Ammunition

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

1911 pistol with 3 boxes of ammunition and two empty magazines

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.

The Mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!'s blog, The Shooter's Log, is to provide information—not opinions—to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (36)

  1. 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

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

    1. 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?

    2. 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?

    3. #2 above should read “38 Super” rather than “38 Special”.

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

    4. 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.

    5. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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

    1. 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!

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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'”…

    1. 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.

  10. I’ve shot 38 supers in tn the past but never bought on because of the meager choice of ammo for them. If ammo mfgrs. start producing more choices/bigger variety, I’ll revisit the idea of buying one. They handle like 9mm +P but have a bit more punch on target…good combo.

  11. I’ve owned and used a Colt MK IV series 70 chambered in. 38 Super for around thirty three years and have no qualms about using it for any defensive situation.
    I personally prefer my own hand load with the Hornady 147 gr XTP hollow point, its a hard hitting round that takes care of anything in front of it.

  12. Out of the box, my Rock Island .38 Super became my favorite 1911. Accuracy was much better than I could normally accomplish with my .45, and recoil seemed much less.

    My only regret is that I didn’t immediately order an RIA .38 Super in Nickel. Instead, I procrastinated, and before long, this model was dropped from their catalog.

  13. .38 Superauto is my favorite 1911 round. I own 2 1911’s in the caliber. I am heartened to see that ammo manufacturers are starting to pay more attention to this really neat caliber, with their improving the heft and punch of newer rounds. I bought my first 1911 .38 Super over 40 years ago.

  14. In practical terms, how does the .38 Super differ from the same-caliber (.356 and .357 being so close as to be no real difference) 9mm loads (9×19 / luger / parabellum, 9×18 / Makarov, and 9×17 / 380ACP / 9mm short / kurz)?

    If I had a 1911 chambered in .38 Super and a twin 1911 chambered in 9×19, is there a practical advantage to either?

    The .38 Special projectile weights and muzzle velocities seem very close to popular 9×19 loads. The only measurable difference i can find is that the .38 Super has about 25% more case capacity than the 9×19, so I am assuming that a “hot” .38 Super could carry more energy than an equally “hot” / +p+ 9×19.

    But does that difference in case capacity translate to a real life side-by-side performance advantage for the .38 Special? If so, re-loaders, especially, might want to take note of the bigger bang of the .38 Special with nearly identical re-loading as 9×19.

    1. The hottest 9×19 load I have personally measured pushed a 125 gr. bullet at 1242 fps. Comparing the same 125 gr. bullet the .38 Super (in the guise of 9×23 Winchester) clocks in at 1605 fps. In terms of energy that’s 428 ft-lbs. vs. 715 ft-lbs. Decide for yourself.

    2. 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.

      Perhaps you should go back and actually read this report.

      .38 SUPER USES FAST BURNING POWDER AND THERE IS LESS RECOIL ENERGY THAN THE .357 MAGUN WITH SIMILAR LOADS

      the .380 acp may use a .357 inch bullet but it certainly isn’t in 9mm class!

      The .38 Super can better the 9mm by 150 fps— more with some bullet weights such as the 90 grain XTP at 1600 fps

  15. Here we go again; the old fight between pistols and revolvers, .38 super versus .357 or .45. I believe the .38 super died a tragic death when the 10 mmm arrived on the scene. I’m not saying that it isn’t a good caliber, but doesn’t one think that the bullets are a bit light? The .45 shoots 185 or 230 gr bullets and although one CAN purchase super up LEO 110 gr .357 bullets the norm is 158 gr or one can use what I do and shoot the 180 gr truncated cone HP bullets. Let’s go back to the story that used to be told when the CT State police turned in their Smith & Wesson .357s for the Beretta 9mm and they cornered a perp high on drugs: it took 28 rounds to put him down, but not before he took four officers with him! One really needs to bring enough gun to a fight if one expects to walk away. .The .45 and .357 are better cartridges. It is too bad that the desert Eagle in .357 weighs so much!

