This page was first published online 7-12-2012

The .38 Super cartridge was not created in 1929

The .38 Super cartridge is based on the parent cartridge .38 Automatic Colt Pistol (a.k.a. .38 ACP; .38 Automatic Colt Cartridge; .38 Automatic; .38 Auto; .38 Rimless, Smokeless; .38 Military) created by John M. Browning in 1900. The external dimensions of the two cartridges are identical. The .38 ACP was chambered in several of John M. Browning’s pistols at the time, the models 1900, 1902 Military, 1902 Sporting and 1903 Pocket Hammer manufactured by Colt.

Gun writers continually tell us that the .38 Super cartridge was created in 1929 and was loaded to a much higher pressure than the parent .38 ACP round. (See list near bottom of page.) The “old” .38 ACP was supposed to have a velocity of 1050 fps with a 130 grain bullet while the “new” .38 Super had a velocity of 1280 fps. These numbers are from the Speer reloading manual and the numbers vary depending on the source, but the point is that gun writers claim that in 1929 a new cartridge was introduced along with a new Colt pistol. It’s a nice story, but it’s not true. The gun was new, the cartridge was not.

The new Colt Super .38 pistol was chambered for the already existing .38 ACP. The new Colt pistol was, of course, the familiar 1911 type .45 caliber pistol reconfigured to fire a .38 caliber cartridge. It held nine rounds of .38 caliber ammunition, two more than the .45 caliber version. Colt introduced the Super .38 in late 1928 and began shipping on January 5, 1929 (Sheldon, 1997).

The term “Super” referred to the new model Colt pistol, not a new cartridge, or even a new loading of the old cartridge. Colt’s advertisements and catalog all clearly show that it was chambered for the .38 ACP. This is the same cartridge that had been around since 1900.

Colt’s December 1928 advertisement in The American Rifleman for the new Super .38 pistol states it clearly, “This New Colt is brought out to meet the demand of the Target Shooter and Big-Game Hunter for an improved Automatic Pistol to handle the powerful .38 caliber Automatic Cartridge.” The cartridge drawings are labeled “.38 Automatic Colt Cartridge.” The 1929 Colt catalog specifically indicates the caliber for the Super .38 Automatic Pistol as, “.38 Rimless, Smokeless” aka, the .38 ACP. New gun, old cartridge.

The velocity of the .38 ACP cartridge with a 130 grain bullet in the 1928 Colt ad was 1190 fps. This was typical for this cartridge at the time. Douglas Sheldon (1997) writes: "Contrary to popular belief, the cartridge ballistics were not changed in 1929 for the new model [Colt Super .38 pistol]…” Considerable evidence supports this.  First, Colt states that the new pistol is chambered for the .38 ACP. There is no mention of a new cartridge called the .38 Super.  Second, ballistic for the cartridge in the ad match ballistics of the 38 ACP at the time. Sheldon notes that, “The initial specifications in the year 1900 called for a velocity of 1260 feet per second with the Model 1900’s six inch barrel. Up until the introduction of the Super .38 Model, the velocity listed by cartridge manufacturers varied from time to time between approximately 1160 and 1280 feet per second.”

Another source, published years before the introduction of the Colt pistol, showed similar velocities for the .38 Automatic. Captain H. B. C. Pollard lists published velocities of 1175 (Winchester) and 1000 (Kynoch) fps for the 130 grain bullet, and 1100 fps for a 128 grain bullet (Ely) in his 1920 book. These velocities are similar to those reported by Sheldon and Major Hatcher (below).

A review of the new Colt pistol was written by Major J. S. Hatcher and published in the May 1929 issue of The American Rifleman (Reproduced in Sheldon, 1997). Major Hatcher refers to the .38 Automatic cartridge. He does not mention anything about a new cartridge or new loadings of the .38 Automatic. His velocity listings for the “… 130-grain bullet for the .38 A. C. P.” are consistent with Sheldon (1997) and Colt advertisements, and lists them as 1190, 1150, 1126 and 1080 fps from different makers. Major Hatcher piles heaps of praise on the .38 Automatic cartridge, which he also refers to as the .38 A.C.P and .38 Military (deriving this name from the 1902 .38 Military pistol) noting its exceptional velocity and power that is far superior to anything else that exists at the time, including the 9mm Luger.  The point here is that the cartridge has been around for quite some time. Oh, and he loved the pistol, too.

Sheldon (1997) continues that the 38 ACP cartridge velocity was “… increased to 1300 feet per second sometime in late 1932*, initially by Remington Arms Company when they developed a new line of high speed oil proof handgun cartridges. This is where the confusion begins since it is unknown if and when all other cartridge manufacturers followed suit and also increased the velocity of their .38 auto cartridges."

