Home - Volume 2 (2007) - Issue 4 (Fall '07) - Pistol Review: RIA GI Super .38

RIA GI Super .38

A Gun Test by Steve Clark (Rio Vista Slim, )

I have had the good fortune to test all of the Armscor products featured in the M1911.ORG E-zine. When I read in the M1911 Organization Forums that Armscor and Rock Island Armory were shipping their Government Model pistol chambered in Super .38 caliber to the United States, I immediately put in a request to test this pistol. My eagerness was twofold.

  • Impressive performance has been the zenith of the RIA pistols submitted to the E-zine for evaluation. Each weapon tested displayed outstanding accuracy, and each had a penchant for devouring any type of ammunition, regardless of bullet design or weight.
  • Secondly, I had never fired a pistol chambered for Super .38 cartridges.

Ivan Walcott and Ray Witham Jr., of Advanced Tactical Firearms, saw to it that one of the new pistols was sent out to me. These fine gentlemen also supplied enough donated ammunition to insure that the gun got a thorough firing session. Since the availability of ammunition chambered for Super .38 is a "hit or miss" proposition in my area, as well as the prohibitive cost of said ammo, this donation was appreciated more than mere words can express.

A Brief History (courtesy of WIKIPEDIA)

"The .38 Super is a pistol cartridge that fires a .356 inch diameter bullet. The Super was introduced in the late 1920s as a higher pressure loading of the .38 ACP. The old .38 ACP propelled a 130 grain bullet at 1050 feet per second (fps). The improved .38 Super Auto pushed the same 130 grain bullet at 1280 fps. The .38 Super has gained distinction as the caliber of choice for many top pistol match competitors.

The .38 Super is dimensionally identical to the older .38 ACP but is loaded to higher pressures. It was intended that the cartridge would headspace on the semi-rim, however all new .38 Super pistols headspace on the case mouth as with other cartridges in this class."

(Author's note) The Super .38 was developed in a joint venture between Colt and the law enforcement officials during the turbulent late 1920s in the United States. Criminals such as John Dillinger, Lester Gillis (Baby Face Nelson), Clyde Barrow, and Bonnie Parker stole and/or modified their weapons to the extent that police of the day were woefully outgunned when confronted by such gangsters. The Super .38 was devised (as was the .357 Magnum over at Smith & Wesson in 1935) to give law enforcement officers a sidearm which would deliver a projectile capable of penetrating the steel bodywork of the automobiles of the era. At the time of its introduction, the Super .38 was the "most powerful handgun" in the world. The agents of the U.S. Justice Department's Division of Investigation (later changed to the F.B.I. in 1935) clamored to get the new pistol, as did their adversaries on the other side of the law. It's not hard to figure out why!

Most police of the day carried .38 Special revolvers, firing a 158 gr. round nose lead bullet at around 750 feet per second. The Super .38 of the time delivered a 130 gr. full metal jacketed bullet at a muzzle velocity approaching 1,300 feet per second. The new cartridge was even able to defeat crude bullet-proof vests available at that time. Cops and criminals alike were impressed by those statistics, and the Colts chambered for the new round were bought (and stolen) like hotcakes.

"In 1974 the industry added the +P headstamp to the 38 Super to further distinguish it from the lower pressure 38 Auto. Most current ammunition manufacturers label ammunition for the Super as 38 Super +P. The .38 Super offers higher bullet velocities than the 9mm Luger in factory cartridges. Greater case capacity allows for more powder and higher velocities at lower pressures. Also, because most .38 Super firearms were designed for the larger 45 ACP, .38 Super guns tend to be strong enough for heavier loads.

The .38 Super has made a huge comeback in IPSCand USPSA sports shooting, particularly when equipped with a compensator, because it meets the minimum power factor to be considered as a Major charge, while having more manageable recoil than .45 ACP."

The Pistol

The gun was shipped from Advanced Tactical wrapped in plastic, covered in bubble wrap, and secured in a Fed-Ex shipping box. The package contained one magazine and a small envelope containing two fired cartridge casings. Consumers' guns are shipped in a black, foam-lined clam shell case with an owner's manual and accompanying paper work, as well as the aforementioned cartridge casings.

As represented in the photographs, the Rock Island Armory .38 Super is Armscor's tried and proven full size Government Model pistol. The weapon comes from Armscor's plant in the Philippines with a manganese phosphate (Parkerized) finish.

Unlike some RIA pistols I've seen and read about, this finish is consistent over the entire surface of the gun. There is no noticeable difference in the shades present on the frame, slide, or control/safety surfaces. The carbon steel 5 inch barrel is also Parkerized, and displays "Cal. 38Super" on the exposed barrel hood.

The left side of the slide has "Rock Island Armory" roll-marked on its surface, as well as the Rock Island logo. The right side of the slide is void of any markings. The slide-to-frame fit on this pistol is tight, with absolutely no discernable movement when the gun is in battery. Additionally, the pistol cycled beautifully, with no gritty feel between slide rails and frame. This gun is assembled well, and the attention to these small details is duly noted and appreciated.

