No matter what one man may think is the ideal handgun cartridge, there is always another opinion. There are some cartridges too popular to ignore, and others that are chosen by simple necessity and practicality. The three cartridges discussed in this feature are not the results of careful experimentation and development — as was the 45 ACP; rather, they are the result of a response to marketing and commercial interests. These cartridges were chambered in the Colt 1911 to sell pistols. They offer alternatives to interest those who may not have purchased a 1911 otherwise. They offer some advantages over the 45 ACP, real or perceived, practical or even legal, to one extent or the other. The advantage may be in ease of control or in penetration. Economy is also an issue. The true history of each cartridge is a little different and more involved than usually narrated in the popular press. We are going to give you the lowdown on performance with a bit of history in the mix. Without the history you may not understand the dynamics of each cartridge and why they were designed to perform as they do or why the individual cartridge is popular, even though other cartridges may be more powerful.
Let’s take a look at the 9mm Luger, 38 ACP Super, and 10mm and how they perform in the 1911 platform — and what loads we recommend.
At one time it was thought a self-loading pistol cartridge had to be bottlenecked to feed properly. When there was a move for greater wound potential — called the less politically correct killing power circa 1900 — the 30 Luger cartridge was blown out into a more or less straight-walled 9mm with a remaining taper. Thus was born the most popular handgun cartridge in the world. The 9mm is too popular to be ignored. That is the bottom line when chambering the Colt 1911 for this cartridge.
9mm Luger ammunition is readily available, inexpensive compared to the other calibers, light in recoil, and especially economical when handloaded. Some feel that the 9mm Luger is an appropriate choice for personal defense when loaded to the maximum. The good attributes of the 1911, including a low bore axis, straight-to-the-rear trigger compression, and good hand fit are accentuated when the 1911 is chambered for a mild cartridge. While some might say why not simply choose a Browning Hi-Power or a CZ 75, neither has the smooth trigger action of the 1911. The 9mm Luger is an especially popular understudy to the larger calibers. Some modern shooters feel that with +P+ ammunition, the 9mm is as good a choice as the 38 Super. We tested that postulation.
9mm Do’s and Don’ts
Many of you like the idea of a single pistol chambered for one cartridge, but capable of using another with a simple barrel change. The 38 Super/9mm combination is simple. Colt already had the 38 Super going, so the 9mm wasn’t a stretch at all. But there are differences. The 9mm Luger breechface usually measures about .384, while the Super goes about .405 inch. This is an important point when you are wishing to do a conversion, such as the 38 Super for power and the 9mm for economy. It isn’t simply switching a barrel and magazines. If you contemplate this match up, begin with a Super and your life will be easier. Most often, the extractor doesn’t have to be tuned to the 9mm, but sometimes it does. The 9mm has a reputation for occasional tie-ups. Full-size 9mm lashups used a magazine with a block in the rear to facilitate using the shorter 9mm cartridge. Modern magazines, such as the Wilson Combat ETM, are more reliable. After all, the 1911 is designed for a .900-inch-long cartridge case. Modern purpose-designed 9mm Luger pistols are more reliable than ever before, but just the same, this impression of the 9mm carries forth in competition. The 9mm Luger overall has the reputation of being the less reliable 1911 caliber. The pistols tested, however, contradicted this impression. And one was not an original 9mm at all, but a lashup. (Compact purpose-designed 9mms such as the light Para Ordnance and the Springfield EMP cannot be converted to 38 Super.)
Test 9mm and 38 Super Pistols
We used one 9mm briefly for impressions. This is a Springfield Ultra Carry. This light 3-inch-barrel pistol impressed one of our raters, a Browning Hi-Power fan. He feels that the Hi-Power is the one pistol faster to an accurate first shot than the 1911, at least when the Hi-Power is fitted with a Cylinder & Slide Shop speed safety. The 9mm Springfield was equally fast into action and remarkably easy to control with the heaviest loads. We feel that it is more of a purpose-designed 9mm than a converted Super. This is a pistol more accurate than the polymer crowd and brilliantly fast into action with a positive safety as well. The second 9mm tested was a vintage 38 Super with a fitted Bar-Sto 9mm barrel. When you say Bar-Sto you have said it all. We used Wilson Combat ETM magazines in the appropriate caliber with each handgun. We also included a Colt Series 80 in 38 Super that has proven to be the single most accurate factory Colt 38 Super we have ever fired. We fired about 100 rounds of Winchester’s USA ball in each barrel, respectively, in 9mm and 38 Super for comparison. We fired 50 rounds in the Springfield and Colt, respectively, for comparison as well. While we consider the 9mm an important addition to the 1911 for economy, we regarded the 9mm as the minority round for testing. Most of our raters do not trust the 9mm for personal defense.
