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Handloading Beyond The Basics
Rifle Magazine
June - July 1999
Volume 34, Number 3
ISSN: 0017-7393
Number 199
On the cover...
This issue is only available on CD-ROM.RCBS Cowboy Dies are designed specifically for cast bullets in a variety of older rifle and sixgun cartridges. Photo by Gerald Hudson. Mule deer photo by John R. Ford. Purchase the CD-ROM here
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For decades the late P.O. Ackley was a source of inspiration to handloaders, gunsmiths, cartridge designers and the shooting world in general. Instrumental in establishing the gunsmithing course at Trinidad, Colorado (still considered the leading school in the country), he was one of the few smiths who could build rifles from the ground up, not just screw somebody else's barrel into a Winchester action and drop it into a pre-inletted stock. He made rifles for famous gun writers, did research in ballistics, metallurgy and other gun-related sciences and even some writing. I believe he was the guy who coined the term "overbore" to describe rifle cartridges that use lots of powder for very little gain. Today's rifle loonies mostly know Ackley's name through a few cartridges that bear his name, always tied to the adjective "improved." P.O. Ackley did not invent the process wherein a cartridge is fired in a larger chamber, thereby blowing out the brass to increase case capacity. That credit is generally given to Lysle Kilbourn, who in 1940 started rechambering .22 Hornet rifles to his K-Hornet, but Ackley's name gets stuck to Improved much more often than anybody else's.

During the great wildcatting boom of the 1950s and 1960s, every doctor, trust-funder and insurance adjustor came out with their own line of new and wonderful rounds. (To forestall accusations of sexism, I have found no evidence that any woman ever got involved in wildcatting, which either indicates the superior intelligence of females or some deep genetic tendency of men to always tinker with the implements of the hunt. Take your pick.) Some incredible velocities were claimed, even for simple variations on the .30-06 theme. According to the stories, all you had to do was rechamber or rebarrel your tired old '03 Springfield to one of these and elk would fall dead from the muzzle blast. Ackley improved and totally redesigned more cartridges than anybody who's ever lived, from .22-caliber varmint rounds to the .45-348 Improved - his own .348 Winchester Improved necked up to take a .458-inch bullet. Despite this extensive line of Ackley wildcats, he remained a voice of reason in the midst of lunacy. Why? He was a professional, while most of the rest were amateurs. Ackley chronographed lots of wildcats and found most of the velocities claimed by their starry-eyed daddys to be either "estimates" (also known as "lies") or the re-sult of pressures unknown on planet earth since the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius.

As a professional, Ackley thought some of these guys were nuts and even refused to report on many of his own experiments. In the first edition of his Handbook for Shooters and Reloaders, Ackley's own .25-06 Improved was left out. Why? As Ackley says in the 6th printing of the Handbook, not mentioning the .25-06 Improved "was widely criticized by some users of this particular cartridge as well as by some gunsmiths, however it is still not recommended as being the overall satisfactory cartridge that the Improved .257 is. [The .25-06 Improved] is recommended for shooters desiring the highest velocity from the .25 bore regardless of other considerations." If you read this book - my own copy is almost tattered to pieces - you'll find those other considerations would be good velocity with the minimum amount of powder, longer barrel life, the ability to shoot different bullet weights, ease of finding accurate loads and results in the field.

The .257 Mr. Ackley mentioned is, of course, the .257 Roberts, which brings us to his .257 Improved. One thing I have noticed in Ackley's book is that P.O. himself rarely called his designs the 6mm or .280 or .300 Ackley Improved. They are simply "Improved," though these days most shooters say .280 Ackley, leaving the Improved out entirely. But their designer rarely added his name, possibly because he wasn't quite as eager for publicity as most insurance adjustors - or because, like most experimenters, he wanted to forget some of his experiments.

He very much liked the .257 Improved. In the 6th-edition Handbook he had this to say about it:

The cartridge illustrated is the Ackley Improved .257. There is a multitude of similar designs although it is doubtful if any other version has gained the world wide popularity attained by this version. Cases are made by firing factory ammunition in the improved chamber. It has the familiar 40-degree shoulder and minimum body taper. It is a relatively efficient cartridge, flexible and comes close to the mythical "all around cartridge." It is considered to be about the maximum capacity for the .25 bore and still produce satisfactory performance and good barrel life. Like other improved cartridges, rifles chambered for it will still accept factory ammunition which appeals to many shooters who do not wish to reload all of their ammunition. It is always an advantage in a pinch to be able to purchase a box of cartridges over the counter. The Improved .257 can be readily recommended.

