September 23, 2021
By James Tarr
.380s are what you carry when you can’t carry a real gun. Or, at least, that’s what some “professionals” will tell you. Likely these were the same professionals that not too long ago were saying the same thing about 9mm. And just as likely, none of them are keeping up on ammunition improvements in this pocket pistol caliber. A caliber that was once an also-ran, but thanks to the surge in subcompact 380s, ammunition manufacturers have flooded the market with premium .380 ammunition, and this caliber is loaded with the best defensive hollow points we’ve ever had.
Today’s .380 loads perform better than the 9mm loads of 30 years ago, and that’s not gun writer’s opinion, that’s documented fact—no 9mm or .38 Special load could pass the FBI Ammunition Testing Protocol when it was first developed. None. Zero. Zilch. Nada. Now we’ve got at least one .380 ACP load that will pass the Protocol—and I’m guessing that’s a huge shock to most of you.
I don't have the space cover all the excellent .380 ACP loads on the market, so let me cover just two—the 99-grain Federal Tactical HST load, which is the load which will pass the FBI Ammunition Protocol, and the 60-grain Black Hills HoneyBadger. They are exact opposites in every way, but might be the best two .380 ACP loads on the market.
Let’s start with the Federal offering. Their HST line features what most people consider are the best modern hollowpoints from a design and performance standpoint. 99-grains is heavy for caliber, and usually heavier bullets penetrate more deeply.
Be advised, Federal has two 99-grain .380 ACP HST loads. They feature the exact same bullet, but loaded to different velocities. There is the HST Micro, loaded to 935 fps, and there is the Tactical HST, loaded to 1,030 fps. The hotter Tactical HST is the load which passes the FBI Protocol (out of a 3.75-inch barrel), but of course has snappier recoil. When I write “passes the FBI Protocol”, know that I mean the bullet will penetrate ballistic gel blocks a minimum of twelve inches, whether you’re shooting them into bare gel blocks, blocks covered with the FBI standard “heavy clothing”, or through various barriers (plywood, drywall, sheet metal, auto glass) into the gel blocks. As cops often shoot people inside cars, barrier penetration is very important to them.
If you’re looking for a load to protect yourself when you’re out walking the dog and aren’t concerned with intermediate barrier penetration, perhaps the softer-recoiling HST Micro is a better choice. I’ve done some gel testing with the HST Micro, and even out of very short (2.75-inch) barrels it will penetrate gel blocks over a foot, as that bullet is designed for penetration at every velocity.
Now let’s check out Black Hills’ 60-grain HoneyBadger load. In bullet weight, velocity, function and form this is the complete opposite of the Federal HST. The Honey Badger is a light-for-caliber 60-grain copper solid bullet that is advertised as doing 1,150 fps, and I’ve found that even out of the shortest barrels (2.75”) it will do at least 1,100 fps.
This bullet has flutes at the tip that cut right through clothing. This bullet is not a hollowpoint and not designed to expand; rather those flutes are designed to produce temporary wound cavities similar to or better than traditional hollowpoints via hydraulic displacement—people are mostly water, and the flutes of the fast-moving bullet shove that wet tissue out of the way and make the bad guy reevaluate all the bad decisions in his life. And there’s no hollowpoint to get plugged up going through clothing.
Out of the shortest barrels on the market the Black Hills 60-grain HoneyBadger penetrates over nine inches, smacking very hard for tissue disruption, but not necessarily penetrating deeply due to its light weight. So why would you want this ammo when it “only” penetrates nine inches? Nine inches of penetration is more than enough to be fatal without having to worry about overpenetration. But also important is the fact that this load produces significantly less recoil than any standard .380 load, something which could be very important if you’re carrying it in one of the modern micro-compact pistols. That reduced recoil (about a third less than the HST, which is a huge amount) is also why I have this ammo loaded into my kitchen gun (a Beretta 84F 13+1 .380), as it might be used by my kids or my better half.