Nosler 21 Premium Bolt-Action Hunting Rifle: Full Review

Nosler 21 Premium Bolt-Action Hunting Rifle: Full Review

Nosler 21 Premium Bolt-Action Hunting Rifle: Full Review (RifleShooter photo)

In the late 1940s, John Nosler went on a moose hunt in British Columbia that went terribly wrong. The cause of the grief was bad bullets, but rather than carp to the man behind the sporting goods counter, Nosler decided instead to build a better bullet. That’s how the Nosler Partition came to pass. Its development seemed to set an ethos for Nosler products going into the future: Good simply isn’t good enough. That same principle can be applied to Nosler’s new flagship bolt-action rifle, the Model 21. Nosler thought it could improve upon existing rifle designs and create a gun that offered custom components and accuracy at a production-rifle price. In doing so, it may have done what the Partition did to hunting bullets: Set a new standard of performance in a hunting rifle.

With a suggested retail price of $2,795, the Nosler 21 is not an inexpensive rifle. Remember, though, that this gun was designed to compete with the top rifles in the bolt-action hunting rifle market. As such, it required premium features throughout, and premium components don’t come at yard-sale prices. Perhaps a more appropriate means to measure the Model 21’s worth is not how much it costs but what you get for your money. The cylindrical receiver features a machined 17-4 stainless steel self-indexing recoil lug. The 12-sided front portion of the receiver mates with the lug itself, locking it in position and eliminating any risk of misalignment. This lug design also adds thread length and improves rigidity and accuracy potential.

Nosler 21 Action
Nosler collaborated with Mack Brothers on the Model 21’s blueprinted action. It’s EDM machined with scallops to reduce weight.

With its blueprinted and wire EDM machining, the Model 21’s 416 stainless steel action—which is a collaboration with South Dakota-based Mack Brothers—runs smooth and clean. Bolt cycling is effortless, and the lugs lock into position like the components in a Swiss watch. Scalloped edges on the upper left and right portions of the action trim weight, but they also give the gun a modern, streamlined look. A one-piece bolt is machined from 4340 chromoly steel, and the bolt is fluted to reduce weight and lessen the odds of the action binding in dusty or sandy environs. Toolless takedown allows you to clean the bolt in the field if necessary, and it eliminates any excuse you had for not cleaning the small parts of your rifle after a hunt. Dual locking lugs, an M16-style extractor and plunger-type ejector are standard on the Model 21’s bolt as is a nitride surface coating that protects the metal.

The 5/16×24 threaded bolt handle can be removed and swapped out, but the included bell-shaped handle works very well. Note, though, that you need to ensure the handle is properly tightened or you run the risk of losing it, which would be a disaster in the field. The top of the Nosler’s receiver is drilled and tapped with Remington Model 700-pattern hole spacing. A premium action requires a premium barrel. That’s why Nosler selected to use a hand-lapped Shilen match-grade barrel on Model 21 rifles. Shilen barrels are stress relieved and threaded either 1/2×28 or 5/8×24 in lengths of 22 or 24 inches depending upon which caliber you choose. All rifles come with a No. 3 contour barrel—except the .375 H&H Mag. version, which sports a No. 5 contour barrel. The action, barrel and bottom metal all feature a Cerakote Tactical Grey finish.

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Model 21 barreled actions are mated to a McMillan Hunter’s Edge Sporter carbon-fiber stock. The epoxy paint on the surface offers easy-to-grip texturing along the length of the stock and gives the stock a high-end look. The comb is dead straight, and the one-inch black Pachmayr Decelerator recoil pad fits the stock without any gaps or rough edges. Wisely, Nosler included a TriggerTech Field trigger. It is adjustable from 2.5 to five pounds and offers the type of crisp break serious hunters and long-range shooters demand. The two-position rocker-type safety allows the bolt to be cycled with the safety engaged. There’s an internal box magazine with a hinged metal floorplate, the release for which is positioned inside the trigger guard. Magazine capacity is three or four rounds depending on cartridge.

