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  • Post last modified:April 9, 2023

In this article, we will compare 380 ACP and 38 Special to help you make an informed decision based on your needs and preferences.

There is a lot of debate as to which one is better, but ultimately there is no best gun or caliber, only what's best for the individual. 

38 Special VS 380 ACP

380 ACP and 38 Special have obvious differences.

Essentially, Browning developed the .380 ACP because he wanted a round that was slightly more accurate than the existing 38 ACP cartridge.

38 special vs 380 acp

38 Special is larger and has a rim because it's primarily a revolver cartridge, while 380 ACP has a recessed rim because it's primarily an autoloading cartridge.

The most popular guns for concealed carry in 380 ACP are the Smith & Wesson Bodyguard and the Ruger LCP, both with a six-shot magazine.

Smith & Wesson Model 36

In contrast, for 38 Special, the most common gun for concealed carry is a short-barreled double-action revolver, such as the Smith & Wesson Model 36 or Model 637, with a swing-out five-shot cylinder.

Is A 380 Caliber The Same As A 38?

No, a .380 caliber cartridge is not the same as a .38 caliber cartridge. The .380 ACP (Automatic Colt Pistol) cartridge has a bullet diameter of .355 inches and a length of 0.984 inches, while the .38 Special cartridge has a bullet diameter of .357 inches and a length of 1.155 inches.

Penetration - 380 VS 38 Special

380 lacks penetration than 38 special. Rounds that are too light and slow lack penetration, while lead projectiles usually deform before going deep and cause damage at the cost of penetration.

For more details please watch this 38 special ballistic gel test done by Lucky Gunner:

For more details please watch this 380 ACP ballistic gel test done by Everyday Nation:

Expansion - 380 VS 38 Special

38 special expansion

A bullet that sails straight through the target does not do as much damage as one that expands, tearing into the tissues, causing blood loss and pain.

Bullet expansion slows down the bullet and stops the threat fast.

For personal defense, It's important to balance expansion with penetration, as over-expansion can limit the bullet's ability to over penetrate.

Home defense shooting

Referenced Personal Defense Network

For this, a larger round goes a long way. But, expansion is only second to penetration in terms of importance.

Projectile Type

The projectile type determines how a round will penetrate and expand. Bonded jacketed hollow point (JHP) ammo has been a solid performer for a long time and is the best option.

Full-metal jacket (FMJ) rounds are sub-optimal as they have too much penetration, endangering people behind your target. Avoid gimmick projectiles that may look cool as they tend to function badly.

Bullet Velocity

Most 380 ACP handguns are very compact, small with short barrels, which can affect the velocity of the projectile as well as its weight.

Ammo TypeBullet WeightBullet Velocity
380 ACP
Hornady Critical Defense90 grains1000 fps
Liberty Civil Defense50 grains1500 fps
Federal Personal Defense HST99 grains880 fps
Winchester USA White Box95 grains955 fps
SIG Sauer V-Crown JHP124 grains1165 fps
38 Special
Hornady Critical Defense110 grains1090 fps
Federal Premium Personal Defense129 grains935 fps
Remington HTP110 grains950 fps
Winchester PDX1 Defender130 grains946 fps
Speer Gold Dot Short Barrel135 grains860 fps

Detailed Ballistics Between 380 and 38 Special

380 ACP

Case type
Rimless, straight
Bullet diameter
.355 in (9.0 mm)
Land diameter
.348 in (8.8 mm)
Neck diameter
.373 in (9.5 mm)
Base diameter
.374 in (9.5 mm)
Rim diameter
.374 in (9.5 mm)
Rim thickness
.045 in (1.1 mm)
Case length
.680 in (17.3 mm)
Overall length
.984 in (25.0 mm)
Case capacity
11.8 grains h20
Maximum pressure
21,500 psi (148 MPa)

38 Special

Parent case
.38 Long Colt
Case type
Rimmed, straight
Bullet diameter
.357 in (9.1 mm)
Land diameter
.346 in (8.8 mm)
Neck diameter
.379 in (9.6 mm)
Base diameter
.379 in (9.6 mm)
Rim diameter
.44 in (11 mm)
Rim thickness
.058 in (1.5 mm)
Case length
1.155 in (29.3 mm)
Overall length
1.550 in (39.4 mm)
Case capacity
23.4 gr H2O (1.52 cm3)
Primer type
Small pistol
Maximum pressure
22,000 psi (150 MPa) CIP
Maximum pressure
17,500 psi (121 MPa) SAAMI


Why Is 38 Special So Popular?

