April 2003

Pocket Pistol Pair-Off: We Test A Set of .380 Surplus Handguns

A brace of Coltís Mustangs beat out two clones by Iver Johnson and Firearms International. But after the fact we wonder: Are any of these guns really the right tool for portable self-defense?

Senior Tech Editor Ray Ordorica thought the Colt Pocketlite would make an acceptable backup gun. There was enough iron to hold onto, and recoil was not an issue, but he would have liked more accuracy.

The .380 cartridge has been around since early in the last century. It was another of John Browning’s designs, and has been known as the 9mm Kurz, 9x17, 9mm Browning Short, and .380 ACP. We also know it as the .380 Automatic, or simply the .380 Auto. It’s been chambered in a host of small autoloading pistols, some of them quite famous, such as Walther’s PPK.

The .380 is not a cartridge many of us would pick for all-around use. It’s hardly a plinking cartridge, because of the relatively high cost of ammunition, and because the pistols that chamber it are generally not all that accurate. Reloaders don’t exactly flock to the diminutive cartridge, for a variety of reasons. Ammunition manufacturers have produced some excellent fodder in recent years for the tiny guns, but none of it can make a mountain-size “stopper” out of the molehill .380 Auto.

Guns for the cartridge abound, some of them expensive, some of them — like the ones tested here — discontinued for a variety of reasons. Some .380s are great firearms, and some would make better table lamps. We acquired four examples of discontinued .380-Auto handguns, all of which pop up on the used market from time to time. They were all locked-breech pistols, with barrel locks similar to that of a full-size 1911 .45 Auto. Our test guns included the Colt Mustang and its lighter twin the Mustang Pocketlite, both of which cost in the $500 range; an Iver Johnson Pony ($250) that was similar in size and overall shape to the Colts, and a close clone of the Pony from Firearms International ($300). Here are our findings.

Iver Johnson Pony .380 Auto, about $250

Also known as the X300 Pony, it was produced during three periods, from 1978-1982 in Middlesex, New Jersey; from 1983-1988 in Jacksonville, Arkansas, and from 1989-1991 in Jacksonville by AMAC (our test gun). The basic gun was essentially identical to the Firearms International pistol tested below. We thought the F.I. was in most aspects a better gun, and not only because it actually worked — but we’re getting ahead of our story.

Our Iver Johnson was blued, and the metal beneath the bluing was brush-finished to give a matte-black color, but the frame had a purple cast to the bluing. The metal was all steel, and the grip panels were checkered wood. We found numerous pits and roughness in the metal here and there along the top of the slide, around the barrel bushing, and especially on the rear sight. These had been blued over, so the pits were there since the gun’s manufacture.

There was an anomaly with the magazine we could not explain. When first inserted, it went home positively and stayed put. But if it were partially removed, or inserted slowly, it would not catch. Many of the gun’s parts showed crude workmanship, and we suspect this lack of care extended to the internal faces of the magazine release, which had a thoroughly unfinished and rough-filed exterior. The screw that held it in place had a screwdriver-damaged notch, and it also had no finish.

The slide had the caliber designation on its right side. The AMAC logo, the Pony name, and “Jacksonville, Ark.” were on its left side. The cutout in the slide for the ejection port had sharp corners which would act as stress risers, and also had sharp edges. Nothing about the gun was smooth or worthy of praise, we felt, except that the wood grip panels were nicely checkered. The front sight was a thin blade, inserted into the slide in a slight depression. The rear was driftable for windage. The front and rear faces of the rear sight were crudely filed with no finish on the bare steel. The purple-toned hammer was checkered to ease cocking. The extractor was a long, external bar held in place with a roll pin that protruded above the surface of the slide. Behind it was another roll pin sticking out. On the subject of pins, the trigger hinge pin was about a sixteenth-inch too short. It failed to reach the surface of the receiver on both sides of the frame. The trigger pull was creepy and heavy, though crisp when it finally broke at about 7 pounds.

Click here to view "Accuracy and Chronograph Data."

