.38 Snubbies vs. .380 Autos: Choices for On-Body Carry
by Jim Williamson
Roving Editor


With the proliferation of concealed weapons pistol licenses (CPLs), one often sees or hears discussions on one of the classic small handgun arguments. Which is better, the .38 Special snub-nosed revolver, or the .380-caliber autoloading pistol? These are still very often the guns that people choose between when they want to hide a firearm on their persons.

Some now prefer the compact auto pistols chambered for such effective cartridges as the 9mm, .40 Smith & Wesson (S&W), and .45 ACP. Others find these too chunky to hide well on their bodies or to feel good in their hands. Many also object to the heavy recoil and muzzle blast of these cartridges when fired in such small guns. Whatever the reason, many still opt for either the snub .38 or the .380 autos. And this article is for them.

Both types of gun have been around for many decades. The .380 autos appeared about 1908 when Colt asked John Browning to develop a more powerful load for his M1903 pocket pistol. This became the M1908 in the Model M. It was made until roughly 1945.

The .380 became widely popular in Europe as the 9mm Kurtz, 9mm Corto, and similar names, most meaning, “9mm Short,” to distinguish it from the more powerful 9mms. It was actually adopted by the militaries of such nations as Italy, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia. (The last is now the Czech Republic.) The .380 has been wildly popular in small defense pistols on the civilian market, too. Some especially popular models in the US today are by Beretta, Bersa, Walther, Sigarms, and CZ.

Choosing Gun
The snub .38 dates from 1926, when Colt offered a short-barreled form of the Police Positive Special. Smith & Wesson followed by 1933 with a snub version of the Military & Police, and the trend accelerated after 1950. S&W has probably had the widest variety, beginning with their Chief’s Special in 1950. (In 1965, the Chief was the first firearm to be routinely offered optionally in stainless steel.)

There are several factors to consider in choosing between a .38 and a .380. Some are fortunate enough to own both, selecting whichever suits their mood at the moment and the way they plan to dress that day. Taking the factors in no particular order, we’ll begin with the most vital: reliability.

This means that the gun must go bang when you tell it to, and cycle properly for the next shot. Otherwise, as the late Border Patrol gun shark and writer Bill Jordan once quipped, the world may have to find someone else to revolve around. He was correct in noting that there is no second place winner in a gunfight.

It may not be a big deal if a small auto balks occasionally when the target is tin cans. When it’s an armed felon, occasional “stutters” can’t be tolerated. Both the small .38 and the .380 are normally selected for close-range defense in the gravest extreme. They do have sporting potential, but that isn’t why most people buy them.

The revolver wins the reliability contest. Period. Oh, it too can fail on rare occasions. A grain of unburned powder stuck under the extractor star can prevent fully closing the cylinder, and a cartridge case can get stuck under the extended extractor. (Tipping the muzzle up before shoving the rod nearly always precludes this.)

Auto Pistols
Snubs often have such short extractor rods that this jam can’t happen with them as readily as it does with longer barreled revolvers, anyway. And it’s rare even with them. Most jams that theoretically can happen with revolvers are reloading issues, anyway. Most gunfights are solved with fewer shots than are in the gun. This augurs well for the reliability of revolvers.

Auto pistols are much more finicky, especially small ones like the .380s. The ills are well known: feed ramps that balk at letting some bullets slide up them into the chamber; extraction and ejection issues, including the famed “stovepipe” jam, and dud or underpowered rounds that fail to cycle the action. As a onetime range officer, I saw them all . . . frequently.

Another endearing trait of many small autos is that the recoiling slide can actually cut the shooter’s hand. The Walther PP series is notorious for this. Some say that external hammers on such guns as the Star and Llama pistols “bite” the web of their hands, much as the larger Colt .45s they replicate on a smaller scale do.

