On the Fourth of July the highways leading into Cincinnati were packed with vehicles, most of them full of families headed to the waterpark or on their way to one of the city's scattered fireworks displays. But I was headed against the rush, out into the open fields of Clinton County for a fireworks display of my own. Just behind my seat in the pickup was the new Nosler M48 Liberty rifle, and it was chambered in Nosler's first branded cartridge: the fire-breathing .26 Nosler.
I like hotdogs and potato salad just as much as the next guy, but some things just can't wait. It wasn't my first experience with the Nosler M48 Liberty rifle, nor was it my first time shooting one chambered in the hot new Nosler cartridge. That occurred at a media event the year before, when the then-new Nosler M48 Liberty was first announced along with the brand's first namesake cartridge, and I'd spent some time shooting targets out to 600 yards with the cartridge/rifle combo.
But this was my first opportunity to sit down and really test the new gun's mettle, to see just how accurate the Nosler M48 Liberty really is and to find out if the company's lofty claims about the new cartridge's velocity figures (3,400 fps with 129-grain AccuBond Long Range ammunition, 3,300 fps with standard 140-grain AccuBonds) lived up to the hype.
Nosler has a long history of innovation in the field of bullet design and ammunition and brass production, but it wasn't until 2006 that the company announced its very first rifle offering, the Model 48 Trophy Grade. It wasn't very long until the rifle began winning praise and accolades from the media and shooters. It utilized a push-feed bolt design, a hand laid-up laminated stock and a superb trigger. It was a production rifle that was built like a custom gun.
The accuracy was excellent, and many shooters wanted to get their hands on one of the new 48s (so named in honor of Nosler's 1948 founding). The problem was the original 48 — and the versions that followed — was very expensive and out of the reach of many hunters.
However, for all that they offered, the 48s were a good deal. You could expect sub-m.o.a. accuracy from a weatherproof rifle that was built to exacting standards. In late 2014, eight years after the Model 48's debut, Nosler revamped the Model 48 line. It did away with the Trophy Grade and replaced it with the Patriot, a less expensive rifle. The new rifle retains the build quality, accuracy and most components found on other 48s — a Rifle Basix trigger and Bell and Carlson stock, for instance — but the suggested retail is $1,695, not exactly a price slash but still cheaper than any 48 the company has offered.
So if the Nosler M48 Liberty is still a full-featured rifle, how did Nosler manage to drop the price? Essentially by changing the way it builds rifles. The company invested in machinery and infrastructure that allow it to manufacture more of its own small parts, which enables it to control costs. Also, instead of building guns that were more or less made to order like a custom rifle, Nosler is now producing guns in larger batches and scheduling its production runs similar to the way it makes bullets. The result is a more efficient operation that doesn't skimp on quality, but if you want a Liberty in a particular caliber, you may have to wait for that run to be manufactured and distributed.
At the same time the Nosler M48 Liberty was launched, Nosler also announced its first-ever proprietary cartridge, the .26 Nosler. The old biases that American shooters held against 6.5/.264 cartridges have faded, and the time seemed right for a fast, American .264/6.5mm cartridge. According to Nosler's Zach Waterman, the .26 Nosler is a large, beltless cartridge that traces its lineage to the .404 Jeffery via the 7mm Rem. Ultra Mag.
But the .26 Nosler is not simply a necked-down 7mm Ultra Mag. Engineering the new Nosler cartridge required 14 sizing stages, and the resulting cartridge has a rim diameter of .532 inch — meaning it will fit on standard belted magnum bolt faces — and a cartridge overall length of 3.340 inches, so it will fit in a standard .30-06-length action.
The .26 Nosler is undoubtedly one of the fastest, flattest-shooting mid-bores on the market, certainly the fastest 6.5mm. According to ShootersCalculator.com, maximum point blank range when zeroed at 200 is 269 yards with the 129-grain ABLR bullet — and your drop will be only 4.7 inches at 300 yards and a relatively scant 13.65 inches at 400. To get close to your 200-yard zero, you need to sight in only 0.95 inch high at 100.
