Handgun sales have grown tremendously in the past decade, and the growth rate of .380 ACP-caliber pistols has far exceeded the average.
Probable reasons for its newfound popularity: More compact .380-caliber pistols are available that are easier to operate; a larger variety of ammunition from many different makers has helped lower costs; better-performing bullets might persuade some to consider this caliber for defensive purposes; and there is an increased interest in small pistols for concealed carry.
Another probable driving factor is the demographics of new gun buyers—many of whom are women—who favor lighter-weight, lower-recoiling handguns that are easy to carry off body, such as inside handbags and purses.
THAT WAS THEN; THIS IS NOW
A little over a decade ago, shooters had very few choices in .380 ACP-caliber pistols, with the iconic Walther PPK, Beretta Cheetah, Browning BDA and SIG P232 being the dominant models. This year, every major manufacturer serving the U.S. market—with the exception of FN and HK—offers a .380ACP.
These new pistols, however, differ from the traditional models in one important respect: They all use a locked breech instead of a blowback operating system. Pistols that fire from a locked breech offer several benefits. They can be made shorter, lighter and use lighter recoil springs than blowback-operated pistols. In addition, they can safely handle higher-pressure loads, because blowback-operated pistols keep the breech closed (and contain the high-pressure gases of burning gunpowder within the bore) until the bullet exits the barrel and gas escapes the muzzle.
These pistols use heavy springs and/or a relatively heavy slide to keep the action closed while gas pressure is high. The positive attributes of the blowback design are the fixed, non-moving barrel that allows for easy attachment of a sound suppressor without needing a booster device; better accuracy potential; and easier manufacture.
In contrast, locked-breech designs mechanically lock the barrel and slide together. The slide and barrel move rearward together during recoil until the barrel is pulled downward by a cam slot in the barrel lug out of engagement with the slide, allowing the action to open and extract the cartridge case.
THE SIG P238
The SIG P238 was introduced several years ago and is consistently one of the company’s best-selling lines. It ties the SIG P290 as the company’s most compact pistol and is small enough to fit in your hand. Sharp edges are nonexistent, and only the sights and hammer protrude slightly from an otherwise smooth profile. SIG makes a staggering 22 versions of the P238 that differ with respect to sights, grips, finish, laser and frame material.
The P238 is single action with a capacity of 6+1 (or 7+1 rounds with an extended magazine that comes with the pistol). These pistols are made with a steel slide and barrel and either an aluminum or stainless steel frame.
My personal preference is the P238HD variant. HD stands for “heavy duty,” with the distinguishing aspect being the stainless steel frame. I prefer steel to aluminum on many of my pistols, because stainless frames do not show wear as readily as aluminum or plastic and are typically stronger, thereby providing a longer lifespan. The better durability does add to the cost, because steel frames are more costly to machine. Nevertheless, an additional $48 for the HD over a comparable aluminum-framed model is worth it to me. (Besides, some shooters also like a bit more weight to soak up recoil.)
Although there is a large and growing number of .380 ACP pocketsized pistols, the SIG P238, Colt Mustang and Kimber Micro are the only single-action models with 1911-style thumb-activated safety levers. The P238HD, however, is unique, because it is made with a steel frame. In contrast, Colt and Kimber use aluminum alloy (or polymer for the Mustang Lite).
The P238 can be safely carried in a proper holster with a round in the chamber and cocked and locked (“condition 1,” for those who favor Gunsite terminology). This method is preferred by those with the experience to quickly disengage the safety and keep the trigger finger clear of the trigger until aiming.
The P238HD comes with a lever-type safety on the left side of the frame, night sights and G10 grips. Accessories include a polymer right-hand OWB holster with adjustable tension and an extra seven-round magazine with finger rest.
I sent my pistol to the SIG custom shop for two minor upgrades that enhance this pistol’s effectiveness: an ambidextrous safety installed on the right side and a Hogue rubber grip. The Hogue is one piece with wide finger grooves in the front and a nonslip surface. More importantly, it has a palm swell to fit the hand of either right- or left-handed shooters. Changing from the factory flat-sided panel grips to the form-fitting Hogue was the best $15 upgrade I ever spent on a pistol.
The P238 is a small-caliber handgun, but this is hardly a downmarket pistol like so many other .380 ACPs. SIG has designed and built this for buyers who want materials and features that match the metal-framed pistols in SIG’s flagship P226 and P229 lines. For instance, the tritium-filled night sights are made of steel (the same that is used on the P226) and are fitted to the slide with dovetail slots that make adjustment or replacement possible. The sights also have a squared-off leading edge for one-handed slide racking on a hard surface (such a as belt buckle, for instance) if one of the shooter’s hands is incapacitated.
You won’t find a plastic frame on any SIG P238. The only plastic parts on the firearm are the trigger shoe, mainspring housing and the grip extender on the extended magazine.
Even though the P238 shares features with the 1911 (mag release, slide lock and thumb safety), there are significant differences between the two pistols. The P238 lacks a grip safety, and activating the thumb safety when the hammer is cocked does not lock the slide closed, as on the 1911. This allows the gun to be unloaded and cleared with it on “safe.” However, the slide is locked when the safety is applied and the hammer is down. Also, the trigger on the P238 is hinged, not sliding as on the 1911.
