Walking through the Cabelas Gun Library recently, a pistol caught my eye. A base model Colt Government Model Series 80 normally wouldn’t get a second look. It’s not that I don’t like them, it’s because I already have them, and I know the guns well enough.
The USGI configuration Colt is what I compare all other 1911s to. Not as an ideal, but an average. A basic Colt 1911 is what I consider a perfectly mediocre 1911. And that’s pretty good.
This stainless steel model was unusually well polished for a base model, but that wasn’t it either. A pair of numbers and two simple words kept my attention. “.38 Super Caliber” was neatly stamped on the left side of the slide.
The .38 Super, in one form or another, has been around almost 100 years. It has a lot going for it, but bad timing and America’s general infatuation with bigger projectiles has always kept it from being more popular. Almost a century later, the .38 Super still has a relatively small but dedicated following. It’s a fast, flat-shooting round with a lot of potential for deep penetration, mild recoil, and the more modern chamberings provide great reliability and exceptional accuracy.
A higher pressure version of Browning’s .38ACP, the .38 Super gained popularity when shooters realized they could take advantage of the new 1911 pistol. The 1911 was capable of handling higher pressures than the older M1900. Way back then, people figured out that a lighter bullet traveling faster could produce less recoil and a plenty of energy delivered on target.
By 1933, Remington was putting out a .38 Super load for the Colt 1911 pushing a 130gr round at 1,300fps. Nowadays, Remington is selling the same 130grain bullet, but it’s moving about 100fps slower. Armscor sells a dirt cheap ($14.75 for 50 rounds) .38 Super pushing a 125grain bullet at 1,200fps. SIG’s V-Crown is pretty much the same, but Buffalo Bore is pushing that same weight at an advertised 1,450fps.
Does that sound a whole lot like the .357 SIG? It should. With most commercial rounds, as well as what’s in the reloading manuals, the fastest 124-130 grain loads for the .357 SIG run between 50 and 75fps slower than out of the .38 Super. Not much. For the 115gr loads, you’ll see even less variation, if any at all.
There are some outliers with the right bullet weight and the right powder. Take a look at Accurate No 7’s, loadings for the .38 Super. 1,300fps with a 147grain bullet. That’s just under 100fps faster than I can find any 147gr .357SIG load, with any powder.
The .38 Super can also launch a 158g round at about 1,150fps and still say well below the SAAMI maximum. I can’t find any safe load data for the .357 Sig with that heavy of a round.
The .38 Super significantly outperforms the .38 Special, even in similar length barrels. The .38 Super is not a semi-auto .357 Magnum. Yes, with the 125gr load, both the .38 Super and the .357 Magnum can generate equal velocities with the same barrel length. That’s impressive for a semi-auto pistol with a SAAMI max pressure of 36,500PSI.
But with the heavier bullets the .357 Magnum is capable of firing, the old wheel gun has a clear advantage. With any barrel length of four inches or greater, the .357 Magnum can launch a 180gr round as fast as the .38 Super can send a 130grain round.
Originally, the cartridge headspaced off the diminutive rim of the .38 Super, leading to less-than-stellar accuracy. The power was all there, just not the precision. Fortunately, shooters like the legendary Brian Enos looked at the .38 Super and saw it for all its potential.
Soon enough, barrel makers like (the even more legendary) Bar-Sto Precision started making barrels that allowed the case to headspace off the case mouth instead of the inadequate rim. The accuracy, as well as some ignition issues, were solved. Ever since then, manufacturers have made the switch to headspacing off the case mouth.
Now the cartridge had adequate power and accuracy. When it came to the competition scene, the .38 Super ruled all for decades. The real gains came when running the .38 Super hot with a compensator. All that gas drove the muzzle back down. The much lighter bullet weight, combined with the comp, allowed shooters to reach Major power factor while firing a gun with less recoil at blistering speeds.
How hot were some of those loads? Super hot. There aren’t enough pluses in +P+++ to get there. Some of those loads hit over 50,000PSI. It would be a serious mistake to attempt to fire rounds loaded that hot in any firearm not specifically designed to do so.
The .38 Super has remained popular to this day with competition shooters whether they are shooting the super-duper hyped up loads, or just the already plenty fast rounds within the SAAMI limits.
There are a few major manufacturers that still make a limited number of .38 Super guns in their line of 1911s. Colt is one of them.
This particular gun is a Series 80 pistol. The Series 80 guns set out to fix a problem that really never existed in the real world, namely, making the 1911 drop-safe. Essentially, the Series 80s actively block the firing pin unless the trigger is pulled. The falling gun’s inertia alone won’t bring the pin forward.
The Series 80 safety system consists of five basic parts. A modified firing pin, a firing pin lock plunger and spring, the firing pin plunger lever (seen protruding above from the frame and behind the slide) and the trigger bar lever.
