June 30, 2017
By Joseph von Benedikt
Nosler has introduced the all-new .22 Nosler cartridge and its shaping up to be the fastest .22 ever for the AR-15. Even the cartridge case is original. If you can imagine a case that looks something like a miniature 6.5-284, that's about how the .22 Nosler case is dimensioned. It has a rebated rim, an aggressive shoulder, and a generous case body diameter.
As for performance, Nosler's engineers indicate that the .22 Nosler should nip at the heels of the .22-250 Remington. It's designed to use a fast rifling twist rate that's suitable for long, heavy projectiles, which offer significantly increased aerodynamics over the lighter-weight bullets that are typically loaded in the .22-250.
That small detail should enable the .22 Nosler to outperform the .22-250 past 500 yards or so — unless the .22-250 it's up against is fitted with a barrel rifled with an unusually fast twist rate and loaded with heavy bullets.
Like the company's new, hot-rod big-game cartridges, such as the .28 Nosler and the new .33 Nosler, the .22 Nosler isn't burdened by any manufacturing restrictions. It's not a proprietary round, and any and all manufacturers are welcome to make rifles and ammunition for it.
The .22 Nosler features a rebated rim that's 0.378 inch in diameter, which means it's designed to work with all standard 5.56/.223 AR-15 bolts. All that is required to convert an existing AR-15 to .22 Nosler is a new barrel and switching to 6.8 SPC magazines. It feeds best from 6.8 SPC magazines because its body is fatter than that of the 5.56/.223.
The new cartridge's body tapers from 0.420 at its broadest point just ahead of the rim to 0.400 at the body-shoulder transition. In contrast, the 5.56/.223 tapers from 0.380 at the rim to 0.330 at the shoulder.
According to its specifications, the .22 Nosler has a water capacity of 31.2 grains with a 55-grain Ballistic Tip bullet seated to an overall cartridge length of 2.260 inches. Common .223 cases contain around 27.5 grains with the same bullet seated to the same overall length. That means the .22 Nosler has a capacity advantage of about 12 percent.
To prevent shooters from accidentally chambering and firing 5.56 or .223 ammunition, Nosler engineers made the .22 Nosler base-to-shoulder distance a bit shorter than that of the 5.56/.223. Likewise, the .22 Nosler chamber will not accept .17 Remington, .204 Ruger, or any of the other relatively common predator/varmint cartridges out there. The 5.45x39 won't fit either, because of its slightly broader base. However, be aware that .222 Remington ammo does fit in the .22 Nosler chamber.
With a shoulder angle of 30 degrees, Nosler engineers gave the .22 Nosler maximum capacity without pushing it so steep that it could potentially present feeding issues.
The .22 Nosler uses Small Rifle primers. And maximum overall length is 2.260 inches.
Two factory loads are launching with the .22 Nosler: a 55-grain Ballistic Tip rated at 3,500 fps and a 77-grain BTHP match bullet rated at 3,100 fps. These velocities are from a SAAMI-spec, 24-inch test barrel. According to Nosler's Zach Waterman, in Nosler's 18-inch-barreled Noveske Varmageddon rifle, the cartridge loses around 150 fps.
Now, comparing those numbers to common velocities in the 5.56/.223 is difficult. There's often a wide disparity among AR-15s of like barrel length — I've personally chronographed several different 16-inch barreled carbines and found up to 200 fps difference with the same ammo. Plus, of course, the higher-pressure 5.56 NATO ammunition gives higher velocities than most factory .223 Rem. ammo. "Most" because certain specialty .223 loads, such as Hornady's Superformance line, effectively narrow the gap.
So generating an accurate comparison is complicated. But let's give it a shot. For the most part, in the .223 Rem. 55-grain projectiles achieve about 3,240 fps from a 24-inch barrel, and 75- to 77-grain bullets reach about 2,775 fps. In contrast, the 5.56 NATO ups the game velocity-wise, achieving perhaps 100 fps more velocity from the same-length barrel. However, most 5.56 ammo is tested through 20-inch barrels rather than 24-inch barrels, so the velocity increase often isn't immediately obvious on factory ballistic charts.
Chopping the barrel to the far more common 16-inch length reduces velocity in wildly varying degrees, depending on specific ammunition and barrel. I've tested carbines that push 55-grain bullets from 2,800 fps to 3,200 fps. Heavier bullets seem a bit more consistent: 69- to 77-grain bullets usually run around 2,600 fps, give or take 50 fps.
To gain some semblance of order, let's assign 25 fps of loss per inch of barrel and establish 5.56/.223 performance with a 55-grain bullet as 3,000 fps out of a 16- to 18-inch barrel and 2,600 fps with a 75- to 77-grain bullet.
Nosler was smart enough to compare its new hot-rod .22 against the 5.56 NATO, opting to use an 18-inch barrel in comparison charts. I'll do the same here, but rather than regurgitate the numbers shown on Nosler's chart, I'll plug in my numbers, which were generated by personal experience. And since the .22 Nosler is almost surely going to be most popular as a hunting cartridge (rather than for competition or personal protection, although it would excel at both), let's look at the performance with a 24-inch barrel. I'll also throw in the .22-250 loaded with a 55-grain bullet, and I'll also include another column showing how the .22 Nosler can outperform the .22-250 when loaded with 77-grain bullets.
As you can see in the Velocity & Trajectory Comparison chart, with Nosler 55-grain Ballistic Tip (BT) bullets, the .22 Nosler leans closer to the .22-250 than to the 5.56 NATO. It's impressive.
