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Remembering John Nosler: The Bullet Architect

Remembering John Nosler: The Bullet Architect


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.

Nosler_Partition_MHis .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. 

Nosler shows off a mule deer buck taken on a hunt when he was in his early 90s.

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.

When John Nosler was 94 (above), author Gary Lewis (standing with cowboy hat) says the man shot a sub-MOA group at 1,000 yards at the dedication of a new range in his honor.

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.

To learn more about the life of the inventor, hunter, outdoorsman and legend, pick up a copy of Gary Lewis' book "John Nosler Going Ballistic." Click here for more information.

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.

Ambush | 300 Blackout

The Ambush 300 Blackout puts the power of the popular cartridge into a wieldy platform for hunters who share an equal passion for potting hogs and deer. Featuring a shotgun-style fore-grip and a cold hammer forged 16-inch barrel, the Ambush's modular design will allow you to furnish the rifle to your heart's content. The adjustable buttstock comes in handy when you find yourself torquing a tight angle in a treestand or blind. The rifle is also remarkably light, another welcomed bonus. Compatible with the standard M4 Bolt Carrier Group and existing magazines, the Ambush is available in black or Realtree AP. Price: $1,800

Blaser | R8 Professional Success

One of the most innovative and unique rifles to debut at the 2014 SHOT Show was the Blaser R8 Professional Success rifle. The Professional Success is a modified version of the company's existing R8 line-up, which uses the highest quality materials and is built with the highest standards in the industry. Of course, with an MSRP of more than $4,500, you should expect nothing but the best. Instead of rotating the bolt to chamber another shell, the R8 only requires a quick pull-back of the bolt. The Professional Success uses the same reliable barrel, action and trigger, but it's mounted on an ergonomic pistol-grip stock. The trigger assembly and box magazine are a single, detachable unit, making the rifle one of the safest available. The Professional Success is also available in a left-handed model and dozens of calibers. Price: $4,500

Browning | A-Bolt III

The A-Bolt III is an affordable way for hunters to own a Browning rifle. It features the same barrel, three-lug locking system and 60-degree bolt throw as the A-Bolt. The free-floated barrel is button-rifled for accuracy, while the chamber is hand-reamed for a more precise headspace. It also comes with an Inflex Technology recoil pad that makes the gun a joy to shoot, along with a crisp 3.5-pound trigger. The safety is on top of the tang for easy access without losing the firing grip. Accuracy was in the M.O.A. range, with one 100-yard group measuring .83 inch. The only sacrifice on this rifle is the plastic-feeling stock that just doesn't seem to belong on a Browning. Of course, to be able to sell the gun at almost half the price of the A-Bolt, something had to be reduced. Price: $599.99

Browning | X-Bolt Micro Buckthorn Pink

This ain't your daddy's A-Bolt. Built on Browning's sleek X-Bolt action, the new Eclipse Hunter has a barrel heavy enough to offer precision, yet not too heavy to carry. Bedded into a laminate wood stock that shrugs off extremes in temperatures and humidity, it's a tough, good-looking rifle that feels great and should shoot even better. Ten popular calibers are available, from .243 up through .300 Win. Mag., and weight ranges from 6.5 to 7.5 pounds, depending on caliber and barrel length. Price: $939.99

Colt | M2012

Colt extended its M2012 line-up by adding three new bolt-action models in partnership with Cooper Firearms. Two stock configurations are available in .308 and one is chambered in .260 Remington. The guns are ideal for a variety of applications, but they excel in long-range hunting and shooting thanks to a custom-fluted, chrome moly steel, match-grade barrel and a single-stage, adjustable Timney trigger. The .308 and .260 come with a handsome gray laminated hardwood stock and a Desert tan composite stock. Price: $2,795 - 3,195

CZ-USA | Western Series 550 Badlands Magnum

Long-range hunting is the hottest trend in big game hunting right now, and numerous rifle makers are jumping on the train. CZ is one of them. The company's new Badlands Magnum is made for the wide-open spaces of the west and big game that is so abundant in the mountains and prairies. Chambered in hard-hitting, flat-shooting .338 Lapua, the Badlands Magnum comes with a 25-inch medium-weight barrel, a recoil-taming muzzle brake and a full-length aluminum bedding block. At 9.2 pounds, it's not a light rifle, but the extra weight will help you stay on target and make a better shot at any distance. It also comes with an adjustable trigger and a fixed four-round magazine. Price: $2,599

