The Super .38

One Of Our Oldest Self-Loading Cartridges
Still Offers Great Performance

By Mike “Duke” Venturino
Photos: Yvonne Venturino

As a general rule of life, you should avoid people who hear voices no one else does. That sort of happened to me. A friend and I were traveling to Arizona to participate in their BPCR Silhouette State Championship. My friend was driving, so I was lying back having a bit of nap. Just as I awakened my brain said, “You need a nickel-plated Colt 1911.”

That was an interesting idea, because although I’ve owned many 1911’s of various manufacture and calibers, none had ever been nickel-plated. The next day in Prescott, Arizona, we were perusing gun stores when I spotted an ultra-shiny 1911. Even better, it was of Colt Custom Shop manufacture. Better still, it was a .38 Super. Without hesitation I bought it—legally—it’s going to my FFL.

Only later, with time to examine my new .38 Super did I actually realize what it was. One thing it was not was nickel-plated. Instead, it was highly polished stainless steel. No matter, this saying came to mind, “If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it’s a duck.” Stainless steel that looked like nickel-plating was fine with me. To borrow a buzzword, it had “bling.”

This 1911’s serial number was interesting. It started with ELCEN, so like any good modern person, I “Googled” it. Of course, there were loads of entries—some were hogwash and some sounded reasonable. The gist of it was that during the 1990’s Colt produced some 1911’s for a large distributor, intended for sale south of the Rio Grande. Some were named El General, or El Coronel or El Capitan. Evidently, Colt had a production overrun and sold them as Colt Custom with the ELCEN prefix serial number.

Besides the obvious bright finish, there appears to be nothing especially noteworthy about an ELCEN 1911. It has a 5-inch barrel with higher than normal profile to the white dot rear sight, and white dot front sight is staked to the slide as normal for a Colt 1911. Grips are checkered rosewood. And best of all, it shoots well, mostly close to its sights, depending on exact load and doesn’t fail to function with either factory loads or handloads.

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Duke found this stainless steel Colt 1911 .38 Super with “super” high polish in Arizona.

Although the shooter following of .38 Super is but a fraction of those preferring 9mm Luger and an even smaller fraction of .45 ACP fans, it remains a fine cartridge. It was introduced in 1929 as a high performance loading, using the exact same case dimensions as the 1900 vintage .38 Automatic. The latter can safely be fired in pistols for .38 Super but the reverse in not true. Do not mistake old pre-1911 Colt .38 automatics for .38 Supers.

Case length is 0.90-inch compared to 0.754-inch for 9mm Luger. Case form is semi-rimmed and bullets can be roll-crimped. However, Starline produces .38 Super “Comp” cases that are true rimless types and those should be taper-crimped. Any bullet meant for 9mm Luger is fine for shooting in .38 Super. Jacketed 9mm bullets are 0.355-inch and cast are anywhere from 0.355- to 0.357-inch.

Actually nominally correct jacketed bullet diameter for .38 Super is 0.356-inch but try finding those in your local gun store. All modern reloading manuals just list data for 0.355-inch jacketed bullets. Lyman’s Cast Bullet Handbook No. 4 has 0.355-inch diameter for all cast data. Personally, I use .356-inch Oregon Trail 124- or 145-grain roundnose cast bullets or 120-grain Lyman bullet No. 356242, poured of straight Linotype and sized 0.357-inch.

There are two .38 Super handloading factors I consider conundrums. (I love that word since I learned it means “puzzle.”) One is my Lyman reloading die set. It is marked for .38 Super and .38 S&W. Smith & Wesson introduced the latter round in 1875, with a case length of 0.78-inch and nominal bullet diameter of 0.360-inch. With the dies come two case neck expanding and belling plugs. The .38 Super one is 0.353-inch in diameter and the .38 S&W one is 0.356-inch. There are also two seating die plugs for different shapes of roundnose bullets. As different as .38 Super and .38 S&W rounds are, these dies work perfectly for both.

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Lyman’s reloading dies for .38 Super are also suitable for .38 S&W, a revolver
cartridge introduced in 1875. The round at left is a .38 S&W and (right) a .38 Super.

The other conundrum is .38 Super performance with cast bullets as opposed to 9mm Luger cast bullet performance. Getting halfway decent groups with alloy bullets in 9mm has been problematic for me and many other shooters. However, the very same cast bullets that fail in many of my 9mms shoot just fine in this .38 Super. Go figure.

I’ve heard it said that in Texas there exists a genre of handguns called “Saturday Night BBQ Guns.” They are gussied up pistols and revolvers Texans wear to suitable social events. We don’t have such a custom here in Montana but if we did, this ELCEN 1911 .38 Super would be mine.

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