January 2011

Pocket-Sized 380 ACP Pistols: S&W, Taurus, and Diamondback

In this three-way test, the Smith & Wesson Bodyguard turned out to be the Cadillac of 380s. Also, Taurusís 738 got the job done, but malfunctions plagued the promising Diamondback 380.

In this test we’ll take a look at three 6+1 380 Auto pistols that Gun Tests readers have been asking us to test: the $430 Diamondback DB380, the $575 Smith & Wesson Bodyguard 380, and the $336 Taurus Model 738B.

The Diamondback DB series pistols are manufactured by a relatively new company in Cocoa Beach, Florida. Diamondback lays claim to "a FEA (Fine Element Analysis) designed slide and barrel that is stronger than any comparable firearm, resulting in durability with less felt recoil…." Some of the finer points we liked were the steel magazine catch and the taper at the lower corner of the trigger guard to ease holstering or other means of retention. The slide had cocking serrations that were both functional and visually appealing. There was also a helpful beavertail to aide recoil control and protect larger hands from contact with the slide as it moved forward and back. Only one six round magazine was supplied. True to each of our 380 test guns, the Diamondback magazine was fashioned from sheet metal with a polymer follower, and it had a removable basepad for cleaning or replacement of the spring.

Above: The Smith & Wesson Bodyguard 380 was the most expensive gun in our tests, but at $575, not cost prohibitive. The $645 Sig Sauer P238 tested in our June 2010 issue was the priciest micro-compact 380 Auto weíve tested. We gave the P238 an A- rating,¬†and in this test we were willing to give both the Bodyguard and the Taurus 738B an A- as well. The Taurus was very inexpensive, about $340, and performed very well in our action tests. But, the Smith & Wesson was so much more solid and well built. It also featured the Integrated Insight Laser and a thumb safety. Our third gun in the test, the $430 Diamondback DB380, was an interesting case. We could call it a miniature Glock, and it may have been the best all-round shooter based solely on the way it felt, not to mention some good groups from the bench. But we had several malfunctions and sent it back to its manufacturer, a new company based in Florida, for warranty repair. Firing each of these guns from the bench posed quite a challenge until we latched on to a pair of Triad Tapered Rear Bags ($20 each from www.triadtactical.com).

Including our 738B, there are a total of six Model 738 pistols with different color frames and stainless slides on the taurususa.com website. The most expensive model costs as little as $352. Our stealth-black Taurus 738B arrived in a black ballistic-nylon belt pouch measuring about 5.5 inches long by 4.0 inches high. The pouch was deep enough to carry a second six-round magazine, supplied, and the full-length flap was secured by two magnetic snaps. Belt contact was by belt loop or a steel clip. This product, the Tetron Ambi Cell Phone holster, was designed for "mini 380s" and can be found online in a variety of colors for about $19, at bulldogcases.com.

There was a great deal of technology in each of our test guns, but the Smith & Wesson Bodyguard 380 makes use of many modern advancements. Each of our guns utilized a narrow synthetic frame, and, in addition, the Bodyguard 380 was fit with a two-stage laser built in to the dust cover, and it had a slide stop and a thumb-operated safety. The receiver of the Bodyguard 380 was rock hard, and the front side of the grip offered a finger groove directly below the trigger guard. Only one magazine was supplied, but it was fit with a base pad that added one additional finger groove. Smith & Wesson shipped the Bodyguard in a black zippered case that suggested the pistol can be carried concealed in what appeared to be a daily planner. A flat basepad was also supplied, which was intended to make this pistol even more concealable.

How We Tested

Using the carpeted benches of Top Gun indoor shooting range in Houston (topgunrange.com), we thought that firing these little guns would be a snap. But we found out there was more to it than flipping the switch and pushing back targets to the 25-foot line. We had to figure out how to support these little guns and minimize shooter error. The problem was structural. The Diamondback had only about 1.3 inches of frame area ahead of the trigger guard to rest on a sandbag. The Taurus and Smith & Wesson pistols had even less area, and once the guns were held in both hands, there was no usable area left exposed. Furthermore, there was only room for two fingers on the frontstrap of each pistol.

