Power for the 30-30: Ackley Improved and Hornady LEVERevolution

If I want to know how people feel about any topic the WWW allows me to assemble hundreds of comments in a few seconds.  I did this recently with the topic “Hunting with the 30-30,” and the comments were impressive in number and quality.

Lots of people are still killing deer with the 30-30.  Many feel it kills well in their hunting conditions and they like to use the Winchester 94 or Marlin 336 carbines.  There is also some feeling that folks enjoy hunting the way Grandpa did it.  And, it is a telling fact that ammo companies keep introducing new and “improved” loads for the ancient one.

King of the Karbines: Winchester Model 94

King of the Karbines: Winchester Model 94

There is another school of thought that goes like this:  “Forget this useless antique.  It is near the bottom rung of thirty caliber power, and lever actions are just not accurate.  Every thirty that has appeared since is better and can be obtained in affordable hunting rifles.  Cut the traces, get a .308.  Get a .300 Winchester Short Magnum!”

It is difficult to refute this argument, based on performance rather than nostalgic personal taste.  But it is a little like someone saying to me “Roy, you don’t play piano as well as Emile Pandolfi.  In fact, you don’t even play piano as well as the old lady who plays for our church service on Sunday!  Give it up and find something else to play or do.”  Granted, I am far from proficient, but back off!  Trying to play piano as well as I can is part of the life I want to live.

So, regardless of how good the 30-30 is these days, making good ammo and working to make my 30-30 rifles shoot as well as they can is part of the life I want to live.  I don’t care how old it is, because not living the life one wants to live is a terrible thing.

There is no denying the popularity of the 20-inch carbines, but one of the ways to boost your double thirty is to simply use an arm with a longer barrel.  Marlin and Winchester lever actions can both be obtained with 24-inch barrels, and you can expect to get around 100 – 120 fps more velocity over a 20-inch barrel, maybe a little more.  Such rifles are still slim and light.  You will notice a bit of difference in the handling, but the increase is worth it.  The picture shows my 24-inch Model 94 Angle Eject version made in the 1980s.

Winchester Model 94AE, 24-inch barrel

Winchester Model 94AE, 24-inch barrel

With 170-grain factory loads, this AE gives velocities of 2152 fps, 2190 fps, and 2223 fps for Winchester Silvertip, Federal Classic, and Hornady Custom ammo, respectively.  A 20-inch carbine would likely give 2100 fps or less with this ammo.

There are some other ways to squeeze more zonk out of the old zombie.  One of the oldest was invented by gunsmith P. O. Ackley, who enlarged the 30-30 case by straightening its walls and making the neck shorter.  This method depends entirely on case configuration and a rifle’s chamber has to be reamed to accept the new shape.  Conventional 30-30 powders and bullets are used, and the additional case capacity gives higher velocities.  The new shape was called the 30-30 Winchester Ackley Improved.

A much more recent improvement occurred when Hornady Mfg. developed the LEVERevolution line of cartridges.  Hornady used the original case design but used improved bullet design and powder with better, progressive performance to get improved down-range ballistics for increased killing power.

The 30-30 Ackley Improved

Parker O. Ackley, educated at Syracuse University, established a gun shop in Trinidad, Colorado in 1945 and was a tireless firearms experimenter, gun builder, and writer in the mid-twentieth century.  He is perhaps best known for his development of “wildcat” cartridges in which his main method was to increase the powder capacity of existing rounds.  A whole series of “Ackley Improved” cartridges in various calibers resulted from his work.

The 30-30 Ackley Improved is a typical example of this approach.  The standard case is

Left:  Standad 30-30;  Right:  30-30 Ackley Improved

Left: Standard 30-30; Right: 30-30 Ackley Improved

modified by giving it straighter sidewalls, a longer case body, and a sharp shoulder.  This gives a case with a shorter neck and greater powder volume for increased power.  It looks great!  More modern shape, and still a nice rim for headspacing.

This is not a “How to” discussion, nor a recommendation.  It is just a description of the AI method.  The rifle chamber must be reamed to accept the shape of the new cartridge.  This is not a major operation, but it is best done by a gunsmith.  It could be done with any 30-30 rifle.  Factory cartridges will fire in the new chamber and the cases will expand to the new dimensions.  Alternatively, moderate handloads can be made up with new or once fired standard cases and fired in the new chamber to give AI formed cases.  From then on it is a handloading proposition.  Loading dies for AI cartridges are available from the major makers of reloading equipment.  Popular 30-30 powders, like IMR 3031 and W748 may be used with the usual 150- and 170-grain bullets.

