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Thread: Casual discussion: What's the deal with .38 Super?

  1. #1
    Boolit Buddy VariableRecall's Avatar
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    Casual discussion: What's the deal with .38 Super?

    Looking through the shelves of my LGS I've seen that they still have ample supplies of .38 Super. After reading more of Elmer Keith's Sixguns (Thanks Amazon Kindle!), he seems to keep 38 Super in high regard and often puts it to a higher pedestal to 9mm Parabellum.

    I'm getting the impression that .38 Super is the go-to caliber for folks that can't have reasonable access to 9mm and still want a high velocity 9mm/.38 caliber cartridge.

    I've only really seen 1911 clones (and older manufactured Colts) chambered in this cartridge. In comparison, .380 ACP, which performs a similar role, is very popular in modern self defense handguns.

    So, what's the deal with .38 Super? Is there any reason why it's not as popular as most high velocity cartridges?
    I'm not looking to get something chambered in this caliber any time soon but this subject has piqued my interest as I've been moving through Sixguns.

  2. #2
    Boolit Master

    FLINTNFIRE's Avatar
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    I myself have no use for 380 but for 38 super , well it is a souped up 9mm , Have several of the 1911 38 supers , brass is scarce , bullets are same size as 9mm , whats not to like . It is a sweet shooter in my opinion , have not seen much on shelves in local area , but I do not buy factory ammo .

  3. #3
    Boolit Master


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    It is a bastard case so brass is scarce. It offers only a very slight performance advantage over a 9mm+P. With nearly every modern 9mm able to shoot +P loads, it remains a “red headed stepchild”.

    I talked one of my best friends out of having a custom .38 Super built.

    BTW, if you found some ammunition for it, that is telling....and not in a good way. Do you think manufacturers will switch to making more of it when they can sell every round of 9mm they can churn out?

    Investing in weapons chambered in unpopular cartridges, that may be sitting on shelves during a shortage, is not a wise strategy. There was a gentleman here who did that with rifle calibers during the last shortage.
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  4. #4
    Boolit Grand Master
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    VariableRecall, when looking at the 38 Super you need to keep it in historical context. Several factors during its history helped to keep it around. It has had the ability to defeat barriers well, such as car bodies, making it desirable for law enforcement in the 1930's. It was was not a military cartridge, making it desirable in places such as Mexico, that banned military cartridges. It got a huge boost when competitors learned how to "make major" with it when competing in games that required a certain power level. The higher magazine capacity was also helpful.
    It is a semi-rimmed case (like other John Browning designs of that era) and it is American.
    It's that American part that helped to keep it alive in its early years. The 9mm Luger was a contemporary cartridge and known in the U.S. but not very common in the U.S. until post WWII years. A little bit of its popularity comes from its home field advantage, particularly in the pre-war years.

    VariableRecall wrote: "I'm getting the impression that .38 Super is the go-to caliber for folks that can't have reasonable access to 9mm and still want a high velocity 9mm/.38 caliber cartridge.". You got the right impression. In places that prohibit military cartridges (like Mexico) the 38 Super was a viable alternative. Some of that acceptance south of the border leaked over north of the border as well. So there's some regional aspect there as well. You will encounter more 38 Super pistols in the states that border Mexico simply because it is more well known in those regions.

    The 38 Super just never really caught on and while some factors mentioned above helped keep it from going extinct, it never became truly mainstream. That's why you are seeing 38 Super cartridges available for sale now when little else is available. There just isn't that much demand for it.

    The 9mm Luger isn't the ballistic equivalent of the 38 Super but it far more accepted worldwide. In fact, the 9mm Luger is the most commonly found pistol cartridge in the world.
    The 9mm +P and the 357 SIG are real competitors to the 38 Super.

    I will not say the 38 Super is like the 16 gauge shotgun (something beloved by its followers but not commonly accepted) but the parallels are there.
    Last edited by Petrol & Powder; 11-16-2020 at 07:37 AM.

