We compared five .380 ACP pistols from Colt’s, Browning, Smith & Wesson, and Walther in a head-to-head shooting-performance test.
During a week of intense handgun-technique training at the Smith & Wesson Academy last summer, I was introduced to the relatively new S&W; Sigma Series in .380 ACP. At the academy I developed an interest in this diminutive caliber for the first time. I was interested in the cartridge because it doesn’t have a lot of oomph, which translates into minimal recoil and report. As a coach and shooting instructor, I introduce a lot of shooters, especially women, to the sport of handgunning, and I’ve been on the lookout for pistols which can serve as “training” guns. My idea was to teach the basics of handgun marksmanship with a true centerfire round—in this case, the .380 ACP, also known as the 9mm Short and 9mm Kurz—that wouldn’t make new handgunners gun shy.
Another benefit of the .380, despite its limited downrange ballistics, is that many handguns chambered for the round are light, small, and relatively inexpensive. As training guns, .380s were likely not to tire students who didn’t have a lot of hammer time under their ammo belts. Ammunition costs, too, are substantially below what other, more powerful cartridges run. Last, I found a big sampling of guns chambered for the round.
With these positives in mind, Performance Shooter recently undertook a test that would compare several current production .380s on their suitability as training pistols, looking hard at their ease of use, simplicity, weight, overall physical dimensions, and other shooter-comfort factors. Because I used to be a member of Team Smith & Wesson, the company’s professional shooting team, and because I promote handgun shooting nationally through many groups, I have become ruthlessly discriminating in my observations and opinions about what makes a good training handgun. Thus, it was with great anticipation that I received five .380s from four manufacturers to test.
TESTING THE PISTOLS
The products we tested showed a wide $343 spread in price. We shot a Walther PPK/S, Colt’s Manufacturing Co. Government Pocketlite and Mustang Pocketlite, a Browning BDA .380, and a Smith & Wesson Sigma Series gun. The most expensive gun (suggested retail) was the $651 Walther, followed by the $563.95 Browning BDA, $493 Colt Mustang Pocketlite, and $462 Colt Government Pocketlite. The Smith & Wesson Model SW380 Sigma lists for $308.
The objective of this comparison was to determine what features make a gun most suitable for training purposes. Obviously, reliable functionality is a must. The goal of a training gun is to shoot the hell out of it, and models that jam are irritants and time wasters. Also, reliability is a major component of durability. Once you decide to put your money down on a particular weapon, you should practice on a regular basis and, therefore, expect a certain amount of wear on the gun.
Personal comfort while practicing is an important factor in how often you will practice, how your skills develop, and the confidence you derive from the gun and your skill. Accurate and rapid shot placement is particularly important. Testing these products as training guns would help uncover any difficulties with trigger pulls or handling, and we would check how easily the gun returned to point of aim, all important aspects of gun function.
THE TEST PROCEDURE
Though most training situations happen at very close range, your training gun needs a certain amount of accuracy. All testing was done at 7 yards, and each gun had 200 to 300 rounds put through it in as rapidly as possible. All guns were tested from an offhand, two-handed shooting position. We paid particular attention to the ease with which a gun could be shot rapidly, looking closely at its ability to return to point of aim.
We shot eight varieties of ammunition with bullet weights ranging from 85 to 102 grains. Federal contributed several hundred rounds of its 90-grain Hydra-Shok jacketed hollow point. Speer sent its 90-grain Gold Dot ammo. Remington delivered a sampling of its 88-grain jacketed hollow point High Velocity load and 102-grain jacketed hollowpoint Golden Saber ammunition. We also shot CCI Blazer 95-grain total metal jackets and 88-grain jacketed hollow points and Winchester 85-grain Silvertip hollow points and 95-grain SXT rounds. Only the 85-grain Silvertip proved to be balky about feeding, particularly the top round out of a mag. We suspect this was due to bullet configuration and seating depth. Speer’s Gold Dot consistently produced the sharpest recoil, and Federal’s Hydra-Shok produced the tightest groups.
