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

    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 retired as associate editor since December 14th 2017. My replacement is my friend Pete M email: [email protected] you can reach Pete for product reviews etc.