38 super

The Unfortunately Unappreciated .38 Super

The .38 Super is a niche round, having a certain following but not being as popular as it arguably ought to be. On paper, it's a hotter 9mm, flying faster, flatter and carrying more "oomph!" than dreary ol' 9x19mm and without being too much more unpleasant to shoot.

In other words, the .38 Super made .40 S&W and .357 Sig irrelevant and did so decades before they were invented, which makes it an ideal defensive caliber. Why did it fail to catch on outside of competitive shooting?

.38 Super Sandbagged

38 Super

The .38 Super was devised for sale to the law enforcement market, offered by Colt in a .38-caliber variant of the 1911 pistol. They called the pistol the Colt Super 38 and the round the .38 Super Automatic, first offering the new gun and the hot new round in 1929.

It wasn't actually new; in fact, the round itself was 30 years old by that point. The .38 Super Auto, you see, was just the original loading of .38 ACP, the original chambering that the M1900 pistol (later revisions produced the 1911) was created in. John Browning didn't make a .45 caliber version until 1905. However, what was noted is that the original load had a bit too much zip on it and the .38 ACP was downloaded to basically the same ballistic specifications as 9x19mm.

However, it hit some snags upon release.

Factory guns were noted for being a little less accurate than the .45 ACP models. This was due to the barrel and the cartridge itself. The .38 Super, you see, is semi-rimmed, meaning the rim of the case is a little bit larger in diameter than the case itself. The original M1900 barrel headspaced (meaning where the bullet seated into place) on the rim, whereas the 1911 barrel headspaces on the case mouth. That means a less than perfect seal and thus less than perfect accuracy.

Eventually, the Bar-Sto company devised barrels that headspaced correctly on the mouth, but not until well after the fact. Since semi-autos at the time were less popular than revolvers, a revolver with more zing than .38 Special would make more sense, which happened to be right around the corner.

In 1936, Remington rolled out the .357 Remington Magnum cartridge and Smith and Wesson unleashed the Registered Magnum revolver to shoot it with. A classic was born, and law enforcement agencies turned to it in droves. It's been one of the staple self-defense rounds ever since.

Competitive Shooting To The Rescue


The round limped on, largely thanks to competitive shooting events.

.38 Super pistols became increasingly less common in law enforcement service after the .357 Magnum was released, and since the gun-buying public tends to buy what the professionals use, fewer and fewer civilians bought them over the years.

What kept the round from dying out? It isn't really used for handgun hunting and since it wasn't the preferred pill of police, that isn't really a recipe for longevity. Colt continued making them in limited numbers, and the chambering did become common in Latin America as many countries have the "no military calibers" provision.

Shooting competitions did a lot, too. Practical shooting organizations such as IPSC, the IDPA, and the USPSA created the idea of power factors in handgun shooting. The idea is that you should shoot a gun that you'd be likely to defend yourself with, which requires a certain amount of power behind the round.

Usually, 9mm is too weak to merit a "Major" power factor. However, not everyone wants to shoot .45 ACP. The alternative was arrived at when a few people started using .38 Super pistols in the 1970s and 1980s, which - being more powerful than 9mm - presented a very viable option. After all, .40 S&W didn't exist yet and 10mm was little more than a wildcat.

Like 9mm+P? That's What .38 Super Is

38 super

The modern shooter prefers 9mm in their handgun, though some have a hangup about +P ammunition, namely that they have to have it.

If you're the sort that has to have +P for their carry gun, the thing is that .38 Super - often labeled .38 Super +P after the great SAAMI change in pressure ratings - is basically the same as 9mm +P, and if anything attaining slightly more velocity, slightly more energy due to the longer case length.

So, for the velocity junkies, it's like a 9mm but for grown-ups.

Based on the specifications and the semi-rim, you could probably use it in a .357 Magnum revolver but that would NOT be recommended. The .38 Super has a slightly larger case and generates a tad more pressure than many standard .357 Magnum loads, so it is probably not a good idea.

Unfortunately, it never really took off like it should. Today, the .38 Super is mostly available in the 1911 platform and at that, more often found as an option for custom shop guns. A few assorted alternatives are available, but they are few and far between.

That said, the .38 Super does come with costs. First, the monetary one, as it is more expensive than even .45 ACP. Second, semi-rimmed bullets don't feed well from double-stack magazines, though this has been fixed by reducing the semi-rim even further in modern ammo.

So while it is a great round, chances are it won't grow much further beyond niche status, but that's okay. Any caliber is only a tool, and the thing is that 9mm is that much more useful as it is easier for more people to use.

Sam Hoober  

About The Author

Born in southeastern Washington State, Sam Hoober graduated in 2011 from Eastern Washington University. He resides in the great Inland Northwest, with his wife and child. His varied interests and hobbies include camping, fishing, hunting, and spending time at the gun range as often as possible.

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