By John Taffin
Although we call it the .38 Super the correct name is Super .38. Early advertising, the box it came in, and the guns themselves were all marked: “Super .38.” The roots of the .38 Super go back to John Browning’s .38 Colt Automatic.
I got bit by the “Super” bug early. I first encountered Jeff Cooper’s writing in a paperback book called Fighting Handguns. This was 1958 and Cooper was just starting to become well known. My love affair with the .38 Super began with the high praise Col. Cooper had for the .38 Super. Nearly 60 years ago when Cooper, who always pushed the .45 ACP, published a picture of a custom .38 Super 1911 and wrote that as a trail gun it would shoot rings around any 1911 chambered in .45 ACP, especially for targets such as crows and coyotes — I was hooked.
Targets shot with the Wilson Custom and Colt Special Combat with the
Oregon Trail 147FN. If you get it right, a Super will shoot just fine!
Most of my early loading for my first .38 Super was done with two bullets. One was Speer’s 125-gr. JSP that I loaded to a full 1,300+ muzzle velocity using Unique. The other was my favorite .357 Magnum bullet, the Lyman/Thompson #358156 gas check design. These weighed right at 158 grains when gas-checked and lubed. For use in the .357 Magnum sixgun they are sized to .358″, however for the .38 Super I size them down to .356″.
I have used anywhere from 5.0 to 6.0 grains of Unique, finally settling on 5.7 grains. This load clocks out at 1,200+ fps from a Kimber Stainless Target II and a Wilson Custom, both with 5″ barrels. It’s a high performance load and should be reduced a minimum of one grain of powder for a starting load.
Shooting cast bullets, especially heavier cast bullets, in the .38 Super is an interesting experience. A load shooting very well in one .38 Super may deliver shotgun-sized patterns in another — along with keyholes! If they work, they work well, and if they don’t it can be very frustrating.
One of my most-used heavier cast bullets in the .38 Super is the Lyman #358311, a round-nosed bullet originally designed for the .38 Special. My load of choice is 5.0 grains of Unique. In the Kimber Target II or the Wilson Custom it clocks out right at 1,065–1,075 fps with a 5-shot group at 20 yards of 1″. Cast hard combined with the round nose results in flawless feeding in just about any .38 Super.
Those pesky .38 Super cast bullet loads can shoot well — or give
keyholes — depending upon the bullet and the pistol. All of these
loads used bullets in the 158-gr. range loaded over 5.0 grains of
Unique but were fired from different guns here.
Heavyweight bullets used include the Oregon Trail 158RN,
and from RCBS, the #38-150KT and #38-158GC.
For an SWC bullet, which is much more effective, I mostly use the two RCBS .357 Magnum bullets, the #38-150KT and the #38-158GC. The former is plain-based while the latter is a gas-checked design. With their SWC shape for dependable feeding they must be seated with the front shoulder flush with the case mouth. My standard loads for both of these is 5.0 grains of Unique. With the #38-150KT the velocities are from 1,050 fps to 1,100+ fps. This load gives 11/4″ and 11/8″ groups in the Kimber and Wilson 1911’s respectively.
The great surprise is how well it shoots in a Colt Special Combat Government Model. This particular Colt can be very picky about cast bullets, however, it’s exceptionally accurate with this load, grouping in 1″ range. This same load under the #38-158GC also shoots well in the Kimber and Wilson but groups are almost 3″ in the Colt. The answer is not simple; you just have to experiment.
For a commercial hard-cast bullet I mostly use the Oregon Trail 147 FP. Over 8.0 grains of AA#7 this load clocks out at 1,170 fps and groups in 1″ or less in most Supers. Switching to the Hornady 147 XTP and 8.6 grains of AA#7 results in muzzle velocities of 1,170 fps. This is the most accurate load I have found, grouping 5/8″ in the Kimber Target II. Hornady’s 140-gr. .357 Magnum bullet also works well in the .38 Super. Loaded over 8.5 grains of AA#7 results in muzzle velocities from 1,130 to 1,170 fps and very small groups.
All of these loads should be approached with caution and worked up to accordingly.
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