Rifle Review: Wilson Combat’s NULA Model 20 Is the Best New Rifle of 2023
We spent weeks testing the hottest new rifles for 2023, and when we were done, one rifle stood above all the others. Here's why it's the best
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Thirty-eight years ago Melvin Forbes introduced the world to a sub-5-pound bolt-action rifle that was perfectly balanced and shot like a bench-rest gun. It set the standard for lightweight bolt-action hunting rifles go forward. But many modern hunters have never heard of Forbes or his company, New Ultra Light Arms, because he didn’t advertise. He didn’t have to. Word of mouth sold more than 7,000 of his rifles, and most who bought one ordered another in less than a year. In 2022, Forbes sold his company to Wilson Combat. And for 2023, the company has slightly tweaked Forbes’ design and reintroduced his legendary rifle as the NULA Model 20.
Wilson Combat is known for building exquisite 1911 handguns, AR15s, and pump shotguns. With this tactical background, you wouldn’t expect them to delve into the production hunting rifles. But the company’s founder, Bill Wilson, respected Forbes, his legacy, and the rifle he designed, and he felt it could serve as the foundation for a line of hunting rifles. Just like all the other firearms I’ve tested from Wilson Combat, their new NULA Model 20 is a study in perfection. It performed so well in our annual rifle test that it received the F&S Editor’s Pick award for best overall hunting rifle.
Wilson Combat NULA Model 20 Specifications
- Length: 39.38 inches
- Weight: 5.17 pounds
- Barrel: Wilson Combat, button rifled, 416R stainless, 16.25-, 20-, and 22-inches, depending on cartridge. Threaded at 5/8×24.
- Action: Bolt, two-lug with Sako style extractor and plunger ejector
- Trigger: Timney Elite Hunter
- Capacity: 4+1 (hinged floorplate)
- Finish: Armorlube DLC (action) Armor-Tuff (barrel) Hard Anodized (floorplate)
- Stock: AG Composites with Kodiak Rouge (tested), Canyon Rouge, or charcoal grey finish
- Chambering: 243 Winchester, 6.5 Creedmoor (tested), 308 Winchester, 358 Winchester
- Price: $3,295
This rifle is built around an EDM cut, cylindrical action of 4140 steel that’s only 1.22 inches in diameter. The bolt has two-lugs and is machined from 4340 barstock, and it’s only 0.585-inch in diameter. This is a push-feed bolt with a Sako-style extractor and a plunger ejector, and the bolt handle is attached to the bolt body mechanically. It’s also fitted with a swappable and grooved bolt knob that’s slightly oversized, and a red “cocked” indicator is visible at the rear of the bolt. A Timney Elite Hunter trigger that locks the bolt handle down when set to “safe” is standard, and the action is drilled and tapped at 8×40 for proprietary Talley one-piece rings that weigh only 2 ounces per set.
The barrel is made by Wilson Combat from 416R stainless steel. It’s lean, 20 inches long, threaded at 5/8×24, and comes with a thread protector with machined flats for easy on and off. Depending on the cartridge, a 16.5- or 22-inch barrel is also available. The barreled action is set in a custom, pillar bedded, AG Composites carbon-fiber stock that’s also fitted with a featherlight (2.6 ounce) hard anodized aluminum floorplate. The barrel is free floated. The stock is finished in one of two camo patterns or charcoal grey, and it’s capped off with a Limbsaver recoil pad. Finished, the stock weighs 28 ounces and the complete rifle—minus scope rings—weighs only 5.17 pounds.
Wilson Combat NULA Model 20 Test Results
- Very Precise Shooting
- Smooth Action
- Incredibly Light
- Perfectly balanced
- Safety locks bolt
- 358 Winchester is an option
- Limited Chamberings
As part of the 2023 F&S Rifle Test, we shot 10 five-shot group, using five different loads, from a bench rest at 100 yard to evaluate the Model 20’s precision. The overall average group size 1.04 inches. The smallest group we shot was with Hornady’s 143-grain ELD-X Precision Hunter load, and it measured a scant 0.57-inch. This is damned fine performance for a 5-pound rifle. But this is a hunting rifle intended to be used and shot in the field.
Stepping away from the bench, we subjected the rifle to a variety of offhand shooting drills where it performed just as well. Many assume lightweight rifles are difficult to shoot off-hand. They can be, but it’s not the lack of weight that’s the problem—it’s poor balance. Lots of lightweight rifles are butt heavy. This makes them handle lithely but also makes them hard to hold on target. This rifle, just as with the original NULA rifles before it, balances at the front guard screw, which is right between your hands. This makes the rifle very responsive and a joy to shoot from field positions. During our testing, everyone felt they did their best shooting with this rifle. When tester Matt Every picked up the Model 20 he said, “I know I’m going to shoot this rifle well,” and he did.
The AG Composites’ stock was stiff enough to allow you to tightly torque into a shooting sling for support without the stock pressing against the barrel or causing a point-of-impact shift. Another wise carryover from the NULA design is the negative drop on the stock’s comb. The heel of the stock is higher than the nose of the comb, and just about a quarter inch below bore line. This helps direct recoil straight back, and it allows you to get a good cheek weld with proper eye alignment through the riflescope. But also very important, it allows the comb of the stock to simply slide past your cheek bone during recoil as opposed to pounding into it.
The smoothness of the action was also notable and reminded me of the same smoothness you feel with a Wilson Combat 1911 or AR15. It was very easy to cycle, feeding was flawless, and it was one of only two of the bolt-action rifles we tested that allowed us to get four hits on the running deer target before it stopped.
Final Thoughts on the Wilson Combat NULA Model 20
When Melvin Forbes sold New Ultra Light Arms to Wilson Combat in 2022, his Model 20 rifle retailed for $4,200. That’s a lot of money, but with more than 100 orders on the books at the time of the sale, it was clearly a price hunters were willing to pay. After the sale, used NULA rifles began selling for nearly as much as new ones.
At $3,295, the Wilson Combat NULA Model 20 is 21.5 percent less than the original. I believe Melvin Forbes’ handcrafted Kevlar/carbon fiber stock is a bit stiffer and somewhat more comfortable. But, by opting for the custom crafted AG Composites stock, Wilson Combat was able to add a hinged floor plate, get rifles out the door faster, and based on this test, maintain first-rate accuracy.
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Field & Stream rifle’s editor Dave Petzal once wrote, “The thing you have to understand about Melvin [Forbes] is, he’s a mechanical genius…Probably he could make a cuckoo clock or an atom bomb if necessary.” The same could be said about Bill Wilson, a watchmaker turned gun builder, who revolutionized the 1911 with the SFX9 pistol. The NULA Model 20 rifle from Wilson Combat is the product of the combined ingenuity of two of the most technically proficient firearms designers and experienced hunters and shooters of our modern age. It’s still expensive, but as tester Will McGuire said, “It’s far and above the best ultralight rifle available.” And I believe, whether you can afford it or not, it is pound-for-pound the most accurate custom or factory rifle currently manufactured. And I’m going to buy Bill Wilson a beer for making it available in 358 Winchester.