The sides of the slide beneath the muzzle were gouged and scraped, with no finish on those surfaces. It looked like someone had filed metal away for clearance after the gun had been put together. There was no crown on the muzzle. The barrel appeared to have been crudely cut off with a parting tool and left that way, with sharp — not even filed — edges. The front face of the barrel bushing had no finish on approximately half its surface.

The receiver appeared to have begun life as an investment casting. The hole for the lanyard still had a blob of steel within it that had not been drilled out. We could go on, but it was time to see if this pistol would shoot.

On the range, we discovered the Pony had one heck of a hitch in its gitalong. We inserted the first magazine of six rounds, pulled back the slide and let ‘er fly. Jam. The round didn’t want to leave the magazine nor enter the chamber. After a few false starts we coaxed the first round (Cor-Bon, but it made no difference, as we later found out) into the chamber and touched ‘er off. The one good thing about this pistol was that it directed that lone bullet nearly dead center into the target. And that’s all the good we can tell you about this Iver Johnson Pony.

With that first shot, the front sight blew off. The slide jammed so badly trying to chamber the second round we had to use tools to clear it. We quit trying to shoot it, but we did try to get other types of ammo to feed. Nothing worked. It was clear this pistol had major problems.

Firearms International .380 Auto, about $300

Next up we had a silvery colored pistol by a maker who was loath to put any identifying name onto the metal of the gun anywhere, though there was a logo on each nicely checkered wood grip panel that told us the importer or manufacturer was F. I. Industries, Washington, DC. After careful inspection, we found the barest hint of a letter on the left side of the slide. The gun may have been refinished, but the serial number on the right side of the frame was clearly defined, with no signs of buffing or other marks of a refinish job. After testing this gun, we suspect the maker was wise to avoid associating its name with this gun.

In a reference book we found a pistol called the Garcia/FI Model D, which was identical to our test gun, and also imported by Firearms International, except that it was blued instead of nickeled. The notes said the gun was imported from 1977 to 1979. So Garcia might have been the origin of this gun, which, we felt, was a whole lot more gun — despite its problems — than the Iver Johnson Pony.

We were cautioned this pistol would not work correctly unless the slide-spring rod was partially unscrewed. After we were done laughing (or so we thought), we decided to play along and see if the gun could be made to work. And it wasn’t all bad, as it turned out.

The finish, which could have been electroless nickel or just ordinary nickel plate over vapor-blasted steel, was well done. Overall, the gun looked okay. Its fitting was more than acceptable, and the dark grip panels were well fitted. Unfortunately, as was the case with the I.J. Pony, the front grip strap came down and closed off the front of the magazine well, making it impossible to slam a mag into the gun or rip one out to clear a jam. Only the Colts had this aspect done right, in our opinion. The mags (two provided) went in and came out properly.

The gun had a large, easily hit safety where a right-hander could ride his thumb, which — as we found out — proved to be a necessary operation in firing this gun. The hammer was a spur-type, and in the course of our testing, the hammer did not hit nor pinch our hand. As with the two Colts, there was enough rear-strap extension to keep the web of our hand from harm. The rear of the grip strap curved outward and helped us get a good, comfortable grasp on the gun. The top of the slide was not as free from sharp corners as we would have liked, but it was not impossibly sharp. The sight picture was clean. The dovetailed rear sight had a wide notch, but it and the front sight were the same powdered-nickel color as the rest of the gun. While it lasted, a red insert in the front sight worked well to help define the sight picture, though the top of the rear sight always remained vague. It needed to be black.

The slide had an external extractor pinned in place (no roll pins here), and it got all the fired cases well out of the gun. The magazine release was a checkered button on the left side, as all four guns had, and it worked correctly.

With the slide-spring rod fully finger-tightened (contrary to our word-of-mouth instructions) and the hammer cocked, the slide rattled back and forth with no spring tension. Movement was about a sixteenth of an inch. We disassembled the gun to find that the slide-spring rod could be screwed into its nut too far, resulting in zero spring pressure on the gun. The rod needed a stop-shoulder, which was not there. This was hardly acceptable, needed looking into, and was almost sufficient cause for us to reject this gun. However, the fix looked to be easy for any gunsmith to accomplish, so we went ahead with our testing. We first tried the gun with the rod fully finger tight.

