This whole episode began with a challenge. Kathy Jackson, the managing editor of Concealed Carry Magazine, challenged me to find and purchase a defensive handgun for $300 or less that I would trust my life to–and just to add a bit of spice to this challenge, a workable holster had to be included in the $300.

Between the issuing of the challenge and the purchase, I did a lot of study and head scratching. I read a bunch of articles in back issues of magazines and old Gun Digests. I consulted the internet on many possible choices. I also checked the inventories of several local gun shops to see what’s available and popular. New and used possibilities were considered. I did a lot of agonizing over which would be a more likely find, a revolver or a semi-auto.

Finally, we planned a safari to the Washington Arms Collectors February gun show in Puyallup, Washington. Kathy secured permission to take photos at the gun show, a major undertaking in itself. A committee of four, Kathy, Don Stahlnecker, my bride Michelle and I made the trek to Puyallup after the $300 cash had been handed over for the purchase. We included Don as a fellow instructor and firearms aficionado and Michelle was the non-enthusiast voice of reason.
We cruised the entire gun show before making any decision on the best available choice. It became obvious that the choices were limited in the price range Kathy had specified. Many of the pistols priced under $300 are designs or models that were not deemed sufficiently reliable to be adequate for self defense. The choice came down to a used Makarov or the new Bersa Thunder 380.

Knowing that the Bersa has a reputation for being a sturdy, reliable firearm and the fact that the new pistol would have a warranty tipped the decision in favor of the Thunder 380. Also, the .380 ammunition is easier to find than the 9mm Makarov in both practice and defensive ammunition. I made the purchase from the table of D&B Ventures, a Washington State licensed firearms dealer. We completed all the appropriate paperwork and received the blessing of the BATFE.

Next, we made a quick stop at Tim Robbins’ table for one of his universal holsters. With that purchase, the entire $300 was gone and we had met the challenge of finding a reliable defensive handgun and holster for that amount. The safari ended and I took the prize home for further evaluation.

The Bersa Thunder 380 is a traditional double action blowback-operated semi-auto. The operation and appearance are similar to the Walther PP series, but the Bersa has some features that are improvements over that 1920s design. The addition of an exterior slide stop makes the Bersa easier and safer to handle. The firing pin safety makes it much less possible to have an accidental discharge should the pistol be dropped when there is a round in the chamber.

Magazine release buttons on most pistols are located at the rear of the trigger guard where they can easily be pressed to release an empty magazine. Occasionally a magazine will be inadvertently released as the pistol is fired. This is not likely with the Thunder 380. Located above the trigger on the left side of the frame, just under the slide stop, the magazine release takes a conscious effort to operate. A change in the firing grip is necessary to release a spent magazine. With a bit of practice, this isn’t as much of a chore as it first appears.

Disassembling the pistol for cleaning is different from many other similar pistols. The take down lever is located on the right side of the pistol ahead of and above the trigger. Once the magazine has been removed and the chamber checked to be certain it is empty, the trigger finger is used to rotate the take down lever downward about 75 degrees. Pull the slide to the rear while lifting it. The slide will come up to clear the barrel and the slide is removed off the front of the pistol. This is sufficient to clean the barrel from the breech end and, using solvent and a brush, clean the action. Reassembly is in the reverse order.

Bersa ships one magazine with the Thunder 380. At this time, additional Thunder 380 7-round magazines are difficult to find. While checking the Cheaper Than Dirt catalog and web site, I found a magazine listed for the Bersa Model 383 that would fit the Thunder 380. Reading the comments about this magazine revealed that some fitting would be necessary for it to work the same as the original. I obtained two of the Pro Mag 7-round magazines from Cheaper Than Dirt. One required the fitting process that had been described and the other didn’t. Both fit and feed as well as the original magazine.

Shooting the Thunder 380 isn’t a chore at all. The grip fits the small to medium hand well enough to allow easy control of its moderate recoil. The only thing that took some time to get used to is the long double-action trigger pull.

The double-action pull is smooth, without hitches or dragging. Compared to a double-action revolver, it takes more travel to cock and drop the hammer. The way to get past the longer travel is to roll through on the trigger in a continuous motion rather than trying to stage the trigger pull. It took longer to get the first round fired double action than with a revolver due to this longer travel. Dry fire practice is the way to get used to it.