What to expect??  Ackley reported getting about 300 feet per second over the factory velocity of 2390 fps with 150-grain bullets.  Impressive, but not all workers have been able to get all of that.  It depends on barrel length.  Longer barrels will get more velocity out of the increased charges that the AI allows.  From reports that I have seen, a shooter trying 30-30 AI could expect to get an increase in the range of 100-200 fps while maintaining safe pressures with either of the popular bullet weights.  The lower end is likely for 20-in. carbines, the higher for barrels of 24 in. or longer.

Suppose we use an arm with a 24″ barrel and we can get an increase of 200 fps with a 170-gr bullet.  Comparing ballistics we will find the following:

                                            Velocity          Muzzle Energy          200 Yard Energy

Standard 30-30                  2200 fps        1827 foot-lbs                    989 fp

30-30 AI                              2400 fps         2174 fp                            1176 fp

So we have an increase of 347 ft-lbs (19%) at the muzzle, but only 187 ft-lbs remains at 200 yards.  Still, that is significant.  This involves an increase in pressure, but a 94 or 336 will handle it.  Both have been chambered for rounds that generate more pressure than the 30-30.

Just below aperture, in the white, strong breech block locked on oth sides

Just below aperture, in the white, strong breech block locked in channels on both sides of receiver

An additional advantage is that the straighter AI cases undergo less stretching and therefore last longer and require less frequent trimming.

The Hornady 30-30 LEVERevolution

Hornady’s LEVERevolution (LE) line of cartridges for lever action rifles appeared in about 2005, and it was truly an innovation.  Hornady developed a flexible plastic tip for a spitzer (pointed) bullet that would not cause detonation of cartridges held in line in a tubular magazine.  The more streamlined bullet retained velocity better at range, and along with this, an improved powder from Hodgdon was used to gain some velocity.

Right: A Hornady 160-gr LEVERevolutin round with two conventional flat-nosed rounds

Right: A Hornady 160-gr LEVERevolution round with two conventional flat-nosed rounds

The 30-30 LE uses a 160-grain (Hornady calls it the FTX) bullet, different from the usual 150- or 170-grainers, so comparison is a little difficult, but the ballistic figures tell the story.  For a 24″ barrel:

Hornady 30-30 LE            2400 fps/2046 ft-lbs (muzzle)   1916 fps/1304 ft-lbs (200 yds)

We want to compare data for the Ackley-Improved above to that of the Hornady LE.  At the muzzle, the AI wins by 128 ft-lbs.  No deer are shot at the muzzle.  Check the 200-yard figures, however, and the situation is reversed.  The LE has 118 more ft-lbs of smack, a more efficient bullet doing a better job of retaining velocity.

Better yet,compare the LE to the standard 170-gr load.  How about 315 additional ft-lbs of goose at 200 yards, even though the bullet is 10 grains lighter?

Clearly, the Hornady LE beats the Ackley Improved at range with no modifications to the gun or any necessity for handloading.  Over the years, an informal rule of thumb has been that you need 1000 foot-whacks of energy to take a big game animal.  Note that the LE has more than that at 200 yards.

The claims made for the cartridge are real.  My 24″ Model 94 gave 2375 fps over a chronograph at 15 feet.  In five different rifles, 2 lever actions, 2 bolt actions, and a single shot, of various barrel lengths, the LE averaged an increased average velocity of 136 fps over a range of factory 170-grain loads.

The Bottom Line

If you use a 20-inch carbine to shoot your deer at 75 yards, you probably won’t notice much difference in the killing power of any of the 30-30 loads.  However, if you want to take a deer at 200, you will do better with a 24-inch barrel spitting out the 160-gr LE, or with the AI, but with the LE all you have to do is buy the ammo.  It is not hugely expensive, but good luck finding it in a store.

Does this make me want to forget the Ackley Improved?  Noooooooo!  I love to putz around, and I would love to putz around with the 30-30 AI in a good, strong bolt action rifle.  Got to find a way to do that so I can report on it in the future.

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