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.38 Super vs 9mm

09.01.2023

.38 Super and 9mm are both excellent rounds, but they also each have their own strengths and weaknesses. If youre already pretty experienced in the gun world, youre likely to be familiar with 9mm already, but .38 Super isnt as popular or well-known. Either way, were here to help. In this guide, well break down 9mm vs Super rounds to help you figure out which of these handgun cartridges is better for you.

What is the .38 Super?

.38 Super Ammunition

.38 Super was first designed in the late 1920s for the venerable M1911. It was based on .38 ACP (Automatic Colt Pistol) with the same dimensions but with higher pressure thanks to the additional headspace in the semi-rimmed case.

In fact, the rounds are so similar that starting in 1974, +P was added to .38 Super in order to help differentiate it from the lower-powered .38 ACP cartridge. To this day, most .38 Super is still designated .38 Super +P.

 

.38 Super was very powerful for the time that it was introduced, even able to penetrate car bodies. Thats not as impressive now, but remember that these are cars made in the 1920s that were talking about. It quickly gained popularity among law enforcement agencies and officers due to its power.

However, just a few short years later, in 1935, .357 Magnum, a revolver cartridge, was introduced. This round had similar power and penetration to .38 Super, plus it could be used in the double-action revolvers that law enforcement already knew and loved.

Thus, .38 Super didnt get much time to shine as an LEO cartridge. That doesnt mean it doesnt have its uses though.

These days, .38 Super is primarily used as a competition round. Its particularly popular in USPSA and especially IPSC competitions. Competitive shooters love it because its powerful, but with more manageable recoil than .45 ACP, especially when used with a muzzle brake or compensator.

For many events, it can be loaded to a Major power factor (higher scoring factor) without much effort, and there is even factory-loaded ammo that is specifically designed to meet Major power factor for better scoring. This makes the .38 Super a popular choice even though 9mm has caught up some performance-wise.

You will also occasionally see .38 Super carried in a self-defense capacity, but these guns are becoming increasingly rare. Theyre still very effective, though maybe not enough to deserve the 9mm Magnum” nickname that gets tossed around.

IPSC and other competitions that have power factor scoring are definitely the most common place youll see these guns today. Not that you cant readily defend yourself or do casual target shooting with one, its just a less common choice.

What is the 9mm?

9mm is even older than .38 Super, first introduced in 1902 and by 1908, it had been adopted by both the German Navy and Army.

After World War I, the round was more widely adopted, but it wasnt until the 1980s and 1990s that 9mms popularity really spiked.

9mm ammunition on a white background

In large part, this was due to the more widespread adoption of semi-automatic pistols in general. 9mm semi-automatics were also especially popular thanks to the improved designs of the time. Of particular note is the Beretta M9, which was adopted by the United States Army in 1985.

These days, 9mm is one of the most popular cartridges of any kind (not just pistol cartridges) on the market with widespread use by law enforcement, military, and civilians alike. It is the go-to handgun cartridge of most US federal law enforcement bodies, as well as NATO.

Among civilians, its especially popular for self-defense and is the number one caliber in defensive firearms sold in the US, as well as the most popular caliber sold overall. Its also incredibly popular with competition and casual target shooters as well.

In USPSA, 3-Gun, IDPA, and most other competitions youll typically find 9mm being wielded the most often out of all pistol calibers. Its especially popular in competitions where rapid shooting is the order of the day.

Most other cartridges youll see are .45 ACP ammo (for Heavy Metal divisions) and, of course, the .38 Super mentioned above. This is because its easier to load these cartridges, along with the occasional .40 S&W to a Major power factor.

Still, some choose to take the Minor scoring factor of 9mm in stride and you still see 9mm shooters regularly winning national tournaments. Part of this is because Major scoring doesnt tend to be the deciding factor in most competitions. The other thing to keep in mind is that the lower recoil of 9mm is a huge upside when shooting rapidly.

After all, the lower recoil and increased shoot-ability of 9mm is the primary reason why it has become the round of choice for most law enforcement bodies.

Key Differences between the .38 Super & 9mm

.38 special vs 9mm photo in a lineup of both, on a white background
Size & Dimensions 

Size-wise, 9mm and .38 Super are very similar. 9mm has ever so slightly smaller diameter, but certainly not enough to make a serious difference in performance. 

For comparison, 9mm has a 0.355 inch diameter bullet, while .38 Super has a 0.356 inch bullet (yes, even though the name is .38 Super). The main difference is that the .38 Super case is longer than that of 9mm (.895 in vs .754 in).

Trajectory & Muzzle Velocity

.38 Super has a longer case than 9mm (.895” vs .754”). This extra case length means extra case capacity, allowing for more powder to be put into the case, which in turn allows for a higher muzzle velocity. In turn, this higher velocity allows .38 Super to achieve a flatter trajectory and hit with greater power than 9mm.

You typically can expect about 10% more muzzle energy from a .38 Super cartridge given an equivalently sized projectile fired from the same length barrel. You will also see about 10-15% less drop at longer ranges, though both start to fall off so sharply after 200 yards that it basically doesnt matter.

Its hard to declare a winner here overall, but on sheer numbers, the .38 Super is ahead. Does it actually matter in a real-world situation? Practically, almost never. But numbers dont lie and the .38 Super ammunition does technically outperform when it comes to velocity and flight path.

Weight

On their face, .38 Super and 9mm have more or less the same bullet weight. For both rounds, 115, 124, and 147 grain bullets are the most popular. 

However, .38 Super and 9mm owners tend to prefer different bullet weights because they use their rounds for different things.

.38 Super is primarily a competition round. Competitive shooters tend to gravitate towards heavier bullets because it increases the Power factor and reduces the recoil, making accurate shots easier.

On the other hand, 9mm is primarily a personal protection round (though, again, it does see competition use as well). For personal protection, it can go either way. Some shooters prefer heavier bullets because of the added power behind the round. On the other hand, lighter bullets generally have less recoil.

Accuracy

You really dont have to be concerned about accuracy with either of these rounds. Especially at close range, both produce excellent results. 

That said, this is a comparison, so we do have to give the edge to .38 Super on this one, thanks to the greater muzzle velocity.

That difference only compounds as the range increases, so the further away the target, the more .38 Supers superior accuracy will show.

Price

The simple economics of the slightly larger cartridge and the niche it occupies means that .38 Super ammo is almost always more expensive than an equivalent 9mm loading, unless a retailer is just trying to shift all their .38 Super stock out because no one is buying it. 9mm is the second most commonly used NATO round, one of the top three most popular civilian rounds, and the most popular law enforcement round in the United States. All of this combines to make the 9mm significantly less expensive than .38 Super.

Capacity

Now this isn’t necessarily a direct result of the rounds themselves, but capacity is something to keep in mind when choosing a caliber. Since .38 Super was designed for 1911s, and those are still the guns that use it most frequently, the vast majority of .38 Super magazines are single stack. In contrast, there’s a much wider variety of guns that use 9mm, so you can choose one that uses either a single or double stack magazine with the latter, obviously, providing a greater capacity.

Grizzly Cartridge: The Best Ammunition for Firearms

At Grizzly Cartridge, were happy to address your ammunition needs. While we dont carry .38 Super (yet), we do carry a wide range of 9mm rounds, both jacketed hollow point and full metal jacket, and in bullet weights ranging from 115 grains to 165-grain subsonic ammo. That also includes an extensive selection of 9mm +P ammo for those looking for some extra power out of their 9mm rounds.