The Versatile .280
If ever acartridge was born with an albatross dangling from its neck, it was the .280Remington. In today’s shooting market,...
If ever acartridge was born with an albatross dangling from its neck, it was the .280Remington. In today’s shooting market, any new cartridge, be it good,indifferent or awful, is assured a slavering Pavlovian response from gunwriters and the publications in which their bylines reside. But back in 1957,when the .280 first saw light, there were fewer gun magazines and no televisionshows vying, as they do now, to out-yodel each other for advertiser dollars.Gun writers tended to be even more ornery than they are now and were generallyinclined to treat the .280 as something that would go away if ignored. Mentionof the cartridge, when it was referenced at all, tended to fall into the”so what?” or “why did they do that?” category of breakingnews.
The reasonshooting soothsayers of that rustic era were asking “why?” was becausethe new .280 Remington was wedged between two of the most popular big-gamecalibers of all time: the .270 Winchester and the .30/06. Did the .280 havesomething to offer that these immensely popular calibers did not? A comparisonof ballistic tables certainly doesn’t indicate that the .280 had any specialmagic. Its listed velocity for a 150-grain bullet was 2,810 feet per second, anot-exactly-breathtaking 10 fps faster than the .270 with same weight bullet,and a fairly significant 160 fps slower than the .30/06 with 150-grain factoryloading.
As it happened,about the time of the .280’s introduction I’d discovered that I could get awaywith reading gun magazines in my high school classes simply by encasing them ina large notebook and gripping a pencil as if I was diligently taking notes.Thus while Miss Crookshanks waxed romantic about Shelley or Keats, I couldimmerse myself in the wisdom of an O’Connor or Page. This pursuit made nocontribution whatsoever to my grades but it somewhat prepared me for thehardscrabble years that were to follow.
According to whatI learned during those classroom studies, the .280 was on the fast road towherever it is that cartridges go when they die young. In my own innocentjudgment it was a wall-flower that lacked the glamour of the much-touted .270or the purposeful dignity of the .30/06, which is to say it never made the Top20 list of rifles I planned to own when fortune came my way. Similarconclusions were reached by legions of hunters and shooters everywhere. The.280’s prospects were further reduced when word got around that Remingtonpurposely “loaded it down” so the gun could be safely chambered for itsrecently introduced Model 740 autoloading rifle. This curse dogged the .280 foryears and is occasionally repeated even today.
Several years agoI became intrigued by this chapter in the .280’s history and checked out the”loaded down” rumor with a few of the older heads at Remington. As withmany rumors from the shooting industry, there’s a grain of truth to this one,but the real facts I gleaned tell us a lot more.
Unlike earlierautoloaders such as Remington’s M81, which were limited to mild cartridges suchas the .30 and .35 Remington, the M740, which was introduced in 1955, wasdesigned for rip-snorting calibers such as the .30/06. It was a successfulrifle and would have been even more so had it been chambered for the .270Winchester, but it wasn’t. And the word going around at the time was that theM740 couldn’t handle the 270’s pressures. And here’s where the strange saga ofthe .280 gets particularly interesting.
Not counting someof Remington’s interoffice politics, personal opinions and jealousies regardingthe .270 during the 1950s, I learned that the M740 and .270 actually did notmake a good match. Not necessarily because of the .270’s high pressures, butbecause the M740 tended to be finicky about what it was fed, its gas-operatedsystem being reliable only when adjusted to rather specific pressurelevels.
The .270 loads ofthe day, I was told, tended to develop varying pressure levels, which in turncould have resulted in the M740’s erratic operation. Thus the .280 was not somuch “loaded down” as loaded to specific pressures compatible with theM740. Apparently, it isn’t often noticed that the M740 was also chambered forRemington’s new .244, a hot round that, like the .270, generated pressures over50,000 PSI. In 1960, when the M742 replaced the M740, it too was cataloguedsans the .270.
Just as the futureof the .280 seemed at its bleakest, a variety of forces were galloping to itsrescue, one being an army of handloaders. The heart and soul of handloadingrifle ammo is making a good thing better. And it didn’t take long forhandloaders to discover that the .280 was a Cinderella waiting to be taken totheir ball. By increasing pressures only moderately, velocities increaseddramatically. Better yet, bullet makers even then offered a particularlytempting variety of 7mm bullets ranging from 100 to 175 grains. By picking theright bullet for the job, a handloader could hunt everything from woodchucks tomoose with his .280.
Some handloaderswere so ecstatic about the performance they got from the .280 that they wereproclaiming it a ballistic miracle. Such claims were reinforced when DuPontpublished loading data that indicated that with the same bullet weights andpropellant charges, the .280 delivered velocities equal to the .270 but atthousands of pounds less pressure! So it seemed the .280 had some magic afterall, and has always remained a favorite with handloaders for this and otherreasons. When Winchester began loading the .280, one of its technicians told meit was among the least temperamental calibers they had ever loaded.
Another big boostfor the .280 was a wake-up call from hunters to Remington that the grand era ofbolt-action rifles had arrived and they’d better get with the program.Remington’s bolt rifles of the time, the M721 and shorter-action M722, werestrong and accurate but about as sexy as a roadkill possum, especially whencompared to Winchester’s stylish and popular M70 bolt rifle.