I don’t get cut in recoil, but I have cut my finger when I slipped while trying to cock a Walther PPK/S. The slide is under heavy spring pressure and hard to pull fully to the rear, to ensure chambering the first round. My finger got gashed on the sharp edges of the rear sight. It’s hard for me to grasp the Walther slide well, partly because of the location of the thumb safety.

Bersa Thunder
My best luck for reliability was with the Beretta M34 military .380, but I’ve never personally seen a jam with its descendants, either. Maybe I’ve just been lucky, but I feel that the Beretta line is the gold standard for reliability in .380 autos. I gather that the Bersa Thunder also has a good track record. This, and its very reasonable price, has made the little Argentine gun very popular. Everyone who posts about it on the Internet seems to like it.

Overall, however, the revolver has the .380 beaten on the score of reliability. Now, if you have a Beretta, a Star Super S, or a Colt M1908 (Model M) that feeds perfectly and you’ve put 1,000 or so rounds down its barrel, I’m not calling you a liar. I will say that you are luckier than most owners.

Next, let’s examine the issue of accuracy. That can be hard to call. I have seen some exceptional groups shot with Walther and Bersa autos. I understand that old Colt Model Ms sometimes turn in a surprising performance, too, if you don’t mind carrying a gun made before Harry Truman became president.

It is easier to shoot small autos in quick bursts and score good hits. But the revolver will generally shoot best in careful aimed fire. This is especially true of those with the 3-inch barrel option. My S&W M60-4 shoots astonishing groups. But revolvers hold only five or six shots, and the, 380s are easily reloaded with spare magazines.

Maintenance/Durability
Maintenance? It is easier to disassemble small autos for cleaning, but the revolver seldom needs that, and is easier to find in stainless steel construction. That’s a big plus when one is carrying a small defense gun near the body in humid weather.

Durability? I’ve never seen any comparisons, but the US Army did test several small auto pistols in the early 1950s. The result was printed in The American Rifleman. The trial guns were mainly in .32 ACP (7.65mm) rather than in .380, which causes more wear over the long run than does the smaller cartridge.

The guns tested failed to complete the 5,000-round endurance test. In fairness, they were wartime items that weren’t new, and which may have had substandard heat treatment of small parts in the rush of production. Modern materials and heat treatments are better, and I’m sure the guns last longer. But I still think that .38 snub-nosed revolvers endure better in prolonged use. That may be a moot point, as most owners of small defense handguns don’t shoot them often.

The .357 Magnum snubs probably wear out sooner than the .38s, for obvious reasons. For what it’s worth, I spoke to an engineer at Smith & Wesson when they started rating their J-frame snubs for use with Plus-P .38 ammo. He told me that one gun had fired over 10,000 shots and was still going strong. That’s quite an endorsement. Ruger’s beefy SP-101 probably lasts the best in heavy use, but few of us will wear out an S&W or Taurus .38. Recent editions of even their Airweight models are rated for limited Plus-P use.

Convenience of carry is an issue, and the Airweight snubs have an edge there, if not in endurance. I favor all-steel .38s unless the gun is going in a pocket, and then fancy an alloy-framed .38. Few, if any, .380s can match the Airweight snubs for weight, even when they have alloy frames, as with the SIG-Sauer P-232, Beretta’s M85, or the Bersa. However, the way the gun fits a person’s build is often a mitigating factor, and the little autos may conceal better in some modes of carry.

A particular favorite of sophisticated handgunners is the snub with the optional 3-inch barrel. This is really a more valid rival to the .380 than is the true snub, because most .380s have barrels of similar length, or slightly longer. Three-inch-barreled guns give higher velocities, have longer extractor rods than snubs, and offer a longer sighting radius. Consider one of these longer .38s in either steel or Airweight construction when the carry mode permits.

While addressing weight and bulk issues, we should note that the weight of the standard steel S&W Chief’s Special was traditionally 19 ounces. The latest ones with a J-Magnum frame and barrel lug run a little heavier. The Airweight version tips the scales at a mere 12.5 ounces, but one feels that lightness in increased recoil.