The cartridge promises impressive energy figures as well. In real-world terms, the .26 Nosler loaded with 129-grain AccuBond Long Range bullets has as much energy at 400 yards as a .260 Rem. has at the muzzle, according to Nosler's ballistics. That's roughly 600 more foot-pounds than a .270 Win. carries at 400 yards and almost 500 ft.-lbs. above what the .264 Win. Mag. generates.
Faster doesn't mean better, though, and energy alone doesn't kill game. No one understands that more than the folks at Nosler, who have been testing their bullets in the field for decades. The company also didn't want to experience the problems that plagued Winchester when the .264 Win. Mag. was announced, which were primarily issues with powder and bullet availability.
Today, powder advancements have remedied that problem, and the 26-inch pipe on the Nosler M48 Liberty is sufficient to reap the benefits of the fast .26 without spewing tons of unburnt powder from the barrel. (The .26 Nosler will be the only Nosler M48 Liberty chambering to feature this barrel. Barrels on other magnums will sport 24-inch magnum contours, and non-magnums will come with 24-inch standard contours.) Most bullets from five decades ago — when the .264 Win. Mag. came out — wouldn't handle the .26's velocity, but modern bullets will, and Nosler makes some of those bullets in its Bend, Oregon, factory.
The bolt has dual opposed locking lugs with a small extractor and a plunger ejector. Being a two-lug design, the bolt lift is 90 degrees. The Nosler's bolt body is fluted and runs through the action smoothly and without slop. The bolt, like every other piece of external metal on the gun, has a matte black Cerakote finish that makes the gun corrosion resistant. The bolt handle is well-proportioned and easy to grasp with sufficient texturing for sure operation.
The sides of the receiver are sharply angled, giving the rifle a sleek, modern look and reducing overall weight by a few ounces, and the bolt release is an easy-to-use rocker-type mount located on the left rear of the receiver. Unlike the very first Nosler 48s, which came to market with a blind internal magazine, the Liberty has a hinged floorplate, and the aluminum bottom metal has the same Cerakote treatment that the rest of the rifle receives. Capacity is 3+1. The latch, which is located at the front of the trigger guard, offers secure lockup and easy release.
To wring the most accuracy out of the Nosler M48 Liberty, Nosler incorporated an aluminum bedding chassis into the aramid-fiber reinforced carbon fiber stock, and the barrel is free-floated. The stock is, as mentioned, a hand laid-up laminate that is elephant gray with black epoxy webbed over the surface. It's never going to warp or crack, it cradles the barreled action consistently for optimum accuracy, and it has a substantial yet comfortable feel.
The comb is straight with a pancake cheekpiece and a thick, solid pistol grip. I liked the thick pistol grip and the substantial platform it offers to hold the rifle, but some shooters may find the upper portion of the pistol grip short, meaning that for those with large hands the ball of the thumb may rest on top of the comb. The two-position rocker-type safety is located near the right rear portion of the action and can be unloaded with the safety in the Safe position.
On the afternoon of July Fourth, it was hot and humid with a cloudless blue sky that stretched from one horizon to the next. The range was crowded, mostly folks shooting ARs and a handful of older gentlemen trying to get a Mosin rifle sighted in. When the Nosler M48 Liberty broke cover, there were a few glances from the other benches. When the rifle roared for the first time, a guy on a bench down the way yelled, "Hey, what is that thing?"
The rifle drew a few nods and exclamations of approval, the cartridge elicited a small conference around the bench. One guy had heard about the .26, and he owned a .260, so he paid attention to any new 6.5mm offerings. The rest hadn't heard about the new round, but one look at the .26's large case told them all they needed to know: This new cartridge is fast.
The .26 did not disappoint. I do most of the shooting for my RifleShooter tests from a fixed rest and trying my best to eliminate any variables. But I started shooting the Nosler M48 Liberty from a standing position because with a new rifle and an unfamiliar round I want to know how much recoil I'm going to be dealing with before I sit down at the bench.