(* There is a minor discrepancy here. Sheldon writes that it was 1932, but he refers to the ad in which the first mention of 1300 fps appears as published in December of 1933.)

The ad in Sheldon’s book that shows the first mention of the velocity increase in 1932/1933 to 1300 fps described it as, “ … the New Super .38 Cartridge …” At the same time, the text in the article reads, “chambered to shoot the powerful, high velocity .38 Automatic cartridge.” And, of course, Colt still listed the .38 ACP as the proper ammunition for this gun into the 1940s or beyond, so the name didn’t catch on for quite some time, even if it was recognized as describing the new loading.

Advertised velocities of the 38 ACP ammunition in Colt’s ads with 130 grain bullets (from Sheldon’s 1997 book):

Year                  Velocity

1928                  1190 fps; FMJ and soft point

1929                  1190 fps

1930                  1190 fps; A new hollow point bullet is offered by Peters Ammunition Co.

1931                   1200 fps (written “approximately 1200 foot seconds”)

1932                  ?

1933                  1300 fps (“Shoots the New Super .38 cartridge …”) (December 1933)

 

Colt continued to advertise that their Super .38 pistol is chambered for the 38 Automatic cartridge well into the 1940s - at least 1948 according to one Colt catalog page I have found, though you'll note that they refer to both the .38 Automatic and Super .38 cartridges in the 1941 catalog. Colt’s direction sheet shipped with the guns indicated the cartridge as the .38 Automatic perhaps up until 1950 (if I’m reading Sheldon’s book correctly).

With the velocity increase the cartridge was labeled the .38 Super, though as noted, it was not universally named such. At the very least, Colt was slow to come around and change the name in their literature. A reprint of Colt’s 1957 catalog does list the proper ammunition for the Super .38 Automatic pistol as .38 Super ammunition.

At some point the standard .38 Super ammunition was watered down. A Colt catalog from 1957 still shows a velocity of 1300 fps. A 1969 Colt product sheet listed the .38 Super ammunition with a velocity of 1280 fps for the 130 grain metal case bullet (Sheldon 1997). Current published velocities for the 130 grain bullet are 1215 fps (Winchester, Remington) and 1200 fps (Federal) from the major U.S. manufacturers.

Looking over the period ads and catalogs, Sheldon’s argument holds: no new cartridge was created in 1929. His claim is supported by these observations: 1) The new gun was chambered for the old cartridge. The .38 Automatic is consistently listed as the proper ammunition for Colt’s gun well into the 1940s. 2) There is no mention of a new loading of the old cartridge in the first few years. The ballistics of the .38 Automatic in the ads with the new Colt pistol are no different than before 1929. News of a new cartridge or a new load are usually pointed out with great zeal. It certainly is today, and there is no reason to think that things were different then. Anything that will help to sell a product is emphasized.  Yet nothing in the ads says anything about the birth of a new cartridge. It wasn’t until 1932/1933 that Remington increased the velocity to 1300 fps, and this was advertised widely at the time, just like it would be today. Even so, the cartridge name remained the same in Colt ads and catalogs until the 1950s when the name .38 Super Automatic appears to be consistently applied to the ammunition as well as the gun.

Thus the .38 Super cartridge was not created in 1929. It evolved gradually over time, with an increase in velocity of the .38 Automatic in the early 1930s and name change that might have started with the velocity increase but didn’t take hold until the 1950s.

Conclusions

The current .38 Super is just the original loading of the .38 ACP. That’s okay, we’ll still call it the “Super” because we think that describes it well.

The current 38 ACP is downloaded from its original version and is intended for the older pre-1929 guns.

Which ammunition for which gun?

Interestingly, there was some confusion about what ammunition was appropriate for the older pre-1929 .38 Automatic pistols up until the 1940s. Sheldon (1997) reprints correspondence between Colt’s Mfg. and Western Cartridge Co. and between Western Cartridge Co. and Remington Arms Co. dated December 1944 to clarify that the high speed “… Super .38 cartridge as a load, having a velocity of about 1,300 fps … ” should not be used in Colt’s older model .38 automatic pistols.

Today

We now recognize two separate loadings for these cartridges. A low pressure (26,500 psi) .38 Automatic (ACP) and a high pressure (36,500 psi) .38 Super. The current SAAMI specifications manual lists the nominal velocity of the .38 Automatic with a 130 grain bullet as 1035 fps, and the .38 Super Auto +P as 1200 fps. Even the .38 Super has been downloaded from its once impressive 1300 fps.

The +P designation was added to the .38 Super name in 1974 (Speer Reloading Manual) to help distinguish between these cartridges because they have different pressure limits and are otherwise indistinguishable since they have the same external dimensions. Current .38 Super ammunition is marked 38 Super or 38 Super +P. Technically, there is no official .38 Super.  The SAAMI manual does not list it. It includes only the .38 Automatic and the .38 Super Automatic +P.