  5. #5
    Boolit Master RU shooter's Avatar
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    My take on it is it didn't usually come in a high capacity pistol like is smaller brother the 9mm or the 357 sig which is what the younger generation want and think they need . It's never been really talked up in the gun rags as a Self defense round , and me not being real old but not young either (52) I can probably count on my hands when I have seen it stocked on gun store shelves , or seen a new or used 38 super for sale in person . Personally I never had the urge to own one . I knew it was used a lot in the shooting games but never was into that . I could get the same pistol in the more popular and powerful 10mm or 45 that only held a round or two less or a more compact gun in 9 that's only a little less powerful but held 15-17 rds .
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  6. #6
    Boolit Master
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    I own and enjoy casting, loading, and shooting, for my 38 Super. It is always at full speed. I appreciate the history of the caliber. It was favored by law enforcement, and gangsters, during prohibition days. John Dillinger had a 1911 made up by an Arizona gunsmith, that was full auto, with an extended magazine. To me, it’s about owning, and shooting a caliber from the past. I like my 45 1911’s, but prefer the 38 Super.

  7. #7
    I think you’ll find a lot more .38 Super aficionados along the border with sunny Mexico than anywhere else in the US.

    The main detriment to carrying one for SD use is the lack of effective modern bullet design factory loaded ammo.

  8. #8
    Boolit Master
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    It became another one of those "in between" rounds. A bit more than 9mm, but, not up to .357. Like stated above, most of the pistols I have seen chambered in it since the 80's have been race guns. Smaller bullet that would shoot major. The higher pressures seemed to make the compensators of the day work even better so recoil effects were a lot better than the .45acp counter parts.

    Then came the .40 and 10mm. The .40 especially seemed to fit the 'need' for something more than the 9 without being too long for the grips of today.

    In these parts the .357Sig kinda sealed the fate of the .38Super. It was designed to emulate the .357Mag 125gn load that the State Police were in love with. They used those pistols for quite a few years.

    Then the bullet mfgs really went to work on the 9mm and made cartridges that would pass the FBI testing criteria. Now the 9mm is back in front.

  9. #9
    Boolit Buddy
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    The 38 Super is basically the 1929 magnum version of the earlier 1900 38acp, both being the American products of John Moses Browning and the Colt Pat. Firearms Co.
    It was the early lawman's answer to penetration, and offered 357 mag type balistics in an auto loading firearm, in a time before the 357 mag was even introduced.
    Interesting to note, even Gen. Thompson saw the potential of the super and produced
    Thompson SMG's in the chambering.
    While 9mm can be loaded over pressured to compete with it, it will never equal the full potential of the supers larger case, especially with heavier weight projectiles.
    The much newer 357 sig will, but with the additional complications of a bottle neck cartridge... Something many pistol shooters choose not to deal with, for the added trouble vs minimal benefit.
    So for those with a love for the Colt Rampant Stallion, John M. Browning, American history and magnum velocity and power, the 38 Super will always be closer to our hearts then the upstart foreign born 9mm Luger.
    Just my .02
    Cheers, yv

  10. #10
    Boolit Master
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    You all missing a great round...

    Have been shooting and carrying a Colt Commander in .38 Super for going on 41 years...every day... Have well over a dozen 1911s right now as well as four S&W revolvers, an AMT Backup and a Taurus PT38S...and two MegTech Carbine Conversions... Is my favorite handgun round right there with the odd-ball .41 Magnum.

    The biggest problem for the Super as to why it wasn't very popular is an inherent accuracy problem cause buy an outdated headspacing method. In 1929 when Colt chambered the 1911 for the .38 ACP and dropped the 1903 Automatics there was no such cartridge know as the ,38 Super...the 1911 was called the SUPER .38 and chambered for .38 ACP. The velocity at the time was something like 1080 fps which was jacked up by Remington to 1300 fps in the early 1930s.

