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The Original Silver Bullet
Rifle Magazine
February - March 2003
Volume 38, Number 1
ISSN: 0017-7393
Number 221
On the cover...
The Kimber Stainless Target II is chambered for the .38 Super. Photo by Stan Trzoniec. Pronghorn photo by John R. Ford.
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Our choice for this piece was the Kimber Stainless Target II, which contains all the features familiar to dedicated target shooters. The Kimber just arrived, and things have never looked so good for this old-line cartridge. With it also comes my chance to flesh out both the gun and the cartridge.

For testing any handgun cartridge, nothing could be a better vehicle than a target gun. Machining is tight, tolerances close and with the extra care given this type of pistol, the full potential of a cartridge is easier to chart. While I’m not going to dote on all the virtues of the basic 1911 semiautomatic pistol, Kimber has obviously picked up the ball handily, much to the chagrin of the dyed-in-the-wool Colt aficionado. The company’s attention to detail is now legendary.

The sample is a prime example of modern gun making art. Slides, barrels and frames are produced on CNC machines for exacting tolerances. Features include match grade barrels and triggers; tighter barrel bushings; low-mounted, target-style, fully-adjustable sights; a checkered backstrap; and rigid quality control.

Trigger pull on the Kimber measured 4 pounds on the nose with just about 1/8 inch of take-up before the sear released. The trigger is skeletonized for appearance with a grooved front surface that is just right for target shooters. The hammer is also lightened and customized for today’s modern look, and the gun comes standard with the typical beavertail safety. There is an extended safety on the left side (sorry, no ambidextrous safety on this model), and the slide release is checkered for a good purchase despite its diminutive size. The only negative I could find - and its personal - is the Target II comes with a set of black rubber grips. A quick replacement with checkered rosewood panels, complete with a traditional diamond checkering pattern, improved the appearance tenfold.

Of the 39 or so models Kimber currently shows in its new catalog, only two are chambered for the Super. One is this Stainless Target II; the other is a Pro Carry HD II, a shortened version with a full-length grip. That’s only about 5 percent of its product, which is just about the same industry-wide.

The .38 Super as a whole has had a very interesting history that can be traced as far back as 1900. John Browning designed the first .38 Auto cartridge that was chambered in early Colt pistols. In time, some of the other major players included the Spanish Llama, Star and even Webley and Scott jumped on the bandwagon with pistols chambered for this high-stepping cartridge that would launch a 130-grain bullet at 1,040 fps.

At the end of the 1920s, an improved version with more power, designated the .38 “Super” Auto, received even more attention by its association with the famed Colt Super .38 Automatic pistol. While it was popular for a short time, the .357 Magnum came along in 1935 and stopped the Super in its tracks. But regardless of the outcome, Colt and the .38 Super have had a great run. In just over five decades and, except for a few lean years from 1941 to 1945, Colt produced just under a quarter-million (240,000) units chambered for this cartridge.

Loading semiautomatic cartridges like the 9mm, .38 Super, .40 Smith & Wesson and the traditional .45 ACP often represents more of a challenge than traditional rimmed cases like the .38 Special, .44 Special or even the .45 Colt. Instead of just loading and crimping, the auto cartridges represent some additional time and effort to get things just right, and by that I mean absolutely 100 percent reliability.

I prefer to purchase at least 10 boxes (500 rounds) of factory fresh brass from the same manufacturer, preferably all with the same lot number. Larger outlets can accommodate you or mail order firms can help with their seemingly unending supply of new brass. Inspect the whole batch for defects and/or in the case of once-fired brass, check for incipient cracks at the mouth, scratches, crushed and otherwise damaged case mouths. Size the whole batch with tungsten dies, eliminating the tedium of lubing, cleaning and tumbling cases after each session. Whether you’re a novice or veteran to auto pistol loading, the purchase of a taper crimp die should be included in the above package.

At this point it’s good to verify both the inner and outer case dimensions. For auto pistols, I like the die to be just a bit undersized to offer a good grip on the bullet. That slide is raising all kinds of havoc on those cases, and the last thing you need is the bullet moving back into or out of the case.

For perfect functioning, after sizing and tumbling if you wish, check for overall length of the case as it comes from the die. Since modern .38 Supers headspace on the mouth, this measurement is very critical. For the record, this would be .900 inch or a little less, if you trim. On the other hand, inside case measurements of fresh, out of the box brass can vary from .354 to .355 inch. After sizing with the RCBS tungsten sizing die, they measure .352 inch, just about right for a .355-inch bullet.

