Rock Island Tactical 9mm Conversion to 38 Super (Part One)

38superdillinger

For those not familiar with the 38 Super it’s an older law enforcement round widely in use during the 1930’s since it would penetrate the crude body armor of the time. The 1911 in 45 acp was also widely used but took a backseat to the 38 Super once the gangsters started wearing body armor. Both the good guys and criminals used the “Super”. Standard ammunition used was 130 grain ball.

John Dillingers Colt 38 Super


Check the low center of the photo for the Colt 38 Super. Photo taken at FBI headquarters.

Frank Hamer the legendary Texas Ranger who was part of the group that ended Bonnie and Clydes rampage also carried a Colt 38 Super

In recent years the 38 Super has enjoyed renewed interest in the form of competition. The 38 Super is very often the round of choice for IPSC use. Other shooters have also started taking notice and we have seen an increased interest in the Super among regular shooters. Many ammunition companies have also started releasing new rounds for personal protection as well as ball ammo for practice. One load factor to note is all but one loading by Fiocchi is rated +P.

STI 38 Super Competition 1911

I’ve taken a real liking to this round. After researching the ballistics of the most effective defensive loadings I find myself carrying a 38 Super more and more with 10+1 rounds of Buffalo Bore 124 grain JHP +P using the XTP bullet. You can count on this load to break 1300 fps and generate 537 foot pounds of energy!

Now lets move on to the project itself. At this point I must say that anyone who decides to perform these modifications is responsible for any damage to their pistol and or personal injury.

Unless you have a good deal of practical experience with the 1911 and a fair amount of gunsmithing experience with the 1911 I would strongly advise you have a reputable gunsmith perform these modifications. This is not only for your safety but this will ensure a well made reliable pistol.

The first thing on the list is determining the parts needed to make the transition to 38 Super. The first consideration is a 38 Super barrel. There are a fair number of barrels available from several manufacturers at a price point from $51 up too the $250 range. I chose an inexpensive Swenson barrel from Brownells for this project. This is not the Swenson company of old rather a brand name acquired by Midway in order to brand parts Brownells have contracted and made from outside suppliers. This particular barrel is not supplied with a barrel bushing or barrel link. Most of you will know this but the only way you can convert a 1911 to 38 Super is from a 9MM 1911. A .45 ACP slide will not work.

Barrels come in various configurations depending on the 1911 you own. The Rock Island doesn’t have a ramped barrel so a standard configuration is needed. Some guns, like my Kimber Aegis for instance, have a ramped barrel in 9MM. Even the ramps vary so make sure you purchase the proper barrel for your gun. Another consideration is which type of barrel you prefer and how confident you are in your abilities. They come in oversized for gunsmith fitting as well as drop in types that often need some fitting. Many of the gunsmith and drop in varieties have the barrel bushing and barrel link fitted and are included in the package.

The next parts to choose are the barrel bushing, barrel link as well as a link pin that connects the link to the lower barrel lug. There are also several sizes of barrel links. You can check with the tech support department of your 1911 manufacturer to get a ballpark idea of the size needed.

As far as the bushing goes the factory bushing that came with your pistol will most likely work. Of course you can also purchase a gunsmith bushing and fit that yourself. The bushing is by far the easiest part to fit.

A few hand tools are also needed. Barrel fitting kits are available from Kart and sold by Brownells. These kits are a bit on the expensive side. A tool of this type may not even be used, so my advice is wait and see if this kit is needed. A caliper is a must for measuring the barrel hood, lugs etc. The cost is in the $25.00 range unless you prefer to purchase one with all the bells and whistles. Also needed are several files to work on the rear of the barrel hood as well the barrel lugs.

Brownells lower lug fitting tool.