At the range, we found the trigger pull was good, but our first few shots had the slide stuck open after every shot. We eventually traced that problem to the safety, which had insufficient detention to stay fully down. Its sharp top edge was catching in the takedown notch and holding the slide open. We “cured” the problem by placing our thumb on top of the safety, but the gun needed that little problem fixed also. The first time the slide jammed open, and before we knew what the problem was, we suspected the jamming might be traced to the fully tight slide-spring rod, so we tried to loosen it. We removed the magazine so there were no rounds in the gun. But when we tipped the gun onto its left side with the slide still jammed rearward, the slide-retaining pin fell out. So there we were with the gun stuck open, parts falling out, and were about to unscrew the recoil-spring rod part way to see if we could make the darned thing work.

When we stopped laughing, we thought about how much we’d laugh at such a foolish piece of machinery in the middle of a gunfight.

Once we got the gun to sort-of work, with its rod unscrewed and with our thumb on top of the safety, the F.I. actually shot the best group of all the guns, 3.2 inches at 15 yards with Federal ammunition. Unfortunately, the red front-sight insert blew out halfway through our testing. The opening for the insert appeared to be a round-bottomed slot with no roughness. It would be easy to put some red paint into the notch, but any sort of plastic would have little means to keep it in place. Although this gun had some nice features, its faults were in serious need of attention.

Colt Mustang Pocketlite .380 Auto, about $500

With two horrors behind us, it was time to try the Colts. First up was the lightweight, called the Pocketlite. The two Colts were identical in features and overall appearance, the difference being the Pocketlite had an aluminum-alloy frame, which made it noticeably lighter than its brother. Our basic description here covers both Colts, and we’ll detail the differences afterwards.

The Pocketlite was available in blued or stainless finish while it was made. The all-steel Mustang was available in three finishes: blued, stainless, and nickel. The Pocketlite was introduced in 1987, and its all-steel brother a year later. Colt’s made the guns for a little over ten years. They were discontinued when the Colt company decided to concentrate on military contracts a few years ago. Because of their usefulness as being among the smallest pocket-carry weapons in a meaningful caliber, both types of Mustang remain very popular. Prices for good samples of the Colt Mustang and Mustang Pocketlite may be expected to continue to escalate, and these Colts ought to be good collectibles in the long haul, in our opinion.

Both our test guns had matte-black (brushed) finishes, rounded hammers, large ejection ports, integral and wide front sights, driftable rear sights with big notches, plastic grip panels with checkering, and magazines designed like those of the 1911, with bottoms extending forward of the front grip strap so they could be ripped out or tapped firmly into place as needed. There were two magazines with each gun.

The front and back straps were smooth, and the bottom of the rear strap was rounded so it didn’t gouge the palm of the hand. These guns were obviously designed by someone, or by a team, with at least a fundamental idea of what’s needed in a fighting handgun, we thought.

Fit and finish were excellent in both guns. Some of us thought the safety levers could have been larger, or extended forward for easier access. The trigger pulls were very good. Both broke at about 4.5 pounds, welcome change from the 6.5- and 7-pound triggers of the first two. The Mustang Pocketlite had its name on the left side of the slide, surmounted by the caliber designation, given as “COLT 380 AUTO”. The right side of the slide was bare, but the caliber designation was on the side of the brushed-white-steel chamber. The all-steel Mustang had the same chamber mark, and was marked on the left-side slide as “COLT MK IV/ SERIES ’80" over “MUSTANG - 380 AUTO”. Both guns had the serial number on the left side of the receiver above the trigger opening. We took the Pocketlite shooting.

At the range the Pocketlite gave us fits. On placing the loaded magazine into the gun, the first round fed just fine. After the first shot, the empty went away and the second round left the magazine and entered the chamber, but the slide didn’t go fully forward. We tapped the back of the slide, and that forced the Colt’s internal extractor to jump over the chambered round’s rim. The slide seemed to be sticky and had little spring pressure. We had many failures to feed in a like manner.

