P.O. Ackley - The King of Wildcats
February 14, 2019
This issue of Shooting Times is loosely focused on cartridges, some new and some that have been around for quite some time. Several of them started out as wildcat cartridges, and I know of no one who developed more wildcat cartridges than P.O. Ackley. In fact, he has been referred to as the “king of the wildcats” and “Mr. Wildcat.”
Many Shooting Times readers have probably heard of Ackley, and some of you who have been longtime subscribers may recall that he wrote for this magazine for more than two decades. For younger readers who may not know of him, he wildcatted 52 cartridges that ranged in caliber from .17 to the .475. He is most famous for developing the “improved” concept whereby the case taper and shoulder angle of a commercial cartridge are improved so that case capacity is increased. At least 10 of his improved cartridges were .22 caliber.
P.O. Ackley was born on May 25, 1903. He was raised on a farm near Granville, New York, and began working on guns as a young boy. He graduated from Syracuse University in 1924 with a degree in agriculture, and along the way, he took several engineering courses. After college, he began his own farming operation, married, and started a family. His farm was productive, but when the Great Depression hit, he had a tough time making a living. His farming operation lasted longer than many in the area, but he had been interested in buying a gunshop located in Roseburg, Oregon, and in 1936 he sold the farm, bought the gunshop, and headed west.
The gunshop was successful, and his business included repairing lots of guns for customers. But he had an eye on building guns and was especially keen on making the barrels. So he struck a deal with an old friend back East who owned a gunshop where barrels were made. Ackley moved into the gunshop and made barrels day and night, seven days a week for an entire year. He returned to Oregon, built a hand-powered deep-hole drill and rifling machine, and tooled up to make .22-caliber barrels. Ackley earned the reputation of being a premier barrelmaker.
During World War II, he was sent to the Ogden Ordnance Depot in Utah and was charged with developing a repair program for the U.S. Army. It was so successful that it grew into a full-scale arsenal overhaul operation. At the end of the war, he partnered with well-known gunmaker Ward Koozer and bought out and took over George Turner’s gunshop in Cimarron, New Mexico. The partners soon moved the shop to Trinidad, Colorado.
A lot of returning GIs wanted to use the recently enacted G.I. Bill to learn gunsmithing. Ackley had made such a name for himself in the trade that by 1947 he had received so many requests to teach the returning GIs that he and Dean C.O. Banta of Trinidad State Junior College began a gunsmithing program at the college. Ackley taught classes until 1951, when he once again started a gunshop. When that business was bought by shareholders and moved to Salt Lake City, Utah, Ackley moved with it. Soon thereafter, he divested from it and started another gunshop of his own in Salt Lake City. He stayed there until his death in 1989.
From 1936 until 1989, Ackley was continually wildcatting cartridges. In most cases he wanted to improve the performance with higher velocity or more efficient powder utilization, but some were purely experimental.
Ackley often tested his wildcat cartridges on an annual hunting trip, and he was a strong advocate of hunting big game (including elk) with high-performance .22-caliber cartridges. He understood that to do that effectively, proper bullets were critical. Most .22-calber bullets of his time were meant for varmint hunting and were lightly constructed, so he created his own heavy-for-caliber .22-caliber hunting bullet. Called the Ackley C.E. (Controlled Expansion), it consisted of a solid-copper base and a 10-grain Spitzer-shaped lead core with the jacket folded over. On impact, the front half of the bullet expanded to increase shocking power and wound cavity while the solid base provided penetration.
In addition to all of his hands-on work with guns, barrels, and cartridges, Ackley also did a lot of writing, particularly in the general area of gunsmithing. One account of his life went so far as to say, “It was his writing that made him ‘America’s Gunsmith’….” He wrote for several magazines, including Shooting Times (writing a monthly gunsmithing column from 1960 until 1982), and he also authored five books.
Gunsmith, barrelmaker, teacher, writer, hunter, and king of the wildcat cartridges, P.O. Ackley passed away on August 23, 1989, in Salt Lake City, Utah. I doubt if we’ll ever see the likes of him again.