Top 10 Reloaded Handgun Cartridges #7: .380 Auto
Date: Jul 15 2021
The .380 Auto (aka .380 ACP, 9mm Kurz, 9x17mm and 9mm Browning Short) was first introduced around 1908, although some sources indicate 1912, by John Browning for the Colt Pocket Automatic pistol line, which he also designed. It became especially popular in Europe, serving as a defense and police cartridge and has been officially adopted as a military cartridge by several countries. Its popularity in the U.S. is greater today than at anytime in its long history, and it appears that trend will continue for some time to come.
For the purposes of this article, a Ruger Light Compact Pistol (LCP) .380 Auto was chosen to test handloads and factory ammunition. I was present at the SHOT Show in Las Vegas when Ruger formally unveiled the LCP. In spite of having known of its development a couple of months previous, that was the first I had seen and handled one. Clearly it was based on a similar pistol from Kel Tec, but Ruger engineers strengthened and improved upon the overall design. During the three remaining days of the show, Ruger wrote orders for 95,000 guns!
The LCP measures just over 5 inches long, weighs 9.4 ounces, holds 6+1 (magazine + chamber) cartridges and offers a flat profile with a width of .820 inch. It is double action only and is an excellent concealed carry gun to serve as a backup to a heavier gun and cartridge (for both civilians and police) or for those who really want an ultralight, easy-to-carry pistol. Many LCP owners have learned the value of carrying one like a wallet, in the back pocket, in addition to a primary gun. Women like the LCP as it is easy to operate and not too heavy when shoved in a purse or concealed on the body. While the .380 Auto cannot match the power of larger, more powerful handgun cartridges, I suspect that most attackers are not willing or anxious to get shot through the vitals with a 90- or 95-grain bullet traveling at 900 to 1,100 fps.
The LCP is intended as a last resort defense gun. As a result it is unlikely to be used as a hunting or target arm and therefore features snag-free, low-profile sights. At 25 feet from an offhand, rapid-fire position, the LCP clustered bullets well within any reasonable accuracy standard that would be expected for such a pistol. The double-action pull on my sample broke at just 61⁄2 pounds and was easily controlled by several shooters in my family. Due to the LCP’s small size and my hand size, I preferred pulling the trigger primarily with the tip of the finger. It should also be mentioned that Crimson Trace offers an excellent laser sight that attaches directly to the front of the trigger guard and adds little bulk or weight to the gun. In my opinion, the little Ruger is an outstanding pistol.
Before sitting down at the loading bench, seven factory loads were tried, including the Hornady 90-grain FTX, Federal Personal Defense 90-grain JHP, Hydra-Shok 90-grain JHP Low Recoil and American Eagle 95-grain metal case, Winchester 95-grain SXT and 95-grain FMJ and CCI/Speer 95-grain Blazer Brass. Advertised velocities and actual velocities produced by each load can be seen in Table I.
Right off I realized that virtually all the above loads were producing unusually low extreme spreads. For instance, the first five shots with the Winchester 95-grain FMJ load registered 817, 813, 810, 813 and 813 fps for an extreme spread of 7 fps. Next, I switched to Hornady’s 90-grain FTX load that went 909, 913, 914, 911 and 913 fps, for an extreme spread of just 5 fps. While the other factory loads showed greater extreme spreads, they were still minimal.
SAAMI cartridge drawings show the .380 Auto case mouth at .3730 inch, but all factory ammunition measured between .3670 to .3695 inch. As a result, I applied a taper crimp at .3670 inch, which served multiple purposes. First, with loads that do not have a compressed powder charge, it helps keep the bullet from being deep-seated when slamming into the feed ramp and chambering. A firm crimp also aids in powder ignition. The taper crimp is necessary to prevent the case mouth from hanging up during feeding, while establishing headspace. And just for information, 30 loads were assembled using the Speer 90-grain Gold Dot hollowpoint that featured a .3730-inch crimp, which functioned flawlessly and showed no signs of the bullet being deep-seated during the feeding process.
In developing handloads, Starline brass was used exclusively, which can be ordered factory direct (1-800-280-6660) and is readily available. Using a Lee Auto- Prime hand tool, cases were primed with Winchester Small Pistol primers.
Due to the unusually short .380 Auto case length, standard loading blocks will not work, but there are commercial versions available. Other than that, there is nothing difficult about handloading the .380 Auto. The case is small, but it can be handled without problem.
When using the accompanying data, be certain to seat bullets to the same overall cartridge lengths as listed. Due to the unusually short case and limited powder capacity, seating a bullet deeper will result in a sharp spike or increase in pressure. This is a reminder why it is crucial to get a proper taper crimp, as a bullet that is seated deeper due to being slammed into the feed ramp will also spike pressures. Speaking of the crimp, it is suggested to seat bullets to their correct depth as one operation, then apply the crimp as a separate step.
Five bullet types were used to develop the load data in Table II and included the Sierra 90-grain JHP, Speer 90-grain Gold Dot HP and Hornady 90-grain HP-XTP. Moving up in weight, the Sierra 95-grain FMJ features a flatnose and is of truncated design. Last, the Winchester 95-grain FMJ features a generous flatpoint and is essentially a roundnose profile bullet to enhance feeding. The JHP bullets are generally thought of as defense loads, with solids often perceived as lower cost practice options, but the solids with a flat nose are worthy defense bullets based on their straight and deeper (by comparison) penetration and their abil-ity to open a permanent wound channel. Frankly, .380 bullets typically have low sectional density, so obtaining adequate penetration to reach the vitals becomes paramount. If this cartridge were being carried for defense purposes, I would suggest trying bullets in wet newsprint or ballistic gelatin, then choosing the bullet that performs as desired.
Eight powders were tried, with all giving excellent or acceptable results. More specifically, some produced notably low extreme spreads while others showed a distinct velocity advantage over factory loads. Using the Sierra 90-grain JHP, 3.5 grains of Accurate No. 2 powder gave 958 fps and an extreme spread of 9 fps. Using the same bullet, 4.5 grains of Alliant Power Pistol gave an 11 fps extreme spread and a velocity of 978 fps. Another excellent performer was Winchester 231 that, with 90- and 95-grain bullets, gave consistent velocities and should also be considered a top choice.
For anyone wanting to maximize .380 Auto performance in terms of velocity, 4.8 to 5.0 grains of Alliant Power Pistol with either 90- or 95-grain bullets will give close to 1,050 fps, and 7.0 grains of Accurate No. 7 delivers essentially the same velocity. For maximum velocity, 4.3 grains of Hodgdon Universal pushed 95-grain Sierra and Winchester bullets to over 1,125 fps.
The above velocities may have raised some eyebrows, but all loads have been pressure tested and are within the SAAMI maximum allowable pressure limits for this cartridge, which has been established at 21,500 psi. They are not “hot” loads, but they do offer greater velocities while staying within industry pressure guidelines.
I expected the Ruger LCP to be a bit finicky regarding how it fed various bullet profiles or loads that generated noticeably different (higher and lower) velocities or pressures, but that did not prove true. On the contrary, in firing around 420 factory loads, there was not a single malfunction. The LCP was cleaned and then handloads were developed using the previously mentioned powders and various bullet designs. Once again, even after firing more than 1,000 handloads, with cleaning intervals at around 250 rounds, there was not a single failure to feed or malfunction in any form.