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Semi-Custom Rifles Nosler M21

An Honest Look at the the Nosler M21 – By Brian Fox

In keeping with our theme of Semi-Custom Rifles (SCR’s), one that I’ve had a lot of experience at this point with is the Nosler Model M21. This is a rifle that I must admit, I find myself picking up more and more to hunt with. Last year it was the only rifle I carried in the field. It’s partly because of the feel of the rifle, but mostly because of the confidence and caliber. Years ago my father brought home a rifle made by none other than Kenny Jarrett. When he asked Kenny about the caliber for deer hunting, Kenny didn’t hesitate in suggesting the 280 Ackley Improved. That rifle was built on an older Remington 700 action. I can’t give an honest account of how many animals my father killed with it, but after hunting for years in South GA and a trip to Africa, I do know it’s responsible for more heads on his wall than anything else.

So, when I heard Nosler had standardized the 280 Ackley, I was on a mission to have one of my own, but not at the price Kenny demands his rifles. I’ve honestly been through several rifles in this caliber at this point. I’ve had a Kimber Hunter and a Nosler M48 Carbon Mountain in this caliber. All of them shot well. All were extremely accurate rifles. But for me, there is something very different about the M21. When I pick up that rifle it brings me back to what I remember custom rifles feeling like when I was a child. The McMillan stock, silky smooth action with a cool spiral bolt, Shilen barrel, and a TriggerTech trigger round out the package. This really is a custom rifle in a standard list of options.

I’ve owned about 4 of Nosler’s rifles throughout the years. I started with a M48 Patriot and ended with a Mountain Carbon. I will say that not one of those rifles shot larger than 1/2” MOA. Not ever with hand loads. That speaks volumes about the quality and attention to detail that Nosler is putting into these rifles. The M21 is a departure from the M48. They have gone to a high-quality action from Mac Brothers in South Dakota. The action is wire EDM cut to tight tolerances. This is becoming more and more of a standard in precision rifles today. That fact alone is what starts making these higher-end rifles semi-custom. If you order a full custom rifle today, the gunsmith should be starting with an action that is EDM. If he suggests a broached action, find a different gunsmith.

Now, I could ramble on about all the features and things that make this rifle great. But in the end, it comes down to how it feels. This is what really pulls me towards this rifle. When I pick it up and shoulder it, the weight is balanced perfectly in my left hand. The rifle naturally points right where I’m aiming. The trigger is right in the pad of the finger. The rifle cycles like butter. All these things are what made this rifle my go-to rifle all last year and will be for many years to come. The only real downside I have is that for this kind of money, the rifle should come with a muzzle break. I shouldn’t have to go and buy one to put on it. I know Nosler is thinking that people have preferences and breaks are everywhere. But, I’m one of those guys who wants everything to match. There is no matching an after-market break to that color of Cerakote without having one sprayed to match. You pay some hard-earned bucks for this rifle, the least they should do is include a quality break to match.

The lack of a break is a pain, but the one thing that this rifle does lack and can’t be fixed is a fluted barrel. Fluting the barrel does two technical things for the rifle. The first is it lightens up the platform. On a magnum-contoured barrel, you get almost .5 pounds of weight off the firearm when it’s fluted. This rifle isn’t heavy. In the 280 Ackley, it weighs in at 7.1 pounds. I found my rifle to be spot on the listed weight from the Nosler website. In your everyday rifle that weight is fine for hunting. It takes a certain amount of weight to keep you steady on the shot when that animal of a lifetime is in the crosshairs and you’re about to squeeze the trigger. If a rifle is too light, then your heartbeat, rest, and shooting position all become so much more critical. The second thing the flutes achieve on a barrel do is add surface area. While the mass of the barrel is less and it heats up a little faster, it also cools faster because there are more square inches of surface area to contact the ambient air around you. This leads to faster overall cooling. So, if you have the option to flute, more often than not, you should on a hunting rifle. You’re not pounding away at targets on a bench, you’re lugging that rifle around in the field for one perfectly placed shot. A little lighter rifle here would have been preferred, but the balance is really good. It will come down to preference. I’m walking to and from a stand most of the time. So, a little more weight doesn’t matter as much. However, if I were going up and down mountains and lugging it for miles, that extra .5 pounds could make the difference in overall comfort.

On the range, this rifle delivers over and over. Factory Nosler ammo shot consistently at 3/4”. That’s right on par with the expectation of this rifle. Handloading provided much better results. I wanted to shoot 162 ELD-X, or ELD-M, in this rifle. Ballistically that weight bullet in a 7mm caliber is magic. I did get a load worked out, but the powder I used is no longer available from Hodgdon. IMR 4955 under a 160-gr class bullet is lights out in this rifle. But, I could never duplicate that performance with any other powder. I could not get that level of speed and accuracy again. So, that left me with 140 gr bullets. There isn’t anything wrong with those. They shoot so well in the rifle and do get acceptable speed. A dose of IMR 4350 and pretty much any bullet upfront lead to 3,050 fps and 3/8” accuracy. I shot 140 Nosler Ballistic tips and even developed an experimental 140 Triad with Fox Cartridge that one deer fell prey to last year. Everything shoots consistently and repeatedly on this platform.

Out of every rifle I’ve shot in the past three years, this one fits me the best. It has a high-quality build, comfortable to shoulder, and looks like a hunting rifle should, except for the lack of a fluted barrel. If you are looking at the semi-custom class of rifles, this should make the short list and, for me at least, make it to your rifle rack. Nosler rifles deliver over and over. If you give yourself a chance to experience that rifle in person, you will not be disappointed.

140 gr Triad @ 3,050fps

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