    1. How much “better” is a 125 gr. .357 JHP bullet at 1450 fps. than a .355 JHP bullet at 1605 fps (or even JSP at 1450 fps if you want to stick to factory loads)? And don’t forget the 17-round magazine.

    2. Caliber cannot be a substitute for shot placement. 45acp and 357mag do not have enough magazine capacity.

    3. Neither can you miss fast enough to catch up.
      I am sometimes afraid we have seen come up a generation of shooters trained by television and the cinema that believe that if you blast enough something will come down. A trained shooter with a defensive handgun- even a high cap 9mm- should train for an accurate first shot to the place it will do the most good.

      A fast presentation with and a single hit will do the business.

      If you need more shots reload the piece. Fifty rounds in the target is nice in a training course but a single round in the X ring is reality and what it takes to survive.

    4. You are correct: only hits count. You can’t miss fast enough to win a gunfight. A hit with a light calibre is better than a miss with a howitzer. All these things are true, but we are discussing the *relative* merits of the .38 Super and its variants versus other common (and some not-so-common) pistol cartridges — and I include revolvers. The .38 Super and the 9×23 Winchester which is basically a .38 Super +P+ are relatively easy to shoot accurately for most shooters. So are many other rounds. It is available in several different “normal-sized” defensive handguns; so are many other cartridges. The salient point is that the .38 Super gives you power above the 9×19 and close to the .357 Magnum, both of which are good defensive cartridges. It also can provide you with a 17-round magazine if you choose a pistol with a double-stack magazine. It does this without sacrificing anything. unless you are looking for a true pocket pistol. Calibre is not a magic wand. Almost all handgun cartridges are marginal in true stopping power. Choose one that you can shoot accurately, both for the first shot and for follow-up shots. I believe the .38 Super fills that bill as well as almost any handgun cartridge.

  16. I have used the .38 Super cartridge since sometime in the 1980s when I bought an Astra A80 pistol and the seller didn’t have the .45 I was looking for but did have one in .38 Super. I never looked back. I have been fortunate enough to never have had to use any of my firearms in self-defense, so I have no first-hand experience there. That old A80 was accurate and reliable. The ballistic data for the new Double Tap loads looks very encouraging, getting close to even the 9×23 Winchester which has sadly been orphaned by Winchester. Today I was carrying an EAA Witness semi-Compact (17-round magazine and 3.6″ barrel) with a full load of 9×23 loaded with 125 gr. Hornady XTP bullets. That loading gives me a measured 1451 fps out of that 3.6″ barrel (and it’s been Magna-Ported too) for 584 ft-lbs. of energy. That’s very comparable to the 125 gr. .357 Magnum load that has such a good record of stopping bad guys.I consider this a very good self-defense combination. I am sure that the 1911 platform will do well also if that’s your cup of tea (or coffee) but I find the double-stack magazine makes for a more comfortable grip — and there is that 17+1 round capacity. If your barrel has a fully-supported chamber the venerable .38 Super Auto cartridge can be loaded hot enough to give you .357 Magnum performance out of an autopistol of a reasonable size. I would like to know more about these Double Tap loads, specifically if they are safe to use in a standard 1911-type barrel with its unsupported chamber head.
    Bottom line: the .38 Super is a great self-defense calibre and I am glad to see it getting some attention.

    1. Bob Clevenger,
      I think you’ve got the right attitude about the cartridge, which is what the commenters seem to be arguing about. Well done, your case is made.

      I would like to say, about Wilburn Roberts (the guy who wrote the article) that his case is POORLY made.
      This article is just another in a LONG sad line of thinly disguised marketing advertisements.
      He’s clearly just hawking the new products from Rock Island and Double-Tap. BORING. Predictable. Nothing new to see here, it’s ANOTHER 1911 and some knucklehead is fawning over it as though it popped out of his wife’s tummy.

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