Handloaders have the choice of using the standard semi-rimmed cases typical of the 38 Super cartridge or rimless cases (see below) introduced some years back that are commonly used by competitive shooters in the "action" and "practical" shooting sports.
Conventional Semi-rimmed 38 Super Brass
The author has handloaded brass from the major U. S. manufacturers Federal, Remington, Winchester and Starline and has not noticed any obvious difference between them with respect to quality or case life. All give good service.
Factory ammunition from Federal, Remington and Winchester is typically loaded in nickel plated cases. Plain brass cases can be found from Remington and Winchester cases as components. Starline offers both plain brass and nickel plated cases as components.
Nickel plated cases tend to feed more reliably than plain brass cases because the nickel reduces friction (drag). Enhanced reliability has obvious benefits for ammunition that might be used for self defense. Some folks have said that the nickel plating is hard on reloading dies, including the carbide sizing die, and may shorten their life. Whether true or not, handloaders should not be very concerned with this since it would likely take many thousands of uses to produce significant wear on the dies. Moreover, reloading dies are not costly so even occasional replacement would hardly present a financial concern, especially if compared to the cost of the loading components used for those many thousands of handloads.
New cases are offered for retail by many manufacturers and might be available from your local sporting goods stores. Larger shooting supply stores and specialty sites sell 38 Super cases and are available by mail/phone/web order. Midway, Natchez Shooting Sports, and Ghost Holster are sites that the author is familiar with. Some of these sites also offer rimless 38 Super cases (see below).
Actual measurements from some virgin (never loaded) 38 Super cases commonly available in the U.S. are shown in Table 1 and are compared to the SAAMI specifications. The accompanying figure shows the key to the measurements. There is some variation in case dimensions from one case to another even in the same batch. Of the small number of cases measured, the dimensions of cases made by the same manufacturer varied as much as .002 inches.
Table 1: 38 Super Measured Case Dimensions (inches)
Rimless 38 Super Brass
A new breed of 38 Super brass was born some years back that transformed the 38 Super into a rimless cartridge. As the name suggests, the semi-rim was eliminated. The new rim diameter is close to the case wall diameter. On the samples measured, the rim was no more than .007 inches wider than the case wall diameter (in typical semi-rimmed cases the rim is roughly .020 wider than the case wall, see Table 1). The rimless cases are intended to headspace on the case mouth. If you have an older barrel, the rimless cases might slip farther into the chamber than the semi-rimmed cases.
One impetus for the development of rimless cases was that the semi-rimmed 38 Super case did not always feed reliably from double column magazines. Several companies make pistols (STI, SVI, EAA Witness), or their components (Caspian, Para Ordnance), that use double column 38 Super magazines. The rimless case improves feeding reliability in these magazines. These pistol designs are popular in practical shooting sports such as IPSC.
Rimless cases are made by Starline (38 Super Comp; 38 TJ (TJ stands for Todd Jarrett)), Hornady (38 TJ), Lapua (38 Super Lapua) and Armscor (38 Super RL). No major U.S. ammunition manufacturer offers loaded ammunition in these cases, but one smaller manufacturer does (Atlanta Arms and Ammo). Table 2 denotes actual measurements made of some virgin 38 Super rimless cases that are commonly used in the U.S. The case rim and the extractor groove diameters are the only external dimensions that vary from the standard 38 Super case. Note that the "TJ" cases have a narrower extractor groove dimension than other rimless cases. As in Table 1, some dimensions vary from one case to another even in the same batch.
Table 2: Rimless 38 Super Measured Case Dimensions (inches)
SC = Super Comp. TJ = Todd Jarrett.
Rimless cases might also improve feeding reliability from single column magazines. The small semi-rim on normal 38 Super cases can increase the chance that a cartridge might nosedive during feeding because the semi-rim rubs on the underlying case and this enhances drag. Rimless cases reduce the drag (see nosedive feed failures under construction). But many shooters use the normal semi-rimmed cases in single column magazines with no feeding problems. The real benefit of rimless cases is in double column magazines, but even with these magazines some shooters have had good results with the semi-rimmed cases. The author experienced occasional feeding problems with the conventional semi-rimmed 38 Super cases in double column Para Ordnance pistols. Switching to rimless cases solved the problem.
