The .380 automatic or .38 ACP had been around since about 1905 and was almost as powerful as the 9mm Luger. However, the Colt Model 1900 that fired the .38 ACP was incapable of firing a cartridge of any higher power.
High power guns, especially the easy to carry and conceal automatics were demanded more and more by law enforcement agencies at the time, so Colt created the .38 Super, also now known as the .38 Super+P.
Below is an original factory engraved Colt .38 Super, it is nickel plated, complete with Mother of Pearl grips. The serial number 6744 dates it from 1930.
In 1929, Colt introduced this very powerful new caliber to meet demand, and it was Colt's tough M1911 and M1911A1 automatic pistol that was chambered to fire it. When the .38 Super was introduced it was the most powerful automatic pistol cartridge in the world, even more powerful than the bigger .45 caliber that the gun was originally designed to shoot.
Indeed the Colt .38 Super was an adaptation of the world famous 1911A1 Colt .45 Government pistol and was the most powerful handgun round at the time. The .38 Super was chambered for this rather spectacular engraved Colt Super Match 1911A1, as seen below. The .38 Super is still used today and remains in a respected league as an accurate and powerful round to fire.
As an added bonus over the .45 caliber, the .38 Super's magazine also held nine rounds as opposed to seven rounds of the .45 and as all shooters agree...the more the merrier! Those extra two powerful rounds could be the difference between life and death is a shootout.
The Colt M1911 .38 Super was selected to become a special edition piece to honor Vincente Guerrero the 2nd president of Mexico August 10th 1782 – February 14th 1831. Shown below is this pistol, designated as the Colt .38 Super La Patria Gold Cup National Match pistol.
The pistol was a Colt Gold Cup competition grade piece and it featured exclusive Colt factory furnishings like the gold plated barrel bushing, hammer spur and strut. Old style factory roll marks with high polished stainless steel slide with 24 carat gold embellishments and the words La Patria with the rampant Colt horse logo and Vincent Guerrero and the date of his presidency.
It is maybe because of the Mexican restrictions that the .38 Super did not fade away, as more powerful guns were being developed in the U.S.A and hence was ideal to be depicted by Colt on the anniversary La Patria model. Of course the standard factory .38 Super, as seen below, was more affordable than an embellished and engraved commemorative edition.
The .38 Super was very popular in Mexico, Central, and South America where it was the most powerful pistol cartridge available to civilians, that was not a military cartridge. Mexico adopted the .45ACP for their police and military, and thereafter banned all private citizens from owning .45ACP caliber firearms, thus the .38 Super+P was the Mexican civilians gun of choice.
The Colt M1911 was generally chambered for the .38 Super, but Colt M1911 copies such as the Llama, Star, Taurus, and Astra were also chambered for this round. Shown below is a superb custom Taurus PT 1911 AR .38 Super+P.
The .38 Super cartridge in the center of the photo below is shown next to a .45ACP on the left and a 9mm on the right. There does not initially appear to be too much difference between them, all being physically nearly the same size. However, each bullet performs differently, each bullet has its own velocity, its own trajectory, its own pressure and its own accuracy and penetration properties...so in affect, they are all indeed greatly different from one another.
From Left to right, the .45 ACP, the .38 Super and the 9mm, at near actual size.
In 1974 the firearms industry added the renown +P (extra pressure) head-stamp to the .38 Super cartridge case to further distinguish it from the common lower pressure .38 ACP. In fact, all ammunition manufacturers now stamp " +P " or " P " on all cartridges that fire high pressure rounds, regardless of their caliber.
Below is shown a magnified image of a fired .38 Super+P cartridge case where the identifying " +P " is quite visible.
The standard .38 special has a muzzle velocity of around 980 fps with a 110 grain bullet whilst the .38 Super+P can exceed 1500 fps with the right loads. For example, a 90 grain JHP will have a muzzle velocity of 1557 fps delivering a massive 485 ft-lb or 658 Joules of energy.
The maximum pressure level for .38 Super+P is an amazing 36,500 psi. This is actually 500 psi more power than the awesome .44 Remington Magnum, which is not exactly underpowered itself. This makes the .38 Super+P the highest pressure pistol cartridges in the world today...for its caliber.
Below is the Taurus PT 1911 AR .38 Super+P finished in parkerized combat matt black.
