A new method for calibrating the hadron response of a segmented calorimeter is developed and successfully applied to beam test data. It is based on a principal component analysis of energy deposits in the calorimeter layers, exploiting longitudinal shower development information to improve the measured energy resolution. Corrections for invisible hadronic energy and energy lost in dead material in front of and between the calorimeters of the ATLAS experiment were calculated with simulated Geant4 Monte Carlo events and used to reconstruct the energy of pions impinging on the calorimeters during the 2004 Barrel Combined Beam Test at the CERN H8 area. For pion beams with energies between 20GeV and 180GeV, the particle energy is reconstructed within 3% and the energy resolution is improved by between 11% and 25% compared to the resolution at the electromagnetic scale. © 2011 CERN for the benefit of the ATLAS collaboration, published under license by IOP Publishing Ltd and SISSA.