REVIEW: Rock Island 1911 .38 Super

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Although it’s fallen out of the mainstream, .38 Super is a formidable choice for a critical-use handgun, and it’s one any serious operator should consider. READ WHY

1911 38 super

Wilburn Roberts

The .38 Super was introduced in the 1911 handgun in 1929 to arm peace officers with a hard-hitting round that offered good penetration against the new breed of mechanized thug. The .38 Super saw extensive use in the hands of the FBI and figured into the demise of dangerous fugitives such as Baby Face Nelson.

The .38 Super is dimensionally identical to the .38 ACP of 1900, and Colt’s offered this in the 1903 model pistol. The .38 ACP fired a 130-grain bullet at 1,100 fps. Colt’s upped the power of the cartridge but used the same length cartridge case and chambered the 1911 in .38 Super when it dropped production of the .38 ACP pistols. The .38 Super was a sensation, noted for its high velocity of 1300 fps and 9 fast shots. At the time, you had to know not to fire a .38 Super in the older Colt’s 1903 pistols.

The effectiveness of .38 Super cannot be argued. The penetration of the cartridge and reliability of the 1911 gave law officers an advantage. However, the .38 Super suffered in popularity after the introduction of the .357 Magnum. In those days, lawmen were revolver men. The question is this: Is the .38 Super a viable personal defense and tactical combination today?

The answer would be yes! Ammunition development continues. Federal Cartridge recently introduced a 115-grain JHP load in its American Eagle Line, and Double Tap ammunition offers excellent tactical-grade loads. SIG Sauer also recently introduced a new .38 Super load.

Rock Island GI Series
The 1911 is a good home for the .38 Super. The 1911 features straight-to-the-rear trigger compression, a low bore axis, a grip that fits most hands well, and excellent speed into action. Its lower recoil makes the .38 Super an an easier cartridge to master than the .45 ACP, and the .38 Super gives two additional rounds of magazine capacity.

38 super
The .38 Super is a great all-around handgun. The Rock Island GI Series are high-quality, well-made, and affordable.

Rock Island Armory offers a GI-type 1911 chambered in .38 Super. The pistol is well finished, offers a smooth trigger compression at 5.5 pounds, and, overall, the parts on my test gun were well fitted.

38 super magazine
.38 Super magazine, above, .45 ACP, lower. The smaller diameter Super case gives a full two more rounds capacity.

The Cartridge
Federal offers a 115-grain JHP in the American Eagle line that breaks almost 1200 fps. This is a good practice load and is just a bit hotter than most 9mm loads. The SIG Sauer Elite 125-grain V Crown JHP breaks just over 1200 fps. Either is a good defense load for most situations.

38 super ammo
Double Tap ammunition and MecGar magazines gave excellent results.

38 super ammo

For loads mimicking the .357 Magnum, consider this: The .38 Super uses relatively fast-burning powder that produces less recoil energy than the slow-burning powder used in the .357 Magnum. The recoil spring captures much of the recoil energy as well.

federal 38 super
Federal’s American Eagle .38 Super is a boon to those who love the .38 Super in an accurate and affordable loading.

There are loads available that maximize the caliber. If you wish a rapidly expanding load for use in an urban situation the Double Tap 115-grain Controlled Expansion JHP offers that option. For those preferring an all-copper bullet, the Barnes TAC XP load is an option with greater penetration.

Barnes JHP
The Barnes all-copper JHP is a credible performer.

At over 1400 fps, the 125-grain JHP Double Tap would be an excellent all around service load. I normally load my .38 Super with the 115-grain load for home defense. If using the pistol for tactical use, I would deploy the 125-grain bonded core loading. The following table outlines the load’s performance. The Rock Island Armory 1911 .38 Super produced good accuracy with each loading.
The .38 Super fits my needs well. Modern loads put the .38 Super just where it needs to be — a high-velocity loading with good performance, excellent penetration and governable recoil.

38 super stats

38 super energy

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11 thoughts on “REVIEW: Rock Island 1911 .38 Super”

  1. The only thing that would stop me from buying one of these, is that I’ve never seen any 38 Super by any manufacturer who offers one with a double stack magazine.
    I also like to see someone offer a pistol chambered for the 30 carbine. In a handgun it matches the velocity of the .357, 41 & 44 magnums. It would be a natural for a double stack magazine & since the case is smaller in diameter a double stack could hold more rounds than a 9MM. The overall case length for the 30 carbine is exactly the same length as the other 3 magnums. However it is rimless, which I suspect would be ideal for an autoloader.