After a few more failures, we thought the gun might benefit from some oil. Its owner had loaned it to us for testing, having carried the gun for a long time in his pocket. All that pocket dust and the passage of time had removed most of the gun’s lubrication, and this is something that all pocket-gun carriers might take note of. We put some oil into the gun here and there and worked it a few times, but did not disassemble and clean it, which it probably needed. However, we wanted to see if lack of oil was the problem, and it was. From that point on, the little Pocketlite ran perfectly.

It didn’t exactly stun us with its accuracy, giving a best five-shot group at 15 yards of 3.4 inches with the Cor-Bon fodder. It didn’t seem to like the Federal, which ran fine but didn’t give good accuracy. The largest group we recorded with the Pocketlite was 6.4 inches with Federal ammo, but four of those went into 1.9 inches. However, the general scattering of shots with both Colts told us that these guns are not target pieces, so an occasional tight clustering of shots didn’t mean all that much. Average accuracy of the Pocketlite with all loads was about 4.6 inches. That of the all-steel Mustang was closer to 6 inches. Not tack-drivers, these. Only you can judge if that’s enough accuracy for you, based on your intended uses and expectations for a .380.

Colt Mustang .380 Auto, about $500

The description of this gun is given above. Our test sample was nearly new, and we had great hopes for its accuracy. Alas, they were false hopes. The gun ran 100 percent of the time, the only gun of the quartet to do so “out of the box,” so to speak. There were no failures or malfunctions of any sort (just like with the Pocketlite after we oiled it). The gun looked new and the trigger pull was crisp, so imagine our disappointment with its 8-inch groups. Overall average was 5.8 inches for all shots, with the very best cluster being 4.4 inches for five shots, with Cor-Bon’s excellent ammunition.

So it wasn’t a target pistol. We’d far rather have had this gun in our hand, if we’d suddenly needed a gun, than any of the others, because it worked. All the rest failed to function in the condition in which we received them. Did it have enough accuracy? We sure would have liked more. The slide was loose on the frame, and the barrel loose within the slide. Tightening them didn’t look like a viable option, so we’d guess you’re stuck with whatever accuracy the gun will give you.

Were we too tired in the cold and the damp of our shooting day, exhausted from all this shooting, and thus couldn’t shoot the Colts well? Nope, sorry. After test-firing all the ammunition in all the .380s we tried a S&W Centennial Airweight .38 Special, which is a double-action-only revolver, and ours was stoked with Winchester 130-grain Plus-P ammunition that made the hottest .380 seem like .22 Shorts by comparison. With that revolver we put five shots into 2.6 inches, about half the group size of the aggregate of the .380s. By the way, the Centennial’s sight radius is a half-inch shorter than the Colts’, which were the shortest of the .380s. Also, that five-shot revolver was lighter than any of the .380s except the Pocketlite, which beat the Airweight by just 1 ounce.

In retrospect, we can see no good reason for making an all-steel version of the Mustang Pocketlite. The aluminum gun would do everything the heavier gun would, and it weighed 4.4 ounces less.

Gun Tests Recommends
Iver Johnson Pony .380 Auto, about $250. Don’t Buy. The I.J. Pony was one of the more dismal examples of firearms manufacture we’ve seen. It is easy to see why it is no longer made, and that is perhaps cause for celebration. The serial number of our test gun had only three digits, so that (hopefully) means not too many of these are out there, threatening their owners. We had this one on loan, and strongly suggested that its owner get rid of this one posthaste. Don’t even think about one of these, and don’t get too close to one. A good drill would be to extend the strong hand rearward as far as possible with the gun in that hand. Then extend the other hand toward a deep body of water. Then, with as much force as possible, exchange the positions of your hands, releasing the gun when it’s going as fast as possible toward the body of water.

Firearms International .380 Auto, about $300. Conditional Buy. With some slight gunsmithing, the F.I. would be a decent gun. It had good-enough accuracy, and was reliable enough when we sorted out its problems. It was attractive, well machined for the most part, and not outrageously expensive. We thought it would be well worth fixing, and you’d end up with a useful little .380 for not a whole lot of money. It would never have the collector value of the Colts, but could give its owner a lot of shooting fun with no worries about losing its pristine collector value along the way. We also liked its finish, whatever it was. Your only problem might be in finding one.

