Too Good to Die

Colt Lightweight Commander in .38 Super Too Good to Die Sheriff Jim Wilson
The .38 Super cartridge was introduced in 1928. It was simply the .38 ACP cartridge with hotter powder, giving almost 1300fps with a 130gr bullet. Colt made the move when they realized that their 1911 pistol could withstand higher pressures than previous Colt pistols. In those rough & rugged years, the .38 Super became one of the popular law enforcement cartridges because it would penetrate car bodies and punch holes in the ballistics vests that cops and robbers of the time wore.

In order to make the cartridge work in the Colt Model 1900 and 1902 pistols, the .38 Super had been set up to headspace on the semi-rim of the cartridge case. This caused poor accuracy. However, in the 1970’s, Irv Stone (Bar-Sto Barrels) began to offer replacement barrels that headspaced on the case rim and the accuracy problems were solved.

Modern ammunition for the .38 Super can be found that will drive the 125 JHP bullet at almost 1400fps. It is powerful, it is accurate, and in the 1911 pistol it is more comfortable to shoot than is a comparable .357 Magnum load in a medium-frame revolver. I’ve decided to start working with the grand old .38 Super cartridge and see just what it is capable of. Look for my various articles on this web site—and in the magazines—in the months to come.

The pistol shown is a Colt Lightweight Commander (mfg. 1970) in .38 Super. The stocks are big horn sheep horn crafted by Patrick Grashorn ( Now, I’ve got to decide what I’ll have done to this pistol. I’m trying to decide if I should have some Novak sights put on, as on my .45 Commander, or maybe use those great express sights from XS Sight Co. A trigger job and a properly headspaced barrel may be in order, too.

What sort of custom features would you put on this Commander? Take a minute and share your thoughts with me.

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97 Responses to Too Good to Die

  1. cmblake6 says:

    I have 2, and I love them. Wonderful round in the optimum pistol. If you like those XS sights, more power to you. A decent trigger, beavertail, and ionbond finish are all I would do. Superb carry piece, the Commander. I’d like to build a CCO version myself, but if you want to keep the Lightweight aluminum frame what I already said is all I would do.

  2. Jim Wilson says:

    TYPO…Irv Stone’s barrels headspaced on the case mouth….not the case rim. Sorry for the confusion.

  3. Gordon Caruthers says:

    Jim, I think that Commander is gorgeous just as it is. I have become a fan of the classic look in 1911s. I have a similar vintage Commander in 9mm that I put Millet sights on some years ago when my eyes got middle-aged, but otherwise it is pretty much like your Super. If that was mine I would put a properly headspaced barrel in it and maybe some more visible sights, and consider it good to go. Ain’t nothin’ purtier than a classic Colt with bone or horn handles.

  4. Larry Berry says:

    One custom feature would be to convert it to a .45 a.c.p. Just kidding, kind of. Larry

  5. rick silcox says:

    I’d give this one the works: trigger job, new barrel, Novak sights, & Wilson Combat beavertail

  6. bmarshan says:

    how about letting Novak’s put their classic plain black rear on it with a single brass bead for the front sight? that, and a good blue job make for a classy pistol. At 55, my older eyes favor that sight.

  7. Will Cushman says:

    If this were a carry gun the only thing I would do is put a good set of sights on it, assuming that it had properly headspaced barrel and you liked the trigger. I would NOT add a huge horned grip safety, extende or ambi anything, or modified recoil spring system,

  8. LC says:

    I’d just put on better sights and be done.
    Would love to get a Colt Cmdr. in Super, but they’ve gone outta sight on prices. And I have a 9mm and a 10mm Delta. Just want a Super!

  9. Matt G says:

    What I would do for myself doesn’t necessarily reflect what I’d recommend others to do.

    I would put some XS Big Dot sights on it. I would make the trigger a crisp 4 or 5 pound break. (Or more, so long as it was good.) I would, because of my giant hands with big thumbs, put an extended safety on it. Finally, I probably would reluctantly take those beaut horn stocks off, and put checked wood stocks on, just because they grip better for me. (But I’d keep those horn grip panels handy for barbecues and weddings and court.)

    I would shoot it to see if it had a factory load that it liked with the stock barrel before swapping the barrel; sometimes they’ll “click” with one in particular.

  10. michael Fertig says:

    Novak sights, bevel mag well, different grips and a full hammer.

  11. Jason says:

    Very nice! I agree that Novak sights would be a good enhancement for that gun. As well as a fitted match barrel and a trigger job to suit your tastes. Perhaps a Wilson Combat mag well?