In an age where rifles seem either very heavy or very light, the Nosler Model 21 strikes a sensible middle ground for an all-purpose sporting rifle. In all chamberings, these rifles weigh around seven pounds, which I think is about right. There are mountain rifles that are much lighter, but touching one off in a cartridge with the ballistic chops of a .30 or .33 Nosler in the chamber can be dramatic and unpleasant. At the other extreme, large hybrid hunting/tactical rifles weigh upwards of nine or 10 pounds, which is a bit more rifle than is comfortable to carry up steep sheep and elk mountains for days on end. The Model 21 finds a nice balance that is suitable for stand hunting whitetails as well as the world-traveling mountain hunter.

Nosler 21 Bolt
The Model 21 has a dual lug one-piece action constructed of 4340 chromoly steel, and it features toolless takedown.

Nosler offers its new Model 21 in a dozen chamberings. Naturally, all the major Nosler cartridges make the list, which includes the .22, .26, .28, .30 and .33. You can also find these rifles chambered in 6mm Creedmoor and 6.5 Creedmoor, 6.5 PRC, .280 Ackley Improved, .308 Win., .300 Win. Mag. and .375 H&H. It’s an interesting collection of cartridge options, but there’s a suitable Model 21 rifle for hunting everything from rock chucks to rhinos. With a suggested retail price of $2,795, the Nosler Model 21 goes head-to-head with the likes of the new Weatherby Mark V Carbonmark ($2,649-$2,749), Springfield’s Waypoint 2020 with a carbon-fiber barrel and adjustable stock ($2,527), Browning’s X-Bolt Mountain Pro Long Range ($2,470-$2,580) and the lightweight Seekins Havak Element ($2,795).

Lift any Model 21 rifle from the gunshop rack and you’re immediately impressed with its construction. The action is sleek and smooth. Fit and finish are custom-gun good. The trigger breaks with a light, smooth press. The reason the Model 21 feels so good is that, essentially, it isn’t very far removed from a true custom rifle. Oh, you won’t get to chamber it in your offbeat pet cartridge, and you won’t be able to select barrel length or stock or metal color. But with so many chambering options you can get very close to your dream rifle at a lower cost than having a one-off custom gun built using the high-grade components that go into each of these rifles. Its lengthy feature list makes this rifle more desirable. By positioning the floorplate release inside the trigger guard, it’s nearly impossible to inadvertently dump your spare ammo all over the ground, but the release can be easily accessed when you need to do so.

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Another easy-to-access feature on the gun is the bolt stop, which is positioned on the left rear portion of the action. Depressing the aft portion of the lever allows for the removal of the bolt for cleaning, maintenance and inspection. The enclosed bolt shroud is octagonal in shape, and a cocking indicator extends through its face, which serves as a visual and tactile indicator of the rifle’s position.

I planned to make full use of the Nosler’s threaded barrel, so I attached a Silencer Central Banish 30 suppressor to the muzzle. The Banish can be adjusted to lengths of either seven or nine inches depending upon baffle configuration, and since my test rifle was chambered in .28 Nosler and came with a 24-inch barrel, I elected to remove baffles to keep overall length to a minimum. Even so, that means a barrel length of over 30 inches and an overall length of almost 52 inches, which is certainly on the long side for a hunting rifle—though it is shorter than rifles with 26-inch barrels, which are almost untenable when carried with a can in place.

The Nosler Model 21’s TriggerTech trigger is user-adjustable from 2.5 to five pounds.

The added weight of the suppressor upped the bare, unloaded gun’s weight to just under eight pounds, so it was still portable enough to carry. What’s the point of telling you this? To inform you that the Model 21 is versatile enough to be configured to meet the needs of a range of hunters and hunting situations. The stock is trim and well proportioned. One of my complaints with the Nosler 48 Liberty was that the pistol grip was too short for my hand, but that’s not an issue on this rifle. Those who prefer tactical-inspired rifles may pine for a more vertical grip, but I was raised on sporter rifles, so the Model 21’s grip angle suits me perfectly.