We found the answer was to take up the best grip possible and support the hands and the gun as one unit. To best achieve this position we utilized a product that we discovered on a recent rifle-hunting trip. Designed to assist in shooting prone rifle, two Triad Tapered Rear Bags ($20 from triadtactical.com), allowed us to frame our hold and comfortably support our grip.

Establishing baseline accuracy for every weapon we test is standard operating procedure. But we needed to know more about shooting these guns in the context for which they were designed. These weapons were conceived as concealment pistols for fighting off an attack at contact distances—anywhere from arm’s length to a few feet away, so we set up an action test to see how quickly and accurately we could respond. First, we set up three IPSC-P practice targets from www.letargets.com. The center target was 10 feet directly in front of the shooter. The other two targets were placed on the same line 3 feet to either side. In each one, we were shooting at the central A-zone, consisting of a 5-by-9-inch rectangle. We used an electronic timer to provide an audible start signal and record the elapsed times of each shot. We took note of the first shot fired and the last shot fired for each separate run. In our first two runs, the targets were engaged with one shot on each target, firing from left to right. Our second two runs had the shooter engaging targets from right to left. The third and final pair of runs was fired beginning with the center target, then the left side target and finishing with a long sweep to the right side target. We chose to shoot this test utilizing only one hand because it is reasonable to believe the other hand in a confrontation may be involved in a struggle in precursor to the draw. Start position was with the shooter slightly turned and the gun held close enough to the body so that the bent elbow was in light contact with the rib cage.

Test ammunition consisted of Winchester USA 95-grain full-metal-jacketed rounds, Winchester 95-grain Bonded PDX1 jacketed hollowpoints, and 102-grain Remington HD Ultimate Home Defense jacketed hollowpoint ammunition. Let’s see how these little guns performed.

Diamondback DB380 380 Auto, $430

Whereas our Taurus and Smith & Wesson pistols have original styling, the DB380 looked like a miniature Glock. The frame was black polymer with a squared trigger guard and full-length dustcover. A pair of Glock-style takedown levers were just above the trigger guard on each side of the frame. The single DB380 magazine fit flush and capped the frontstrap, adding about 0.21 inches in final length. The frontstrap offered a grip pattern, and the backstrap had a gentle palm swell. There is no denying that the Diamondback is a handsome little pistol.

The top end was also black, but Diamondback Firearms does offer two-tone options. For example, the slide of the DB380EXO pistol is encased in a Fail Zero coating from www.uctcoatings.com that reportedly does not require lubrication. The appearance could be described as matte stainless. Also, the $480 DB380N pistol features a nickel-coated slide that makes it the most expensive pistol in the lineup (available in limited quantities). The fourth version of this pistol is the DB380MS, with the "MS" standing for machined sights. This model features sights front and rear that are machined as one with the slide for increased durability. We liked the sights on our DB380 because they were windage adjustable (via drift) and provided a wholly adequate sight picture.

The owner’s manual says that the gun should be cleaned and lightly lubricated before firing. To remove the top end for initial maintenance, we first released the magazine. We found this to be difficult. The magazine release was short, and combined with the heavy retention spring, we had to hold the gun in one hand and press the button with the other. The magazine needed to be pulled from the receiver. Perhaps the tight fit was to ensure that the magazine stayed in place throughout deep concealment. Next, we bumped up against what might be a good reason to spend the extra money and buy the model with the Fail Zero coating. While the DB380 is a striker-fired pistol with striker block (meaning the gun will not fire unless the trigger is pressed), the Diamondback does not come with a slide lock/release lever. Nor will the slide lock open when the magazine is empty. As a result, the takedown regimen had us fighting for grip on the slick snag-free slide against the considerable power of the recoil spring. That made aligning the slide so we could pull down on the tiny but heavily sprung slide catches even more difficult and unpleasant. A set of guide lines, one on the slide and one on the frame showing how far to pull back the slide, would have been helpful. (CZ has been doing that for years.) Field-stripping the gun at the range is quite a task, but back at the shop we found that inserting pins to lock the slide latches in the down position made the job easier.

