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Making the Case for .38 Super +P

Action pistol competition breathed new life into an American cartridge design that is now more than 80 years old—the .38 Super.


The story of the .38 Super cartridge starts in 1900 when Colt introduced the John Browning-designed Model 1900 .38 Automatic pistol. Interestingly, that was two years prior to the introduction of the 9 mm Luger/Parabellum. Both utilize a 0.355-inch-diameter bullet and are ballistically very similar in performance. The 9 mm Luger was almost immediately adopted by the German military but the .38 Automatic Colt Pistol (ACP) was rejected by the U.S. military, which ultimately adopted the .45 ACP cartridge and the Colt Government Model in 1911.

In 1929, Colt tried again with an improved version of the .38 ACP offered in its M1911 pistol, which had gained fame during World War I. The improved cartridge had a new name—.38 Super—and the improvement amounted to nothing more than the cartridge being loaded to a higher pressure level—36,500 p.s.i. as compared to 26,500 p.s.i. This resulted in a velocity increase of about 200 fps, which allowed the .38 Super to outperform the 9 mm Luger. The +P designation was added to the .38 Super in 1974 to further distinguish it from the older .38 ACP.  The full name is properly .38 Super Automatic +P, often abbreviated to simply .38 Super +P.

Some mistakenly assume the .38 Super was based on the 9 mm Luger and that the cases are similar; however, bullet diameter is their only similarity. The .38 Super +P case is semi-rimmed and smaller in diameter, but longer, than the 9 mm Luger case. However, the Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers’ Institute’s (SAAMI) established maximum average pressures (MAP) for these cartridges are similar at 36,500 p.s.i. for the .38 Super +P, 35,000 p.s.i. for the 9 mm Luger and 38,500 p.s.i. for the 9 mm Luger +P. From a velocity standpoint the cartridges are also very similar, but the .38 Super +P has a slight edge.

Most load manuals list only standard-pressure 9 mm loads that will propel 115-grain bullets to around 1,200 fps. By comparison, it’s easy to find safe handloads capable of driving a 115-grain bullet in excess of 1,300 fps from a .38 Super +P. Factory 9 mm +P loads, such as those from Buffalo Bore, can be found to equal .38 Super +P handload velocities. By the same token, Buffalo Bore’s .38 Super +P loads are even faster.

All differences and similarities aside, the .38 Super was only marginally successful in the States. But in countries where civilian ownership of military cartridges—such as the 9 mm Luger—are prohibited, it gained quite a following. All that changed about 30 years ago, largely due to the efforts and successes of practical pistol competitors led by Rob Leatham.

In IPSC pistol competition there’s a power factor that must be met. The power factor is established by multiplying a cartridge’s bullet weight in grains by its actual, chronographed muzzle velocity then dividing the product by 1,000. At the time, 175 was the lower limit for major power factor. (Currently, it is 165 for IPSC.) Competing with a “major” pistol was a huge advantage because B and C zone hits were worth an additional point. By using a barrel with a supported chamber in an M1911, competitors found they could indeed make major with the .38 Super +P. A by-product of that was the generation of a lot of gas, and even though the recoil with a .38 Super +P loaded to major was about the same as a .45 ACP, pistols equipped with compensators benefited from the additional gas produced, thus reducing muzzle rise and recoil.

For a time, the .38 Super was the king of practical pistol competition and custom M1911 pistolsmiths were busy building what came to be called “race guns” for this sport. The “competition” label applied to the .38 Super +P actually had a negative effect on its appeal for defensive use. That was partly because ammunition manufacturers focused on target loads for the cartridge. The trend continues today with only a handful of defensive jacketed hollow-point loads available for the .38 Super +P, and most are from boutique ammunition manufacturers, such as Buffalo Bore and Wilson Combat.

As an example, one major online supply house lists only 14 of what could be considered defensive loads for the .38 Super +P. As a comparison, it currently catalogs 97 9 mm Luger loads specifically designed for self-defense. Defensive ammunition for the .38 Super +P and the 9 mm are priced similarly but 9 mm practice ammunition can be purchased for half the price of .38 Super +P.

Availability of guns chambered for .38 Super +P continues to be limited with most being of the M1911 configuration. Even those options are dwindling, as Kimber and Para-Ordnance dropped the chambering. Armscor/Rock Island, Colt, EAA and Legacy Sports are about the only companies offering new, non-custom, .38 Super +P options today. With the unprecedented rise in concealed carry interest and the demand for ever smaller and more powerful handguns, the stage is set for the .38 Super +P to make a comeback. Its ballistic advantage, although slight, over the 9 mm Luger, helps the .38 Super +P deliver better terminal performance from short-barreled handguns.

