I think some fans of the .357 Sig cartridge choose that caliber purely because they like being the underdog. Or maybe they’re just gun hipsters. But in either case, their obscurity complaints are pretty small time compared to the followers of the mighty .38 Super.

The “other” .38 has been around since 1929 (kind of… we’ll get to that), but has never managed to become popular. Yet, it won’t completely die off, either. Most of the major ammo manufacturers still make limited quantities of .38 Super, and a handful of gun makers trickle out a small supply of pistols chambered for the caliber–mostly 1911s. So just how has this cartridge managed to hang on to relevance for so long, while also showing little to no hope of ever becoming a major contender in the Great Caliber Wars™? To answer this, of course, we must go back to the beginning…

Colt 1911 .38 Super

Which came first, the bullet or the gun?

Just like any cartridge that’s been around for nearly a century, the history of .38 Super tells an interesting story if you look beyond the surface. Despite the similar name, .38 Super has nothing to do with .38 Special, or any other revolver cartridge. Its origins are in the .38 ACP cartridge, also called .38 Automatic, .38 Military, and about a dozen other names. The .38 ACP was another invention of John Moses Browning, designed especially for his Colt M1900 pistol. The initial loadings were pretty hot, but it became apparent that the M1900 was not stout enough to handle the high pressures, so they dialed it down a bit.

A standard .38 ACP load will send a 130 grain bullet at about 1040 fps; more punch than the .38 special loadings of the day, but a bit shy of the 9mm. The Colt M1900 and its variants were never picked up by the U.S. Military, who instead opted for the M1911 in .45 ACP. The smaller cartridge saw modest civilian sales for a couple of decades, but never quite took off.

Bonnie Parker's Colt 1902
A Colt 1902 that belonged to Bonnie Parker (of Bonnie and Clyde fame). The 1902 was a variant of the Colt 1900, both chambered in .38 ACP.

There is some debate over what happened next. In 1929, Colt introduced a new version of their M1911 pistol, called the Colt “Super .38″ Automatic (they were really into quotation marks back then). Conventional gun lore has held that the .38 Super cartridge was released in 1929, and was little more than a hot .38 ACP loaded to its original velocities and designed specifically for the new Colt pistol. However, there is some evidence (including samples of Colt’s print advertising from the period) that “Super .38″ was merely the name of Colt’s new pistol, not a new cartridge. Colt had intended their for new 1911 to use the more anemic .38 ACP ammo that already existed at the time.

It wasn’t until the pistol had been on the market for a few years that users discovered the 1911 design was capable of handling higher pressure loads than were currently being produced at the time. Ammo makers started selling these beefed up .38 ACP rounds, and to prevent customers from damaging their older .38 ACP pistols, they labeled the new loads after the gun for which they were intended; the Colt Super .38 Automatic.

Colt 1911 .38 Super Barrel
Even the barrel of this more recent production Colt 1911 is marked “Super 38 Auto” like the original, rather than “38 Super.”

To further distinguish between the two loads, .38 Super was re-named .38 Super +P in 1974. Today, the US authority on ammo standards, SAAMI, lists “.38 Automatic” and “.38 Super +P” as two completely separate calibers, even though they share identical case dimensions.

.38 Not So Super

For the time, .38 Super was pretty special. Okay, poor choice of words. It was powerful, at least moreso than most other handgun calibers of the early 1900s. In the first few decades of the 20th century, your choice of handguns was mostly limited to big, heavy, slow moving bullets like the .45 ACP, or small slow moving bullets like the original standard pressure .38 Special. The .38 Super was one of the first handgun cartridges that relied on velocity, rather than size, to get results.

A .45 ACP will work against vulnerable, squishy targets like the enemies of the US military, but it’s not known for its penetrating power. A 130 grain bullet from a .38 Super travels at over 1300 fps, and could penetrate the ballistic vests and car bodies of the 1930s. You might think a cartridge like that would have been a dream come true for law enforcement stuck in the arms race of the violent depression/prohibition-era gang violence. And it might have been, had the .38 Super not been completely overshadowed by the arrival of .357 magnum in 1934.

Cartridge Comparison
From left to right; .45 ACP, .38 Special, .38 Super +P, 9mm

Forget the fact that a 1911 in .38 Super holds four more rounds than a six shooter (9-round mags, plus the chamber). And who cares if it has less recoil and is easier to reload? The .357 was supposed to be a man-stopper of mythological proportions. Like the .38 Super, the .357 magnum could lob a bullet at 1300 fps. Only it could do that with 180 grains instead of just 130. The magnum was a huge ballistic leap forward, and much more attractive to an American law enforcement culture that would not be ready to embrace automatic pistols for another half century.

So cops kept their wheel guns for another few decades, some switching to the new .357 magnum, but most sticking with their .38 specials. WWII hit, and Colt shifted into full-time war production. It seemed like there was no place for the .38 Super, and the cartridge nearly slipped into extinction.

The Gamer Guns

Okay, not complete extinction. The .38 Super actually made it big in Mexico and other Latin American countries where governments restrict ownership of “military” calibers like 9mm and .45 ACP. But by the 1980s in the United States, the .38 Super was little more than a footnote in gun design history, with minimal widespread exposure and a small handful of die-hard fans. And then the the “gamers” found it.

Colt 1911 .38 Super

The early days of the very first formal action pistol competition, IPSC, were full of experimentation and discovery, both in terms of technique and equipment. The original concept of IPSC was built around using guns suitable for self defense, so one of the early rules was a required “power factor” for all ammunition.

