WHEN I WAS A KID, the .264 Winchester Magnum was the brightest star on the horizon. Introduced in 1958, it took off like a rocket, except that it fizzled fast when Remington introduced the 7mm Remington Magnum just four years later. I concede that Remington’s Big Seven is more versatile, but in those days it took longer for word to get around. I wasn’t yet 15 when I got my first .264, and I thought it was magical. I lost that rifle in a burglary in the early ’80s, and although I retained a soft spot for the cartridge, a quarter-century passed before I built up another .264.
By then I knew better. There was blue sky in the original figures for the .264, especially in my 24-inch tube, so I never got the velocity I thought I was getting, nor did anyone else. Jack O’Connor was probably correct in damning the .264 with faint praise, saying it wasn’t much different from his beloved .270, except that 6.5mm bullets are heavy for caliber and hold up very well downrange. The current .264 140-grain factory load is rated at 3,030 feet per second. My .264 has a 26-inch tube, and I can get 3,100 fps from a 140-grain bullet. At that velocity, it does great things at longer ranges, but it’s a stretch to call it really fast.
So, being a bit of a 6.5mm fan, I got excited when Nosler gave a sneak preview of the .26 Nosler. It was supposed to push a 140-grain bullet at 3,375 fps, a quantum leap over the .264, except that Nosler was wrong about the velocity. In the 26-inch barrel of the Nosler Model 48 I used, actual average velocity was 3,425 fps — a bonus of 50 fps.
The RUM Case
The .26 Nosler’s parent case is the 7mm Remington Ultra Mag., a wonderfully fast cartridge but definitely overbore capacity and sensitive to the powders it will accept. This was mitigated somewhat by shortening the case to (nominally) 2½ inches, which allows it to fit into a standard .30-’06-length action. The case is then necked down to 6.5mm, retaining the 40-degree shoulder and a full-caliber neck. The RUM case, based on the old .404 Jeffery, has a larger diameter (.550 inch) than belted magnums based on the .375 H&H case (which includes the .264), so powder capacity is considerably greater.
The rim is rebated to .532, so a standard belted magnum bolt face requires no alteration. If you’re thinking like me, yes, that means a .264 Winchester Magnum can be rechambered to the new cartridge. It will be overbore capacity, as the .264 is, which means that propellant selection for optimum performance is limited, and it’s unlikely that barrel life will be extensive. On the other hand, we have more and better powders today than we did back in the 1960s. We may also have better barrels, but let’s face it: You aren’t going to gain an honest 300 fps without any trade-off. Like the .264 and, realistically, any of the full-length RUMs, you really need a 26-inch tube to get full velocity, which probably accounts for the velocity bonus I experienced.
Meet the .26
There must have been some interesting discussions regarding the naming of the cartridge. It is the first cartridge to bear the Nosler name, so both the company and the family are excited about it. Using 6.5mm/.264-caliber bullets, the “26” is nominally correct, but the use of just two digits is unusual today. Obviously, Nosler wanted to avoid potential confusion with the .260 Remington and .264 Winchester Magnum, and just perhaps it wanted to avoid using the “6.5mm” designation. Although cartridges such as the 6.5/.284 and 6.5mm Creedmoor have done very well in competitive circles, the 6.5mm has not achieved the popularity in the United States that it has in Europe. Over there, the old 6.5×55 Swedish Mauser is a standard, and, although almost unknown over here, the unbelted 6.5×68 remains popular. It is actually faster than our .264, but it isn’t as fast as the .26 Nosler. The new cartridge, however, is still a 6.5mm, but perhaps it will be the 6.5mm cartridge that at long last breaks the curse.
It was November 2013 when I got my hands on one of the first .26 Nosler rifles and a batch of ammo. The boxes were Nosler Trophy Grade, which is consistently good ammo, but at this stage the project was still in final experimentation. Therefore, this was handloaded ammo, and although cases were headstamped “Nosler,” they still read “7mm Rem. Ultra Mag.”
The only load was 140-grain Nosler AccuBond, which is a good bullet and a fine choice, but opportunities to make comparisons were limited. In trying to find niches for its relatively new lines of loaded ammo, Nosler has done some interesting things. These have included the first factory loads for the .280 Ackley Improved and also an extensive array of loads for the long-neglected .264. In my own .264, I actually shifted to 129-grain Hornady and 130-grain Nosler bullets so I could get a bit more velocity. A 130-grain load for the .26 should wring out an extra 100 fps, but for larger game the case should still propel the 160-grain slug at an extremely meaningful velocity.
Flat, Really Flat
Additional bullet weights lay in the future; for now, let’s focus on that 140-grain load. The reason I went back to the .264 after so many years is that, although actual velocity isn’t much faster than the .270 Winchester (and not as fast as the .270 WSM or .270 Weatherby Magnum), the better aerodynamics of the 6.5mm bullet gives it awesome downrange performance. Add 300 fps and retain the carrying abilities of the 140-grain 6.5mm bullet, and you have something very interesting going on.