The triangular files, also from Brownells, are 60 and 65 degree angle cuts to fit most sight cuts in the slide. A few sheets of 600 grit (or 800) wet dry sandpaper also comes in handy to smooth any rough edges after the files are used. If you own a Dremel some buffing wheels will help polish parts of the barrel you’ve worked on. Notice I said buffing wheels not for making slide cuts! Please DO NOT use a Dremel for any other purpose. You can ruin a part very quickly and there’s no fixing it once you cut too aggressively. As far as buffing use a white, or light red block of the putty type polish. Even with this putty be cautious and take your time. All you want is to put a nice smooth finish on the part not remove any material.

A padded gunsmith vise is also a tool needed to hold the parts firmly in place for filing and fitting.

Articulating Gunsmith Vise

Here is a sample of the parts needed from Brownells:

• Wilson Bullet Proof barrel bushing 965-000-120WB
• Bullet Proof Barrel Bushing
• Mfr. Part: 588

• 100-003-768WB
• Standard .140″ U-Notch Rear Sight
• Mfr. Part: 02140

• 100-003-159WB
• 10-8 Flat Trigger
• Mfr. Part: TRIGGER02

• 087-867-000WB
• Series 70, Blue
• Mfr. Part: 867

• 965-011-150WB
• Magazine Catch (B)
• Mfr. Part: R15

• 296-000-166WB
• #1 1911 Auto Barrel Link
• Mfr. Part: 10302

• 160-103-101WB
• Barrel Link Pin, Blue
• Mfr. Part: SP50144B

• 472-000-001WB
• 5″ Barrel, .38 Super fits N/R
• This barrel is unlike mine. The Brownells $51.00 barrel is out of stock. I substituted this Kart barrel.

• 539-832-212WB
• Lyman Dial Caliper
• Mfr. Part: 7832212

• 080-648-165WB
• #1 65° Sight Base File
• Mfr. Part: LPTR004

This is the end of part one. In part two I’ll discuss fitting and installation of these parts as well as safety checks for any internal parts you may change. I hope you enjoy the project!




Phil White

Retired police officer with 30 years of service. Firearms instructor and SRU team member. I still instruct with local agencies. My daily carry pistol is the tried and true 1911. I’m the Associate Editor and moderator at TFB. I really enjoy answering readers questions and comments. We can all learn from each other about our favorite hobby!


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  • Brice

    I guess I’m still confused on why anybody would choose .38 super, without reloading, you’re still not going to make Major PF. So why?

    • Sian

      A lot of competitors DO reload, and .38 super at major PF in Open division is very easy to shoot in comparison to .45 because its high velocity makes a compensator very effective.

      • Other Steve

        Makes the comp effective and very LOUD. I hate being anywhere near them. Extremely unpractical for anything but competition

      • Phil White

        Sian,

        The recoil is very negligible even without a comp. With a comp I imagine it’s almost no-existent.

    • Phil White

      Brice,

      I reload:-) I like the ballistics of the round for defense as well as the accuracy and low recoil making followup shots faster. Of course the same applies to the 9mm. The Super has more power though.
      A factory load like the Buffalo Bore turns out over 1400 fps and 537 fp of energy at the bore.A good defense round.

      • Brice

        Well, I guess to each their own. I’ve never considered the .38 Super for a SD round. With Buffalo Bore making SD ammo for it, it’s certainly an excellent choice for SD.

        • Phil White

          Brice,

          It really is now that the competitors are using it the ammo companies are on the bandwagon releasing more types for us:-) I’ve been shooting 38 Super for years with my loads but it’s only been in the last year I started getting an interest in carrying one for defense since Cor=Bon and Buffalo Bore started giving us a selection.

  • Kurt

    Just out of curiosity, if you want a Rock Island 1911 in .38 super, why not just buy one in that caliber? They are available.

    • DrewN

      Not the “tactical” variant. So it’s basically add a beavertail,hammer, sights and an ambi safety or fit a barrel. I bought a G.I. Super and tricked it out, but the 9mm tactical isn’t available in Ca or I might have done it this way.

      • DrewN

        Oh, and his way, you don’t have to refinish the gun.

        • Phil White

          DrewN,

          True the only bluing was the edges of the sights where it meets the frame. The simple cold blue works fine for simple jobs like this one.

