth. Several of us found the Ruger a bit painful to shoot extensively.
Sights. The SIG Sauer P238, which sported large, easy to see, three-dot sights, won this handily. The Walther and Kahr tied for second. Taurus and Ruger were last since they essentially have no sights.
Offhand Accuracy. The SIG Sauer, with its excellent sights, won this handily, followed by Walther and Kahr. The Taurus performed rather decently (in fact, I shot my single best series of drills with it), and the LCP finished last.
Ease of Reloading. Once again its similarity to our 1911 pistols led to the SIG Sauer P238 taking the honors here. It was also the only pistol whose magazines consistently fell free of the grip when the release was pressed. The Walther PK380 received universal condemnation for its paddle-shaped released that had to be pushed down instead of in. It just didn't seem natural to any of us.
The Kahr would have scored higher except one of the magazines supplied with the pistol consistently hung up, requiring the shooter to drag it out of the grip. The tiny Taurus and Ruger performed well except for the fact that their magazine release buttons were almost flush with their frames and difficult to depress.
Ease of Disassembly. A three-way tie between Ruger, Walther and SIG. The Taurus proved a bit more difficult while the Kahr's heavy recoil spring made it difficult for everyone.Concealability. Another tie, this one between the Kahr, Taurus and SIG Sauer--with the Ruger close behind.
The big Walther came in last, hardly a surprise.
Reliability. This wasn't a scored category, but it definitely bears mention. By the time we were done, four shooters had run about 300 rounds through each pistol. The total malfunctions we experienced--other than the few failures to feed during our initial accuracy testing--was six. That's right, a mere half-dozen failures in 1,500 rounds.
I experienced two smokestack jams with the Kahr P380, but each time it was the final round in the magazine, and it ran perfectly for the other shooters.
One shooter had two failures to extract with the Taurus 738, although
no one else did. We had two failures to fire--one with the Kahr P380 and one with the Walther PK380. We attempted to re-fire both rounds, but they would not go off, which leads me to believe this was an ammo problem.