Beneath the slide we found a dual-action plunger-style recoil system. The larger forward recoil spring was not captive, instead it butted against the slide yoke. With the barrel tipped out, we measured the distance between the chamber mouth and the muzzle to be 2.65 inches in length. A peek at the rifling revealed standard lands and grooves instead of following the European model of polygonal rifling. The frame showed a pair of supports front and rear. The supports were not actually seated inside the polymer frame but were instead integral with the trigger assembly up front and the ignition system to the rear. Pressing the trigger-actuated dual bars that pushed back the paddle compressed the striker spring. Reassembly was much easier. Installing the barrel and recoil system was simple, and once again mirroring the Glock design, the top end simply slid into place atop the frame.

From the bench the Diamondback excelled firing the 102-grain Remington Ultimate Home Defense rounds. Average group radius was only 0.65 inch, compared to 1.05 inches and 1 inch firing the Winchester hollowpoint and flat point rounds respectively. Maximum Spread, the diameter of a entire 10-shot group, measured only 1.45 inches across. We credit these figures to an adequate sight picture and some very good ergonomics. Despite its small size. the gun makes sense inside the hand. We thought the index to the trigger was well coordinated on first acquisition and throughout recoil.

During our bench session, we experienced two malfunctions. One was a double feed, with a round partially inside the chamber and another released from the magazine. The other malfunction was a failure of the trigger to reset after cycling. The double feed only happened once in our tests. Clearing the jam was made more difficult due to there being no way to lock back the slide and the aforementioned stubbornness of the magazine release. Further, during our action tests we experienced several more failures to ignite. Sometimes the trigger would not reset and other times the striker did not contact the primer, even though the slide appeared to be closed. A couple of times we were able to re-engage the ignition system and set off the round with our next trigger press after striking the rear of the slide with the palm of the hand. These difficulties occurred from multiple shooting positions, including when the gun was held in both hands supported at the bench, standing unsupported, and when firing strong hand only. All three rounds of test ammunition were involved in the failure to fire malfunctions.

Due to malfunctions, our action test proved tedious, but firing right to left first shot/total elapsed times were almost identical, 0.79/0.78 seconds and 1.85/1.86 seconds, respectively. Engaging targets left to right our elapsed times were 0.71/0.77 and 1.87/1.90 seconds respectively. Beginning with the center target our times averaged 0.72 and 1.95 seconds for the first shot and the final shots.

Our targets showed the following hits. Target left, only one hit stray of the A-zone. Target center, all hits were inside the A-zone, and target right, we saw one hit outside the A-zone. Our Team Said: Despite the malfunctions, we found ourselves enthusiastic about the DB380. We liked the sights, the trigger, and the way the gun felt when firing. Takedown was a problem without tools, and the lack of a slide lock made the gun more difficult to live with. Still, we liked the overall concept. If the difficulties we experienced were to be successfully addressed under warranty, we would be willing to rate this gun higher.

Taurus 738B 380 Auto, $336

The Taurus 738B was very thin (about 0.85 inches wide including slide release lever) and handsomely sculpted. The rear of the slide offered seven very useful cuts to aide in racking the slide. The area forward of the ejection port was trimmed and tapered. The oversized trigger guard reached nearly to the muzzle. The grip frame offered a flowing indentation that was available to the strong-hand thumb for both right-handed or left-handed shooters. The frontstrap and the rear of the grip both showed horizontal grooves for grip that extended to the side panels, creating a design that looked almost like to teardrops in a "yin-yang" configuration. The magazine basepad fit flush on all sides, extending the grip about 0.3 inch in length. The basepads were longer to the rear, giving them a snowshoe look. The first time you load one into the pistol, this could cause you to try putting it in backward. The left-side-only magazine-release button was shielded from accidental discharge by being flush with the grip panel. Only its forward edge offered proper leverage for release. Pressing the release jettisoned the magazine with authority.

Our Taurus pistol was the only test gun that shipped with a second magazine. We appreciate this because the owner can let one magazine rest empty and change them out periodically to help reliability. As it was, our Taurus 738 served up one malfunction in the form of a premature lockback while firing the Remington ammunition and another failure to feed, leaving the tip of a Winchester Supreme round at the mouth of the chamber. Each of theses malfunctions were experienced inside the first 30 rounds and did not appear again throughout our tests.

