The Rock Island 1911 and a History of the .38 Super Cartridge

By Wilburn Roberts published on in Ammunition, Firearms, Range Reports

The .38 Super was introduced in the 1911 handgun in 1929 to arm peace officers with a hard-hitting handgun that offered good penetration against the new breed of mechanized thug. The .38 Super saw extensive use in the hands of the FBI and figured into the demise of dangerous fugitives such as Baby Face Nelson.

1911 handgun chambered in .38 Super with a Kydex holser

The Super .38 is a great all-around handgun.

The .38 Super is dimensionally identical to the .38 ACP of 1900. The .38 ACP fired a 130-grain bullet at 1,100 fps. The .38 Super was a sensation, noted for its high velocity of 1300 fps and nine fast shots. Colt upped the power of the cartridge but used the same length cartridge case and chambered the .38 Super in the 1911 when it dropped production of the .38 ACP pistols. At the time, you had to know not to fire a .38 Super in older Colt 1903 pistols.

The effectiveness of the .38 Super cannot be argued. The penetration of the cartridge and reliability of the 1911 gave law officers a great advantage. However, the .38 Super suffered in popularity after the introduction of the .357 Magnum. In those days, the lawmen were revolver men. The question is this. Is the .38 Super a viable personal defense and tactical combination today?

Average Velocity

Federal American Eagle 115-grain JHP 1190 fps
SIG Sauer Elite 125-grain V Crown 1211 fps
Double Tap 115-grain JHP 1419 fps
Double Tap 115-grain TAC 1366 fps
Double Tap 125-grain JHP 1402 fps

The answer would be yes. By any standard, the .38 Super cartridge and the Super .38 handgun are excellent defensive or tactical choices. Ammunition development continues. Federal Cartridge recently introduced a 115-grain JHP load in the American Eagle Line, and Double Tap ammunition offers excellent tactical grade loads. SIG Sauer has also introduced a new .38 Super load.

3 boxes of .38 Super ammunition from Double Tap

The author tested a variety of loads from Double Tap with excellent results.

The Super .38

The 1911 is a good home for the .38 Super. The 1911 features straight-to-the-rear trigger compression, a low bore axis, a grip that fits most hands well, and excellent speed into action. There is no pistol faster to an accurate first shot than a 1911 handgun properly carried cocked and locked. The .38 Super is an easier cartridge to master than the .45. The .38 Super has two more rounds of magazine capacity. The platform allows good control for those who practice.

Long-range practical shooting is possible with the 1911/.38 Super format. Rock Island Armory offers a GI type 1911 chambered in .38 Super. The pistol is well finished, offers a smooth trigger compression at 5.5 pounds, and the safety is well fitted. The beavertail grip safety releases its grip on the trigger midway into compression.

The Cartridge

Federal offers a 115-grain JHP in the American Eagle line that breaks almost 1200 fps. This is a good practice load and is just a bit hotter than most 9mm loads. The SIG Sauer Elite 125-grain V Crown JHP breaks just over 1200 fps. Either is a good defense load for most situations.

.38 Super magazine, above, .45 ACP, lower.

.38 Super magazine, above, .45 ACP, lower.

For loads mimicking the .357 Magnum consider this, the .38 Super uses relatively fast-burning powder that produces less recoil energy than the slow-burning powder used in the .357 Magnum. The recoil spring captures much of the recoil energy as well.

There are loads available that maximize the caliber. If you wish a rapidly expanding load for use in an urban situation the Double Tap 115-grain Controlled Expansion JHP offers that option. For those preferring an all-copper bullet, the Barnes TAC XP load is an option with greater penetration.

At over 1400 fps, the 125-grain JHP Double Tap would be an excellent all around service load. I normally load my .38 Super with the 115-grain load for home defense. If using the pistol for tactical use, I would deploy the 125-grain bonded core loading. The following table outlines the load’s performance. The Rock Island Armory 1911 .38 Super offers good accuracy with each loading.

