Colt 1911 .38 Super Custom
Reviewed by Harwood Loomis for M1911.ORG
To provide background for a review of a new Colt 1911 chambered in .38 Super, it’s difficult to decide whether to first discuss the firearm, or the cartridge. So, as the King said to Alice in Through the Looking Glass, “begin at the beginning,” is perhaps always good advice. The original, military M1911 and its successor military pistol, the M1911A1, were chambered in .45 ACP only. And, initially, commercial Colt Government Model pistols were also chambered only in .45 ACP. And that’s the way things continued, until 1929. Let’s step aboard the way back machine and take a look at what happened in 1929.
Before developing the M1911 in .45 caliber, John Browning and Colt had collaborated in several other semi-automatic pistols, all in smaller calibers. One of those smaller calibers was the .38 ACP (Automatic Colt Pistol), a cartridge developed by John Browning for use in the pistol he was also developing at that time, the M1900. As brought into production for the M1900, the .38 ACP cartridge fired a 130-grain bullet at a muzzle velocity of around 1,040 feet per second. And there things stayed, for almost three decades.
In 1929, Colt introduced a version of the Government Model (commercial versions of the M1911 weren’t called “1911s” then) chambered for the .38 ACP cartridge. Colt called this variant the “Super 38 Automatic.” It wasn’t long before people (and ammunition makers) arrived at the realization that the 1911 was a stronger pistol than the M1900, and they began producing more powerful ammunition for use in the new model. But there was a problem: there were a lot of the older M1900 pistols still in use, and it would not have been safe to fire the newer, hotter ammunition through the older pistols. Unlike what transpired when the .38 Special grew into the .357 Magnum, or when the .44 Special grew into the .44 Magnum, the hotter versions of the .38 ACP used the exact same length case as the original .38 ACP. In order to differentiate the newer, hotter ammunition, manufacturers began to name it after the pistol: “Super 38.” It is essentially a robust +P version of the .38 ACP cartridge, not a true magnum variant.
In 1974, the name was changed to make the distinction from the .38 ACP more evident. The new name was “.38 Super +P,” and that is the name that continues to be used today. It’s a bit misleading, because there isn’t any non-+P version of the .38 Super, but it conveys the understanding that this is not your grandmother’s .38 caliber cartridge. Today’s .38 Super propels a 130-grain bullet at 1,305 feet-per-second, developing 492 ft-lbs of muzzle energy, or a 150-grain bullet at 1,148 fps to develop 439 ft-lbs of muzzle energy. [For comparison, a typical .45 ACP fires a 230-grain bullet at 830 fps, developing 352 ft-lbs of muzzle energy.]
The Colt Super 38 Automatic pistol became popular with both police officers and gangsters, largely because its velocity (significantly faster than both the .38 Special and the .45 ACP) made it more effective at penetrating barriers, both early ballistic vests and automobile bodywork. However, in 1934 along came the .357 Magnum, a round that eclipsed the .38 Super in both muzzle energy and penetration. Consequently, the .38 Super didn’t achieve anything close to market dominance, but it had a following and it didn’t disappear entirely.
And then a funny thing happened. Some enterprising people created a new form of firearms competition called “practical shooting.” As the practical shooting game developed, it became desirable to establish a sort of handicapping system so that shooters using large caliber, full-power ammunition weren’t at a disadvantage when shooting against smaller caliber guns with less recoil and less muzzle blast. The system they came up with was the “power factor.” In order to avoid incurring handicapping points against their score, shooters had to be shooting guns classified as “major” power factor. If the gun (or, in actuality, the ammunition) didn’t “make major,” the shooter was classified as “minor” and incurred penalty (handicapping) points. Standard power .45 ACP ammunition had no problem “making major,” but 9mm could not safely be loaded to achieve a major power factor. However … .38 Super (which uses bullets of the same diameter as 9mm Parabellum and is, technically, the exact same caliber) could be loaded hot enough to qualify as major power factor, yet it still had less recoil than .45 ACP through the same types of firearms. The .38 Super cartridge was saved, and today claims a small but loyal following.
Several manufacturers of 1911s currently offer pistols chambered for the .38 Super cartridge. One of them is the original: Colt’s Manufacturing. In fact, Colt currently offers not one or two, but four pistols chambered in .38 Super. Two are in the 1991 series, and two are in the Special Combat Government series. As a result of a bit of diplomatic legerdemain, M1911.org was able to arrange for the use of a Model O2071ELC2 for review. Although catalogued as a 1991 pistol, this model comes out of the Colt Custom Shop, in the blue cardboard box with the white sleeve that’s characteristic of all Custom Shop pistols. The ELC2 is a thing of beauty to behold—it’s all stainless steel, polished to a mirror finish.
