50 Famous Firearms You've Got to Own: Rick Hacker's Bucket List of Guns (2015)
COLT .38 SUPER AUTOMATIC
This highly desirable National Match Super .38, with original box, papers, and sales receipt, was sold by Lock, Stock & Barrel on-line auctions. Photo courtesy Lock, Stock & Barrel (www.LSBauctions.com)
Without a doubt, one of the world’s greatest pistol-cartridge combinations is the Colt Government Model 1911 and its .45 ACP chambering. At the time of its adoption as the official handgun and pistol cartridge of the United States military, on March 29, 1911, it was felt no one could improve upon either. However, Colt’s Patent Firearms Manufacturing Company updated its warhorse in 1925 and rechristened it the Colt Government Model 1911A1, thereby setting the stage for the Colt .38 Super four years later.
The “A1” improvements included changing the flat mainspring housing to a more palm-filling arched design, shortening the trigger for easier access, and lengthening the gun’s grip safety spur to prevent it from “biting” the hand that shot it. The revised .45 Government remained a best seller throughout the Roaring Twenties, but there was trouble looming on the horizon.
On “Black Thursday”—October 24, 1929—the stock market crashed, plunging the country into The Great Depression. Along with everything else, gun sales toppled. Colt’s took a long, hard look at its .45 automatic and decided something must be done to breathe new life into the slab-sided shooter. In so doing, it was reminded of the fact that the Model 1911 had descended from the Colt Sporting Model of 1900, a highly successful design collaboration between Colt’s and legendary gun designer John Moses Browning.
The .38 Super has proven itself in the field. The author’s 1930s-style buscadero rig was made by Jim Lockwood of Legends In Leather. (www.legendsinleather.com).
Hoping for a lucrative government contract, Colt’s chambered this revolutionary semi-auto loader for a new, Browning-designed .38 Automatic Colt Pistol (ACP) cartridge to appeal to the Army’s then-current penchant for .38-caliber. With a magazine holding seven semi-rimmed cartridges, the Colt Sporting Model fired a 130-grain FMJ bullet with a muzzle velocity (MV) of 1,040 fps and a muzzle energy (ME) of 310 ft-lbs, putting it on a par with the old .44-40 blackpowder pistol load, even though the new .38 Auto (as it was commonly called), was loaded with smokeless powder.
Unfortunately, the government purchased only a few hundred guns for testing. Colt’s and Browning went back to the drawing boards and subsequently came up with the Sporting Model of 1902, the 1902 Military Model (basically the same gun, but with a lanyard and larger grip to accommodate an eight-round magazine), and, finally, the Military Model of 1905; all were chambered for the .38 Auto. It was the Military Model of 1905, with its seven-round magazine, angled grip, five-inch barrel, and grip safety that finally evolved into the Automatic Pistol, Caliber .45 Model of 1911. But even though the Army had shunned all the previous semi-automatics, Colt’s .38 Autos proved extremely popular for both self-defense and sporting purposes with the civilian market. As a result, these guns remained in the Colt lineup.
Thanks in large part to International Practical Shooting Confederation (IPSC) competition shooters, .38 Super ammunition is still available.
Because of the ongoing popularity of the .38 Auto pistols, as well as the success of its .45 ACP Model 1911A1, Colt’s now considered discontinuing its older .38 Autos and replacing them with a Model 1911 chambered for a beefed-up .38 cartridge. The 1911A1 was eminently adaptable to a smaller bore, but it needed a powerful round to take advantage of the gun’s potential. The obvious solution was an amped-up .38 Automatic, a cartridge that was already familiar to shooters. Thus evolved the .38 Super Automatic, later shortened to .38 Super.
The .38 Super used the same case and 130-grain FMJ bullet as the old .38 Automatic, but the brass held a heftier powder charge, zinging the bullet past the muzzle at 1,215 feet per second (fps) and 426 ft-lbs of muzzle energy, making the .38 Super, at the time of its introduction, the most powerful semi-automatic pistol cartridge in the world—and the only gun chambered for it was the Colt Government Model 1911A1. This had an additional benefit on the law enforcement front, as many police officers still remembered the 1911 as the handgun that helped win World War I. Now, with an increased rash of gangsterism caused first by the Roaring Twenties and then the Great Depression, the .38 Super had the potential of punching through bulletproof vests and steel-bodied cars, both of which were favored by mobsters and bootleggers.
Although most references give 1929 as the date of the .38 Super’s introduction, manufacturing didn’t really gear up until 1930. The new .38 Super semi-automatic carried the same $27 price tag as its .45 ACP big brother, but had its own set of serial numbers and the distinctive “.38 Super Automatic” stamped on the slide. The pistol came with a nine-round, two-toned magazine and initially was only offered in blued finish, though nickel was available for an extra charge. Just 32 pre-war .38 Supers were factory engraved, with the first such gun being serial No. 25, which was also fitted with Mexican Eagle ivory stocks and shipped to Wolf & Klar, in Fort Worth, Texas on March 1, 1929, the first year of production.
In spite of the Depression, the .38 Super met with enthusiastic reception, especially among target shooters and hunters, the latter of whom no doubt were encouraged by Colt’s somewhat optimistic ads proclaiming it would “… stop any animal on the American continent,” with one such ad showing an illustration of an outdoorsman taking aim at a cougar with his .38 Super.
Interestingly, the gun was initially faulted for a lack of accuracy, but gunsmith and writer George Nonte hit upon the idea of rechambering the barrel so that the .38 Super case headspaced on the case mouth, rather than the rim. That changed everything, and, today, the .38 Super, with its lighter recoil and two extra rounds (compared to the .45 ACP), is the choice for many top contenders in International Practical Shooting Confederation (IPSC) events.
As testimony to the hard-hitting, flat-shooting cartridge, many pre-war .38 Supers were carried by Texas Rangers, some of whom wrapped the grips with rawhide or electrical tape to disconnect the grip safety. The gun also saw wide use in Mexico, where military cartridges were banned for use by civilians, but nothing prohibited them from using a military gun chambered for a non-military caliber. In fact, the .38 Super is so closely associated with south of the border adventure, it inspired a somewhat obscure 1969 movie entitled, Super Colt 38, starring Jeffrey Hunter and Rosa Maria Vazquez.
During its first 39 years of production, a total of 202,188 Colt Super Automatics were produced. After that, and with the passage of the Gun Control Act of 1968, the .38 Super was given a new set of serial numbers, starting with CS001001. This was used until 1970-’71, when the Model 1911A1 became the MK IV Series 70 Government, which then encompassed the .38 Super chambering.
Although it was not always cataloged, Colt’s officials have told me that their .38 Super semi-automatic has never been out of production. In fact, it can still be ordered today. Factory ammunition remains available from Federal (American Eagle), Remington (UMC), and Winchester (USA). However, I have found that pre-MK IV Series 70 pistols have proven to be extremely elusive. Of course, these are the guns that are most in demand, especially among shooter-collectors. I’ve unintentionally let a couple of them slip through my fingers. One of the most recent occurrences happened a few years ago, when I was high bidder in an on-line auction for a 1957-era .38 Super—nickeled, of course—that came with its original box. But, as fate would have it, I was scheduled to attend a business dinner that evening, and would be unable to be there for the auction’s conclusion. I upped my bid by a hundred dollars and left for my appointment.
When I returned—you guessed it—I had been outbid. And, so, the Colt .38 Super still remains an unfulfilled item on my bucket list.