If backed into a corner at gunpoint and forced to name my candidate for “most influential cartridge” of the 20th century, I would probably say it was the .280 Ross.
There is no shortage of candidates, and the .375 H&H would be my second choice. But while the .375 H&H has the most grandchildren, it was hardly the most influential. The Ross set in motion a quest for small-caliber, high-velocity performance that continues to this day. We can trace that influence through the .275 H&H, .270 Winchester, and 7mm Remington, right through to the over-long, over-wrought 7mm creations that are now raising dust and causing deafness.
The Ross’s standard load of a 146-grain bullet at 3,100 feet per second (fps) was the first commercial cartridge to breach the 3,000 fps barrier. That velocity instantly became the goal for others, and the benchmark for measuring every new cartridge to come along.
The Ross had a stormy history, to say the least. Designed by Sir Charles Ross and F.W. Jones, it sprang upon the world in 1908, first as a match cartridge and, once it became ruler of long-distance shooting at Bisley, it took up a new career as a hunting cartridge. Its performance at Bisley inspired the War Office to design a new military round to replace the .303 British (.276 Enfield) and a new rifle to go with it (Enfield P-13). Only the outbreak of war in 1914 caused that project to be shelved.
Although the most famous rifle for the .280 Ross was the remarkable Ross M-10, it was so good that Mauser adopted it as a standard chambering for the Magnum Mauser sporting rifle, and a great many custom rifles were chambered for it or rebarreled. Charles Lancaster, which had a close association with Sir Charles Ross, built a pair of double rifles in his .280, with their oval-bored rifling, and King George V used them on his 1911 grand tour of India as the newly crowned King-Emperor. He used them on anything up to tigers and rhinos, and pronounced them “excellent.”
Few remember the King’s hunting tour of India, but many recall that other incident in 1911, when George Grey (brother of the British foreign secretary) wounded a lion with a .280 Ross, and was killed when the high-velocity bullets failed to stop its charge. Blaming the Ross for that failure is manifestly unfair. Dying in hospital in Nairobi, Grey stated frankly that it was his own fault for riding too close to the lion. He was hunting on a farm in the Aberdares, and the informal rules of hunting lions on horseback was, one, never to get too close, and two, never to shoot from less than 150 yards. Grey did both and paid the price, but the .280 Ross has been paying as well, from that day to this.
In connection with the .280 Ross, Sir Charles Ross made several other significant strides, ballistically speaking. In the U.S., he persuaded du Pont to produce a new, coated, slow-burning powder (DuPont #10). It made possible high velocity with heavy bullets, and was used in the later .250-3000 (the first American commercial cartridge to reach that velocity) and fathered a whole family of ever-slower “Improved Military Powders” (IMR) from du Pont. Sir Charles also pioneered the use of heavy-for-caliber bullets with spitzer noses and long ogives — what we would today call “extra-low drag.” The .280 Ross, loaded with Sir Charles’s 180-grain match bullet, was unbeatable on either side of the Atlantic.
In 1920, advised by his doctor to get a good rest, Sir Charles booked a long safari in East Africa with his extra-marital friend, the New York big-game hunting socialite, Mrs. Emily Key Hoffman Daziel. He shot almost everything on the ticket with the .280, to prove that allegations of inadequacy were wrong. When he got home, he commissioned a bust of himself in safari garb; the marble Sir Charles’s marble cartridge loops were occupied by marble .280 Ross rounds. The bust still resides at the Ross ancestral home, Balnagowan, near Inverness.
It is impossible to say how many rifles were chambered for the .280 Ross, but it must have been substantial. Eley-Kynoch kept the cartridge in production until 1967. There is still a demand for brass from handloaders, and Quality Cartridge does periodic runs.
Oddly enough, no other notable cartridges were designed using the distinctive Ross case — long for its time, with a marked taper and a semi-rimless head. Nor did anyone create a wildcat cartridge. It’s too bad: The tapered case would be excellent in hot climates to prevent sticking, while the rim would give more purchase than a standard rimless, without the feeding difficulties of a rim. It has about the same diameter at the base as the later .375 H&H belted case, so there’s no shortage of powder capacity.
The one exception to this was the strange case of Harold Gerlich and his .280 Halger, in the 1920s. The Halger was simply the Ross case with a different headstamp and a raft of opium-induced claims. Possibly this is the sincerest form of flattery, but I rather doubt Sir Charles Ross would have found it so.