In range-shooting situations, we found the guns all delivered acceptable accuracy. At 7 yards, we fired the guns offhand and developed groups ranging from 1.3 to 1.8 inches in size. Overall, the tightest groups were shot with the Browning. The Sigma, whose sights aren’t adjustable, shot an inch and a half low and 2 inches to the left. The Government Pocketlite produced groups about 1.5 inches to the left.
We noted only a few function problems in 1,200 rounds fired. The Government Pocketlite didn’t feed the top round of a full magazine loaded with Winchester 85-grain Silvertips. Loading only six rounds solved this problem. The Walther failed to feed a CCI 95-grain Blazer once. The Browning frequently failed to feed the top round off the mag when racking the slide to chamber a round, whereas dropping the slide from a fully locked position chambered the round reliably.
Along with these observations, we recorded the performance of each gun individually. Here’s what we found.
This product, imported by Interarms, weighed 23 ounces without any rounds in the seven-round-capacity magazine. It was 6 inches long, 1 inch wide (thick), and 4.7 inches tall. The weight of the PPK/S was surprisingly heavy at 23 ounces. Right off the bat, we thought the 9mm Kurz-chambered product was unnecessarily beefy.
Nonetheless, the gun was solidly built with a nicely polished, blued finish on the slide and a satin-blued finish on the frame, where some machining marks are quite evident. The lines of the gun are pleasing, but we immediately questioned how the squared corners of the grip frame and tang would feel in live fire. The seven-round magazine’s bumper pad is extended and contoured to allow purchase for the little finger. The grip panels are checkered plastic. The mag release is located immediately under the slide, in back of the trigger guard. The sights appeared precise and clear, with a white dot on the front and a vertical white dash on the drift-adjustable rear. A loaded-chamber indicator is easily seen whether the hammer is down or if it is cocked.
The gun has no external-slide release. An internal lever, actuated by the magazine follower, pivots into a recess in the slide. Chambering a round, therefore, requires the slide to be racked. However, racking the slide by holding four fingers and the palm over the slide was nearly impossible because of the small amount of space rearward of the port and because the sharp, forward end of the decocking lever dug into the heel of the palm. Retracting the slide was more easily accomplished using the thumb and forefinger because the recoil spring is comparatively heavy for the purchase allowed on the small slide.
The double-action trigger required 15 pounds of pull. The feel was similar to moving a heavy object over the crest of a hill with the sudden release of weight on the downward side. The sear broke with a sudden snap. As there is no cock and lock mechanism on this gun, the safety is also a decocker. The single-action pull, which can only be utilized while actively shooting, broke with approximately 2 pounds of take-up and 3 pounds of pull-through. Dry-firing the double action displayed a discomfiting amount of front sight movement off the target, but the single action pull was very controllable.
Shooting the gun, we noted the double-action pull of the Walther tended to stack and then snap, which made it difficult to fully control the shot placement. But because of the PPK/S’s longer grip, aided by the design of the mag pad and the overall weight of the gun, single-action shots could be fired rapidly and accurately. The sights returned to point of aim in a reasonable fashion, even though we felt the combination of the white dot and white dash on the sights tended to make shooters refine the sight picture too much. During rapid shooting, the vertical dash got lost in the dot, which resulted in a vertically strung group.
As we suspected, the squared edges of the grip tang indeed caused discomfort to the base of the thumb. We wound up padding the area to complete the test.
BROWNING .380 BDA
Like the Walther, the .380 BDA seemed overbuilt for a low-cartridge-pressure gun. At 22 ounces, it weighed only an ounce less than the PPK/S, and its overall dimensions were bigger. The Browning handgun was 4.8 inches tall, 6.9 inches long, and 1.3 inches thick. It had a magazine capacity of ten. The Browning was the largest of the five guns—it was even bigger than a Star PD in .45 ACP.
If you are looking for a gun with an attractive finish, the BDA has it. The dark, wood grip panels have the brass Browning medallions embedded in them. The overall finish is a combination of brushed and polished blued metal. We thought it interesting that the company chose to polish the front and back of the grip where a rougher gripping surface is desirable. The gun has a rounded and smooth feel partly because of the stagger-stacked ten-round magazine. It requires a larger grip, which more fully fills the hand, and also because the grip panels lack checkering. The mirror-image grip panels have a slight dishing at the top rear portion of each panel. However, it seemed the dishing did not continue back far enough; the top of the grip caused a bump that irritated the thumb—even before shooting.