Using my handload with the Sierra 77-grain Tipped Match-King (TMK), which, because of its high BC, holds on to velocity better than the very accurate but less sleek Nosler 77-grain BTHP, the .22 Nosler starts to walk away from the .22-250 at the 500-yard mark. Note that I purposely did not use a 77-grain bullet in the .22-250 because the .22-250 is rarely loaded with bullets much heavier than 55 grains due to the typical slower twist rate of the barrels.
As you can see, the greater aerodynamics of the heavier — although slower-starting — bullet perform far better at extended distances. At 1,000 yards the .22 Nosler with the handloaded 77-grain TMK is still supersonic, and it has 18 percent more velocity than the .22-250 and 12 percent less bullet drop. The same performance could be accomplished using Nosler's new ultra-high-BC 70-grain RDF bullet.
Of course, this is a biased chart. Put the same high-BC bullets into a .22-250 fitted with a fast-twist barrel and the .22-250 would regain the advantage. But the simple fact is most .22-250s have relatively slow twist rates and won't shoot the heavy long-range bullets accurately.
Here's another interesting way to look at the .22 Nosler: It provides better performance from an 18-inch barrel than the 5.56/.223 does from a 24-inch barrel.
At the time of this writing, everything .22 Nosler was in high demand and scarce supply, but I managed to get my hands on a couple boxes of preproduction .22 Nosler factory ammunition and a set of Redding reloading dies, a bag of virgin brass, and a Noveske Varmageddon rifle with an 18-inch barrel. Picking some of my favorite 0.224-inch-diameter projectiles, incuding the Barnes 55-grain TTSX, the Hornady 60-grain V-Max, and the Sierra 77-grain TMK, I assembled handloads, using Varget and CFE 223 propellants. Over the years that I've been handloading, I've found that the flatbase V-Max offers easy, forgiving accuracy; the TTSX is one of the few .224-caliber bullets capable of downing deer; and the 77-grain TMK is a fine long-range, magazine-compatible bullet in this caliber.
I usually test AR-15s with a series of three consecutive five-shot groups without allowing the barrel to cool because it gives me a good idea of accuracy and whether group size will wander or open up as the barrel heats — both important considerations with high-capacity semiauto rifles. However, as .22 Nosler ammo was hard to come by, I compromised by firing three consecutive three-shot groups instead.
To my great delight, the Varmageddon rifle produced very small groups with the preproduction 77-grain BTHP factory load, averaging a scant 0.37 inch at 100 yards. In addition, my handload with the Sierra 77-grain TMK and CFE 223 powder averaged 0.47 inch.
The preproduction factory ammunition averaged 2,735 fps over the nine-shot string. That's 215 fps slower than advertised specs, and according to Waterman, that's because some of the early .22 Nosler brass was a bit soft and primer pockets didn't hold up well, so they ran off a bunch of preliminary ammo using relatively light loads under the 77-grain bullets. I couldn't care less. The accuracy potential of the cartridge is clearly off the charts, and further factory load development will surely bring out its velocity potential.
Conversely, my handloads with the Sierra 77-grain TMK hit 3,003 fps — out of the 18-inch barrel — and turned in low extreme spread and standard deviation.
While Nosler's 55-grain Ballistic Tip factory load wasn't quite as accurate — averaging 0.75 inch — its velocity averaged 3,293 fps, which is closer to the advertised spec of 3,350 fps. That small discrepancy is likely due to the individual barrel or the temperature conditions in which I was testing.
My two "hunting handloads" performed well, too, both averaging above 3,300 fps. The Hornady 60-grain V-Max load averaged 0.58 inch, and the Barnes 55-grain TTSX was slightly less than 1 inch. That's pretty darned impressive for first-try handloads in an 18-inch barrel.
I performed all the shooting with my SilencerCo Harvester suppressor attached to the Varmageddon rifle. As far as I could tell, there was no discernible difference in recoil or muzzle blast when compared to a typical 16-inch-barreled AR-15 carbine. Reliability was stellar with both the preproduction factory ammo and with my handloads. Semiautomatic designs often experience growing pains when you chamber a new cartridge in them, and sometimes it can take a while to work out the kinks. Nosler and Noveske appear to have done their homework.
With testing completed, I loaded my remaining 10 rounds of the Nosler 55-grain Ballistic Tip factory ammo into the magazine and sallied forth for an attempt on Utah's excessively wily predators. I'm no great coyote caller, but the FoxPro Fusion pulled in a mature coyote not a mile behind my house. The .22 Nosler flattened it without a twitch at 170 yards.
Nosler is offering brand-new .22 Nosler brass in addition to factory ammunition, and reloading dies will be coming from Redding, RCBS, Lyman, and others. Handloaders initially may have to carefully work up loads without much data to guide them, but I suspect Nosler will have approved data up on its website by the time you are reading this report. At first blush, it appears that CFE 223 powder offers outstanding performance.
I questioned whether Nosler will eventually produce a deer-appropriate factory load for the .22 Nosler, and Waterman indicated that both the 60-grain Partition and the 64-grain Bonded Solid Base are being considered, so one or both will likely be loaded in the future.
Simply put, the .22 Nosler offers unprecedented .22-caliber performance in the AR-15 platform. A 16-inch-barreled carbine in .22 Nosler will significantly outperform a 24-inch-barreled AR-15 in .223, and a .22 Nosler AR-15 with a 22- or 24-inch varmint barrel will make your buddies armed with .22-250 bolt actions scramble to keep up on the prairie dog towns — and they'll fail because you'll have higher capacity and faster follow-up shots.
Were I to guess, I'd say that the new cartridge will be most loved by predator hunters, where the extra reach and authority provide a significant edge. But if you're like me, then you see that the new .22 Nosler is one of the coolest AR cartridge developments in some time, and you probably are telling yourself you need an AR-15 chambered for it regardless of what you'll use it for.