Reloading for the .38 Super Auto
Petty, Charles E
Were it not for the International Practical Shooting Confederation (IPSC), today the .38 Super Auto cartridge would be little more than a historical footnote. And, outside active IPSC circles, the .38 Super Auto cartridge remains unknown to most U.S. shooters. When I questioned a friend in the ammunition business recently about the popularity of the .38 Super Auto, he replied, “We sell lots of it overseas.” Sometimes we forget that there are many countries, such as our neighbor, Mexico, where civilians are prohibited from owning pistols in military calibers such as 9 mm Luger or .45 ACP. In such countries, the .38 Super Auto reigns as king of the semi-auto pistol cartridges.
Historically, the .38 Super Auto can trace its pedigree directly to John Browning himself who designed the original .38 Auto cartridge. Introduced in 1900, that cartridge was first chambered in Colt pistols. Later, Webley & Scott, Astra and Llama also made pistols in the same caliber. Factory-loaded .38 Auto ammunition pushed a 130-gr. FMJ bullet at a leisurely 1040 f.p.s.
In 1929, the .38 Auto cartridge was improved with a more powerful loading. Redesignated the .38 Super Auto, the new loading was one of the original hot rod pistol cartridges. It pushed a 130-gr. FMJ bullet to a then-blazing 1200 f.p.s. Although labeled a .38, bullet diameter was actually the same as the 9 mm Luger (0.355″ to 0.356″). Heralded as “the world’s most powerful handgun cartridge,” the .38 Super Auto reigned only six short years until it was dethroned in 1935 by the .357 Smith & Wesson Magnum.
Because the .38 Super Auto cartridge was the product of hopping up the .38 Auto to higher velocity and pressure, we must carefully distinguish between the .38 Super Auto and the earlier .38 Auto. Case dimensions of both cartridges are exactly the same. The only external difference in most instances is the headstamp or box label. For that reason, it is important to note that lower-pressure .38 Auto ammunition may be fired safely in pistols chambered for the .38 Super Auto, but not vice versa!
In its early days, the .38 Super Auto had a reputation for less than stellar accuracy because the semi-rimmed case headspaced on the rim. When the IPSC craze began, custom gunsmiths reamed .38 Super Auto chambers to headspace the cartridge on the case mouth as do the majority of other pistol cartridges. Accuracy improved substantially, leading Colt and other manufacturers to incorporate the change into production guns.
In IPSC competition, a significant consideration is a cartridge’s “power factor”-a number derived from bullet weight in grains multiplied by muzzle velocity in feet per second divided by 1000. For many years, IPSC rules dictated that number must be 175 or more to qualify as a major caliber. While the .45 ACP could meet the requirement with ease, the 9 mm Luger could not. IPSC shooters discovered that with judicious handloading, the .38 Super Auto could attain major power factor status. Of course, magnum revolver cartridges such as the .357 Mag. could make it as well, but recoil was severe, and IPSC courses worked against revolvers.
Trying to hurdle the IPSC major power factor using the .38 Super Auto proved an adventure into reloading never-never land. Tested data was lacking, and many an overly aggressive reload ruptured a case, blew out the magazine, splintered the grips and sprayed hot gas, powder grains and sometimes bits of brass into the shooter’s face. I’m proud to say I didn’t experience such a thing first-hand, but some of those early efforts were close to the edge. Eventually, handloaders came up with .38 Super Auto handloads that appeared safe, although none had the benefit of pressure testing.
Since then, two things have happened to improve the situation: Case manufacturers strengthened .38 Super Auto brass, relabeling it .38 Super +P in the process, and some of the newer powders with tested reloading data have proved much better than the old standbys. When a few intrepid souls started using lightweight, 115-gr. 9 mm bullets in the .38 SuperAuto at elevated muzzle velocities, the whole can of worms popped open again. With such bullets, muzzle velocities exceeding 1500 f.p.s. were required to clear the 175 major power factor. I have yet to see credible evidence that can be done within .38 Super Auto maximum average pressure limits of 35,500 p.s.i.