    Unfortunately Colt/Browning retained the headspace on the case rim method of headspacing from the 1903 instead of going to the headspace on the case mouth like the 1911 .45 ACP...as a result from 1929 to 1990 accuracy suffered. This problem was discovered and solved in the mid 1970s and BarSto started making the first barrels correctly headspaced and accuracy went for the worst possible to beating everything else...with power to spare... Only Colt barrels were so headspaced and they finally changed but easily 10+ years after they could have....but that is Colt.

    https://www.1911forum.com/threads/th...#post-13296658


    Being a straight walled case, one can handload bullets from 80 to 180 grains. If one uses ammo from Buffalo Bore, Georgia Arms, Underwood, CorBon, Red's Ammo, one gets just short of 4" .357 Magnum power...125s at 1350 and 115s at 1450... 9mm +P+ don't make that.

    https://web.archive.org/web/20170624...//38super.net/

    https://hipowersandhandguns.com/Corb...mo%20Tests.htm


    And by just having a 9mm barrel fitted and proper springs, one can have common ammo (well it used to be common and inexpensive) for practice... And if one wants full .357 Magnum power 9x23 Winchester can often be run in .38 Super chambers...and if not another barrel can be fitted...


    Just love the round...Bob
    Last edited by RJM52; 11-16-2020 at 10:46 AM.

  11. #11
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    Posts 9 and 10 pretty much cover the history of the .38 Super and it's early problems with headspacing on the minimal rim, etc.. When it was developed, it filled a very real need, since gangster's cars (all cars, really) were made from real steel back then, and a lot of their crime was conducted from transportation, including many running gun battles with police, who for the most part were saddled with 158 gr. RN .38 Special loads, or .45 acp FMJ loads for the few who carried Semi Auto handguns.

    Fast forward to today, and one of my most accurate semi auto handguns is a Witness Match in .38 Super. I own several handguns in this caliber, and every one of them is a good performer, especially with the 130 gr. bullets it was designed for.

    The funny part is how everyone takes the 9x19 for granted, and assumes it's been in the U.S. since 1902, when it was invented. That's far from the case. In the early 1960's, I owned a Star copy of the 1911 in 9x19 caliber. I checked every gun store in the metropolitan Los Angeles area, where I lived at the time, and was constantly told that the ammunition wasn't available for "that European caliber". A few shops tried to order some for me, but to no avail. A neighbor had a couple of 9x19 rounds he had brought back from World War II as souvenirs, and he loaned me one so I could get the dimensions. I started with .38 Special cases and chucked them in my Dad's drill press and worked them over with a file until I was able to duplicate the rim and extractor groove on the first few. Then I cut them off and proceeded to load them with 146 gr. .38 bullets, since that was the only mold I had at the time. There was no loading data in any of the reloading manuals I had at the time, so I guesstimated loading data and made up some rounds to test from the first five rounds I'd fashioned from .38 Spl. brass. The first round was fired after the pistol was tied to a post, and I used a string to pull the trigger, and it worked!

    I then spent several days after work making a total of fifty rounds of my "9x19" brass from .38 Special brass, using my Dad's drill press and a file. I now had enough 9x19 ammo to actually shoot the gun, but it took a lot of work to get there. I took one of my rounds to a local gun shop and showed the owner, and his comment was, "well, I'll be damned". That was the only way I could shoot that 9x19 pistol at that time. It wasn't until the early 1970's that the 9x19 started showing up in the U.S. The first law enforcement agency of any size to adopt it was the Illinois State Police, when they adopted the Model 39 pistol that the USAF rejected to replace the Model 15 revolvers they were using for flight crews and Security Police. After agencies started adopting the double stack Model 59 pistol, then there was a demand for 9x19 ammunition and the domestic companies began producing it in quantities that made it available to the civilian market. My agency used the Winchester 100 gr. Power Point ammo for many years, simply because it functioned in our 59's, not because it was the best ammunition. After the inventor of the Model 39, 52 and 59, Joe Foster, was brought back out of retirement by Smith & Wesson to fix some feeding problems in about 1978 or 79, then we were able to use the Speer Lawman 125 gr. SP ammunition. I sat across the workbench from Joe Foster for two days upgrading over 300 Model 59's, and he was a very interesting guy. After the upgrades he came up with, we were able to shoot just about any ammunition through our 59's.