Most significantly, takedown of the P238 is much easier—thanks, in part, to a bushing-less design and full-length recoil spring guide rod. To field strip, you simply clear the pistol, retract the slide to where the takedown notch aligns with the rear of the slide stop lever, push the lever all the way to the left, and remove it from the frame. This allows the slide assembly to move forward off the frame. The barrel, guide rod and recoil spring are now easily removed from the slide.
Pocket-sized pistols are carried as primary arms for low-threat scenarios and as backup pieces. Owing to its diminutive size, the P238 can be carried concealed in many more ways than larger models. Holster designs span the traditional (hip, ankle, small of the back, horizontal shoulder) to newer, deeply concealed methods such as the belly band and the UnderTech Undercover shirt. (A belly band is a wide elastic band that wraps around the stomach, secures with hook-and-loop closures and has an integral pistol pouch.) Made of polyester and spandex, the UnderTech is worn like an undershirt and has an elastic pouch and locking band under each arm to secure the pistol and an extra mag pouch.
I tested the P238 using eight different loads, including some with hollow-point bullets. Reliability was perfect, even when I purposely held the grip loosely, trying to induce a “stovepipe” failure-toeject stoppage. For accuracy tests, I typically shoot pocket pistols such as this one at 7 yards from a bench rest to help determine the pistol’s mechanical accuracy and then off hand to see what happens “in real life, when the shooting starts.”
For all practical purposes, the five-shot groups from the bench with all loads touched each other or grouped within an inch. Winchester USA ammo shot exactly to point of aim, while the other brands tested printed about ½ to 1 inch below point of aim—which had no practical significance.
No windage corrections were needed. For those who do wish to tinker with their sights, SIG sells replacement sights that can be installed with a tool such as the MGW Sight Pro tool. This is a professional-grade drift-type tool I have used on several pistols. It’s the only way I know to do the job precisely and without risk of damaging the finish.
Chronographed velocity showed that the Federal American Eagle was 79 fps faster than comparable loads on average. That might not matter to you, but what does matter is choosing a load that performs adequately in ballistic gelatin if the P238 is carried defensively. Performance testing is warranted, especially because the .380 ACP is on the low end of the power scale, and published velocities are often for longer-barreled handguns.
Many pocket-sized pieces are easy to carry but difficult to shoot well off hand because of bad sights, bad trigger and poor fit. Not so with the P238HD with a Hogue grip. Despite it’s short sight radius of only 3.8 inch, shooting off hand at 7 yards yielded groups of 2 inches or smaller; and at 15 yards, five-shot groups were under 4 inches, with most shots under 3 inches.
Tighter groups are certainly possible with a better marksman or an action job from the SIG Pro Shop that would lighten the trigger weight to 5 pounds. My pistol has a trigger pull that measures 6 pounds, 12 ounces (using a Lyman electronic trigger pull gauge) and breaks cleanly without any creep. However, the factory spec is a heavy 7.5 to 8.5 pounds.
Perceived recoil was very mild; the Hogue grip kept the pistol welded to my hand, and the beaver-tail and short hammer fully protected me from “hammer bite” on the web of the hand.
In my experience, the P238HD shoots far better than many .380-caliber pistols—especially those with narrow sights integral to the slide and a long, double-action trigger. Yes, the P238 is made for close-in defensive work on relatively large targets, but I measure a defensive handgun by its effective engagement distance. Better-shooting pistols mean scoring hits at longer-range targets or making that critical head shot if the need and time to do so arise. This pistol can do that, and with its night sights, it’s obviously more versatile.
Ergonomics and handling were very good, with the slide lock and magazine release easily activated without a change in grip. Lefthanded operation was easy using the trigger finger to release the slide lock lever or hitting the magazine release.
The P2338HD also showed a finer point of good engineering in that a fully loaded magazine could easily be inserted into the grip with the action closed. This is important for tactical reloads and is not as common a feature on concealed-carry pistols as you would think (try this on your M&P Shield!)
SOMETHING FOR EVERYONE
With 22 variants of the P238 available—some with striking finishes—there is something in the line for everyone, from professional users to those who just want a pistol with panache. While the aesthetics of a pocket pistol might play an important role for some, all of the P238 series pistols are made for serious work, with a well-engineered design and a quality build.
CALIBER: .380 ACP
BARREL: 2.7 inches
OVERALL LENGTH: 5.5 inches
WIDTH: 1.1 inches
HEIGHT: 3.9 inches
WEIGHT: 20.1 ounces
SIGHTS: SIG Lite fixed, three dot, tritium filled,
FINISH: Brushed stainless steel
CAPACITY: 6+1; 7+1 with extended mag
SIG SAUER, INC.
|Black Hills 90-grain JHP||841||898||867|
|American Eagle 95-grain FMJ||887||930||910|
|Remington 95-grain FMJ||802||865||831|
|SIG Sauer 100-grain FMJ||856||892||871|
|Winchester 95-grain FMJ||805||847||831|
*Velocity was measured 10 feet from the muzzle with an Oehler 35P chronograph.
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the January 2017 print issue of Gun World Magazine.