A Comparison of 9x18mm Makarov, .380 ACP, and .38 Special (2" barrel)
By Stephen Camp
A common topic centers on which is best: 9mm Mak, .380 ACP, or the .38 Snub. Though ballistically in the same general ballpark, each round brings with it certain advantages as well as negatives. Let's take a look at what we might expect from these or similar loads.
9x18mm: Rare in the US until the mass importation of the Makarov pistol, the round is now common among shooters. Its ballistic payload is similar to a top end, maximum effort .380 ACP. One load approaches that of the 9x19mm, but only when the latter is being fired from a short (3") barrel. LVE Brown Bear 115-gr. JHP usually hits between about 1020 ft/sec and 1050 ft/sec depending upon the particular Makarov it's being fired from. Federal 115-gr. JHP from a short 9mm is usually less than 100 ft/sec faster as that load is not optimized for shorter barrels. There are many other loads in which the 9mm uniformly walks away from the Mak's capabilities.
In normal trim, it's generally accepted that the 9x18mm throws a 95-gr. 0.363" diameter bullet about 1050 ft/sec.
Foreign-made 9x18mm ammunition is very inexpensive and allows for considerable shooting. It is much less costly than the ballistically similar .380 ACP and slightly more powerful.
.380 ACP: Dimensionally, this is a scaled down .45 ACP from those round's creator, John M. Browning. Like the Makarov, it is most often fired from blow back semiautomatics though a few pistols so chambered have used the locked breech common to higher-pressure rounds like the 9x19mm.
Typical performance from the "traditional size" .380 ACP like the Walther PPK is a 95-gr. bullet at 950 ft/sec. Add approximately 100 ft/sec for +P 90-gr. bullets from the same size pistols.
Note: The really compact .380's currently available were not used in this report. Velocities generally suffer significantly when fired from barrels less than about 3.25". If you use one of the small .380 ACP pistols, you may need to go to +P rounds to insure that the velocity is enough to actually obtain expansion. Having seen JHP ammo expand very nicely from the Makarov/Bersa/Walther sized .380's and act like ball when fired from some of the really compact .380 pistols, I personally prefer the standard size pistols in this caliber. Others may truly need to go with the smaller, but might want to be sure that their ammunition is capable of expansion. There's no guarantee of it with any of them, but I think we're right on the edge with some loads in the smaller pistols.
Some very nice pistols are offered today in .380 ACP (9x17mm, 9mm Corto, 9mm Kurz). Ammunition is more costly, but the selection of high performance JHP ammo is more readily available. Such can be had from American makers like Remington, Winchester, Federal, Corbon, and Hornady. Speer offers their excellent Gold Dot in this caliber as well.
All of this will be more expensive than the foreign JHP is available in 9x18mm Makarov. Like I said, there's "good" and "bad" with each of these calibers.
.38 Special (2" barrel): Still popular, the velocity for most bullets fired will be in the same range as either the Makarov round or the .380 ACP. The difference is that the .38 Special will toss slugs of slightly greater weight at these speeds. Expansion is similar to the other two, but penetration is almost always a bit deeper.
There are many JHP loads in various bullet weights readily available in this caliber. None are as inexpensive as the 9x18mm's. With its heavier bullet capability, the .38 snub's recoil goes up significantly for most folks when compared to the .380 or 9mm Makarov.
Actual Velocities: The velocity figures that follow are all based on 10-shot strings of fire. The listed handgun is what the ammo was fired from.
Both the .380 (left) and 9mm Makarov use 95-gr. FMJ in most FMJ loads. There are exceptions, but this seems to be normal for them in their traditional non-expanding loads.
The CZ83 and Makarov were used for velocity information as both have almost the same length barrels.
.380 ACP (CZ-83 w/3.8" bbl): Average Velocity (ft/sec)
Standard Deviation and
Extreme Spreads are listed in ft/sec.
