SUPER VEL: THEN AND NOW
Fifty years of high velocity stopping power!
J.D. Jones (left) and Cameron Hopkins in 2015
Super Vel is a tale that spans five decades, a story that speaks to everything that's great about America— a pioneering spirit, dogged determination, love of guns and shooting, bold visions and even bolder men. It's also a story of missed opportunities and sad endings— the original Super Vel was forced to close its doors for several extraneous reasons— but it's also a story of redemption and revival. There's even an Horatio Alger character in the Super Vel story, a hard-working, dedicated visionary named Lee Jurras.
Lee Jurras coined the name Super Vel— short for "velocity"— and was the driving force and inventive mind behind Super Vel's greatest accomplishment, the jacketed hollow point bullet. Mr. Jurras is himself a towering figure in the handgun world. Lee lent his expertise on ballistics to Harry Sanford at Auto Mag and helped Harry develop his Auto Mag cartridges; there would never have been a .41 Auto Mag if it wasn't for Lee's influence, according to J.D. Jones, one of Lee's close friends and fellow ballistics experimenter. "It's really the Jurras .41 Auto Mag, not just the .41 Auto Mag," Jones said.
Lee's influence spread far and wide. In 1972, Lee started the American Handgunner Awards Foundation, bankrolling the organization out of his pocket. "Lee funded the entire thing, from commissioning the statue that goes to award winners to paying for the banquet," J.D. Jones recalls.
The first recipient of the Outstanding American Handgunner Award in 1973 was Elmer Keith, but the event was not without controversy. Many felt that Col. Charles Askins should have won the first award. The irascible Colonel was awarded the second, a year later. J.D. Jones himself won the award in 1983, while Lee was voted his own award in 1979.
Additionally, Lee Jurras wrote a book on handgun hunting with Maj. George Nonte, his close, longtime friend. Lee also developed a line of exceedingly powerful handgun cartridges known as Howdah cartridges. Named after the double-barreled pistols that British colonial officers used to ward off leaping tigers on Indian shakirs (safaris), the Howdah came in .375 and .458 calibers, and even a .577 version! The pistols that fired these monsterous rounds were brand-new at the time, single-shot breech loading "Contenders" from a man named Warren Center (who would go on to win one of Lee's awards as an Outstanding American Handgunner in 1980).
J.D. and Lee worked together to develop Super Vel in its early days with Lee handling the production, adminstration, sales and marketing while J.D. performed much of the load development.
The development of the jacketed hollow point bullet, like so many clever ideas, was taking place simultaneously. Jim Harvey, another pioneer of handgun ballistics, had been working with jacketed rifle bullets and modifying them into handgun projectiles with a hollow point to facilitate expansion. Lee Jurras was doing the same thing. It is more accruate to say that Lee perfected and pioneered the commercial production of the jacketed hollow point bullet than to say he "invented" it. (In a similar vein, Henry Ford did not invent automobiles; he perfected the production of automobiles.)
Nonetheless, Lee Jurras and Super Vel put the jacketed hollow point on center stage with police departments and federal agencies. Super Vel also loaded special subsonic 9mm Luger cartridges (158 gr. FMJ type-classified as the Mk 144 Mod 0 9mm) for a special Navy SEAL pistol called the Mk 22 Mod 0 but better known as the Hush Puppy. Smith & Wesson produced a highly modified version of the Model 39 with a suppressor to take out Viet Cong sentries and other covert missions, hence the name Hush Puppy. Today, original Super Vel Hush Puppy ammunition sells for hundreds of dollars to cartridge collectors.
Super Vel burst on the scene with a whole new paradigm for police ammunition. At the time, in 1965, virtually all policemen carried .38 Special service revolvers and the standard load was a 158 gr. lead roundnose trundling along at a lazy and sedate 850 fps. This load was absolutely terrible, with little kinetic energy to affect an instantaneous "stop" yet with a bullet profile that over-penetrated and went ricocheting all over the neighborhood. Jurras and his 110 gr. jacketed hollow point would solve this, and solve it in spades.
