August 09, 2017
They call it flyover country, that great swath of heartland between the Northeastern Megalopolis and Southern California. The men and women who live here make up an important part of the fabric of our great nation. They are a hardy people with strong beliefs and admirable traits. Perhaps I am a bit biased, though, living as I do in rural Kansas.
Over the years I've found it interesting at just how widely embraced the AR rifle has become here in the heartland. It has become the rifle of choice of the blue-collar worker. Oh, sure, they likely have a traditional bolt gun or two kicking around, but their working gun or truck rifle tends to be some flavor of AR. There are few rifles, with all its calibers, configurations and options that are as versatile or scream 'Murica like Stoner's black rifle does.
There are indeed some great factory cartridges developed specifically for use in the AR platform beyond the standard .223/5.56. These include the 6.5mm Grendel, 6.8 Rem SPC, .300 BLK, .30 Rem. AR, .450 Bushmaster, .458 SOCOM and, of course, the .50 Beowulf. Some of these are more popular and useful than others, but they all add to the versatility of this rifle family.
Unfortunately, there has been no factory offering in .22 caliber that has offered a real step up in performance compared to the .223/5.56. Hunters, recreational shooters and competitive riflemen looking for a bit more out of this bore size either had to switch to a wildcat or a different platform. Nosler is looking to change this dynamic with the development and introduction of an entirely new cartridge: the .22 Nosler.
The .22 Nosler joins the .26 Nosler (2014), .28 Nosler (2015), .30 Nosler (2016) and the recently introduced, hard-hitting .33 Nosler (2016) cartridges. Since introducing its first cartridge in 2014, Nosler has been on a bit of a roll. Starting with the .26 Nosler, this relative newcomer to ammunition has set a high bar. Nosler didn't just want its name on the headstamp of just any cartridge. It wanted to introduce new cartridges that would grab people's attention the old-fashioned way — with blistering performance.
The .26 Nosler is a great example of this, driving a 129-grain bullet at a scorching 3,400 fps. In doing so, it kicks sand in the face of the .260 Rem., 6.5 Creedmoor, .264 Win. Mag. and even the 6.5-284 Norma (although it was slightly eclipsed by Weatherby's 6.5-300, introduced last year). The Nosler headstamped cartridges that followed have all been equally attention getting when it comes to brute performance.
The .22 Nosler is a different animal. For one thing, it wasn't designed around the .404 Jeffery case like all the others. Nor was it developed with traditional bolt-action rifles in mind. No, the .22 Nosler was designed for one specific purpose: to be the fastest .22 caliber cartridge that is able to be easily chambered in a standard AR-15 type rifle.
Its goal is to provide rifle shooters with a practical step up in performance over the hugely popular .223 Rem. and even the 5.56 NATO. By "practical" I mean the designers at Nosler wanted their new cartridge to be an easy drop-in caliber change for any standard AR-15 rifle. Rather than being an expensive custom conversion requiring hard to-find and expensive parts and pieces, the .22 Nosler was designed with the everyday shooter in mind.
When conceptualizing the cartridge, the engineers had to consider the existing AR-15 magazine well dimensions and operating pressures. The magazine well dimensions dictate the maximum overall length and optimum cartridge case diameter for reliable feeding. It becomes more difficult to design a reliable and robust magazine as the diameter of the cartridge case increases due to the internal dimensions of the magazine well.
The existing magazine well dimensions dictate everything from how thick the magazines can be to the optimum case taper. For example, as you increase case diameter it becomes impossible to produce a sufficiently robust polymer magazine, so metal magazines are required. Basically, everything becomes a balancing act.
Nosler's engineering team also had to consider the pressures this design could safely handle. The SAAMI maximum average pressure for the .223 Rem. is 55,000 psi, and that's what the pressure standard for the .22 Nosler is as well.
However, designers also had to consider case head diameter in relation to bolt thrust. Going to a larger diameter case would provide additional capacity, but it would also reduce the amount of material on the bolt and require a proprietary part. Bolt face choices included the larger .422-inch face for the 6.8mm Rem. SPC, the .440-incher utilized by the 6.5mm Grendel and 7.62x39, and the standard .223/5.56 .378-inch bolt face. Nosler chose the latter.
The .22 Nosler is a good-looking cartridge, a bit fatter than the traditional .223 Rem. but similar in length. The bottleneck case sports a 30-degree shoulder and a distinctive rebated rim. Putting my calipers to some virgin cases showed the case to have an overall length of 1.75 inches, tapering from 0.415 inch to 0.395 inch. It has a neck diameter of 0.252 inch, and as mentioned above, the rim is rebated to fit a standard 0.378-inch .223 Rem. bolt. It utilizes a Small Rifle primer.
