This article was first published online 6-4-2013

Colt's 38 Super: Ready for IPSC?

by

Brad Miller

USPSA's Single Stack division has breathed new life into the classic combat pistol that was at the heart of IPSC’s birth. And in many people’s minds, if its a single stack, its a 45 ACP, although nowadays a 40/10mm caliber single stack can be found in plenty of competitor's holsters.  But surprisingly enough, the second most common caliber associated with a single stack 1911 was introduced way back in 1929.  Ring any bells? Well, if you haven’t got it figured out, then you should be embarrassed. It’s the 38 Super.  And I’m happy to tell you that some folks actually shoot them in matches.

One might ask why you would shoot a 38 Super in anything other than open class because in all other divisions it does not qualify for Major scoring and that puts the shooter at a scoring disadvantage.  There are several good reasons.  First, there is no disadvantage if you shoot all As. And we all do, right?  Second, the Minor loads have less recoil and allow for faster follow-up shots, which reduces stage time, and we all know that time is weighed heavily in this sport. And that little extra time you gain might let you get those sights on the A zone more reliably. Third, the 38 Super allows for more cartridges in the gun: 10 + 1 in a standard length magazine, compared to 8 + 1 in a 45 or 40/10mm (when the 40/10mm is used for Major scoring). This might reduce reloads depending on stage design and that saves time. Besides, more is better and it gives you a couple of extra rounds if you happen to need an extra shot or two to make up for a possible miss or imperfect hit.  Fourth, bullets are cheaper than it’s bigger bore cousins, and if you shoot tons of handloads in a year the savings can add up. Fifth, not everybody is a high-strung ultra-competitor who is focused solely on winning, winning, and winning.  Some of us like going to matches simply because they’re fun to shoot and a light recoiling pistol can add more fun to the experience. Loaded to Minor power factor, the 38 Super is about as pleasant a center fire cartridge as you can find. 

Simply stated, the single stack 38 Super is alive and well.  Many manufacturers that make a 1911 offer a 38 Super. I bought a Colt . After all, they started this whole 38 Super thing. I settled on the standard Government Model in stainless steel (Catalog # O2070E ). It sports tall, crisp three dot fixed sights, rounded combat (Commander) hammer, beavertail grip safety, aluminum trigger, checkered wrap-around rubber grips, beveled magazine well, flared ejection port, flat mainspring housing and a standard thumb safety. It is supplied with two 9 round magazines. This is a series 80 pistol, which means it has a spring plunger firing pin safety mechanism.

Finish:

Aesthetics are important to some shooters, and this baby gets high marks in that category. The finish on this gun was simply superb. The flats are expertly polished. The rounds are bead blasted to a dark gray and stop sharply at the border with the flats. The flat top rib on the slide is also bead blasted, yet still retains clean edges.  This is nice work. 

However, the sharp edges are really sharp. This gun should come with a box of bandages!  The 90 degree edges on the slide could be used for shaving!  The sharp edges show that Colt can get the lines straight and square, and that's good, but this baby needs to be dehorned to keep down the rising costs of medical insurance.

Fit:

Colt builds a very attractive pistol and it's nicely put together. That said, it rattles a bit if you shake it.  That's not exactly a sign of custom fit components, but in all fairness this is a production gun, and there are plenty of other production 1911s that rattle, too.  Rattling in a 1911 usually comes from slop in the slide and frame fit, and a loose barrel, which can reduce accuracy. This gun suffers from all of these but only in minor ways. The slide to frame fit was not terrible and was off only a very few thousands of an inch. Slide to frame fit contributes only a small amount to accuracy and the generally accepted number is around 15% (Kuhnhausen, 1986). The most important contribution to accuracy in a 1911 is how tight the barrel fits in the slide. 

Closer inspection revealed that the rear of the barrel was reasonably tight in the slide breech. There was no discernible vertical slop in the rear of the barrel when the slide was locked forward.  The bushing fit the barrel properly, but the bushing was loose in the slide. In any event, these small imperfections had little effect on the gun's overall performance because accuracy was good. 

Readers should note that the barrel profile on this gun is thinner than normal. The outside diameter of the Colt barrel was .498 inches, not the .580 we’re used to. You’ll need to measure it and specify the dimensions if you buy a replacement bushing. The outside dimensions of the bushing (i. d. of the slide) are normal, in the .700 inch range.

Another fitting issue was the thumb safety. When thumbing the safety down, it rotated well past the point where the plunger intersects the indent. This did not hamper function or putting the safety back on by thumbing it up. The safety worked fine, but it's excess travel points to a lack of attention to detail.