Extractor Tuning for Rimless Cases
Because the rim is not as wide on rimless cases than normal 38 Super cases, the rim is, in effect, farther from the extractor. Consequently, the gun's extractor might require minor adjustment in order to assure reliable extraction of these cases from the chamber. But some extractors might work just fine with no need for adjustment. If you experience extraction problems with rimless 38 Super cases consult a qualified gunsmith for ways to remedy this problem. Often a slight increase in extractor tension solves the problem.
Aftec makes extractors for 1911 style pistols that are tuned specifically for either the standard semi-rimmed 38 Super cases or the rimless 38 Super cases. However, there are slight differences in the slide's breech dimensions depending on the manufacturer, so check with a qualified gunsmith for specifics if you consider buying one. Also note that some people have reported that Aftec extractors require tuning as well. The author uses conventional extractors with rimless cases with excellent result in his 1911s.
How Much Rim?
If you take a close look at the numbers in Tables 1 and 2, you can calculate the amount of the rim that the extractor has available to grab onto. The results are shown in Table 3.
Table 3: Effective rim of 38 Super Cases (inches)
SAAMI specifications indicate a rim of 0.0305 inches. Semi-rimmed cases come close to that and of those measured produced an average of 0.0300 inches. Rimless Supercomp cases offer a slightly smaller rim of 0.0285 inches. The TJ cases, with their narrower extractor groove waist, provide the most rim for the extractor, at 0.0355 inches. The Lapua cases offer the least, with 0.025 inches.
The extractor groove of 38 TJ cases also extends farther forward than all other 38 Super cases. This provides more room for the head of the extractor.
Case Wall Thickness
Case wall thickness varies. The old 38 Automatic cases tended to have thin walls, whereas modern 38 Super walls are somewhat more robust. Still, this varies by manufacturer. Examples of sectioned cases are shown the figure (click on it for a high resolution version). Case wall thickness does not necessarily indicate strength because manufacturing processes can affect case durability.
A 9X23 Winchester case is shown for comparison. It runs at very high pressure (the SAAMI maximum pressure limit is 55,000 psi, compared to the 38 Super +P maximum pressure limit of 36,500 psi) and was designed to be fired from an unsupported chamber, and has an especially thick case wall near the head where it might be unsupported. More information on the 9X23 can be found here.
Click on the image for a high resolution version.
Case life is quite good with nearly all common brands of 38 Super brass depending on what pressure the cartridge is loaded to. Loading cases to high pressure reduces their life. Below are some signs to look for to help you determine if a case needs to be retired.
Expanded Primer Pockets
One sign of long use and/or high pressure loads is that the primer pocket feels "loose" when seating primers. If the primer seems to "fall" in place with virtually no effort or can be easily pushed out, then the case should not be used. A loose primer can be blown out, or allow gas to escape past it producing hazards for the shooter and bystanders and can cause erosion of the breech face.
Another factor affecting case life is how much the case bulges. This depends on pressure, chamber dimensions and how much of the case is supported. Unsupported chambers (explained) expose more of the case head and cases can bulge significantly in this region when pressure is high. Excessive bulging dramatically weakens the case. In some instances cracks are visible (See Figure 1; also see the photos on the Factory Ammunition page for more examples of bulged cases). Excessively bulged cases should be discarded for safety reasons. Reloading these cases could easily result in a case blow-out.
Some Bulging is Normal
Fired cases usually have some bulge just in front of the case head where the brass expands during firing. In most instances this expansion is normal and does not indicate impending case failure. This is illustrated in Figure 2 with a Starline 38 Super Comp case that has been loaded and fired at least a dozen times (photograph kindly provided by G-ManBart). The arrow points to the bulge. There is no evidence of thinning in the case wall at this location.
Case Head Separation
Fired cases sometimes have a bright ring or band around the case just forward of the extractor groove. This mark takes various forms and can be an indication of many things, some worthy of closer inspection. In extreme circumstances, the band could be an indication of impending case head separation – when the rim and a portion of the case just ahead of the extractor groove breaks off from the case body. It is a well recognized problem for rifle cartridges, often attributed to excessive headspace, excessive resizing and high pressure loads (Speer Reloading manual #14). Excessive headspace in semi-automatic pistol chambers can also lead to case head separation.