  12. Bill Byrd says:

    Dovetailed front sight with a Harrison Retro rear (fits the stock dovetail) or something to fit a Novak spec dovetail if you prefer. Beavertail grip safety with the spur length reduced for better concealability (similar to the new Wilson low profile beavertail). A good trigger job on the stock internals (great quality stuff). Trigger length to suit your hand. Bevel the mag well. A light de-horn to remove sharp edges ( no radical melt jobs). Cerakote finish in the color of your choice (the only really durable spray on finish).

  13. Bill Byrd says:

    And of course a proper barrel that headspaces on the case mouth. Kart is my choice.

  14. jans says:

    One of the main reasons (or so I’ve heard) for the continued popularity of the .38 Super is that military cartridges (9mm and .45ACP) have been forbidden for personal use in Mexico. If you wanted a 1911 for personal use, your choice was .38 Super or .38 Super.
    I’m an XS Express Sights fan myself.

    • Bmarsh says:

      The Super is a good round that runs well in most 1911 frames – and the owner is a barrel and magazine change from a 9 mm.

      But the super offers mor guaranteed feeding than any 9mm shirt of a tuned pistol and most sights on the super will put 125-140 defense riunds near POA at 25 yards

  15. Bill Byrd says:

    Maybe restore it (since you’ve only change the grips) along with having an extra barrel that headspaces off the case mouth fit to use when you actually shoot it. My first carry gun was one of these in a steel frame. Still have it 40 years later.

  16. Mark Holcomb says:

    The 1911A1 in all variation is simply highly utilitarian pistol. Yes, I own a wondernine. But the 1911A1 is my ‘wood s pistol’, too. Its only in the hippie-era that the 1911A1 got a bad rap. Taking worn out parts from one gun to fix another worn out gun is stupid, period. Use quality parts and ammo, clean it after every firing session, and it won’t fail you when you need it. 38 Super is awesome!

  17. Bill Byrd says:

    A good properly head-spaced barrel, Novaks, a Wilson Concealment style grip safety, a trigger with the appropriate length pad, and a trigger job if needed.

  18. Amado Delgado says:

    How about installing a fully supported ramped barrel for reliability and safety, also to prevent hollow point bullets from digging into the soft alloy frame

  19. William Power says:

    Put some Harrison Design retro sights on it so it doesn’t have to be cut. A flat mainspring and better beaver tail would be on my list. Love this gun and those grips!

  20. Michael Frangoudakis says:

    My favorite caliber in the 1911. I’ve had 3 in 38Super. Unfortunately none at the moment. I like the 10-8 Performace U-notch rear with the fiber optic front. Same cuts as the Novak sights.

    • Brent says:

      I have aColt/clapp Commander LW I Super and a five inch Government. Like them both as recoil is bill and follow ups are quick. The 5 inch has become a cold weather favorite – skate tape on front of grip and it’s perfect. Both just devour Sigs Elite 125 grain round with good accuracy

  21. Scott everett says:

    Hey sheriff of all the things you could do to that pistol is trade it for a glock 19.ha just joking I think I’d go with the xs sights for sure.beautiful pistol no doubt there I’m currently looking for a Dan Wesson guardian in 38 super.

  22. Tony says:

    I’d do the 24/7 sights and the trigger job for sure. I’d also lose the over sized mainspring housing and add fro t strap checkering if it doesn’t have it. It needs a longer trigger for man hands.

  23. Uncle dave says:

    Skip the Novak’s! Stay retro! Mars has some good sights, if you have ruin your slide by cutting it get Heinies. Get the slide fitted to the frame. High cut the fore strap and get it serrated 20 lpi like a Gold cup.

  24. Gordon Caruthers says:

    Sheriff Jim: Having had a cravin’ flung on me by this story, I picked up a very nice LW Commander in .38 Super at a local auction yesterday. Bone stock, made in 1971, shoots nicely for a rim-headspaced barrel. Put some Ajax ivory polymer stocks on it, but otherwise I thing I’m going to keep it stock and just learn to shoot it like my old instructors taught.

    Thank you for the inspiration!

  25. Ben Downs says:

    Express sights won’t allow you to take full advantage of the
    long range capability of the 38 Super csrtridge. Stick with
    the Novaks.

  26. Steve Voss says:

    Wide aperture black-out rear sight, white-outline tritium front sight, trigger job, disconnector ramp cut, and 10 round McCormick mags. Describes my Colt LW Commander perfectly. YMMV

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