Energy Comparison

9mm Luger Federal 124-grain HST 1160 fps 333 ft lbs.
9mm Luger Federal 115-grain +P+ LEO 1320 fps 444 ft lbs.
.38 Super Double Tap 115-grain JHP 1419 fps 514 ft lbs.
.38 Super Double Tap 125-grain JHP 1402 fps 545 ft lbs.
.45 ACP Federal 230-grain Hydra Shock 860 fps 377 ft lbs.
.45 ACP Speer 200-grain Gold Dot +P 1050 fps 489 ft lbs.
.357 Magnum Federal 130-grain Hydra Shock 1489 fps (4-inch barrel Ruger GP100) 630 ft lbs.
.357 Magnum Federal 158-grain JHP 1215 fps 517 ft lbs.

The .38 Super fits my needs well. Modern loads put the .38 Super just where it needs to be—a high velocity loading with good performance, excellent penetration and governable recoil.

Do you own or have experience with the .38 Super? How do you view it as a self-defense cartridge? Share your answers in the comment section.

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Comments (36)

  • Dave E. Carter Sr

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    I have a Colt Combat Commander .38 Super. I have carried this Pistol with me on my job most of the time that I worked for Wells Fargo Armored Car. I have from time to time carried my Colt .45 ACP and other guns I own. But when I have to Qualify which was every 6 months, I always used the Super .38. I love this Pistol out of all the guns I have. I am retired from Loomis Fargo back in March 2006 but still carry My Super .38 every day

    Reply

  • trackerdan

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    I currently own 3 1911 style .45 ACP pistols. A Colt, a Sig and a RIA. They are all .45 ACP. I get all the satisfaction, dependability, accuracy, and ease of reloading I could ever want from these. A slightly higher satisfaction level for my Colt Combat Commander.

    Reply

  • Adam

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    How can this caliber be any good if it doesn’t start with “4”?

    Some dead guys who talked a lot about handguns back when America wasn’t sure we could go to the moon said that was important, and some older but still living guys keep saying we shouldn’t question the supreme wisdom of those dead guys.

    Reply

    • RKC

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      By those old guys are you talking about Bill Jordan, Jeff Cooper and Skeeter Skelton? They all happened to be combat marines with extensive experience fighting in the Pacific. Jordan and Skelton survived gunfights as peace officers and Skelton became a Special Agent in Charge of US Customs. I think that that is a respectable resume. Each saw it like it was and called it straight. If those are the dead guys you are talking about I can only say that I would not ask most of the modern generation of writers to shine their shoes, much less stand beside them. Archimedes, Newton and Browning are also dead buys. What is the point?

      Reply

    • Adam

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      Shining a light on hypocrisy is the point.

      The 9mm Luger cartridge is consistently belittled as inadequate in posts on this blog (such as your own recent “Big Bore Man” article) due to not meeting Jeff Cooper’s standard of starting with a “4”. Yet other sub-0.40 caliber rounds (such as the 38 Super featured here) are not only spared this derision but even praised for their performance.

      So, which of the following is it?

      1) Were Cooper, et al wrong about their insistence on “big bore” rounds?
      2) Is the 38 Special also inadequate due to not meeting this standard?
      3) Is the “big bore” argument only selectively applied when convenient for those making it?

      Reply

    • Adam

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      #2 above should read “38 Super” rather than “38 Special”.

      Typo on my part, and no edit feature to correct it.

      Reply

    • rkc

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      BTW
      Love your arguments and spirited conversation!
      YOu keep me on my toes.

      No, Cooper and Jordan also opinioned the .357 Magnum was good- and the .38 Super is almost there. In fact it beats quite a few .357 Magnum loads. If I could not have a 1911 .45 I would be OK with the Super and Cor Bon , Buffalo Bore or DT ammo.

      But then I do not have to make that choice.

      best

      RKC

      A broad viewpoint isn’t hypocrisy. It is outlining the view point of the best features of each cartridge. As an example If only Colts and Spring fields were reviewed, and the rest were not, that would not be fair. Of course the Rock isn’t a Colt but it seems to be pretty good.