      • Phil White

        DrewN,

        It would make it difficult for us to make the slide cuts with a GI model. You would have to send it out to someone like Novak. They are reasonable and have a fast turnaround time.
        Now why would Ca. not allow a tactical! It’s the same darn gun except for a few parts!! Makes no sense at all.

      • Flounder

        AH… That good old roster of “safe” handguns. Causing people to do funny things to get what they want. I hope I never have to deal with it again! This whole project makes a lot more sense now! You should post these articles on calguns if you haven’t already! And keep up the good work!

        • Phil White

          Flounder,

          Thanks Flounder I appreciate it. I haven’t posted any of my reviews on other blogs/forums because of restrictions on reposting anywhere else. It’s perfectly alright if someone wants to post a link elsewhere.

    • Phil White

      Kurt,

      They are but not in the Tactical version only the GI. They may come out with one sometime but for now that’s what we have.

  • Jason

    I’d prefer the 9mm over the super any day. I can find 9mm’s anywhere and they are almost if not just as powerful with +P loads.

    • Phil White

      Jason,

      I like the 9mm also and have a Kimber Aegis I carry from time to time.The ballistics on the Super are more impressive than a 9mm. I foyu check some of the reloading manuals and other tables available the energy a 38 Super puts out exceeds the 9mm +P by a pretty good margin. The Super is closer to a 9×23.

  • dave

    The gun pictured is not John Dillinger’s gun but a custom-built gun that was used in the Public Enemies film with Johnny Depp. They made it 9mm instead of .38 Super (.38 Super would have been historically accurate) because .38 Super blanks are either really hard or impossible to find. Thought some people would appreciate that bit of backstory.

    • Phil White

      dave,

      I’m not saying your wrong but every source I checked said it was his and is located in the FBI’ stash of criminal weapons. I haven’t seen Public Enemy:-) That picture certainly looks old as does the gun. Possibly they made one for the movie like Dillingers?

      • dave

        The big color picture at the top is from a guy who works at the armorer that supplied the firearms for the Johnny Depp movie. I have a higher-resolution version of that picture.

        http://i.imgur.com/pdogp.jpg

      • http://www.thegunzone.com/556dw.html Daniel E. Watters

        I’m voting prop gun as well. You can see crimps for the magazine’s internal spacer that makes up for the shorter length of 9x19mm cartridges.

        • Phil White

          Daniel,

          Man I don’t know since I can’t get a hands on with it. Sometimes you just go with the numerous articles from the research you do. What convinced me the sources were correct is the lack of other prop photos of the Thompson and other guns he used? Anyway, it does depict the pistol he used and that’s the main thing.

      • http://www.thegunzone.com/556dw.html Daniel E. Watters

        More on the magazine – You can see that they welded two factory magazines together. The mag catch slot is visible on the lower tube. The Lebman conversions used modified extended magazines from Star machine pistols.

        • Phil White

          Daniel,

          Gotcha——-

    • Phil White

      dave,

      I checked the sources again as well as others. They did make a copy for the movie but the picture I posted is the actual Dillinger gun. He liked the Thompson front grip so he had one put on his. Colt also made one at the time. It was experimental..

  • Other Steve

    Why use 38 Stupid? BECAUSE RACEGUN!¡!!

  • http://www.Hustedia.com Scott

    Could you tell me what brand/make that padded vise in the picture is? I would love to have one like that but haven’t seen one quite like that one before.

    Thank you.

    • http://www.Hustedia.com Scott

      Found it.. Roto-Stand.

      • Phil White

        Scott,

        That’s the one:-)

    • Phil White

      Scott,

      You found it but I can tell you it’s very handy!

  • Jess

    A conversion to 9X23 would make more sense.

    • Phil White

      Jess,

      I never considered that. I’m not sure a barrel would be available plus. The expense would have been greater and well I just like the 38 Super.

  • Pat Kelley

    Don’t you need to widen the breech face? Super is a rimmed cartridge and would need more room.

