September 23, 2010
A new switch-barrel that really works
To enlarge this photo of the Merkel KR-1, please click HERE.
For many years the old German firm of Merkel has been revered in shotgunning circles. In recent years it has been famous for the world's most affordable classic double rifle, not to mention drillings and a really sweet single-shot. Although there is plenty of German tradition in bolt-action rifles, that has not been part of the Merkel legacy. At least not until now, and perhaps that's just as well.
The new Merkel KR-1 is quite a lot different from traditional bolt actions. In fact, it's quite a lot different from any bolt action I've ever seen. It is a turnbolt action with forward locking lugs, but the resemblance to a classic Mauser pretty well stops there.
The bolt has a short uplift, with the bolt body acting as a shroud that encases and protects the entire receiver. The design allows for a very short return and offers better protection from dust and debris than any action I have ever seen. The three-position safety is on the tang shotgun-style, and a single-set trigger is standard. Other standard features include really good iron sights and the Suhl pattern tilt-up detachable scope mount, which Merkel calls the SAM.
This set of features is enough to be worthy of interest, provided, of course, that the KR-1 shoots (it does). What makes it even more interesting is that this is a switch-barrel rifle. Barrels chambered to cartridges of like case-head diameter can be swapped out by removing the bolt assembly and two hex-head screws, the rear one under the hinged floorplate, the second a couple inches forward in the bottom metal. To go from standard (.30-06) case-head diameters to belted magnums, a locking bolt head with the appropriate bolt-face diameter and the proper detachable magazine are required.
The Premium-grade Merkel KR-1 was topped with a 3.5-10X Swarovski scope in the Suhl-pattern tilt-up detachable mount. The mount was absolutely repeatable, with shooting off the bench greatly aided by a single-set trigger.
I had to read the instructions a couple of times to get the process into my non-mechanical brain, but once I got the process down it took just a couple of minutes to switch barrels. The system is totally repeatable, in part because of the rifle's precise tolerances and also because the SAM mount is mounted strictly on the barrel. You could, of course, have just one mount and switch it back and forth between barrels, but, absent blind luck, the scope would have to be zeroed each time you switched. With a scope and mount for each barrel, and the scope pre-zeroed, you could switch back and forth in the field with total confidence.
The action is very smooth and fast, the stock distinctly Germanic but comfortable and fast-handling. I like the excellent iron sights — a rarity on an American rifle — and yet the SAM mount puts the scope very low — a rarity on a European rifle. The result is that the rifle handles well and comes up nicely with the scope but, at least for me, also comes up well with iron sights. It is therefore a remarkable hunting rifle. The test rifle that I used is right-hand, but left-hand models (both locking housing and stock) are also available.
One feature the author really liked on the Merkel KR-1 is the exceptionally good and very sturdy iron sights. Iron sights of this quality are extremely rare on American rifles but are a fitting match for any rifle with a detachable scope mount.
The KR-1 is imported and distributed by Merkel USA (www.merkel-usa.com), and the primary model offered in the United States is the Premium grade with nice scroll engraving providing partial coverage on the locking housing. In addition, there are two more ascending grades, Jena and Weimar, with more and better engraving on both the locking housing and bottom metal and really good wood. The Jena grade has full scroll engraving, while the Weimar grade features hand-chiseled game scenes. The barrels are nicely blued, and barrel options are interchangeable throughout the grades.
Initial barrel offerings in the U.S. are standard short calibers: .243 Winchester, 7mm-08 Remington, .308 Winchester; standard calibers: .270 Winchester and .30-06; magnums: .270 WSM, 7mm Remington Magnum, .300 WSM and .300 Winchester Magnum. Standard barrels are 20 or 22 inches; magnum barrels are 22 or 24 inches. All barrels are fitted with open sights, with additional barrels priced at $795. The basic rifle, in Premium grade with one barrel and the SAM scope mount, is $2,495 in standard calibers and $2,695 in magnums.
The KR-1 is seen here broken down into its main components.
The initial barrel selection offers considerable flexibility in a switch-barrel rifle. You could pair up a .243 barrel with any of the other choices and have, literally, a rifle for all seasons. Or you could select something faster and flatter like the .270 Winchester or .270 WSM with one of the .30 calibers.
Of course, this rifle doesn't have to have interchangeable barrels to be interesting. It's a good hunting rifle in any of the offerings. Also, part of the attraction of a factory-available interchangeable-barrel rifle is that you can start with one chambering and add more as need or budget dictate. Chances are that there will be more choices available in the future, especially since a quick check of Merkel's website (www.merkel-waffen.de) suggests that our European counterparts have quite a few other useful options, including .22 centerfires, .338 Winchester Magnum — and some interesting metrics, including 7x57, 8x64 and 9.3x62.
Given time, and the popularity the rifle deserves, barrel options will increase. In the meantime, the test rifle came with .30-06 and 7mm Remington Magnum barrels. This combination would not be my personal choice in a switch-barrel rifle because the hunting applications of the two cartridges are very similar (if not identical). The point, however, and my request to Merkel,
was to play with a rifle with a standard barrel and a belted magnum barrel, and for test purposes this obviously redundant combination filled the bill perfectly.
In order to remove the barrel, you must remove the magazine and the locking housing, then loosen the two hex-head screws in the forward bottom metal. The barrel then simply lifts out.
As I said, I needed to read the directions carefully before attempting switching barrels. Once you understand it, it's quite simple: Drop the hinged floorplate, remove the magazine, remove the locking housing (with bolt), undo the two hex-head screws forward of the magazine well, and the barrel simply lifts out. Place the second barrel in the channel, tighten the screws, and reverse the procedure. The only tricky part comes if you're changing between standard case-head diameters and magnums. Then it's critical to make sure that the proper locking housing or locking bolt head is in place, likewise the proper magazine. Assembly is equally simple, and the parts are well marked. The bolt head is clearly inscribed on the top "ST" for standard cartridges and "M" for magnum. Even I couldn't screw it up, but you'd better remember.
The test rifle had barrels in 7mm Remington Magnum and .30-06. To switch between magnum and standard calibers you must have, in addition to the barrel, an additional locking bolt head (or complete locking housing, as shown) and a magazine.
Switching back and forth between the 7mm Remington Magnum and .30-06 barrels, the rifle produced decent groups between 3/4 inch and 1 1/2 inches with each barrel, group size varying with the loads. On the bench, the single-set trigger made the rifle extremely easy to shoot. With just one scope, it was necessary to switch the scope from barrel to barrel. The zero was not the same (why should it be?), but with the same barrel the mount was absolutely repeatable. Whether you're looking for a top-quality interchangeable-barrel rifle or just a top-quality rifle, Merkel's KR-1 fits the bill. I hope it achieves the popularity it deserves.