The power factor rule basically issues a stiff scoring penalty to participants using ammo that doesn’t meet a certain power standard, measured as a combination of bullet velocity and bullet weight. The idea was to prevent competitors from gaming the system by shooting weaker calibers to get the speed advantage of low recoil.

.38 Super Cartridge

In those days, pretty much everyone in the upper divisions of IPSC shot .45 ACP 1911 pistols, which easily met the power factor requirement using factory ammo. Looking for any advantage within these limitations, IPSC shooters started experimenting with different hand loads and calibers. They eventually discovered that .38 Super +P loads would not only meet the required power factor, but they held two more rounds in the magazine than .45s, and when outfitted with a muzzle brake, recoil could be significantly reduced compared to a standard 1911.

These “race guns” in .38 Super swept over the competition world, and eventually became popular among other serious handgun enthusiasts who weren’t necessarily shooting for score. But again, timing was not on the side of the .38 Super. The 80s and 90s were the era of the “wondernine”. The new high-capacity 9mm pistols from Glock, Sig, Beretta, and S&W left .38 Super in the dust as civilians and law enforcement alike again overlooked the more obscure cartridge.

.38 Super Today

Remington .38 Super Auto +P
Modern .38 Super ammo is always marked with a +P to further distinguish it from the original .38 ACP on which it is based.

Even in the competition world, .38 Super isn’t quite as dominant today as it once was, but there is still a strong following. With the advancements in ballistics technology, there are now plenty of caliber options that fill the gap once covered by the .38 Super, so it’s unlikely to catch any additional traction as a self-defense caliber. The cartridge still has decent ballistics, and there are a few companies loading modern hollow points in .38 Super, so it’ll still work for those who insist on using it as a serious load for protection, but options are limited.

EAA Witness .38 Super
The EAA Witness is one of the only .38 Super pistols available that’s not based on the Colt 1911 design.

As a competition gun, .38 Super has made the jump to double stack, and there are a few high-capacity 1911-style pistols available in the caliber. There can be issues with this combination, however, so a few variants of the .38 Super load have been developed to address the challenges of feeding the cartridge in a double stack magazine. At least one company makes a .38 Super that’s not based on the 1911 at all; the Witness Elite Match Tanfoglio from European American Arms. But for the most part, the .38 Super remains a cartridge married to the 1911 design, and from the looks of things, will probably remain a cartridge that manages to survive in obscurity.


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16 Responses to “.38 Super: The Underdog Cartridge”

  1. Russell Koch

    Nicely written and very informative. Good work!

    Reply
  2. Juanjo GM

    Need a 38 SA

    Reply
  3. Tom Bertenshaw

    been using a 38 super for decades … my favorite ….. still

    Reply
  4. Harrison R T Davis

    interesting news//glad to hear about these facts.

    Reply
  5. Dave Bruton

    I love the 0,38 Super. Everything I could want in a pistol and cartridge .Been carrying one for 3+decades .

    Reply
  6. John Santillano

    Own a Taurus PT1911 in 38. super and it's a blast to shoot but I have never about it as a self defense gun. I would like to see ballistic gel testing.

    Reply
  7. Frank Bobko

    I have shot the 38 super a few times and found it to be extremely accurate round even at 25 yards. It shoots better than my eyes can see. But then again I really like the 10mm and the 357 sig also.

    Reply
  8. Eric Stevenson

    I didn't not know this cartridge existed until now.
    (In response to your opening sentence, my first hand gun purchase was a Glock 31 in .357 Sig. I made my decision based largely on the ballistic info of the cartridge and I placed little importance on the availability and cost of ammo, otherwise I may have made a difference choice. :P lol)

    Reply
  9. Joseph Kokaly

    Perhaps the .38 Super would get a larger following/chambering, if it was called the 9MM Magnum.

    Reply
  10. Manny Gomez

    38 super is as accurate and powerful !!! sadly is not on any shelf, only on line, I got some from LUCKY GUNNER.

    Reply
  11. Mark James

    You said it best….I have a 357 Mag revolver so I would rather shoot mag ammo out of it for self defense. That being said I have quite a bit of 38 special for target practice. I carry my 9mm or 45 for stopping power.

    Reply
  12. Gary Laffoon

    I have carried 38supers since the 1970s. My current carry gun is a Dan Wesson Guardian in 38 super.

    Reply
  13. Gregory Lesniewski

    Is this for automatics only? Can I use this in a Ruger GP100 38/357?

    Reply
  14. Tj Jenkins

    I love my 38 super. It will punch right through a car door and keep going. Very accurate with very little drop for ranges of 75yds.

    Reply
  15. Pat Duecy

    How does a 38 Special +P compare to a 38 Super. I regularly carry S&W 626 with 38 Spl +P Critical Defense loads and am curious as to how they stack up against the 38 Super.

    Reply
  16. Stanton Olsen Sr.

    You are absolutely correct. The 38 Super is a flat shooting and accurate round. It power falls neatly between 9MM and .357. Originally, in the late 20-early 30’s the chambers were not, head spaced correctly and there were accuracy problems. In addition, this cartridge was used in the Thompson submachine gun. The table below indicates the Power of the cartridges relative to the super. I have loaded and successfully competed with this cartridge for many years and it is fun to shoot off a 1911 platform. Further, in a pinch you can use 9MM, which feeds and ejects just fine and is reasonably accurate.

    9mm Luger 115 FMJ 1190 362 137 86.71%
    38 Super+P 130 FMJ 1215 426 158 100.00%
    357 Sig 125 JHP 1350 506 169 106.96%
    40 S&W 180 FMJ 1000 400 180 113.92%

    DVC
    L-626
    Stan Olsen

    Reply

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