Nickel Cases

Sometime in the 1930s some manufacturers started to use nickel plated cases for their .38 Super loads (Sheldon, 1997). I ran across some older ammunition for the 38 Automatic in both brass and nickel and chronographed them through my Colt Government Model.  None of these rounds were in their original box so they can’t be dated. Still, the brass cased ammunition was at a lower velocity than the nickel plated cases (shown in the Table).

However, because some of the older brass cased .38 Auto ammo might be loaded to the "old" .38 Auto specs, it might also produce velocities around 1200+ fps as well.

Old 38 Automatic/Super Cartridges

Headstamp
R-P 38 Auto
Western 38 Auto
WRA 38 Auto
Super X 38 Auto
WW Super 38 Auto
Super Speed 38 Auto
Brass/Nickel
Brass
Brass
Brass
Nickel
Nickel
Nickel
Velocity (fps)
882
1009
998
1234
1189
1242

Vintage 38 ACP Ammunition

I obtained an old box of 38 Automatic ammunition that dates from 1916-1919 according to a guide found at http://cartridgecollectors.org. This ammunition would be from 93 to 96 years old at the time of the test (11-22-2012). The box did not have its original factory seal, so I can’t verify that the ammunition was original.  It had a full complement of 50 rounds with the same brass/bullet. The brass was marked "REM-UMC 38 ACP", and a “U” was stamped on the primer. Some cases and bullets had corrosion.

I pulled three bullets. They were cupronickel jacketed. Bullet diameter was not uniformly circular. The diameters were: 1) .356-.360 inches. 2) .357-358 inches. 3) .357-.359 inches. Bullet weight was 131,7, 130.6, 130.7 grains. The small flake-type gunpowder weighed an average of 4.8 grains.

I tried to fire 10 rounds over a chronograph.  Six rounds fired, 4 were duds and would not fire after 10 hits with the firing pin. The primer was very “hard” and the firing pin produced only a shallow dent on the first hit. (The test gun had a 19 pound mainspring.) Their hardness may have been due to age. Of the six rounds that fired, one went off with the first firing pin hit, four required 2 hits, and one required 5 hits.  Three of the rounds were hangfires – a delay between when the firing pin hits the primer and when the cartridge fires. The longest hangfire was less than 1/2 second.

Velocity spread was from 1002 to 1065 fps from a 5 inch Kart barrel, with an average of 1028 fps. The typical velocity gain/loss per inch runs between 25-50 fps. So these would run a bit faster from the 6 inch barrel of Colt’s 1900-1902 model guns of that era. I don’t know what the published velocity was for this ammunition during that period.  If any readers have access to a catalog from that period (1916-1919) that lists the ballistics for this Remington UMC cartridge, please contact me.

Firing ammunition this old is not recommended, and this is not an endorsement to do so.

Colt’s Promotion of the Super .38 Pistol

Colt’s advertisements might seems a little comical by today’s standards as they advertise the new pistol with the .38 ACP cartridge, “Will stop any animal on the American Continent.”  Images of bobcats, bears, mountain lions and moose often decorated the ads.

Here are some examples of advertisements used to describe the Colt Super .38 pistol and ammunition (from Sheldon’s 1997 book and Colt catalogs):

Ads for the new Colt Super .38 pistol try to sell it a powerful big game gun. “The Ideal “One-hand-gun” for Big Game. Will stop any animal on the American Continent. The .38 Automatic Colt Cartridge has high velocity and flat trajectory, great shocking power and deep penetration.” The American Rifleman, December 1928.

“A Real He-Man Gun.” 1929 through ??

“The .38 Colt Automatic cartridge, unsurpassed in power and 1190 feet per second velocity, is here given its due in an arm that bids fair to set new records, on the range, in the woods … as well as in popularity.” National Sportsman, August 1929.

“Ideal for Big Game – and Target Shooting.” The American Rifleman, May 1929.

“No arm of similar caliber has even enjoyed such an enthusiastic reception from Shooters, Hunters, Guides, Explorers and others who appreciate an arm of superior workmanship, absolute accuracy, and unusual shocking power, as has been accorded the new Colt Super .38 Automatic.” The American Rifleman, May 1930. 

“No animal on the American continent can resist the tremendous shocking power of its swift-traveling, hard-hitting bullet with a muzzle velocity of approximately 1200 foot seconds.” National Sportsman, March 1931.

“Stopped in its tracks!” Along with a drawing of a bear. 1930s.

“Super-powered for BIG GAME HUNTING.” Includes drawings of a bear and moose. 1930s.

