When I was a young man in the 70s, my brother and I spent a lot of time on police ranges, because our dad was an officer and rangemaster for the California Highway Patrol (CHP). As “range rats” of the highest order, we gladly took care of the chores that none of the officers wanted to do, such as posting targets, policing spent brass, issuing ammunition, and so forth.
In between relays, we got to shoot a bit ourselves. Mostly it was with our .22s, but sometimes we shot our dad’s duty gun (a 6” Python) with the hot .38 Special cartridge issued by the Patrol. This cartridge, known as the “Treasury Load,” is frequently confused with the more popular “FBI Load,” and there’s a lot of misconceptions about it in the shooting world. Therefore, I thought the RevolverGuy audience might enjoy it if we explored this interesting bit of revolver history and set the record straight on it.
Back In The Day . . .
If you could go back in your time machine to the 1950s or 1960s to visit with an American police officer, you could pretty much bet your return ticket that he’d be carrying a .38 Special revolver loaded with cartridges that contained 158 grain, round nose lead (RNL) bullets. This ammunition was used almost exclusively, despite its well-deserved reputation as a poor fight stopper, because there really weren’t many other options in the most popular of police calibers. At best, you could switch to a semiwadcutter (SWC) design, which might do a better job in some situations (such as, if a bone was hit), but you could still count on it overpenetrating the target and generally performing quite miserably. Any serious attempt at improving your sidearm’s potency would have to begin with a caliber switch, moving up to a .38/44, the .357 Magnum, or one of the big bores beginning with a “4.”
A small group of experimenters was determined to change this state of affairs, and get the .38 Special up off its knees. In the late 1950s, men like Jim Harvey and Lee Jurras were playing with jacketed, .35 caliber rifle bullets that had been turned down on lathes, and given a hollowpoint cavity up front. They shot them in .38 caliber revolvers with great results, and were encouraged to develop the concept.
A Super Idea
Harvey and others like him were making important contributions to the birth of jacketed hollowpoint (JHP) bullets for handguns, but it was Jurras who turned the idea into a commercial reality. In 1963, Jurras established an ammunition company to go mainstream with the idea of pushing a jacketed hollowpoint bullet at fast velocities to promote expansion out of handguns. His company, known as SuperVel, would seriously upset the apple cart with this radical idea.
Jurras’ early JHP designs were unlike anything the market had seen. There were molds available to cast all-lead hollowpoints before this, but the relatively soft bullets smeared in barrels when pushed too fast. Encasing the base and the bearing surface with a copper jacket prevented leading, while allowing the unjacketed front end of the bullet to remain soft, for expansion. There had been no commercially-available handgun ammunition loaded with JHPs like this prior to Jurras bringing them to market.
The JHP design was only part of the special formula, though. The other part was the use of a lightweight-for-caliber projectile that was launched at high speeds, to ensure the cavity would open. Those old, heavy, 158 RNL bullets plodded along somewhere in the 800 fps range (and possibly slower) from the 4” guns carried by most police officers, but Jurras’ new .38 Special load pushed a lightweight, 110 grain JHP out the barrel in the neighborhood of 1,100 fps. At this speed, the primitive hollowpoint had enough energy to expand, increasing the effect of the bullet while also reducing the likelihood of overpenetration.
With his high speed, lightweight, JHP designs, Jurras was not only introducing a new technology to the market, but an entirely new philosophy for achieving the desired performance from a defensive handgun. When introduced around 1965 to 1966, the idea captured the imagination of the shooting world, and when the highly influential Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Office contracted with the fledgling company in 1967, it accelerated law enforcement interest in the concept of a high speed, lightweight, JHP.
Sadly, the innovative SuperVel company soon fell on hard times, and closed its doors by January of 1975, but the high speed, lightweight, JHP was an idea that was too compelling to go away.
Not Just Currency
In the 1970s, the Department of the Treasury was the home to such diverse law enforcement agencies as the Customs Service and the Secret Service. Given the unique nature of their mission, the latter was intrigued by the idea of a hard-hitting, .38 Special load that wouldn’t overpenetrate and risk injury to innocent bystanders.
