The AR-15 rifle was not a rifle creation unto itself—it was designed around the .223 Remington/5.56 NATO cartridge. In the late 1950s, ArmaLite first came up with the AR in order to meet a military need for a gun that fired the .223 round, so there was little or no concern regarding how, or if, any other cartridges would operate in the rifle. There was no point.
The original AR design did eventually lead to the U.S. military’s M16. But certainly, nobody from that era could have foreseen the current boom in civilian use of this rifle platform. The AR-15 in its various forms is now the most popular centerfire rifle in the U.S.
With all that attention has come a demand for more and different cartridge chamberings for an AR-15 type of rifle. While the .22-caliber bullet itself is fine, it needs to go faster in order to be suitable for other uses. For example, the AR-15 rifle is well suited for predator hunting, except that many, myself included, believe that the .223 Remington, when used with the short barrels common to this platform, is on the bottom edge of acceptable performance for coyote hunting. Also, right or wrong, the .223/5.56 has always been criticized as being too small for serious defensive use.
And with the growing interest in long-range shooting, there is a demand for a faster, flatter shooting cartridge without a big increase in recoil.
But the primary limitation with any cartridge is its length, as allowed by the design of the rifle in which it’ll be used. The overall cartridge length for the .223 Remington according to SAAMI (the Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers’ Institute, which sets industry standards) is 2.260-inch, and you really can’t deviate beyond that.
In other words, the stage is set for a new 22-caliber cartridge designed for use in the AR-15 platform. A basic tenet of business is to find a need and then fill it, and Nosler did that with their new .22 Nosler.
A Better .223
Nosler has been getting a lot of attention in the hunting world lately with their introduction of multiple rifle cartridges. The .26, .28, .30 and .33 Nosler are all very large and very powerful cartridges near the top of the performance curve for their category. They are designed to be used in bolt-action rifles for hunting big game or for shooting at extreme ranges. So when Nosler introduced a much smaller cartridge specific to the AR-15 at the 2017 SHOT show, shooters were surprised.
The .22 Nosler is designed specifically to work in an AR-15-style rifle—either a new rifle or a converted existing rifle. The easiest conversion is to simply install a new upper that is chambered in .22 Nosler. This cartridge uses 6.8 SPC magazines, which are easily available. That’s the only other change needed. You can also swap out the barrel on your existing gun to one chambered for .22 Nosler. Both the .223 Remington and the .22 Nosler use the same bolt face, so you can use your existing bolt. It’s even possible to convert existing .223 Remington rifles, using the same barrel, with some gunsmithing techniques.
This cartridge offers a substantial increase in power over the .223 Remington. It has about 20 percent more case capacity, and any given bullet weight will see an increase of 300 to 350 feet per second in muzzle velocity. To put that in perspective, that is the difference between a .308 Winchester and a .300 Winchester Magnum.
Because the cartridge could not be longer, and still fit in the magazine of an AR-15, an increase in performance required an increase in case capacity. Nosler engineers did that by making the case larger in diameter. The base of the case body grew in diameter from .3749-inch for the .223 Remington to .420-inch for the .22 Nosler. To keep the same bolt head diameter, the rim on the .22 Nosler is rebated and is smaller than the diameter of the cartridge body. This cartridge has the same 2.260-inch overall cartridge length as the .223 Remington. However, if two cartridges had the same length body (the measurement from the base to the shoulder), or if the .22 Nosler was longer than the .223 Remington, a safety issue would come up, because that would allow a .223 Remington cartridge to fit in the larger diameter chamber of the .22 Nosler. If that cartridge were to fire, it would rupture and cause damage to the gun, shooter and bystanders. The only winners in that situation are the lawyers. So in the interest of safety, the length from the base to the shoulder is shorter on the .22 Nosler than the .223 Remington.
Both cartridges operate at the same SAAMI Mean Average Pressure level of 55,000 psi. The .22 Nosler has a more modern, sharper, 30-degree shoulder, while the .223 Remington has a 23-degree shoulder.
Currently Nosler offers three different ammo products as well as cases and bullets for handloading. They also have handloading data on their website. There are multiple companies making rifles, uppers, or barrels, and that list is growing every day.
The rifle Nosler sent me for testing is a Noveske Varmageddon rifle (Nosler contracted with Noveske Rifleworks to make the rifle). It has a Leupold 4.5-14X50 Varmageddon scope. This gun is designed for varmint hunting, with an 18-inch barrel and no flash hider or muzzle brake. It has an excellent trigger and it’s extremely accurate.
I only had two of the three ammo products to test, but they were outstanding. The first was a 55-grain Ballistic Tip with an advertised muzzle velocity of 3,350 fps from an 18-inch barrel. This is a varmint-hunting load, but would do well for defense and is more than accurate enough for target work. With a 200-yard zero, the bullet impacted 1.2 inches high at 100 yards. At 300 yards it was 6.4 inches low, and at 400 yards it hit 19.4 inches low. It is wonderfully accurate in the Noveske rifle, averaging .51-inch for three, 3-shot groups at 100 yards.
I also shot the rifle with the 77-grain Match load with an advertised muzzle velocity of 2,950 fps. This is a long range, target load with a heavy, high ballistic coefficient (.340) bullet designed for target shooting. With a 200-yard zero, the load impacted 1.7 inches high at 100 yards. At 300 yards it hit the target 7.7 inches below the line of sight and at 400 yard it impacted 22.9 inches low. It hit 47.4 inches low at 500 yards and 83.8 inches below the line of sight at 600 yards, where it still has 1,519 fps of velocity remaining and 395 foot-pounds of retained energy.
That’s enough energy to get noticed on a steel target. The trouble with some 22-caliber rounds is that they do not impact hard enough at long range for a spotter to reliably see the hit on a steel target. This extra velocity helps to mitigate that problem.
Nosler also lists a budget-priced 62-grain FBHP Varmageddon load for the .22 Nosler on their website, but it was not available for testing in time to meet my deadline.
I don’t see that the .223 Remington is in danger of losing its crown. It is the most popular centerfire rifle cartridge right now, due in great part to the proliferation of AR-15 rifles in recent years. Ammo is abundant and relatively inexpensive. The .223 Remington is also a proven performer in all categories.
But for the shooter looking to stay with a 22-caliber bullet and wanting more performance, the .22 Nosler looks like a winner. Right now it is the most powerful commercial .22 centerfire available for the AR-15 platform. That makes it a better choice for hunting and for long-range target shooting. There is a strong argument to be made that it is technically a better defensive cartridge as well.
I have to return this rifle to Nosler, but I like this cartridge so much that I am building a rifle of my own. I think it’s the coyote-hunting cartridge I have been waiting to use for a very long time. I expect too that I’ll also shoot it at a bunch of long-range targets. The low recoil makes it a good choice, and it’s extremely accurate.
Bottom line: I think the .22 Nosler is going to find a home with shooters.
Following are my range test results for two loads, consisting of three, 3-shot groups at 100 yards. Velocity in feet per second was measured with a barrel mounted MagnetoSpeed Chronograph. Conditions: sunny, no wind, 15 degrees F.
Nosler Match Grade 77-Grain
Average muzzle velocity: 2,831 fps
Average of three, three-shot groups at 100 yards: .68-in.
Best group: .55-in.
Nosler Trophy Grade Varmint 55-grain Ballistic Tip
Average muzzle velocity: 3257 fps
Average of three, three-shot groups at 100 yards: .51-in.
Best group: .35-in.