The single thumb/slide safety engages and disengages positively, and a basic safety function check revealed no anomalies with the grip safety or disconnector. This pistol does not have a firing pin safety!

The trigger released the sear at 6.5 pounds of pressure, as indicated by my RCBS Trigger Pull Scale. While this is heavier than I'm use to on my personal pistols, it is nonetheless representative of the vast majority of the G.I. configured guns available in the market today. There was just the barest amount of take-up on the trigger, but it broke in a clean and crisp manner every time.

G.I. sights are the primary reason I don't own any GI Models.. When I had young eyes and excellent vision, I experienced difficulty accurately shooting Colt Government Models. That difficulty is now multiplied by my middle age and trifocal lenses. More on that situation will be addressed in the "Firing Line" portion of this review.

The non-checkered wooden stocks are well formed, and are similar in grain and appearance to the stocks of previously tested RIA guns. In earlier reviews of RIA pistols, I commented rather negatively on the size of these stocks in relation to the frame. Or rather, the lack of size, in that the stocks do not extend as far forward toward the front strap as do the stocks on my privately owned guns. The more I'm exposed to this set-up, the better I like it. The pistol rides comfortably in my hand, and I don't experience any slipping of my firing grip during shooting. The front strap is smooth, while the flat mainspring housing is vertically serrated.

The magazine well is of the standard G.I. configuration, meaning it is not relieved or beveled in any manner. The single magazine looks as if it is configured for nine (or more) rounds, but I could only load eight. Perhaps this is the way these magazines are set up.

Field Stripping

The pistol is field stripped in the time honored tradition of all Government Model pistols utilizing a standard recoil spring, barrel bushing, spring plug, and guide rod assembly. The parts of this gun are so well-mated that I field stripped the gun, removed the firing pin (to clean the firing pin tunnel of any grease/oil), and reassembled the pistol in much less time than it takes to type this.

Internal inspection revealed no unsightly tool marks (other than some serial number markings smoothly etched on the disconnector shelf), and all bearing surfaces are sharp and cleanly defined.

The Firing Line

I started this review with a disadvantage I've never experienced with any previously tested pistol. My usual testing protocol calls for the rapid firing of about 100 rounds to determine functional reliability (out of the box) and to establish an idea of the gun's inherent accuracy. So, I loaded up the magazine, and stepped out the door to my gun range. The first shot (from 45 feet) was dead-center bullseye, but the gun jammed! I cleared the weapon, and the second shot was a repeat of the first, including the jam! The next cartridge from the magazine was hanging up on the extractor, and jamming before entering the chamber. I tried repeatedly to get the pistol to fire a complete magazine, but was unsuccessful.

I tried to contact Ivan or Ray at Advanced Tactical, but their offices were being remodeled, and I was forced to wait two weeks for them to return. When they did, Ivan immediately told me to send the pistol back for evaluation. This was done, and the gun was back to me in a week. As things sometimes happen, Advanced Tactical's resident gunsmith had set this pistol up for a dimensionally different round, and I had gotten that altered gun. I mention all of this to reassure any prospective buyer of the excellent service provided by the Advanced Tactical folks. It is also worth noting that the gunsmith at Armscor had no idea that the altered pistol had been the one selected for my gun tests.

With the rejuvenated RIA Super .38 once again in my hands, I strolled back out to my range, but this time the results were astounding! Functioning was perfect, and as with my initial firing of the pistol, accuracy was phenomenal. The photograph (shown below) is the results of 50 rounds of Armscor Precision .38 Super ammunition fired at a VisiShot target from a distance of 45 feet. A two-handed modified Weaver stance was used for this exercise, and I fired the pistol as rapidly as I could reload the magazine.

My local Wal-Mart Super Center doesn't carry Super .38 cartridges. A local gun dealer had one box of cartridges, while my friend and FFL dealer Bill Lamb had none. So, it was off to the "big city" to scour out the gun shops for any ammunition they had available. Budget constraints and a definite lack of variety meant that a lot of this testing was done with the donated Armscor 125 gr. FMJ ammunition.

Don't read this as a negative comment!

Armscor manufactures some dandy ammo. I have found all of it to be reliable and accurate. The major ammunition makers produce various loads for the Super .38, but you're going to have to search for it, and it's not going to be cheap when you find it. The true potential of the Super .38 is discovered by hand loading, and I'm not set up for that at this time. So, save your brass and cook up your own best loads!

The Competitive Edge Dynamics Millennium Chronograph was set up to test the various loadings I had to work with. The ambient air temperature at the time of the test was 68 degrees Fahrenheit, with 78% humidity, and 10 to 15 mph winds out of the south. The sky was clear and sunny.

