January 04, 2011
Hornady's new Superformance ammo utilizes a new propellant system that raises performance benchmarks for velocity and efficiency, revolutionizing the world of small-arms propellants.
In the complicated, shadowy, and often illogical world of interior ballistics, performance gains are measured in the smallest of increments, a few percentage points here and there over a decade. Occasionally, rarely, something new comes along that sets a new benchmark for performance. Hornady's latest ammo line, Superformance, has done just that, raising the bar for small-arms ammunition performance.
Recently, I sat across from Hornady's master ballistician Dave Emary at supper and listened as he described a new line of ammo that would revolutionize--his words--rifle cartridge performance. A skeptic by nature, I was a little wary. More often than not, new is just a clever repackaging of old, and claimed performance gains seldom stand up to severe scrutiny. And hardcore shooters are a scrutinizing bunch by nature. We have all waded through the hype to find that often it is the same powder in a different case at higher pressures. Emary, probably one of the greatest working innovators in the world of cartridges and ballistics today, had designed a system of propellants that when blended and matched to cartridge and bullet weight produced higher velocities with near-standard charge weights at moderate pressures. With spherical powders no less.
Intrigued, I challenged Emary to a ballistic duel--his pile of ammo against my pile of ammo. The weapon of choice was a universal receiver with a SAAMI minimum-spec pressure barrel, refereed by an Oehler 83 commercial-grade chronograph and a PCB conformal pressure transducer. The numbers thusly generated would not lie.
A few weeks later, I was at the Hornady facilities in Grand Island, Nebraska, with three boxes of off-the-shelf .30-06 ammo. We went to the factory floor and pulled a few boxes of Hornady's first run of .30-06 Superformance ammo. Before heading to the lab, I corralled Emary in a conference room with two pages of questions in my hand, intent on finding out what made Superformance propellants tick.
The spark started almost five years ago when Emary set out to make old lever actions more potent. Besides the innovative flex-tip technology contained in the bullet, Emary knew the old and new cartridges could greatly benefit from a propellant makeover. His 16 years at Hornady and prior employment at powder giant St. Mark's gave Emary an edge. He designed several new propellants and was then able to talk the engineers at St. Mark's into making the new powders.
Hornady's new .30-06 Superformance ammunition--housed here in Galco gunleather--provides hunters with magnum-like performance with mild recoil and blast.
"We tried the new powders in the .35 Remington and said 'wow, we can do this,'" Emary told me. "We refined and applied the technology to the RCMs--they were a real light-bulb moment."
The powders just got better and better. After a lot of shots through the bullet clock, Emary discovered he could match Light Magnum performance without increasing pressures and--more importantly--without compressing charges. And unlike the RCM generation of powders, the new Superformance propellants worked across the cartridge spectrum, not just with short cases and heavy bullets.
"We asked ourselves if there were ways to get the same performance without compressing the propellant?" Emary said. "We wanted to get away from Light Magnum since there are, at times, significant issues due to the mechanical processes that it takes to produce this ammo. It also produces heavy recoil and muzzle blast and can be finicky accuracy-wise. Lot-to-lot consistency can also be an issue."
The key, oddly enough, was using a spherical powder, not the more common high-performance, extruded propellants found in most high-energy loads.
The testing procedure for comparing the Superformance line to other manufacturer's loads used a minimum specification test barrel in a universal receiver, an industry standard for measuring pressure and velocity.
Emary combined new cut sizes, chemistry, and deterrent coatings to produce a new super family of spherical powders.
"The manufacturing process is basically the same," Emary said. "Mechanically there are some things that are different, and chemically there are some things different, but the powders are a rolled or flattened, double-base ball powder."
Efficient & Progressive
Two adjectives can be attached to Superformance propellants, efficient and progressive. For example, a 150-grain .308 loaded with 45 or 46 grains of Varget produces around 2,800 fps. A 50-grain charge weight of Superformance propellants produces the same pressure as Varget but will achieve 3,000 fps, according to Emary's data. The powder's progressive qualities allow it to produce the higher velocities. The powder's efficiency keeps pressures down. Though the charge is slightly heavier, the propellant, on a percentage basis, is more efficient than Varget.
"This powder burns out on the back side, and this is where it excels," Emary said. "Light Mag blows 5 to 15 percent of the powder out of the barrel, which just adds blast and recoil. None of this energy is transferred to the bullet. For a long time we went to bigger cases, slower powders, or more powder if we wanted increased velocities. You can only make the propellant so progressive, it can only burn so much, and you can only get so much in a case. The gain was a small increase in velocity and a big increase in recoil and blast."
Less is more, and Emary knew he needed an efficient powder, not necessarily a more progressive one.
The powder's progressivity--its ability to produce gas in relation to surface area when burned--is exceptional, and the pressure curve is much more rounded instead of the sharp spike produced by extruded powders. The rounded curve represents a longer duration at peak pressure and a more efficient push on the bullet even though the bore's volume increases exponentially every millisecond. The grains do this despite the handi
cap of not having a hole down their center for more surface area. Deterrents control conflagration instead of increasing the surface area through traditional mechanical means.
"We load Superformance ammo with a full case, but the charges are not compacted," Emary said. "Almost all of the powder is consumed, and we get most of the available energy. This results in substantially higher bullet velocities and lower ejecta velocities and pressures. This reduction in muzzle pressure reduces recoil and blast versus other powders at the same charge weights. The slower rise times help reduce felt recoil."
