For Big Gun, there is a lot riding on tiny pistols. The .380 semiautomatic handgun best embodies the trend: The guns feature grips smaller than an average person’s palm, with frames less than an inch wide and barrels usually about two inches long. And American manufacturers are cranking out .380 pistols in increasingly staggering quantities. According to the latest data from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, the firearms industry produced nearly 900,000 of them in 2014, more than in any year since 1998, the earliest year for which records are publicly available. The surge in .380 production is made more noteworthy by the fact that it came during a year in which gunmakers actually cut production of almost every other popular category of firearms: Manufacturing rates of 9mm pistols, high-caliber pistols, and rifles all cratered.

The .380 boom also gathered steam in a year when the gun industry couldn’t count on President Barack Obama as an unwitting pitchman. With his post-Sandy Hook push for stronger gun laws already dead, the “fear buying” that sent gun production into overdrive in 2013 had run its course. When the gun industry looked for growth, it turned not to tactical or target shooting mainstays. Instead, companies looked to a pistol best suited for concealed carrying.

Smith & Wesson’s Bodyguard .380 has been a major source of revenue for the company since its introduction in 2013. (Personal Defense World)

The .380 is one of the gun industry’s greatest rebranding success stories. Today, it’s the gun of choice for people who want some security in their pocket or handbag. But for decades, small-caliber guns were known as “Saturday Night Specials,” more likely to be used in a crime than any other firearm. Starting in the 1960s, as urban crime became a national crisis, politicians from both parties blamed small guns like .380s for escalating violence. Most of the guns were made by a group of less-than-reputable, interrelated companies dubbed the Ring of Fire, which turned out high numbers of poor-quality pistols that could be as dangerous to their owners as they were to others. Selling for as little as $20, the .380s of that era often lacked critical safety features and were made from weak metals that caused them to jam when they were supposed to fire and discharge during unloading.

These days, the pistols are made by well-established gun companies like Smith & Wesson and Glock, using more sophisticated materials originally developed for police and military handguns. In contrast to their full size pistols and rifles, gun makers market .380s to people who don’t fit the profile of the typical gun owner urbanites, first-time buyers, women — and are more concerned about easy access for self defense than about high performance. A promotional video for the Smith & Wesson Bodyguard .380, for instance, plays to traditional fears of city crime. In the opening frames, a man in a dark alley is pursued by a hooded figure with a crowbar. The protagonist’s ears prick up. He whips around and takes out his Bodyguard, complete with laser sight. In a video from Glock, a well-heeled woman wakes up, does her makeup, then slips into her purse a G42 .380, which is there by her side as she attends a work meeting, goes out to lunch, hits an ATM (warily, she eyes a man loitering nearby), gets in her yoga, and ends her day at the shooting range. In a spot for its Pico .380, Beretta advertises the gun as “easy to control and operate.”

But as the guns gain mainstream acceptance, a new issue has emerged: While ads may suggest otherwise, firearms experts say .380s can be difficult to use, much more so than the people snapping them up may realize. Kevin Michalowski, executive editor of Concealed Carry magazine, has watched as many rookie buyers reach for small-caliber guns. “Based on size, people will grab a .380,” Michalowski tells The Trace. “First-time gun buyers see a soft shooter” — meaning a gun with a less powerful cartridge that they imagine will be easy to handle. “I think that’s a little bit of a mistake.”

Before manufacturers produced a pistol designed to fit in your yoga bag, they got into the small gun business to take advantage of a loophole in federal firearms law. In the 1960s, worries about rising gun crime centered on cheap, low-caliber handguns that were then mostly made in Europe. The Gun Control Act of 1968 hoped to stave off such weapons by banning the import of firearms that didn’t serve “sporting purposes.” But like many subsequent efforts to clamp down on the supply of particular guns, the new law’s restrictions were quickly undermined. Noticing that the regulations barred the importation of complete guns, but not gun parts, domestic firms sprang up to buy those parts from overseas makers and then assemble them into small, cheap guns at their U.S. plants.

Some experts raise their eyebrows as they see .380 sales driven by people who are often first-time gun buyers. A blogger for an online firearms retailer notes that “the smaller a handgun is, the more difficult it is to shoot.”

In 1968, an advisor to the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency reported that there was only one American company making ultra-cheap handguns. That quickly changed: By 1969, a year after the passage of the Gun Control Act, the New York Times reported there were now at least five American companies making Saturday Night Specials. During that same year, domestic manufacturers went from producing 75,000 of these guns annually to 500,000. In 1971, Representative John Murphy, one of the sponsors of the 1968 law, said there were 41 different models made in America that would be banned if they had been imported. Many sold for $20, and some for as low as $12.

