July 28, 2016
Modern bullets work so marvelously well that, in an earlier age, they'd be considered magic. Until the early 1970s, you had two choices: plain lead bullets, which didn't so much expand as mangle, and jacketed, which would not expand even if driven sideways through a railroad tie.
That changed in the early 1970s, when Lee Jurras and J.D. Jones approached Sierra for expanding handgun bullets to load into their Super Vel ammunition, which was produced in Shelbyville, Ind.
The lineup covered all the typical chamberings: .380, .38 Special and .357 Magnum, 9mm, .45 ACP and .44 Magnum. Some used normal-weight bullets, but the real performers were the .38/.357, the 9mm and the .45, all of which used bullets lighter than customary.
The .38 and .357 loads, for example, both employed 110-grain bullets. The speeds the company achieved were way beyond any other ammo being produced at the time by other makers. (Super Vel allegedly also manufactured slower ammo from a facility in Greensburg, Indiana.)
Why do we care about now-defunct ammunition? Until the early 1970s, the big ammunition companies were happy to provide ammo shooters were happy with. All that changed when Super Vel unveiled its products. It spurred the big firms to begin designing, testing and selling improved ammunition.
Unfortunately, Super Vel had done such a good job of innovating that it put itself out of business, closing the doors in 1974. People will pay for innovation, but once economies of scale become part of the equation, customers will opt for lower prices. And the tiny output of Super Vel could not compete with mass production from the big guys.
Back then, we wondered how Super Vel got the velocity it did while staying within pressure specs. And did it actually stay within limits? And did the bullets actually expand? No one knew because by the time Dr. Martin Fackler had developed the ballistic gelatin testing procedure later adopted by the FBI, the supply of Super Vel had dried up. There was none to test. And who cared about that old stuff anyway?
A friend of mine recently bid on the inventory of a now-defunct gun shop, and buried in the pallet of ammo was a pair of pristine boxes of Super Vel—one .38 and one .357, both from the Shelbyville plant. One of the boxes still had a price tag, showing the 50-round box had sold for the magnificent sum of $5.51. Adjusted for inflation, from a baseline of the bicentennial, that is $22.25 today.
This was an unparalleled opportunity to compare those now-defunct loads, because I also have access to the pressure-testing lab at Black Hills Ammunition. I sacrificed a handful of rounds to test for velocity and expansion at my range and then sent the remainder off to Black Hills for pressure-testing and ballistic gel testing as a cross-test against my own. (Ed. note: Black Hills does not perform these services for the general public. The company was kind enough to do it for the purposes of this article, and we thank Black Hills President Jeff Hoffman and his crew.) This didn't leave enough for accuracy testing, but I never had any complaints in the past about the accuracy of Super Vel.
I first tested velocity on my range through a four-inch Smith & Wesson Model 19, which would have been a typical handgun for either load back in the day when Barry Manilow was making buckets of money with his hit "Mandy." It was not at all uncommon for someone to buy a .357 and then feed it only .38 Special ammo.
The .38 Special Super Vel posted 1,095 fps, and the .357 ripped over the screens at 1,303 fps. These are speeds few current loads meet. Expansion was gratifying by today's standards, but for ammo designed and used when Gerald Ford was president, it was amazing.
After this, I couldn't wait to see what data the Black Hills testing would show. It was impressive. The .38 Special pressure test recorded a low pressure of 18,000 psi and a maximum of 24,500 psi—with an average of 21,730 psi. This is past the limit for a .38 Special +P load, which is 20,000 psi.
Keep in mind, though, it is not at all unusual for ammunition pressure to creep over time as the powder dries out. In the four decades or more since this Super Vel was loaded, it could easily have crept up 1,000 or even 2,000 psi. It's a phenomenon also reflected in the somewhat larger than normal standard deviation in velocities.
What was amazing was the velocity recorded in the Black Hills pressure barrel. Unlike the four-inch barrel in my Model 19, the Black Hills SAAMI-spec pressure barrel is vented and 7.75 inches long. Still, the resulting 1,429 fps the load churned up in the test barrel far surpasses even the SAAMI spec for the same bullet in a +P load, which is 1,150 fps.
How did the .357 Magnum do? The pressure test barrel for the .357 is 10 inches long, and the Super Vel's average velocity in it was a staggering 1,748 fps. The lowest recorded pressure was 34,400 psi, with the highest reading being 40,700. The average was 37,850 psi, which is also over the line for the .357's SAAMI pressure of 35,000.
This pressure also can be explained by time on the shelf. (It would be worth a moment here to point out there's a small increase in pressures with perfect storage conditions. Store your ammo properly, and you'll have good ammo decades in the future. Store it poorly, and you're tempting fate.)
What about terminal performance? My gelatin tests indicated penetration of just about a foot, with a very nice expansion of the .38 Special and expansion to the point of fragmentation from the .357. The Black Hills gelatin test—conducted under laboratory conditions—essentially confirmed my findings.
The .38 Special out of a four-inch barrel penetrated 11.5 inches and retained 88 percent of its weight. It went the same distance out of a six-inch barrel Black Hills used but retained only 80 percent of its weight. The .357 from a four-inch barrel went the same 11.5 inches but retained only 70 percent of its original weight. From a six-inch barrel it went 13 inches and retained 72 percent of its weight.
Basically, both .38 and .357 fail the FBI tests, but remember, Super Vel was designed and loaded almost two decades before the FBI tests came about. And if you think a fraction short of a foot of penetration is a complete and utter failure, then you and I do not use the same language.
In fact, the performance of this ammo is so good that, even today, it would not be a bad load for home defense or concealed carry.