Glaser 70-gr. Safety Slug(Silver) 1299 (ES: 116/SD: 44)
Magtech Guardian Gold +P
85-gr. JHP 1075 (ES: 33/SD: 10)
Federal 90-gr. JHP 1017 (ES: 48, SD: 17)
Federal 90 gr Hydrashok 1036 (ES: 80, SD: 23)
Hornady 90-gr. XTP 933 (ES: 42, SD: 14)
Corbon 90-gr. JHP +P 1083 (ES: 45, SD: 17)
Magtech 95-gr. FMJ 964 (ES: 29, SD: 10)
Remington UMC 95-gr. FMJ 970 (ES: 32, SD: 9)
Remington 102-gr. Golden Saber 928 (ES: 70, SD: 22)
9x18mm Makarov (Makarov w/3.83" bbl):
Barnaul Tiger 95-gr. JHP 1062 (ES: 41, SD: 14)
Barnaul 95-gr. JHP 1051 (ES: 26, SD: 8)
LVE Brown Bear 115-gr. JHP 1018 (ES: 32, SD: 10)
Hornady 95-gr. XTP 979 (ES: 82, SD: 24)
Corbon 95-gr. JHP +P 1121 (ES: 24, SD: 8)
The highest velocity shown for either caliber is from Corbon with their 90-gr. in .380 at 1083 ft/sec compared to their now discontinued 95-gr. Makarov JHP at 1121 ft/sec. 95-gr. .380 loads from Magtech and Remington UMC hit around 970 ft/sec while the Makarov speeds with the same weight bullet hits between 1000 and 1100 ft/sec with the exception of the Hornady XTP. It is clearly in .380 ACP velocity range, but 46 ft/sec faster than the same company's .380 ACP. We can see that the Makarov has a slight edge on the .380 ACP, but it is not a 9x19mm as some folks have claimed.
To prove that, here are some velocity figures from a Glock 26 9mm. It has a 3.46" barrel.
9x19mm from Glock 26:
Corbon 124-gr. XTP 1229(ES: 40 ft/sec)
Glaser 80-gr. Silver Pre-frag 1514 (Not available)
Federal 124-gr. Nyclad HP 1063 (Not available)
Triton 115-gr. Hi Vel JHP +P 1280 (Not available)
Triton 125-gr. Hi Vel JHP +P 1245 (Not available)
Fiocchi 115-gr. FMJ 1180 (ES: 57/SD: 21)
PMP 115-gr. FMJ 1046 (ES: 38/SD: 15)
Winchester USA 115-gr. FMJ 1097 (ES: 87/SD: 40)
Federal 115-gr. JHP 1111 (ES: 34/SD: 13)
Hornady 124-gr. "CQ" Tap (XPT) 1100 (ES: 38/SD: 16)
Winchester RA9TA 127-gr. +P+
JHP 1246 (ES: 33/SD: 13)
Corbon 125-gr. +P JHP (Sierra) 1188 (ES: 43/SD: 17)
Aguila 65-gr. "IQ" HP 1517 (ES: 64/SD: 23)
It is pretty evident that neither the .380 nor the Makarov can compete with the high-pressure 9x19mm. As very compact 9mm pistols now exists, some question the rationale for the Mak and .380 as well as the .38 Special snub. Whether the "wisest" move or not, many folks simply prefer either the caliber or the firearm as sales in both the .380 and .38 remain high and Makarov fans are legion.
.38 Special (S&W Model 642 w/1 7/8" barrel):
Remington 158-gr. +P LSWCHP 800 (ES: 27, SD: 12)
Federal 125-gr. Nyclad HP (Std. Pressure) 836 (ES: 30, SD: 12)
Corbon 115-gr. +P+ JHP 1188 (ES:39,SD: 13)
PMC 125-gr. +P "Starfire" JHP 859 (ES:29, SD: 13)
Though not having the highest velocity with most loads, the short .38 snub throws heavier bullets speeds similar to the .380 and Makarov rounds. With the now-discontinued Corbon +P+ round, the snub actually attained speeds better than some standard pressure 9mm loads from service size pistols.
It is evident that based strictly on ballistic capabilities none of the cartridges mentioned are as potent as 9mm, .40, or .45 ACP and that they normally operate in the range of 800 to 1100 ft/sec with some exceptions.
Penetration & Expansion:
I cannot afford the tariff to use 10% ballistic gelatin nor do I have the capabilities of keeping it at a constant temperature so that tests are repeatable and uniform. While it is the "gold standard" for bullet testing, I use water and wet pack tests. I define "wet pack" as super-saturated newsprint that has soaked 24-hrs and been allowed to drain for 30 minutes before shooting. It does limit penetration compared to gelatin. How much depends upon the velocity range of the bullet. For 9mm bullets in the 1100 to 1300 ft/sec range, multiplying wet pack penetration by 1.52 to 1.54 seems to give about the same penetration depths in gelatin. In the .380/9mm Makarov, multiplying the penetration in wet pack by about 2.3 seems to give ballpark gelatin penetration figures for similar velocities, but lower velocities as out of shorter guns will not be the same. The reason is that some of the bullets have a lower threshold velocity for expanding and if it's not met, they penetrate more. I have not yet had the chance to see how much expansion retards penetration with the really short autos. Expansion is very similar in both media. JHP's fired into water frequently fragment a bit more than in wet pack and shed their jackets much more readily as the water gets between the jacket and the bullet easier.