Although the .38 Special and .380 ACP cartridges remain popular, larger pistols taking advantage of the .380 ACP’s lower recoil and designed for individuals with reduced physical strength have gained traction in recent years. (Small guns like SCCY CPX and Smith Wesson Bodyguard 380)

smith wesson bodyguard 380

While most 38 special guns are most common in revolver platform and semi auto like the Smith & Wesson Model 52. the 38 special remains relevant as a pocket pistol caliber.

Additionally, the .38 Special offers sufficient stopping power for self-defense situations, while still being manageable for most shooters. The round is also widely available and relatively affordable compared to other defensive cartridges. 

Most Popular 380 ACP and 38 Special Ammo

It depends on the bullet type. There are many different loads for each caliber. Here are some popular options for personal defense.

Best 38 Special For Personal Defense

  1. Hornady Critical Defense - The 110-grain FTX bullet in this round is designed to expand even at lower velocities, making it effective in short-barreled revolvers. It also offers good penetration and is reliable
  2. Federal Premium Personal Defense - This round features a 129-grain HP bullet that is designed to expand reliably upon impact. It also offers good penetration, making it an excellent choice for personal defense
  3. Remington HTP - This round features a 110-grain HP bullet that is designed to expand upon impact. It also offers good penetration and is reliable
  4. Winchester PDX1 Defender - This round features a 130-grain HP bullet that is designed for maximum expansion and penetration. It is also reliable and consistent
  5. Speer Gold Dot Short Barrel - This round features a 135-grain HP bullet that is specifically designed for short-barreled revolvers. It offers good penetration and expansion, making it an excellent choice for personal defense

Best 380 ACP For Personal Defense

  1. Hornady Critical Defense - This 90-grain ammo is a popular choice as it is designed to give the best possible muzzle velocity for the 380 ACP round. You get over 1050 feet per second, which is among the highest out of all the 380 ACP rounds on the market. 
  2. The red polymer tips help with bullet expansion, and the bullet maintains trajectory for better accuracy. Inside the bullet is a lead core.
  3. Liberty Civil Defense - The Liberty Civil Defense rounds are only 50 grains, which is light but an excellent alternative for those who are recoil-sensitive or beginners. In terms of performance, Liberty Ammunition advertises that these rounds can reach up to 1500 feet per second with a muzzle energy of 250 foot-pounds.
  4. Federal Personal Defense HST - These heavier 380 rounds are known for their reliability and terminal performance. You get about 1030 feet per second out of a 2.75-inch barrel, and the total bullet weight is 99 grains. One reason why the HST is more reliable is that the jacket is attached well to the core of the round, which means it does not separate when hitting the target, translating to better penetration. The tips of the jacket are also thinned out to allow for optimal expansion.
  5. Winchester USA White Box - Winchester USA White Box is a middle ground between both ends. With a bullet weight of 95 grains, it is one of the best full metal jacket 380 ACP ammo on the market. Unfortunately, 380 ACP rounds are already lacking in penetration due to the low muzzle energy. So a full metal jacket allows for the best penetration
  6. SIG Sauer V-Crown JHP - This load is super effective in both expansion and penetration. Out of all the 380 ACP, this is one of the few that has no problems touching that 12-inch penetration mark and can expand up to half an inch in size. SIG Sauer V-Crown JHP is also affordable.

Is A .38 Special Good For Self-Defense?

The .38 Special cartridge can be an effective choice for self-defense, depending on the specific circumstances and the individual shooter's ability and preference.

The cartridge offers sufficient stopping power for most self-defense situations and is manageable for most shooters, including those with less experience or physical strength.

Most Popular 38 Special Pistols

  • Smith Wesson Model 10
  • Ruger LCR
  • Smith Wesson Bodyguard 38
  • Taurus 605
  • Ruger SP101

Most Popular 380 ACP Pistols

  • Ruger LCP Max
  • Sig P238
  • Kahr CW380
  • Smith Wesson Bodyguard
  • Glock 42