If you see a bright ring around the case head after firing, you can inspect the cases for this type of damage. Look inside the case for a groove or indent at the position of the ring (illustrated in Figure 3). You can also use a thin-tipped probe to feel for the groove. If an indent is present, there is a serious danger of case rupture or case head separation, and the case should be discarded.
Reloading Induced Rings
Resizing fired cases often leaves a visible ring just forward of the extractor groove. This ring can take several forms, two examples of which are shown in Figure 4. In Figure 4A, the ring is normal. It is an artifact of the sizing process where the sizing die does not quite reach all the way down the side of the case, and is not a sign of case weakness. There often is expansion here, but it should be minimal. Most virgin brass measures around 0.380 inches at this location (see Tables 1 and 2 above). Fired cases often measure several thousandths over that, depending on chamber dimensions. Measuring several of my reloaded cases showed measurements of 0.381 to 0.385 inches. The amount of “normal” expansion here depends on chamber dimensions, pressure, and quality and usage life of the case, so your results might vary. But if expansion here increases over time, the case might be weakening, and it’s time to discard it.
Another type of ring at this location results from resizing excessively bulged cases (Figure 4B). In this instance a ring of brass protrudes from the side of the case. This is probably a result of the sizing die not quite able to reach down far enough to resize an overly expanded region. These cases should be discarded since this is a sign of potential weakness at that point and could result in head separation.
Over time, with repeated use and especially with high pressure loads, the bulge might increase in diameter and at some point the case might need to be retired. Part of this depends on the barrel chamber. If the barrel has a “generous” chamber, and/or an unsupported region, and for other reasons, case life can be reduced. Inspect your cases on occasion and if there is evidence of excessive bulging or dangerous signs like the ones shown above, it’s time to retire those cases. And in any instance where you think the case is weakened, discard it. When in doubt, throw it out. Always error on the side of safety.
Other Brass-Related Issues
Cracked or split cases should be discarded.
In the author's experience, the 38 Super cases do not grow in length with repeated use so they seldom if ever need to be trimmed.
American Ammunition 38 Super cases (headstamp A-MERC) are unique. The samples that the author has are very thin-walled in the anterior portion where the bullet is seated. Even after these cases are sized, but before the case mouth is belled, a bullet will fall into the case for some distance. No other brand of cases that the author has used behave like this. These cases might require that the bullet is crimped to prevent bullet set-back (when a bullet is pushed deeper into the case). These cases might be an isolated lot, or common to this caliber. A-MERC brass in 45 ACP that the author has used have not demonstrated this characteristic. The author elected to not handload these specific 38 Super cases to avoid this type of problem altogether. Your experience may vary.
Not all 38 Super brass is created equal. Some brands have thicker/stronger walls at the case head. During the course of load development I tested a load that consistently produced excessive bulges in brass fired through my unsupported factory Colt barrel. However, I noticed that this was not true for all brands of brass. So I conducted a small experiment and loaded 10 rounds each with this excess pressure load using different brands of new, unfired brass (that I had on hand) and ran them through the Colt (at some risk to myself in the event there was a blowout). The percentage of cases that showed excessive bulging in the unsupported region are shown in the accompanying Table. The bottom line is that the Starline and Hornady brass showed no evidence of excess bulging with this particular load, whereas most of the Remington and Winchester brass did. However, increasing the powder charge by 4.4% did produce a bulge in some of the Starline cases (this was not tested in the Hornady cases). So, while the Starline and Hornady cases are probably stronger than the Remington and Winchester, they have limits, and it's not very far above the Remington and Winchester brass. If you're working with high pressure loads and using a pistol with an unsupported chamber, consider using Starline or Hornady 38 TJ brass for a slightly better margin of safety. Remember, I don't recommend using excessive pressure loads (past SAAMI maximum limits) in unsupported barrels. That is dangerous territory. Any brand of brass will bulge or burst if the pressures are too high, so don't go crazy when you're developing loads and expect the brand of brass to save you from your own stupidity. Stupidity is its own punishment. Feel free to quote me on that.
Speer Reloading Manual #13. 1998. Ed. Allan Jones. Blount, Inc. Sporting Equipment Division. Speer, Lewiston, ID.
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.
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