When the trigger is pulled, the trigger bow elevates the trigger bar lever, pushing the firing pin lock plunger lever to push the firing pin lock plunger up, unlocking the firing pin and allowing it to move forward.
I may be the only person on Earth who actually prefers the Series 80 guns. I have seven Colt 1911s and most of them are Series 80 guns and it has nothing to do with them being drop safe. In disassembly, you have to lock the firing pin inward prior to removing the firing pin stop plate. That firing pin lock plunger keeps the firing pin in, which means I’m less likely to shoot the firing pin across the room during disassembly.
There are some concerns with the Series 80 and reduced reliability. Extensive frame wear would eventually cause the firing pin lock plunger lever to fail to connect with the plunger. Because of this, as well as simple differences in slide-to-frame fit on different models, multiple-size firing pin lock plunger levers are available.
I don’t know at what point this becomes an issue, as I’ve never actually seen a 1911 have enough wear to make a difference. I have a Colt Combat Elite with well over 30,000 rounds through it and this is not an issue yet. If it is, the part costs all of $3 and is easy to replace.
This is a USGI configuration pistol. The frame and slide size, barrel, guide rod, controls, hammer, sights, everything but the Series 80 specific parts and the stainless steel are pretty much as basic as it gets. This is the basic model Colt.
The basic Colt gets you basic sights. They’re simple white three-dot sights. The front is fixed and well staked. The rear sight is drift-adjustable. There is no elevation adjustment available. Out of the box, the gun shot dead on with a 130gr round moving at 1,200fps at 25 yards.
The ejection port is lowered, but not flared, as on several other Series 80 models. There are no front cocking serrations. There don’t need to be.
This basic brushed stainless model also comes with a standard spur hammer and a standard grip safety, without a memory bump. Enhanced beaver-tail safeties have become so common on just about any 1911 that they are more common than the old style, and for good reason. The standard safety, like this one, can dig into the web of the thumb for a lot of shooters, especially if they have thick hands.
I’ve never had much of a problem with this safety in recoil, and even less so in the softer recoiling calibers, like the 9x19mm or this .38 Super.
The grips included with this pistol are bendable black soft rubber, somewhat decorated with checkering and stamped with the Colt pony logo. I replaced them with a set of quality walnut grips with a silver Colt medallion almost immediately. The original grips aren’t good and the photo above shows them in their natural habitat.
There’s no externally available adjustment for over-travel in the solid trigger.
Looking at the back of the gun, the slide-to-frame fit is less than ideal. Still, the gun feels tight, and as we’ll see below, shoots well. As such, there’s no need to have it addressed. The barrel crown is smooth and polished and the barrel fit is excellent.
The firing pin stop plate is slightly out of dimension. It’s not overly loose, and it poses no real reliability concerns, but it does make reassembly a little difficult and is so easy to replace or fix I’ll see to it. The plate is also pretty rough around the firing pin port, something I’ll fix as well. Finally, the finish on the GI-style guide rod is already chipping and scratched, even on a new gun.
I’ve never found a bad trigger on any Series 80 Colt, but some are much better than others. Trying this trigger out in the store is one of the reasons I bought this gun in the first place. After some empty slack, there is a teeny bit of squish, followed by a light clean break. Lighter than most new Colts.
Putting it on my Lyman scale confirmed what I was feeling in the store. This pistol‘s trigger breaks at an extremely consistent 3lbs, 4oz. That’s lighter than where most of my 1911s started stock, but closer to where I eventually put them. My EDC 1911 triggers are usually 3lbs or slightly less.
The magazine well is slightly beveled. When inserting a magazine, you’ll need to take some care otherwise the mag will get hung up on the edge of the grip. It takes a good push to seat the magazine, as it wants to stop about halfway into the well.
None of the edges of this Colt have been smoothed out, but there are also no burrs anywhere on the gun either. After long strings of shooting or carrying IWB for about a week, I experienced no cuts, scratches, bruises or was otherwise uncomfortable with this basic gun.
What’s not basic about this pistol is the finish. But it’s supposed to be. This is Colt’s bottom of the line “brushed stainless steel finish.” Normally, I wouldn’t particularly like that finish on a gun. I really dig a brushed stainless frame with a blued slide. If it’s going to be all stainless, I prefer a little more polish.
For some reason, this gun has it. It’s hard to tell in the photos, but this gun’s overall level of finish is a solid step up from most of the basic brushed stainless Colts. Not to say they are usually bad, they aren’t at all. This one is just particularly good.
A stock Colt pistol barrel has a drawback for the higher pressure cartridges in that it doesn’t fully support the case all the way back. Take a look at the photo above and you’ll see a space there at the bottom of the breach where the case isn’t surrounded by the barrel.
That’s what a standard Colt barrel looks like. When firing loads nearing the maximum SAAMI pressure, that section where the case is exposed can weaken and bulge. In the worst-case scenario, the case will rupture during ignition. That’s not good.
