Despite having similar names, the .38 Super has nothing to do with the .38 Special or any other revolver cartridge. The .38 Super’s origin is in the .38 ACP cartridge invented by John Moses Browning for his Colt M1900 pistol.
In 1929, Colt introduced a new version of their M1911 pistol (which was not stout enough to handle high pressures) with the “Super .38” Automatic. The .38 Super cartridge was a little more than a hot .38 ACP loaded to its original velocities for the new Colt pistol. The .38 Super was then renamed to .38 Super +P in 1974 to distinguish it from the .38 ACP.
So, here are a few reasons why you should consider getting the best .38 Super Pistol for the most satisfying shooting experience.
The .38 Super is More Powerful
The .38 is more powerful than most other handgun calibers of the early 1900s. The choice of handguns in the first few decades of the 20th century was very narrow and mostly limited to big, heavy, slow-moving bullets like the .45 ACP or smaller and slow-moving bullets like the original .38 Special. Compared to those, the .38 Super was one of the best handgun cartridges that relied on velocity rather than size to get results.
The .45 ACP was good for vulnerable, squishy targets like the enemies of the US military, but its penetration power is somewhat lacking. On the other hand, a 130 grain .38 Super can travel over 1300 fps to penetrate ballistic vests and even car bodies. While this might sound like a dream cartridge for law enforcement during times of violent depression/prohibition-era gang violence, the .357 Magnum completely overshadowed the .38 Super in 1934.
Like the .38 Super, the .357 Magnum could reach a 1300 fps bullet speed, but it could only do that with 180 grains instead of 130. The magnum was a huge ballistic leap forward and was much more attractive to American law enforcement.
Great for IPSC Competitions
While the .38 Super was not very well received by the American military and law enforcement, it actually got quite big in Mexico and other Latin American countries where governments restrict ownership of “military” calibers like the 9mm and .45 ACP. The .38 Super only started to gain traction in the United States when the “gamers” found it.
The early days of the very first formal action pistol competition, known as the IPSC, were full of experimentation and discovery in terms of both technique and equipment. The original concept of when IPSC was first developed was to test self-defense guns and one of the early rules require was a “power factor” for all ammunition.
The power factor rule issues a stiff scoring penalty to any participant who uses ammo that does not meet a certain power standard that’s measured as a combination of bullet velocity and weight. This was to prevent competitors from gaming the system by shooting weaker calibers to gain an advantage over a lower recoil.
At that time, most participants of the upper divisions of IPSC shot the .45 ACP 1911 pistols since its factory ammo met the power factor requirement. In search of an advantage edge over other competitors, IPSC shooters began experimenting with different hand loads and calibers before eventually discovering the .38 Super +P loads that not only met the required power factor but could hold two more rounds in the magazine than the .45s. Furthermore, the cartridge has a significantly reduced recoil compared to a standard 1911 when outfitted with a muzzle brake.
This was when the .38 Super swept over the competition world and eventually became a popular cartridge among serious handgun enthusiasts. Unfortunately, the timing was not on the side of the .38 Super as new high-capacity 9mm pistols from Glock, Sig, Beretta, and S&W outshone the .38 Super.
The Super for Defense
For an auto-pistol cartridge, the .38 Special offers high velocity and noticeably less recoil than you’ll feel from a .40 S&W or a .45 ACP. From an external ballistics standpoint, the Super might not be equivalent to a big-block V8 but it’s still a supercharged small block.
The ammunition options in the .38 Super are quite limited and the .38 Super ammo may sometimes be hard to find. Nonetheless, the load performs very well with average accuracy good enough for self-defense purposes.
The .38 Super Today
While the .38 Super isn’t quite as dominant today as it once was, it still has quite a strong following among gun enthusiasts. With the advancements in ballistics technology, there are plenty of other caliber options that fill the gap covered by the .38 Super. Still, the cartridge offers decent ballistics with a few companies loading modern hollow points in the .38 Super to work for those who insist on using it as a serious load for protection.
In terms of competition, the .38 Super has made the jump with a few high-capacity 1911-style pistols available in the caliber. However, there are also a few variants of the .38 Super load that’s developed to address the challenges to feeding the cartridge in double-stack magazine. But for the most part, the .38 Super remains a cartridge for the 1911 design and will probably remain one that manages to survive in obscurity.