The Super and the 10mm were more extensively compared, because many shooters believe they are a genuine alternative to the 45 as all-around defensive firearms. When comparing the Super and the 9mm in firing tests, the consensus was that the Super offers more recoil and muzzle blast, arguably due to the heavier powder charge in the longer case. Control is still excellent, but in the final degree, the 9mm is easier to use well by a margin. The group of raters felt that if you are going to choose a Super over the 9mm, be certain that only the heaviest Super loads with the best wound potential be used to make the extra recoil worthwhile.
The Super 38
The Super 38 was introduced at the end of the Roaring Twenties. Common wisdom and writers in the popular press would have us believe that the Super was introduced to aid police in the war against mechanized bandits. The Super, with its jacketed 130-grain bullet at 1300 fps, would penetrate a vehicle far better than the 45 or any common revolver round. But there are other facets of the Super as well. Colt discontinued long-serving variants of the 38 ACP caliber 1900 pistol. As a result, there was no mid-bore cartridge in the Colt automatic-pistol line up. Another concern was that many countries, particularly in Latin America, outlawed the 9mm and 45 as military calibers. The 45 1911 could not be sold there. It was less expensive to adapt the 38 ACP to the 1911 than to design another pistol. Colt did not wish to leave this market to Spanish companies making copies of the 1911. So, Colt had three good reasons for introducing the 1911 with an improved 38 ACP — for use by law enforcement, to offer a mid-bore round to American shooters, and to offer a legal option for foreign sales.
The 38 ACP was introduced in 1900 for the new Colt automatic pistol. John Moses Browning retained the .900-inch-long cartridge case when designing the 1911 pistol. The original pistol featured a ramped barrel — in 1900! Colt went with the standard-configuration barrel with the 1911 without problem as long as the pistols were in 45 ACP. When they introduced the 38 Super, the company’s engineers increased the powder charge to generate an extra 150 fps over the 38 ACP. Folks knew to use Super ammo only in the Super. (Unfortunately they have not always realized that the Star and Astra pistols marked 9mm/38 are intended for the 9mm Largo and the 38 ACP, not the 38 Super.) The semi-rimmed 38 Super case wallowed around a bit in the new-style barrel. Accuracy was problematic, and a good Super was never as accurate as a good 45. In those days, the standard for accuracy for the 1911 was a 5-shot 5-inch group at 25 yards. The Super was less accurate, which was pretty lousy. The situation wasn’t cured until Bar-Sto Precision began offering custom barrels for the 38 Super. While it is commonly stated that the Bar-Sto barrel was the first to properly headspace the Super on the case mouth rather than the case rim, Bar-Sto also made the chamber a tight match-grade fit. Coupled with handloads, the result was a pistol far more accurate than anyone would have guessed. Today, Colt properly cuts the chamber, but if you wish the most from your Super you need a Bar-Sto barrel. With one exception: Possibly the most accurate single Super we have ever fired was the Kimber 38 Super in Match configuration.
The advantage of the Super is in control. The Super is easy to control in controlled fire, in splits, as proven in competition. But there is real horsepower behind the Super. Its reputation for penetration of vehicles and its role in bringing Baby Face Nelson and others to justice is legendary. With a hollowpoint bullet, the Super offers outstanding penetration and expansion. A Hornady 90-grain XTP may be driven to 1600 fps by a handloader. Getting 1400 fps or better with the 115-grain 9mm hollowpoint is a breeze. Making 1350 fps with the 125-grain JHP is no problem. For those who wish lighter recoil than the 45 but still wish to deliver real power, the Super provides. As a bonus, the Super seems to be the single most feed-reliable of all the 1911 calibers and does not seem to be hard on the gun.
As a practical matter, 38 Super ammunition is more difficult to find than either the 9mm or the .45. Only a handful of makers offer good-quality 38 Super defense loads. Some companies offer remanufactured 38 Super ammunition with brass trade in, but during the recent ammunition shortage the Super and the 10mm are among the first to be pushed to the side in production. The Super with a spare 9mm barrel is a hot set up, but those who compare the two often shrug and simply adopt the 9mm. For recreational use, the 9mm is clearly the better choice. For power, the Super has the 9mm beaten by perhaps 150 fps.
The 10mm was not a Colt development and one that no one seemed to get quite right. Experimenters shortened rifle brass and used the 38-40 revolver bullet at .400 inch to make up a pistol cartridge that could be made to work in the 9mm-size Browning Hi-Power. The 40 G&A was a short round shoehorned into a Browning Hi-Power with the aid of a super custom Bar-Sto barrel. In 1972, 180 grains at 1000 fps from a Hi-Power-sized pistol was exciting. Somehow, the concept evolved into the long-case 10mm and a sizzling load that jolted a 200-grain bullet to 1200 fps. Colonel Jeff Cooper noted that you could do things with the 10mm at 50 yards that could not be done with the 45. The new cartridge was chambered in the short-lived Bren Ten pistol. After much controversy, including the adoption of the 10mm by the FBI, the 40 Smith & Wesson emerged to bury the 10mm much as the 357 Magnum buried the Super. In this case, the new cartridge did not offer more power, it offered less, but was chambered in 9mm-size handguns. That is another story.