  2. the eaa witness(cz75 clone) makes a 38 super double stack in sa/da or sa only. i have one and it shoots great.
    amt made a 30 carbine pistol that is still available used if you look around, it is a single stack 1911 type gun.
    im in the process of fitting a 38 super bbl into my springfield 9mm 1911, only thing holding me back is time. it looks like i will need to change the ejector.
    i have a rock 1911 in 22tcm/9mm and it is a well made pistol, mine is a single stack,my preference, and came with all the bells and whistles. the gi version pistols are nice entry level guns that you can upgrade if you choose to make it like you want it or shoot it as is if you are happy with it.

    the 38 super is a tremendous round and a pleasure to shoot, a much better all around cartridge than the 9mm. the only thing the 9mm has on the 38 super is cost of ammo and availability of ammo. you get out in the boonies 38 sup ammo gets hard to find wally world does not stock it nor does rural king.

    1. From what I’ve read, a few of the AMTs had trouble with the extractor breaking on the 30 carbine model. Thats enough for me to avoid purchasing one.
      The company of the original 44AutoMag went out of business within the first year. I know this because I and a gun shop put a deposit down on one in the 70s & we both lost our money over it. I have an original full color brochure I received in the mail shortly after it was ordered. I also received instructions of how the brass could be made. As a machinist I fabricated a die that could be used to not old size the fired boss, but it could also be used to ream out the inside of the mouth to give the ID the proper diameter to hold a bullet using a special reamer I had modified to do this task. I still have these tools I fabricated for that task.
      I remember when High Standard began making the AutoMags again, but even they didn’t last long. This was back in the 70s from my recollection. In my mind, that 44AutoMag was & still is the most beautiful pistol ever made, but good Lord are those prices high. I’ve never considered purchasing one since. Mostly because I have no use for a firearm I can’t buy parts for if needed.
      For a few years I considered purchasing one of the Widley automatic magnums, but didn’t have the money before the went belly up. I don’t recall them having any problems with that one. I think that was in the 80s, but I’m not sure.

      1. I made a lot of typos on the last thing I wrote so I’ve made a corrected version below.

        From what I’ve read, a few of the AMTs had trouble with the extractor breaking on the 30 carbine model. Thats enough for me to avoid purchasing one.
        The company of the original 44AutoMag went out of business within the first year. I know this because I and a gun shop put a deposit down on one in the 70s & we both lost our money over it. I have an original full color brochure I received in the mail shortly after it was ordered. I also received instructions of how the brass could be made from 308 brass. As a machinist I fabricated a die that could be used to not only size the fired brass, but it could also be used to ream out the inside of the mouth to give it the proper inside diameter to hold a bullet by using a special reamer I had modified to do this task. I still have these tools I fabricated for that task.
        I remember when High Standard began making the AutoMags again, but even they didn’t last long. This was back in the 70s from my recollection. In my mind, that 44AutoMag was & still is the most beautiful pistol ever made, but good Lord are those prices high now. I’ve never considered purchasing one since. Mostly because I have no use for a firearm I can’t buy parts for if needed.
        For a few years I considered purchasing one of the Widley automatic magnums, but didn’t have the money before they went belly up. I don’t recall them having any problems with that one. I think that was in the 80s, but I’m not sure.

  3. IMO, if the Government really wanted to go to the (mm cal. bullet, we would have been far better off to have gone with the .38 Super rather than the relatively anemic 9MM Parabellum.

  4. I am curious as to why wasn’t the .38 Super compared directly with the 357 Sig?
    The Underwood loading of a 125 gr bullet are 1475 fps. I would expect the Underwood loads to be a bit hotter than the offerings cited here but even knocking 50 fps off the Underwood still leaves a slight edge in velocity.
    I surmise that the two rounds occupy the same niche in terms of ballistic performance out of an automatic handgun.

    What does .38 Super bring to the table that the 357 Sig does not? Is the recoil easier to manage?
    Is it just personal preference?

    1. I have both, Glock 22 357 Sig and RIA Super 38. I was told by Barsto that did the custom fit barrel for the Super, RIA frames are highly sought after for customization. They are strong and well built for the cost. When I finished I replaced every part with custom parts for minimum of cost of a comparable custom 1911 that shoots very well and is match grade accurate. In comparison to the 357 Sig, the Super is so easy to shoot due to the weight of the 1911 vs the Sig, it kicks quite a bit more but still handles well. The Sig is inherently accurate with my Barsto Barrel, but the Super is very accurate with 1” five shot groups at 7 yds no rest when I do my part. 1 1/2” 5 shot groups from my Sig. I reload both. Both a joy to shoot.

    2. The Sig has a 50 fps advantage. But I doubt terminal ballistics is enough to even notice except on specifications. In the Hornady manual the Sig has a 3.84″ barrel compared to a 5 inch barrel on the 38 Super. I suspect the muzzle blast on the shorter barrel for the Sig is significant enough for me to avoid it, especially if it’s going to be used as a concealed carry gun.
      It’d be interesting to see what the difference in velocity & terminal ballistics would be if the Sig had a 5 inch barrel. I’m fairly certain the velocity difference would be more significant with a 5 inch barrel for the Sig.
      I prefer a barrel to be 4″ long for a couple of reasons. A reduction in recoil & perhaps slightly better accuracy. At least for myself I shoot longer barreled pistols better than shorter one.

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