Between 1913 and 1936, Smith & Wesson produced a pair of centerfire, pocket-type pistols, the S&W .35 Caliber Pistol (a.k.a. Model 1913) and S&W .32 Caliber Pistol. Both were notable for the almost complete lack of interest shown toward them by the shooting public. In fact, their commercial failure put such a bad taste in S&W's corporate mouth that it would be more than seven decades before the Springfield firm marketed another pistol of this class.

The .380 ACP (Automatic Colt Pistol) cartridge was a product of the fertile mind of John Moses Browning and first saw the light of day in Colt's Model 1908 pistol. Over the years the round has been known by various aliases: 9mm Browning Short, 9mm Kurz, 9mm Corto, and 9x17. European police agencies and armies embraced it and it was used as a service cartridge well into the 1960s.

As originally loaded, the .380 consisted of a straight walled, rimless case 17 millimeters in length topped with an FMJ bullet weighing 85 to 95 grains with a muzzle velocity of approximately 900 to 1,000 feet per second. While our European brethren considered such a round suitable for military and police service, in the United States it never achieved much popularity.

A Growing Market

But in the last few years, we have seen an explosion of interest in all .380 pistols. The reasons for this renewed interest are fourfold:

  • Quality .380 pistols (e.g. Colt M1908, Walther PP/PPK) used to be made of 100 percent steel and were quite heavy. The use of alloy and polymer frames has allowed the manufacture of significantly lighter pistols that are much easier to carry all day.
  • The use of improved propellants and high-tech JHP bullets has improved the effectiveness of the .380 cartridge, making it a much more practical choice for defensive purposes without any real increase in recoil.
  • As more and more states have adopted "Shall Issue" CCW laws, the demand for small, lightweight handguns has really skyrocketed.
  • Increasing numbers of law enforcement officers now carry a backup gun while detectives often need a "deep cover" handgun and .380 pistols' flat profiles and light weights make them naturals for these tasks.

Purpose Built

As its name indicates, the Smith & Wesson Bodyguard 380 was designed from the ground up for use by police officers and licensed civilians who needed a small, lightweight, concealable, and easy to use pistol. I believe it would be safe to say that S&W's engineers have delivered just that.

The Bodyguard 380 is based upon a polymer frame. The frame is reinforced with a steel insert that contains the trigger mechanism and the rails, which the slide reciprocates on.

The most important aspect of this construction is that it allows the 0.87-inch-wide Bodyguard 380 to tip the scales at a mere 11.85 ounces. That means unless you're wearing only a thong, you should have no trouble carrying this pistol concealed. Its smooth, snag-free exterior and bobbed hammer make it easy to draw from concealment.

There are, of course, a number of lightweight .380s pistols on the market today. But what makes the Bodyguard 380 really stand out from the crowd is that the polymer frame has an integral InSight Technologies laser sight. This unit can be activated by pushing buttons on either the right or left side of the frame. One push and you get a continuous light; two pushes give you a pulsating light; and three pushes shut it off.[PAGEBREAK]

To my way of thinking, the advantages of the laser are threefold: First, it permits very fast target acquisition; second, you can "aim" the pistol from awkward positions such as shooting from waist level, from around cover, or if your shooting arm has been partially incapacitated; lastly, in some situations "painting" an attacker with the laser may dissuade them from continuing their antisocial activities.

The Bodyguard 380's slide is machined from solid stainless steel and has a Melonite finish that protects it from wear and environmental extremes. Sharp slide serrations make it easy to retract the slide even with wet hands or when wearing gloves. Lastly, a set of rugged steel sights are dovetailed into the slide and can be adjusted for windage.

While in the past most .380 pistols were blowback designs, the Bodyguard 380 uses a variation of the Browning locking system in which the hood of barrel chamber moves up into, and bears against, the front edge of the ejection port. As the pistol is fired, the slide unit moves to the rear, whereupon an angled ramp on the bottom of the barrel cams it down out of the ejection port, allowing the slide to continue to the rear, thereby extracting and ejecting the spent cartridge case. The recoil spring, located under the barrel, then pulls the slide forward, picking the next round out of the magazine and chambering it. As the slide goes into battery, the barrel hood moves up into the ejection port again, locking the two units together.

In keeping with its intended role as a close range, defensive handgun, the Bodyguard 380 uses a DAO trigger. This not only simplifies the operating drill and provides additional safety but allows the same, consistent trigger pull for each shot. All three are features that I believe are highly desirable in any defensive handgun. And because the pistol is hammer fired, it is not necessary to retract the slide to reset the striker in case of a failure to fire....you just pull the trigger again.

The six-round magazine has a finger rest base plate (a flat base plate is included), which allows a two-finger grip on the little pistol. This improves handling and recoil control to a marked degree. The magazine release is located in the "proper" position (You know what I mean. I really dislike those heel-mounted magazine releases.) and the magazines fell free of the pistol when it was depressed.

The Bodyguard also differs from many of its peers in that it features manual safety, slide stop, and takedown levers, providing additional safety and allowing simpler disassembly for cleaning.

Bench Testing

S&W provided me with a Bodyguard 380 to evaluate. My first impressions were positive. Fit and finish were all first rate, it fit my hand well, the sights were easy to see, and the trigger had a consistent and fairly light stroke.

While it is hardly germane for a pistol of this class, accuracy testing was conducted by firing the pistol from an MTM Predator rest at a measured 15 yards with three different brands of .380 ammunition. The best group was 2.5 inches with Cor-Bon 70-grain Pow'R Ball. That's not exactly tack driving but it's solid performance for a pocket pistol.

After the accuracy test, I ran the Bodyguard 380 through a series of offhand drills on a target placed out at a practical five yards, firing the pistol with both supported and unsupported (one-handed) grips. I also took the opportunity to fire it from waist level using only the InSight laser for guidance.

Despite its attenuated grip and short sight radius I was able to place all but two rounds inside the targets' X and 9 rings. To my way of thinking that's about as good a performance as one could expect from a pistol of this class.

While I must admit to not being a big fan of the cartridge it fires, I found the S&W Bodyguard 380 a very likeable handgun. It was light, flat, easy to shoot, suitably accurate, and completely reliable with the 200-plus rounds I ran through it that afternoon. My only complaint was that the manual safety was rather difficult to manipulate but, when you consider the pistol has a DAO trigger, I don't really consider this a problem.

If you're in the market for a small, reliable pistol that fires a relatively effective cartridge for use as an off duty, backup, or deep cover gun, the Bodyguard 380 deserves serious consideration. 

Paul Scarlata has served as an auxiliary police officer and is a frequent contributor to POLICE.

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