The Bodyguard Airweight, with a shrouded hammer, weighs in at about 14 ounces. SIG and Walther .380s burden one to the tune of some 24 ounces. That’s about what S&W’s M60-4 full-lug model with 3-inch barrel weighs. That’s an all-steel gun.

What about performance? Those who like the small autos aren’t going to enjoy this part of the comparison. The cold truth is that the .38 snub wins, hands down. This is even more so if one opts for the 3-inch barrels.

Normal specs show the .380 firing a 95-grain bullet at some 995 feet-per-second (fps). Actual chronographing generally indicates that the bullet is moving at fewer than 900 fps, often by a considerable margin. Published figures that I’ve seen in recent years range from about 850 fps to 916 fps. These velocities can also be reached in .38 Special guns, especially 3-inch barreled ones, with bullets that are substantially heavier. The .380 is simply a weaker round.

There are so many types of .38 Special ammo that I’ll list only those that I personally favor. We should ignore the basic 158-grain lead RN, which doesn’t expand, and which reaches only 700 fps or less from a snub barrel. Remington’s classic 125-grain JHP gave 875 fps in one test that I consulted, and Speer’s Gold Dot usually clocks 885-900 fps. This is exceptional from a 2-inch barrel, and that bullet holds together well and has the energy to get in deep.

The new 135-grain version, especially tailored for use in snubs, should be even better, and NYCPD, for whom it was designed, has gotten good field results with it. It has yet to appear in local stores, and no test ammo was available, so I can’t report more on it. I asked Federal’s PR man to check with their engineers as to how their 129-grain Hydra-Shok behaves in short barrels.

Check Sources
They chronographed some, and it ran 865 fps in a snub and 936 fps from a 3-inch barrel. That’s impressive, and the bullet usually behaves well in animal tissue. To see if this was typical, I checked another source, and the figures were within a very few feet of those supplied by Federal. That’s unusually consistent. Hydra-Shok remains one of my favorite loads for defense and hunting purposes in several calibers. Winchester’s 130-grain SXT is also excellent.

Many feel that the best .38 defense round ever is the Plus P lead HP introduced by Winchester circa 1972, and eventually offered by Federal, Remington, and a few others. Various brands differ a little in how hard the lead formula is, but all seem to offer some expansion, even in a 2-inch barrel.

Moreover, the bullet penetrates until next payday, a vital factor if one has to shoot a heavy man or a large animal. Velocity runs some 775-810 fps, depending on brand, ammo lot, and the particular gun. Using a 3-inch barrel may well produce velocity beyond 850 fps, making this a very serious social item.

Massad Ayoob has graciously consented to my citing his results with this lead HP load on pigs in a slaughterhouse. Briefly, he tried a number of .380 auto loads, and none performed really well. Some did a poor enough job that he decided that it was inhumane to continue using them, if memory serves. Then, he tried the lead .38 Special HP. It routinely went through the heavy skin, the thick skull, and either lodged at the rear of the brain case or penetrated beyond. (Results varied with the particular shot.)

Deaths were pretty much instant, with extensive brain damage. He feels that this was exceptional performance from a compact, handy sidearm. I concur. Those of you worried about bears or rabid or feral dogs should keep his tests in mind. I think they represent the best data we have for comparing .380 autos to snub .38 Specials. Certain other .38 rounds also offer better performance than the .380 ammo that I know about.

This doesn’t mean that the .380 is a total flop when used on humans or small mammals or most snakes. Those pigs are quite large targets for a gun handy enough to fit in many pockets. I realize that people normally succumb to bullet wounds more readily than do most other mammals of similar weight. But when one can, it is best to tilt the scales in the right direction.

With this in mind, and the overall reliability factor favoring the revolver, I think I’ll stick to the snub and 3-inch barreled .38 revolvers for most of my own use. There are occasions when the shape and size of the .380 and its generally better pointing and recoil control factors may lead me to use a .380. But, across the board, the .38 snub is the best choice in this comparison.
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