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.