Before firing our Taurus, we removed the top end for inspection and lubrication. Once the magazine was ejected and the chamber checked for ammunition, we locked back the slide and pried out the disassembly latch, which consisted of a pin located just above the trigger. Taurus actually recommends the use of a flat screwdriver to pry the pin loose. The finish on the slide was pretty tough, but we were beginning to see some dings after we had pulled the latch out a couple of times. We’d recommend using a plastic wedge of some sort. With the pin removed, the top end slid neatly off of the frame.

The recoil assembly consisted of a thin steel guide rod with two recoil springs one over the other. Neither spring was captured on the guide rod. The bare frame was fit with an alloy insert topped with support rails that ran about 3.25 inches across the top of the 4.75-inch-long receiver. This was a hammer-driven gun, but the firing pin was recessed some 0.8 inch from the rear of the slide. Though visible from the rear of the gun, the thin steel hammer was shielded by the slide and the overhang of the grip. Critical points of reassembly were properly positioning the rear of the guide rod all the way down into the relief and making sure the barrel was fully forward. The slide moved easily across the top of the frame to lock back using the frame-mounted lever. Before inserting the crosspin that was referred to as the disassembly latch, we had to pull the barrel fully forward. Peering through the ejection port, we saw that the top of the barrel hood should completely disappear beneath the slide. Otherwise, we found, the cross pin would not thread properly through the barrel lug. The barrel tended to move around some, so while we fought a little bit to push the pin across the retaining spring, we found it wise to hold the barrel forward. Once in place, the slide was released forward. Trying the trigger, we noticed that it was the movement of the slide that cocked the hammer.

Firing the Taurus, we had a real sense of control, but we did notice that the gun tended to rotate upward in our hands, hitting the lower edge of our trigger finger against the inside of the trigger guard. At times we found this distracting and uncomfortable. Nevertheless, our Taurus 738B was the only pistol to achieve an Average Group Radius measuring less than 1 inch with all three test rounds. Its favorite was the 95-grain Winchester FMJ rounds, but variation was as little as 0.12 inch between each choice of ammunition. A look at the three targets in our action test showed 17 of a possible 18 shots neatly inside the A-zone. Our first two runs left to right showed first shots and total elapsed times of .82/2.08 and .83/1.95 seconds. Strings of fire right to left showed .99 and .94 seconds for the first shots and total elapsed times of 2.29 and 2.13 seconds. The right-side target had the tightest group, (about 2.8 inches across), but one shot was outside the A-zone. This occurred on the last run when we pushed for the fastest time. Moving the gun to the center target first, then left and right our first shot rang out at .79 seconds and the string was over in an elapsed time of 2.11 seconds. Our Team Said: The Taurus 738B was well thought out. This is a very small gun, but the big trigger guard let us handle it like a normal-sized pistol. We’re willing to forgive the need for a tool to break the gun down because it had a slide stop. The 738B shipped with two magazines and a good way to carry the pistol and the spare magazine. We found the Taurus to be exceptionally functional and good looking.

Smith & Wesson Bodyguard 380 No. 109380 380 Auto, $575

During our initial run through with the Bodyguard, we noticed the sights were dovetailed into place front and rear. Despite their small size, they managed to produce a very clear, totally usable sight picture. The magazine-release button was operated from the left side at the lower rear corner of the trigger guard. Once the release was pushed, the six-round magazine ejected smartly. To ward off accidental ejection, the button was partially shielded and required a firm push to release.

The slide-stop lever, safety, and takedown latch were each located on the left side, but we did not find this confusing. It felt natural to operate the slide stop with the tip of the thumb and the safety with the inside edge of the thumb at the first joint. The laser, manufactured by Insight Technologies, offered a membrane-style push button on each side of the pistol located immediately in front of the trigger guard. It can be pressed from either side or pinched between the thumb and index fingers. Pressing it once turned on a solid red beam. Pressing it again activated the strobe, producing a pulsing beam.

Field stripping of the Bodyguard 380 was made easier by a takedown lever. We locked back the slide, dropped the magazine, and cleared the chamber. We noted that the Bodyguard was the only pistol in the test with a cutaway atop the barrel hood for checking loaded condition. Once the takedown lever was rotated more than 90 degrees, it easily slid out of the pistol. The top end was pulled forward off of the frame. Like the Taurus 738B, a metallic set of rails running about two-thirds the length of the frame was seated on top of the receiver. The difference here was that the Bodyguard rode on steel rails instead of aluminum, but the recoil system was very much the same as the Taurus. A small steel guide rod was covered by two separate springs, neither of which was captured, and the takedown latch was held in check by a cross wire spring. Like on the Taurus, we had to manually pull the barrel forward to line up the takedown pin during reassembly.