Let’s look at what it is.
The test pistol, as noted, came packaged in a white sleeve that bears no markings other than a sticker on one of the end flaps to identify that it is a Colt pistol, and to set forth the model number and serial number. Inside the white sleeve is the blue box with gold Colt logo that identifies pistols coming out of the Colt Custom Shop. Inside the box, nestled on a layer of egg crate foam, we found the pistol, a trigger lock, a hang tag, and an owner’s manual.
The pistol itself is a thing of beauty. The configuration is standard Government model, with a standard (non-extended) slide stop lever, standard 1991 “teardrop” style thumb safety, flat mainspring housing, and M1911A1 “GI” profile grip safety. The grips are Rosewood, checkered in the traditional M1911 double diamond pattern. The hammer is a late-style, flat-sided spur hammer. Sights are black with white dots.
Both the receiver and the slide are stainless steel, and both are done up in a mirror polish finish that rivals the appearance of nickel plating. This is a pistol that truly and literally has to be seen to be fully appreciated. What we discovered in trying to photograph this pistol is that such highly polished, reflective surfaces are just about impossible to photograph effectively. When photographed with a flash, either the flash bounced back into the camera and created flare or, if the camera was at an angle to the polished surfaces, the mirrored surface was too smooth the reflect any light back at the camera and the pistol appeared to be black. This is definitely a case of what you see [in our photos] is NOT what you get.
Since the Model O2071ELC2 is based on a Government model, it’s a full-sized 1911 with a 5-inch barrel and slide. The magazine capacity, as a result of the smaller diameter of the .38 Super cartridge, is 9 rounds rather than the 7-round capacity of a Government model in .45 Automatic.
The Model O2071ELC2 doesn’t seem to have a name associated with the model, other than the series designation “1991.” The left side of the slide bears the rollmark “COLT CUSTOM,” and the right side is unmarked. For lack of a better name, then, we chose to call it the “Colt .38 Super Custom.” As has been the case with several of our reviews of Colt pistols, this one did not come to us from Colt. It is privately owned by a member of the same range where the author shoots, and it was made available to us for review through the courtesy of the owner. In fact, we once again experienced Dame Fortune smiling on us, because the pistol was new and unfired when it was turned over to us.
Under the Hood
The .38 Super Custom Model O2071ELC2 is every inch a 1911. Almost everything is old-school, Colt 1911 the way they’ve always been made. As noted above, the grip safety is the military standard, M1911A1 profile, and the hammer spur is the same as late M1911A1 production hammers. The thumb safety is not the military style with the small paddle, but it’s also not an extended version. It’s the same “teardrop” paddle design used on many other models of Colt 1911s, and also by many other modern 1911 manufacturers. It looks good, it works, and there’s nothing to catch on clothing or a holster if the pistol is carried for self defense. The same applies to the slide stop lever; it’s the standard M1911A1 profile.
Mercifully, the trigger pad is not drilled or otherwise “lightened.” It’s a plain, solid trigger that I would classify as “medium” in length. There is no over-travel adjustment screw, and the test pistol didn’t seem to need one. Over-travel after sear release was minimal. The trigger pad is finished in the same mirror polish as the slide and the frame.
The recoil system is standard 1911, with a single recoil spring, a “short” recoil spring guide rod (not full-length), and a recoil spring plug with a checkered face. A nice touch, harking back to the original M1911 design and found (to the best of my knowledge) only on Colt pistols, the recoil spring plug has a small dimple punched into the side, to enable the plug to be “threaded” onto the open end of the recoil spring. This effectively captures the plug so that it won’t get away and go flying across the room (or battlefield) when field stripping for service.
Dimpled recoil spring plug
The recoil assembly is held in the slide by a standard barrel bushing.
There are other manufacturers of 1911s offering pistols chambered in .38 Super, and many of them today use ramped barrels with the .38 Super chambering. Not so Colt; the barrel is a conventional, non-ramped barrel, with Colt’s unique chamber throat profile. The feed ramp is part of the receiver, as on the original M1911 design.
The sights are standard Colt, three-dot “Combat” sights. These sights are not tapered or wedge-shaped or in any way “tactical” (at least by current parlance). The rear sight is an upright sight with a notch, very similar to the original GI sights on the very first M1911s produced, but slightly higher, with a wider and deeper notch, and with two white dots. The front sight, like the original M1911, is staked in place, but it is also higher and wider than the original GI front sight, and has a white dot on it.
The ejector uses the same nose profile as a standard M1911 or M1911A1 chambered in .45 Automatic.
