March 08, 2021
By Brad Miller PhD
Some readers have heard of the .38 Special round called the Treasury Load. It is a 110-grain JHP bullet pushed to very high velocity. It was popular with law enforcement when revolvers were commonly found in the holsters of those who were duty-bound to go into harm’s way. It offered high speed to help the hollowpoint bullet expand and to reduce penetration compared to other bullets commonly used at the time. The Treasury Load should not be confused with the FBI Load, which was a +P loading with a 158-grain lead SWC hollowpoint.
I’m primarily interested in the Treasury Load’s performance and what other loads might be its ballistic equal, including handloads, but first let’s take a brief look at the load’s history.
The Treasury Load got its start in the 1960s with the creation of Super Vel ammunition by Lee Jurras and the introduction of a “modern” hollowpoint bullet. Loading a lightweight jacketed hollowpoint bullet to high speed meant it had enough power to make the hollowpoint expand. Expanding hollowpoint bullets do more damage to tissue and reduce the chance of overpenetration, traits that we consider essential today.
Super Vel’s 110-grain JHP bullets were loaded in the .38 Special to about 1,100 fps from a 4.0-inch barrel. The high speed also helped ensure that the bullet was still able to expand, even when fired from shorter-barreled revolvers like those often carried by the plainclothes agents.
Super Vel was unable to meet demand, and component suppliers cut off the supply of new cases. The Secret Service, part of the Treasury Department, contracted with Winchester to produce the ammo. Here’s where the round got the name of the Treasury Load.
Current specs for the Treasury Load push a 110-grain JHP bullet to 1,155 fps from a 4.0-inch barrel. That’s pretty zippy. Regular factory .38 Special 110-grain loads are less than 1,000 fps. For example, Winchester has two .38 Special loads with 110-grain bullets traveling at 945 and 975 fps. Federal has a load at 980 fps. Remington has two loads: standard pressure at 950 fps, +P at 995 fps. All of these rated velocities are from 4.0-inch barrels.
Winchester’s 2019 law enforcement ammunition catalog lists the Treasury Load, albeit without the name. It is stock number RA38110HP+ in the company’s Ranger series.
As you might have guessed, getting a 110-grain bullet to 1,155 fps requires more pressure than standard loads provide for this bullet weight. Indeed, the Treasury Load is a +P+ load. Standard-pressure .38 Special loads have a maximum average chamber pressure limit of 17,000 psi as established by SAAMI. +P .38 Special rounds have an average maximum pressure of 20,000 psi. +P+ loads are above 20,000 psi. SAAMI does not identify +P+ pressure limits, but Winchester’s specification sheet for the RA38110HP+ shows the maximum average pressure as 23,500 psi. That’s certainly high, and it’s inappropriate for some guns. Not all .38 Special revolvers are rated for +P pressures, and few manufacturers are likely to give the okay for +P+ ammo. The Winchester spec sheet also indicates a velocity of 990 fps fired in a Smith & Wesson Model 15 with a 20-inch barrel.
Because it’s for law enforcement use, the Winchester Treasury Load can be very difficult to find, although it is sometimes available to civilians. In its absence, are there other options? Yes, there are other sources for high-speed .38 Special ammunition, so I checked some of them out to see if they have the same performance as the Treasury Load.
Options for Civilians
Some boutique ammomakers are well known for producing ammunition with more velocity than mainstream manufacturers. DoubleTap has a 110-grain JHP in its Colt Defense series ammo with an advertised speed of 1,150 fps from a 4.0-inch barrel and 1,100 fps from a 2.0-inch barrel. There is also a DoubleTap defensive round with a 110-grain controlled expansion JHP (CE-JHP) at 1,175 fps from a 4.0-inch barrel and at 1,100 fps from a 1.88-inch barrel. Both loads are listed as standard pressure, not +P.
Buffalo Bore doesn’t have a traditional lead-core 110-grain JHP bullet in its .38 Special lineup, but the company does have 110-grain all-copper Barnes TAC-XP hollowpoint bullets. The standard-pressure load is rated at 1,106 fps from a 4.0-inch barrel and close to 1,000 fps from a 2.0-inch barrel. The +P version is rated at 1,287 fps from a 4.0-inch barrel and a bit over 1,100 fps from a 2.0-inch barrel.
How can they produce the same velocity as the Treasury Load without +P+ pressure? Handloaders know they can sometimes get more speed than factory loads even though they are at the same pressure by selecting specific powders. Might that be the case here? Possibly. I explored this by checking the data How can they produce the same velocity as the Treasury Load without +P+ pressure? Handloaders know they can sometimes get more speed than factory loads even though they are at the same pressure by selecting specific powders. Might that be the case here? Possibly. I explored this by checking the data in various handloading manuals, including +P data from Hornady, Lyman, Speer, Vihta-Vuori, and Western.
In addition to the Winchester RA38110HP+ ammunition, I selected factory ammo with high-performance loads with 110-grain bullets. Some published ballistics are in the range of the Winchester +P+ load, and some are not. I included ammunition made by Buffalo Bore, DoubleTap, Fiocchi, and Hornady.