Colt Mustang Pocketlite .380 Auto, about $500. Buy It. Because of its weight advantage, the Pocketlite would be our first choice of the two Colts for concealed carry. We would not consider either of the other test guns for such serious use. We would carry the Pocketlite as backup to a more powerful weapon, and in such a capacity it could be toted in a pocket with the hammer down on a chambered round. The firing pin is rebounding, so this can be done with some degree of safety. Another potential carry method is in an ankle holster, and again its light weight makes it a better choice than its Mustang brother. Neither gun had objectionable recoil, so the lighter Pocketlite really gives up nothing to the heavier Mustang. The desirability of the Colt as a collector’s gun also gives it an edge over many other pistols, but be aware that carrying the gun will cause noticeable wear, which won’t help the collector value. Our loaner had some serious loss of finish on its front grip strap.

Colt Mustang .380 Auto, about $500. Conditional Buy. The all-steel Mustang had nothing to offer that the aluminum-frame version couldn’t do as well. Not many shooters will put thousands of rounds through one of these little autos, but if you plan to, that sort of use would favor the all-steel version for one or two reasons. Recoil was insignificant, we thought, with the lighter version. The collector value would be about equal. If getting a nice collector’s copy is your goal, the steel one might be the better choice, because there’s less reason to carry it and therefore it’ll remain pristine longer. The initial cost of either the steel Mustang or alloy Pocketlite will be about the same, and we believe you’d get a more useful gun for your money with the Pocketlite.

Afterthoughts on Backup
The user value of these .380 autos may perhaps be defined by how well they can be carried concealed, and how quickly they can be put into service from concealment. If you have to drop one of these .380s into your pocket, it probably ought to be the Pocketlite, because it’s the smallest and lightest of this batch. But does that make it an ideal backup gun? We don’t think so. The S&W Centennial Airweight was only an ounce heavier than the Pocketlite, and was lots more accurate. The titanium-frame revolvers are lighter yet, and a good .38 Special load is a whole lot more powerful than any .380 Auto load.

We would not carry the Pocketlite loose in a pocket in cocked-and-locked configuration. First, it’s harder to get out of the pocket with the hammer protruding. Second, the safety could be rubbed into the off position, and because the gun has no secondary safety, a fall or similar accident could discharge the gun. With the hammer down, it has to be cocked as the piece is presented, and that is easily done.

We got the loan of a holster with the Firearms International gun, which gave us the chance to try it from cocked-and-locked concealed carry. With that gun’s large safety, we found we could get the gun into action a lot faster than the Colt Pocketlite carried in the pocket, even with our hand on the gun. Cocking the Colt’s hammer took significant time. We also found that with the hammer cocked and the safety on, we still could not get the Colt into action as fast as the F.I. because the Colt’s safety was so small. Different hands might get better results, but our limited testing told us that holster carry gave the fastest, if not the most practical, results.

But there was no comparison between any of these little guns and a full-size auto like a 1911, or even a compact version of the 1911 like a Colt CCO. The bigger guns were more readily grasped, and you didn’t have to look for the gun in your hand once it was presented. The bigger gun was a whole lot steadier on target, and easier for us to hit with. We had trouble seeing the sights of any .380, compared with normal 1911 sights.

That leaves us with evaluating the .380 as a backup, and again we have to ask, Why would anyone want to carry one of these .380s over, say, a Centennial Airweight? Certainly not cost, because the price of one of these little Colts is in the same ballpark with a Centennial Airweight. The .380 is thinner, but it’s a rectangular thinness that easily shows itself to be a handgun in the pocket. The wider, rounder shape of the light revolver might be just a pair of gloves in the pocket, as seen by an outsider.

Personally we’d choose the Airweight as our backup, but concede there’s a charm to the autoloader that will cause it to be carried by a great many in preference to any revolver.