    • Phil White

      Pat,

      No not at all. It works fine and many others have done this conversion.The extractor needs a bit of tweaking but that’s it.

      • http://www.thegunzone.com/556dw.html Daniel E. Watters

        Exactly, there is only a nominal 0.015″ difference between the two rims.

        • Phil White

          Daniel,

          Which is why you only need to tweak the extractor. I have an extractor tuned for the 9mm and one for the Super in case I ever want to switch back and forth between barrels.

  • Nat

    Even nearly 100 years ago, gangsters had to pimp their gats.

    • Mike Knox

      I thought you said ‘gams’..

    • Phil White

      Nat,

      LOL—it seems so.

  • schizuki

    .357 Magnum ballistics out of a 1911 sounds like a pretty damn succinct answer to “why?”

    • Phil White

      schizuki,

      That it does:-) Some won’t believe it but the ballistics are out there for anyone to see.

    • Marc

      Not even close.

      • Phil White

        Marc,

        Cor Bon 357 Magnum JHP 125 544 1400

        Double Tap 38 Super +p JHP 125 506 1350

        There are a couple of 357 hunting loads that are hotter. A couple of the 38 Super 115grn are also faster with more muzzle energy. These are the two closest and there really isn’t enough difference to matter.

      • Marc

        Buffalo Bore .357 Magnum 125 gr. Barnes XPB: 1591 fps / 702 ft-lbs from a 4″ revolver.

        Not even close.

    • Nicks87

      10mm trumps them both, pushes a heavier bullet AND can be had in various modern auto-loaders.

      I think 38 super and 357 mag are both niche catagory cartridges that are past their prime.

      • Phil White

        Nicks87,

        Hey Nicks–well I don’t think they are past their prime with the new loads that are coming out for the Super. The 357 has the highest one shot stop rating of any round at 97% according to FBI stats I’ve read.Those stats don’t mean anything unless you do your part.
        I do agree the 10mm is hard to beat. I had a Colt Delta Elite which really had some power behind it! Then you have the Glocks you like in 10mm. I can’t see using the compact with the recoil a 10mm has but the full size is certainly a viable choice.

      • Flounder

        357 magnum and 38 special are not going anywhere my friend. As awesome as the 10mm is not enough people shoot it in order for it to compete with the 357. Hopefully that will change someday but who knows.
        As for the 10mm in modern handguns… The only double stack pistols for it are the G20 and the EAA witness… And the G29 which is also the only 10mm that is smaller than full size. Besides that the only pistols being made in 10mm new are a few single stack 1911’s. I know S&W was making an auto-loader but they discontinued that a lil while ago… SO based on that and the fact that the Glock 10mm pistols are only produced in limited runs (this is something that I’ve heard and seems to make sense but find out for yourself) I would say that the 10mm is slowly declining… (I really hope not though cause it’s a SWEET round).

        However I thought the same could be said for the 38 super but it seems to be still alive and well; albeit an almost underground cartridge.

        But back to the 10 making 357 obsolete! The 357 is the most common revolver cartridge out there by far! So many people and manufactures have worked up loads and put millions into R&D for pistols, carbines, rifles, and ammo. And although ballistically the 10mm is really close or equal to the 357 you cannot use the real full house loads in a Glock (one of the 2 modern handguns in this caliber) due to the lack of full chamber support. Yes you can very easily get an aftermarket barrel for the Glock that will run the hottest loads ever conceived. But it is still not factory stock. And there are reports that the EAA witness’s and the 10mm 1911’s will wear out early or break if you use full house loads. In my opinion most of the reports are exaggerated or unfounded but there are a few confirmed failures.

        So yes you can get 10mm ammo that soundly trumps 38 super and at least equals 357. But you can’t use it in any factory stock gun that exists at this moment in time.

        Wow this is a long post… Guess I should wrap it up!

