October 02, 2012
A couple years ago I had the chance to hunt with and shoot fairly extensively Nosler's Model 48 Trophy Grade rifle, the company's first rifle intended for a wider market than its high-end Model 48 Custom and Limited Edition guns. Now the Bend, Ore., firm is bridging the gap between the $2,000 Trophy Grade and the $3,000 Custom with a new model: the Model 48 Professional.
Selling for $2,500 ($100 more for the optional detachable magazine), the Professional offers several notable improvements over the Trophy Grade — and for $500 more that's something you would expect. Chief among these upgrades is the magazine design.
One of the things I disliked about the Trophy Grade was that it had a blind magazine, and apparently I wasn't alone.
"We had received numerous requests for an M48 Trophy Grade with a hinged floorplate," said Nosler's Zach Waterman. And this change, he noted, was largely responsible for the increased cost of the Professional.
"We take a good deal of time ensuring the floorplate fits properly," he said. "It's easy to bolt a flat piece of metal to a hinge on the bottom of the rifle and call it good, but we make sure everything lines up properly, does not rattle, has smooth edges, straight alignment and positive engagement every time."
That same attention to detail went into the detachable magazine, which is the version of the Professional I reviewed. The designers got it right. It blends so seamlessly with the one-piece, steel bottom metal you'd hardly know it was a detachable box. A release located inside the trigger guard bow drops the box into your hand, and it locks in with a satisfying snap.
Feeding was flawless with all the ammunition I tried. The specs say the mag capacity is four rounds, but I couldn't get more than three .30-06 cartridges into the magazine. So at least in this case the four-round capacity is overall, not magazine.
However, the rifle can be top-loaded with the magazine in place, which is great for topping off in the field. Few box mags allow this, which is another big point in the Nosler design's favor.
One criticism here, though: The magazine release is held in position by a pin, and after a couple hundred rounds I found the pin was working itself free. Nosler needs to address that.
The other major upgrade is the Professional's Pac Nor barrel is 416 stainless steel instead of the chrome moly that's used on the Trophy Grade. The pull-button-rifled tube tapers from 1.19 inches in front of the receiver to 0.66 at the fore-end tip to 0.64 at the muzzle. The exterior is finished in the excellent Cerakote finish, in matte black. (If you don't know what Cerakote is, see Patrick Sweeney's article elsewhere in this issue.) I ran my Hawkeye borescope through the barrel, and it was bright-shiny perfect, thanks to the hand-lapping it receives.
The 24-inch barrel is hand-fitted to a 4140 flat-bottom steel receiver; all receiver components are hand-fitted as well, plus lapped and polished.
The receiver is contoured to accept standard two-piece Remington Model 700 or Weatherby Mark V bases. The bolt release is a serrated button at the left rear of the receiver tube.
The barreled action is hand-fitted and glass- and pillar-bedded to a Bell & Carlson stock. Of proprietary design developed just for Nosler, the composite stock is strengthened by aramid fibers and an aluminum bedding block in the chassis for top-notch stability. Whereas the Trophy Grade's stock is black with gray webbing, the Professional's is black with black webbing. (The Custom has an altogether different stock.)
The Professional's stock features a shadow-line cheekpiece and is capped with a Pachmayr Decelerator pad. It's relatively thick in the wrist area, something I noted with suspicion when I reviewed the Trophy Grade, but then I discovered how much I liked it, especially for field shooting. The stock also features a relatively high comb — any higher and you wouldn't be able to remove the bolt — and this design puts your head in good position behind the scope.
The Professional is fitted with a Rifle Basix trigger made specifically for Nosler. It is technically an adjustable model, but Waterman told me that any adjustment will void the warranty, and the adjustment screws are coated with what looks to be white lacquer to discourage consumers from messing with the screws.
But I doubt you'd want to. My experience with Rifle Basix triggers has shown them to be excellent, and this one was no exception. They break like glass, with no creep whatsoever and negligible overtravel.
The pull on my sample averaged 3.75 pounds for 10 pulls measured on a Lyman digital trigger scale and was consistent from pull to pull — varying two to three ounces at most. I would've preferred a trigger that breaks at three pounds even, but I'm not going to quibble about three-quarters of a pound on a hunting trigger.