The major departure of the Model O2071ELC2 from a “standard” 1911 is the use of a Series 80 firing pin safety mechanism. Much has been written about the Series 80 system, both good and bad. Many people believe that it isn’t necessary, and that it makes the trigger pull heavier and harder to tune. Others believe that a firing pin safety is a good feature, and that the way it is implemented in the Colt Series 80 system has negligible effect on trigger pull. I confess that for a very long time I was of the opinion that the firing pin safety was not necessary. Despite that, I would never disable one, because of the potential legal ramifications of carrying a pistol with a factory safety device disabled. [Never mind that we can buy 1911s new that don’t have a firing pin safety—in the author’s view you don’t mess with safeties on carry pistols unless you like to tempt fate.]
Then, a couple or three years ago, a well-known firearms authority, Walt Kuleck, teamed up with a 1911 gunsmith named Drake Oldham and set out to test whether or not a 1911 without a firing pin safety would fire if dropped on its muzzle. Several years ago, there had been a test of this that was posted to the Internet with the result that (according to the report) it was almost impossible. That test was conducted using just a slide and barrel, dropped down a length of pipe. Walt Kuleck and Drake Oldham didn’t use just a slide and barrel, they used a complete pistol. And their results shocked a lot of people, because they found—and documented conclusively—that a 1911 will fire when dropped on the muzzle, and it doesn’t have to be dropped from a very great height to do it.
As a direct result of Walt’s and Drake’s tests, the author has reversed his position. I still own 1911s with no firing pin safety, but those I carry for self defense do have a firing pin safety. They are either Colts, or one other brand, which also uses the Colt Series 80 firing pin safety system.
The firing pin safety plunger in the slide
Trigger pull, fresh out of the box, measured 4¼ pounds with an RCBS analog trigger pull scale, with no perceptible creep or grit.
How does it shoot?
This range is an indoor facility with the actual shooting range underground, which means there is never a problem with wind, and the temperature remains fairly constant. Having the targets suspended from electric-powered runners means never having to wait for a “cold” range to examine or change targets. We like that; it makes it easier to test consistently, under conditions that are basically the same every time. On this trip, however, we encountered a slight glitch. The Colt .38 Super Custom is a full-size, 5-inch 1911. We usually test pistols of this size at the full 75-feet that the range allows. At the time of this test, though, the range was having some electrical problems and the bank of lights at 75 feet weren’t working. Therefore, this test was shot at 50 feet.
The shiny Colt shot very well—perhaps better than the guy behind the trigger. In the course of our testing, we had two original equipment Colt magazines, and four aftermarket magazines from Check-Mate Industries. The Colt magazines were set up with conventional, GI-type followers, while the Check-Mate magazines used the .38 Super version of the patented, Check-Mate bullnose follower. We rotated through the magazines in sequence, and we didn’t encounter any mis-feeds or jams with any of the magazines, with any of the several types and brands of ammunition we tried.
Two observations arose during the live fire portion of our testing. First, I found myself wishing the magazine release button was just a wee tad longer. More than once I found that dropping an empty magazine required a conscious effort to depress the button far enough to release the magazine. In fairness, though, most of my 1911s have been equipped with extended magazine releases, so perhaps the problem is just that my thumb doesn’t remember how to manipulate a standard magazine release any more.
The other unusual observation during live fire was that the nice, light, crisp trigger we measured at 4¼ pounds on the bench just didn’t feel like a 4¼-pound trigger during live fire. On top of that, on a couple of occasions it seemed as though the trigger was a bit “lazy” in resetting, and on a couple of other occasions the empty magazine didn’t drop easily out of the grip frame. We finally realized that the trigger bow (or “stirrup”) seemed to be a bit tight, and was dragging on the magazine tube. This would be a 10-minute fix for anyone who can detail strip a 1911, and it didn’t seem to affect accuracy.
The three-dot sights were perfectly visible, with the notch in the rear sight being wide enough to leave an optimum amount of daylight on either side of the front sight blade to ensure that the front sight is centered.
Even with a smooth front strap, the checkered wood grips provided more than enough traction to hold the pistol in place while shooting. In fact, if I were going to shoot this pistol a lot, I would probably look for some less aggressive grips to preserve my hands.
The table below sets forth the results of our accuracy testing, which we conducted after some preliminary plinking at a distance of 25 feet to get acquainted with the pistol. As mentioned above, this test was shot at a distance of 50 feet. We shot from a seated position, off a rest. We fired five-shot groups and discarded the worst round of each group. The averages are the average of three five-shot groups.
