The ‘misunderstood’ Merkel KR1 rifle could well have a range of applications on these shores. Mark Stone finds out how
If there is a European maker that is completely misunderstood by UK shooters, it’s Merkel. This company spent over 40 years isolated behind the iron curtain, and now makes what are conceived as old-fashioned sporting guns. To a degree this preconception is correct, but while the bulk of UK shooters were drawn towards American products and the turn-bolt in particular, Merkel maintained its own direction even after communism failed. While the end results are expensive, no one can deny the sheer quality and attention to technical detail that personifies Merkel’s firearms. The oft-overlooked KR1 rifle is a truly superb example.
Everybody rattles on that it’s a turn-bolt that wanted to be a straight pull, but in fact it is the forerunner of this sort of rifle. The KR1 set the Germanic standards by which all other switch-barrel hunting rifles are measured. So it’s worth learning what sets Merkel’s KR1 Contest apart. It doesn’t make much difference which of the 11 grades of woodwork you opt for – even the lowest grade is still a nice piece of oiled walnut, and they all sport the basic and comfortable Bavarian stock design. The only other choices are the inclusion of a cheekpiece – something I’d personally go for – and a full Stutzen version.
Although the Contest comes with a heavy, fluted, fully floating match-style barrel, you can also choose more conventional micron-coated tubes in three different lengths. The barrel can be switched by undoing the twin hex-headed key studs located beneath the floor plate.
Where the KR1 has visual similarities with other rifles is in the operation of the bolt and the cyclic procedure. When you lift the bolt handle through 60 degrees and pull it rearwards, the entire breech shroud and bolt draws backwards, disengaging directly from the chamber. This means the KR1 doesn’t have a solid receiver in the usual sense – the bolt head’s solid lock-up with the bullet and chamber is all the KR1 needs to get the job done. Elsewhere, the uniqueness of the KR1 is once again evident in the way you get to the four-round detachable magazine. Depress the latch in front of the trigger guard, and the floor plate and part of the trigger mechanism drop down, which allows the metal magazine to be removed.
Regrettably, I didn’t get the chance to take the KR1 Contest out stalking, more due to timing than anything else. However, a friend of mine and fanatical stalker has his own private range that extends over 400 yards. So I headed there with one of the new Minox ZA3 3-9×40 scopes attached to the rifle courtesy of a QD accessory rail and rings, and 40 rounds of 155-grain Lapua Scenar Special Purpose .308. I zeroed the KR1 using a Leupold Zero Point boresighter at 150 yards – a process that took 11 minutes and just seven rounds with the rifle supported on a small sand bag.
A few more rounds to check resulted in a group of just over ¼in, along with the thought that it may be a good idea to move back 50 yards or so. I got similar results, with the occasional pulled shot being down to me. In fact, extending the distance out to 350 yards had little effect apart from the obvious drop. Lapua’s hollow-point boat-tail match rounds exemplified the KR1’s long-range abilities. Using one of the Minox scope’s alternative holdover points put the KR1-Lapua combo back in the bull.
The other notable point was that the heavy fluted barrel showed little sign of getting hot, while the lack of recoil was outstanding – the KR1 is one of the softest .308 rifles I’ve ever shot. The trigger’s crisp and predictable weight of 3lb 10oz was more than to my liking, and it can drop to an exact two pounds for those who prefer a set trigger. One thing you have to ensure is that your scope mounts allow the scope to sit far enough backwards while being high enough to ensure they don’t foul the bolt or impede the ejection of the empty case.
Not being one for gizmos, I fired the Merkel using nothing more than my hand and a dry stone wall for support. Then I switched to a good old-fashioned thumb stick, and lastly I fired it free-standing. All three methods produced perfect, on-the-mark shots. At 9lb 4oz it’s heavy for dragging on extended hill stalks, but for measured shots – especially without support – the balance and poise more than offset the mass so much that the performance of the KR1 Contest verges on clinical.
The purpose of the KR1 Contest is remarkably lost on many British shooters, especially in 308. However, in this format the rifle serves more functions than you may think. Look at it from a German shooter’s point of view: he or she needs a multi-calibre bolt-action rifle that is superb for high seat use while equally at home contesting one of the numerous inter-club butt shooting competitions. The Contest as tested is ideally suited to both. From the English perspective once again, it’s a match rifle that is also a near-perfect stalking tool.
Don’t believe me? Then think about this. A good friend of mine takes care of business at two nearby deer farms, alongside taking part in a variety of culling exercises around Scotland. He commented to me that for extended precision work – involving head shots or picking off specific beasts within a herd – then the KR1 is the best you will ever get without resorting to an out-and-out tactical rifle. On top of that, it’s a rifle you’ll want to get to know and enjoy. You’ll be eager to discover just how far you can push both yourself and the KR1. In other words, it’s a platform to build on – the possibility to expand and adapt is almost endless.
The initial price of £3,279 isn’t inconsiderable, and the cost of the quick-detachable mounts bumps it up even further. But after that, the cost of additional barrels – about £680 each depending on your choice of calibre, length and format – is a fraction of the cost of those of the other German switch-barrel guns. Add to this the sheer quality of the KR1, the blinding accuracy, and the fact that it could well be the only rifle you’ll ever need to buy. You’ll find yourself with a piece of kit that will perform any task asked of it to a level that leaves the rest trailing in its wake. Need I say any more? Go and buy one.