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Old-School Guns: .45 Colt, .44 Special, .38 Super

LJ Bonham is a semi-subsistence hunter, hunting magazine editor, and firearms enthusiast who lives in the Rocky Mountains.

Guns Have a Complex History

In 2017, the FBI stunned the defensive shooting world when they abandoned the .40 Smith & Wesson (a cartridge to which the Bureau had given birth in the 1990s) and announced their agents would now carry 9mm pistols. Cue the never-ending debate about whether the 9mm, .45 ACP, or some mid-bore (10mm, .40 S&W, take your pick) is the optimum defensive handgun cartridge.

The debate, which has grown ever more intense on the internet, has become so narrow that we’ve forgotten three of the most notable cartridges that are also contenders. The .45 Colt, .44 Special, and .38 Super are great in their own rights, and shooters could learn a thing or two from these classic, old-time gunfighting rounds.

19th Century Texas Rangers

19th Century Texas Rangers

What Your Great, Great-Grandfather Knew

Less than a decade after the American Civil War ended, the U.S. Army decided to catch up to firearm technology’s leading edge. They set aside the Colt Model 1860 Army percussion revolver and searched for a breach-loaded, metallic cartridge gun. The men who made this decision were themselves combat veterans. They had fought and survived the bloodiest battles in U.S. history. When it came to stopping a man bent on killing you at close range, they knew first-hand what worked and what didn’t.

These hardened soldiers understood handguns were not powerful weapons compared to rifles. They found that a certain power level provided a reasonable balance between lethality and recoil control.

The .44 caliber Model 1860 Army revolver is, by our standards, a .45 caliber weapon, and it in fact used 140 grain, .454-inch diameter, cast lead balls, or 200 grain, .451-inch conical lead bullets.

Propelled by a thirty-grain black powder charge, balls left the muzzle around 900 - 1000 feet per second which produced 252 – 311 foot-pounds energy. The conical bullet had a muzzle velocity about 100 fps slower, on average, which gave 284 – 360 ft-lbs. Almost every military or police handgun produced since then has generated between 300 and 450 ft-lbs. muzzle energy. There’s a recurring theme here. This energy range just works. It is well suited to self-defense use by individuals with the training levels found in the military or law enforcement.

Colt Model 1860 Army

Colt Model 1860 Army

Interesting comparison: Model 1860 v. Beretta M9

The .45 Colt Then

Back to the trials to replace the Model 1860 revolver. As I stated above, the officers on the army’s ordnance board knew full well how much power a service handgun needed. They stipulated the new revolver had to equal the Model 1860’s performance with a conical bullet. They had also, by this time, changed to the current bore measurement system, so they specified a .45 caliber weapon.

In 1871, Colt and Union Metallic Cartridge Company modified the .44 Colt cartridge and dubbed it the “.45 Colt.” It fired either a 235-grain bullet at up to 1000 fps or a 255 grain at 800 - 900 fps. This gave 522 ft-lbs., and 362 – 459 ft-lbs., respectively. The original 235 grain bordered on the modern, .357 Magnum’s energy. The Army settled on the 255-grain load, again for its balance between control and terminal effect. Plus, they knew a heavy bullet driven at moderate velocity penetrated better than a light, fast one. Important, if you want to shoot a horse from under a mounted man. Cavalry officers comprised the majority on the ordinance board and such things mattered to them.

The ordinance board made its decision in 1872 and a year later, the Colt Model 1873 Army became the official issue. The board also approved the Smith and Wesson Number 3, also known as the Schofield, as a substitute standard weapon.

The Smith fired the .45 Smith & Wesson. Same caliber but a bit shorter than the Colt. Colt at this time held close control over its proprietary cartridges and refused to let another company chamber a gun for it. A few years later, the Army Quarter Master Corps issued all troops the S&W round since it worked in both the Schofield and the Colt.

Meanwhile, on the expanding western frontier, both the Model 1873 and the .45 Colt found a ready market. Within a decade, soldiers, white settlers, Native Americans, lawmen, and outlaws all used and appreciated the cartridge. The Colt revolver became a legend known as the “Peacemaker” or “Col. Colt’s Equalizer.” Both gun and cartridge remained in use, if not in official service, with U.S. troops into the next century until the M1911 semi-auto pistol displaced it.