        This is my last point to bring up. I know of a few loads in 357 that will get to around 1000 ME from a rifle length barrel and I think there may be a few that will tickle 1000 from a pistol… I also thought that the average ME for most 357 magnum loads was somewhere in the 650-750 ME range which is MUCH better than the 38 super. (although the super does seem to be much more of a cartridge than I thought it was.)

        PS: Just for giggles and as an aside there is one member on calguns who built a COMPLETELY CUSTOM 7 or 8 inch barreled Glock that was getting around 1100 Ft/LBS ME. just get onto calguns.net and look up glockzilla I think.

        • Phil White

          Flounder,

          Good comment Flounder! I think you’re right on the glockzilla handle. I can sure verify a standard pistol like a 1911 will wear out sooner than normal with full house loads.Back when Colt came out with the Delta Elite I grabbed one as soon as I found one and started firing the only rounds available which were made by Norma. Those rounds were very very hot! I never wore mine out simply because I backed off until dies came out and I could load them down a bit. One other officer did buy one and wore his out pretty quickly. It’s been a long time and I don’t remember the round count on his but the slide cracked finally.
          Colt dropped them for some time then for whatever reason brought them back. Of course most people know the FBI adopted the 10mm for a short time in a S&W sem-auto. They also had problems and went to what they called a short 10mm at the time. It was never issued just experimented with. This whole chain of events is what finally brought us the 40 S&W caliber.

      • Flounder

        If you don’t mind me asking what parts specifically wear out? I’ve heard you can minimize the wear and tear if you beef up the recoil spring as well. But maybe you did that? And how many rounds did it take to wear out the gun?

        As to colt re-releasing their delta elites, maybe they made some parts heavier or better tuned? If your friend only wore out a few parts or portions of the slide then just adding material or doing better heat treating could make them resilient enough to handle the 10? Just a thought. :D One can only hope that’s what happened.

        Or maybe the 10 is making a comeback due to the glocks and colt wants some of the pie? Hmmm I guess wilson and kimber have 10mm pistols out and the para-ord P16-40 can be converted with an aftermarket barrel (since this is posted under a article revolving around a caliber conversion ;D )… Forgot about those ones in my first post…

        Just a thought but it could be interesting to see what calibers are seeing increased use over the past 30-40 years. Which ones are declining and which ones are becoming more popular. Maybe even relate it to the introduction of new pistols/rifles. It would be a LOT of work (I think) but it would be an awesome article! Or series of articles…

        BUT back to the topic at hand!

        It was my understanding that the problems the FBI had with the 10mm and the S&W auto’s were that not every member of the FBI could shoot the pistols well enough? I thought it was too much for the agents that primarily worked a desk? And were not field agents but were still required to have a gun and qualify with it. And by too much I mean recoil wise and the size of the pistols? Hence the FBI reduced loading for the 10mm and the eventual shortening of the the round to the 40 S&W.

        The only bad thing i’ve ever heard about the S&W auto’s were that they were single stack pistols and that they were awesome.

        • Phil White

          Flounder,

          Sorry I didn’t get back to you sooner but I was gone all day yesterday.The springs wore out first followed by the firing pin being blunted.The next thing to go after a good number of rounds was the slide to frame fit. It started getting loose and if you shook it enough it would rattle like an old GI 1911 that had been in service for 50 years. My buddy never told me how many rounds he fired before the crack in the slide happened.He did send the gun in and Colt was going to replace the slide but due to bad tolerances in the frame they replaced the entire gun.
          As far as the re-release my thoughts are that the composition of the steel used today is perhaps better than it used to be. I don’t have any information to confirm that but it would seem to make sense. Another consideration is a wider selection of ammunition that’s much easier on the gun. The original Norma load was right at the max and was honestly too hot. Nothing even comes close now. In fact Norma downloaded the ammo they sold because of all the problems it caused with Delta Elites.
          I think the 10mm is back to some degree of popularity because of the number of guns available. When Glock came out with there 10mm other companies took notice I’m sure and seeing enough sales to make it a viable pistol they started making them in limited quantities. You generally won’t see any 10’s on the shelf and for the most part are ordered as customers buy them.