The last six months of research was devoted almost entirely to reducing temperature sensitivity, another problem with double-base, extruded powders with high nitroglycerin levels--the higher the temperature, the higher the pressure. Cold bore shots are not a big deal, but with three or four shots into a string, chamber temperatures can heat up to 140 or 150 degrees, especially with magnum cartridges. The powder is essentially put into an oven when chambered. Pressures can increase 10 or 15 percent and really effect accuracy.
"We wanted a powder that was impervious to a reasonable extreme of temperatures," Emary said. "We developed some mechanical changes to get sensitivity down. Even the 7mm Magnum load, which has always been very finicky, develops very reasonable pressures at 140 degrees. We test our commercial loadings from -20 to 140 degrees."
Each shot is recorded by the chronograph and pressure transducer, and the data collected appears on the screen in this format, allowing ballisticians an instant read on pressure and velocity.
The different Superformance loads will also utilize five different primers to further reduce temperature sensitivity and increase accuracy. Emary's data indicates the average Superformance load has high-low difference of 30 to 35 fps and standard deviations of 10 to 15 fps.
"We are seeing better accuracy across the board, which is why we are replacing Light Magnum with this stuff," Emary said. "We aren't pushing the pressures at all, running pretty conservative. In fact, we aren't even pushing SAAMI maximum average pressures. That gives us very consistent lot-to-lot performance."
The new powders really shined when blended, the blends achieving superior performance levels--hence the name Superformance--over homogenous charges. This allowed Hornady to keep the total number of new base-speed powders down to a minimum, increasing production efficiency.
"We mix and match propellants so each cartridge, each bullet weight gets its own specific blend/speed of powder," Emary said. "The powder you have for an 80-grain .243 is a lot different powder for a 100-grain load. Lighter bullets are more challenging since it's tougher to burn out for maximum efficiency."
Hands-On Test Results
After exploring what made Superformance tick, it was time to head down to the lab and see if it was actually true. We used a standard, minimum-specification Krieger test barrel in a universal receiver and recorded pressure with a PCB conformal pressure transducer and velocity with an Oehler Model 83 for every shot. The various cartridge cases were calibrated to the transducer, and SAAMI reference ammunition was fired immediately prior to the test to calibrate the test barrel. After each shot string the barrel was cleaned with a copper solvent and allowed to cool to near room temperature before resuming testing.
This is where the magic happens. Emary's lab is small, but from it has issued some of the biggest advances in small-arms ammunition in a century.
We fired five shots of each brand, all 150-grain .30-06 ammo--Winchester Ballistic Silvertip, Federal softpoint, Remington Core-Lokt, and three types of Hornady ammo--through the equipment (the data is presented in the accompanying chart). We pulled bullets from three rounds of each load and measured the propellant charge in a commercial-grade grain scale to the thousandth to get an average charge weight. The results are statistically relevant because of the quality of the testing equipment and precision with which the test was conducted. It is Emary's thinking that firing another 10 or 15 rounds of each type of ammo would not have yielded a significantly different result.
The data shows an astounding pressure difference between brands, some on the money and others way above the SAAMI-specified maximum average pressure of 60,000 psi. Hornady's bread-and-butter Custom load had an average velocity of 2,948 fps and an average peak pressure of 56,800 psi. In terms of velocity, the standard deviation of only 9 fps proved exceptional, the best of the test, and the extreme spread was 25 fps. The average charge weight was 58.3 grains.
The Light Magnum ammunition averaged an additional 8 grains of propellant and produced velocities 111 fps faster than the Custom load. Standard deviation and extreme spread were not bad, 13 and 32 fps respectively. Peak pressures were still well below SAAMI spec at 54,800 psi. What is interesting is that even with a metal and glass door between the universal fixture and us, there was a noticeable increase in blast. Light Magnum typically produces a noticeable increase in recoil as well.
It's all in the blend — coffee, Scotch, and now the powder fueling Hornady's Superformance line.
The Superformance ammo produced an average velocity of 3,077 fps, faster than both Light Magnum and Custom. The load did have the highest standard deviation and extreme spread numbers of all the Hornady loads tested, 26 and 59 fps, but had an average peak pressure of just 55,600 psi. Here is the important number--the cartridges had an average charge weight of just 61.9 grains, 3.6 grains more than Custom and 4.4 grains less than Light Magnum. The blast was comparable to Custom.
In a nutshell, Superformance produced higher velocities with less propellant. This new propellant system has proven so effective that Hornady recently dropped the Light Magnum line entirely from the catalog. What does this mean, ballistic mumbo jumbo aside, to the average deer or elk hunter in the field? It means a flatter shooting bullet that delivers more downrange energy with less blast and recoil.
What does this mean to the small-arms ammo world? Quite a lot actually. When the first boxes of Superformance hit the shelves, you can b
et there will be a good bit of bullet pulling and reverse engineering. Hornady's competitors will be chasing this kind of propellant performance for years to come.
"I think this is a benchmark in propellant technology, and it will also advance people's expectations," Emary said. "It's not black magic, but the status quo has been challenged, and it works in nearly every cartridge."
Hornady's first production run of Superformance .30-06 ammo runs off the presses in the Grand Island, Nebraska, plant. Each round is inspected by hand before going into a box and out the door.