    That's just a little personal history on the 9x19, and why there was first the .38 ACP, and then the .38 Super. The Plus P designation was added to the cases for .38 Super to keep people from shooting the higher pressure .38 Super in pistols intended for the .38 ACP, which is a low pressure round. Many fine pistols intended for .38 ACP have been battered badly by shooting .38 Super ammunition through them.

    Hope this helps.

    Fred
    Last edited by ReloaderFred; 11-17-2020 at 11:47 AM. Reason: Correct nominclature
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  12. #12
    Boolit Master
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    Just for grins you should also look at the 9x23Win. Essentially a higher pressure .38Super without the rim. This one is almost a rimless .357mag, at least with lighter bullets.

    Also designed due to the major class distinction. When the ruling committees reduced the level for major it went away, since the heavy loaded 9mm's could make that.

  13. #13
    Boolit Buddy
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    Just did a Quick Reality Check. .38 Super brass is not scarce. I still have several thousand and you can get thousands more.
    Just because change doesn't make a difference doesn't mean that change is bad.

  14. #14
    Boolit Buddy
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    Another option is the 38 Super Comp. It's a rimless version of the original and feeds more reliably. Pretty much a reloader's proposition, but Starline offers the brass. It is favored by the "runnin and gunnin" shooters and even bullseye competitors use it effectively at 38 Special level reduced loads.

  15. #15
    Boolit Grand Master Outpost75's Avatar
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    Minor correction. The 9mm Luger/Parabellum is 9x19mm, the .38 Super is 9x23mmSR
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  16. #16
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    As mentioned above, prior to the 1980's, the only way to get a 38 Super that shot remotely well was to spend a bucket of dough to have a pistol smith work the gun over, install a new, expensive barrel and then, if you were lucky, you had a gun that shot half way decently. I have personally seen two "Name" run-n-gun pistols that wouldn't hold to a paper plate when first returned from the shop.

    But when the "P" in IPSC became silent, the top flight shooters all swapped over to higher capacity pistols loaded hotter than the hinges of Hades to meet Major. A 21 shot pistol meant far fewer reloads in a typical match. A high speed projectile made the compensators work better. But that cost money. Two or Three grand bought you a competitive pistol setup. If winning mattered, a lot of guys were priced out of the market. For Joe Sixpack, or for that matter, Paul Lawdog, most personally owned revolvers and pistols were not competitive. Consequently, the 38 Super came to be regarded by many as a "gamer's toy," not a serious pistol cartridge. Further IPSC rule changes made the "Super" with it's (normally) rare and expensive ammo fairly uncommon, when the lower cost 9mm could just as easily make the new, lower power factors.

    The fact that the 38 Super ammo is on the shelf now is a testament to its comparative oddity. Me, I trim and use it to make Browning 9mm Long brass for my 1907 Husqvarna. I have also turned the heads on it to make 9 mm Largo brass. I hope it stays available.
    Last edited by rintinglen; 11-16-2020 at 03:25 PM.
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  17. #17
    Boolit Master
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    There were/are a lot of longer 9mm/.38 'long' auto pistol cartridges. The 9mm Browning Long, Colt .38acp and it's hotter brother .38Super, 9mm Largo, 9mm Steyr, etc

    I had owned a Llama .38 Super years ago and ammo was tough to find then....plus my Llama didn't like the Remington 130gr hollow point ammo I could find! I did discover that my Llama 1911 style pistol did like the .38acp Remington ball ammo which was tough to find too...Remington was about the only factory ammo in those two calibers in the 1980's I ever saw!