Priming and belling or flaring the case mouth is next. Most presses allow you to do this in one operation. Priming with Small Pistol primers is pretty straightforward, but stay away from Magnum primers as they are not needed. Belling the case is another critical point in the operation, as too much of a flare will allow the bullet to enter the case with little or no friction thus causing more problems later. For instance, to keep tabs on this part of the operation, outside diameter of a new case out of the box is .380 inch. Out of the sizing die, you’ll see around .377 inch, so you should adjust the outside of the flare to about .380 to .381 inch. You’ll know when you didn’t get it right, as little or no flare will make it difficult to seat the bullet, or worse yet, crumple case mouths. Since nothing is etched in stone, most of this operation comes from experience, but the novice can handle it with ease the first time around.

Place the sized case into the shellholder. Ease the ram to its uppermost point and leave it there. Screw in the second, neck-sizing flaring die until contact is made with the case mouth. Lower the ram while turning the flaring die a bit more. Raise the ram again, and notice the amount of belling or outward flare on the case mouth. Pull the case from the shellholder and check this flare with the base of a bullet. If there is too much resistance and the bullet does not enter the case, repeat the operation. Do this again until the bullet will just sit on top of the case mouth in a square and true manner relative to the level case mouth. You’ll know when it’s right simply because the bullet will actually “snap” into the case. Secure the die and flare the entire batch of brass. I flare the case on the upstroke and prime it when it comes back down as I push in the primer feed. It may sound slow, but it’s amazing how much you can do in a short period of time.

While the .38 Super is often called the .38 Automatic, bullet diameter falls under the heading of those used in 9mm handguns. I know many folks like to use .357-inch bullets, but that represents a gray area where unexpected pressures lurk. Be on the safe side and use .355-inch bullets.

Powders range from Winchester 231, Unique, Herco and Blue Dot to Bullseye. All functioned well in the Kimber, and all allow more than enough snap to cycle the action. On the whole, the .38 Super is very respondent to a variety of powders under many conditions and bullet weights. Seat the bullets of choice to an overall length from 1.180 inches (lighter weights) to the industry standard of no more than 1.280 inches (heavier bullets) and taper crimp. Since the .38 Super is just a little longer than the 9mm Parabellum, you can use a 9mm taper crimp die. It will work on both the 9mm and the Super and with the latter all you do is adjust the die upward to fit the length and contour of the .38 Super case dimensions.

For these trials I clamped the Kimber in a Ransom Rest and set up targets at 20 yards. With all the bullet weights, there always seems to be at least one load that would make it into .75 inch. Powders didn’t seem to make any difference. In the 90- to 100-grain class, 5.5 grains of W-231 produced good accuracy with a Sierra jacketed hollow cavity (JHC). Velocity was 1,127 fps. Bumping up the charge to 6.3 grains not only increased the velocity about 17 percent but doubled the group size as well. With 5.8 grains of Unique and the Speer 100-grain jacketed hollowpoint (JHP) we hit that same group size with 1,112 fps. Again, an increase in powder had basically the same effect.

In the 115-grain category, 5.5 grains of Bullseye came through with a one-inch cluster. Increasing the powder charge to 5.8 grains lowered the velocity by 3 fps but dropped the group size. Blue Dot is one of my all-around favorites in the .38 Super, and with 8.7 grains under a 124-grain Hornady full-metal-jacket flatpoint (FMJ/FP) the average velocity was 1,146 fps with another .75-inch group. This has always been my best load in any Super, and the last time I detailed this cartridge the extreme spread between shots was 10 fps. One of the best loads was with a Hornady 124-grain full-metal-jacket roundnose (FMJ/RN) with 9.8 grains of HS-7 for almost 1,300 fps.

When I started the session, one blank target was tacked up on the stand and kept there while the rest were stapled directly on top of it. After the shooting was over, 105 shots went into a group that measured 2 inches; five fliers opened this experiment to just under 3.75 inches. All the samples tested showed no evidence of pressure nor were the source of any malfunctions, and all handloads were shot from a loaded magazine.

Finishing up the session I took all the remaining handloads plus two boxes of factory ammunition and dumped them all in a pile. Loading at random, the Kimber fired all these without a bobble or misfire. For more information and a catalog on the Kimber, contact the Marketing Department at 2590 Highway 35, Kalispell MT 59901.

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