As far as deer cartridges go, the .280 Ackley Improved (AI) is not as well known as the time-honored .30-06, but perhaps it should be. It gives the 7mm Remington Magnum a run for its money, yet burns less powder, recoils less, yields theoretically longer barrel and case life and is generally much nicer to shoot.
The .280 Ackley — named after noted gun writer, gunsmith and wildcatter Parker Otto Ackley (1903-1989) — could be described as a mild-mannered deer cartridge with surprisingly hot performance. In the 1996 edition of Gun Digest, author Rob Lucas compared it to one of the hottest 7mm wildcats of the day, the 7mm STW.
“Ask yourself if 3500 fps (sometimes) with a 140-grain bullet in a necked-down 8mm Remington belted case is all that much better than 3300 fps from the ’06-sized 280 Remington Improved,’” he wrote.
Improved Cartridges Explained
Improved cartridges are commonly associated with the wildcat family. They start off as standard numbers — in this case the .280 Remington — and are shot in an improved gun. Pressure fireforms the case to the shape and dimensions of the improved chamber.
P.O. Ackley himself noted that the 280 Remington factory cartridge was a very good round. It was essentially a .30-06 necked down to .284, or 7mm. Based on the 7mm-06 wildcat, some have even argued it to be more versatile than the .270 Winchester.
An improved cartridge gives you a few advantages: You can load the cartridge hotter than its pre-fireformed state for increased velocity.
It minimizes body taper, creating a sharper 40-degree shoulder angle and pushing case capacity closer to its efficient limit.
The increase in case volume allows you to load more propellant for a faster, flatter shooting round, but in some cases with significantly less (5-10%) powder than in a comparable magnum. Thus, there is less recoil.
Ackley did not take kindly to magnums. He viewed them as an exercise in the law of diminishing returns. He understood extra powder in a given bore capacity relative to case capacity negatively impacted case and barrel life. It didn’t really help cartridge efficiency.
By contrast, my .280 Ackley is downright pleasant to shoot. Pushing a 140 gr. Spitzer at around 3100 fps, it sends a projectile as flat as you could want in a 7mm deer rifle.
For whitetails, I feed her with Nosler’s excellent 140 gr. Accubond, one of the few factory-loaded choices out there in .280 Ackley Improved.
I used it to put down my best rifle-killed buck ever at 175 yards — a rather long poke by central Wisconsin woodland standards.
The .280 Ackley Goes Mainstream
Nosler is factory producing two offerings in their Custom Line of ammunition. One is the aforementioned 140 grain AccuBond and the other a 150 grain E-Tip. In testing the Accubond, it was among the most accurate ammunition I have ever shot in my custom rifle — better than reloads. Nosler also factory produces both a 140 gr. and 160 gr. cartridge in .280 AI from their Trophy Grade line, using the Accubond and Partition bullets respectively.
For handloaders, Hornady, Lee Precision, Redding and RCBS all offer dies for the cartridge. L.E. Wilson, makers of case trimmers, offer a case holder and neck trimming die specifically designed to accommodate the .280 Ackley’s 40-degree shoulder.
You can even get 40-degree shoulder brass from Norma in .280 AI, eliminating the need for initial fireforming. There are no shortages of recipes, either, with both Sierra and Nosler publishing reloading data in their current manuals.
The cartridge is featured in the 12th Edition of Cartridges of the World.
In 2007, Nosler showed up with the Nosler Custom Rifle chambered in .280 Ackley Improved. And for the more budget-minded, Kimber’s Model 84L Classic Select Grade and Montana are both available in .280 AI and are excellent guns.
The .280 Ackley is an improvement over a standard 280 Remington, and that’s not easy to do. It’s a hot cartridge — as good as any hard-kicking over-bore capacity magnum in similar calibers — but without the harsh recoil.
When it’s time to head to the deer stand, I could grab a .30-06 or .243. But why? The .280 Ackley Improved was in Ackley’s day, and remains today, a better choice. Next deer season give it a try, and see if you don’t agree.
Editor's note, this article originally appeared in the Gun Digest 2013 annual book.