Ammo Avg. Group (inches) Avg. Group (mm) Best Group (inches) Best Group (mm) Winchester USA 130-gr. FMJ-FP 1.13" 29 1.00" 25 Armscor 125-gr. FMJ 1.38" 35 1.00" 25 Geco 124-gr. FMJ 1.38" 35 0.75" 19 Federal American Eagle 115-gr. JHP 1.38" 35 1.25" 32 Remington UMC 130-gr. FMJ 1.13" 29 1.00" 25
It happens that one of the top competitive shooters at the range where I shoot competes with a nicely-tuned Colt Special Combat Government—in .38 Super. He also loads his own ammunition for competition. In order to provide a more balanced review of this Colt .38 Super pistol, I asked this gentleman to shoot the test pistol with both factory ammunition and some of his reloads, and to give me his opinion and his impressions of the pistol. He agreed, and on a Thursday evening while waiting for the competition course to be set up, we spent the better part of an hour with him putting the pistol through its paces. As with my own testing, we used a mix of Colt OEM and Check-mate magazines, and we encountered no malfunctions with either. Ammunition used was the same Armscor round listed in the table above, and his reloads, which are 125-grain, polymer-coated, flat-point bullets loaded with 5.0 grains of Winchester 231. His impressions:
- Beautiful gun. Feels great, and shoots very well.
- Sights are good, very visible, but for competition he prefers an adjustable rear sight.
- For the price, and coming from the Custom Shop, he was surprised it didn't have a beavertail grip safety.
- His competition pistol has a 2¼-pound trigger. He felt the 4¼-pound trigger of the test gun caused his groups to be a bit larger than he expected.
- He felt there was a bit too much vertical slop in the trigger, and he also said it felt like there was some hesitation when the trigger was resetting—although it never malfunctioned. (See above.)
The Colt .38 Super Custom is shown on Colt’s web site with the entry-level, 1991 Series pistols, but the Model O2071ELC2 is not an entry-level pistol. It is produced in Colt’s Custom Shop, and the difference shows when shooting it. I own a 1991 Commander and I think it’s a very fine pistol, but the Model O2071ELC2 is in a different class. The fit and finish are beautiful, the trigger comes from the factory exactly where I think it should be, the grips are gorgeous. What more can be said? Of course, my grandmother always said, “Handsome is as handsome does,” and the Colt .38 Super Custom “does” very handsomely indeed. It shoots as well as it looks, and there are no rattles or slop when the slide is cycling during shooting.
Send it back to the Colt Custom Shop for a Level A or Level B engraving, and the Colt .38 Super Custom would become a barbeque gun anyone could be proud of, and it would still shoot as well as it looks.
First, of course, we wish to acknowledge and thank the M1911.ORG member who allowed us to use his personal pistol for this test.
Secondly, we thank the person at Colt’s manufacturing who worked with us to make this test possible. Colt does not give out the names and contact information for personnel other than the Customer Service representatives, so we can’t identify anyone by name. However (we hope), you know who you are and we are grateful. We only regret that it took longer on our end than we expected to get this review in “print.”
As always, we want to acknowledge Chris Dogolo, owner of Chris’ Indoor Shooting Range, for his unfailing support and assistance in allowing us to conduct our testing at his range.
Special thanks go out to Armscor USA for providing some of the ammunition used in our testing, and the Check-Mate Industries for providing samples of their .38 Super magazines to round out or live fire experience.
Please go to this thread on the M1911 Pistols Organization discussion forum to discuss this article: http://forum.m1911.org/showthread.ph...8-Super-Custom
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Colt 1991 Combat Commander Model: O2071ELC2 Caliber: .38 Super Automatic Overall Length: 8.38" (212.7 mm) Overall Height: 5.19" (131.8 mm) Overall Width: 1.31" (33.3 mm) Barrel Length: 5" (127 mm) Sight Radius: 6.5" (165 mm) Sights: White dot, Combat-style (non-adjustable) Weight w/o magazine: 35.0oz (0.99 kg) Magazine Capacity: 9 rounds Grips: Double diamond checkered, Rosewood Finish: Stainless steel, polished MSRP: $1,499
Colt’s Manufacturing Company, LLC
P.O. Box 1868
Hartford, CT, 06144-1868
Fax: (860) 244-1449
Web site: http://www.coltsmfg.com
Chris’ Indoor Shooting Range
2458 Boston Post Road
Guilford, CT 06437-1398
Tel: (203) 453-1570
Web site: http://www.chrisindoorrange.net/
Armscor Precision International
Advanced Tactical Firearms
150 N. Smart Way
Pahrump, NV 89060
Tel: (775) 537-1444
Fax: (775) 537-1446
Web Site: http://www.advancedtactical.com/
370 Wyandanch Avenue
West Babylon, New York 11704
Tel: (831) 491-1777
Fax: (831) 491-1745
Web Site: http://www.checkmateindustries.com/handgun