I've recently had a few people ask me about the .380 cartridge and if it is powerful enough to do the job it is intended to do. Of course, my usual response is that the .380 will do its job. The question I have is: will you do your job?
My recent experiences with my Ruger LCP have gotten me into a few online debates around the "internetz" regarding ballistics, "knockdown power" (cringe), accuracy, and reliability. Most people agree that the LCP is a reliable gun, but the controversy lies in just how much power the "little bullet that could" has. A lot of people are opting for the slightly larger sub-compacts because they feel they will do better with the 9mm instead of the increasingly popular .380 auto. Even bigger still, some of the old timers opt for the .45 acp in their compact-sized 1911 handguns. For some reason the .45 acp is somehow a magic bullet that will drop anything it shoots at. I've seen all kinds too. Some people actually believe that you are a complete pansy if you carry any gun chambered for anything less than a .40 caliber round; I guess I'm a total pansy because my primary carry weapon is only a .357 magnum.
I, personally, have 3 caliber and weapon options for concealed carry: a .380 (Ruger LCP), a .357 magnum (Ruger SP-101), and 9mm (Beretta 92FS). You will be hard pressed to find anyone that disagrees with the life-ending capability of the .357 magnum. A lot of people won't carry it because .357 can be a handful in a combat situation, but for ultimate capability, you really can't go wrong with it. I think the spread of people who are in favor of or against 9mm is pretty even. Again, the .45 crowd likes to dog the 9mm guys because 9mm is somehow not powerful enough to kill anything. Then there is the .380 auto. This is a fantastic little cartridge. It is the same caliber of the 9mm, but the case is 2mm shorter. In fact, there are some countries that refer to it as the 9mm short. The .380 round is increasing in popularity in a big way. It doesn't kick like the bigger cartridges do, it fits into really small pistols, and it gives an edge to anyone who wants to carry concealed where larger weapons are impracticable. However, the .380 has some shortfalls. All that concealability, low recoil, and convenience come at a price. It isn't as powerful as its larger and more [technically speaking] capable brethren.
Have you ever heard of the "double tap?" It's a method of shooting where you put two rounds on the target quickly. The theory is that two rounds are better than one, and it's double the damage (double your fun). It became so wildly popular that many police agencies have adopted the combat doctrine of the double tap. I've read so many things on this magical shooting technique about how you are supposed to shoot twice, quickly, check the threat, and double tap again if the threat hasn't stopped. This is such crap.
How often have you seen police videos where the officer has shot twice, checked, and followed up? I've seen a lot of police shooting videos and I can say that if the criminal hasn't gone down after the first shot, the police just keep on shooting until he is no longer a threat. There usually isn't some methodical and magical "double tap" anywhere.
The double tap does have some valuable points to consider. When you look at the energy of pistol cartridges, you begin to see just what you are not working with. There isn't a whole lot of power there. Even in the venerable .357 magnum, you are still way shy of the kind of power a medium bore rifle, or even a 12 gauge shotgun can muster. Consider this: you are shooting a projectile the size of a gum drop out of a weapon with a 5" barrel or less. There isn't a lot of distance for that bullet to get to speed before it exits the barrel and starts losing all that energy it worked so hard to build up.
Shooting any bad guy with a handgun is kind of like shooting a deer with an arrow. A well-aimed shot to the eyeball (as a buddy of mine has done) will drop a deer instantaneously. But let's say that arrow misses its mark. Then what is that deer going to do? Chances are that deer is going to take off running until it bleeds out. If that deer was attacking you for some reason, that means you'd be in a lot of trouble before that arrow does what it is intended to do.
I've never believed in the almighty magic bullet. A lot of guys do. A lot of those same guys are the gun snobs and Internet commandos that tell you a hit with a 9mm is somehow worse than a miss with a .45 acp. Now, I don't mean to dog the .45 crowd, but normally that is the crowd more-or-less responsible.
There are many variations to the "I'd rather hit with (insert caliber here) that miss with a (insert caliber here)" saying. The argument is based around the fact that some of the guns that shoot those so-called magic bullets aren't really practical for a defensive shooting situation. They are probably right.
I carried a Beretta 92 FS for years. When my fellow gun-totin' brethren gave me crap about my "puny 9mm" and told me to grow up and get a .45, I'd use the saying, "I'd rather hit with a 9mm than miss with a .45" to make my case. I made a good case too. My Beretta 92 boasts lighter recoil than a 1911 style .45 and also has twice the ammunition capacity. Of course, the argument moves to "well, you're going to need all that extra ammo because 9mm is a wiener compared to a .45" and of course "real men carry .45's."
I'm not even going to address recoil or ammo capacity. It's moot because my best friend (who's name shall not be mentioned) carried a 1911 with enough ammunition to start a small war. Additionally, I don't feel that a 1911 really "kicks" very hard.
So what am I going to argue? Well, I'm going to take the wind out of the big bore boy's sales because self defense shooting isn't about how fat your bullet is, how powerful your cartridge may be, or how many inches of ballistics gelatin is whizzed through before stopping; it's about shot placement.
You can bring all the nuclear-charged bullets in the world to the fight, but unless you can actually hit your target, your magic bullet won't account for much. I've trained for years to make shots on a silhouette target in a very specific area: center of mass. From aimed fire to rapid fire, all shots must get onto a target area predetermined by me given the range I'm shooting at. In most cases, defensive shooting is up close and personal. Aimed fire is normally not practical under these conditions but I train to shoot tight 1-2" groups at that range. For rapid fire, I try to get my groupings in a 10" wide area, which is tight enough to damage vital organs and break a lot of bones. In all practicality, ranges of 25 yards will be aimed fire, but difficult. I would imagine that 25 yard shots, in a defensive situation, are not going to happen in most cases. Unless the attacker is wielding a rifle or shotgun, they will be pretty close to you.
The key is to place all your rounds on target from your initial draw in less than 3 seconds. Most attackers can cover 7 yards (21 feet) in that time and be on you. You must draw, aim, and fire under stress and less than ideal conditions. The use of cover, alternative firing positions, and other situational awareness plays into this situation. Shot placement is difficult under stress. When your adrenaline is pumping, your body is getting ready for fight or flight. Your large muscles are gearing up, while your fine motor control is tapering off. Your body was designed to fight saber toothed cats, lions, and other large predators - not operate fine machinery; a handgun is fine machinery. Training will prepare you for the real deal, but unless you can hit your target your gun of choice, and your caliber, are useless.
So what do you do? I can't tell you what to do. You need to find what is most comfortable for you. I certainly wouldn't opt for any particular cartridge or weapon system based on ballistics information or from what someone else wrote. You are better served defending your life with something you can handle well and shoot accurately than an unruly weapon that has the knockdown power of an Abrams tank.
Defensive use of firearms doesn't mean you have the upper hand. What got you into a situation that requires you to draw a gun in the first place? It is likely that you are in a situation where you are either being attacked or compromised in some other way. You don't have time to plan for your defense. The best thing you can do is find a weapon that suites you - not matter which caliber you choose - and train as best as you can. Hopefully, you and your weapon will function as intended if you are placed in the unfortunate situation where defensive firearm use is necessary.