Sometime in 1954, in the American embassy in Havana, a young intelligence officer sidled up to a congressman’s salty, former Marine bodyguard. He wanted to be buddies with the older guy and looked for something in common he might find to start a conversation. Noting an M1911 Government Model in the tough guy’s shoulder holster, he said, “Say, is that a .45? I carried one of those in the war.” It was the perfect entree for him to alert the old man he’d been a combat trooper himself.
But the old guy wasn’t having any of it. He didn’t even bother with eye contact. “Nah,” he said, “it’s a Super .38. Ten shots instead of seven. Goes through a car door, and I figured if I had to shoot it might be around cars. One of our undercover officers used it to good effect last year.”
Then Earl Swagger walked away and lit a cigarette and continued to eye the crowd. It was his job, and Earl always did his job.
As I say, it happened in 1954 in Havana. I know it to be a fact because it’s documented in a novel called “Havana,” which I happened to write. In other words: It happened in my imagination, which makes it real enough for me.
I was using the special, almost cult-like power and reputation of the oft-forgot but hard-loved .38 Super (it was called “Super .38” until at least the mid-’50s) as a way to characterize both men. Young Roger St. Sebastian Evans didn’t know about such a things, and assumed all M1911-platform pistols were .45s; Earl, on the other hand, had given a great deal of thought about which gun to carry on this job, which involved providing security for a congressman who had a tendency to put himself in troublesome places, usually involving women of a certain profession and liquor. Earl knew that in those largely pre-hollow-point days, the Super .38 carried more ammunition (nine in the old Colt magazines, with one up the spout), shot flatter, recoiled less, recovered faster, reloaded just as quick, and fired a smaller bullet at a faster velocity. It was ideally suited for his kind of work, and a hundred or so pages later, he puts it to good use.
But besides its tactical advantages, the .38 Super represented one allure of gun culture that only occasionally gets acknowledged, and yet one that is absolutely fascinating and all but impenetrable to those who don’t feel the pull. That is, it has charisma; it has personality, pizzazz, and vividness. It’s out of the ordinary, beloved by some, aggressively non-generic and it carries information with it. It says—and we love to say this—“I have thought hard about these issues and come to a logical conclusion and made these sound decisions. I am not passive; I am active in deciding about my own defense.”
So it was ideally suited to a novelist’s purposes; it’s what we call a resonant fact, and it’s why my characters never just carry “a gun” but instead have thought about, chosen and most importantly express themselves in their world by virtue of the gun and caliber they chose. Someone once said, “Beware the man who owns only one gun; he probably knows how to use it.” I would append to that: “Beware the man who carries a .38 Super; he knows what he’s doing.”
Thus, it is that the old thing is still around with us today, mainly in competitive venues, or in the safes of geezers such as myself. And it’s why the .38 Super was able to survive a long near-extinction during and after the war; and why, today, nearly all makers of M1911-platform pistols, from the high-end boutique guys to the mass-makers, issue a pistol in its vintage. For certain kinds of shooters—I’m one, having had two before and now owning two—it’s absolutely essential to any collection.
One can see in it the first iteration of what was later considered perfection in another form, the .357 Mag. Its theory was that of the .357 Mag., and not the .45 ACP or the .45 Colt; it was to drive that smaller bullet faster and kill or disable by penetration, while the older guns took the opposite road: to kill or disable by launching a large chunk of lead at a slow velocity and count on mass to conclude the fight.
Elmer Keith told of its invention as well as anyone: In Sixguns, he wrote, “About 1930, due to armored vests and bullet proof glass for autos, the various big gangs over the country gave our police and law enforcement agencies a hard time. Colt answered the problem with their Super .38 auto on the good old model 1911 design. The new arm shot a 130 grain bullet at 1,300 feet and proved an answer to the problem. J. Edgar Hoover’s boys promptly adopted it for their side-arm. It would penetrate bullet proof vests, armored car bodies, if not too heavy, and bullet proof glass.”
That may be true, and to me it was true enough to have Earl Swagger’s son Bob Lee quote nearly verbatim as he explained the .38 Super to a young man in “Black Light.” It’s also the gun he chose to carry in “Night of Thunder,” for reasons exactly like his old man. And it’s the reason the bete noire of the Swagger novels, a nasty opportunist named Frenchy Short, who learned gunfighting from Earl (and later helped murder him) and commanded Bob’s SOG unit on his second tour in Vietnam (sorry, haven’t written this book yet), asked Bob to ship him a box of .38 Super many years later as the caliber was his pistol of choice in Vietnam.
But as great a creation myth as the .38 Super boasts, I have to wonder: Is it true and can it be documented? Keith gives no documentation, and the haphazard, anecdotal nature of his telling raises some doubts. The cartridge was first released in 1929, which means its research and development took place through the late ’20s; and the criminals of that era were all Capones or Capone-wannabes. They mainly killed each other, as the St. Valentine’s Day massacre of 1927 or the various rub-outs of folks named Coll, O’Banion and Schultz point out. The .38 Super held no advantage to the lawmen that were its nominal raison d’etre in 1929; in fact, FBI agents in particular were not even authorized to carry sidearms until after the Kansas City Massacre in June of 1933. I can find no evidence that the Bureau ever “adopted” the Super .38, though certainly this or that agent may have carried one. Remember, the early agents were not gun-savvy, as most were polite law students like Melvin Purvis. It seems far more likely that the chambering was devised to fill another niche in the ammunition marketplace: a hunting and plinking M1911 almost perfect for most game and distant tin cans that offered as well the feel and familiarity of its larger brother but without the bothersome kick.
And as late as 1940, Colt marketed the Government Model Super .38 purely as a hunting gun. “For the big game hunter and the lover of the outdoors, the Super .38 offers an arm of unsurpassed power and efficiency. …Will stop any animal on the American Continent and is a favorite as an auxiliary arm for big game hunting trips,” the company crowed in the 1940 “Shooter’s Bible.”
The crime era that might have required a .38 Super didn’t begin until five years after its arrival, 1934, when the nature of bad behavior changed spectacularly; it became motorized and mayhem-centric. I am talking of course of the crazed years of the road bandits, the professional bank heisters, from low-end mimics like Bonnie and Clyde to the crème de la crème of the gangs, the one headed by John Dillinger. They were desperados who hid in cars and behind bullet proof vests that would stop a slow-moving fatboy like a 230-grain .45 ACP impacting at subsonic speeds, much less a more usual .38 Spl. out of the ubiquitous Colt Police Positive. The .38 Super was as close to ideal for bringing these boys to earth as the ballistics of the era permitted, and it is even said by some that no less a man-killer than Frank Hamer carried one in his take-down of Bonnie and Clyde on May 21, 1934, though since his last nine shots came after the first 159 shots fired that day, it’s doubtful that either Bonnie or Clyde noticed.