Jon R. Sundra
Whenever I hear the name Nosler, I think of bullets, particularly the Nosler Partition, the one that put John Nosler on the map. From meager beginnings in 1948, the company that bears his name has grown and prospered beyond anything he could have imagined. For more than two decades, Nosler bullets were available only as handloading components, but in the early 1970s Federal Cartridge saw the efficacy of loading specialty bullets, and the Nosler Partition was among the first chosen.
In 2004, the company took a bold step by announcing it was going into the rifle business. Only 500 Nosler Custom guns were made, and all were chambered in .300 WSM. However, at $4,195 they were pretty pricey, even by today’s standards. Two years later, they introduced a more mainstream rifle, the Model 48, commemorating the year the company was founded. Both the Custom and the Model 48 were based on an action very much like the Howa 1500, but with enough cosmetic and mechanical changes to set it apart. I’m talking changes in the bolt stop/release and trigger, and the machining of flat facets on the visible sides and top of the receiver to belie the fact it was a tube.
There were several variants of the Model 48, and the line did well enough to endure until earlier this year when it was supplanted by the Model 21. The Nosler people collaborated with the Mack Bros. of Sturgis, SD (macbros.com) for the action on the 21. The Mack brothers are known for their EVO action that was launched in 2018 and has since become a favorite of hunters and long-range competitive shooters around which they build custom rifles. The popularity is justified. It’s not only one beautiful action but at $675, it’s highly affordable. It was the Mack brothers, then, who the Nosler folks went to for their action, making enough changes cosmetically to the EVO to be able to call the Model 21 their own.
The example sent for testing for this article was chambered in Hornady’s 6.5 PRC, Precision Rifle Cartridge. Nosler’s spec sheet for the 21 lists the gun at 6.9 pounds. It arrived with a superb Leupold VX-6HD 3-18×44 scope pre-mounted in tactical rings. As such, it weighed 8 pounds, 2 ounces. The way I see it, if you start with a Mack Bros. action, fit it to a Shilen stainless Match Grade barrel, add a TriggerTech fire control system and a McMillan Hunters Edge stock, you’ve got the makings of one helluva rifle. And that’s just what Nosler has done.
Frankly, I was surprised to learn that the 21 was a twin-lug Mauser-type action. Since the turn of the millennium, most of the new bolt-action rifles have been of tri-lug design. I’m talking Browning, Winchester, Thompson-Center and Ruger, along with nine European makers that I can name. The 21 is not only a twin-lug action, but except for the bolt stop/release and extractor, it’s essentially a Remington 700. Not that that’s a bad thing. Hell, since its launch nearly 75 years ago as the Model 721/722, the 700 has been the most copied commercial rifle action in history. Though it (and the EVO), is essentially of Remington 700 design, it is a highly refined one that greatly improves on the original.
Like the 700, the 21’s receiver is tubular, has the same footprint as the 700 and employs the same washer-type recoil lug. The recessed bolt face with plunger ejector is also the same, as is the anti-bind groove in the right-side locking lug. The fire-control unit is TriggerTech’s Model 700 trigger, and I’m pretty sure the hinged floor plate bottom metal unit is that of the Model 700 BDL. But like I said, though the 21 is a lot like the 700, it is a step above in fit, finish and refinement.
The bolt is polished to the nth degree, and its nitride coating makes it so slick that it feels like it’s lubed when it’s bone dry. Not only that, but six helical facets on the bolt body reduce the frictional surface between it and its raceway by some 80 percent, I’m guessing. The bolt glide is so smooth that the unlocked, bone-dry bolt slides open when the muzzle is raised less than 20 degrees. Ditto on closing when the muzzle is lowered. Not only that, a mere 5 pounds of lift on the bolt handle cocks the action, making it easy to get off a repeat shot with the gun shouldered.
At the rear of the cocking piece, an extension of the firing pin protrudes when the action is cocked, providing both a tactile and visual check as to its status. An M16-style extractor takes a good bit of the case rim, and the bolt stop/release is a simple pivoting lever on the left side of the receiver bridge.