At the time, the FBI was starting to look hard at the 158 grain lead semiwadcutter hollowpoint (LSWCHP) which had been pioneered by the Saint Louis Police Department (accordingly, the Winchester product code for this load was “W38SPD”). This cartridge was loaded to Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturer’s Institute (SAAMI) +P pressures, and clocked around 900 fps in the early versions out of a 4” barrel (1000+ fps velocities were reported by some sources, but these were probably from test barrels, not real guns), but before long the recipe was changed and velocities dropped about 100 fps. The FBI adopted this cartridge in 1972, leading to the popular “FBI Load” moniker, and kept it until it was replaced by a 147 grain +P+ Federal Hydra-Shok in the late 80s.”
The 158 +P LSWCHP developed an early reputation for excellent performance in such diverse cities as Saint Louis, Chicago, Dallas and Miami, but the Secret Service was more drawn to the high speed, lightweight JHPs pioneered by SuperVel. The 110 grain JHP at around 1,100 fps was especially attractive to the Secret Service, because the bullet still had sufficient velocity to expand when it was fired out of a compact revolver, like those frequently carried by the plainclothes agents. The 158 +P LSWCHP performed great out of a 4” or longer service gun, but when it was fired in a 2” gun it frequently failed to expand and risked overpenetration, which was unacceptable in the crowded environment that characterized the Secret Service operation.
The Real “Q”
So, with SuperVel already struggling to meet demand and pay the bills (largely because the majors were choking off their supply of new cases) the Secret Service contracted with Winchester to supply the desired product.
Then and now, it was standard practice at Winchester to add a “Q” prefix to the product code of loads developed for law enforcement and military contracts. As a result, the load developed for the Treasury Department’s Secret Service was given the product code, “Q4070.”
Not surprisingly, the Q4070 load followed a familiar pattern. It had a 110 grain jacketed hollowpoint that clocked about 1,100 – 1,150 fps out of a 4” barrel, and about 1,000 – 1,050 fps out of a 2” tube. The 1,000 fps mark was a critical target, because designers hadn’t yet learned how to optimize the shape of hollowpoint cavities, and these early bullets needed the velocity to develop enough hydrostatic shock to force the walls of the cavity open.
Reaching this velocity with available powders was not possible within the industry standard pressure limits for the .38 Special or .38 Special +P. At the time, SAAMI used a non-linear unit of measurement known as a “copper unit of pressure” (c.u.p.) to evaluate internal case pressures (now superseded by the more precise pounds per square inch, or p.s.i.). Standard pressure .38 Special was capped at around 18,900 c.u.p. (now, 17,000 p.s.i.) and the higher pressure .38 Special +P was capped at about 22,200 c.u.p. (now 20,000 p.s.i.), but even this wasn’t high enough to reliably squeeze 1,100 fps out of the cartridge. As a result, Winchester took the unprecedented step of loading the Q4070 to pressure levels that exceeded SAAMI standards by 15% – 20%. This made the Q4070 a 23,500 c.u.p. cartridge, which was well beyond any of the .38 Special or .38 Special +P loads from the major manufacturers.
Since Winchester had exceeded SAAMI standards for the .38 Special +P, and didn’t want the ammunition to find its way into older revolvers with questionable metallurgy, or newer revolvers with aluminum frames or cylinders, they marked the cartridges with a first-ever “+P+” headstamp (“WCC+P+” on top, and “xx” on the bottom, where “xx” represented the year), and marked the packaging with a warning that covered the entire rear panel of the box. Winchester would only sell the ammunition directly to law enforcement agencies (a “For Law Enforcement Use Only / Not For Retail Sale” warning on the box would later cause consternation among the misinformed when surplus made its way into the commercial market), and even they had to sign a waiver that acknowledged the potential for firearm damage as a result of the nonstandard pressures.
