We called him Big John. He was the tall, angular architect of a bullet that revolutionized big-game hunting.
For two years, the two of us worked on the story of his life, and I came to know the man that was John Nosler. Big John died in 2010, but he’s not forgotten by those who take hunting and shooting seriously.
Our Magnum Man
The boy was born in Southern California in 1913. A lifetime of shooting, mechanics and innovation lay ahead. His was the story of America in the 1900s.
In the 1940s, Nosler headed north to hunt in British Columbia and returned every year for almost a decade. In 1946, he carried a Winchester Model 70 in .300 H&H Magnum. Toward the end of the trip, he came upon a bull moose feeding in a patch of willows. That encounter was the turning point in his life.
His .300 H&H Magnum propelled its projectile at such high velocity that the bullet’s thin copper jacket couldn’t contain its soft lead core. The shot didn’t even penetrate to the vitals. In those days there were basically two types of projectiles: Bullets that had tremendous penetration, but minimal expansion; and bullets that expanded quickly, but failed to penetrate. His rifle was literally too powerful to kill a moose with the best bullets then available to hunters.
At home that winter, John puzzled over the problem. It became clear that if he wanted a better bullet, he’d have to build it himself.
In 1948, he finally let the world see his first Nosler Partition bullet, and his creation helped to found the modern premium bullet industry.
The people who knew John best never saw him let an engineering problem beat him. And he was not afraid of taking a long shot if he knew his equipment was up to the task.
Never Settle for Second
“If you shoot very much, you soon get better than your gun,” Nosler said. That happened for him in the early 1940s when he began winning medals in local competitions. He favored the .270 Winchester for a while and topped it with a Lyman Alaskan scope. In 1942, he bought a Winchester Model 70 in .300 H&H Magnum. Target shooting was the key to his long-range accuracy with a big-game rifle.
“We shot .22 rimfires all winter long. My favorite contests were the four-position matches. We’d shoot prone, sitting, kneeling and off-hand. Indoors, the targets were at 50 feet and the X dot was very small.”
At the target range, he began to consider the mechanics of the long-range shot as a form of athletic play, similar to making the long shot in basketball.
“On the target range, you learned to breathe, relax, aim, take up the slack and squeeze, and do it the same way, time after time. That last bit of trigger squeeze is where most shooters make their mistakes. That shot must come almost by surprise.”
The mechanics of the shot are no more or less important than the rifle in the shooter’s hand. Not all guns are created equal, not even ones that share the same model number.
“It’s just too hard to drill a 28-inch hole in a piece of steel and keep it perfectly straight all the way down and control the variables of harmonics, stock pressure and trigger,” Nosler said.
Some rifles just aren’t capable of producing 1-inch groups, but most shooters are with time spent behind the gun. Nosler believed that a good shooter can outperform the barrel.
“If you’re able to hold well and control your trigger squeeze, you’re capable of keeping the bullets [within] a half-inch at a 100 yards and there are damn few guns that can do that.”
Today’s rifles are built to tolerances that yesterday’s shooters could only have dreamed of. These days, careful attention to detail in design can produce a more accurate rifle. Still, no two guns are exactly the same.
“We traded rifles until we had one that would shoot as well as we thought possible. There were always a few guns that were capable of tack-driving accuracy. You just had to keep trying until you found one.”
The Big-Game Gambler
More than anything, Nosler was a risk-taker. In business, he wasn’t afraid to gamble everything on an idea. As a hunter, he would trade off a good rifle on the chance he could get a better one. Trading rifles, target shooting and reloading were the things he did to get ready to make the shot when it counted. He learned which shooting positions afforded him the best foundation for a shot.
“I preferred a sitting position, whether I was shooting [at a] 1,000-yard range or holding the crosshairs on a buck. For me the sitting position was rock solid.”
He tried bipods and shooting sticks, but left them at home when deer season started. “With my elbows anchored on my knees and my rear end on the ground, I could make that bullet go right where I wanted.”
On a Monday in May 2007, our local shooting club opened a 1,000-yard course we christened the John Nosler High Power Rifle Range. John and his wife, Vivian, showed up for the inaugural, and John fired the first two shots.
It was purely ceremonial, but it was also risky. His reputation was on the line.
One thousand yards downrange, a white 4-by-8-foot sheet of plywood sported a 40-inch painted black circle. Bill Lewis, a longtime Nosler employee and friend of the family, set up a bolt-action Springfield and dialed the scope for the shot. John settled in behind the rifle and asked Bill’s opinion on the wind. He took a 9-o’clock hold on the circle and squeezed off a shot.
A puff of dirt kicked up behind the target. The assembled audience clapped politely.
John turned around and asked, “Same hold, Bill?”
“Same hold, John.”
Another round cracked, another Nosler Ballistic Tip flashed downrange and another puff of dirt signaled the impact.
After John signed a few autographs and shook hands with well-wishers, everyone left and Bill drove downrange to pick up the target. He found two holes on the target, 9 inches apart. John, with his 94-year-old eyes, had held two shots on target in a sub-minute of angle at 1,000 yards.
John lived to hunt into his early 90s, including one last hunt with a grandson who shares his name. Even when he couldn’t walk as far as a younger man, a lifetime of taking risks on the target range paid off with successful long shots he wasn’t afraid to take.
The year he turned 89 he hunted several days close to the end of the season with good friend Matt Smith. The buck they were after joined up with a group of other bucks and then folded into a herd of does. Matt, behind the 20-power spotting scope, picked out their target as the animals began to head up the hill and out of range. Matt helped John focus on the best buck in the group. He clicked it with the rangefinder and John knew he’d have to hold well over with his .280 Remington to connect at that distance.
Just when Matt was ready to head back to camp, but the buck paused for a bite of bitterbrush. When the deer stopped, he stopped broadside. And that was good enough for Big John and a Partition bullet.
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