Handgunning: .38 Super Remains
April 11, 2017
The .38 Super pre-dates the 9mm Parabellum. Well, the parent case, anyway. When John M. Browning developed his Model 1900 pistol, he also designed a round for it: the .38 Auto.
In the year 1900, 130 grains of .38 full metal jacket (FMJ) at 1,050 feet per second (fps) was hot stuff. The .38 S&W and .38 Colt only accelerated a 150-grain bullet to 700 fps on a good day. (Yes, the catalogs said it was faster but they were being a bit optimistic.) The .38 Special managed 750 fps out of a 158-grain bullet, but only from a full-size gun.
Browning's other cartridges — he was almost as prolific with ammunition as he was with firearms — such as the .32 ACP and the .380 Auto, were definitely more in line with 19th century ballistic performance than 20th.
No, the .38 Auto was hot stuff then, and it only got hotter when Colt revisited it.
When he finished his pistol design work a decade later, the M1900 pistol had morphed into the M1911, and the cartridge of choice was now the .45 ACP. But late in the Roaring Twenties, Colt offered a resurrected version: the .38 Super Colt.
The same case now boosted its 130-grain FMJ (no one thought handgun bullets could be designed for controlled expansion) to over 1,300 fps. Yowza! And Colt made them accurate, too. If you thought an early Colt Match 1911 was a hot collector's piece, a Match Super is even more so, since there were fewer of them.
What's the big deal? The round could slice through the prehistoric body armor of the time, and it even did a good job on the heavy-gauge sheet steel of automobiles.
But the .357 Magnum took a lot of its thunder, and after World War II, any interest in 1911s centered on .45 ACP. Also, Colt had forgotten how to make them accurately by then. This was so upsetting to Bullseye shooters of the time that Jim Clark Sr. built his business on converting Colt .38 Supers to .38 Special.
The situation became so dire that by the 1970s, Colt was making only a few thousand Supers per year. They even combined the entire Model O production — .45, .38 Special, 9mm and .38 Super — into one production line.
And then it changed. Things really heated up when two IPSC competitors, Robbie Leatham and Brian Enos, began showing up at and winning matches with .38 Supers. (Not that they hadn't been winning before, mind you.)
The two big advantages were capacity and control. The Super held one to two more rounds per magazine than a .45 did, and in the early days, that could be insurmountable. And the Super, running at a higher pressure than the .45, fed their compensators more gas, and thus controlled muzzle rise in recoil. Fed hot loads where each made Major, a competitor with a Super was going to beat one with a .45 every day of the week.
As long as we were using single-stack guns, this was a simple situation, and we partially addressed the disparity by using magazines that held 11 rounds of .45 ACP. But then the hi-cap guns entered the picture, and for a few years it was really ugly in IPSC.
You see, the .38 Super is pretty much the same length as a .45 ACP. So a hi-cap Super has essentially the same frame size as a hi-cap .45. However, a hi-cap 9mm can have a smaller frame. A lot of shooters found that attractive, and there was a whole lot of back-and-forth over what pistol, frame or caliber would dominate the ranges.
At one point, there were no less than seven different more-or-less .38 Super cartridges vying for dominance on the IPSC ranges.
In the end, the .38 Super camp won against the 9mm camp for two very good reasons: The Super camp figured a way to make the frames small enough to be comfortable to grip and shoot, and a 9mm Major load is insanely hot. (As in, it's comparable to rifle pressures.)
Now that things have settled down, we can look back and heave a sigh of relief. But Colt still makes the Government Model and the Super, and they have learned a thing or two since the days when they were the whipping boys. I have an interesting conglomeration of Supers in the safe, mostly built for competition.
Colt recently sent me a bright stainless Government Model in .38 Super for evaluation. I figured if I'm going to be wandering from my usual choices, why not go for the bling?
Gone are the days of unreliable 1911s. This one reliably fed all the ammo I had to feed it, including some reloads that you might think would be too light. It had a very nice trigger. As far as accuracy goes, it wasn't a match gun, but it was certainly accurate.
With the FBI going back to the 9mm Parabellum, you might think that the Super will drift even further away from the mainstream. You might, but SIG Sauer doesn't. They've introduced a .38 Super into their line of ammunition.
With a book velocity of 1,230 fps, the V-Crown load is hotter than 9mm ammo. In real life, the Super is even more so. I've chronographed a metric ton of 9mm ammo, and getting a 124/125-grain bullet up past 1,200 fps is rare.
Most of the time, they languish down in the low 1,100s. The Super, since it is usually launched from a 5-inch barrel in a 1911, tends to be in the high 1,200s, often over 1,300 fps. Even from a Commander-size pistol, the Super beats the pants off of 9mm loads.
The days of cars with running boards and bootleggers are long gone. The music, fashion, technology and social customs of the pre-Depression era are now simply quaint historical curiosities or embarrassing news clips. But the performance of the .38 Super still holds up. It still delivers more speed than other handgun cartridges, and without a lot of hassle.
It is more accurate than most of the shooters using it, and if you happen to be a reloader, here's a fun fact: The .38 Super is about as easy to load as the .38 Special, and even with full-power loads, the brass lasts forever. I've got a bin of Super brass from the competition days, brass that saw nothing but Major loads.
They've been loaded so many times the headstamps are practically illegible, and many of them have the nickel plating worn off, but they still work just fine.
I have wondered, from time to time, what the fate of the .38 Super would have been if John Browning and Colt had gone back and taken another look at the .38 Auto after the 1911 was finalized.
A Model 1912 in .38 Super with a 130-grain projectile at 1,300 (or more) fps? Or a 150-grain at 1,100 fps? As tough as the 1911 base gun has proven to be, we can only imagine what Elmer Keith could have done, boosting 150s up past supersonic velocities?
Oh well, they didn't. But we still have the .38 Super, and thank goodness for it.