Colt Model 1873 Army (top) and two 1873 civilian models with different barrel lengths.

Colt Model 1873 Army (top) and two 1873 civilian models with different barrel lengths.

There's Just something about a large frame revolver and the .45 Colt. Confidence builder.

The .45 Colt Now

Once the 20th century dawned, newer rounds displaced the .45 Colt from its position as the preeminent defensive handgun cartridge. It still had a following prior to World War Two, and other gun makers chambered revolvers for it once Colt’s patent stranglehold expired. Its most notable new home lay in Smith & Wesson’s large-framed, double-action revolver, the “Triple Lock.” Colt also offered their larger framed double actions in .45 Colt.

The .45 Colt, or .45 Long Colt, is still an excellent round. It is accurate and hits with authority. After WW2, it waned and almost dropped from sight, but TV shows during the 1950s and 60s romanticized the 19th century West and the .45 Peacemaker which rekindled interest in both gun and cartridge.

Today, there are more revolver models, from more manufacturers, for the .45 Colt than ever before. S&W, Ruger, and Taurus, as well as Model 1873 replicas from Italian arms companies, are all available in this frontier legend.

Unlike the 19th century, now there are modern lever-action carbines chambered for the .45 Colt. Most can handle powerful +P ammunition and are great for hunting deer in heavy brush. This ammo, when used in a strong enough revolver, is also fit for close encounters of the big bear kind.

Current .45 Colt ammunition is available in two distinct flavors: original strength and wrist breaker. Ammo built to original ballistics is considered safe in all modern firearms, but it is best to check with a particular round’s manufacturer before firing them in an antique revolver. The latest, up-rated and +P ammunition is only for use in the strongest modern guns. Check with the gun’s maker before shooting these ultra-performance rounds.

.45 Colt lead flat-nose

.45 Colt lead flat-nose

Selected .45 Colt Self-Defense Loads

  • Speer Gold Dot: 250-grain hollow point, 750 fps/312 ft-lbs.
  • Remington HTP: 230-grain hollow point, 850 fps/369 ft-lbs.
  • Blazer (CCI): 200-grain hollow point, 900 fps/360 ft-lbs.
  • Federal Champion: 225-grain semi-wadcutter HP, 830 fps/344 ft-lbs.
  • Federal American Eagle: 225 grain jacketed soft-point, 860 fps/369 ft-lbs.
  • Winchester Super-X: 225grain Silvertip hollow point, 920 fps/423 ft-lbs.
  • Winchester Super-X: 255 grain lead round-nose, 860 fps/420 ft-lbs.

While the lead semi-wadcutter and various flat/round-noses are not ideal for self-defense, they do duplicate the original 19th-century loads, and those were considered quite effective in their day. They are a viable substitute if the high-tech hollow points are unavailable.

Selected .45 Colt Hunting and Bear Defense Loads

  • Buffalo Bore: 260 grain jacketed hollow point +P, 1450 fps/1214 ft-lbs.
  • HSM Bear Ammunition: 325 grain lead wide flat-nose +P, 1155 fps/963 ft-lbs.
  • Buffalo Bore: 300 grain jacketed flat-nose +P, 1200 fps/959 ft-lbs.
  • Underwood: 250 gain Hornady XTP hollow point +P, 1400 fps/1088 ft-lbs.

All these loads are +P rated. They exceed the SAAMI maximum allowable pressure for the .45 Colt cartridge. They are not for use in antique firearms or those not rated for +P ammunition. Always check with a gun’s manufacturer before you use any .45 Colt +P ammunition.

The .44 Special

This wonderful cartridge appeared in 1907. Smith & Wesson wanted a new, modern cartridge for their latest flagship revolver, the .44 Hand Ejector New Century, also known as the Triple Lock. They lengthened the well regarded .44 S&W Russian’s case to work better with the new smokeless powders, and dubbed the round the .44 Smith & Wesson Special.