Ergonomics:

Some models of Colt pistols, this one included, have a nicely undercut front strap under the trigger guard.  This sinks the gun a little lower in the hand. This is desirable because it lowers the axis of the gun and this improves control and reduces felt recoil because there is less top-heavy whipping during slide movement.  However, to be truly effective, the rear of the gun must also be lowered in the hand. This is achieved with installing a high grip safety. Unfortunately, the beavertail design on this particular model does not drop the rear of the gun lower in the hand. In fact, it felt to me like it raised the rear of the gun upward. I did not like it as much as other beavertail designs, such as Caspian and Ed Brown. However, a friend of mine, also a 1911 fan, thought it felt pretty good. Different strokes. On the plus side, this beavertail does what all good beavertails do, it prevents hammer bite.

Performance:

The trigger pull was smooth, and measured 4 pounds on a RCBS Premium trigger pull gauge. There was a small amount of creep in the trigger pull, but this is not uncommon in other 1911 production pistols. The trigger does not adjust for take-up or over-travel but neither of these was excessive.

To see what the Colt was capable of accuracy-wise, I clamped it into a Ransom Rest and test fired it at 25 yards. The results are shown in the table. This gun had an average 5-shot group size with five different factory loads of 2.44 inches.  One of my favorite handloads for the Super is a 147 grain bullet. They fly straight and reliably take down steel.  I use fast burning powders like Winchester 231 or Super Target to keep the recoil down. The Colt seemed to like these, producing an overall average group size with three different loads at under two inches. The handloads were in Starline rimless 38 Super Comp brass.  The Colt extracted and ejected these and factory semi-rimmed brass with total reliability.

Groups are in inches and are the average of 5 shot groups at 25 yards from a Ransom Rest. Group size measured center to center. Velocity was measured in feet per second (fps) at 15 feet with a Shooting Chrony Alpha model chronograph.  Temperature was mid 70s˚F. Power Factor is calculated as: bullet weight times velocity divided by 1,000.

I've fired several thousand handloads through the Colt with a variety of round nose and hollow-point bullets. There are no feeding problems with round nose bullets, but there are occasional feed failures with hollow point bullets. These were most likely due to the feed ramp design. This gun has a conventional feed ramp, where the bullet nose first encounters the frame on its way to the chamber. The barrel itself has a small feed ramp. The two-piece feed ramp design produces a seam where the frame and barrel meet and the feed ramp on a conventional design 38 Super barrel tends to be a bit steep and narrow.

When I experienced feed failures with this gun, it looked like the flat edge of the hollow point bullet’s nose was caught right at that steep angle at the seam. Ramped barrels offer a single feed ramp as an extension of the barrel and do away with the feed ramp in the frame. In my experience, this enhances the 38 Super’s feeding reliability with flat nose bullets.

More Ammo:

The original Colt nine shot magazines worked just fine. But I wanted more. More rounds that is. So I bought a handful of Chip McCormick ten shot magazines, and a couple of Wilson Combat 38 Super magazine conversion kits. The Wilson Combat kits have a new spring and follower and are an inexpensive way to convert the Colt magazines to hold 10 rounds.  The pistol loved all of the 10 round magazines. I did too.

Summary:

Overall, Colt's modern 38 Super proved to be a fine pistol. Colt gets high marks for making a very attractive gun. The high polish and clean lines showcase their commitment to aesthetic quality.  It shoots well, too, for a production gun. It runs fine with round nose bullets and is accurate enough for those tiny A zones in the head of the IPSC target at 25 yards with the right ammunition.

Epilogue:

Since this gun is a keeper I replaced the Colt factory beavertail grip safety with my personal favorite, an Ed Brown. In concert with the undercut trigger guard, and a set of soft rubber Hogue finger groove grips, it sits low in the hand and offers superb comfort and recoil control. I also installed a Colt ambidextrous thumb safety ‘cause I’m a lefty, replaced the trigger with an adjustable one and redid the sear for a crisp let-off. I’m not fond of three dot sights, so I replaced the rear sight with a Novak dovetail design and painted the front sight orange so I can find it quickly. Oh, and I dehorned it, too. There, now it fits me just right. See you at the range!

References:

Kuhnhausen, Jerry, 1986. The Colt .45 Automatic: A Shop Manual, VSP Publishers, McCall, ID.

Questions, comments, suggestions, hate mail? Feel free to email me. However, the probability of getting a response is low simply because I have a day job and a life and don't have the time to respond to all emails. It's nothing personal, really. Nevertheless, I do appreciate your thoughts. If you see an obvious error then please put the word ERROR in the title of your email. Thanks, and happy shooting.
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