If the world were a different place, and you could carry a handgun wherever you pleased without raising suspicion, you might not consider a pocket pistol cartridge like the 32 ACP or the 380 ACP. Still, a small cartridge has its merits.

A smaller handgun like a Ruger LCP weighs under 10 ounces. That’s a lot more comfortable to tuck into your waistband than a five pound Magnum Research BFR. A smaller cartridge means smaller recoil, which makes self-defense accessible to those with less experience or a slighter build. (We know a 95 pound lady who can empty her Walther PPK on a target like she’s shooting lasers out of her fingertips.) A smaller handgun is also more affordable, putting self-defense within reach of pretty much anyone’s budget.

If you’re leaning toward getting an easily concealed, lightweight, low recoil, and affordable compact handgun, you may wonder which caliber you should get. 32 ACP and 380 ACP are two very popular options, so you should know the differences between the two before you potentially entrust your life to one.

32 ACP (aka 32 Auto)

32 ACP ammo and pistol on a shooting bench

Colt introduced 32 ACP ammunition to the market at the very end of the 1800s. Developed as a semi-automatic pistol cartridge, it soon became popular in Europe for law enforcement and military use. Along with its good accuracy, the 32 ACP’s manageable recoil and lightweight pistols also made it popular for concealed carry. You could find the round pretty much anywhere on earth by the middle of last century.

With its .3125” bullet and overall length of less than one inch, the 32 ACP doesn’t deliver a heavy punch in comparison to a larger round like the 9mm or 40 S&W. An American Eagle 32 ACP load has a 71 grain bullet and 900 fps muzzle velocity, which is enough to transfer 128 ft lbs of energy at the muzzle.

For reference, many experts consider a muzzle energy between 220 and 300 ft lbs the acceptable minimum for self-defense. The 32 ACP provides less than half of what their conservative estimate calls for. But if you recall the advantages offered by a pocket pistol, and consider that even the smallest cartridge can quickly neutralize a threat when handled competently, you will not count the 32 ACP’s weakness against it too much.

380 ACP (aka 380 Auto)

380 ACP ammo and pistol at a shooting range

The 380 ACP is a newer cartridge than the 32 ACP, but only by about nine years. Like its predecessor, Colt also developed 380 ACP ammo for a semi-automatic handgun. Like the 32 ACP, 380 also became popular internationally. The 380 ACP even facilitated one of the most disastrous events in human history – the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which catalyzed WWI.

While it was considered fairly powerful during its heyday, the 380 ACP has become relatively weak by the standards of more modern cartridges. It does use the same .355” diameter bullet as the prevalent 9mm, although the 380 ACP’s bullet can weigh less than two thirds as much. An American Eagle 380 ACP load has a 95 grain bullet and 980 fps muzzle velocity, which is enough to transfer 203 ft lbs of energy at the muzzle.

Keep in mind that bullet weights, muzzle velocities, and muzzle energies vary widely across many cartridges. A 32 ACP is capable of exerting over 170 ft lbs of force at the muzzle, and a 380 ACP with a super lightweight bullet can top 300 ft lbs. But in general, how do these two diminutive cartridges compare to one another?

32 ACP vs 380 ACP

32 ACP ammo vs 380 ACP ammo on a plywood board for comparison

The 32 ACP vs 380 ACP power competition goes to the larger cartridge. 32 ACP is less powerful than the 380 ACP, for all its curses and blessings. The biggest downside to choosing the 32 ACP is that it’s simply less equipped to overwhelm and neutralize its target. That said, the 32 ACP stuck around in European police pistols for nearly one century for very good reasons: Its weaker power accordingly conveys gentler recoil, and its smaller size typically leaves room for one more round in the magazine than the larger 380 ACP allows.

Sacrificing any power is unacceptable to some, even when choosing a pocket pistol. Of the two representative American Eagle rounds considered earlier, the 380 ACP delivers nearly 60 percent more muzzle energy. That difference doesn’t become too much smaller when either round’s bullet has traveled 25 yards, and a pocket pistol is not terribly effective past that range.

What’s Better for Self-Defense?

Ammo fired into ballistic gelatin to see its effectiveness in self defense situations

To get an idea of what you can expect from a 32 ACP – we fired some of their Prvi Partizan through a four layer cloth barrier into a block of synthetic ballistic gel. We also used a chronograph to see how the calibers compared in muzzle velocity.

Muzzle Velocity Comparison

We fired five rounds of both Prvi Partizan 71 grain 32 ACP ammo and five rounds of Speer Lawman 380 ACP ammo. For each caliber, we used the smallest pocket pistol we could find. (A North American Arms 32 ACP pistol and Sig P938 380 ACP.)

  • 32 ACP Average Velocity: 780 fps
  • 380 ACP Average Velocity: 860 fps

Fired bullet into a gelWhen firing each load into the gel, we were surprised by the results. The 32 ACP ammo surprisingly penetrated to about 12-inches into the gel. That’s farther than we might have expected. However, you can see there was minimal expansion from the 71 grain projectile.

The 380 ACP performed better by most traditional self-defense metrics. Hornady 90 Grain Critical Defense penetrated about 25% farther into the gel and provided some expansion. (You can learn a lot more about our suggested best 380 ammo for self-defense in this article.)

Summing It Up

In brief, the 32 ACP is the easier round to fire, while the 380 ACP is the more powerful one.

Bear in mind that a pocket pistol makes a somewhat inaccessible weapon for a first-time shooter. Many experts would advise that a rookie pick up a full-sized handgun when they’re learning the basics, and only downsize to a compact model once they’ve become more competent with a firearm. If you would follow that advice, you’d still do well to stay with the 32 ACP or 380 ACP after you’ve transitioned. You wouldn’t want to put all that familiarity you’ve earned with your round of choice to waste.

Can’t decide what’s better in the 32 ACP vs 380 ACP showdown or don’t believe is that bigger isn’t always better? You can just start with a 500 S&W Magnum revolver. At three and a half pounds it’s easy to keep track of, and its recoil can double as your escape strategy as you’re kicked back into a neighboring township.