Sling studs are installed fore and aft on the stock. I’ve come to prefer the M-Lok system for convenience and versatility, but standard sling studs work well. The studs seem securely seated, too, which prevents the rifle from falling off your back while hiking. That may not seem like an important point, but if your sling studs let go you’ll have a dinged-up rifle at best. All the Nosler cartridges have their place, but the flat-shooting, well-balanced .28 is my favorite. I’m not alone in that regard, either. Other premium rifle companies are now chambering their guns in .28 Nosler to meet client demand, and I’ve spoken with two custom rifle builders over the last year who told me the .28 Nosler was their most popular chambering. It’s not so large that it’s overkill for game like deer and antelope—or the shooter’s shoulder, for that matter—yet it’s powerful and flat-shooting enough to stop a bull elk across a wide, windy canyon. The .28 Nosler is supremely versatile and seems a natural choice for the Model 21.

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I topped the rifle with an optic I thought was as versatile as the cartridge: Leupold’s VX-5HD 3-15×44 with a CDS Dial, Zero Lock 2 dial and illuminated FireDot reticle. I’ve carried that optic on rifles all over the globe in recent years, and it’s quickly become my favorite. Rifle, optic and suppressor together weighed just a bit under nine pounds—heavy but not unbearable. The Nosler is a well-behaved rifle with a smooth action and crisp trigger. Couple that with a precision barrel and premium blueprinted action, and it may come as no surprise that this rifle shoots very well. The best group of the day measured 0.52 inch for three shots with Nosler’s Ballistic Tip ammunition, and that round managed another group in the half-inch range. Hornady’s Precision Hunter 162-grain ELD-X bullet managed to cluster three shots in 0.66 inch followed by a 0.64-inch group. That’s premium performance.

Nosler 21 TriggerTech Trigger
The McMillan Hunter’s Edge stock sports a comfortable, sloping pistol grip. The epoxy webbing on the surface of the carbon-fiber stock provides a secure grip.

There were no issues with feeding, extraction or ejection throughout the test, and the rifle handled well. It is a sporter, and as such it lacks some of the features found on rifles with a more tactical bent, like detachable box magazines and adjustable combs. A carbon-fiber barrel might help trim weight, but it would likely drive up the price, and I doubt that a carbon-fiber barrel would produce accuracy results that were much better than what you’ll get with the Shilen barrel on the Model 21. I will note the barrel did require plenty of cooling time between groups.

The Nosler performed much as I expected it would, which is to say that there were no reliability issues and that the rifle dropped bullets into tight clusters measuring well under the m.o.a. standard for three shots. The Model 21 is a buttoned-up gun with a bias toward hunting, and if you wanted one premium rifle to hunt all the world’s game save the largest and most lethal species like Cape buffalo, the Model 21 I tested in .28 Nosler would do very well. It’s weatherproof, well built, light enough to carry and deadly accurate.

Nosler faces tough competition from the likes of Weatherby, Browning, Springfield and Seekins. But there’s no doubt the Nosler rifle is suited to take on such well-appointed challengers since it comes with a premium action, barrel, stock and trigger, and it blends superb accuracy with durable, lightweight construction. One thing that is certain is the team at Nosler decided that good simply wasn’t good enough when it set out to develop its next-gen flagship bolt gun, and by all measures the Model 21 is worthy of filling that role.


Nosler 21 Specs

  • Type: Bolt-action, repeater
  • Cartridge: .28 Nosler (tested)
  • Capacity: 3 rds. (tested)
  • Barrel: Shilen Match Grade 24 in., 1:9-in. twist, 5/8×24 threaded (tested)
  • Overall Length: 44.5 in.
  • Weight: 7 lbs.
  • Stock: McMillan Hunter’s Edge carbon fiber
  • Finish: Cerakote Tactical Grey
  • Trigger: TriggerTech Field adjustable; 3.7 lbs. pull (measured)
  • Sights: None; drilled and tapped
  • MSRP: $2,795
  • Manufacturer: Nosler