The Super .38 Super: Part I

What's in a Name?
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Hollywood has never been known for being truthful. One of the greatest examples is the 1960s “Bonnie and Clyde.” These two bloodthirsty killers were portrayed as heroes while real hero, Texas Ranger Frank Hamer was not only pictured as a bumbling fool but captured by them. None of this is true! Frank Hamer was not only a very savvy law man, but Bonnie and Clyde never saw him until the end of their reign of terror. It’s doubtful they even saw him then. A much better portrayal of Frank Hamer and his partner Mannie Gault is found in the recent movie, “The Highwaymen” as they successfully pursue Bonnie and Clyde.

Frank Hamer had been a long time Texas Ranger. His first sixgun of choice was a .45 Colt SAA he named “Old Lucky,” but as advancements came along, he was quick to pick them up. In the 1930s he had switched from a lever action rifle to a Remington semi-automatic. The two pistols he carried were chambered in .44 Special and the .38 Super. During the Roaring 20s, police were armed primarily with .38 Special revolvers whose ammunition would not penetrate car bodies. Colt’s answer to this problem was the Model 1911 chambered in a more powerful version of the .38 ACP known as the .38 Super.

There has long been a friendly debate as to whether it is .38 Super or a Super .38. I’ve always referred to it as “.38 Super,” however I have noticed others referring to the “Super .38.” Fitz, John Henry FitzGerald who was really Mr. Colt between the two world wars, refers to it as the .38 Super Colt in his 1930 book. 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.”

Unlike the .45 ACP and the 9 mm Luger, both of which are considered rimless, the .38 Super is semi-rimmed which means the rim of the case is ever so slightly larger in diameter than the body of the case. This has caused problems. In 1929 Hatcher described the head spacing of the Super .38: “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 small shoulder formed on the overhanging lip on the top of the barrel.” From what we have heard from those shooting the early .38 Super this worked just fine, however, Colt apparently made a change and 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.” Col. Cooper said the same thing in his 1958 book, Fighting Handguns, as he 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.” My first Super .38/.38 Super was a Colt Commander in 1968 and it was definitely head-spaced incorrectly and would not stay on a piece of notebook paper at 25 yards until the barrel was replaced with one properly chambered.

What about the debate over whether it is a .38 Super or a Super .38? I looked at all the Colt .38 Super/Super .38 pistols I could come up with. All six of these, whether they were full-sized 1911s 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 one was a Colt Commander which said: “.38 Super Automatic.”

So what conclusions can we draw? We have companies marking their semi-automatic pistols both ways and all the ammunition I have seen is marked .38 Super. Now, thanks to the latest .38 Super/Super .38 I have been shooting, the debate/argument is over. Without a doubt this latest pistol is a Super .38 Super.