.280AI. A Cartridge Whose Time Has Come

November 25, 2020
Tom Gresham

Rifle cartridges should be straight forward. They do a particular thing, and that's that. Rifle shooters, however, most certainly are not straight forward. We twist and turn our logic, straining to find the "perfect" round for hunting, target shooting, long range shooting, etc. These mental machinations result in cartridges which are "in" or "out." A hot (and excellent) cartridge such as the .264 Win. Mag or even the newer 7mm Remington Short Action Ultra Mag is popular, and then it isn't.

Rarely does it work the other way -- where a cartridge isn't particularly popular and then grows an army of fans. I think we are seeing that right now with the .280 Ackley Improved (.280AI). 

Why would that be, given the troubled history of the .280 Remington, including the bungling efforts of the parent company to introduce, re-introduce, and then re-introduce it again? Simple. It was just too good to fail. 

Is it the "best" or "perfect" rifle cartridge? Of course not. Such a thing doesn't exist. It does have enough things going for it that gun writers and sharp rifle folks have kept the .280 going for decades, and now are discovering the (slight) advantages of the improved version.

Let me stake out a position and anger a bunch of folks (which is just a side benefit). The .280AI is better than the 6.5 Creedmoor, and it may well occupy the slot of the best all-around hunting cartridge for North American game animals. 

A brief history. Remington screwed up the .280 Remington cartridge several times. They introduced it in 1957, trying to wedge it into the narrow slot between the .270 Winchester and the .30-06 Springfield. To make it work in their 740 autoloading rifle they kept the chamber pressure lower than it could have been, resulting in reduced velocity. Smart gun writers and handloaders, however, recognized the potential and started cranking out great loads for their bolt guns. A few years later, Remington tried to correct the problem by re-introducing the .280 Remington as the 7mm Express Remington. (This after an aborted attempt to call it the 7mm-06, which it was not, and which would have set up a safety issue should someone try to simply nect down a .30-06 to .284 and fire it in a .280 Remington rifle). Remington did increase the chamber pressure, which was good, but the name was confusing to pretty much everyone, with gun store clerks giving customers 7mm Remington Magnum ammo in place of it. Eventually Big Green re-re-introduced it as ... yes ... the .280 Remington. Sigh. 

By this time few gun makers were chambering this stellar cartridge. Custom gun makers, on the other hand, found it to be popular with sharp hunters who often were handloaders and who knew to load it with controlled expansion bullets such as the Nosler Partition.

The big benefit of the .280 over the .270 is the ability to handle heavier bullets. The 160 and 175-grain bullets work great in the .280, making it suitable to for elk, moose, and many African species. The better ballistic coefficients of .284 caliber bullets over projectiles of the same weight in the .30-06 gives this "cartridge of many names" an ever-so-slight advantage over the Springfield.

But what of this "Ackley" version? Who is Ackley? 

That's Parker Otto Ackley, known as P.O. Ackley. He was a New York gunsmith, writer, tinkerer, and wildcatter famous for making slightly modified versions of factory cartridges by straightening out the case taper and putting on a shaper shoulder angle. This is done by firing a factory cartridge in the "Ackley" chamber, which fire forms the case to the larger diameter.  Now a reloader can use dies for the wildcat, put more powder in the larger case, and increase the velocity. A side benefit, and an important one, of this modification is that you can fire a factory cartridge (.280 Remington, for instance) in a rifle chambered for the Ackley version, and it works just fine. That was especially attractive when the .280 Ackley was exclusively a wildcat -- no factory ammo available. Ackley's books, "Handbook for Shooters and Reloaders, Volume 1 and 2" are required reading for serious rifle shooters. 