The .26's bark is worse than its bite. The .26 does scream when you touch off a round, but with a 26-inch tube the roaring is far from your face. Recoil is pretty manageable — somewhere between a .270 Win. and a 7mm Rem. Mag., in my estimation.
One thing that helps reduce felt recoil is the stock design of the Nosler M48 Liberty. The straight, solidly constructed stock has a good, soft recoil pad, and at just under seven pounds (unscoped) it's light enough to carry all day yet heavy enough to vacuum up some of the kick. I could go on about the trigger like a vineyard owner does about fine wine, but let's just say it's extremely good and clean and breaks at 2.5 pounds.
The Nosler M48 Liberty ran smoothly during the tests. The bolt cycles through the action like it's on rails, and cartridges dutifully feed, fire, extract and eject.
To test the 48's accuracy claims (Nosler promises sub-m.o.a. with prescribed ammo), I topped it with a Bushnell Elite 6500 3-9x40 scope on Talley rings. The Liberty, like the rest of the Nosler 48 lineup, is drilled and tapped to accept bases designed for Remington Model 700s, Weatherby Vanguards, Howa 1500s and a few others, so they aren't hard to come by.
The first group was on paper and under an inch with the 140-grain AccuBonds, and by the time the test was done, the overall average for that load was 0.94 inch. The 129-grain AccuBond Long Range ammo averaged 0.76 inch for three shots, and that ammunition posted the best overall group size at 0.65 inch. In short, the Nosler lived up to its accuracy claims with ease.
On the velocity front, while I find that many velocity estimates from the factory are ambitious, Nosler actually undersold the .26's speed, according to my chronograph. The 140-grain bullet averaged 3,304 fps, the 129-grain load 3,418 fps.
The .26 Nosler is designed primarily for long-range hunting, and in that capacity it is likely to excel. For deer, pronghorn and similar size game out to very long range, it is an excellent choice, and sheep and goat hunters will find that the flat trajectory and the superb long-range capabilities of the .264 bullets (particularly the ABLR) will make this a fine option for mountain hunting.
The efficacy of .264 cartridges on elk is a subject of debate, but if 2,000 ft.-lbs. of energy truly is the minimal amount of punch required to drop a big bull, then the .26 Nosler with 140-grain AccuBonds will get the job done out to almost 400 yards, the 129-grain load just a bit farther.
The Nosler M48 Liberty is a well-built rifle, with a smooth action, quality construction and attention to detail, and even though the price tag is high, the accuracy potential and quality of this rifle justify the price of entry. The .26's impressive speed has caused some to question the rifle's barrel life, and on that front I can only say I received a test rifle that had made the rounds with other testers. Who knows how many bullets had passed through the bore by the time I got it, and I put another 80 rounds down the pipe without any accuracy issues that could indicate a worn barrel.
Nosler waited a long time to introduce its own cartridge, and the Nosler M48 Liberty is the perfect platform for that round. Is it a combo that will appeal to the masses? Not likely, especially when the suggested retail for a basic rifle is around $1,700. But the .26 Nosler offers a flat trajectory curve, high retained energy and a level of versatility that give it the potential to become an outstanding long-range, medium game cartridge.
The Nosler 48 Patriot
utilizes a push-feed action with dual opposed locking lugs. The entire action is treated with a Cerakote finish, and the bolt body is fluted. The Patriot is drilled and tapped to accept bases that fit a Remington Model 700.
The Patriot's forebears had blind magazines, but Nosler made the decision that its newest Model 48 would feature the hinged floorplate many hunters prefer.
From left to right: 6.5x55 Swede, .264 Win. Mag., .26 Nosler. The new Nosler
round — based on the .404 Jeffery by way of the 7mm Rem. Ultra Mag — fits in a standard-length action and a standard magnum bolt face. And it's screaming fast.
Nosler is currently offering two loads for the .26 — a 129-grainer at 3,400 fps and a 140-grainer at 3,300 fps — and both proved superbly accurate in the new Patriot. Not only that, they actually beat published velocities by a tiny bit in the author's test gun.