With the demise of the Bren Ten there was plenty of 10mm ammunition in the pipeline but no pistol. Colt introduced the Delta Elite in 10mm. The pistol was as well made as any other Colt, but suffered from a serious flaw in the recoil system. The recoil of the 10mm demanded a good shock-buffer system. Colt went Mickey Mouse. The result was battered handguns. Eventually, we discovered that a full-length guide rod and a 22-pound Wilson Combat recoil spring was the way to go. There were other missteps, including shooters who attempted to use a lighter hammer spring to reduce the trigger action of the Delta Elite. Reducing resistance to the slide resulted in excess slide battering and even more wear and tear on the pistol. Using the original hot-rated Norma ammunition (200 grains at 1200 fps) the Delta Elite sometimes broke things, including the frame. Colt not only redesigned the recoil assembly, they also produced a frame with a slot cut in the correct spot to alleviate stress.
Another uphill battle concerned accuracy. The 10mm never gained a reputation as an accurate cartridge. Some of this problem has been traced to incorrect springs. With excess battering and inconsistent lockup, the 10mm could not be accurate. The 10mm also suffered a black eye from early shootings in which it performed poorly. Undeveloped foreign ammunition and a price war was to blame for much of this. A hole in the bullet nose does not always mean expansion. Agencies using the 10mm report excellent results with modern expanding ammunition.
Our 10mm test pistols were two properly set-up Colt Delta Elite pistols, one with the frame cut and one without. One features Truglo sights, the other is stock except for Wilson Combat springs. We used Metalform magazines. Our firing impressions were good. In common with the other pistols, there were no failures to feed, chamber, fire, or eject. We used a good quantity of HSM ball ammunition during the evaluation stage. This ammunition is accurate enough for practice and gave a clean powder burn. We also used several of the popular defense loadings.
We used the hottest commercial personal-defense ammunition we could obtain. While opinions vary, this ammunition was impressive. The Super clearly outpaced the 9mm. The very hottest 9mm load we have ever tested equaled the mildest Super load, but the Super was easier to use well due to the 1911’s size and weight. The 10mm outpaced the Super, no surprise considering the laws of physics. The 10mm is the bigger round. Recoil is there with the 10mm, but not excessive for a trained shooter. But even a trained shooter will make a slower run on steel plates with the 10mm compared to the 45, while he will be faster than the 45 if firing a Super 38. The consensus is that a power factor of 20 or more begins to be too difficult to control in constant practice and for the average shooter to handle. Nothing learned in this test would have us think anything different. There were times when we were very impressed with the results with the 10mm. There were several occasions in which the Cor-Bon loads blew the water jugs into the air and off the table. With most loads, the 10mm is no more difficult to control than the 45 +P per our raters input, but the 45 +P and 10mm are each at the high end of the controllable table in a self-loading pistol.
For recreation, the 9mm is the hands-down winner based on economy and ease of shooting. Some of the loads are acceptable for personal defense, and the pistols are very controllable. However, the Super has an advantage over the 9mm, and this advantage should be used for personal defense. The Super is just as controllable as the 9mm in trained hands. As an example, the mildest load tested in the Super, the Winchester Silvertip, offers excellent ballistics. Expansion is good and penetration adequate, yet the cartridge is very mild to fire in the 1911 platform. Move up to the Cor-Bon 125-grain JHP and you handily outstrip any 9mm loading. The new kid on the block, Wilson Combat, offers an outstanding loading with fine accuracy and well-thought-out performance. This load would be a great service load for those preferring the 38 Super.
The 10mm demands more thought. The 10mm may be downloaded to 40 S&W status, but the true 10mm generates more recoil than the 45 ACP. For this increase, are we receiving our just deserts? The wound ballistics of the 45 ACP are proven, and the cartridge is controllable. The 10mm has easily the most energy and the greatest wound volume of the cartridges tested. With the modern Cor-Bon loadings, the 10mm is a far different load as far as efficiency that it was a generation ago. The DPX load, in particular, impressed experienced raters. The Hornady XTP was quite accurate, and one of the raters noted that this would be his first choice if he took the 10mm deer hunting. (He has killed many deer with handguns.) The bottom line is this: the Super is a great alternative to the 45 if you cannot tolerate 45 recoil. The 10mm is an alternative if you think you need more power and penetration than the 45 offers, which most of us find questionable. As a practical matter, both the 9mm and the 38 Super seem to run forever, and the 10mm seems to be much harder on the gun. The 10mm was the least accurate cartridge tested, but shooters who own the Kimber 10mm are enjoying excellent results.
Our Team Said: In the end, we stick by this conclusion: With the dual 9mm/Super capability with a simple barrel change and its easy shooting coupled with acceptable wound ballistics, the Super is the winner and the most practical alternative to the 45 ACP. Most shooters need less, not more, recoil and the Super delivers that while maintaining impressive exterior ballistics.