I first came in contact with the .280 Ackley Improved when Kenny Jarrett, the legendary rifle maker from South Carolina, made one of his super-accurate "Beanfield" rifles in that caliber for my father, Grits Gresham. Dad was the Shooting Editor for Sports Afield magazine, so we got a lot of the cool guns and stuff. Kenny was one of the first and most vocal advocates of the .280AI, proclaiming that he could match the velocities of the 7mm Remington Magnum, but with less propellent and recoil. Perhaps. I suspect that those velocities come only at the expense of high pressures, and now that we have good loading data developed in well-equipped ballistics laboratories, we know that at acceptable pressures, the .280AI turns in velocities about 150fps faster than the standard .280 Remington, and about 100 to 125fps short of the 7mm Rem Mag. It's true that it does this with less powder and less recoil than the belted magnum. Sometimes, though, the .280AI really does match the Magnum.

Then again, looking at the Nosler Reloading Guide Number 7, we see that 61.5 grains of IMR7828 powder behind a 160-grain bullet creates 3043fps velocity in the AI. In the Remington 7mm Magnum, that same powder, at a charge weight of 64 grains, produces 3015fps. The max load for a 160-grain bullet in that manual produces 3077fps, so I'd say the .280AI really does match the 7mm Rem Mag with a bit less powder, which means ever so slightly less recoil.

Drop the bullet weight to 140 grains and you can use a number of favorite powders, such as H1000, H4350, and H4831. Velocities up to 3200fps will give you a point blank max range of almost 400 yards. That is, sight in to hit 3.5 inches high at 100, and hold on a deer out to 400 yards with no adjustments.

All this is known to real gun geeks, but a few things have happened to make the .280AI much more attractive now than it was 25 years ago,when Kenny Jarret, along with Chub Eastman and Bob Nosler at the Nosler company, were singing its praises.

The biggest news is that the .280AI is no longer a wildcat. Nosler went to the effort to get the cartridge accepted by SAAMI as a factory cartridge. (Note that there was a slight, but important, difference in the shoulder location between the factory round and the wildcat. Handloaders MUST understand this, and the folks at Redding have a short-but-thorough explanation. https://www.redding-reloading.com/tech-line-a-tips-faqs/133-280-changes).

Nosler started chambering the AI in its factory rifles. Several other rifle companies followed, including Savage and (in a short run of the wonderful No. 1 single-shot rifle) Ruger.

Nosler offered the .280AI in factory loadings with its premium bullets. That was good, but now Hornady loads .280AI ammo using the ELD-X bullet, and Federal recently released .280AI ammo using bonded bullets with high ballistic coefficients. Expect more factory loads to follow.

I voted with my wallet and bought a limited-run version of the Ruger No. 1 in .280AI. Lee Newton at Classic Sporting Arms (www.classicsportingarms.com) worked it out with Lipseys and Ruger to make a handful of Number Ones with 25-inch barrels. They are not only beautiful, but they shoot. I am getting .75MOA groups with Nosler factory loads. I didn't get my deer this year, but I did carry that rifle up and down the Idaho mountains.

Is the .280AI better than the 6.5mm Creedmoor? Of course. Or, of course not. As with all these comparisons, it depends on the job to be performed. I prefer it because I can use heavier bullets and it hits harder. I also have loved 7mm cartridges since I got my first real "big game" rifle -- a Savage 110 left-handed in 7mm Remington Magnum, at age 15. 

For a do-everything hunting cartridge, I think this one is about as good as it gets. 

Downsides? It does kick more than the 6.5 Creedmoor. You won't find .280AI ammo just anywhere, and it's likely to be a bit more expensive. You will, however, find .280 Remington ammo, which you can fire in your AI rifle, and it could get you out of a tough spot. If you handload, the .280AI is a dream.

We are seeing a lot more gun companies chamber for the .280AI. It will never return to the category of being only for handloaders or gun geeks. 

Next, I'm drawing up plans to build a lightweight bolt action in this caliber. ~ Tom


Tom Gresham
Author, outdoorsman, gun rights activist, and firearms enthusiast for more than five decades, Tom Gresham hosts Tom Gresham's Gun Talk, the first nationally-syndicated radio show about guns and the shooting sports, and is also the producer and co-host of the Guns & Gear, GunVenture and First Person Defender television series.

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