The highest velocities he quotes are pretty interesting: 3,477 fps with the 87-grain bullet, 3,322 fps with the 100 and 3,120 with the 117 grainer. He doesn't mention barrel length, and it was customary in those days (and even today) to attach long barrels to new wildcats, in order to gain as much velocity as possible.

I went seriously crazy over centerfire rifles in the 1970s. By then the big wildcatting boom had been knocked in the head by the factories, which went through their own spate of cartridge introduction during the 1950s and 1960s. I bought Ackley's Handbook in a sporting goods store in Seattle about 1972 and might have chambered something for one of the hundreds of wildcat rounds in the book right then and there if I hadn't been desperately broke. About five years later I did get an old Springfield rebored to .338-06. This was a smart move in wildcatting, since the .338-06 was one of the best (these days a proprietary round of A-Square). It was really dumb in terms of finances, since I was in college. Soon the .338-06 went down the road, and for several years I hunted with a .30-06.

By the time my finances caught up with my lunacy, I'd curbed the desire to own another wildcat, mainly because I'd hunted a lot of places and never found factory rounds wanting. One of my favorites for everything from rockchucks to mule deer was the .257 Roberts. My old Remington 722 in that caliber has a fairly heavy 24-inch barrel. I found that safe handloads could exceed not just the notoriously wimpy factory loads but approach factory .25-06 Remington ammunition. With the 75-grain Sierra hollowpoint I could get an easy 3,500 fps with 3/4-inch groups and with the 100-grain Nosler Partition got one-inch, five-shot groups at over 3,200 fps. This didn't really surprise me, because those speeds (or close to them) were regularly quoted for the 6mm Remington, the same case necked down to .244 inch. These were both great loads; with them I killed rockchucks and pronghorns well past 400 yards.

The one thing the .257 Roberts would not do was push 115- to 120-grain bullets to 3,000 fps. After years of experimentation in that and half a dozen other .257s, the best I got was about 2,950, and that was it.

So what? The difference in trajectory between a spitzer going 2,950 and 3,000 fps is something under an inch at 400 yards. As for killing power, what deer could ever tell the difference? None that I shot, including one of my biggest muley bucks, taken with a single 120 grainer at about 2,900 fps. However, as my Idaho friend Stu Carty says, there's something magic about all those zeros showing up on the chronograph.

If that 3,000 fps thing bugged me so much, why not buy a .25-06? Two reasons: recoil and rifle weight. The .25-06 Remington uses enough more powder to really increase the rocket effect in recoil, kicking more like a .270 Winchester. At 8 pounds with scope, the Model 722 was already a little heavy for rough-country mule deer hunting. I suspected a lighter .257 Roberts would still be useful for rockchucking (which can also involve some hiking) and kick noticeably less than any .25-06 Remington, most of which are fairly heavy.

But nothing happened. Oh, I thought about it, but most factory .257s were either too light and short-barreled for varmints (the Ruger 77 Ultra Light) or like my Model 722, a little too big. The one that seemed perfect was the Remington 700 Mountain Rifle. I should have bought one quick. By the time I started looking seriously they'd added that stupid detachable magazine, and then they dropped the .257 Roberts entirely.

That doesn't matter now, because I've got a .257 Ackley Improved that weighs 61/4 pounds with a 24-inch medium-weight barrel. This is because of Melvin Forbes' Ultra Light rifles, built on his proprietary actions that weigh much less than standard bolt actions.

The first one was a 7x57mm Mauser made on the smallest UL action, the Model 20. At 5 pounds, 10 ounces complete with 22-inch barrel and 2-7x Leu-pold compact scope, this rifle seemed to fit the slot of "sheep rifle" in my modest collection. During the next two years I naturally didn't draw a sheep tag anywhere but grew addicted to slinging the little rifle over my shoulder. So the 7x57 was used on game as diverse as New Mexico pronghorns and Montana elk. Despite what some say, the 7x57mm Mauser is an adequate if not overwhelming elk rifle, but eventually I yearned for an Ultra Light with more punch, mostly because I hunt fairly often in grizzly country, up north and in Montana. If someday a bear really did try to eat me while after an elk or caribou, an '06 made more sense. So I ordered a Model 24 in .30-06, which made the 7mm Mauser a little redundant. So I decided to have Melvin rebarrel the 7x57, thus acquiring the .257 Roberts I'd been wanting for years.