The trigger required a long reach to engage the double-action pull, which measured 10 pounds, stacking toward the last of the pull. A short base on the magazine continues the lines of the front strap of the grip and made for easy reloading. The mag release is located at about the line of the lower portion of the trigger guard, but even shooters with large hands will have to reposition the gun to depress the button.
The narrow, crescent-shaped, front sight is integral with the slide; the rear sight is black and provides for a comfortable sight picture. Surprisingly, the hammer is not rounded or bobbed. The spur makes for an elegant line, but would cause snagging problems when being drawn from concealment. The ambidextrous decocking lever depressed easily enough, and the BDA is the only one of the five test guns with a magazine safety.
Like the Walther, the BDA has a loaded-chamber indicator. Unlike the Walther, this one is more difficult to see. It is a narrow bar that pivots out away from the slide near the ejection port and is painted a dull red (it appeared to need another coat of paint). The BDA was the only gun to come equipped with a second magazine.
Firing the Browning proved out our observation about the dishing in the top of the grip. With a high grip on the gun, the angle just rearward of the dishing would whack the shooter’s second thumb joint. The uncheckered grip panels also felt slippery. Shooters needed to adjust their grip on the gun every few rounds because of the smoothness.
Also, for all its bulk, the BDA tended to have a very bouncy recoil, we thought. This was probably due to the rounded and wide surface area of the grip.
SMITH & WESSON SIGMA SW380
At first glance and first heft, the Sigma caught our attention as a training gun. It weighed a paltry 13 ounces without ammo (it has a six-round magazine), and was only .9 inch wide. Also, it stood 4 inches tall and was only 5.8 inches long. Unlike the showy Browning, the Sigma whispers simplicity. There are no external levers and buttons and no obvious sights protruding from the top of the slide—just a smooth and functional appearance.
The frame is a lightweight polymer with molded checkering on the front and back of the grip and identical dished areas behind the trigger. The squared slide is a zinc-based alloy. The gun is entirely black except for the portion of the barrel exposed by the ejection port. The slide has a dished area that is serrated for working the slide by hand. There is no slide stop. The Sigma’s appearance is an unusual combination of softly rounded and squared edges.
The sights, integral with the slide, are set into a channel that widens out around the tiny front sight. At close range, this isn’t a problem because you’ll be pointing and shooting. Otherwise, the sighting system doesn’t work too well. This gun has to point for you because you can’t use the sights effectively, we think.
The trigger provides a measure of safety. It is a two-piece trigger which must pivot properly under the trigger finger for a lever to be cammed out of the way, allowing it to be fired. Combining the trigger design, the pistol’s short grip, and an abominable 15-pound double-action pull, the gun is difficult to shoot aggressively, we think. Also, the full 15 pounds of pull put pressure on the upper portion of the web of the shooting hand, which made shooting the Sigma uncomfortable during practice sessions.
The magazine, which lies flush with the bottom of the grip frame, required a very firm rap to seat. Its release is unique. The shooter must depress opposing and integral tabs on either side of the mag. It must also be pulled down after the correct amount of depression is achieved. Dished areas on the tabs of the release facilitate this maneuver and keep the lines of the grip smooth, but the procedure is slow and tricky and requires the shooting hand to be removed from the grip of the gun.
The Smith & Wesson pistol hurt our hands during shooting. The short distance to the trigger (which created an uncomfortable angle from which to pull the trigger), the extraordinarily heavy trigger pull, and the recoil thumping the upper part of the web made the right hand ache after only a couple dozen rounds of .380 fodder. In fact, it became increasingly difficult to pull the trigger. The second joint of the trigger finger objected to the heavy pull, the sudden release, and the weight of the return spring slapping my finger back. The recoil was focused on the radial nerve, which runs into the trigger finger. Also, the gun tended to remain at the highest point of the bounce in recoil, and shooters had to consciously return it to the target.
COLT MUSTANG POCKETLITE
Two highly desirable traits of a .380 training gun were immediately apparent with the Mustang: its weight and overall size. At 14 ounces, the Mustang was lighter than the Walther and Browning products, but not quite as light as the featherweight Sigma. Dimensionally, it measured 3.9 inches in height, 5.5 inches in length, and was 1 inch thick. It had a six-round magazine.