With lightweight bullets at high muzzle velocities, shooters asserted that recoil seemed lower in this caliber. That simply cannot be, as free recoil energy is determined by an equation using bullet weight, muzzle velocity, propellant charge weight and gun weight. If you load to a specific power factor by adjusting the velocity for any bullet weight, the free recoil energy will be roughly the same. Despite that, perceived recoil was noticeably less. There are two reasons why: First, at the high chamber pressures involved, compensators proved highly effective. Second, at the elevated muzzle velocities obtained, the bullet is in the barrel for a much shorter time, substantially reducing muzzle flip.
Within the past year, the IPSC major power factor for the open category has been adjusted to 160. That has enabled factory ammunition to qualify for major in some additional calibers and loads. For example, the minimum power factor can now be met with 130-gr. bullets in the .38 Super Auto using maximum powder charges. Alternatively, shooters who prefer light, 115-gr. bullets can reduce muzzle velocities to 1400 f.p.s. While this will no doubt improve the safety margins in handloading for IPSC competition, it has little relevance to the average reloader.
Other than the custom pistols used in IPSC competition, you really have to look pretty hard these days to find a new gun in .38 Super Auto caliber. They’re around, such as the Colt or Springfield M1911-A1 and EAA Witness, but my guess is that these serve as starting points for raceguns and such. Today, five U.S. ammunition companies continue to manufacture factory-loaded ammunition in .38 Super Auto caliber: Winchester, Federal, Black Hills, Cor-Bon and PMC/El Dorado. For defensive purposes, Winchester offers its venerable 125-gr. Silvertip HP at a nominal 1240 f.p.s., and PMC offers a 115-gr. JHP at a leisurely 1116 f.p.s. muzzle velocity. Most manufacturers offer the classic 130-gr. FMJ bullet load at muzzle velocities ranging from 1100 to 1215 f.p.s. Starline, Winchester and PMC all offer unprimed, empty brass in .38 Super Auto caliber, and suitable bullets are offered by Speer, Hornady, Sierra and others.
For shooters unfamiliar with the .38 Super Auto, the question always arises, “What’s it good for?” I believe the .38 Super Auto to be an excellent choice for personal defense when used with expanding JHP bullets. It is also a good choice for hunting small game with similar loads. When fired in a Government M1911-A1 pistol, the gun’s weight keeps recoil modest and the high velocity quickly delivers bullets to the target. For many Americans, the attraction of the .38 Super Auto will likely be firing an older gun.
Reloading the .38 Super Auto is a snap. Published, tested reloading data is available for most popular 9 mm bullet weights. There are no special tricks to loading the cartridge either. A wide variety of powders can be used, but I have found best results using slower-burning powders. For example, muzzle velocities are low and pressures high with fast-burning powders such as Bullseye or W-W 231, so I avoid them. In nearly all published data, Blue Dot offers the highest muzzle velocities, but my experience has been that although Blue Dot works well through conventional powder measures, it is hard to meter through progressive tools. Since most of my handgun loading is done on a progressive machine, I have found other powders that work better, such as Alliant Power Pistol, Winchester Super Field and Vihtavouri 3N37 or N350. Despite the .38 Super Auto’s less than universal popularity, it remains a fine cartridge that continues to enjoy acceptance by action pistol shooters and others. It fills a niche that will likely keep it around for many years to come.
WARNING: Technical data and information contained herein are intended to provide information based upon the limited experience of individuals under specific conditions and circumstances. They do not detail the comprehensive training procedures, techniques and safety precautions which are absolutely necessary to properly carry on similar activity. READ THE NOTICE AND DISCLAIMER ON THE CONTENTS PAGE OF THIS MAGAZINE. ALWAYS CONSULT COMPREHENSIVE REFERENCE MANUALS AND BULLETINS FOR DETAILS OF PROPER TRAINING REQUIREMENTS, PROCEDURES, TECHNIQUES AND SAFETY PRECAUTIONS BEFORE ATTEMPTING ANY SIMILAR ACTIVITIES.
Copyright National Rifle Association of America Nov/Dec 2000
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