He was happy to do that, but suggested the .257 Ackley. At first I resisted. My few experiments with other improved cartridges hadn't impressed me. These were blow-outs of calibers like the .30-06 and didn't do much more than the original. The reason, as reported in "Short Barrels, Case Capacity and Other Matters of Style" (Rifle No. 163), is that in most cartridges velocity increases only about one-fourth as fast as case capacity.

According to the latest Nosler manual, the regular .30-06 has a capacity of about 58.5 grains with a 180-grain bullet seated, while the improved version holds about 64 grains. This works out to about a 9.4 percent increase in case capacity, so velocity can be increased about 2.35 percent, which means a 180-grain bullet can be started about 60 to 70 fps faster. This is just about what my experiments had shown. Whoop-de-do.

So at first I wasn't all that excited about the .257 Ackley. The same manual shows the regular .257 Roberts with about 51 grains of case capacity when using 115- to 120-grain bullets, the Ackley version about 56.5 grains. This would mean about a 50 to 75 fps increase, about what the manual shows.

Then I thought: add 50 fps to the 2,950 fps you're getting right now and what do you have? All those zeros! It wouldn't cost anything extra to chamber the new barrel in the improved version, and a set of Redding dies could be had for $35. So I did it. Rather, Melvin did it with a stainless 24-inch No. 2 Douglas barrel.

What I found is the .257 Ackley Improved breaks the ballistic rules. This particular rifle develops about twice as much extra velocity as expected. No, you won't see this in most loading manuals. Many of today's list the .257 Ackley (confirming P.O.'s claims of its popularity), but most show less than 3,000 fps with the heavier bullets.

Most, that is, except the Accurate Smokeless Powder Loading Guide, which shows the 115-grain Nosler Partition at 3,099 fps and the 120-grain Sierra boat-tail at 3,056 fps. The reason is there in the introduction to the cartridge, which states that Accurate developed their data at .25-06 Remington pressures. All the other manuals develop their .257 Improved data at the wimpy old 1930's .257 Roberts factory levels or, at best, the newer +P levels, still way below other modern bolt- action rounds.

Load the .257 Ackley up to .25-06 Remington pressure levels and it performs, well, like a .25-06. One official for a major bullet company privately admitted that when their ballisticians developed data for the .257 Ackley it equaled or beat the .25-06 Remington, but in their loading manual they reduced the data because nobody would believe it. Sierra's manual states flatly that the .257 Improved matches the .25-06 Remington.

So what? Why not buy a .25-06? I mean, the round is noted for great accuracy. That would be the practical way, but would it be the Gun Nut Way? Heck, no!

Gun nuts make choices based on almost invisible differences in cartridges and rifles. How many times have you read about the vast differences between the .270 WCF and the .280 Remington? And how many gun nuts do you know who bought .280s because of those mythical differences?

So what would be the infinitesimal advantages of the .257 Ackley Improved? It will indeed match the velocities of the .25-06 Remington, though matching isn't exceeding. Why can it do this, when the .25-06 holds seven to eight grains more powder than the .257 Ackley? I have scratched my head over this for awhile and can only blame the Ackley's short, fat, steep-necked case. As some gun nuts and ballisticians have claimed for years, these make for more efficient powder burning, and after fooling with my .257 Ackley, I am forced to agree.

It matches the .25-06 Remington in a short action. Well, a semi-short action. The Ultra Light Model 20's magazine is supposedly 3 inches long, but I can only load cartridges to a trifle over 2.9 inches before their bullets scrape the front wall. This is .1 inch longer than I can load rounds for my old Model 722.

(Yes, I know all the old-time gun writers claimed the .257 Roberts does far better in a long action, where you can seat bullets farther out, but a .25-inch bullet doesn't displace much powder space. Seat a 120-grain bullet out .25 inch longer, about the most the .257's neck will allow, and you gain about 6 percent more powder room, and about 1.5 percent more velocity, all of 50 fps. This is less than the difference between "slow" and "fast" barrels. I know, because I've shot .257s built on long actions, including an FN Mauser and pre-64 Model 70 Winchester, and could never see any difference between them and the Model 722. Guess what? Old-time gun writers didn't own chronographs.) Blowing out the shoulder to the Ackley's 40 degrees also just about eliminates case trimming. Since I use the rifle for some varmint hunting, this is a plus. I've reloaded the same cases until the necks cracked, say six or eight loadings, and never had to trim.