By using a light bullet of 110 grains, Jurras could push the velocity over 1,400 fps with a huge increase in kinetic energy, nearly 500 ft/lbs, but at the same time his bullets expanded dramatically, increasing the frontal surface area of the bullet to cut a larger wound channel and to slow it and stop it from exiting. Lee tested his super-fast new bullets on everything from car doors to blocks of wet clay to stacks of newspaper and, yes, big game animals. The proof was overwhelming— the jacketed hollow point was far more effective at "stopping power" than conventional bullets.
Prior to Super Vel, Lee Jurras established Jurras Munitions. He also manufactured bullets under the Jurras Bullets name; a vintage box says the bullets were "Manufactured by The Handgun Room" of Shelbyville, Ind. Later Lee would sell bullets under the Super Vel name.
The bullets were radically new at the time and sported half-jackets with exposed lead tips. Jurras called these "jacketed soft nose" and the term became accepted industry-wide for a new style of handgun bullet. The jacket on the bearing surface of the bullet allowed the projectiles to be driven far faster than lead bullets.
The first Super Vel Cartridge Company was formed in 1963 in Shelbyville, Ind. with Lee Jurras as the president. Two years later, in 1965, his good friend Ernest "Ernie" Wallein joined the company as an investor; he took the title of Secretary/Treasurer. Ernie has passed away but his son Kevin has the original of Ernie's typewritten account of Super Vel, The Super Vel Story, which should be read in its entirity by any student of Super Vel.
According to Ernie, the fall of 1967 was the tipping point for Super Vel when the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Office adopted Super Vel. Word spread like wildfire and law enforcement agencies from all across the country stampeded to Super Vel and its hot, new jacketed hollow point bullets at sizzling velocities. Two years later, in 1969, Super Vel had so many police orders that they couldn't keep up.
However, Jurras and Ernie ran up against a major problem when their "Police Ammunition" became so enormously popular because the big ammo companies were not at all pleased to see some upstart little company stealing all the police business. All's fair in love, war and the ammunition business, so Winchester, Remington and Federal refused to sell brass cases to Super Vel, attempting to cut off their brass supply. The big boys engaged in various unethical shenanigans, according to Wallein, to try and discredit the upstart ammo maker. (See Ernie's first-person account of what happened in The Super Vel Story.) Eventually, Super Vel was forced to buy brass cases from Norma in Europe, and other off-shore suppliers because the Big Three domestic ammo makers had cut them off. This upset their supply chain, thereby disrupting production and giving the Big Three a chance to horn in.
But Super Vel's problems were not limited to obtaining components. At the same time, Super Vel's potent 90 gr. JHP 9mm Luger load was drawing some concern for being "too hot" for the then-new Smith & Wesson Model 59, the first American-made double-stack 9mm pistol. The feedramp on the Model 59 was cut such that a good portion of the rear of the cartridge was unsupported by the chamber, and some case "blow outs" occured on the Model 59. Word that Super Vel was "too hot" spread. It was hard to explain that it wasn't the ammo, it was these new guns with their feedramps and unsupported chambers! Of course Super Vel's competitors were only too glad to pass along these stories of blown-up guns!
Meanwhile, a much more grave situation was developing in Shelbyville. The federal government charges an excise tax of 11 percent on ammunition and Super Vel had gotten behind on paying its excise tax. The amount owed grew to $305,000 of which $145,000 was the actual tax and the rest interest, according to contemporaneous newspaper accounts. Super Vel made arrangements to pay $4,000 per month to satisfy the tax bill, but even that was unworkable for the struggling firm. Unable to buy brass cases to make ammunition, Super Vel had no cash flow, no sales and no choice but to allow the IRS to seize all their property and sell it at a government auction. In January, 1975, Super Vel's doors were closed.