In truth, the SuperVel load that preceded the Q-load was probably operating in the same region (numerous anecdotal reports indicate the SuperVel load was actually hotter, and gun writer Patrick Sweeney recently discovered that an old box of SuperVel 110 grain .38 Special tested over 1,700 p.s.i. beyond the SAAMI .38 Special +P pressure limit but the small outfit had never marked their cartridges accordingly. As a SAAMI-compliant operation though, Winchester wanted to ensure that everybody understood this was a tiger of a different stripe.
Science . . . Fiction?
Shortly after the Secret Service’s adoption of the Q4070, which became universally known as the “Treasury Load,” the federal government launched an intensive study of police ammunition that was funded by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) and their Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA). The project, which began in 1973, introduced the concept of the Relative Incapacitation Index (RII), which was intended to allow comparisons between ammunition and express a load’s ability to stop an opponent.
The RII was the output of a model that had many flaws. The worst were an overemphasis on temporary stretch cavity dimensions and a scoring system that rewarded shallow penetration depths. In the model, only frontal torso shots were evaluated, and since the vital organs are close to the surface of the body from this angle, the model favored loads that expanded quickly and created a large stretch cavity in 20% ballistic gelatin very early in the wound track.
Rounds that performed like this were given a higher RII value than those that didn’t when the test results were published in 1975. For example, the low energy, non-expanding, and highly penetrative 158 RNL received an RII of only 8.6, but the high energy, rapidly expanding, and shallowly penetrating Treasury Load scored a 17.9 RII. The FBI Load didn’t score as well as the Treasury Load, earning a 17.2 RII in the test.
Buoyed by the results of the NIJ study and its prestigious adoption by the Secret Service, the Treasury Load was adopted by many federal, state, county and municipal agencies across the country. The largest of the non-federal agencies was the influential California Highway Patrol, which adopted the round in 1976 along with their new Smith & Wesson Model 67 and 68 revolvers, and their Second Six speedloaders.
For agencies that were accustomed to the performance (or lack thereof) of 158 RNL, the Treasury Load was a significant improvement. Officers and agencies reported that the round hit harder, and did a better job of stopping hostilities than the old 158 RNL “widow maker.”
However, there were still some issues with the new round. The biggest problem with the Treasury Load was its shallow penetration (using a modern day yardstick: About 10” through heavy denim into 10% ballistic gelatin from a 4” gun, as compared to 13” – 15” for the FBI Load), which prevented the bullet from going deep enough on some cross-torso shoots, some shoots where an arm was struck before the round entered the torso, or even some frontal shoots on very large individuals with a lot of fat or muscle mass. Additionally, the round often didn’t have what it took to get through tough intermediate barriers like automobile bodies.
But these criticisms have to be measured by the standards of the period. Today, we’re spoiled by advanced, “barrier blind” bullets that can punch through intermediate obstacles and still have enough energy to penetrate and expand in the target, but not overpenetrate. We can “have it all” with today’s high-tech bullets, but at the dawn of the 1970s things weren’t as good. Back then, you could choose from: A low energy icepick (.38 Special 158 RNL); A high energy icepick (anything in .357 Magnum); A low energy, pure lead hollowpoint that would penetrate reasonably, but might or might not expand (the FBI Load), or; A high energy, jacketed hollowpoint that would almost always expand, but not penetrate very deeply (the Treasury Load). If you wanted to get into cars, then you had to dump the .38 Special entirely and go with a .357 Magnum firing 158 grain semiwadcutters or jacketed softpoints, and expect them to overpenetrate in human bodies like a hardened drill bit. You pays your money and you makes your choice.
Industry standard test protocols, 10% ballistic gelatin, 12” minimum penetration depths, and an emphasis on permanent crush cavity over temporary stretch cavity were all still more than a decade away when the Treasury Load knocked its first felon into the dirt. Judging by contemporary standards, the Treasury Load was a really attractive option.
As a result, many agencies made it their own. It generally performed well for them in the street, particularly out of energy-robbing snubs (which were tough on all loads, but especially the FBI Load). While the FBI Load was more popular and widespread, its track record in police shootings was virtually identical to that of its high speed, lightweight cousin. You could argue a good case for either load, but one thing that everybody agreed on, is that the two competitors offered a dramatic improvement over the dismal 158 RNL that they replaced.