      Reply

    • Adam

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      I have a great deal of respect for Cooper and the other luminaries of his time. They brought nothing short of a revolution to our understanding of fighting with a handgun and how to better teach it. However, as with great minds from any era (even the likes of Newton or Archimedes) their viewpoints were shaped by what they could study, observe, and experience in the context of their times.

      As a result, while many of their views are timeless others are heavily influenced by the practical options available to them at the time. Advanced in metallurgy and bullet design have brought us options they could likely have only imagined, and so some of their views will need to be re-evaluated in light of the practical options now available to us.

      They were, after all, eminently pragmatic men rather than dogmatic.

      Reply

  • Alex B

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    What can I say? 38 Super in a beautiful, Rock Island Armory no-nonsense upgraded 1911 GI package. Lowered and flared ejection port, parkerized, among other things.

    The 38 Super round is one of the best defensive rounds ever designed.
    You can also drop in either a 5.13″ Tokarev-1911 non-ramped barrel or a 5″ 9mm -1911 non-ramped barrel and have some fun with this particular hand cannon.

    RIA did their homework with this bad boy.

    I own one and either shoot competitive IDPA .38 Super with it or make it a 7.62×25 Tokarev hand cannon in 10 seconds.

    Reply

  • Jeff

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    Used a 38 super when I started shooting IPSC, switched from a 45. Loved the controllability and the extra rounds. Unfortunately I blew the gun apart trying to make major. Dumb ass me forgot I didn’t have a supported barrel. I currently own a RIA 1911 in 9mm, and will likely add a 38super to the collection

    Reply

    • Bob Campbell

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      Jeff,
      You can ship the gun to Bar Sto and have a .38 Super barrel fitted. Then grab some magazines and you are good to go. At one time it was necessary to open the breech face from .385 to .405 but Bar Sto tells me that most of the makers have a super breechface in 9mm. Good shooting!

      Reply

  • Paul Gould

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    I was building a 1911 and decided to use an alloy frame. With this in mind, I opted for the 38 super cartridge. I didn’t want the impact with the alloy frame from the 45 acp. The result was nothing short of amazing. The profile is commander and it shoots great. The performance exceeds the 38 special bullet for bullet and nearly equals the 357 mag. The limited case capacity limits the size of bullet, however, the 124-130 packs a more than acceptable punch for home defense. The tactical use, I settle for my 1911 45 acp or 10 mm.

    Reply

  • Chris

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    He means when he is pretending to be an “operator”. ….firing range.lol

    Reply

  • Dr. J.

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    I bought my first 1911 in 2013 in the last and unfortunately now gone gun shop in San Francisco. It is a full size 5 inch Rock Island 1911A1 GI 38 Super 9 rounds per mag and have put about 1200 rounds through it so far. I have almost always used the 130 grain rounds from armscor, Remington, Winchester, sig, fiocchi and magtech. This 1911 handles very well, field strips for cleaning very easily and the groupings after the first round or two are usually within an inch to 1 1/2 inches at approx 25 yards. All in all, I would recommend this 1911 to anyone wishing for this particular firearm. I have also installed a set of Recover Tactical grips that includes a railing system to hang a tac light or laser as I use this and the RIA 1911 GI .45 4.25 inch for home defense and eventual CC use. I have never had a feeding issue or any other problems with this firearm. Hope you find one soon.

    Rgds
    Dr. J.

    Reply

  • FB3

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    I am running this exact set up. What makes this such a great choice is you can hit hard like a 45 by running HP,S or have penatrating power by running FMJ,S and this is my go to over my 357 any day.

    Reply

  • john

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    I have always been a fan of the .38 Super, but I don’t have one – yet. I think that will be my next pistol.

    I have a question: what the heck is “for tactical use”? For home defense I would use this load, but for “tactical use I would ‘deploy'”…

    Reply

    • WR

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      Thanks for reading!

      For home defense a load that opens quickly and penetrates less is desirable– the Winchester Silvertip is a good choice.
      For tactical use included not only anti personnel but anti vehicle use and penetration is at a premium.

      Reply

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