Still, it’s unlikely the .38 Super +P will ever reach the popularity of the 9 mm Luger, the .45 ACP or even the .357 SIG which, interestingly, duplicates .38 Super +P performance. Thanks to Les Baer and Wilson Combat, you can still get a finely crafted pistol in .38 Super +P that is compact enough to carry on a daily basis. Combine one of these handguns with high-performance ammunition and you have a potent personal protection sidearm.

.38 Super/9 mm Comparison


Wilson Combat Sentinels are arguably the smallest and lightest M1911s available. Though they are built around a 3.5 inch as opposed to the 3-inch barrel found on many compact M1911s, Wilson Combat’s Sentinel M1911s have a grip frame which is about 1/4-inch shorter than those used by Colt on its Officer’s Model and by Kimber on its Ultra-size pistols. Match that short barrel and reduced grip size with a frame built of aluminum, and you end up with a very compact and lightweight handgun.

Typically, M1911s with barrels shorter than 4 inches have a reputation for less than stellar reliability. Apparently, that reputation was built without consideration of the small guns built by Wilson Combat. The Super Sentinel digested every load it was fed without a single hitch either from the bench or when conducting tactical drills. Even my 12-year-old son pushed 50 rounds through the pistol without issue.

Surprisingly, the recoil was not unbearable, even with full-power loads. The high swept grip safety, 30-l.p.i. hand-checkering on the frontstrap, bobbed grip and melding of the pistol’s edges undoubtedly contributed to its ergonomics during carry and when pulling the trigger. The Super Sentinel is also fitted with thin, G10 stocks, and even with large hands I found them very comfortable.

This pistol was easily drawn from a Galco Avenger holster and I had no trouble running the Forty Five Drill without a miss in under five seconds. In fact, even though the pistol was 37 percent lighter than the Les Baer Stinger, my times on the Forty Five Drill averaged only about a half second longer. This could be due in part to the very fast and easy to acquire, green fiber-optic front sight mated with the Wilson Combat rear Battlesight. This sight combination proved beneficial when speed shooting but was a bit more difficult for me to apply during accuracy testing at 25 yards. Still, an accuracy average of less than 2.5 inches at 25 yards is commendable from a pistol of its size.

Other features include; all over Armor Tuff coating, serrations on the top of the carbon steel slide, Browning Hi-Power-style carry cuts on the slide’s front, a seriously melted left side thumb safety, recessed slide stop pin, full-length guide rod and contoured magazine well. There is also a stainless, ramped, coned barrel, and both the barrel and chamber are fluted. The Super Sentinel comes with a 1.5-inch accuracy guarantee at 25 yards. I have no doubt the pistol is capable of that, though I am fairly confident I am not.

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2 Responses to Making the Case for .38 Super +P

Ralph wrote:
January 14, 2013

So basically the super 38P is a magnum round.

GARY wrote:
November 14, 2012

While this was a very good article on the advantages of the .38 Super +P, the sharper readers would have noticed two facts that appeared "between the lines." The first was that competitors found that they could indeed make major if their pistol had a supported chamber. This is just more proof that ALL pistols need a fully-supported chamber in the name of safety. Given a choice between two pistols that were 100% reliable, one with and one without a fully-supported chamber, no one in their right mind would ever choose the un-supported one. The pistol manufacturer that comes out with a line of fully-supported pistols is going to have a hard time keeping up with demand. Just think, you could reload your brass with full power loads over and over again, just like you do for your revolvers. No more KaBooms from factory or handloaded ammunition! The second bit of information alluded to the benefit of more powerful handguns because they delivered more terminal performance. Power and terminal performance have all but been forgotten in the rush to buy "small comfortable" guns to carry. No need to get bogged down in the numbers like diameter, weight, velocity, or energy. As long as a gun goes "BANG" it is considered more than adequate for defending your life today. Perhaps these people were raised on video games and think that all they have to do is fire off a wimpy round and quickly get out of the way before the BG falls down. Have they ever considered that the BG will be shooting back or stabbing them and that maybe, just maybe, the ability to REALLY have a decent chance at putting his butt on the ground with one shot might be a worthy goal that could only be accomplished by yielding a truly "powerful" weapon? Back in the "old days" there were "gun people" who knew all this. .357s and .45s were judged to be the standard for self-defense and that's because they worked. "Don't bring a knife to a gunfight" is a good rule and so is "Don't bring a mouse gun to a gunfight."