03/15/2011

Richard FairburnLaw Enforcement Firearms
with Richard Fairburn

Firearms Review: The Smith & Wesson .380 Bodyguard

The.380 Bodyguard is a 180-degree shift away from the short-lived Sigma SW380 and is the first “micro .380” to ship with a laser sighting system built into the frame

A few years ago, I wrote a tribute to the .38 snub-nosed revolver and its continuing popularity as a police off-duty and back-up gun. Proving that all things change in time — sometimes just a short time — “micro .380” auto pistols are now eclipsing the .38 snubbies as police pocket guns. If you tried to buy .380 ammo a few months back, you probably saw the same empty shelves we saw here in Illinois, though the supply is now catching up with demand.

When the .380 Bodyguard test pistol arrived, one of my shooting buddies wondered why S&W was seemingly the last major maker to bring out a polymer-framed micro .380. I explained that S&W was actually the first maker to make a small, plastic-framed .380, in the form of the ill-fated Sigma SW380, in 1995. Only slightly bigger than the new .380 Bodyguard, the Sigma was ahead of its time but Smith & Wesson told you up front the gun was one to “carry a lot and shoot a little.” Those who shot them a lot found them to be ... uh, short lived. The .380 Bodyguard is a 180-degree shift away from the Sigma, in favor of top-drawer quality.

The S&W Bodyguard checks out at 12.3 ounces empty and 14.7 ounces with a full load of seven (six plus one) of Black Hills Ammo’s 90 grain hollow points. Measuring a touch over five inches in length, just under four inches in height, and about three quarters of an inch thick, the Bodyguard is the same size as its competitors, and the competitors are many. The two micro .380s I see most commonly in the hands of police officers are the Kel-Tec 3AT and Ruger LCP, both of which have developed good reputations as back-up guns. But they really aren’t an apples-to-apples comparison to the Bodyguard.

The S&W Bodyguard features real, visible sights in cross-slide dovetails that allow windage adjustment. The competitors have barely visible sights which are an integral part of the slide — though they provide acceptable accuracy at back-up gun distances. The Bodyguard’s slide is stainless steel with a black, melonite finish and it will lock open when the magazine is empty, a nice feature lacking in most micro .380’s. The trigger-cocking action uses a hammer, not a striker, and includes a manual thumb safety positioned where you would find the safety on a 1911. Since the trigger-cocked action is safe without a manual safety, I see little use for one, but it is not in the way and would be difficult to engage accidently, so the safety lever does no harm.

Now for the really cool feature — the S&W Bodyguard is the first pistol to ship from the factory with a red laser sighting system built into the frame. Working in partnership with Insight Technology, the laser module is incorporated into the polymer frame just below the muzzle of the barrel. The laser system can be accessed when the pistol is disassembled, allowing you to replace the hearing-aid size batteries as needed. A tiny Allen wrench is provided for making elevation and windage adjustments to the laser, which can be made when the pistol is assembled and ready to go. My test pistol came adjusted to line up the red dot with the top of the front sight from about three to ten yards — perfect for a pocket gun. The laser is activated by rubber buttons on either side of the frame, just ahead of the trigger guard. One push on a button turns the laser on, a second push sets the laser to “pulse” mode and a third push turns it off. The laser turns itself off after five minutes to save the batteries, with a few pulses to warn you the time is up. The laser buttons are perfectly located for indexing your “straight finger,” but they require more pressure than I can muster with my trigger finger for reliable activation — pushing the laser button with the thumb of your support hand works nicely. Red lasers are almost worthless in bright conditions, where the sights are nicely visible, but when conditions get dim, the laser really shines (pun intended).

Despite a short supply of .380 ammo, we managed to put 250+ rounds through the test pistol without a single malfunction. The internet was rife with complaints of trigger and take-down lever problems with the first .380 Bodyguard pistols to hit the shelves, but my test gun with an “EAB” serial number prefix works flawlessly. Even those who complained of initial problems said S&W worked quickly to resolve the issues.

When the Bodyguard was announced it carried an MSRP of $575, which was considerably more than its polymer-framed competitors, but similar to what a Ruger LCP would cost with an add-on laser. However, S&W just dropped the MSRP to $399 — that’s what I call aggressive marketing! The early buyers might be peeved at the new, lower pricing, but I suspect it will make the .380 Bodyguard a hot seller.

I have only one complaint — the Bodyguard only comes with one magazine, which should be against the law. In fairness, the makers of the other little .380’s also make you shell out more $$ for an extra mag. The only remaining issue is whether a .380 is enough gun? Even a .38 Special snubbie packs more punch, launching heavier bullets at faster speeds. Still, the little .380’s are the gun you are likely to have when you need one. In a pocket or ankle holster they are small enough and light enough to be something you won’t leave home without, and even a .380 is better than a bigger 9mm or .45 you’re tired of carrying.

Most .380 hollow point loads are shallow penetrators — they simply lack the uummph to give both reliable expansion and deep penetration. The Black Hills ammo 90 grain load I mentioned above uses the tough Hornady XTP hollow point bullet, which gave the most consistent penetration in my testing a few years back. So, my choice for a carry load would be either the excellent Black Hills load or the equivalent one from Hornady ammo. If you carry a spare magazine for a .380 pocket gun, and you should, some FMJ loads would provide maximum penetration potential in case your adversary has reached some light cover.

Lately, I’ve been trying to reduce the size of my gun inventory, shedding some long-unused examples, but this little S&W .380 Bodyguard just found a new home.

About the author

Dick Fairburn has more than 30 years of law enforcement experience in both Illinois and Wyoming, working patrol, investigations and administrative assignments. Dick has also served as a Criminal Intelligence Analyst and as the Section Chief of a major academy's Firearms Training Unit and Critical Incident training program. He has a B.S. in Law Enforcement Administration from Western Illinois University and was the Valedictorian of his recruit class at the Illinois State Police Academy. He has published more than 100 feature articles and two books: Police Rifles and Building a Better Gunfighter.

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