    I own a 9mm Steyr M1912 pistol and have not had too much issue finding ammo for that old obsolete thing! The .38 Super seems to have regained some popularity the last 20 years or so but I would think somebody at the gun store screwed up and ordered a case of .38 Super and meant to get some .38 Special??

  18. #18
    Boolit Grand Master

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    The 38 super suffered from some early issues one was it was originally chambered to head space on the cases small rim and accuracy suffered often. When chambered to head space on the mouth in a well built pistol accuracy was often very good. It was a high performance cartridge back in the day and performed well but there were many more 1911s made in 45 acp and more available. I have a early 38 super 1911 thats an excellent shooter accuracy wise and recoil is light and easier to control. early powders limited it some the more modern powders give it another push in performance. In the late 70s early 80s during the ispc craze the 38 super would make major caliber it was more efficent with the comps of the day with higher gas volume. The 9mm was capable of making major caliber. At some point I may build a kimber ultra carry into a 38 super. Its a fine round and very useable. One thing that held it back was as mentioned above a lot more 1911s were being built in 45 and with the military using 45 surplus ammo was every where for the 45 s. If the military had adopted the super possibly the 45 would be the red headed step child.

  19. #19
    Boolit Master
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    I too turned the rims off 38 super brass to make 9 x 23 (Largo) brass. I rechambered a 9x19 CZ-52 barrel to 9 x 23 and load it like a 9 x 25 and can match modern .357 mag. ammo performance. I now have three kinds of brass for that gun. The modified 38 super brass, Starline 9 x 23 (Largo) brass and Winchester 9 x 23 Win brass.

    Click image for larger version. 

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    380 ACP
    9 x 19 Para
    9 x 23 Largo
    9 x 23 loaded for long magazine
    357 mag.

    One more point the 38 super is pretty much a semi-rimmed 9 x 23 with very little taper the 9 x 19 appears to have more taper.

    Tim
    Last edited by dtknowles; 11-16-2020 at 06:00 PM.
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  20. #20
    Boolit Grand Master
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    Lots of excellent information above and a particular thank you to ReloaderFred for addressing a key point.
    The 9 x 19 was known in the U.S.A. but it wasn't commonly found. From what I've read, the 9mm Luger cartridge didn't really make inroads in the U.S. until after WWII and even then it wasn't very common.
    Military personnel bringing back 9mm pistols after the war gave the 9mm a boost in acceptance in the U.S. but that didn't happen overnight.
    The Illinois State Police adoption of the cartridge was also an important step.
    In the meantime, it was the 38 Super that filled that void in the U.S.

    The fact the the 38 Super was an "American" cartridge certainly didn't hurt either.

    The 38 Super is loved by some and it has some endearing attributes but it will probably never be a mainstream cartridge. It has held on due to the factors previously listed: its non-military classification for countries that ban military cartridges, its use in IPSC and other sports where its traits could be exploited and its historical use in the 1911 as an alternative to the 45 ACP in that pistol.
    Unfortunately for the 38 Super, the 9 x 19 has a far greater grasp on the world.

    From a ballistics point of view; it is interesting. From a sales and worldwide distribution point of view; there's probably not much more traction there.

    It does have some cool history.
    Last edited by Petrol & Powder; 11-16-2020 at 08:53 PM.

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Abbreviations used in Reloading

BP Bronze Point IMR Improved Military Rifle PTD Pointed
BR Bench Rest M Magnum RN Round Nose
BT Boat Tail PL Power-Lokt SP Soft Point
C Compressed Charge PR Primer SPCL Soft Point "Core-Lokt"
HP Hollow Point PSPCL Pointed Soft Point "Core Lokt" C.O.L. Cartridge Overall Length
PSP Pointed Soft Point Spz Spitzer Point SBT Spitzer Boat Tail
LRN Lead Round Nose LWC Lead Wad Cutter LSWC Lead Semi Wad Cutter
GC Gas Check