Tim Pilbeam gets his hands on a bit of class, and itches to get an invitation to some overseas shooting to put an exquisite double rifle through its paces
Merkel, based in the city of Suhl, Germany, has been making high-quality sporting guns since the 17th century. The company has a worldwide reputation for its unique engravings, along with a training school for engravers and a gun-making ‘technical school’.
When a friend mentioned to me that he owned one – and, more importantly, that it was an unusual model with unique engravings in a feisty 9.3x74R – I knew it was time for me to start pleading. He had only fired it a few times, but he eventually succumbed to my request with the agreement that I was to guard it with my life. He would clearly be enduring some sleepless nights worrying about the safety of his prized possession.
The Merkel 161 is the sister model to the 141 boxlock, but with a side-lock design. These models are made for medium to big game hunting, especially driven boar. The double barrel concept is popular as it allows a very quick second shot. To accommodate larger African game, Merkel has a much heavier safari range of rifles with more robust calibres to suit.
As soon as I lifted the gun from the cabinet, its elegance and quality became apparent. The 161 is built as a slim version of Merkel’s double rifle range. Based on a 28-gauge shotgun chassis, it weighs in at a lean 6.7lb (3kg), making it ideal for quick, responsive shooting. The short, ‘tin soldered’ 22in (55cm) barrels have open sights as standard, together with highly engineered bases for swing-off Merkel mounts. This gun had been set to a 100-yard zero – adjustments to this can be made using a hex-headed key fitted into the regulating ports between the muzzles. The barrels are produced in 6.5x57R, 7x57R, 7x65R, .30-06, .30R Blaser, 8×57 IRS and 9.3x74R. There is also a sling mount to aid portability.
The side-lock Anson and Deely action comes with a double trigger in the 161. The front trigger can also be pushed forward to act as a set trigger. Most models have injectors, but for an unknown reason this one did not have them fitted. There is also a cocking indicator, and the safety automatically comes on after breaking the barrel – very similar to many shotguns.
The side-lock panels are normally presented in an Arabesque style. On this custom rifle, you can see the detail of typical Germanic beer-drinking scenes, mixed with hunting dogs and woodland backdrops. If you look carefully, you can see the tiny mouse on the floorboards, being stalked by the cat, close to the traditional Bavarian walled timepiece. Merkel states in its promotional literature that ‘ultimate freedom of expression is offered,’ and that’s certainly no lie.
The optional ‘luxury’ finely grained walnut wood is a work of art and a pleasure to handle, with a beautifully designed pistol grip and a cheekpiece that oozes elegance. Once again, a wide variety of options are available, from Scottish and fish scale surface finishes to the hand-polished traditional English finish.
So what is it like to shoot? For this review, I used RWS ammo that kicks out a 258-grain bullet at 2,640fps, so I was anticipating a fair amount of recoil. With the zero set at 100 yards by Merkel, it will drop 1.5in at 150 yards and 5in at 200 yards. Fitted to the rifle was a Swarovski PV1 1.5-6×42 with an illuminated round reticle with central dot, designed for running boar. To remove the scope, turn a section of the rear mount to release it, swing the assembly to the right until it is 90 degrees to the barrel and lift it off.
With a one-metre round steel target set at 100 yards, my first shot was some 15in high thanks to me snatching the firm trigger in anticipation of an impending recoil. Despite it being a short rifle, the muzzle lift was very controllable, and while the recoil was highly noticeable, I managed to achieve a 5-6in group at this distance.
As with most double rifles, there is an acquired technique to shooting the 161 reasonably accurately. With practice, I am sure I could do much better. Having said that, these types of rifle are not built for supreme accuracy, so anything around 3-4in at this distance would be acceptable. Meanwhile, the Swarovski optics were up to their usual high level of quality, and I could see how the reticle would be easy to use on running game. Using the open field sight, I found most targets a breeze to aim at, mostly thanks to the well designed foresight.
The Merkel 161, being short and extremely pointable, was an absolute pleasure to use. With a starting cost of £11,000 for the standard model, you’re bound to expect the highest quality workmanship, and this rifle is a most beautiful example. I can see myself using it on a wild game hunt, whether in Europe or Africa, when suddenly a wild pig is spooked and scampers some 50 yards to my right. In one movement, the gun comes up to the shoulder, and the trigger is immediately squeezed off with fatal effect. All I need to do now is use it on the real thing. I can hardly wait. Any offers?