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Review: The Nosler Custom Handgun (NCH)

This article originally appeared in RECOIL Issue 41


Little is a relative term. In relation to centerfire, rifle-caliber guns, the Nosler Custom Handgun makes it possible to take a long shot with a little gun. Designed for handgun hunting, the NCH is in a class of its own, as a rifle-caliber, bolt-action pistol. Two decades ago, Remington retired its version of a similar hunting handgun, the XP-100. So, the NCH is currently the only hunting handgun platform of its kind that’s available direct from a manufacturer.

At first glance, the NCH is confusing. It’s even more perplexing when you have one in hand, because you immediately realize it’s nothing like a pistol and vaguely resembles a rifle. But it serves a niche market of hunters who like to be challenged by medium to long-range shots with a rifle-caliber pistol.

To understand why the NCH is even a thing, I talked to one of the most-experienced handgun hunters in the world, Mark Hampton, and then put it to the test in the field. Having used a multitude of weapons for hunting, the NCH proved to be the most difficult for me to master. Once I figured out how to problem-solve this abstract pistol, hitting targets became easy and fun.

Handgun Rundown

Based around Nosler’s Model 48 short action, the NCH is a single-shot pistol, fed from a solid-bottom receiver. It looks like a rifle with the stock cut off, but there’s much more to the engineering than that. “The Nosler NCH is a product of a well-thought-out, high-quality, well-designed handgun,” says Hampton. “Nosler didn’t cut any corners; they tried to get it right the first time, and I think they did.”

Past the action, the NCH was developed from the ground up. The bedded action and free-floated barrel rest in a 6061-T6 bar stock aluminum stock. A cross-bolt safety prevents the trigger from being pulled when on safe, but is effortless to disengage with your trigger finger right before taking the shot, as long as you aren’t wrong-handed. A reversible safety may be offered in the future. The custom part of the NCH comes in the form of different Cerakote colors, barrel lengths, muzzle brake, fluted or non-fluted barrels, and six calibers to choose from.

With three spots to attach a QD swivel, I opted for a Spartan Precision Equipment Javelin Bipod Mount. The magnetic bipod was stored in its belt pouch while hunting, because a prone shot was unlikely.

With three spots to attach a QD swivel, I opted for a Spartan Precision Equipment Javelin Bipod Mount. The magnetic bipod was stored in its belt pouch while hunting, because a prone shot was unlikely.

Taking a note from the AR platform, the NCH pistol grip can be swapped out for any standard AR pistol grip. This is great because pistol grip preference is as personal as your choice of boxers or briefs. The NCH comes from the factory with a Hogue OverMolded rubber grip with generous finger groves.

A new cartridge can be quickly loaded into the solid-bottom receiver.

A new cartridge can be quickly loaded into the solid-bottom receiver.

Most rifles have noticeable recoil. Imagine that same amount of recoil, but without the additional contact point of the buttstock in your shoulder. Chambered in a rifle caliber, the NCH undoubtedly has recoil that has to go somewhere. Nosler engineers were wise to thread the barrel, allowing for a muzzle brake or silencer. Using a muzzle brake will mitigate some of the recoil, but it will be offensively loud. On my loaner NCH, I used a silencer.

But, Why?

Why would anyone want to hunt with a handgun? For the same reason some hunters choose a bow instead of a rifle; getting close to your prey is a rush and a challenge. Using a handgun to hunt is a middle ground between using a rifle or bow. The type of handgun you use determines how close you need to get to make the shot. For the NCH, the limitations are related to the caliber selected and your proficiency level.

Just like the M48, the bolt can be removed with a press of a button and no extra tools, unlike the XP-100.

Just like the M48, the bolt can be removed with a press of a button and no extra tools, unlike the XP-100.

In addition to hunting, there are dedicated competitions for long-range handguns. Silhouette pistol shooting is a game where old people shoot from contorted positions at metal targets shaped like animals. Targets vary in size and are usually placed out to 500 yards. It’s these types of competitions that spawned unique freestyle shooting positions with names like the creedmoor or dead frog. Another type of competitive shooting for handguns like the NCH is the Annual MOA Long Range “Cold Turkey” Handgun Match in Sundance, Wyoming. Target distances start at 500 yards, advance to 750 yards, and finally end at 1,000 yards. This intriguing match proves how capable long-range pistols can be in skilled hands.