Penetration depths listed for each load is based on a three-shot average. The "estimated penetration" figures are what I think they'll do in tissue assuming no major bones are hit. Both depths are given in inches.
9mm Makarov Ammunition: Wet Pack Penetration: Estimated Penetration:
Brown Bear 115-gr. JHP 3.8 8.7
Hornady 95-gr. XTP 4.1 9.4
Tiger 95-gr. JHP 3.5 8.0
Corbon 95-gr. JHP +P 3.9 9.0
I do not have .380 penetration figures at this time in wet pack in numbers large enough to "trust," but I suspect strongly that they will be extremely similar to those for the Makarov round as both are so similar ballistically.
In bare 10% gelatin, most .380 JHP's penetrate from about 8 to 10".
Here are three 9x18mm Mak Hornady XTP bullets. The one at the top right was fired into water while the other two were recovered from wet pack. The expanded bullets averaged 0.55 x 0.54 x 0.32" tall and weighed an average of 93 grains, losing 2 grains when expanding.
9x18mm Brown Bear 115-gr. JHP's averaged the greatest expanded well and recovered bullets averaged 113-gr. in weight. Dimensions: 0.61 x 0.60 x 0.36" tall.
It seems reasonable to assume that we can count on roughly this depth of penetration with expanding bullets in either caliber. In .38 Special, when fired from a snub, expanding bullets penetrate from a low of about 9" to roughly 12", depending upon maker and bullet weight. If they don't expand, penetration is significantly greater…as is the case with the .380 and 9x18mm. Some folks prefer to use FMJ in these smaller auto calibers or solid SWC in the .38 snub to achieve what they considered adequate penetration. I'm happy with penetration of 10 to 12 inches with the snub or the other calibers under discussion.
Barnaul Tiger 95-gr. 9x18mm exhibited some fragmentation and penetrated an average of 3.5" in wet pack. Recovered dimensions averaged 0.64 x 0.65 x 0.31" tall. The average recovered bullet weight was 94 grains when the bullet did not fragment.
To me, the .380 and 9mm Mak are lacking in penetration for other than frontal, unobstructed shots with the .38 Special 158-gr. LSWCHP +P being but adequate. For me, that's enough of a reason to go with the revolver over the .380/9mm Mak genre of pistols. I will keep testing and checking and re-evaluating as nothing remains static. I'd like to see Corbon bring out their PowRball in both .380 and 9x18mm Makarov if it can be done with the velocity these rounds can provide. I'd like to see the round increase penetration a bit to say 10 or 12".
Corbon 95-gr. 9x18mm always exhibited expansion and fragmentation. In fact, its recovered bullet diameters were smaller as much of the bullet broke off while passing through the test medium be it water or wet pack. Average recovered weight was 69 grains. Average expanded diameter: 0.49 x 0.53 x 0.34" tall.
Should we find an expanding bullet for either the .380 or the 9x18 that reliably expands and hits in that penetration range, I'd most likely go to it from the .38 snub.
Corbon no longer produces the .38 Special 115-gr. +P+ load shown here. It used a Sierra 115-gr. 9mm JHP and hit velocities of nearly 1200 ft/sec from this Model 642. I do think that this load would cause excessive wear to the revolver and might split the forcing cone. I shoot it but rarely.
This remains my current load of choice in the .38 snub. It's Remington 158-gr. LSWCHP +P. You can see that it meets or exceeds the expanded 9mm Makarov diameters and it penetrates a bit more. Better loads will inevitably be on the way and one might be Speer's 130-gr. Gold Dot +P in this caliber. I've not yet had the opportunity to test it.
In most private citizen lethal force scenarios, the fight is close range and face to face. In such situations where shots can be made to the upper torso without obstructions, any of the calibers under discussion are probably fine. If a little more penetration is required, the .38 Special with the 158-grain expanding bullet wins.