After the first shot is away, the single-action trigger pull is typical of most autos. A short smooth trigger stroke delivers the bullets to the target quickly. Holding the trigger to the rear in the follow through and catching the reset gives an even shorter trigger stroke and is very controllable.

On multiple target drills the first shot was still slower to deliver. Follow up shots on other targets came as fast as I could settle the front sight on the target and then release and press the trigger. Multiple hits on the same target were even faster. The trigger pull is smooth enough that there is no tendency to yank the trigger for the shot, unless you are a flincher.
Recoil is not a problem with this pistol. None of the loads fired gave more than moderate recoil.

The Bersa is a fairly light pistol due to its aluminum frame, but the bore axis is low enough in the hand to keep muzzle flip and perceived recoil down.

Shot groups, using different loads, are typical of what you can expect on an average day of shooting. Most of the ammunition tested shot groups about 2½ to 3 inches. Most of the loads shot to point of aim at ten yards. The Winchester and Sellier & Bellot brands had a tendency to group low. The Federal Hydra-Shok shot the best and is my choice for a carry load.
All three magazines fed well. The only hitch came with the Sellier & Bellot ball ammunition. Four rounds failed to feed. They didn’t stick on the feed ramp. They ended up sitting vertically in the magazine. Since cartridges feed almost straight into the chamber from the magazine, it appears that these slightly shorter rounds never quite made it to the feed ramp.

One of the primary reasons for choosing the Thunder 380 is that it is the right size for a concealed carry pistol. I picked three different holsters for different carry modes and tried them to see which I preferred. You may choose differently depending on how you like to carry.
Tim Robbins’ Universal Holster was the one that I bought when I picked out the Bersa. It can be carried as a belt slide, an inside the belt holster using the clip or belt loops, or an inside the waist band holster. It works well as a belt slide. Drawing was easy and reholstering just as easy. I like using this holster on the range as a belt slide.

The Universal Holster is more difficult to use when it is inside the belt or waistband because there is nothing to hold it open for reholstering, although the pistol is fine for the draw. When I tried to reholster, I had to find a way to force it open to accept the pistol. Considering the inexpensive price, I would use this holster as a belt slide and wear a large enough concealment garment.

I like the Don Hume belt slide. It is formed to fit the pistol and is easy to draw from and reholster. I wear any holster behind my right hip for consistency of draw stroke. The only disadvantage I found in the Don Hume holster is that I would like it to hold the butt of the pistol closer to the body. I worried about it printing under a light windbreaker when turning or bending slightly forward. This is the holster that I use when I have a bulky enough coat to conceal it.

The Tagua inside the waistband holster is in the mix because I carry IWB behind the right hip when I’m wearing light clothing. This holster still needs some more break-in. It is still really snug on the Bersa. The draw is fine, but reholstering takes some effort. The Tagua holds the butt of the pistol in nice and tight to minimize printing. The only drawback that I have noticed is that the spring clip allows the holster to rock somewhat on the gun belt. Occasionally, the pistol will reposition itself with a new angle that can make the draw less certain. I will work with this holster some more to loosen it and get it to stay in position.

I teach the Handgun Selection class at the Firearms Academy of Seattle. We have used the Bersa Thunder 380 as an example of an affordable, moderate size auto pistol for two classes. Members of the first class liked other handguns that were included more than the Bersa. In the second class, however, about half the class were impressed with the size, handling, and the pricing. They shot well with it, getting a 3-inch group at seven yards for the seven shooters. The Bersa is placed in a group with some snubby revolvers and compact 9 mm auto pistols. I will continue to include the Thunder 380 in the Handgun Selection class. It fits neatly into the compact auto category without being so small as to be hard to control.

I like the Thunder 380. I am carrying it more frequently than other pistols in the safe, primarily because it is lighter and easier to conceal than the 9mms and .38 snubbies. It shoots well enough for close encounters and has enough muscle to stop a problem. A spare magazine goes along in an old Safariland inside the waistband mag pouch, just in case. Just think, this all started with a challenge to find an affordable concealed carry pistol. Am I sufficiently armed? I think so.

Editors Note:
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