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.

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Comments (36)

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. .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.

  5. 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.


      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

  6. 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.

  7. 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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