Howa | Hogue Kryptek

Predator hunters and target shooters have the perfect package gun in Howa's Hogue Kryptek Full Dip package. It comes in three Kryptek camo patterns that cover the stock, barrel and even the included 4-16x44 Nikko Stirling Gameking mounted and bore-sighted scope. The rifle comes with a heavy, 20-inch barrel and is available in .22-250, .223 and .308. It also includes a two-stage, creep-free match trigger, a Hogue recoil pad and a three-position safety. It weighs 10 pounds and comes with Howa's Ammo Boost magazine conversion kit. Price: $820

Kimber | Adirondack

OK, who can look us in the eye and say that they didn't covet the sleek Kimber Mountain Ascent when it was introduced last year? Yet the price seemed steep at more than gallery=266,000. Kimber has now added a similar gun with a reduced price. The 84M Adirondack looks a lot like the Ascent — carbon fiber stock, Gore Optifade camo, minimalist lines — but costs several hundred dollars less. It weighs just 4 pounds, 13 ounces. The barrel is a very compact 18 inches, so it's no long-range poker. Still, it would be fine for a stand or tighter cover in aspens or pines. Price: $1,768

Mauser | M12 Extreme

Loved your grandfather's Mauser? Then you're going to want to get your hands on this revamped piece of tradition. The M12 Extreme features the modern comforts we've come to expect without losing the classic feel — a synthetic stock with a Soft Touch coating, detachable synthetic box magazine that holds five rounds and the traditional Mauser 3-position firing pin safety that will make your finger feel right at home. The M12 is a fine piece of German engineering that won't punch a whole in your wallet. You can now take down deer with the classic Jaeger platform and have enough Deutschmarks left over to buy a round of steins at the beer garden. Price: $1,499

Merkel | RX Helix Explorer

The ingenuity behind the EX Helix Explorer's bolt-action design puts this rifle at the top of our must-have list. Merkel took special care in crafting a geared system that allows the bolt to travel more than the bolt handle, resulting in a quick, smooth throw for a seamless follow-up shot. A work of modern engineering art, barrels are easily interchangeable so you can make this your multipurpose gun when a sudden caliber change in the field might be required. The rugged synthetic stock may not be the handsome wooden Merkel stock you are used to seeing, but it will withstand the years of abuse you'd be putting this trusty rifle through. Price: $3,295

Mossberg | MVP 762

Mossberg's popular MVP line-up just got a little larger with the addition of a .308/7.62 NATO version. The MVP line accepts AR-style magazines, and the MVP Flex line looks very much like an AR platform rifle, including an adjustable butt stock and a pistol grip, but it's a bolt-action rifle. It's also available with a standard stock. It comes in a variety of configurations, including a bull barrel, a flash-suppressor barrel and a barrel threaded for a suppressor. The Patrol model comes with a 16.25-inch barrel, a Picatinny rail and a 10-round magazine. Price: $681 (rifle) or 829 (scope and rifle)

Remington | Model 783 Crossfire

The three things that make the Crossfire nice are things you can't see from across the room. First, it shoots minute-of-angle three-shot groups. Second, it only costs around $450. The combination of accuracy and cost make this rifle a great value. Third, it was designed with stability and durability as goals. It has a proprietary cylindrical receiver with a small ejection port — both characteristics that improve the rifle's rigidity and help it produce tight groups. Price: $451

Ruger | American Compact

In the .243 caliber tested, this rifle would be a good choice for a youth hunter, especially considering its street price is less than $400. The American Compact has some well-thought-out features. The grip and the forend are particularly well designed. The trigger was very nice. It's also adjustable from 3 to 5 pounds. Price: $449.99

Sako | 85 Long Range

Go the extra distance with the 85 Long Range. When dropping your trophy requires precision with a far reach, the 85 goes the extra yard and then some.

