Shield 380EZ, The Easiest Defensive Pistol Ever.
Oleg Volk 06.25.19
Smith & Wesson Shield 380ex fills the vital but oft-neglected category of “guns as personal effects,” which also includes cell phones, pocket flashlights, small folding umbrellas, and other useful items that anyone can use effectively. This design bucks the trend of fitting more and more powerful cartridges into increasingly small and light weapons in favor of moderate performance allied to high usability.
This approach can be traced back to the Browning-designed Colt Hammerless 1903 model (32ACP) and the later 1908 (380ACP). The two variants were streamlined, thin and (for the time) lightweight at 24oz. In both calibers, recoil was mild, the cocking effort likewise unremarkable, and fixed barrel combined with a crisp trigger gave very good accuracy, so long as the vestigial sights could be seen. This pistol was produced in five variants for over forty years, a testament to the usefulness of the design envelope. Few pistols made since have improved on it in the sum of performance and use comfort. Shield 380ez is one of those few, picking up where Colt left off and achieving a substantial improvement on the already excellent concept.
By going with tilt barrel short recoil and a locked breech, 380ez cuts the overall weights by a quarter to mere 18oz without increasing recoil. The overall length (6.7″) and the barrel length (3.675″) are about the same as the later variants of 1903. 8+1 capacity improves by one over the original. Button magazine release speeds up reloads over the original heel release. Shield has a more prominent grip safety and an option of adding prominent ambi manual thumb safety. It is less streamlined than the original, which makes it bulkier but also easier to engage or disengage. A good firing grip has the strong-hand thumb riding the thumb safety lever.
Three dot sights are better than the 1903 originals, but optional tritium upgrade is much recommended. Another recommended accessory would be a light/laser combo to fit the accessory rail. Depending on the carry method, the manual safety may be unnecessary — I opted out of it on my own 380ez, but my friend has it on hers.
What do you gain by going from a 9mm Luger down to 380ACP? A supremely usable and comfortable weapon that can be useful effectively by everyman. All physical tasks, like racking the slide and controlling the recoil, are easy to perform. I’ve tried running this pistol with two hands, strong hand only, weak hand only, with a deliberately loose grip — no malfunctions. I used a wide variety of common and specialty ammunition, it fed them all. It was designed to work in an emergency even for people who aren’t gunnies, and seems to fulfill that purpose admirably.
The pistol status can be seen and felt with the prominently raised extractor serving as a loaded chamber indicator. Thanks to the short recoil action, extraction is positive but not violent. The pistol has a concealed hammer, just like the M1903/08 pistols.
Introduced with the 1908 Hammerless, 380ACP is no powerhouse at about 60% of the 9mm Luger. Most loads are adequate for either penetration or expansion, seldom for both. In blowback pistols, the more energetic loads are contraindicated due to increased recoil and possible premature breech opening. The locked breech action of 380EZ handles the hotter 380 ammunition effortlessly.
I tested a wide variety of loads. Shooting a lot of ammo made me appreciate the easy-load magazine, with the cutaway to depress the follower to facilitate refilling. As you can see from the velocity chart, the difference in energy between loads can be quite considerable.
Underwood Defender 65gr 1314fps
Underwood Penetrator 90gr 1100fps
Underwood +P Hardcast 100gr 1164fps
Winchester HP 95gr 981fps
Aguila 95gr FMJ 899fps
HPR 100gr TMJ 873fps (no data page available)
The difference in felt recoil was minimal. All loads functioned perfectly, and accuracy was similar across the board. About 300 rounds were fired by three shooters. The targets were steel silhouettes representing A and B torso zones, and 8 inch round steel roughly representing head-sized targets. The trigger is heavy enough to be safe, light and crisp enough to permit accuracy even with weak hand. Measured at 5.6lbs, it felt lighter.
- With two hands, unsupported, I could reliably hit silhouettes out to 50 yards. At 75, my hits ratio dropped to about 50%. Like HK P7, 380ez is well balanced and provides accuracy out of proportion to the size and sight radius of the gun.
- Strong hand only, I could hit 8″ steel consistently out to 20 yards, and silhouettes out to about 40.
- Weak hand only, the same performance was available to 15 and 30 yards respectively. True to the name, this is a very easy weapon to use effectively.
No fatigue was felt about 150 shots made in a quick sequence. Recoil was stronger than with 22LR but not by much. This pistol is a lot of fun to shoot, and only the cost of 380ACP ammunition relative to rimfire prevents it from becoming my primary plinker. It’s certainly easy enough on the hands to facilitate long training sessions for new shooters.
In ammunition selection, we have two options. The first is to stick to the standard 380ACP power level and enjoy the minimal recoil and rapid follow-up shots. Winchester makes ballistically matched 95gr JHP and FMJ loads, and most makers 90gr FMJ and 90gr JHP are close enough. These loads also remain subsonic at the muzzle, reducing the noise level a bit. The second is to maximize the power of each shot and deal with the very slight increase in felt recoil. For that, Underwood 90gr copper penetrator and 100gr hardcast lead flat point work very well. Most JHP ammunition from Federal, HPR and other major makers perform well, but may lack penetration on thick opponents, or those screened by light cover.
Overall, 380ez was meant to provide TV remote point-and-click level of functionality to peaceable people who just need a consumer level defensive tool. It meets that goal remarkably well, and does so on a budget: most variants retail in the low $300s. I highly recommend it whenever 9×19 guns are just too much to handle.