It, and the gun, both became a sensation. S&W designed the revolver with three cylinder locks, hence the “Triple Lock” nickname. It fired a .429-inch, 200 grain lead, round-nose bullet at around 870 feet per second and 336 ft-lbs energy which equaled the .44 Russian’s traditional 246 grain load. It proved an effective and easy to shoot defensive cartridge. It filled the gap between the .45 Colt and the .38 Special.

Forty-four caliber cartridges have inherent accuracy and the .44 Special proved no different. It became a target shooters favorite and hunters liked it, as well. Other gun makers chambered the .44 in the early and mid-20th century. Famed ballistics experimenter, Elmer Keith, found the .44 Special had significant development potential and the Triple Lock could withstand much higher pressures than conservative Smith & Wesson had used for the round. His work lead to the .44 Remington Magnum some five decades after the .44 Special’s birth.

Once its magnum big brother hit the market, interest in the .44 Special waned and it almost disappeared altogether. However, in the last few decades it, like the .45 Colt, has undergone a renaissance. Once the market for small, powerful, and concealable handguns exploded in the early 21st century, people recognized the .44 Special’s virtues. It is a perfect match for a short-barreled, small or medium-framed, big-bore revolver such as the Charter Arms Bulldog.

Short-barreled guns produce less velocity than a standard length tube. Reduced velocity can hinder some hollow points’ expansion. An unexpanded hollow point makes a bore-diameter permanent wound cavity which is not as effective as the wider one from a mushroomed projectile. It’s sensible to use a larger bore to start with, then if the bullet under-expands, or fails to expand, at least it will make a larger wound channel than a medium bore such as a .38 or 9mm. The .44 Special fits this premise well, and it generates much less recoil in a small gun than a magnum. The traditional soft lead round-nose or semi-wadcutter loads for the .44 Special tend to deform and flatten out a bit when they hit flesh, and bone in particular, so they produce a somewhat larger than bore diameter crush cavity. Sometimes the old ways weren’t as backward as some think.

Charter Arms Bulldog with .44 Special lead round-nose ammo.

Charter Arms Bulldog with .44 Special lead round-nose ammo.

Charter Arms Bulldog in action

Selected .44 Special Self-Defense Loads

  • Hornady: 180 grain XTP hollow point, 1000 fps/400 ft-lbs.
  • Winchester Super-X: 200-grain Silvertip hollow point, 900 fps/360 ft-lbs.
  • Winchester Super-X: 246-grain lead round-nose, 755 fps/310 ft-lbs.
  • Federal Champion: 200-grain lead semi-wadcutter HP, 900 fps/360 ft-lbs.
  • Speer Gold Dot: 200-grain hollow point, 875 fps/340 ft-lbs.
  • Underwood Bulldog: 200-grain bonded jacketed HP, 975 fps/423 ft-lbs.

The Silvertip has a relatively soft jacket and expands well at a reduced velocity which makes it a good choice for snubby revolvers. The Gold Dot has an excellent reputation in other calibers, even at lower velocity, and is a good choice, as well. Underwood’s offering also looks attractive. The Hornady XTP would make a good multi-role round for hunting and defense. Don’t underestimate Federal’s traditional lead semi-wadcutter hollow point, either.

(L-R) .40 S&W, .38-40, .44 Special, .45 ACP

(L-R) .40 S&W, .38-40, .44 Special, .45 ACP

Any .44 Magnum revolver, such as this S&W Model 29, can shoot .44 Specials.

Any .44 Magnum revolver, such as this S&W Model 29, can shoot .44 Specials.

The .38 Super

Law enforcement during the 1920s faced a significant challenge. Criminals, organized gangsters created by prohibition, in particular, had access to better gear than the cops. Crooks now rode to and sped away from, crime scenes in automobiles. Cars in those days were made from rather thick, heavy-gauge sheet steel, unlike modern autos. Plus, rapid technology advancements during World War One had created body armor light enough for a man to wear for hours at a time. Expensive, but the bootleggers had the cash.

Police who confronted these armored and mobile bad guys, who also had the latest fully automatic small arms (such as the Browning Automatic Rifle and Thompson submachine gun) were at a distinct disadvantage. The cops had their issue sidearms, most often a six-shot, .38 caliber revolver, and perhaps a shotgun or lever-action rifle. Lawmen died needless deaths because they didn’t have the right equipment.

