Merkel KR1 rifle review:
The name Merkel has never conjured up images of classic high-class shotguns, but with diversity spreading to all corners of the manufacturing industry, it was no surprise the company would add a high-grade stalking rifle to its repertoire – the KR1.
Grades aside, what lies beneath is a common chassis and very solidly made stalking rifle, which follows the trend for a fast barrel-changing facility favoured by the likes of Blaser, Sauer, Mauser and Krico rifles. Priced just below £1,500, the Merkel is a premium product with some interesting design features that address certain issues regarding the genre of quick barrel-change rifle systems.
Stock in trade
Visuals aside, immediately obvious is the fact that the KR1 is a solid rifle; its heft speaks of quality components crafted from the best-grade steels and timber. The stock is Germanic in look and has the traditional hog’s-back profile favoured by our European cousins. The walnut is nicely coloured, with a rich grain pattern and more than a hint of fiddle-back figuring to the butt section, which was good to see on this standard-grade model.
The wood is aesthetically pleasing and the close-grained structure also denotes a higher degree of strength, always reassuring on a stalking rifle. Length of pull was generous, which fitted my long rake better than most ‘average’ rifles, though I disliked the thin plastic recoil pad, which was a tad slippy.
When shouldered, however, the hog’s-back design despite lack of cheekpiece was not so low as to have you craning upwards through the rifle’s open sights, and the slender fore-end made it sit naturally and point well, though a little short in gait. Well-chequered panels adorn both the pistol grip and fore-end, with fixed sling swivels as standard. Overall finish was as one would expect from a classic stalking rifle, one of rubbed oil, finishing off a well-executed and stylish stock.
Defining the Merkel’s receiver proved interesting, as it does not have one, as such in fact, the receiver mechanism is an integral part of the bolt system, which shuttles back and forth along guide rails, allowing access to the barrel, similar to a Blaser. There is one big difference, however: unlike the straight-pull Blaser rifle, the Merkel has a more traditional turn-bolt arrangement.
The difference when compared with a more usual bolt rifle is that the entire bolt is enclosed within the receiver casing, making for a strong design further enhanced by the locking arrangement, with the bolt lugs directly in the rear of the barrel. This is what make the Merkel stand out and it’s a system that makes a lot of sense. Like a straight-pull it, allows a speedy transition of bolt manipulation, but has that added feeling of security on lock-up, as the lugs cam into the barrel’s recesses and are not pushed home.
The receiver is made of steel and the whole unit is heavy, but reassuringly so, and the short upward bolt travel combined with the smooth bolt/receiver travel was most pleasing. The bolt lugs offer a comprehensive lock-up, with twin rows of three locks ensuring safety and correct cartridge alignment in the chamber, contributing to the shorter 65º or so bolt lift from the nicely contoured butter-knife bolt handle.
Extraction is positively done by a large extractor claw recessed into the side of the bolt, and an energetic ejector takes care of cartridge expulsion via a bolt-mounted plunger type.
Roll out the barrel and magazine
The option of a swift barrel-change might attract you to the Merkel in the first place. The ability to shift between calibres and thus utilise a common chassis for a fox or deer rifle has its benefits, not least in terms of cost, as it works out less than owning two rifles. The Merkel has a quick, simple barrel-change facility similar to a Blaser, in that two threaded studs protruding beneath the barrel locate into the lower receiver section and are tightened using two captive nuts from under the stock the rear one is actually under the floor plate. A quick system, it allows barrels to be changed easily while maintaining a good degree of rigidity and bedding to keep zero.
The bolthead is detachable, allowing a change of calibre groups, depending on the cartridge head size, and because the action is offered only in long specifications, all that is needed to complete the calibre change is to replace the magazine. Simple enough, as the top-loaded mag is attached to a swinging floor plate; as the trigger-guard and floor plate is unlatched and drops down, the magazine can be plucked from its mooring. It’s basically a hinged floor plate with a detachable feature, like a Browning A-bolt, but needs the bolt retracted to operate.
Trigger and safety
As befits a classic German design, the trigger has a single set facility if you so desire to use it, but it is light and the normal trigger pull is more predicable anyway. Set at a crisp 2lb, the single-stage pull is more than good enough on any hunting rifle, and safer to boot. Interestingly, as the floor plate drops to remove the magazine, the bottom section of the trigger, being integral, moves with it. I like the safety, as it is a rear tang-mounted unit, easily accessible to the shooter’s thumb.
There is an additional smaller safety within the main safety, as a small protruding bar has to be depressed before the safety can be slid back or forward a novel design. Forward, and a red dot is visible, indicating the safety is off; the middle setting makes the trigger safe but allows operation of the bolt, i.e. to remove a loaded round and make safe; while in its back position the whole bolt and trigger are locked. Another visual indicator is the striker protruding from the rear of the bolt body; the safety can be set whether the rifle is cocked or not.
Seeing the sights
The Merkel comes with simple open sights, but the savvy stalker will want to fit a scope of some sort. The action/receiver is of reciprocating design, however, meaning mounting a scope to this unit would not work. As with similar designs, the scope is mounted directly to the static barrel via a one-piece saddle mount, making it quickly detachable, but costly, and placing the scope high off the receiver, compromising eye alignment. This is especially noticeable with the lower hog’s-back stock profile. The supplied scope mount does attach positively to two precision cut-outs on the barrel’s outer surface, though, and incorporates recoil lug recesses to aid rigidity and integrity. The clamping mechanism is operated by two levers that rotate to lock the mount; a pop-out section tells you when it is tight enough.
The test rifle was in .243 calibre and a variety of factory and reloads were digested in the course of the test, resulting in consistent 1in three-shot groups at 100 yards. With a bit of bullet selection and powder preference I settled on a reload of 45 grains of RL19 powder, under an 80-grain Nosler Ballistic Tip, which gave 3,222fps and placed three shots into 0.8in at 100 yards. Federal 100-grain Power Shok also shot impressive sub-inch groups and would be my choice for this rifle using factory ammunition only or as a back-up. With the Merkel sighted-in using a cracking Kahles 8×50 illuminated scope, I managed to harvest an early season roebuck to complete the review. I was impressed with the overall feel of the Merkel and the solid, no-nonsense approach to all the working parts, and the good trigger certainly helped in producing good groups on the range. For the stalker who likes something a little different and appreciates good engineering and classical styling with a quick-change barrel facility, the Merkel should certainly suffice.