The 38 Super compared to other pistol cartridges
The 38 Super ranks as one of the more powerful “common” semi-automatic pistol cartridges. (See Table 1. Data is from the manufacturer’s published ballistics and is based on generic ammo typical of that cartridge. Published velocities for a given cartridge vary between manufacturers). With a muzzle energy (ME) of 426 foot pounds, the Super’s sheer power is exceeded only by the 357 Sig, 9X23 Winchester and 10mm. The 38 Super surpasses its larger caliber allies, the 40 S&W and 45 ACP, in raw energy.
Table 1: Common Semi-Automatic Pistol Cartridges
FMJ = Full Metal Jacket. JHP = Jacketed Hollow Point. * Weight in grains. ** This is the often-cited standard for 10mm Automatic ammunition. Most current factory 10mm ammunition is a watered-down version. †Velocity in feet per second. †† Muzzle Energy in foot-pounds is calculated as: Bullet Weight times Velocity times Velocity divided by 450436. ∆ Power Factor is calculated as: Bullet Weight times Velocity divided by 1000.
With respect to other 38 caliber cartridges, the 38 Super is the middle man when it comes to power. It is more powerful than the 380 Automatic, 38 special, 9X18 Makarov and 9mm Luger, including most 9mm+P rounds. But the Super does not quite match the ballistics of the 357 Sig, or the venerable 357 Magnum and its semi-automatic counterpart the 9X23 Winchester (Table 2).
Table 2: Common 38 Caliber Pistol Cartridges
FMJ = Full Metal Jacket. JHP = Jacketed Hollow Point. JSP = Jacketed Soft Point. * Weight in grains. † Velocity in feet per second. †† Muzzle Energy is calculated as: Bullet Weight times Velocity times Velocity divided by 450436. ∆ Power Factor is calculated as: Bullet Weight times Velocity divided by 1000.
The 38 Super is one of the higher velocity cartridges available for semi-automatic pistols (Table 1), which contributes to its flat-shooting reputation. The generic 130 grain bullet routinely surpasses 1200 feet per second (fps). Only the generic rounds for the 357 Sig and 9X23 Winchester routinely go faster.
38 Super vs 9mm
Inevitably there is a comparison between the 38 Super and the 9mm Luger. The Super has a clear advantage, though it is not a huge advantage. The Super propels a 130 grain bullet about 25 fps faster than the 9mm propels a 115 grain bullet. That translates into a roughly 60 ft. lbs. M.E. advantage (about 15%) for the 38 Super. Whether that difference is meaningful or not is a matter of opinion, with 38 Super lovers voting Yes, and 9mm lovers voting No. Like many things in life, we view things in a light that favors our preference. Still, the math places the 38 Super ahead of the 9mm.
9mm +P loads do approach the Super’s power level. But the 9mm +P is loaded to higher pressures than the 38 Super. The SAAMI maximum average pressure for the standard 9mm Luger is 35,000 psi. The 9mm Luger +P maximum is 38,500 psi. The 38 Super SAAMI maximum average pressure is 36,500. Some of you readers are protesting because today’s 38 Super has the designation of 38 Super +P. That’s right. But remember that the +P name designation was added in 1974 solely to distinguish it from the old 38 Automatic, not because the Super was suddenly loaded to higher pressures in 1974. It was a “bureaucratic” name change only, not an actual change in pressure. So, in fact, the 38 Super +P is still the standard pressure 38 Super just as it was when created back in 1929. If the 38 Super was loaded to an increased (real) +P pressure designation it would be much higher than the 9mm +P. For example, the +P designation added 3,500 psi onto the standard 9mm SAAMI maximum. Doing the same to the 38 Super would result in a SAAMI maximum average pressure of 40,000 psi. That would boost velocity and power significantly, well beyond the 9mm +P, and even beyond the 9mm +P+.
The ballistics of 9mm +P+ ammunition are in line with, and slightly exceed, the ballistics of the standard factory 38 Super (Table 3). Winchester’s 127 grain Ranger +P+ produces 441 ft. lbs. M.E. Remington’s 115 JHP +P+ produces 438 ft. lbs. M.E. Remember that the 38 Super’s standard 130 grain FMJ produces 426 ft. lbs. M.E. Higher pressure loads (real +P or +P+ pressures) in the Super would easily surpass 500 ft. lbs. M.E. and would be close to the 9X23 Winchester. By the way, the 9X23 can be loaded to at least 46,000 psi (Winchester’s 15th Edition Reloader’s Manual) which explains why it has such impressive performance and makes it one of the highest pressure handgun cartridges around.
Fortunately there is an example of ammo loaded by the same company to maximize the potential of both of these cartridges. CORBON loads high performance ammo for the 38 Super and the 9mm Luger. When comparing these loads the 38 Super still has a lead over the 9mm. CORBON’s 9mm +P loads peak at 482 ft. lbs. M.E. But their loads for the 38 Super reaches nearly 520 ft. lbs. M.E.
However, as COL. (Dr.) Tom Haggarty pointed out, the velocity figures for these cartridges are from different length barrels. The loads at CORBON (and most other manufacturers) show that the 9mm is clocked from a 4 inch barrel, and the 38 Super from a 5 inch barrel. A longer test barrel for the 9mm would increase the velocity. The usual rule of thumb is that an additional inch of barrel length adds roughly 50 fps (depending on a variety of factors). This would push the CORBON 9mm +P velocity for a given bullet weight to within 25 fps of the equivalent 38 Super round, making the difference between them very small.
One critical feature will always give the edge to the 38 Super. The 38 Super’s longer case, and therefore greater case volume, means higher velocity for a given bullet weight when both cases are loaded to the same pressures.
Table 3: 38 Super vs 9mm Luger
DPX HP = all copper Barnes X Bullet. FMJ = Full Metal Jacket. JHP = Jacketed Hollow Point. STHP = Silver Tip Hollow Point. * Weight in grains. † Velocity in feet per second. Velocity is usually measured from a 4 inch barrel for 9mm Luger, and 5 inch barrel for 38 Super. †† Muzzle Energy in Foot Pounds and calculated as: Bullet Weight times Velocity times Velocity divided by 450436.
12-31-12 Added Figure
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