Just to compare to a real heavy duty high power cartridge, the megga powerful .454 Casull Magnum produces a colossal 65,000 psi, so the .38 Super+P is over half the power, which is monumental for this standard sized round.
Below is shown an image of an excellent custom 1911 Springfield Armory .38 Super+P semi-automatic. It has walnut checkered grips embossed with the Springfield Armory logo, extended grip safety, high profile target sights, match grade trigger and is finished off with a chrome barrel bushing. This excellent .38 Super+P pistol is finished with a special parkerized black anti-rust, anti-glare coating.
The reason why the F.B.I and C.I.A soon adopted the .38 Super into its arsenal, was because it was a real man stopper. Even the criminals who took to wearing the early so called bullet-proof vests were no match for the stopping power of the .38 Super that could punch a whole straight through the vest, killing the occupant inside at over fifty yards away.
In the 1930's gangsters, bank robbers and armed fugitives such as John Dillinger were using automobiles during their hold ups and also for the getaway from the crime scene. It was found that the standard issue .38, .38 Special or even the .45ACP lacked the velocity needed to propel the bullet adequately through a car windshield.
Below is the Colt Super Match .38 Super, finished in nickel plate, complimented by Mother of Pearl grips. With serial number 34982 it dates from 1940.
These bullets did not retain enough energy to mortally injure the occupants at distances over fifty yards. It is documented that most shoot outs with these bad guys occurred at these relatively shorter distances.
The .38 Super however, had the potential to penetrate automobile bodies and kill the occupants inside over longer distances. With velocities reaching 1400 fps with a bullet pressure equalling that of the later day .44 Magnum, the .38 Super was in high demand. The down side to this was that the criminal fraternity were also getting their hands on them, and the .38 Super became the favorite pistol of infamous hoods, Baby Face Nelson and John Dillinger..more about these two later.
Below is shown a beautiful high polished, nickel plated, Springfield Armory 1911A1 .38 Super+P with pearl grips. A superb looking pistol, if ever I saw one!
The Springfield Armory 1911A1 variation actually has better fit and finish to many of its contemporaries...I know this as I actually owned one in .45 caliber, although that particular one had a green Milspec parkerized finish.
The .38 Super+P cartridge is considerably more powerful than the 9mm Luger, the .380 Auto and even the longer cased .38 Special. There is no interchangeability with the .38 Super, and shooters are warned not to use this caliber in other guns, even if the dimensions look to be the same, as the 38 Super+P could blow it apart. All said and done, the .38 Super+P is apparently pleasant cartridge to shoot, with modest recoil and superb accuracy.
THE .38 SUPER+P TODAY...
So where is the .38 Super today? Well it was overtaken in 1935 with the introduction of the .357 Magnum revolver, and as most federal agents and law enforcement officers preferred the more reliable and almost jam free high powered .357 Magnum revolvers, the .38 Super fell into the shadows somewhat.
In today's high tech world, the .38 Super+P has been equalled with cartridges like the .357 SIG and 9mm+P, all of which can produce roughly the same power and energy levels as the .38 Super+P. It has been stated though, that with the use of modern day powders that the .38 Super+P can equal or at best even supersede all other semi-automatics in both power and accuracy apart from the devastating Desert Eagle .357 Magnum AE, .44 Magnum AE, and the awesome .50 AE. AE of course designates the caliber as Auto-Express and differentiates the round from revolver ammunition.
In its heyday however, the .38 Super was the best semi-automatic around and pioneered the advent of the high powered handgun. As stated earlier, criminals were now using cars and body armor, so law enforcement agencies wanted more powerful handguns to punch holes through them and the .38 Super was well up to the task.
Below is shown another Taurus custom, the exquisite PT 1911 AR .38 Super+P, with polished steel finish, gold plated parts and accompanied with smooth pearl grips.
Although now superseded, the .38 Super+P is still a cartridge that shooters enjoy firing and it can often be found in the hands of novices and marksmen alike in many shooting competitions across the USA. In many instances, the .38 Super+P is making a serious stand up and be noticed comeback.
The below image is of a target that was shot at from fifteen yards using Corbon 100 grain PowRball bullets, as you can see, the grouping is very tight, just one big hole with at least one shot going through the same hole!