          That might be an interesting article and one I’ll have to do some research on. I would probably separate it between rifle and handgun calibers.It would take some time and I imagine some time to get the data from the various companies in order to be accurate.

          The S&W was a big sem-auto for certain! We had an inservice class which was taught by the FBI and the agent had one of the new 10’s. We all drooled over it of course since we were all firearms instructors:-) Enough of the agents had problems handling it that they did indeed stop the process of arming everyone with this new pistol. Those that liked it and shot it well kept carrying them for some years. Part of the reason was they wanted a do all pistol that could be concealed which this sure wasn’t. It was the over all size and grip circumference plus the recoil that most likely doomed it. You make a good point as far as the desk agents having problems qualifying. They’re like anyone else if they aren’t gun guys or girls they only shoot when they have to.

          We did get to shoot that agents S&W and it was a nice pistol. It was accurate, felt good in the hand and I didn’t find the recoil bad at all. Then again we were all shooters:-)

      • Flounder

        No worries Phil! Your probably busy working while i’m on vacation for a few weeks! Take your time. Especially if every reply is as thorough and well thought out as your last few have been!

        Springs I can see wearing out on any gun but a blunted firing pin and the frame to slide fit becoming loose is intense! As well as a cracked slide! Those are some serious wear and tear issues. At least colt replaced everything, always great to hear of a manufacturer fixing their mistakes or just putting the customer first.

        Lets hope the new Delta elites are built tougher than before. Maybe a gun review? :D Actually I wonder if anyone has done that already… Compare the new ones to the older ones… I think i’m going to look into that today.

        I feel like a gun shop will usually have 1 10mm pistol hidden somewhere in the display boxes. Maybe I just happened to visit the gun shops before they sold that one pistol.

        I’m looking forward to reading that article! And I greatly appreciate the hard work you do to keep this blog full of valuable information!

        • Phil White

          Flounder,

          I appreciate that Flounder! It’s always good to know people get some information they can use or enjoy reading:-) That’s an idea on reviewing a new Delta Elite. In fact I’ll work on that. The only difficulty will be finding a vintage Delta to compare but then I have the old knowledge to use.

          Oh yea when I said it wore out it really wore out! I’m sure the new ones will be better if for no other reason than we have reasonable loads now. Even Norma finally admitted they loaded them a bit warm. That’s an understatement!

          Thanks!

      • Nicks87

        Thank you Phil and flounder for dropping the knowledge. Very informative posts.

        • Phil White

          Nicks87,

          Thanks Nicks—have a great weekend!

  • http://www.thegunzone.com/556dw.html Daniel E. Watters

    Phil: Are you certain that “Swenson” is a Brownell’s house brand? I was under the impression that it is a Midway USA brand, like their “Frankford Arsenal” reloading accessories and “Stoner” AR-15 magazines.

    • Phil White

      Daniel,

      Ah how the wheels turn in this business:-) Ok I called both Brownells and Midway so here’s the story. The individual at a certain company gave me the wrong current information. Here’s the real chain of events.
      The name was purchased by one seller of gun parts etc and then sold to Battenfield which used to be a part of Midway but no more. When Battenfield separated from Midway they were going to dump the name. Larry Potterfield decided not to let the name die sooooo he bought it. That’s where it stands today.
      How’s that for confusing! I’ll be sure and change the article to reflect this.

  • mosinman

    i really like this post, 38 super is one of those cartriges that have been around for a long time but you dont hear much about it. im really interested in this cartrige , and 10mm of course lol phil, do you think its possible to convert a 10mm to 38 super?

    • Phil White

      mosinman,

      Thanks I’m glad you like it:-) As far as converting a 10mm the breechface is a bit large to try it. A good gunsmith might be able to make the change.I’ve heard people that have tried it but I don’t know how it turned out.
      .406 rim diameter on the Super with a .425 on the 10mm. Heck it would probably be cheaper to buy a new slide and barrel by the time you pay a gunsmith.