Small, flat-sided semiautomatic pistols have long been popular with law-enforcement officers as hide-away or backup guns to supplement their duty weapons. Tucked away in the small of the back or in an ankle holster, these little pistols offer a feeling of relief for the cop who worries about facing his own gun if it is ripped from his grasp.

Also, the backup offers the option of continuing to shoot without having to stop to reload at a time when that might not be a preferred action.

Some years ago, the brother of a law enforcement friend was a narcotics officer for a state agency. In a "buy-bust" deal, he found himself inside a car with a nasty dealer who was either suspicious or planning to make it a "take" operation — he would shoot the agent, and take the buy money from his body.

As things went from bad to red alert in micro-seconds, the bad guy pulled a handgun to shoot the agent, but the steering wheel deflected his hand as he tried to bring it to bear on the cop in the passenger side of the car.

The agent jerked his own little .380 auto, which had been stuck in the small of his back, and got off the first couple of shots — the most important ones, as it turned out.

It must have been noisy inside that car, even with the passenger door partially opened, and it certainly was up close and personal. Shooting at someone the width of a car seat away is no one's idea of the optimum distance from the bad guy in a gunfight. But the .380 did its job, and the agent lived to tell of the incident. The bad guy didn't make it.

Most experts have always considered the .380 Auto to be at the lowest end of the spectrum for personal self-defense. Tell that to the dealer, and countless other miscreants that have been sent to their just rewards by the small-caliber semiautomatics. Because of their size and moderate recoil, the caliber has become a popular civilian self-defense round for the same reasons cops like them. They hide well, and they work.

While never coming close to the 9mm Parabellum or .38 Special in stopping power, the caliber received a huge boost in popularity in the '60s with the advent of the James Bond movies. The ultimate cool guy, Bond packed a Walther PPK, and while it's been years since I read Ian Fleming's excellent novels about a British secret agent with "license to kill," I believe the caliber he carried was the German caliber of 9mm Kurz or 9mm Short.

In other words, it is the same caliber as the famous 9mm Parabellum, but in a shorter case, with less powder, and thus less velocity and energy. In the United States, it is known as the .380 Auto. The actual diameter of the bullet in each of these rounds is .355, while the diameter of the case mouth is .380, or a true .38 caliber.

Many excellent small guns have been designed around this cartridge, and they are rightly famous for ease of carry, disguise and shooting. The little slab-sided autos just seem to fit most every hand, the recoil is far from punishing and the guns slip in and hide just about anywhere on the human body without being a bother.

One of the best, and an extremely accurate version, is the Sig P230. I have shot many of these as they have come through my concealed carry permit courses, and I've never found one that didn't impress me with its accuracy. Many times at 15 or 20 feet, we've made full magazines go through one ragged hole. Sigs are exceptionally fine pieces of work, no matter the caliber.

As with all their guns, the Sigs are exceptional in fit and finish, well-made and pricey — sometimes a bit more pricey than someone just looking for a decent gun for self-defense is willing to pay.

But another gun that is gaining in popularity, judging from the numbers of them we see, is the Bersa Thunder .380 Auto. Manufactured in Argentina, these little guns resemble all the others of their class — very similar to a Sig P230 or a Walther PPKS. Each of these is similar in size and capacity, but the huge difference in this gun is price.

A Sig P230 will run in the neighborhood of $500, give or take. One gun store in my town sells all he can get of the Bersa for $225. Unfortunately, because of the price and the popularity, the store frequently has to take a waiting list. The guns are manufactured in and imported from South America, and demand is now outstripping supply.

The guns are similar in size and weight (about 18 ounces), both have external hammers and both carry seven rounds in their magazines (eight with one in the chamber).

The Bersa has a magazine disconnect, while the Sig does not; this means the gun will not fire with the magazine removed, a safety feature desired by some. Also, the Bersa has a slightly different feature than the Sig — the safety is also a decocking mechanism for the hammer. By pressing the safety down, the hammer is dropped safely from full cock without discharging the round. The Sig has a decock, but it is not a safety, a design many prefer as the gun is ready to fire when you pull the trigger. A safety must be disengaged to bring the gun into action, something that might tip the scales against you when you are fumbling with the safety lever, trying to get the gun to fire.

Retailers tell me they actually have people hesitating on the purchase of the Bersa because of the price. They shouldn't. I have come to have a great deal of respect for these little guns. I've never seen one jam, and they are uniformly quite accurate at defensive distances.

One thing I noticed abou the model I picked up from Baton Rouge Police Supplies for photographs was the new trigger lock keyhole on the left side of the frame immediately above the trigger. A sturdy, small, round key is supplied. Inserting the key in the hole and twisting it locks the trigger, making the gun inoperable. How they add that to the manufacturing process and still kept the price as low as they do is beyond me.

For size comparisons in the photographs, I used a Model 26 Glock, one of the new "baby" Glocks in 9mm Parabellum. I am a big fan of Glocks and shoot them quite a bit. While they don't own the law-enforcement market in the United States, they are quite well ahead of whoever's in second place.

But I am not a fan of their micro pistols. I find them thick in the butt and short in the grip. I have a fairly large hand and have a hard time holding these little semiautos. While I love their medium-frame versions, I would rather have the little Bersa, even though it is a lesser caliber. Not to mention, the going price on the Glock to civilians is $519.

A good choice in self-defense ammo for these little guns would either be Cor-Bon, a name synonymous in every caliber with power and speed, or Federal Hydra-Shock, a consistently dependable performer in expansion tests.

As with all handguns for personal self defense, you just can't practice too much. We preach this constantly to folks, and I sometimes wonder if we make any impression at all. Perhaps a personal note will have some effect.

Recently, I participated in an impromptu shooting match, scored for fun. I used my old Smith & Wesson 9mm with a decocking safety.

I shoot this gun a lot, training students and plinking with it. But this was the first time I have ever used it in any sort of timed event where I placed myself under stress. Since I was decocking it after every stage, I was putting the safety on each time.

When the next stage would start, I would find myself fumbling to get the safety off to get the gun in play. It only involved microseconds, but in a gunfight, those pieces of a second will determine who gets off the first shot. I shot the worst score I've had in years, all because I hadn't practiced rapid target acquisition with this gun, and it showed in my times and my accuracy.

So whether you buy a Bersa Thunder .380 or double the price and buy a Glock or a Sig, remember, the price is never as important as the dependability of the gun, and how well you use it. Bersas work well. Can you work them safely and quickly?

Gordon Hutchinson's best-selling novel, The Quest and the Quarry, a generational tale that parallels the lives of a line of trophy bucks and the youth of a farming family who hunt them, can be ordered at thequestandthequarry.com, or by calling 800-538-4355.

The novel was recently chosen as a book of the year by the Southeastern Outdoor Press Association.