How does Nosler's case volume compare with the .223 Rem.? Well, the .22 Nosler case holds 34.2 grains of water at overflow while a .223 Rem. case holds approximately 31 grains. With a 55-grain Ballistic Tip seated to a provide an overall length of 2.260 inches, the .22 Nosler holds 31.2 grains of water. A .223 Rem. with the same bullet seated to the same overall length holds 27.4 grains of water. So Nosler's new case does offer a useful increase in case volume.
Nosler claims the .22 Nosler case is "its own animal." I would say it is similar to a 6.8mm Rem. SPC case that has been lengthened, rebated, had the shoulder angle changed to 30 degrees and necked down to .22 caliber. So I guess you could call it "its own animal."
By designing it in this manner, the engineers have created a cartridge not only perfectly suited to the AR-15 rifle but also to the market as well. The .22 Nosler requires no weird or expensive proprietary parts. And that .223 Rem. rim diameter means you can use standard mil-spec AR-15 bolts. These are both readily available and economical.
Except for the barrel, all other parts are standard, off-the-shelf components. So building an AR rifle in .22 Nosler is both straightforward and easy — it's no different than building a .223 Rem. — although Nosler does recommend an adjustable gas block to achieve maximum performance.
So Nosler got the first part — build components — right. But for the AR platform, the ready availability of affordable and reliable high-capacity magazines can make or break a new introduction. AR shooters have become relatively spoiled by the proliferation of quality magazines in the last decade, and the one downside to the .22 Nosler is that it requires special magazines.
The .22 Nosler will not feed properly from standard .223/5.56 magazines, but on the positive side, it will feed from 6.8mm Rem. SPC magazines. These are readily available from a number of manufacturers in a variety of capacities. This magazine design has been refined and improved since the cartridge was first introduced in 2004.
I was able to obtain a limited amount of .22 Nosler factory ammo and a Noveske .22 Nosler upper, and the rig fed flawlessly using a 10-shot 6.8mm SPC magazine. (Ed note: Fortier reports accuracy was good, with the rifle averaging 0.6 inch for three five-shot groups at 100 yards, but unfortunately the ammo Nosler sent was not the final spec — it was loaded to a lower level than the company actually plans to produce — so he did not conduct RifleShooter's standard accuracy test. That's why there's no accompanying accuracy chart.)
On the performance side of the ledger, Nosler is claiming its new cartridge will push a 55-grain Ballistic Tip at 3,500 fps from a 24-inch barrel. If you like heavier bullets, the company says the cartridge will drive a 77-grain Custom Competition open-tip match at 3,100 fps from a 24-inch barrel.
Sound exciting? Yes. But keep in mind these are SAAMI test barrel velocities, and who runs a 24-inch tube in the field? For a more realistic look at what the .22 Nosler is capable of, Nosler also furnished data for an 18-inch barrel. The 55-grain Ballistic Tip load averaged 3,350 fps in its testing while the heavier 77-grain Custom Competition load averaged 2,900 fps.
I wanted to compare the 77-grain .22 Nosler load apples to apples with a .223 Rem. load, so I consulted my records. When fired from an 18-inch Mk12 Mod 1 AR-15, the Black Hills .223 Rem. 77-grain MatchKing load averaged 2,615 fps. So in this particular instance, the .22 Nosler has an impressive 285 fps advantage over this specific .223 Rem load.
Stepping up to a 5.56 NATO pressure, my records showed the Black Hills 77-grain AMU Military Match load averaged a noticeably quicker 2,776 fps from the Mk12 18-inch barrel. However, the difference between this hot military 5.56 load and the .22 Nosler is still 124 fps.
I think the new .22 Nosler does offer a noticeable advantage over the .223 Rem., with an increase in velocity and energy and less drop and wind drift across the board.
Basically, the 77-grain .22 Nosler load retains the same energy at 500 yards as a 77-grain .223 Rem. load retains at 400 yards. This increase in performance will be of interest to hunters and competitive shooters, and for the latter I'll be interested to see what type of velocities you could get out of a long 80-grain VLD for slow-fire competition from a "space gun" AR-15.
I think the .22 Nosler will really appeal to hunters. The 55-grain Ballistic Tip load will make an effective coyote round. It will hit harder than a .223 Rem., and it will also make connecting at distance a bit easier because of its slightly flatter trajectory and less wind drift. This will make long field shots a bit easier.
Hunting and competition are the most obvious and natural roles for Nosler's new cartridge. I'm sure these activities are what the company likely has envisioned for it.
However, I have to say I'm also very excited about the potential of this new cartridge in really short barrels as well — 12.5-, 10.5- and even ultra-short 7.5-inch barrels. Improving the terminal performance and extending the practical range of these short-barreled rifles would be useful, and if the .22 Nosler cartridge performs well in these short barrel lengths it might bring something useful to the table here as well.
Nosler is currently supporting its new cartridge with two initial factory loads along with brass, dies and loading information. Load data can be found on Nosler's website. Firearms will be available initially from Noveske, Radian, Colt Competition and Nosler. Where it progresses from here is anyone's guess.