“No wonder the Colt Super .38 is the favorite arm of trappers, explorers and big game hunters everywhere! This rugged, hard hitting gun stops deer, bear and mountain lion … swiftly, surely, eagerly. No game on the American continent can compete with its super-powered wallop, its unfailing accuracy.” Unknown publication, middle to late 1930s (Sheldon, 1997).

“ … the Super .38 offers an arms of unsurpassed power and efficiency.”  October 1941 Colt catalog.

“Favorite side arm of big game hunters and explorers …” The American Rifleman, September 1949.

“Has a Whack like a pile driver.” “It’s a super-powered, accurate big game automatic that can stop anything on the American continent.” “Deals a wicked wallop.” Includes a photo of a dead moose.  National Sportsman ad. Date unknown.

“Police and Sheriff’s are showing keen interest in the Colt Super .38 – due to its hard-hitting power, its fast action and its large capacity magazine. For riot cars, special duty and mounted service, you can’t beat the Super .38 Automatic. The Super .38 shoots an unusually powerful cartridge and its bullet will go through gas tanks and automobile bodies like nothing at all.” Date unknown.

Publications, articles and resources stating the .38 Super cartridge was created in 1929. 

Cartridges of the World 11th Edition.

Hornady 7th Edition Hornady Handbook of Cartridge Reloading.

Speer Reloading Manual #14.

Sierra Rifle & Handgun Reloading Data Edition V, 4th printing. 2003.

Lyman Third Edition Pistol & Revolver Handbook. 2004.

Charles E. Petty, 2000. Reloading for the .38 Super auto. American Rifleman, November/December. pp. 38-42.

Stan Trzoniec, 2003. Kimber .38 Super. Handloader, February-March, pp. 22-26.

http://www.firearmsforum.com/firearms/article/2948

http://www.americanrifleman.org/articles/the-super-38/

Richard Mann, 2012. True pair: Making the case for 38 Super +P. American Rifleman, November. pp. 66-69; 110- 111. An electronic version can be found at: http://www.americanrifleman.org/articles/making-the-case-for-38-super-plus-p/

Other articles on the 38 Super:

Kevin Williams. 2009. Uncommon, but Super: The Pre-WWII Colt Super .38 Automatic. Man at Arms, June, pp. 34-43.

Rick Hacker. 2008. Colt .38 Super Automatic. Shooting Illustrated, February, pp. 68-69.

Charles E. Petty. 2000. Reloading for the .38 Super auto. American Rifleman, November/December. Pp. 38-42.  **Shows an old era ad indicating the cartridge name as .38 Automatic with a velocity of 1190, but Petty claims the velocity is 1200 and the name of the cartridge is .38 Super Auto and it was a “new” loading. 

Special thanks to Douglas Sheldon: Pictures and text from Douglas Sheldon's book used with permission from the author via personal communication on 7-12-2012.
Special thanks to Jeff Moss: Some 38 ACP ammunition was kindly donated by the late Jeff Moss, Special Agent, FBI, retired.
References:

Sheldon, Douglas G. 1997. Colt's Super .38, The Production History From 1929 Through 1971. Quick Vend, Inc. Willernie, MN.

Sheldon, Douglas G. 1987. A Collector's Guide to Colt's .38 Automatic Pistols, The Production History of the "Automatic Colt Pistol".

Colt Revolvers and Automatic Pistols, (Colt's, The Arm of Law and Order) 1929 catalog. Colt's Patent Fire Arms Manufacturing Co. Small Arms Division, Hartford, Conn., U.S.A. Reprinted by Cornell Publications.

Colt Revolvers and Automatic Pistols, October 1941 catalog. Colt's Patent Fire Arms Manufacturing Co., Small Arms Division, Hartford, Connecticut. Reprinted by Cornell Publications.

Colt Revolvers and Automatic Pistols, February 1957 catalog. Colt's Patent Fire Arms Manufacturing Co. Inc., Hartford 15, Conn. Reprinted by Cornell Publications.

Colt .38 Automatic Pistols 1900-1911 models. Reprinted by Cornell Publications. Date unknown.

Pollard, H. B. C. 1920. Automatic Pistols, WE, Old Greenwich, Connecticut.

Speer Reloading Manual #14. 2007. Ed. Allan Jones. ATK/Speer, Lewiston, ID.

ANSI/SAAMI booklet Z299.3-1993. American National Standard. Voluntary Industry Performance Standards for Pressure and Velocity of Centerfire Pistol and Revolver Ammunition for the Use of Commercial Manufacturers. 1993. Sporting Arms & Ammunition Manufacturers' Institute, Inc., Wilton, Conn. USA.

www.coltautos.com

Updated 10-29-12 to add the article by Richard Mann.

Updated 11-24-12 to add vintage (1916-1919) 38 ACP section.

Updated 4-5-13 to add link to Kevin Williams' article.

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