One difference from the FBI Load was the strain that the overpressure Treasury Load put on the guns and shooters that fired it. The Treasury Load had a loud bark and made a lot of flash for a .38 Special (more so than the 158 +P LSWCHP) and this could be a difficult issue for some shooters to overcome.
More significantly, the intense pressure generated by the Q-load took a toll on frames, cylinders, and lockworks. Even the stronger .357 Magnum revolvers suffered from accelerated wear when fed a steady diet of the Treasury Load. Magnum loads would wear a gun out faster, but the Treasury Load came close, and created stretching and endshake problems much faster than any other .38 Special or .38 Special +P did (but that’s a story for another time).
Lastly, the Treasury Load could be really dirty (especially in short barreled guns). The burn left a lot of soot, and a lot of extra powder flakes left behind to migrate under the extractor star and into all the nooks and crannies that you’d normally want to keep clean on a wheelgun.
The Other Treasury Load
Federal Cartridge Company introduced their own version of the Treasury Load shortly after the Q4070 appeared from Winchester, and assigned the product code “38F – TD” (“TD” for Treasury Department) to it. Like Winchester, Federal restricted sales of this product to law enforcement agencies that were willing to accept the risk of operating beyond SAAMI +P pressure standards.
Federal didn’t headstamp the cartridges or label the packaging with the “+P+” logo like Winchester did, but these were definitely +P+ loads. The Federal cartridges started with a “FC LE” headstamp, and later went to a “FC xx” headstamp, where “xx” represented the year of manufacture.
The two products were similar in design and construction, but there were differences between them. While both Winchester and Federal made continuous changes to the cartridges over their lifespan (i.e., new cavity designs, the addition of jacket skives, changes to jacket lengths, different powders, etc.) it can be generally stated that the Federal version of the Treasury Load wasn’t loaded as hot as the Winchester, had a bigger hollowpoint cavity, was less consistent in terms of velocity, and the Federal bullet wasn’t as robust.
In service, many agencies reported that the Federal bullet expanded to greater diameters than the Winchester and was prone to fragmentation, especially when fired from 4” or 6” barrels (like the Winchester, it expanded but didn’t fragment in the 2” snubs). Therefore, the Federal didn’t penetrate as deeply as the Winchester product, which typically clocked 50+ fps faster than the Federal and retained its full weight with greater reliability.
The Federal 38F – TD was treated as a “substitute standard” by many agencies for the Winchester Q4070 load, but some agencies used it exclusively. The Federal load was used by such agencies as the U.S. Border Patrol (1980 – 1984) and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department (late 1970s to 1992) as their mainstay, while others (such as the CHP) used it intermittently with the Winchester product, as contracts changed.
Interestingly, the agencies who complained the most about failures with the Treasury Load were those who used the Federal product. The inconsistent velocities, explosive fragmentation, and shallower penetration of the Federal round seem to have handicapped it as a general issue, police duty round. The agencies using the Q4070 load seemed to be more satisfied with the results on the street.
As mentioned, Winchester and Federal tweaked and advanced the designs as they matured over time. The Winchester Q4070 product code evolved into a Q4169 product code in the mid-1980s, and again into a RA38110HP+ product code in the late 1990s.
Yet, neither of the companies relented on their “law enforcement use only” policy, so other manufacturers, such as Cor-Bon, stepped up to provide their own +P+ versions of the Treasury Load to a hungry commercial market in the late 1980s to early 1990s. Many of these were actually loaded beyond Winchester’s own +P+ pressure specs, plunging shooters ever deeper into uncharted territory.
In time, advances in bullet designs and propellants allowed manufacturers to deliver the desired performance within SAAMI .38 Special +P pressure limits, and the .38 Special +P+ loads disappeared from the market. Even the reincarnated SuperVel has managed to stay within SAAMI +P specs on their new .38 Special load.
The Treasury Load was a big advance in its time, but we have better alternatives to choose from today. Still, I think Lee Jurras would be amazed by the avalanche that his little SuperVel rock started!