Colt heeded the cops' cry for more powerful weapons. By 1929, they thought they had an answer. The fact that it also fit into their M1911A1 pistol, and would plump up the company’s bottom line, didn’t hurt, either.

Colt took their .38 Automatic cartridge, which had been around since 1902, and put the more powerful powder into it. The increased pressure drove a .357 caliber bullet at a much higher velocity than had been possible just a decade earlier. They dubbed the new round, the “.38 Super.”

In its original loading, the .38 Super launched a 130-grain bullet at around 1280 feet per second which produced 473 ft-lbs. Few other pistol rounds at the time could match it for raw power. The sturdy 1911 could handle this with ease. This cartridge had a downside, though. Its head spaced on the semi-rim at the rear, not the case mouth. The 1911’s barrel configuration couldn’t support this rim well and accuracy suffered. The gun shot well enough for close-quarters battle, but bulls-eye shooters derided it.

Colt thought they had the law enforcement market all to themselves with this pistol and cartridge combination, but agencies didn’t want to spend money on expensive new pistols, proprietary ammunition, and training once the Great Depression arrived.

Just as Colt made some headway with a few major contracts for the .38 super, their arch-rival, Smith & Wesson, derailed the whole thing in 1934 when they introduced the .357 Smith & Wesson Magnum. Police agencies fell in love overnight. They didn’t need to give up their cherished revolvers and the .357 would punch through anything the crooks had. The .38 Super faded into the woodwork.

(L-R) .357 Magnum, .38 Super, 9x19mm

(L-R) .357 Magnum, .38 Super, 9x19mm

The .38 Super Gets Its Head(space) Together

In the late 1960s, a small company called Bar-Sto produced a barrel for 1911 pistols which solved the .38 Super’s head space problem and gave the round new life. Once it achieved match-grade accuracy, target shooters took notice as did the up-and-coming practical shooting fraternity. The .38 Super generated enough energy to qualify as a “major” caliber for IPSC (International Practical Shooting Confederation), which meant it could compete in the top classifications. At the time, 1911 pistols chambered in .45 ACP ruled the major class. Pistols in .38 Super, though, held two more rounds than the .45 which meant fewer reloads per stage in a match. The top pros soon switched, and the .38 Super returned.

Competitive pressure in IPSC drove gunsmiths to rechamber pistols with high-capacity, double-stack magazines for .38 Super, but the cartridge’s semi-rim creates feed problems in these guns. In response, several rim-less wildcat cartridges were created. To date, no major ammunition maker has produced these in mass-market quantities. Those shooters who want to use the .38 Super for self-defense should limit themselves to single-stack pistols.

Colt M1911A1 (bottom), the .38 Super's original home.

Colt M1911A1 (bottom), the .38 Super's original home.

The .38 Super Now

For decades, ammo companies all but ignored the .38 Super and produced just a few notional loads, most with full-metal jacketed bullets. These are notorious for over penetration in a self-defense situation. However, in the last two decades, proper defensive ammo has come to market.

The .38 Super holds it's own against Germany's best.

Selected .38 Super Self-Defense Loads

  • Sig Sauer: 125-grain V-Crown jacketed hollow point +P, 1230 fps/420 ft-lbs.
  • Underwood: 124-grain Hornady XTP +P, 1350 fps/502 ft-lbs.
  • Buffalo Bore: 115-grain Barnes TAC-XP hollow point +P, 1450 fps/537 ft-lbs.

All modern .38 Super ammunition is labeled “.38 Super +P” to prevent its use in pistols chambered for .38 Automatic. These older guns will not withstand the .38 Super’s higher pressures. Do not use .38 Super +P loads in guns chambered for .38 Colt Automatic.

Bottom Line

These three venerable handgun cartridges (the .45 Colt, .44 Special, and .38 Super) are all worthy self-defense and hunting rounds. Shooters should give them a try as each has its distinct advantages. Each offers an alternative to the everyday, pedestrian rounds now in favor. There is no reason to shy away from a find in a used gun store just because it is chambered for any cartridge in this fine trio.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2018 LJ Bonham