JOHN DILLINGER .38 SUPER FANATIC
A machine gun is truly automatic in that it will keep firing as long as the trigger is depressed....unless your name is John Dillinger of course. In fact Dillinger and Baby Face Nelson both had a Colt M1911A1 .38 Super pistols converted to fire on full automatic. John Dillinger's gun featured a custom extended magazine, a forward grip adapted off a Thompson Submachine gun and a Cutts compensator on the muzzle to arrest some of the recoil.
The image below is of the actual gun Dillinger carried, as recovered by the F.B.I and is now situated in a museum. Maybe Dillinger would have been better suited as a gunsmith!
The main idea behind this extensive modification was to enable Dillinger and Nelson to have a totally concealable submachine gun. They could place the pistol in a large coat pocket and then just walk into a bank, pull out the gun, snap the magazine in and they were ready to go.
Below John Dillinger in the early 1930's poses with his Thompson Submachine gun with drum magazine and his beloved Colt M1911A1 .38 Super.
Dillinger would have found that a shoulder stock would have been needed too, as this adapted pistol would have been quite uncontrollable to fire accurately. Or maybe he wasn't too bothered and his adapted pistol would have been used for close up work against several closing in law enforcers, in which case it would have been quite deadly. The extended magazine would have emptied in just over a second or so.
Below is a professional factory adapted Colt M1911A1 .38 Super+P, with shoulder stock! It is not sure whether Dillinger actually had this particular gun in his arms cache though.
As stated earlier, the concealment factor would also have been greatly advantageous, a lot of firepower in your coat pocket! Dillinger always preferred the .38 Super in place of the .45ACP as it was more accurate, more powerful and Dillinger didn't like anyone getting back up once he had shot them!
Had the fearsome .44 Magnum been around in the early 1930's then you can bet your bottom dollar that Dillinger would have used one of those too...quite extensively.
Below is shown a photo of John Dillinger's actual Colt M1911A1 .38 Super...being handled with extreme care as its now a museum exhibit. It was manufactured in 1931 and has the serial number 12187 which is stamped on the lower frame. The right hand side of the pistols slide was later engraved with the message...
"Taken from fugitive John Dillinger when caught by Dayton Police Sep 22 1933 R.G. Wurstiner "
Dayton Police Chief, Rudolph Wurstiner, carried this " trophy " gun around with him on duty until 1949, it would have been quite a show piece to impress any discerning viewers of it. Later a member of Chief Wurstiner's family donated the gun to the Dayton Police Departments collection of historic artefacts, where it is still in storage to this day.
COLT SERIAL NUMBERS
Below is an image of the Colt Series 80 MKIV Gold Cup National Match, chambered for the .38 Super+P. It is finished in stainless steel and equipped with adjustable rear sight, match grade trigger, and checkered rubber composite grips to resist slippage in the hand whilst firing, also giving it a sleek look.
The Colt Government is still one of my all time favorite pistols, a very successful and reliable design that also looks cool and business like.
If the truth be known, John Moses Browning actually drafted the design for this gun whilst he was working on his own semi-auto variant, the 9mm Hi-Power. All of the designs, specifications and patents were later sold to Colt, which is why it is designated as a Colt and not a Browning.
Below is the Colt Commander.38 Super, this is a shorter version of the Government model.
The heavily engraved model below is a collectors dream. Its nice to see these engraved and embellished pistols, they usually command high prices too.
Below is another Colt Government M1911 .38 Super+P, this time fitted with original Colt diamond pattern walnut grips and the pistol has a nice traditional blued finish. It is amazing to think that this popular semi-auto, in various calibers, has now been around for over one hundred years and is still going strong.
Modern semi-automatics are all now generally double action whereas these old Colt designs are still strictly single action. Single action implies that if the hammer is down, it will have to be manually cocked by the thumb before it can be fired. After loading in a magazine and racking the slide back, this will of course also cock the hammer.
With most double action semi automatics, actually firing via double action is best left for home defence, FBI, CIA undercover work and police or military shoot outs. However, at the local gun range, then its single action all the way, that is...if you want to hit a target at twenty-five yards! Generally most people have guns for target and fun shooting anyway, so the Colt 1911 with its single action hammer is still a great gun.
Page created August 8th 2009. Updated January 6th 2013