Loading The .38 Super

My experience with the .38 Super goes back more than 40 years. When the ’68 Gun Control Act was announced we really did not know what effect it would have on firearms production, so one of the handguns I bought to get in under the wire was a .38 Super Colt Commander. It turned out to be a disappointment. It simply would not shoot accurately. It’s not that either the cartridge or the Colt were at fault, it was simply the way it was chambered. Most semi-auto cartridges are referred to as rimless. Of course, they do have a rim, however it’s the same diameter as the body of the cartridge. Semi-autos headspace differently as seen by the rimless .45 ACP, which headspaces on the mouth of the cartridge.

The .38 Super is neither rimless nor rimmed but actually somewhere in between; call them semi-rimmed. The rim of the .38 Super is .022″ larger in diameter than the body of the case, resulting in only .011″ of rim on each side for headspacing. Quite often this would not be enough, and often the blow of the firing pin would move the case forward far enough to cause misfires. That was the problem with my old Commander.

I finally sent it off to Bill Wilson, who installed a new barrel, cut for headspacing on the mouth of the case and the problem was solved. Groups shrunk from 12″ at 25 yards to 2″, without even searching for the best load. If you have an older .38 Super with accuracy problems this could be the solution.


.38 Super — Special Selected Loads

Test-Fire: Wilson Combat 5″ .38 Super

.38 Super Load MV (fps) 5 Shots/20 Yards (Inches)
RCBS #38-150KT/5.0 gr. Unique 1,120 1-1/4
Oregon Trail158RN/5.0 gr. Unique 1,045 1
Oregon Trail 147FN/5.0 gr. Universal 1,127 1-3/8
Oregon Trail 125RN/5.0 gr. Universal 1,182 1
Speer 115 GDHP/8.0 gr. HS6 1,179 1
Sierra 115 FMJ/7.5 gr. Power Pistol 1,383 7/8
Speer 124 GDHP/7.0 gr. Power Pistol 1,260 1-3/8
Hornady 124 XTPJHP/7.0 gr. Power Pistol 1,256 1-1/8
Hornady 147 XTPJHP/6.0 gr. Power Pistol ,064 1-3/8

Test-Fire: Springfield Armory Mil-Spec 5″ .38 Super

Load MV (fps) 5 Shots/20 Yds (Inches)
Lyman #358156GC/5.7 gr. Unique 1,150 7/8
Oregon Trail158RN/5.0 gr. Unique 1,059 1-1/8
Hornady 115 XTPJHP/7.5 gr. Power Pistol 1,384 1-1/8
Speer 115 GDHP/8.0 gr. HS6 1,221 1-1/8
Sierra 115 FMJ/7.5 gr. Power Pistol 1,361 1-3/8

Test-Fire: Colt Custom Stainless 1911 5″ .38 Super

Load MV (fps) 5 Shots/20 Yards (Inches)
RCBS #38-150KT/5.0 gr. Unique 1,125 1-1/4
Oregon Trail 147FN/6.0 gr. Power Pistol 1,186 1-3/8
Sierra 115 FMJ/7.5 gr. Power Pistol 1,379 1-1/8

Test-Fire: Colt Commander 4-1/4″

Load MV (fps) 5 Shots/20 Yards (Inches)
Oregon Trail 147FN/5.0 gr. Universal 1,150 1-1/8
Oregon Trail 125RN/5.0 gr. Universal 1,179 1
Hornady 115 XTPJHP/7.5 gr. Power Pistol 1,385 1
Sierra 115 FMJ/7.5 gr. Power Pistol 1,372 1-3/8

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5 thoughts on “Loading The .38 Super

  1. jim

    I’ve got a 1935 Colt .38 super that is amazingly accurate, and it’s not even a match grade. The only reason I no longer shoot it is because the value has risen to the insanity level and because it’s getting harder to find .38 super ammo that’s not +p.

    1. Michael

      I’ve got a Colt Combat Commander, in .38 Super (bought in 1975) that would not shoot. Installed a Bar Sto barrel and now it will shoot inside 2″ at 25 yards, if I do my part. Been reloading for this fabulous pistol since the day I bought it and will continue to shoot 124 grain JHP at about 1100 fps. Great carry pistol.

    2. Chris

      I hear you on the value of the pistol but I think you might be mistaken on the .38 Super/.38 Super +P.

      AFAIK, they are one in the same. There is no higher pressure standard for .38 Super +P over .38 Super, manufacturers simply started adding the +P moniker to it as further alert that is is –NOT– safe for older .38 Automatic pistols.

      The +P addition is one of the most widely corrupted and abused terms in all of handloading.

  2. Michael

    I have a Colt Combat Commander, in .38 Super I purchased in 1969 at the Patch Barracks Rod & Gun Club, Stuttgart, Germany. I had always shot a .45 ACP before that and could not understand why this little .38 was so horrid. When I got back to the States, I had a BarSto barrel installed and problem solved. I shoot 124 grain cast bullets in it now and it is such a joy to shoot. I am amazed at the prices of these great pistols now-a-days, but will not sell this one.

    1. 103David

      The key and common denominator to this accuracy problem is changing that darn barrel out. As most of the rest of these folks did, I put that same BarSto barrel in and the result was bordering on magical. I (perhaps) cheated a little and also had It MagnaPorted to hold the flip down a bit, fitted the guide-rod with a stiffer recoil spring and poly buffer and the Series 70 5″ Gov is likely the most accurate pistol I own. Way better shot than I am. Dead reliable, too.
      I’m using 125 gr Rainier plated bullets with the full Hornady recommended charge of HS-6 which gives just a little less than 1300 FPS. Also gives a very satisfying “WHAP” out the front end not to mention a quite entertaining pyrotechnic demonstration in dim light, what with the MagnaPorting and all.
      Now here’s a little secret for you…buy yourself another Bar-sto barrel in 9mmP, swap that .38 Super barrel out for the 9mm one and Shazam…you got yourself an entirely viable second caliber. A darned sight easier to come by brass and loaded ammo, too. On my pistol, everything, including the magazine, works just as well whether using 9mm or .38 super. Do remember your .45 ACP pistol won’t work with this trick, but you can use either a 9mm or .38 Super pistol to start and all that needs changing is the barrel. At this point, I’ve got about 5000 rounds through my pistol with no appreciable wear and all I do is change the recoil spring and the buffer regularly. While this finagling has been an easy, accurate and reliable modification for my pistol, your pistol may need a a little additional finagling.

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