The rails and firing mechanism were separated from the forward portion of the frame by a steel cross member. Just forward of the cross member was the compartment that held the laser unit and its power source, two No. 357 watch batteries. Smith & Wesson recommends changing the batteries annually, but on delivery the beam appeared to be weak, so we replaced them. The laser unit was locked down by an Allen screw. Once loosened, the screw remained captured, but in its raised position it served as a pivot point. As per the owner’s manual, we used the edge of the takedown lever to pry the laser unit from the frame. After replacing the batteries, we found the laser beam to be surprisingly bold. The same thin Allen wrench we used to remove the laser unit can be used to adjust the windage and elevation of the beam. Adjustment screws were located on the right side and beneath the dustcover for windage and elevation, respectively. We found our laser beam to be dead on, but tested the adjustment mechanism for precision. The adjustment screws proved dependable, but they required a fine touch.

Checking our accuracy figures we found that loading the Bodyguard with the Remington 102-grain HD rounds put this pistol at the top of the list in terms of Average Group Radius, (0.58 inch). Overall, we were very impressed with this new round from Remington, and it certainly helped the Smith & Wesson.

Seated at the bench we found that the trigger pull was quite long. This was overcome with a patient trigger finger. The long trigger pull was a product of the true double-action trigger that both moved the hammer rearward and released it to the firing pin. One upside of this design was second strike capability should a primer fail to ignite.

Normally, we do not shoot a warm-up run for our action tests, just a dry-fire run through. But after completing the first four runs, we realized we needed to change our style of operating the trigger to overcome the long trigger pull. By approaching the trigger as though it were a double-action revolver we kept our finger moving, "rolling the trigger," to take up slack in between shots. This worked well, and our action tests reflected it. Here are the average times for first shot and total ET without rolling the trigger: left to right, 1.00/2.40 seconds; right to left, 0.98/2.50 seconds. Using the rolling trigger approach our total elapsed times averaged left to right 2.09 seconds, and right to left, 1.89 seconds. Beginning on the center target then, the far left target to the far right target took an average of 1.99 seconds. We also tried firing our action tests beginning with safety in the off position. This allowed us to bypass any adjustment to our grip on the way to putting sights on target. First shot times immediately dropped to below the 0.80 second mark. Looking at the targets we saw that only three shots were dropped from the A-zone throughout all of our runs. Each of these shots were near misses and appeared on the left and right side targets, only. This would be caused by the shooter over swinging the target. Aside from using the appropriate trigger technique we credited the sights on the Bodyguard for this performance.

The long trigger pull can in itself serve as a safety device, but we think training to use the safety lever whenever possible is a key attribute to safe gun handling. Smith & Wesson does suggest that the Bodyguard 380 is versatile enough to cover the role of home defense. We think much of this is based on the availability of the laser, which we found to be decidedly more effective in dim light. But one of the primary limitations of each of these guns is their ballistic effectiveness. While actual stopping power is difficult to determine, bear in mind that none of the pistols in this test produced more than 170 ft.-lbs. of muzzle energy on average.

Our Team Said: The Bodyguard 380 is the Cadillac of micro pistols we’ve tested so far. The presence of a thumb safety and a two-stage laser unit gives the shooter increased options without compromising normal operation. Both features can be used as needed. We liked the thin, rigid frame that helped us pick up the gun quickly and remain stable in the hand. Perhaps best of all were the sights, which millimeter for millimeter provided more visual feedback than those found on many much larger pistols.

ACCURACY AND CHRONOGRAPH DATA

DIAMONDBACK DB380 380 AUTO

TAURUS 738B NO. 1-73803 380 AUTO

SMITH & WESSON BODYGUARD NO. 109380 380 AUTO

GUN TESTS VALUE GUIDE: SMALL PISTOLS

GUN TESTS REPORT CARD SUMMARY