I fired the ammo in three revolvers: a .38 Special Smith & Wesson Model 67 with a 4.0-inch barrel, a Colt .38 Special SF-VI with a 2.1-inch barrel, and a .357 Magnum S&W Model 340PD with a 1.88-inch barrel.
Before discussing the data, it’s important to point out that not all barrels of equal length will produce the same velocity with the same ammo. While my goal was to match the published 1,155 fps and 995 fps from 4.0-inch and 2.0-inch barrels respectively, some leeway must be given because every gun/barrel is different.
Let’s Talk Data
The Winchester RA38110HP+ factory load produced 1,162 fps from my Model 67’s 4.0-inch barrel, 1,055 fps from my SF-VI’s 2.1-inch barrel, and 962 fps from my 340PD’s 1.88-inch barrel. The short-barreled guns had a large difference in speed (93 fps). That’s a lot for what is about a quarter-inch difference in barrel length. Is it due to barrel length or just being different guns/barrels? That’s difficult to say, and I won’t speculate on it here. I’ll just leave it at different speeds from different guns. However you want to look at it, I think it’s fair to say that the Winchester ammunition lives up to its advertised speed. And it is a fast round! The speeds from the short barrels are what you would expect most good-quality .38 Special 110-grain loads to produce from a 4.0-inch barrel.
Of the other six factory loads I tested, three produced velocities that compare favorably to the Treasury Load. The DoubleTap Colt Defense loading achieved 1,153 fps from the 4.0-inch barrel and 1,033 fps from the 2.1-inch barrel. The Buffalo Bore +P load produced an impressive 1,231 fps from the 4.0-inch barrel and 1,113 fps from the 2.1-inch barrel. This load even surpassed the 990-fps goal in the 1.88-inch barrel, producing 1,025 fps. The standard-pressure Buffalo Bore load reached 1,007 fps from the 2.1-inch barrel, though only 1,117 fps in the 4.0-inch barrel. Still, that’s close enough. The other three factory loads didn’t make the velocity goal in any of my test guns.
Hodgdon, Hornady, Lyman, Speer, and Western reloading manuals have data for .38 Special +P loads, so I compared the data, built some handloads, and tried them in my revolvers. From Hodgdon’s data I used CFE Pistol, W244, and Longshot powders with Hornady 110-grain XTP bullets. The results are listed in the accompanying chart, but briefly, with the maximum load, W244 fared the best by producing 1,118 fps from the 4.0-inch barrel and 1,028 fps from the 2.1-inch barrel. Longshot did okay with the 2.1-inch barrel at 969 fps and 1,101 fps from the 4.0-inch barrel.
I also tried W231 and Alliant Power Pistol from Hornady’s data. Their maximum +P loads were rated at 1,100 fps from a 4.0-inch barrel, and W231 came very close to that from my 4.0-inch barrel, producing 1,081 fps. It produced 994 fps from my 2.1-inch barrel. Power Pistol turned in even faster numbers, at 1,169 fps from my 4.0-inch barrel, 1,061 fps from my 2.1-inch barrel, and 976 fps from my 1.88-inch barrel. These equaled the Winchester Treasury Load.
VihtaVuori 3N37 and N350 also produced high speeds with the Hornady 110-grain XTPs. These loads chronographed 1,137 fps and 1,128 fps respectively from my 4.0-inch barrel and 1,042 fps and 1,036 fps respectively from my 2.1-inch barrel. These speeds are right up there with the Winchester Treasury Load, and the VihtaVuori data is standard pressure, not +P. Because VihtaVuori uses standards set by C.I.P. (Commission Internationale Permanente), the company does not list a +P version of the .38 Special.
The Winchester Treasury Load is loaded higher than industry pressure standards and is a strictly use-at-your-own-risk ammo in a .38 Special chambered gun. The lower pressure alternatives would be safer. Of course, a .357 Magnum chambered gun can handle it because the Magnum’s pressure limit is 35,000 psi. If you’re looking for a .38 Special load with this type of performance for your .357 Magnum revolver, the Winchester load will deliver.
Of the non-Winchester factory ammo tested, the Colt Defense load from DoubleTap and the Buffalo Bore load produced speeds with 110-grain bullets on par with the Treasury Load but at lower working pressures. The Colt Defense load used a conventional cup-and-core gilding-metal jacket and lead-core bullet, while the Buffalo Bore load used a Barnes TAC-XP all-copper bullet.
A Winchester 110-grain JHP component bullet is available to handloaders, and it looks identical to the bullet from the factory-loaded +P+ ammo, though I can’t say definitively that it’s the same one. The Hornady and Speer bullets are very high quality and would serve well in this role, the Speer Gold Dot being one of the company’s short barrel designs.
Standard-pressure loads using VihtaVuori powders produced high speeds with 110-grain bullets in my guns. And the +P handload with Alliant Power Pistol powder was equal to the RA38110HP+ factory ammunition.
There it is. If you can’t find the original Winchester load or are concerned about the +P+ pressure, check out DoubleTap’s Colt Defense load and Buffalo Bore’s all-copper hollowpoint bullets. Better yet, if you handload, good powders are VV 3N37 and N350, W244, and Power Pistol. That’s a lot of possibilities.