If you really want to step up to a regular diet of high pressure loads, you’ll need to purchase a fully supported barrel and have a competent gunsmith install it. Alternatively, you could just buy better brass. Starline makes 38 Super +P brass for $.17 a case. It’ a little thicker around web and base.
I loaded up Starline 10 Starline cases with a 147gr Hornady XTP bullets and pushed it with 9 grains of Accurate No. 7. According to the Western Powder’s Loading Guide, that should give me just over 1,200fps and still keep me under the pressure maximum. I shot all 10, inspected the cases, and reloaded then and shot them all again. Then I did it again and inspected the cases. There were no signs of case bulging or other issues.
Even with these higher energy rounds, the pistol is very easy to shoot. It doesn’t quite feel like the cheating joy of shooting a 9x19mm in a Government-sized 1911, but it does feel noticeably lighter than a 230gr standard .45ACP load.
That lack of recoil leads to some very fast shooting, with minimum muzzle rise. It’s also nice to be able to throw out 10 rounds of ammunition in a single stack gun, each of those rounds producing as much as 500 ft-lbs of energy. Fatigue sets in a lot later for me with the .38 Super.
The good news is .38 Super ammunition is easy to find. I checked three local gun stores, and all of them carried at least one load for the cartridge. Cabelas in Buda, Texas had four. Most of the major manufacturers make .38 Super loads, and specialty ammunition companies do as well.
That’s great, but sadly, most of the factory loads are fairly anemic. It takes a reloader to really wring all of the power available out of the cartridge. If you’re only seeing “.38 Super +P” on the shelf, have no fear. According to my Sierra Loading Manual, most ammunition manufacturers added the +P designation back in 1974 in order to further differentiate the round from the lower pressure .38 ACP.
Of the commercial rounds I found at Cabelas, the Armscor round shot the best. This round grouped at an average of 9/10th of an inch. Let me put write that again. The cheap Armscor 125gr grain bullet shot a five round group just under one inch at 25 yards, averaged over four strings.
That commercial round actually outperformed anything else I could put through the gun, including my own hand loads. The SIG-V Crown round shot an average 1.4″ group, and the PPU 130gr FMJ shot the worst group, at 1.6.” My almost max pressure 147gr hand loads, producing about 500ft/lbs of energy scored 1.2.”
That Armscor round really surprised me. It’s good ammo, and has scored well in many of my reviews, but sub-1″ for an average group out of a bone stock, base model Colt is much better than I would expect. Probably twice as good.
None of the ammunition I fired, commercial or hand loads, in any weight, ever were as large as 2″. Again, the Colt’s aren’t bad guns, quite the opposite, but that is precision that this model of Colt is not particularly known for.
The .38 Super is known to be a round that feeds well in the 1911 platform. (Very few pistols are made for the .38 Super other than the 1911.) This pistol would prove to support the historical trends of the .38 Super. I fired 500 rounds through the pistol the first week, and 60 rounds the next week during load development.
I used the two supplied Colt magazines as well as a couple of Wilson Combat magazines. The rounds I fired were between 115 and 147 grains, and they were a mix of a few types of hollow points and FMJ rounds. I never had any failure of any kind. No round failed to load, fire, or cycle. The gun always locked back on an empty magazine and the magazine never failed to drop, or solidly lock in.
The Colt Series 80 Government is the quintessential basic model 1911. I think it’s the best raw material for customization out there, at least if you want a gun and not just parts. In .38 Super it’s a light-recoiling, super-accurate and reliable firearm. This particular one just happens to be beautiful as well. I’ll checker the front strap and change the sights, and not much else. After that, it may become my new EDC.
Specifications: Colt Series 80 Government
Barrel Length: 5”
Overall Length: 8.5”
Safety: Thumb safety, Grip Safety, Firing Pin Safety
Grips: Crappy weak rubber
Finish: Brushed Stainless Steel
Caliber: 38 Super
Magazines: two included
Price: $750 (Found online between $750 and $799)
Style and Appearance * * * *
Throw away the grips. After that, it’s a great looking gun. The classic lines of the 1911 are fully realized in the USGI style, and Colt doesn’t screw it up with too large a roll mark or front serrations. This particular gun is unusually well polished but there are some mild internal errors.
Customization * *
With enough money, you can change anything and everything on a Colt 1911. But it will cost you.
Reliability * * * * *
The gun ran like a spotted-ass ape.
Accuracy * * * * *
Sub 1” groups from cheap ammo. I did not see that coming.
Overall * * * *
This pistol is a good step above the average basic Colt 1911. The accuracy is outstanding, the reliability is perfect. It’s also a great looking gun. Those grips were an abomination to John Moses Browning (praise his name.) Unfortunately, and predictably, Colt no longer makes this basic model (O2091) in .38 Super. You’ll have to pay double the price for the same gun now, but with a high polish. Still, this gun was brand new when I bought it last month, and a quick internet search found several more available with retailers around the country, all for around what I paid for this one.