I have to admit that until for most of my life I had never shot a Merkel rifle. It was a make that had eluded me, with none of my shooting companions having one in the cupboard. It wasn’t until testing a number of straight-pulls with Tim Pilbeam that I finally got my hands on one.
It was the perfect introduction to the Merkel, as with a Blaser and Lynx in the mix it allowed me to draw comparisons with similar offerings on the market. One thing was certain by the time we had finished: the Merkel was definitely the fastest of the lot. At that point it was generally accepted that the RX Helix was the fastest straight pull in the world, though with the Browning Maral hitting the shelves there’s a serious challenger for the title.
Merkel has an interesting history, hailing from the former East Germany from 1898. The company made it out of the Second World War as a communist seizure. Eventually, when the iron curtain fell, Merkel faced competition once more, and this forced it to re-evaluate its strategy, moving away from top-end handmade rifles to a more affordable, partly machined design.
In 2007 the Abu Dhabi investment firm Tawazan Holding bought the company. The gun maker has attracted a varied following over the years, with rifles or components supplied to King Juan Carlos of Spain and former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. Even Hermann Goering was among those to have stalked with a Merkel.
When it came to testing the RX Helix myself, I was lucky enough to get my hands on the first synthetic model in the country. I can’t think of a mainstream manufacturer that doesn’t offer a synthetic model, so I was pleased that Merkel had filled this gap, providing the same proven action in a more weather-resistant format.
For those unaccustomed to the RX Helix, there are two major areas of discussion that distinguish it from all other rifles. The first is the incredibly fast action, and the second is the impressive switch-barrel system.
We’ll start with the action. The premise of the design is fairly simple: for every inch you pull back the bolt handle, the bolt head will come back two inches. This means the shooter does half the work of a standard straight pull, as the geared bolt shaft facilitates the rapid reload. This in turn makes shooting a string of shots a very quick affair. The well-constructed bolt handle that is hung almost vertically beside the stock helps. In this way, ‘palming’ the handle on the forward stroke and gently guiding back the handle with two fingers on the return can operate the action. With practice this can be achieved at great speed.
As with most rifles of European straight-pull origin, one of the aims of the Helix was to produce the ultimate driven boar rifle. Merkel has certainly achieved that – it is easy and light to handle, manoeuvrable and quick to load. But that does not exclude it from more conventional hunting, and the RX-Helix makes for a perfectly serviceable stalking rifle. It enters a part of the market that has been dominated by Blaser for a number of years, and it must be considered a serious contender.
There is no doubt that the action is clever, but I do have one small reservation, and it is only one of speculation. With what is a fairly complicated mechanism by comparison with a standard bolt-action, I wonder how rifle operation would be affected if a substantial volume of grit and grime found their way in there. The nature of the design means it would be difficult to work on and clean out yourself. In fairness, in other straight-pulls this has never been a problem.
Now we turn our attention to another innovative aspect of the rifle: the switch-barrel system. With every other switch-barrel I have tested, an external tool has been required to change the barrel. Normally, you loosen two or more hex-head screws, either on a collar around the barrel or, as with the Mauser M03, fixed directly to the barrel itself. This facilitates the barrel removal. Merkel clearly approached this part of the design with fresh eyes, aiming to remove the requirement for tools. Not only did they achieve this, they also created a rifle that offers the slickest barrel change on the market.
The first step simply involves removing the forestock. Keeping things as fuss-free as possible, this is achieved by depressing a button under the stock, at which point the whole thing slides off the metalwork. After that, it is a straightforward case of rotating the now exposed lever at 90 degrees to the rifle, then pulling the barrel gently from the action.
To insert a new barrel in an alternative calibre, this process is reversed. Of course, changing between calibre families will also require the bolt head to be swapped. This too is completed quickly and easily. As long as you ensure the bolt is in the forward position when the barrel is removed, the bolt head will be conveniently held in the chamber ready to be twisted out and replaced. I doubt if this could have been made any easier, and any other rifle manufacturers that try to compete with Merkel will be hard-pressed to create a better process.
Moving on to the rest of the rifle, the synthetic stock maintains the standard you would expect from Merkel, offering no points to criticise. Conveniently, Merkel makes the RX Helix receiver with an integral Weaver rail, allowing for an array of mounting options. This is a pleasing move by Merkel, since a number of other German gun manufacturers have opted to corner shooters into using the maker’s own mounts. As excellent as the mounts are, they come at a considerable cost.
The trigger in the RX Helix is a crisp affair with an even, light break. My only complaint is that the blade itself is thinner and smoother than I would like. Moving on to the safety, we find a similar cocking lever system to the Blaser, which is something you either love or hate.
The shootability of the RX Helix is without question superb. It feels natural in the hand and comes to the eye nicely, whether using the iron sights or with the rifle scoped. On the range I did find myself having to go through a few brands and bullet weights to find something the rifle enjoyed firing, but once I settled on 150-grain Hornady loads it returned the industry standard of 1MOA. As always, some more fine tuning and worked up hand-loads would bring this in further.
Wanting to test the consistency of the switch-barrel changes, I repeated accuracy tests with this ammo as standard, first grouping between barrel changes and then grouping with single shots and a barrel change between each. I could detect no difference in the rifle’s ability to group having changed the barrel. There did seem to be a marginal point of impact shift, which led to my second test opening the group to around 1.5in given the barrel swap between shots. For the practical purposes this rifle was intended for, this makes little difference.
The RX Helix is one of those rifles that has to be used to be truly appreciated. It provides a modern innovation in design concepts, which have not been challenged for many years, and I will be interested to see what shape Merkel’s next development takes. BP
Models tested: Walnut; synthetic (switch-barrel)
Price range: From £3,075
Contact: Viking Arms 01423 780810