The Merkel brand may not be well known in the UK, but this is certainly not the case in Europe. They also enjoy a loyal following in the US, thanks mainly to their impressive range of shotguns.
Based in Suhl, Germany, Merkel takes pride in manufacturing high-quality shotguns, single and double rifles. A few years ago, Merkel’s shareholders decided to produce a straight pull rifle that could compete with Blaser. This was the birth of the Helix, launched in 2011. I was lucky enough to test one of the first to arrive in this country, and have since had the pleasure of using them on many occasions, from red hind culling in Scotland to chasing Alpine chamois and mouflon in France.
Early 2013 saw the announcement of the expansion of the Helix range from one to three models. The old model is now called the Noblesse, with the two new variations named the Alpinist and the Sportster. Merkel’s head of marketing, Oliver Schmider, asked if he could bring over the new rifles to test out on the best of British foxes. A great opportunity to test the new range.
While the straight pull action has not changed, it is the stock and barrel selection that now makes it suitable for a wider variety of hunting. Before I explore the differences, I had better explain what makes the Helix so different from other straight pulls.
The concept of take down rifles is not exactly new to the shooting world, but the most innovative aspect of the Helix is its action, so it seems logical to start with this very clever piece of German engineering. The bolt head locks into the front of the barrel, allowing all the recoil pressures to be concentrated in this area, so the need for a strong, heavy action is not so essential. The action or housing is fully enclosed, made from hard anodised aluminium, resulting in a fair weight reduction, ideal for the European mountain hunting. On the top of the housing, a Weaver-style integral rail is designed to accept a wide variety of scope mounts. This means you then do not have to rely on expensive bridging mounts, like those used on the Blaser.
There are several aspects of the Merkel Helix that make it unique. Firstly, the bolt movement is totally linear, only moving in a horizontal plane, but when cycled, it does not extend beyond the rear of the housing in the rearward position. The bolt travel is half the distance of a conventional system, facilitating probably the fastest case cycling on the market. To achieve this, a clever transmission gearing system has been developed, allowing the bolt head to move twice the travel of the bolt handle. Once again, fast, compact and easy to use, but it is fully enclosed, making field cleaning and maintenance of the gearing system more or less impossible.
Finally, as previously mentioned, a rotating bolt head locks into the rear of the barrel by means of seven lugs, resulting in what seems to be a very strong locking system. How Merkel can guarantee consistent head spacing is a very interesting question, but it is the angle of rotation that cleverly keeps this within tolerances. Once again, the housing, bolt gearing and locking lugs are superb examples of German engineering.
Merkel, have come up with the fastest switchable system on the market, allowing barrel and calibre changes to be made well under a minute. First make sure the bolt is in its forward position, then press a button under the fore end allowing it to slide forward for removal. Second, twist a 4in bar 90 degrees downwards, located below, and pull out the barrel. On removal, the bolt head stays within the rear of the barrel, so all you need to do is replace this with an alternative barrel, lock it, refit the fore end and it is ready to shoot. The bolt head can be removed from the barrel, allowing for this important part of the rifle to be easily cleaned. Overall, it is brilliantly clever and very easy to use. The only other piece of kit that needs changing is the three or five shot magazine, depending on the calibres chosen, which is easily removed by pressing the levers either side.
The Helix incorporates a manual cocking system, as opposed to the more common safety lever, similar to the Blaser R8 and Krieghoff doubles. Located in the middle of the upper pistol grip area, perfectly placed for moving with the thumb, when pushed forward it is ready to fire. When the integral small release button is pressed it moves backwards, making it impossible to fire. The bolt is locked when the cocking lever is to the rear. If you want to remove a live round push it slightly forwards, and the bolt mechanism will be free to move. As for the trigger, set at 2.5lb, it seems perfect and predictable, and will no doubt be a delight to use out in the field.
The new range is available in four different stocks. The Noblesse comes with a grade seven walnut stock, ebony on the forend and pistol grip cap. It also has a gold plated trigger! The Alpinist, designed for the long range or mountain hunter, is available in a grey synthetic stock (the old Explorer model) with adjustable cheekpiece, but interestingly is fitted with a second QD stud, allowing a bipod to be fitted. This is unusual for such a traditional German manufacturer, but they accept that many more hunters are using bipods these days. The adjustable cheekpiece is designed to gain the perfect sight picture, ideal for the longer range shots, not forgetting quicker target acquisition.
A camouflage synthetic stock is also available, with or without the adjustable cheek piece. I was slightly apprehensive about this pattern at first, but it has a soft touch finish that makes it a delight to handle. Finally, the Sportster incorporates a thumbhole design using a sleek wooden stock.
Barrel choice is predictably varied, with all models available from .222 to .300 Win Mag with standard sporting weight barrels from 20 to 25in. A ‘semi-weight’, or heavier version, is also an option together with high quality fluted barrels. New to the Helix, a 15x1mm thread will be available for a muzzle break or moderator. This range offers a fantastic variety for most hunters, but how do they perform in the field?
One of the reasons for the visit from Merkel was to learn more about the use of smaller calibres that shoot the light, flatter shooting projectiles that are so popular in the UK. Joining them were journalists from leading European hunting magazines and representation from Leica sporting optics, who provided the new range of Leica Magnus ASV rifles scopes and Geovid binoculars.
Five Alpinist rifles in .243 were all tested on a variety of ranges from 100 to 300 meters, including moving wild boar and quick target acquisition exercises over two days. Accuracy was not thoroughly tested, but it was within 1MOA, with groups of less than 3in at the longer ranges (300 metres) despite the blustery conditions. Massimo, from Italy, managed a tricky night shot on a fox at 280 metres, quite an achievement considering he had never experienced night shooting before.
We were using Norman ammunition with the superb Hornady 58-grain and 75-grain V-Max bullets that left the barrel at 3,950 and 3,450fps respectively. One rifle was fitted with a PES sound moderator from JMS Arms, but this requires the front sight to be removed as it is an over-barrel design. Maybe a forward-mounted model would have been a better option on this occasion.
To summarise, the quickness of the bolt was remarkable, ever efficient in feeding and ejection. The camouflaged stock grew on me, and the quick-adjusting cheekpiece was easy to change height. The trigger is superbly crisp and my only gripe is that the cocking lever can be tricky to release, especially while wearing gloves, as the button is rather small. We also used a Noblesse in .308 on the running boar that handled the recoil with ease, despite the short semi-weight barrel.
With an SRRP of £2,700 for the grey Synthetic Explorer, £3,099 for the camouflaged Alpinist, £3,855 for the Sportster and £6,653 for the Noblesse with a grade seven walnut stock (also available in grade 2 and 3 wood from £3,190), the Helix is a worthy alternative to the Blaser. If they can raise the awareness of the brand in the UK, I am sure they will be warmly received. The take down market is perhaps limited in the UK, but Blaser R8 is proving to be very popular, so I see no reason why the Merkel Helix cannot compete in this mid to top end part of the rifle market.