As Saturday Night Special fever set in, a group of startup gun companies in the Los Angeles area would come to dominate the market. In 1970, George Jennings founded Raven Arms, the first of the infamous “Ring of Fire” gun manufacturers that specialized in cheap, semiautomatic pistols, especially .380s. The six companies founded by Jennings and his associates made remarkably cheap pistols from “pot metal,” a name for anything-goes alloys, generally zinc, that melt at a low temperature and can be worked without sophisticated hardware. These manufacturers did gangbuster business: Lorcin, founded by Jennings’s friend Jim Waldorf, claimed in the early ’90s to be the country’s largest producer of .380 pistols. The firms also attracted scrutiny because of how often their products were used by criminals by 1994, seven of the ten most frequently traced crime guns came from Ring of Fire manufacturers.

It was the poor quality of their guns that ultimately brought down the Ring of Fire. Lorcin declared bankruptcy in 1999 after it was hit by 35 wrongful death and injury lawsuits stemming from accidental discharges. Bryco, another company in the Ring, declared bankruptcy in 2003 after it was hit with a $24 million judgement in a suit brought by the family of Brandon Maxfield. As a seven year old, Maxfield had been paralyzed while a babysitter tried to unload his parents’s Bryco .380. The babysitter had been following the instruction manual, but the gun discharged anyway, striking Maxfield’s spine just below the neck.

The late ’90s and early 2000s marked the nadir of the .380, as the criticisms lodged against the Ring of Fire weapons came to tarnish all small-caliber handguns. In the 2001 guide Concealable Pocket Pistols, Terrence McLeod wrote that guns like the .380 are “damned by the self-righteous gun control crowd and sneered at by gun aficionados.” All firearms manufacturing slowed in the early 2000s, but .380s were hit particularly hard. Production of .380s fell by more than half from 2000 to 2001, from 108,000 to 42,000 guns made.

Then, just a few year later, something curious happened: Production of .380s spiked. American manufacturers produced 127,000 guns of that caliber in 2006. By 2014, the last year for which figures are available, total output of .380s reached 873,168.

Trace-380Pistols (8)

The use of new manufacturing materials and the rapid loosening of concealed carry laws allowed more established gun makers to go after the share of the pistol market vacated by the Ring of Fire companies. No longer Saturday Night Specials, tiny handguns became “carry guns,” designed for the growing number of concealed carry permit holders. From 2002 to 2012, six states that refused to issue concealed weapons licenses started permitting them. During that same period, ten states went from stricter “may issue” standards for issuing concealed carry licenses — which allow authorities discretion to withhold licenses — to “shall issue” standards that require a state to grant a license to anyone who applies and meets certain criteria. Meanwhile, the number of states that don’t require any kind of license to carry a concealed weapon jumped from one to seven. As carrying a gun in one’s pocket or waistband went from illicit to legal, .380s were the guns best suited to capitalize on a new market.

Trace-380Pistols-CCWPermits (5)

Michalowski of Concealed Carry magazine says people choose .380s as a concealed carry gun “because the first word is concealed,” and larger calibers are difficult to hide beneath clothing. The .380 also compares favorably to revolvers of similar calibers, which are wider by design. “The .380 is thinner and more comfortable to carry,” he says.

The new breed of small guns often feature a polymer frame of the sort pioneered by Glock. Polymers allow guns to be made as small and light as a typical Saturday Night Special, but with less risk of jamming or accidental discharge. Guns and Ammo, the popular firearms publication, says this trend began in 2003 when Kel-Tec released a polymer .380. Now, Colt, Smith & Wesson, Beretta, Sig Sauer, and Ruger also make polymer frame .380s, as does Glock. These guns are not nearly as cheap as a typical Saturday Night Special sporting goods chain Cabela’s retails Ruger’s .380 for $249 and Glock’s .380 for $449. But they’re still cheaper than those same manufacturers’ full-size handguns, often selling for several hundred dollars less.

Smith & Wesson, the country’s second largest gun manufacturer, introduced a polymer-framed .380 in 2005, and started making plastic guns specifically for concealment in 2012, when it introduced the Shield, a thinner 9mm. The Bodyguard .380 followed the next year, quickly becoming one of the company’s most popular models. Recent earnings reports show just how much the company benefits from concealable polymer pistols: Smith & Wesson singled them out as a source of higher than usual revenue in its December 2015 statement.

Standard target practice won’t prepare concealed carriers to shoot a .380 effectively to stop a criminal threat. One expert recommends owners undergo “comprehensive self-defense training” that simulates a real life attack.

Scott Stember, an equities analyst for C.L. King, wrote at the time that Smith & Wesson’s handgun sales surged “due to increased popularity of smaller concealable pistols and revolvers.” Because these new .380s are made of plastic, they may also be more profitable than firearms made of machine steel. In a 2012 earnings statement, Smith & Wesson said its margins improved as polymer pistols grew to make up a larger volume of sales.