Seeing the writingon the wall, Remington responded in 1958 with the M725, a rifle far morehandsome than the M721 and initially chambered for the .280 as well as the .270and 30/06. This was a major breakthrough for the .280. Although it had beenoffered in the old 721, its union with the 725 (along with the ’06 and .270),cast it in a new and more flattering light, more of a cartridge to be reckonedwith. Manufactured for only about four years, M725’s are now much sought afterby collectors. Particularly in demand is the .280, which is considered aclassic union of rifle and cartridge.
This suddenglamorization of the .280 was not lost on the potentates at Remington, who nowrealized there was life for the caliber well beyond the limitations imposed byautoloading rifles. Something that would give the .280 a new lease on life,they reckoned, was to glamorize it with a new name. Just calling it the .280sounded so, well, ordinary. After all, it was a 7mm, so why not give it somecontinental pizzazz by calling it the 7mm/06? This made pretty goodmerchandising sense because Remington had already done well for itself byadapting two popular wildcats: the .22-250 and .22/05. So why not a 7mm/06? Itwas also a legitimate claim because wildcatters had, in fact, been necking.30/06 cases down to 7mm for decades.
Accordingly, therewas a run of M700 rifles and ammo marked 7mm/06. Problem was, the .280 wasn’t atrue 7mm/06. During its development the shoulder length had been increased byabout five hundredths of an inch as a safety measure so it couldn’t be fired in.270-caliber rifles. But now, if an unsuspecting handloader fired necked-down’06 cases in Remington’s rifle, there’d be a potentially dangerous headspacesituation. So the 7mm/06 name was quickly discontinued and the rifles and ammowere recalled. Some rounds are still in circulation, however–and are consideredgenuine collector’s items.
Still determinedthat the .280 needed a more glamorous name, Remington rechristened it the 7mmExpress. This has a pretty nice ring to it, but again there were unintendedconsequences. The 7mm Express tended to get confused with Remington’s 7mmMagnum, another potentially dangerous situation. So the folks at Remington gaveup on the name change and the .280 has been that ever since.
COMING OF AGE
Such misguidedname-change shenanigans would have caused a meltdown for a lesser cartridge,but by then the .280 had earned a loyal following of dedicated fans.
I have used the.280 handloaded with 160-grain Grand Slams on a couple of elk and an Africanbongo, but my go-to load has always been the 140-grain Nosler Partition, whichworks just as well on elk as the heavier bullet. And the flatter trajectory ofmy rather warm handloads make it a better choice for smaller game, such assheep.
When Melvin Forbesannounced his revolutionary line of Ultra Light bolt rifles back in the 1980s,I was one of his first customers. My old .280, which had been built around apre-1964 Model 70 action by ace stock maker Clayton Nelson, had suffered muchuse and abuse through the years and deserved an honorable retirement.
The .280 rifleMelvin delivered weighs in at a bit less than 7 pounds with scope and has beenmy most-used hunting rifle in recent years, especially on hunts where Ianticipated hard hiking and rough weather. [See “Caribou For Two,”August 2002.]
When Remingtonintroduced its lightweight M700 Mountain rifle back in the early 1990s it wasinitially offered in .280, along with the .30/06 and .270. Rifles in the .280chambering outsold the other two combined. So at last the .280 had overcome itsdismal beginnings and joined the pantheon of great hunting cartridges.
Is the .280 myfavorite hunting caliber? When I look back over my many hunts I’d have to sayit is, if only in terms of success and good service. But I’ve also been in thisbusiness far too long to make outrageous claims about any caliber beingsignificantly superior to others. That may make a few readers happy but ranklesa lot more, especially when making the inevitable comparison of the .280 withthe .270 and ’06. So I’ll put it this way: When I get mail from readers askingme to help them decide between a new .270 and a new .30/06, I politely suggestthat they also consider the .280. I’ve had lots of them write back, thanking mefor opening their eyes to a truly superb caliber.
For a completelist of factory loadings for the .280, go to outdoorlife.com/shooting.
VARMINTS:Long-range shots on coyotes are easy with Barnes’ 100-gr. “X” bullet.Loaded in the .280 Remington, it’s incredibly fast and flat shooting.
DEER: Nosler’s140-grain Partition bullet in the .280 is a classic for deer-size game. Inmaximum loads it can be driven at over 3,000 fps.
BIG GAME: The .280is certainly capable of taking elk and moose when handloaded with premiumbullets like Speer’s 160-grain Grand Slam.
For more shootinginformation, go to outdoorlife.com/shooting
Is the .280 my favorite hunting caliber? When I lookback over my many hunts I’d have to say it is, if only in terms of success andgood service. But I’ve also been in this business far too long to makeoutrageous claims about any caliber being significantly superior to others.
Despite severalname changes, the .280 Remington has remained popular due to its versatility.Loaded with 160-gr. Grand Slams, Carmichel’s pre-64 Model 70 easily handledthis bongo.