As for the McMillan Hunters Edge stock, to my eyes its dimensions and geometry are nigh on perfect for a hunting rifle. I stress “hunting” because if one wants to compete in long-range events using this action, there are stocks better suited.
About the only “custom” feature of the Model 21 is the choice of several different bolt handles. But other than that, all specs, such as barrel length and contour, threaded muzzle, stock design and finish, are all fixed, making it a semi-production rifle even though most examples will be made to order.
It wasn’t easy, but I was eventually able to scare up Hornady’s 143 grain ELD-X and ELD-Match loads, Nosler’s 140-grain Ballistic Tip and AccuBond loads, and Federal’s 140-grain Fusion Bonded Soft Point. All five produced at least two out of five 3-shot, 100-yard groups that were under an inch, with some well under. All in all, the gun proved to be a class act: highly accurate and a pleasure to shoot.
The 21 may be the only rifle offered in all six of Nosler’s proprietary calibers — 22, 26, 27, 28, 30 and 33 Nosler. They also chamber for the .280 Ackley Improved, 6.5 Creedmoor, .308 Win. and .375 H&H. Surely other calibers will be offered in the coming months. The MSRP is $2,795. nosler.com.
While on the subject of the 6.5 PRC, it is certainly one of the hottest cartridges to come along since its little brother, the 6.5 Creedmoor. However, the ’Creed was introduced in 2008, and it took several years for it to establish itself. The PRC was rolled out just four years ago, and it captured the imagination of hunters and shooters right from the start. Whereas the 6.5 Creedmoor was conceived as a 1,000-yard-plus match cartridge, the PRC was designed more as a long-range hunting round.
There is an aura surrounding the 6.5/.264 bore that would have you believe that it is capable of external ballistic and terminal performance disproportionate to its relatively small caliber. Indeed, one gets the impression that the 6.5 PRC is the new 7mm Rem. Magnum, if you will. The PRC is based on a shortened .375 Ruger hull so that it will cycle through some short actions. I emphasize “some” because most short actions, like the Remington 700, for example, can only digest overall cartridge lengths of 2.8 inches whereas the 6.5 PRC is factory loaded to a Cartridge Overall Length of 2.955 inches.
Its rim diameter measures the same .532-inch as that of its bigger belted sibling, the.264 Win Mag., but the latter steps down at the front of the belt to a body diameter some .020-inch less than the Ruger case. The result is a body that’s shorter and fatter than the .264 and holds about 10-12 grains less powder. Surprisingly, though, when you compare handloading data, the velocities attainable with the smaller PRC rival those of the .264, despite the disparate combustion chambers.
How do they do that?
The PRC is of the new school of cartridge design, the hallmarks of which are:
• Shorter, fatter cases of minimum body taper and sharper shoulders
• Bullets seated farther out to maximize usable powder capacity and minimize in-barrel bullet yaw,
• Barrels with faster twist rates to stabilize bullets heavier than previously established maximums. The .264 has a standard twist rate of 1 in 9 inches, which pretty much limits it to bullets of 142 grains or less. Whereas the PRC specs call for a 1-in-8 twist, which will stabilize bullets up to 153 grains.
All other things equal, with handloads, the .264’s larger case gives it an advantage velocity-wise. But other than that, the 6.5 PRC can, in fact, do things the .264 Win. cannot.
Only time will tell if the PRC has a long-term future as a hunting cartridge and extreme-range competitive round. The commercial success of any cartridge is determined by how many ammo manufacturers add it to their lineup. As of this writing, there are 17 6.5 PRC factory loads among Browning, Hornady, Nosler, Federal, Norma, Sako and Winchester. That’s a pretty good start for a 4-year-old cartridge. And the fact that most rifle makers are already chambering for it also bodes well. However, when you consider that Midway USA lists 262 loads for the 6.5 Creedmoor, the PRC has a long way to go.