Saturday, January 6, 2018

Firing the .38 Super

I have been fascinated with the .38 Super Automatic round for as long as I can remember, probably 40 or so years.  I finally got to fire a .38 super recently, and I want to tell you about it.

The .38 Super was a slightly more powerful version of the original .38 Automatic, around which the sainted John Moses Browning designed his automatic pistol of 1900 produced by Colt as the M1900.  You can find a history of the round here. Interestingly, after the development of the M1911 pistol for the Army, which fired the famed .45 Auto cartridge, it was discovered that a slightly more powerful round could be fired though the same weapon, if the barrel and chamber were modified for the different size cartridge and bullet.

The .38 Special of the era was a rather anemic round that was easily defeated by both automobile bodies and the body armor of the day.  But it was the round carried by most police officers.  Note that the .38 Super, with its .356 in diameter, 130 grain bullet is not related to the .38 Special, which fired a .357 in diameter, 158 grain bullet. The rather under powered .38 Special, however, caused people to look for a more powerful round.   Thus was born the .38 Super Automatic, the "Super" indicating that these rounds were loaded to a higher pressure, thus higher power that the .38 Special. For a few years in the early 1930s, the .38 Super Automatic was the most powerful handgun on the market. It could penetrate automobile bodies and the body armor of its day. But the introduction of the .357 Magnum cartridge and revolver to match ended police interest in the .38 Super round.

To be honest, the design of the original .38 Super pistols head spaced the cartridge on its rim rather than on the case mouth, which didn't contribute to accuracy.  Then there was the fact that a revolver would fire under the worst adverse conditions, whereas the automatics of the day were also somewhat unreliable "jamomatics."  A police officer, when he had to pull his weapon, wanted it to fire every time, and not choose that moment to jam and leave him vulnerable.  Even today, pistols, though heads and shoulders more reliable that their ancestors of 100 years ago, are still not quite as reliable as a revolver.   Even so, civilian interest in the round, and the weapon that fired it continued until after WWII.

Turning to the weapon itself, Iver Johnson was a maker of inexpensive firearms for the working man.  The Iver Johnson company started in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1871, and along with manufacturing firearms, made bicycles and motorcycles before returning to its roots as a maker of arms.  Iver Johnson pistols were used in the assassinations of President McKinley, and Robert Kennedy.   Why someone who wants to assassinate a major political figure always seems to choose an off brand  cheap gun to do the deed is incomprehensible to me, but there it is.

The old Iver Johnson company finally closed up shop in 1993,  Its name was sold to several people, but finally in  2006 the company reopened in Rockledge, Florida, now importing pistols from the Philippines.  The current crop of 1911 style pistols, including this one, are inexpensive compared to Kimber, Les Baer, Wilson Combat, Springfield Armory and others.  But if the finish is a bit sharp, the fit is excellent.  By "sharp" I mean that sharp edges have not been rounded off. Putting the safety on, one thinks it might cut a finger, but it does not.  But the slide is tight, and the gun does not rattle.   The safety transitions to "off" easily enough, but sometimes is a little stubborn returning to "on."  On the other hand, one should not be too anxious in combat to put the safety back on in case other bad guys are about.  Being hard chrome, the slide is very slick.  On firing, it shoots to point of aim.    Interestingly, the .38 Super remains a dominant pistol in IPSC competition, where race guns often dominate.  But the Super is also an accurate round, and carries 9 rounds in the magazine, as opposed to 7 for .45 Auto, for a total of 10 rounds as opposed to 8.  More rounds is always better. 

Firing the .38 Super is like firing a 9 mm Luger round from a 1911 style pistol.   They have very similar pressures and ballistics.  There is some recoil, but very manageable, and shooting one handed, as one does if one hand or arm is injured, is also quite pleasant.  After firing 100 rounds break in, I fired 50 rounds in a series of drills designed to enhance defensive shooting.  First up were 20 shots from the holster, to ready, to full extension and fire on obtaining a flash site picture.  Next were one handed, 5 each for each hand.  These were followed by 20 shots from the ready position.

Bottom line, I like the .38 Super round.  Now, if I could find a reliable source of ammunition.


  1. Been retired 15 years now, but I recall one of our primer research projects (replacing the lead-based initiator and
    barium-based oxidizer to make "leadfree"
    primers. The practice was to produce a
    bunch, load them into every pistol round
    we had (the ballistics dept had a whole bunch) and run the ballistics and accuracy tests. If that looked good, rounds were sent to various police agencies for evaluation. Those were good
    WITH THE EXEPTION of the RCMP group up
    in Regina, Sask. "those rounds you sent?
    funny stuff- we can actually see the bullet trajectory and they only go about
    20 feet before falling to the ground" !!
    Being an explosives guy, I wasn't that familiar with their weapon, but it turned out it was a revolver (357 mag, I think) that had a hellacious cylinder gap. The new primers were very fast and more powerful; when we tested their weapons we found that the primer by itself had moved the bullet past the gap.
    As the propellant ignited, almost all of
    it went out the gap! The fix was elegant. Cut the size of the primer charge by 45%: worked fine and saved
    production costs. I sort of miss the coffee and all. :)

  2. Interesting stuff. I spend some time on a reloading site for 1911 style pistols. Most of it has to do with .45 Auto, but also sometimes deals with .38 Super and 9 mm. Most cartridges require small pistol primers, but most .45 Auto cartridges require large pistol primers. For reasons I do not know, some .45 Auto manufacturers started making cases using small pistol primers. People would find these, start to reload them and discover the small primers. Being the tinkering and experimental types, they became curious whether the use of a smaller primer would require more propellant to achieve the same results. And they also have the mathematical know how and the equipment to figure out that small primers or large primers don't make any difference in the amount of propellant needed to achieve the same muzzle velocities.