Chambered in .300 Win. Mag. and .338 Lapua, the action is coupled with a Finnish match-grade barrel and bedded into a solid, laminated wood stock. Designed for hunters who prefer the prone position, the stock features dual forward swivel studs for easy bipod mounting. Sako includes a spiffy muzzle brake at the end of their Finnish steel — a much obliged addition when firing the big ol' .338 Lapua through such a lightweight rifle. Price: $2,865

Sauer | 101 Classic XT

Any gun that helps us shoot better is ausgezeichnet, which means excellent. The Sauer 101 Classic XT produces amazing groups. The tightest was just over 3/8 inch, center to center. The trigger is superb, and the stock is über-ergonomic. Sauer is known for making switch-barrel guns, but this is a fixed, which knocks hundreds off the price. The barrel mates to the action through a heated-fit process: the receiver is super-heated and the barrel is placed into the expanded receiver. As the receiver cools, it contracts and 'welds ' to the barrel. Price: $1,400

Savage | Axis II Combo

The Axis II grip is slim and the forend has a generous amount of texture for a solid feel. The butt had plenty of padding, which made shooting lots of rounds a comfortable experience. For a sub-$500 rifle with a detachable, four-shot magazine, it's a fantastic shooter, especially when the combo comes with a Weaver Kaspa 3-9x40mm scope. Price: $489.99

Weatherby | WBY-X

Is the youth and 20-something market a worthy target? Weatherby certainly thinks so. The company unveiled its new WBY-X line-up of shotguns and rifles. The bolt-action rifles are built on the same Weatherby Vanguard Series 2 actions and barrels, but with an extreme new look designed to appeal to a younger demographic. The Whitetail Bonz, for example, uses images of antlers to make a camo pattern; Boneyard Camo Blaze incorporates images of flames on the stock; and the Hog Reaper uses hog skulls to create a camo pattern. There are also use models with adjustble stocks to fit young shooters as they grow. The various models come in a variety of calibers, from lighter centerfires up to .300 Weatherby Magnum. Price: $749

Winchester | Model 73

The Winchester name is synonymous with history, and the new Model 73 Case-Hardened lever-action will take you back to a different era. The rifle isn't just a historical artifact; it's a straight-shooting, reliable gun that is as fun to shoot as it is functional. The Model 73 has a full-length magazine tube that holds 10 rounds, a 20-inch barrel and a color case-hardened crescent butt plate, receiver, lever and loading gate. It's available in .357, .44-40 and .45 Colt. Price: $1,579.99

Thompson/Center | Dimension

The Germans — with their Blasers, Sauers and Merkels — produce excellent modular bolt-action rifles. In the United States, Thompson/Center has been king of the switch-barrel guns. T/C's latest, the Dimension, lacks the aesthetics of the walnut-shrouded classics from the Old World. But the engineering behind it is world-class. We've used a Dimension in .30-06, .22-250 and other calibers — all the same basic gun — while hunting deer, coyotes and shooting groups at the range. Price: $689.99

Thompson/Center | Venture Predator

Thompson/Center's Venture isn't a new rifle this year. Neither is the Predator version, but it's a gun worth mentioning because it's one of the best rifles for predator hunters anywhere. Wrapped in Realtree HD Max-1 or Realtree HD AP Snow Composite, predator hunters can hide in plain sight in any situation. Hogue grips on the forestock and pistol grips allow for a firm hold even with gloved hands. The Venture Predator is chambered in .204 Ruger, .22-250, .223, .243 and even .308 and 7mm-08. It weighs just 6.75 pounds, making it a great rifle for hunters who don't mind chasing coyotes and cats on foot. The Predator also has an adjustable trigger, a corrosion-resistant bolt and an available matching scope. Price: $638

Nemo Arms | Pratka Edition .300 WIN MAG AR

You're familiar with ARs in 5.56/.223 and 7.62mm/.308, but last year Nemo, a premier gun-maker out of Kalispell, Montana, went out on a limb and produced an AR-10 that chambers the venerated .300 Win Mag cartridge. It was heavy at 12 pounds and had a high price tag. So this year, Nemo introduced the Pratka, a 9-pound gun that is closer to the $4,000 range. Features include a 416 stainless steel fluted barrel and a sweet Geissele SSA-E two-stage trigger. Successfully dealing with the higher pressures of the .300 in an AR action made this a substantial engineering accomplishment. Price: $4,000 MSRP


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