Slicker than slick

Living up to the hype? Tim takes on the Merkel RX Helix’s reputation

Merkel’s RX Helix is commonly called the fastest take-down straight pull on the market. Tim Pilbeam tests those claims

The RX Helix manifesto states: “Hunting has moved on in the 21st century. It has become faster, more versatile and more exciting. This demands better gun ergonomics: ideal combination of responsiveness, speed and accuracy.” It continues: “The hunt doesn’t begin on the hunting grounds nowadays, but starts instead with the preparation for the journey to the hunt.” All sounds great, and UK importer Viking Arms’s claim that it is the fastest straight pull on the market had got me excited. But has Merkel really developed the best hunting gun for the 21st century?

Merkel is a well-known German manufacturer of luxury hunting rifles and shotguns, based in Suhl. The R in RX Helix refers to ‘Repetierer’, which is German for a bolt-action rifle, and the X has a double meaning: the Roman numeral stands for the launch year 2010 and is also from the Latin alphabet representing the word ‘Helix’. Helix refers to the way the bolt locks into the breech.

For this review, Viking Arms sent the Helix in .308 with a beautiful grade six walnut stock and an eye-catching wood finish, but it is the action and barrel that really sets the rifle apart. The Helix is a straight pull design, but the bolt is within a ‘closed system housing’. When the bolt is pulled right back, it does not extend behind the action, which means it does not hinder the shooter, especially when cycling rounds very quickly. As the bolt handle is positioned directly above the trigger guard, the trigger hand moves instantly to the bolt after a shot.

But how can the bolt knob travel such a short distance when the action is able to deal with both short and long rounds? This is where it gets smart: For every inch the bolt knob moves, the bolt face travels two inches. Merkel informs me: “The linear motion of the bolt handle is transmitted to the bolt head with a ratio of 1:2. It travels along a helical path as part of a special design, and moves gently and quietly into and out of the locking position.” This results in the quiet and fast cycling of rounds.

The cocking level in ‘safe’

I had to slowly cycle the bolt several times to accept that this is a clever piece of engineering. I only hope it doesn’t prove too complicated or expensive to repair after several years of use in the field.
With regard to safety, the Helix uses a manual cocking system, with a cocking lever located behind the action, simply located for the use of the thumb. Forward position puts the firing system under tension to fire; depress to return to safety. A Picatinny rail is integral to the action, allowing the fitting of Weaver-style mounts, accommodating most styles of optic.

Moving to the front of the bolt, the supreme German engineering once again shines. As the bolt is thrust forward, the bolt head rotates as it stops in the breach, locking all six lugs. This is about as safe at it gets, as some other makes of older straight pulls had apparent issues with bolts flying backwards after firing. As for the firing mechanism, without going into infinite detail of the whole linkage-driven hammer system, it apparently cannot be fired until the breech is fully locked, making it totally failsafe.

Many rifles are now designed to be easily portable, as well as being fully switchable, meaning the barrel and bolt head can be easily changed for another calibre. The Helix is no exception. To remove the 22in sporting weight barrel, press a button located to the underside of the wooden forend, slide forward and put away. Pull a lever downwards, situated to the left-hand side of the barrel, slide the barrel forward, and out she pops. It takes less than six seconds to remove and refit the barrel assembly. If the bolt is left in the forward position, the bolt head is locked and stays within the barrel when extracted. It is as easy as that.

As for dimensions, the rifle weighs in at 6¾lb (2.6kg) before optics and is 40in (110cm) long, making it a light and compact design – ideal for deer stalking or driven boar shooting. So far, so good – but I was beginning to worry that the accuracy might have been compromised by this new concept of straight pull bolt design mixed with the quick take down facility.

For this review, Zeiss kindly sent me the Duralyt 3-12×50 with an illuminated reticle. For ammunition, I used a variety of hunting rounds from 150 to 165 grains. I also used adjustable Millet Angle-Loc scope mounts, supplied by Edgar Brothers.

Up to the shoulder, the straight-cut stock immediately told me that the Helix is perfect for quick target acquisition. The model sent for this review was finished in grade six wood, which looks and feels fabulous. Moving forward, the chequered pistol grip and palm swell make me feel at one with the rifle. The robust cocking lever is also perfectly positioned for the thumb. To de-cock, I found the small release button, located at the top, a little fiddly to press down, especially when wearing gloves, but I don’t think this will be an issue with a little more practice.

The trigger, set at about 2.5lb, was a delight to use. After firing, lift or twist the trigger hand upwards, and you’ll instantly find the bolt handle. As with all straight pulls, unless you have used them for a long time, it does take time to train your mind to ‘pull’ and not ‘twist’ the bolt, but once I accepted that I do not need to pull the bolt back as far as most similar actions, I could squeeze off multiple shots in no time.

The expected levels of recoil and muzzle lift – this is a .308, after all – were the only factors that slowed me down taking another instant shot, owing to the slight change of sight picture when firing. As for accuracy, at 100 yards, the Helix shot all weights of bullet to 0.75-1in accuracy, which is more than adequate for its intended application. Point of impact did not change after barrel changes. When I was filming a piece for the Fieldsports Channel, despite shooting a volley of at least 20 shots in quick succession, it grouped a maximum of 1.5in at 100 yards, demonstrating the quality of the barrel.

Remove the forend: The first step of the speedy take-down process

Bearing in mind that the Helix starts at around £3,000, with the model on review retailing for £4,250, what is my honest opinion? When I first laid my hands on it, despite the obvious quality of the wood, I was not convinced about the feel of the quality of the action, as I always associated Merkel with top-end, high-quality guns. But my doubts didn’t last long. It has a quicker action than the Blaser R8 equivalent, and is easier to take down. The Helix’s main selling point is the shooter’s improved stability when taking multiple shots thanks to the short pull action, which is, in my opinion, superior to that of the hugely popular Blaser. A quicker and easier switchable system is a selling point, but this is normally undertaken before the hunt starts, so speed is not indispensable.

After shooting 200 rounds at animal targets out to 200 yards and simulated running boar at 80 yards, I appreciated the thought that had gone into the design and ergonomics. The grippable forend allows good hold of the rifle when cycling and the open field sights are one of the best I have used for a long time. The sturdy magazine was no problem to use and can be loaded from the top if required.

I have the pleasure of handling a wide variety of rifles for this magazine, and the acid test of a rifle is whether or not I miss it after returning it. That certainly applies with the new Helix – I would love to use it for a variety of my hunting. That said, with extra barrels (including bolt head) at £910 and magazines an extra £120, this would be a specialist buy.

As soon as I am lucky enough to point something long and noisy at a running boar, I know what my first choice of rifle will be. If you need an easily portable rifle with switchable barrels and you hunt running game, the Merkel Helix is, in my opinion, the market leader.

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Posted in Centrefire, Reviews

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