All these features add up to a rifle that's incredibly accurate for a sporter-weight rifle, and in fact Nosler guarantees 3/4 m.o.a. (one m.o.a. for magnums) for three-shot groups at 100 yards with premium ammo.
How did it perform for me? With an excellent Leupold VX-3 4.5-14x40 scope aboard (I gotta get one of these for myself), I shot three-shot group averages with three of eight loads — not just individual groups — that were within 0.1 inch of Nosler's accuracy guarantee. This particular rifle seemed to favor lighter bullet weights, but even with all of the 180s averaging a shade over an inch, the average for all ammo tested was still a mere 0.96 inch.
When it came to individual groups, I had a total of nine that met or handily beat Nosler's 3/4 m.o.a. pledge: two each with Federal 165-grain GameKing, Hornady 165-grain SST and Winchester 150-grain E-Tip, and one each with Winchester 180-grain AccuBond, Black Hills 168-grain Match and Nosler 168-grain E-Tip. The smallest was 0.52 inch (Hornady SST), and several measured less than or right around 0.60.
That's about as good as I can shoot. I don't have fancy bench gear, just a solid investment-cast front rest and rabbit-ear rear bag. It's better than what I see a lot of shooters using at the public range where I test, but it's not one of the super-expensive setups that basically take all the human error out of the equation.
I feel this is a compromise that won't penalize the guns (or the ammo) while still providing real-world results readers can use to make decisions on whether a particular rifle is right for them.
From field positions and off shooting sticks, the Professional proved a marvelous tool. Ringing steel out to 400 yards was a piece of cake. Anything closer than that wasn't even challenging.
The 6.75-pound bare weight (8.25 unloaded with scope mounted) and Decelerator combined to make it a well-behaved rifle. The Microslick coating on the two-lug, investment-cast bolt produces an action that's smooth as silk and fast as the devil. The Sako-style extractor pulled cases with ease, and the plunger ejector punched them out sharply.
The two-position safety, the style I prefer, works easily. I gigged the Trophy Grade for the safety shifting to Fire from rubbing against my pack on a deer hunt. That's because its short throw makes it more likely to switch positions accidentally. It doesn't seem to me Nosler has changed the design for the Professional, but I don't belabor this because a safety is just a mechanical device. The only true safety is your gun handling.
Is all this worth the money? Nosler certainly believes it is. "It's the rifle for the guy who wants all the practicality of the Model 48 Custom rifle, without the added cost of that gun's stock or additional custom options," Waterman said. "The Professional represents an incredible value with the level of hand assembly, attention to detail and the premium components we use. It's a no-nonsense hunting rifle that will handle anything you throw at it."
I agree, in large part, although I do have two minor complaints beyond those I've already mentioned. One, I'd like to see a recessed crown at the muzzle. And, two, I can't say I'm a fan of the black-on-black color scheme.
But back to the price. If you tally up the components alone that go into this rifle, you're going to be in the $1,500 to $2,000 neighborhood. And at that point all you'll have is a pile of components. Because it's unlikely many of you have the machinery or the know-how to assemble said parts into a completed, accurate rifle, you're going to have to pay for someone to build the gun for you.
And that's what you're really paying for with the Professional: The hand fitting, polishing and careful assembly that make a rifle more than the sum of its parts.
When I sat down to write this article, I knew I was going to wrestle with two questions: One, is the Professional worth the extra money over the Trophy Grade? Two, if I had the dough would I rather go the extra mile and order a Custom instead? So I did what I usually do in such cases: draw up a comparison chart (yes, I really do this).
Take a look at the chart on page 50 and decide for yourself. For me, I think the Professional's higher cost over the Trophy Grade is justified because the hinged floorplate (or detachable magazine, in this case) and the higher degree of accuracy merit the extra bucks.
On the other hand, I think if I could scratch up the additional cash, I would opt for the Custom. Why? Simply for the color options on the stock and barrel finish. Hey, I'm the kind of person who spent more than a year looking for the exact color combination I wanted when I set out to buy a used Mustang convertible.
The aesthetics of the Custom are worth $500 to me, but I'm betting for a lot of people they're not, and that's why Nosler is going to do well with this rifle. It will be handsome enough for most people, and where it counts — handling, reliability, functionality, ruggedness and most of all accuracy — the Professional is a cut above nearly any rifle you can buy off the rack.
Gun services provided by Turners Outdoorsman. Range facilities provided by Angeles Ranges.