Compared: The .270 Winchester and .280 Remington

By Chuck Hawks

This article is the first in a series inspired by the number of e-mail questions I have received along the lines of: " I am planning to buy a Remarchester Deluxe in either .270 or .280, but I can't decide which is better. Can you explain the advantages of each?"

These sorts of articles are staple fare in the gun magazines you see on the news stand, but the e-mails keep coming. So, if you can't decide between the .270 and the .280, this article is for you.

.270 Win.

.270 Win. Illustration courtesy of Hornady Mfg. Co.

The .270 Winchester was introduced in 1925. It has long been one of the top five best selling rifle cartridges, and a worldwide favorite. It is also the standard of comparison among long range hunting cartridges. For most of its life, the most popular .270 factory load has driven a 130 grain bullet at a muzzle velocity (MV) of 3140 fps. Because the .270 was loaded to full pressure and velocity, this MV figure was pretty close, and was verified by independent chronograph tests. Speer, for example, found that Remington 130 grain factory loads delivered an instrumental velocity (measured some distance in front of the muzzle) of 3122 fps from the 22" barrel of a J.C. Higgins (Sears) hunting rifle. More recently, in this the age of the tort lawyer, the 130 grain bullet has been backed off to a MV of 3060 fps, but the reloader can still safely achieve the old figure. The other popular factory load for the .270 is a 150 grain bullet at a MV of 2900 fps (recently reduced to 2850 fps).

.280 Rem.

.280 Rem. Illustration courtesy of Hornady Mfg. Co.

The .280 Remington was introduced 32 years later, in 1957, for the Model 740 autoloader. The 740 action was happiest with a cartridge that developed slightly less pressure than the .270 Winchester, so the .280 was designed for a maximum average pressure of 50,000 cup (the same as the .30-06) rather than the 52,000 cup of the .270 Winchester. The original .280 factory load was claimed to drive a 125 grain bullet at a MV of 3190 fps. This proved to be pretty optimistic when Remington's .280 factory loads were chronographed independently. The Speer chronograph recorded an instrumental velocity of 3037 fps from the 22" barrel of a Remington Model 740 rifle. Soon Remington offered the .280 in other rifles, including the Model 760 pump and Model 700 bolt action, thus bringing it into head to head competition with the .270 Winchester.

The .270 won that competition hands down, and sales of .280 rifles languished. The .270 was already well established and savvy shooters discovered that, notwithstanding Remington's published ballistics, the .270 actually shot a little flatter and hit a little harder. The situation got so bad that Remington went to the extraordinary length of changing the name of the cartridge in an attempt to boost sales. The .280 became the "7mm Express Remington." Unfortunately, most shooters were not deceived by this marketing gimmick and the sales of 7mm Express rifles and cartridges also languished. A few years later the cartridge's name was changed back to ".280 Remington." The original 125 grain bullet offered in Remington factory loads was eventually discontinued, replaced by a 140 grain bullet at an advertised MV of 3000 fps. This is probably the best all-around bullet weight for the .280, and it has a sectional density (SD) similar to that of the 130 grain .270 bullet.

Both the .270 and .280 are based on a necked down .30-06 Springfield case. They are at their best with bullets weighing between 120 and 150 grains, although other weights are offered. The .270 was named for its bore diameter (.270"); its groove and bullet diameter is actually .277". The .280 name was probably chosen to look kind of like ".270." Its bore diameter is actually .277" and its groove and bullet diameter is .284".

It should be obvious to any experienced hunter that there is little difference in killing power between bullets of .277" and .284" diameter. .007" more or less in bullet diameter is just not enough to matter very much. What difference there is, in bullets of the same weight, slightly favors the .270 in sectional density (and theoretically wound channel depth), and slightly favors the .280 in bullet frontal area (and theoretically wound channel diameter), assuming all other factors are equal. It pretty much averages out, and in any case other factors, such as bullet design and impact velocity are far more important.

If bullets of the same sectional density and identical design are compared the penetration should be equal; the .280 retains its slight advantage in frontal area, and the .270 moves slightly ahead in energy because its bullet is slightly lighter and therefore faster. The .270 bullet will also shoot slightly flatter in terms of trajectory. As far as any game animal on earth is concerned, there is still no difference in killing power. Loaded to the same pressure, what the .270 can do the .280 can also do, and vice versa.