Some experts raise their eyebrows as they see sales driven by people who are often first-time gun buyers. A blogger for the popular online firearms retailer Lucky Gunner stated flatly that “the smaller a handgun is, the more difficult it is to shoot.” The National Rifle Association’s American Rifleman magazine echoed that sentiment when it warned that “pocket pistols have certain limitations that new or inexperienced handgunners need to be aware of before they commit to buying one.”

The concerns that Michalowski, the NRA, and veteran shooters raise about the safety, accuracy, and usefulness of .380s, all stem from the guns’ most fundamental quality: their small size.

The cartridge fired by many pocket pistols is only about a tenth of an inch shorter than the 9mm used in many full size handguns. But the diminutiveness of the .380 means there’s less gun to absorb the force of each discharge, so recoil is much stronger. Most importantly, the guns’ grips can usually only be grasped by three fingers, with nowhere for the pinky to go without an accessory attached to the end of the magazine. As McLeod’s 2001 guide explained, with a smaller grip, the shooter has less control over the gun, which “will twist in the hand” as it recoils, making it less accurate.

In addition to questions about their accuracy, at least one of the new breed of small guns has raised safety concerns. Smith & Wesson has been hit with two lawsuits alleging defects in its popular Bodyguard .380.

The .380 is “not a gun designed to be fired at ten yards,” says Michalowski. “It’s designed to be fired at ten feet. Maybe closer. It’s a get-off-me gun.”

Self defense, strictly defined, is only part of the modern concealed carry ethos. In gun-rights lingo, the gun carrier is a sheepdog, the unarmed civilian a mere sheep. The sociologist Jennifer Carlson — employing the more formal language of her profession — describes a “citizen-protector” mentality in which a hidden handgun is a means for defending not only the gun owner and his or her family from harm, but also innocent strangers, should the need arise.

To prepare for such scenarios, many handgun owners take target practice by aiming at bullseyes (or human silhouettes delineating “kill zones”) positioned 20 to 30 feet away. But those sessions won’t prepare them to shoot a .380 effectively should they pull it out to stop a real or perceived criminal during a sudden confrontation. As Michalowski explains, “The first-time gun buyer is buying a gun, going to the range, and setting the target at seven yards, standing still and engaging their target. That’s not how gunfights work.” What would he suggest for a .380 user? “Comprehensive self-defense training” that simulates a real life attack in addition to target practice. Under current laws, however, most states don’t require any kind of live fire experience to get a concealed carry license, never mind training to ensure that concealed carriers could actually use their weapons effectively for self defense.

In addition to questions about their accuracy, at least one of the new breed of small guns has raised safety concerns. M.D. Creekmore, who writes about guns for the website The Survivalist Blog, initially gave Smith & Wesson’s Bodyguard .380 a positive review. But he later found that after he’d fired 200 to 300 rounds with the weapon, it started jamming frequently. “I would not carry or trust it for self defense,” he says, though he adds that he does not dislike all .380s (he carries a Glock 42).

Smith & Wesson has been hit with at least two lawsuits alleging defects in the Bodyguard .380. Jeffrey Pfitzer, a Missouri resident, sued the company in 2013 after his Bodyguard exploded at shooting range, causing a concussion and permanent facial scarring. That case was dismissed when a judge ruled the company’s claims about the gun’s quality did not constitute a warranty.

In January, Randy McNeal of Tennessee filed suit against Smith & Wesson, claiming that his .380 accidentally discharged. While trying to clear the chamber by repeatedly pulling the gun’s slide back, he dropped the weapon, causing it to go off and strike his left pinky, which had to be amputated. This is the second time McNeal has sued the company, after an original suit was dismissed in 2015.

The downsides to .380s, the guns most comfortable for concealed carry, has not tempered enthusiasm for concealed weapons more generally. Proponents such as law professor Eugene Volokh point to a smattering of anecdotes showing proverbial good guys with guns intervening in such cases, possibly saving lives. After the San Bernardino shooting in December, conservative radio host Laura Ingraham asked, “How many of you wish … in one of these shootings, we had someone who was carrying a concealed carry weapon? Someone who was armed, so they’re not sitting ducks.”

Were that someone armed with a .380, he may find himself unequipped for the role he has taken on. Such was the outcome for one owner of a pocket pistol who tried to stop an active shooter. On the morning of January 7, 2010, Stephen Sharp II showed up to work at a St. Louis power plant right as coworker Timothy Hendron carried out a massacre with an AK-47. Retrieving a Walther .380 pistol from his truck, he opened fire at Hendron, and kept shooting until he had loosed all six rounds from across the parking lot. None struck Hendron, who returned fire, grievously wounding Sharp before returning to his rampage.

[Photo credit: Youtube user scootch00]