.38 Super Or Super .38?


From top, clockwise, a Wilson Combat, Kimber Target II and
Colt Custom Combat Government — all .38 Supers.

When it came to semi-autos, like many teenagers from my era I had one of the 1911 Government Model .45’s and a source for military hardball. When I moved my family across the country in 1966 the .45 was in a flap holster under the seat of my 1965 Ford Station Wagon. As far as I was concerned the .45 was the do-all and end-all when it came to semi-autos. I also had a copy of Jeff Cooper’s book Fighting Handguns from 1958 and it definitely supported my choice. However, Col. Cooper mentioned another cartridge I hardly paid any attention to until the Gun Control Act of 1968.

With the passing of GCA ’68 we really did not know what effect it would have on firearms availability. When it was originally announced I did not wait to see what implementation would bring but grabbed my credit card and headed to the local department store with a gun department. They had three Colt Commanders in the display case and just as now, I had a hard time making decisions. I did what I almost always advise those who ask, namely “Buy ’em both.” Except in this case I bought all three.

One was a .45 ACP, one was a 9mm, and the third was a .38 Super. I had never shot or even seen a .38 Super, however, I did recall Col. Cooper had good things to say about the .38 Super as what he called a “Trail Gun.” For me, the .38 Super was only the beginning and it soon became my favorite choice of semi-auto cartridges.

It took some doing for this to become a favored cartridge, though, as that original .38 Super would not keep all its shots on a piece of notebook paper at 25 yards. I sent it off to Bill Wilson to see what could be done and he fitted it with a new barrel. The new barrel was not marked .38 Super but rather Wilson Super .38. Whatever the marking, this barrel was a great improvement and my first magazine full of cartridges through this new barrel not only stayed on a piece of notebook paper — it put all 10 shots inside 2″. Now I had a .38 Super that worked.

These Colt .38 Supers are a satin-finished stainless steel Commander
and a high-polished stainless Custom — John’s favorite .38 Super Bar-B-Q gun.

Early Shooters

I looked through some of the early writings on the .38 Super such as found in John Henry FitzGerald’s 1930 book Shooting to see what Fitz, who was basically the face of Colt during the time between the two world wars, had to say. He praised the .38 Super as not only being flatter shooting but more accurate than the .45 ACP.

The first review of the .38 Super appeared in the May 1929 American Rifleman, written by Major Hatcher, who was a mainstay at the magazine at the time. He also praised the .38 Super for its accuracy and pointed out the new cartridge did not headspace on the mouth of the case as did the .45 ACP but rather on the rim of the case. The rim of the .38 Super cartridge is quite small. Both of these men found nothing lacking when it came to accuracy. However, something must’ve gone wrong in the ensuing years.

By the time I had my first .38 Super that little rim was the problem when it came to accuracy. It was simply not large enough to hold the case properly and accuracy suffered. Bill Wilson understood this and it’s exactly how he addressed the problem. His barrel did not headspace on the rim but rather on the mouth of the case, and it made all the difference.

There’s no accuracy problem with Colt .38 Supers produced in the
last several decades. Here a stock Colt proves it.

What’s In A Name?

I’ve always referred to it as “.38 Super” however I’ve noticed others referring to the “Super .38” so I begin to try to find out which is correct. Fitz, in his 1930 book, refers to it as the .38 Super Colt. However, Major Hatcher, one year earlier, entitled his article “The New Colt Super .38 Automatic.”

Hatcher talks of shooting long-range with the Super .38: “My first shot with it was over the water. We stood on a little headland and fired at a floating oil can 200 yards offshore. The bullet seemed to be right there as soon as the trigger was pulled, and there was a vicious crack as the bullet struck the water just under the can. Then I fired with the same hold, using an Army .45. There was an appreciable interval before the bullet dropped in the water with a dull plop about three-fourths of the way out… A number of shots with both guns showed the results described was no accident, for the same thing happened each time.” Later on he talks of shooting with his son and he says: “The gun shoots better than the shooter holds.”

He also addresses how the Super .38 headspaces: “The .38 Automatic cartridge is crimped over at the front end, and there is no shoulder at the front end of the case. The cartridge is stopped in its position in the gun by a small shoulder formed on the overhanging lip on the top of the barrel.”

Bill Wilson’s Custom .38 Super rests on a copy of Col. Cooper’s book. It proved to John a “Super .38”could shoot.

Things Change

Apparently this was all it needed at the time, however something went wrong, as by the 1960s the .38 Super had a notorious reputation for inaccuracy. Hatcher closes his evaluation of the Super .38 thusly: “A good shot armed with the new Super .38 would have no reason to be afraid of a man 150 yards away armed with a Government automatic .45. Chances are the man with the Super .38 can make the other lay down his gun.”

Col. Cooper also refers to it as the Super .38 and says, “The Super shoots flat and accurately and is about the only auto pistol I like to use for trail work on small game and varmints.”

This brings us to Douglas Sheldon’s excellent book Colt’s Super .38: The Production History from 1929 through 1971 (1997). He says the year 1971 was picked as the cutoff since before this time “… The Super .38 Model was listed in the company catalog as a separate model. It was replaced by the 70 Series pistols which simply offered the Model O in three different calibers.”

Unique is still an excellent choice for reloading the .38 Super —
and here’s a rare early Springfield Armory Super!

The Samples

I then looked at all the .38 Super/Super .38 pistols I could come up with. Six of these were Colt versions. All of them, whether they were full-sized 1911’s or Commanders, were marked on the barrel: “Colt Super .38 Auto” and only one of the six was marked on the slide with the chambering. This was a Colt Commander marked: “.38 Super Automatic.”

Whatever the problem with Colts in the 1960s has been solved and all of these .38 Supers now shoot very well. My first .38 Super with the Wilson barrel is marked on the barrel: “Wilson Super .38” as is a 1911-sized Wilson Combat Classic. Both Springfield Armory and Kimber mark their semi-automatics “.38 Super.” It has been a while since Springfield Armory offered the .38 Super, however, a few decades back they did produce their Mil-Spec 1911 in this favored cartridge.

We have companies marking their semi-autos pistols both ways, and all the ammunition I have seen is marked .38 Super. The best I can come up with is patterned after Sheldon’s theory, which is, the original model was the Super .38 and all subsequent models have been .38 Supers. It really doesn’t matter what we call them today. I just know it’s a “Super” semi-auto pistol and cartridge

Read More Sixgunner Articles

Subscribe To American Handgunner

Purchase A PDF Download Of The American Handgunner jan/Feb 2020 Issue Now!