Loaded to the maximum permissible pressure the .270 shoots a little flatter with the same weight bullet than the .280, because it operates at slightly higher pressure and because with bullets of the same design a .277" bullet has a slightly better ballistic coefficient than a .284" bullet. For example, comparing Winchester 140 grain factory loads using Fail Safe bullets in both calibers, the .270 bullet has about 5" less drop at 500 yards. This is of little practical consequence.

If you load bullets of equal SD and ballistic coefficient to maximum pressure the .270 will also shoot slightly flatter, but again the difference is minimal. Since there is no significent difference in trajectory we are going to have to look elsewhere to find meaningful differences between the two cartridges.

If you load bullets of the same weight to the same velocity the recoil is also essentially identical. The Rifle Recoil Table shows that using a 140 grain bullet at a MV of 3,000 fps the .270 develops 17.1 ft. lbs. of recoil and the .280 develops 17.2 ft. lbs. of recoil.

For the reloader, bullet availability is important. For decades the .270 had a big advantage in North America. Because of the .270's popularity all bullet makers offered a wide selection of good bullets in .277" diameter. The 7x57 Mauser was the only common cartridge using .284" bullets, and it was not all that popular, so the selection of .284" bullets was smaller. The introduction of the .280 in 1957 did little to redress the balance, as it was not popular either, but in 1962 Remington introduced their 7mm Magnum cartridge. This cartridge was an immediate success and put the .284" bullet into the top tier in sales, right along with the .277" bullet.

Today almost every bullet maker offers a selection of both .277" and .284" bullets for every reasonable application for which either cartridge is suited. There are literally dozens of hunting bullets available in both calibers, ranging in weight from approximately 100 grains to 180 grains. So, for the reloader, there is no longer anything to choose between the .270 and the .280 in terms of bullet selection.

For the hunter who shoots primarily factory loads, however, there is a big difference. Because it is among the top 3 or 4 best selling rifle cartridges, .270 Winchester factory loads are much more widely distributed than .280 Remington factory loads. Both calibers are loaded with a good selection of bullet weights, but you can buy .270 cartridges in a lot of stores that do not stock .280 cartridges. This is true in North America and everywhere else big game is hunted. The .270 Winchester is a popular cartridge worldwide, the .280 Remington is not.

There is also a difference in price. High volume makes for a better discount, so .270 cartridges are usually cheaper than equivalent .280 cartridges. For the same reason, .270 factory ammo will be found on sale more frequently.

The .270's popularity also carries over into the availability of rifles. Virtually every rifle maker who makes a suitable action chambers it for the .270 Winchester cartridge. The selection of rifles in .280 Remington caliber is much smaller. So it is easier for the most shooters to find a decent selection of .270 rifles from which to choose.

This is important because stock fit is important. Even though they may measure the same or nearly the same, each brand of rifle fits and feels different. The hunter who can afford a custom built rifle is unaffected, but the average shooter should try as many brands as he can and buy the rifle with the stock that fits him best. Most retail stores will sell several brands available in .270, but only one or two available in .280.

And even within the brands that offer the .280 cartridge, there are usually more individual rifle models available in .270. If, for example, you want a mountain rifle instead of the standard rifle, it is more likely to be available in .270.

I would summarize the .270 Winchester vs. .280 Remington comparison thusly. There is no practical difference in killing power, trajectory, or recoil between the two cartridges. Ballistically, what one can do the other can also do.

If you are starting fresh, with no commitment to either cartridge, the .270 is probably the better choice. There is more factory loaded ammunition and more rifles (new and used) available in .270 Winchester. .270 ammunition is also more likely to be on sale. If you later wish to sell your rifle, you will find a .270 rifle easier to sell than a .280 rifle. If you travel far from home to hunt, .270 ammunition is much more likely to be available there, should you need to buy some.

If you are a reloader that already owns another rifle in either caliber, say a .270 Weatherby Magnum or a 7mm Weatherby Magnum, then I would stick with the caliber I already own. There is a pretty good chance that you will be able to use the same bullet(s) in both calibers, reducing your inventory costs.

If you prefer a certain make and model of rifle and it is available in one caliber but not the other, your decision has been made for you. Getting the rifle you like best is more important than the largely theoretical ballistic differences between the two calibers.

Back to the Rifle Cartridge Page

Copyright 2003, 2012 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.