Ammo donated by:

Firing the Rock Island Armory Super .38 for accuracy proved to be a little more difficult than what I'm accustomed to. The tiny G.I. sights meant wearing my prescription glasses so I could see the front sight clearly. I also discovered the sights are regulated to a six o'clock hold on the target, in order to hit dead center. In spite of my late 50's eyesight and the tiny sights, I was pleasantly pleased by the results.

As can be seen from the chart, the Rock Island Armory Super .38 is a tack driver!!!! Other than the aforementioned need for a six o'clock hold on the target, the sights are perfectly regulated for windage. The Remington +P 130 gr. FMJ cartridges were not only the fastest, but the most accurate as well.

The left hand target shows 8 shots fired at a miniature FBI target, using the Armscor ammunition. The center target was engaged with the Winchester ammo. The right hand target reveals the results of firing the Remington cartridges. I called that "horrible" flyer the instant the gun discharged!

One special note about the Winchester ammo used in this test:

The flat tip full metal jacketed bullet is longer than the FMJ bullets of the other two manufacturers. The magazine supplied with the RIA pistol would only accept 3 rounds at a time of the Winchester brand. I had been warned by Ivan, Ray, and our very own Hunter Elliott that the Winchester .38 Super ammunition left a lot to be desired. It shoots well, and it is very accurate. You just can't use it in this particular magazine-fed weapon.

This photograph shows an Armscor .38 Super 125 gr. FMJ, followed by the Winchester Flat Tip Metal Jacket 130 gr. +P, and the Remington 130 gr. FMJ +P. Please note the extra length of the Winchester round.


When I initially phoned Ivan to inform him of the malfunction with the RIA Super .38 he was dismayed. He told me his gunsmith had successfully fired many rounds from the pistol before it was sent to me, and it had functioned perfectly for them. As previously stated, the gunsmith had altered the pistol to fire a cartridge dimensionally different than the supplied Armscor Precision .38 Super rounds. In addition, Ivan knew something that I was unaware of. The Rock Island Armory Super .38 is a fantastically accurate and reliable pistol, and a malfunction as I described was very strange. Luckily, it was a minor issue that was quickly corrected, and the test was able to continue with only a brief delay. It is a testament to the fine construction of this pistol that I fired over 500 rounds without malfunction. In fact, other than wiping all the grease and oil from the gun when it arrived, I didn't even field strip the pistol until all shooting tests were completed.

Despite the abysmally small G.I. sights, I was able to get some of the best 25 yard groups in my experience. For those readers who prefer the retro-look in their 1911s, this pistol is fine representation of the breed. I am not a big fan of Parkerized finishes, but I can appreciate the reasons for their use, and the Rock Island Armory Super .38 has one of the better ones I've seen in a while. I've yet to scratch a Rock Island gun, and a couple of them have gotten some pretty heavy use while in my care.

If one is looking for an economical 1911 chambered for the Super .38 cartridge, a very serious look at the Rock Island Armory Super .38 is a must.


Rock Island Armory .38 Super
Barrel length: 5 inches (127 mm)
Overall length: 8.5 inches (215.9 mm)
Weight: 38 ounces (1077 grams)
Finish: Parkerized
Magazine Capacity: 8 rounds
Caliber: .38 Super
Trigger Pull Weight: 6.5 pounds (2948 grams)
Manufactured by Armscor in the Republic of Philippines


As with all my gun reviews in the M1911 Pistols Organization E-zine, this one relied on my good friend Bill Lamb at Great Guns in Burleson, Texas. Bill's attention to the behind-the-scenes details involved in a gun test/review help make these evaluations possible. From the prep work with FFL issues to the proper shipping and insurance for the return of tested pistols, Bill handles it all with a friendly professionalism that makes the process a pleasure. Thanks again Bill, for everything.

Ivan Walcott and Ray Witham, Jr. are the primary reasons that Rock Island Armory pistols and Advanced Tactical Firearms have become synonymous with quality service both before and after the sale. Were it not for these two gentlemen, the RIA Tactical, RIA FS Match, and the RIA Super .38 would never have been featured in these pages. In addition, their generous donations of Armscor Precision Ammunition to those of us who test these guns (as well as competitors' pistols) have helped to insure that a comprehensive shooting session accompanies each and every review. Ivan and Ray, I am proud and humbled to call you my friends. Thank you!

You may discuss about this pistol, ask questions or in general discuss about this review, in this thread in our Forums Site:



Pistol and Armscor Ammunition

Advanced Tactical Firearms
150 N. Smart Way
Pahrump, NV 89060

Phone: 775-537-1444
Fax: 775-537-1446
Web Site: http://www.advancedtactical.com


Competitive Edge Dynamics USA
P.O. Box 486,
Orefield, PA 18069-0486

Orders: (1) 888-628-3233
Phone: (1) 610-366-9752
Fax: (1) 610-366-9680

Email: info@CEDhk.com
Web site: http://www.CEDhk.com

Home - Volume 2 (2007) - Issue 4 (Fall '07) - Pistol Review: RIA GI Super .38