The .38 Super 1911
By R.K. Campbell

"That's a nice pistol!" My son had just fired his first magazine from a .38 Super 1911 pistol. He is no stranger to handguns having fired everything from the .22 to the .44 Magnum and much in between. He is a good sounding board. The idiosyncrasies of pistols are often brought to light in the hands of a novice to the type. The jaded shooter may find one about as good as the other, but there are important differences to consider. This man has fired a Commander .45 and the Walther P1 with good results, but the Super was the one that he liked best. He enjoyed the shooting characteristics of the Commander and felt well armed with the .45. But the Government Model .38 Super brought a smile to his face. This has been found to be true with many shooters, young and old alike. The .38 Super is an interesting cartridge that invites comparison but the Super is able to stand on its own merits without comparison to any other cartridge. The Super doesn’t give up a thing when compared to the 9mm +P+ or the .357 SIG, and has advantages over either. It isn’t a .357 Magnum but the Magnum isn’t itself these days either.

Much has been written concerning the Super, but pertinent information has been excluded in previous narratives. John Browning's original self-loading design, the Colt 1900, chambered the .38 Automatic Colt Pistol cartridge. This cartridge is about in 9mm Luger territory in power, 130 grains at 1,050-1,100 fps. The .38 ACP used a .900 inch long case rim. This is about as long as you are able to go and maintain a good hand fit with an auto-loading handgun using a box magazine contained in the handle. Browning adopted the .38 ACP’s .900 inch cartridge case measurement when he developed the design into the .45 ACP cartridge. This simplified matters and proved ideal for feed reliability and design. This would be important later. As often told, the story is that in the late 1920s Colt took the .38 ACP and sharply invigorated the round into the .38 Super to chamber in the 1911 pistol. This was done to provide law enforcement with a pistol capable of penetrating vehicle sheet metal and bullet proof vests of the day. The motorized criminal element was a severe problem. The new cartridge jolted a 130 grain bullet to 1,300 fps. Penetration is excellent. The Super enjoyed some success in law enforcement circles, but there is more to the story. Colt was discontinuing its aging .38 caliber self-loaders and there was a recognizable market for a mid-bore self-loader. Additionally, in South America, both the 9mm and the .45 were prohibited as they were military issue cartridges. A civilian legal version of the Government Model could be chambered in .38 Super caliber. Colt killed three birds with one stone: they introduced a popular high powered pistol for law enforcement, a mid-bore 1911 for commercial sales, and a legal pistol for sale in other countries.

But Colt also adopted the problematical and dated semi-rim of the .38 ACP. The Super chambered on this semi-rim rather than properly on the case mouth and this caused considerable accuracy problems. While some .38 Supers are more accurate than others the Super was never as accurate as the .45. This was in a day when the standard for accuracy of the 1911 .45 was five shots in five inches at twenty five yards, so when a period report criticized the .38 Super on accuracy grounds then accuracy was pretty poor. The Super saw some action with the FBI, most notably during the shootouts with Baby Face Nelson. The Super's star waned and faded. It is this author’s belief that the primary event that prevented the widespread popularity of the Super was the introduction of the Smith and Wesson .357 Magnum. We were a nation of revolver men and the Magnum was more powerful than the Super. The Smith and Wesson's accuracy potential ranged from excellent to phenomenal. The Super remained an enthusiast’s cartridge and you had to hand load to take advantage of the cartridge. Obviously, there are merits to the cartridge. Let's take a look at some of these advantages. An obvious comparison is often made to the 9mm cartridge. By the way, the modern .38 ACP Super +P is just the same Super. When SAAMI standardized +P cartridges they felt that the .38 ACP +P designation fit the Super best, although the .38 ACP is no longer manufactured. Modern 130 grain ball is no longer as hot as it was once, usually clocking less than 1,200 fps. The 9mm Luger’s shorter case length does not usually feed as well in the 1911 and the Super has a ballistic advantage of perhaps 100 fps with the same bullet, sometimes more. This is balanced against a paucity of .38 Super loads and the greater expense in ammunition. In the 1911 platform, plain and simple, if you cannot handle the .45s recoil or if you believe that high velocity is the way to go, the .38 Super is the cartridge for you. Unfortunately, without Cor Bon ammunition, the Super would never be maximized. Cor Bon offers excellent quality ammunition that feeds perfectly, gives good accuracy and great ballistic performance. The velocity figures are surprising considering the mild recoil of the Super, but they are qualified and double checked. When you trade recoil off against performance, the .38 Super is perhaps the most efficient cartridge on the planet. A comparable load in a revolver is noted for kick and muzzle blast, but not the Super. The self-loading action soaks up some of the recoil and the relatively faster burning powder used in the Super is responsible for less recoil energy. In the past, the problematic accuracy of the Super was addressed by adding a Bar Sto Precision barrel to the Colt. The Bar Sto properly head spaces on the case mouth. The result was often a very accurate handgun. Today, Colt and the other makes use a barrel that properly headspaces on the case mouth.