On Jan. 5, 1975, the IRS conducted an auction of Super Vel's property and the buyer was W. Robert Hamilton, a realtor from nearby Connersville, Ind. Hamilton also happened to be the chairman of the Fayetteville County Republican Party. Hamilton changed the company name to H&H Cartridge Co. but retained the Super Vel brand name. Subsequently, Hamilton relocated the business to Greensburg, Ind. Later, Hamilton sold Super Vel's equipment, tooling and inventory to FPC Inc. from Fond du Lac, Wisc.
FPC set about producing police training ammo, called Super Vel Qualifier. FPC Inc. went out of the ammo business around 1981; their trademark expired in 2006. The Super Vel story was over, at least for the time being.
Fast forward to 2015. Cameron Hopkins, the former editor-in-chief of American Handunner (1984-2001), opened Nevada Cartridge Company, a small, commercial reloading operation in a suburb of Las Vegas, supplying local gun shops and shooters with training ammunition. The factory was equipped with Camdex computerized loaders and processors, the same commercial-grade machines used by major ammunition companies. Remembering how popular Super Vel used to be, Hopkins decided to investigate the possibility of relaunching the brand with newer, hotter, better loads.
However, first things first. A call to Lee Jurras was in order. Despite the fact that Lee had lost his rights to Super Vel, the name Super Vel will always be associated with the legendnary handgunner, and so Hopkins felt that Lee's permission was needed. While the two had never met face-to-face, Lee and Cameron shared a number of mutual acquaintances, not the least of whom was J.D. Jones, one of the original Super Vel crew who developed the early loads.
J.D. called Lee and explained what Hopkins had in mind: to resurrect Super Vel with the same mandate— to make the very best high performance handgun ammunition for police and armed citizens. J.D. teased Hopkins that, "Hell, if you don't bring back Super Vel, I will." Hopkins and Jones agreed the time was right to re-introduce Super Vel to a new generation. J.D. called Lee Jurras and set up a call with Hopkins. Cameron then called Lee.
"I have no further use for that name," Lee told Cameron on the phone. "You may have it, with my blessing."
With Lee's permission, Hopkins purchased the trademark for Super Vel Ammunition and set about not just duplicating, but surpassing the original Super Vel loads. Months of research and testing winnowed down the field to several promising new powders that had not been available in the 1970s. Focusing on these powders, the new Super Vel team developed several loads in 9mm Luger and .45 ACP that showed great promise. Our criteria was exactly the same as that of J.D. Jones and Lee Jurras when they worked up their original Super Vel loads— lightweight bullets zipping along at high velocity.
Using a ballistics laboratory meeting the standards set by the Sporting Arms & Ammunition Manufacturers Institute (SAAMI), the industry body that governs the specifications for firearms and ammunition, these potential Super Vel loads were tested in a pressure gun. Unlike during the early days of Super Vel, today there is a SAAMI standard for an increased pressure load (in some, not all, pistol cartridges) known as +P (plus P) which allows for greater chamber pressure if significantly stronger brass cases are used. The brass cases are beefed up in the web area and wall thickness to contain the greater +P levels of chamber pressure.
The pressure testing revealed that Super Vel's initial two calibers, 9mm Luger and .45 ACP, would safely fall under SAAMI's +P pressure specifications. Next, the loads were fired from a wide variety of actual pistols, everything from subcompact Glocks to custom match-grade 1911s, over a calibrated chronograph.
The results were fantastic! Two 9mm Luger +P loads exceeded the velocity goals for real guns. The fastest load proved to be the 90 gr. 9mm Luger at a rip-snorting 1,632 fps from a Glock 17L. Even from a standard Glock 17, the 90 grain bullet clocked 1,555 fps. The new "Super Snub" proved superb in Smith & Wesson J-frame revolvers, exiting a 1 7/8" barrel at over 1,300 fps. The new Super Vel indeed provides exactly what its legacy demands— incredible high velocity stopping power.
Lee E. Jurras passed away on April 24, 2017.