The Real Test

I was given the opportunity to go on an antelope hunt with the Nosler crew. My loaner NCH was chambered in 22 Nosler, and came with a case of 55-grain Nosler E-Tip. To put it into perspective, the caliber is roughly 12-percent more powerful than a 223; the muzzle velocity listed on the box was 3,300 fps.

A threaded barrel is a necessity for an enjoyable shooting experience.

A fixed four-power Leupold FX-II came mounted on the NCH. Eye relief on the scope is 18 inches, which I couldn’t achieve without using a Picatinny cantilever riser. Some handgun hunters prefer to use a riflescope instead of a handgun scope so they can use more magnification. They knowingly put up with scope shadow and pull the trigger when the scope has an even amount of shadow all the way around. That fact shocked me because scope shadow affects the point of impact of your bullet, but if you have no choice but to have shadow, the best option is for it to be a perfect donut hole.

With the simple duplex reticle in the Leupold scope and the ammo being used, a 200-yard zero maximized the lethality of the handgun out to 300 yards without having to come completely off the target. At 100 yards, the hold was a little low, 200 was dead on, and at 300 yards, the hold was at the top of an 8-inch plate.

The exact shooting position when I took the antelope. The RRS tripod was extremely stable; there was no wobble and I let the gun free-recoil.

My first shots were humbling. Getting into a stable position, with minimal wobble, was extremely difficult. I did my research, and most handgun hunters either use a bipod and bag combo or shoot from a hunting tripod or sticks. I mimicked all the positions I found, minus the human-pretzel ones. Shooting prone was fairly stable, but knowing prone shots in hunting are rare, I was determined to shoot from an elevated position.

After trying multiple hunting tripods and shooting sticks and still not gaining enough confidence to consistently hit an 8-inch plate at 300 yards, frustration took over but my experience in precision long-range matches saved me. Borderline angry, but pleasantly challenged by this new gun, I locked it into the most stable elevated shooting device I know of — a Really Right Stuff tripod with the Vyce clamp. After putting the NCH on the RRS tripod, hitting that 8-inch plate became child’s play. Some people say that putting the handgun on a tripod isn’t sportsman-like, but when an animal’s life is at the receiving end, I’ll always choose what’s most ethical. An ethical shot is one that’ll take the animal’s life as quickly and painlessly as possible. The stability of the RRS tripod was the most ethical option.

The Kill

Getting within 300 yards of a herd of antelope proved to be difficult. In Utah, there were areas of rolling hills that would suddenly open up to flat land. Antelope are observant, and it wasn’t until the final day that we got close enough. We spotted a small group of antelope, with one buck that was 210 yards away. They didn’t see us, so I quickly deployed the tripod and set up for the shot.

A single shot dropped the buck in his tracks; he didn’t take another step. The Nosler E-Tip projectile went shoulder-to-shoulder, clipping both lungs, and was recovered inside the hide. Success.

Lessons Learned

I didn’t expect the NCH to be such a challenge to shoot. After learning how to shoot it, I understand why there’s a dedicated demographic of hunters who enjoy using a handgun. If I hadn’t already been proficient in both pistol shooting and long-range rifle shooting, I would’ve been at a loss of how to use this weapon.

After the hunt, I discussed the difficulty of long-range handgun hunting with Hampton. I asked him what advice he’d give to a new shooter who wants to start handgun hunting. “I would strongly recommend getting a 22 rimfire pistol and put a handgun scope on it,” said Hampton. “Getting used to a handgun scope takes a lot of practice. Putting a handgun scope on a 22 rimfire saves money while giving a lot of trigger time. It’s also good to practice in difficult shooting positions you might encounter in the field.”

This won’t be my last handgun hunt, but next time I’ll opt for a larger caliber and a variable power scope. Having the ability to reach out farther is always a good option. The NCH is an impressive handgun that performed exactly as advertised; using it for hunting makes for a memorable and unique experience.

Nosler NCH spec


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