Varmint shooting, by the way, makes fireforming easy. When the rifle was almost ready I ordered 500 rounds of .257 Roberts Remington brass from Midway, loaded up 100 with a top Roberts load of W-760 and the 85-grain Nosler Ballistic Tip and visited a local rancher's "gopher" town. These are ground squirrels here in Montana, either the Columbian or Richardson's, that live in colonies much like prairie dog towns. Gophers are about half the size of dogs and hard to hit. Since even the fireform load grouped five shots into less than 3/4 inch at 3,100 fps, I hit quite a few. With the extra 11/4 pounds of a Harris bipod on the forend and the straight stock of the Ultra Light, this was not bad on the shoulder. Presto! One hundred fireformed .257 Ackley cases!

Since then I have shot a bunch of things with the little rifle, including Merriam's turkeys, pronghorns and the biggest whitetail buck I've ever seen. He was quartering toward me at 80 yards when a 115-grain Partition broke the right shoulder just above the knuckle joint, went through both lungs and stopped under the hide on the far side, about 3 inches in front of his left ham. As near as I could measure, this amounted to 26 inches of penetration. I don't know what deer would run away after something like that, or for that matter, what caribou or bighorn sheep. The load was 53 grains of Reloder 19, for about 3,150 fps, which puts three rounds into one inch or less, consistently. You will not find this load listed in any manual, but I've fired individual cases five times, and the primer pockets are still tight, so it's safe in my rifle.

For antelope I usually use the 115-grain Ballistic Tip, which groups into about 1/2 inch with 54 grains of AAC-3100. It is a trifle tender for big deer but really drops 100-pound animals, whether prairie goats or whitetail does, and shoots even flatter than the Partition at long range. This is the maximum load listed in the Accurate manual but goes faster in my rifle despite 2 inches less barrel.

The varmint load I've settled on uses the 75-grain Hornady V-Max at close to 3,600 fps. This bullet shoots just a little better than the 85-grain Nosler and a lot faster. In experimenting with .257 Roberts rifles, I found 75 grainers usually shot better than anything heavier, which seems to be the trend with the Improved version too. Until the V-Max came along, all 75-grain, .25-caliber varmint bullets had hollowpoints, which didn't expand reliably past 300 yards. The V-Max does.

Awhile back Speer introduced their 75-grain flatnose for that nice, old .25-20 Winchester. It works just fine in the .257 Ackley too, at .25-20 velocities. I will probably carry a few on my next pronghorn trip, to collect desert cottontails, and if deer hunting in the mountains will probably reduce a few blue grouse to possession. It has already done in one autumn Merriam's turkey at about 100 yards, with minimal meat damage.

This load hits at exactly point of aim at 100 yards when the other loads are sighted to strike 3 inches high, and they all can be, because they all hit the same spot. This is a tendency of Ultra Light rifles, since they're all bedded with "neutral" pressure along the barrel. No free floating, no forend tip pressure, just bedded. When developing loads for this rifle, I noticed they all seemed to land in the same place - I had to keep sticking new targets up over the same spots. Except for two fliers (one my fault, one a gust of wind), the composite 24-shot group measured 1.38 inches. I know many shooters who'll take that in a three-shot group. Oh, and Federal's Premium .257 Roberts load (the best factory stuff) hits in the same place too, in case you get stuck in Casper, Wyom-ing, without your handloads.

So P.O. Ackley was right: His .257 Improved comes about as close to the mythical all-around North American hunting cartridge as anything made. Most of us hunt mainly deer and smaller game. Even living in Montana, where I can buy an elk tag for $16 every year and hunt hundreds of square miles of Forest Service ground, I shoot far more deer, antelope, gophers, prairie dogs, rockchucks, cottontails and turkeys than elk. Come to think of it, a 115-grain Partition in the ribs probably wouldn't do a cow or raghorn elk any good either. I've never done it but know several people who've used the .257 Roberts or .25-06 Remington on meat elk, and nobody's had a problem yet. So why do I need all those other rifles in my rack? Like many good questions, that is probably best left unanswered.

Blackhorn Powder
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