I am an enthusiastic hand loader and the Super is a rewarding cartridge. There is little demand for a match grade Super load from the factory, and I have put together a number of tack driving loads. Cor Bon has introduced a brilliantly accurate factory load, the 147 grain Performance Match, but for economy I most often hand load for my Supers. Without pushing the envelope I am able to jolt a Hornady 90 grain XTP to 1,600 fps. This is a varmint load par excellence. Frankly, the bullet holds together so well in gelatin I would not hesitate to use this one as a personal defense load. As for accuracy, the Kimber Target Model is capable of one inch groups with the proper loads. Factory accuracy in ordinary handguns has improved considerably. As an example, the Colt my son is firing is a Series 80 Government Model, nothing special about it. But late model Colt production is very good. The trigger breaks at a nice five pounds clean. I have fired the pistol off the bench with Winchester USA 130 grain ball and obtained a 2 1/4 inch five shot group at 25 yards. That is exceptional for any new 1911.

.38 Super Ballistics

There is more to the Super than paper ballistics. The long case and the 1911 handgun are very efficient, resulting in less felt recoil. The .38 Super as loaded by Cor Bon ammunition leaves the 9mm +P or even the 9mm Luger +P+ in the dust. The following ballistics were obtained from the Colt Government Model and the Competition Electronics Pro Chrony.

Cor Bon PowRBall

This loading uses a bullet with a wide mouth hollow point sealed with a polymer ball. As a result of this configuration, the PowRBall load feeds as well as any ball load. But when the bullet strikes flesh and blood, the ball is driven into the nose of the bullet, instigating expansion. This is a good load for a special purpose, suitable for use in older or off brand Supers that will not feed modern hollow points. Anyone who appreciates high velocity will appreciate this loading. Actual velocity: 1,503 fps.

Cor Bon 115 Grain JHP

This is a classic high velocity loading. This load was very compatible with my Super, and the long five inch barrel gave better results that a Commander I clocked a few years ago. Rated by the factory at 1,450 fps, this load clocked a bit more – and it clocks well over 100 fps more than Cor Bon’s 9mm Luger loading of the same weight. Actual Velocity: 1,467 fps.

125 Grain DPX

The 125 grain DPX load is perhaps the ideal bullet and load for all around use by those carry the Super in the law enforcement role. The balance of penetration and expansion are ideal. This is also the single most accurate Super load we have tested to date. This load runs at well over 1,300 fps. It is comparable to the fastest .357 SIG loadings. Actual Velocity: 1,323 fps.

Cor Bon 125 grain JHP

This is a powerful loading with more penetration than the 115 grain Cor Bon loading but less than the DPX load. I like the accuracy and general feel of this load, with subdued muzzle flash and also light felt recoil. This is a good compromise load that many will find appealing. Actual Velocity: 1,337 fps.

Other .38 Super Pistols

Occasionally the EAA Witness is available in .38 Super, although they are often difficult to find. These big burly handguns offer selective double action, with a double action trigger but the ability to carry the handgun cocked and locked if desired. The magazine capacity is a generous seventeen rounds. They are quite a handful and the Witness fan often breaks on this handgun. Remember, these are .45 not 9mm frame handguns.

SIG P220

The SIG P220 is another relative rare .38 Super. The author carried his SIG .38 Super on duty, briefly, and found it an accurate and powerful combination. Unlike the .45 ACP P220, there was relatively little velocity loss in the SIG’s short barrel. The 125 grain load ran at well over 1,300 fps and the 115 grain load, 1,400 fps, with either grouping five shots into less than two inches at 25 yards. Legendary SIG accuracy was there in spades.

The .38 Super is not the most powerful handgun cartridge but it is a powerful cartridge that offers a counterpoint to the larger and slower .45 ACP. The Super isn’t the most popular cartridge on the block but those of us who appreciate the Super would hate to be without it.

Accuracy and performance

Caliber Conversions

Those wishing to convert the .38 Super to 9mm have little difficulty. I use Metalform magazines in my .38 super and you will have to purchase 9mm magazines. Metalform works just fine. A 9mm barrel is then fitted. A Bar Sto drop-in is ideal. Occasionally the extractor will have to be tuned but not often. The .38 Super breech face measures .405, the 9mm, .384, but the extractor will usually work just fine. Converting a Government Model 9mm to .38 Super will almost always involve adjusting the extractor. You will also have to open the breech face to .405. The Super to 9mm conversion makes lots of sense for economy.

This article first appeared in SmallArmsReview.com on July 5, 2013


Comments have not been generated for this article.