The dimensions were the same as the Government Pocketlite, except for the shorter slide/barrel and grip length, and it weighed 1 ounce less. However, the Mustang’s handfit was much poorer than the Government model because the Mustang’s grip was .4 inch shorter, leaving no place for the little finger to rest or to contribute to the grip. It made our testers uncomfortable to have the pinkie finger exposed to the pathway of the magazine.
Also, the gun’s overall appearance gave us the impression that it was made of spare parts: The slide has brushed stainless sides with a bead-blasted top. But the bead-blast finish on the frame is a different color, and the thumb safety, slide release, and grip screws are done in a matte finish of a different shade. Additional contrast is supplied by the rear sight, the grips, and the trigger, which are all black. However, we liked the contrast of the black rear sight and the bead-blasted stainless ramp. Whereas the difference in sight colors would be out of place on a competition gun, they might be just the ticket in helping shooters pick up or refine proper front sight use.
The Mustang shares many of the features of the Government piece. It is well fit, has a solid feel, employs an almost identical trigger pull, and has the Commander-style hammer. The safety worked properly in the Mustang, which takes down more like a Smith & Wesson. There is no barrel bushing or plug to deal with, and the barrel is removed through the rear of the slide when disassembled. The slide could be racked as easily as the Government .380’s.
Shooting the Mustang took some getting used to. Having the pinkie curled below the mag well is disconcerting. We’ve seen cases blow inside gun actions, and the resulting pressure takes the path of least resistance—through the mag well. Also, the short grip allows the hands to ride up nearer the barrel, where you can feel heat from the burning powder. Furthermore, it created a distinct stab to the gun-hand web with each shot, but it pointed well and returned to target quickly. I felt the sights were perfect for training shooting, with the front sight seen more readily than the rear.
Between the pointability and the sight, I was able to rapidly and accurately empty the magazine into my shooting target.
This Colt gun, minus a grip safety, indeed looks like a scaled-down version of the full-size Government Model, right down to the tiny bushing and recoil spring plug, and with the mag release and thumb safety in the standard places. It immediately felt good and natural in the shooters’ hands. Somehow the weight (15 ounces) and balance seemed appropriate for its size. The 4.3-inch-tall Government Pocketlite measures 6.1 inch long and 1 inch thick.
The polished sides of the hammer, the top of the barrel as viewed from the ejection port, and the silver-colored rampaging Colt medallions embedded on both sides of the checkered grips offer contrast to the gun’s otherwise black finish. The sides of the slide have a satin finish with a matte finish on all other parts. The single-stack, seven-round magazine has a flat base with a slight extension on the forward side. The front sight is merely a ramped projection integral with the slide. Like the other guns except the Smith & Wesson, the rear sight is drift adjustable and similar to the standard Government Model rear sight.
The single-action-only trigger required about 3 pounds of pull for the take-up and broke crisply with another 2 pounds of pull. The pivoting trigger yielded a deceptively light pull.
The thumb safety required firm pressure with the side of the thumb joint to engage/disengage and felt rough. Also, we discovered a disturbing problem while dry firing and becoming familiar with this gun: the thumb safety felt as if it had three positions instead of just Fire and Safe. When in the mysterious middle position, the hammer would fall when the trigger was pulled. Subsequent checks of other Government Pocketlites in retail stores revealed this to be a defect only in our sample gun, but you should check for the problem regardless. If you bought a piece with this problem, it could result in an accidental discharge.
In contrast to the Walther’s squared frame edges, this Government gun is nicely rounded and even has a slight swelling in the grip frame similar to the arched mainspring housing in a full-size Government Model. The serrations in the flat-sided slide provided enough purchase to work the slide comfortably with the middle, ring and small fingers against the palm of the weak hand.
The recoil profile of the Government Pocketlite was exceptional. The alloy-framed pistol delivered less subjective recoil than the other guns, we thought, and it returned to point of aim so quickly that our shooters were unaware of it ever having jumped. Even after extended shooting, it felt very comfortable in the hand, pointed well, and we thought it could be fired quickly and accurately.