As a hunter, I certainly don’t seek long-range opportunities — in fact, I avoid them if possible — but I try to be prepared for whatever comes along. Here’s my dilemma: I know that my most common errors lie in shooting too high. If I sight in for a longer range, such as 300 yards, I’m in better shape for a 400-yard shot, but with most cartridges the rise in midrange trajectory means that on a faster, closer shot that I don’t want to stop and think about (but just sit down and take), I must consciously hold a bit low. I know I have trouble doing this, so my normal preference is to zero for 200 yards, then use additional stadia lines in the reticle for longer shots.
The .26 Nosler changes the game, without the recoil of the fastest .30 calibers. At the rated 3,375 fps, for a 300-yard zero all you need to do is sight 2.6 inches high at 100 yards. You are only 3.2 inches high at 200 yards, which I can live with, and, good God, you’re only 7.7 inches low at 400 yards. A hold slightly high on the shoulder will work just fine. Beyond that, hey, everything starts to drop, but if you run the .26 Nosler on a computer it’s amazing how well it holds up at long range.
The Plan, the Rifle, the Scope
The .26 Nosler was quietly unveiled at InterMedia’s August 2013 editorial roundtable. My mind instantly started racing. It would be great for pronghorn and open-country deer (as the .264 is), but I saw it as an awesome mountain hunting cartridge. Sheep and goats just aren’t that big; caliber and bullet weight are plenty adequate, and the 6.5mm bullets hold up as well as anything in the wind, especially if you can add velocity and reduce flight time. I thought ahead, and I had an ibex hunt planned in eastern Turkey for November. All mountain hunts are special, but this was to be my 30th variety of wild goat, a major milestone, and from past experience I knew the Turkish mountains to be steep and treacherous. I thought this hot new cartridge would be just the ticket … if the company could get me a rifle and ammo in time.
In fact it did, with a few weeks to spare. The rifle was its Nosler M48 Trophy Grade, one I admit I had no previous experience with. It is a very normal push-feed bolt action with two Mauser-style locking lugs, a two-position safety with the bolt handle locked in the Safe position and housed in a good synthetic stock with a fairly stiff 26-inch barrel with a 1:9-inch twist. This particular rifle had a left-hand action, which both surprised and delighted me. The M48 uses common Model 700 mounts, and I was able to easily find some Weaver mounts. I topped the rifle with one of my favorite mountain hunting scopes, a 1-inch-tube Zeiss Conquest in 4.5-14x44mm, not too heavy but with plenty of power, featuring the Rapid-Z 800 reticle.
There is actually nothing fancy or unusual about the Nosler M48, but it is clearly well put together from good components, a no-nonsense hunting rifle just like the Nosler ads purport. Accuracy was very good but not awesome, with my groups generally staying just under an inch and occasionally better but never worse. This is just fine for one of the first rifles in a new cartridge with still-experimental ammo.
I gave serious thought to a 300-yard zero, but I defaulted to my comfort zone, sighting in just two-thirds of an inch high at 100 yards for a 200-yard zero (wow!), and I ran the Zeiss Ballistics Calculator for the actual velocity in the rifle I was using (3,425 fps). I didn’t expect to be shooting at extreme range, but when holdover is needed I’ve learned it is better to use the stadia lines than go by “Kentucky elevation.”
In the field
The hunt was with my old friend Kaan Karakaya’s Turkish-based Shikar-Safaris (shikarsafaris.com) and would be in eastern Turkey near the Syrian border. Somewhere along the way, the ibex in that area mixed with domestic goats, and in the way of we crazy mountain hunters, we consider them “hybrid ibex.” The influence varies; some show quite a different color from Turkey’s native Persian ibex or Bezoar goats, and horns average shorter, but their tell-tale aspect is an outward flare at the horn tips. If your intent is to take one of these animals, that’s what you’re looking for.
The mountains were exactly what I expected: wide open, windy, steep, rocky and very cold up on top. The rut hadn’t quite kicked off, so we saw quite a few females in the brushline lower down, but the males were expected to be higher and probably in groups. Oh, yeah, were they ever! We were watching a small group on a ridge, still at 700 yards, while our local game guard dropped down to a rocky point below us to look into the next valley. I saw him duck down and retreat, then gesture wildly.
We went down to him, skirting a small group of ibex on the next ridge. I thought it was these that he was looking at, not knowing that in the roll of terrain we’d already seen them. Not quite. We crept up to a rock pile, peered over, and the slope below us was crowded with ibex, at least 250, all males, some feeding, others bedded. They stretched from just 60 yards below us to well down the slope. Guide Cele` was with me — we’ve hunted together before — and he was trying desperately to pick out one of the mass as, inevitably, they smelled a rat and began to move.
We got lucky. As they drifted left, a very big ibex came into the clear on the right-hand side of the herd. The shot was 200 yards, which was not much of a test for this new flat-shooting cartridge, but it was such a situation and such an animal that it couldn’t be passed up. In body, he was a monster, and his horns, which looked big, were even bigger than we thought. He is the second-largest of this type of ibex known to have been taken — not a bad beginning for this cartridge.