German Side-By-Side Best Guns
By Chuck Hawks
For centuries the city of Suhl in Thuringia, Germany has been a gunmaking center. Suhl is to Germany as Eibar is to Spain, Birmingham is to the UK, and Val Trompia is to Italy. It is not the only place in Germany where best guns have been made, but Suhl is certainly where much fine German gunmaking has taken place. It could probably be called the birthplace of the German best gun with reasonable accuracy.
The fall of the Iron Curtain and the subsequent reunification of Germany have sparked a modern renaissance in Suhl. Suhl is the location of the Guild of Master Gunsmiths and the gunsmith's technical school, the only German training center for engraving.
German shotguns have been well regarded in North America for a long time. For instance, before the beginning of the First World War the top grade Lefever shotguns, among the finest guns ever made in America, were available with Krupp fluid steel barrels.
Around the same time fine Charles Daly brand shotguns were being imported from Germany and garnered a very good reputation. These were regarded as some of the finest guns of their day and they still are. Charles Daly guns were made for the sporting goods distributor Schoverling, Daly & Gates, in which Charles Daly (the man) was one of the partners. Charles Daly guns were made primarily by the Prussian firms of H.A. Linder, Heym and J.P. Sauer. These were best quality European guns made to American specifications for American shooters.
The importation of Charles Daly (and all other German made) guns ceased with the onset of W.W. II and with it the most positive and visible connection between German manufacturers and American shooters. It was to be many years before a connection was reestablished and the American shooters' acceptance of German best shotguns has never been completely restored.
Working hard to rectify that situation are my friends at Merkel USA, the importers (naturally) of fine German made Merkel shotguns (www.gsifirearms.com). The House of Merkel has been an autonomous company in Suhl since 1898 and Merkel shotguns were highly regarded in North America before the war. After the war Suhl was in what became East Germany, behind the Iron Curtain. Needless to say, building best guns was never a Communist priority and, at least in the West, Merkel best guns virtually disappeared.
The fall of the Soviet Union and the reunification of Germany brought freedom to the people of East Germany and Merkel, the only major gunmaker in Suhl today, is again making best guns for sale in the U.S. and around the world. Merkel is the only manufacturer in the world that produces sidelock shotguns completely in-house.
The Merkel side-by-side shotgun line (they also build O/U shotguns; bolt action, single shot and double rifles; combination guns and drillings) includes models using both boxlock and sidelock actions. Merkel uses three frame sizes for their side-by-side shotguns: 12, 16/20 and 28/.410. All are formed from forged steel.
Merkel model designations vary with gauge and are a little difficult to fathom, but basically the guns imported by Merkel USA use the 47 and 147 number series for both 12 and 20 gauge guns. 16 gauge guns have 4-digit model numbers starting with "16" and 28 gauge guns have model numbers starting with "280." .410 bore guns have model numbers starting with "360." The 16 gauge guns are built on the 20 gauge frame, and the .410 bores are built on the 28 gauge frame.
Note that while the frame sizes differ with gauge, basically all of the boxlock guns are built on an Anson & Deely type action with cocking indicators and all of the sidelock guns are built on a H&H type action with intercepting sears and cocking indicators. Locking is accomplished by double under bolts and a Greener top fastener. Barrels are made from cold hammer forged steel with demibloc construction and a solid rib.
Automatic selective ejectors and an automatic safety are standard on all models, as is a moderate amount of arabesque (scroll) engraving and a hand rubbed oil wood finish. Standard options include gauge, barrel length and choke, stock type (English or pistol grip) and double or single triggers. Luxury wood, elaborate engraving, inlays of precious metals, stock carving and interchangeable barrels are available for all models. 2007 Merkel USA list prices range from $4195 for the Model 47E boxlock to $14,495 for the 280SL and 1620SL sidelock 2-barrel set combos. (There is a full length review of a Merkel Model 47E on the Product Review Page.)
Merkel can also provide made to measure stocks, cheekpieces and so forth on bespoke guns. Merkel guns are the most traditionally "Germanic" of the three makers covered in this article. The Merkel full color catalog and the Merkel web site (www.merkel-waffen.de) show excellent examples of fancy Merkel guns.
Because they are playing catch-up after decades of being stifled by Communist rule, Merkel shotguns are generally priced below most British, Italian and the other German made best guns. They are about on a par with Spanish best guns in cost. You can expect prices to inexorably increase, but right now they are an excellent buy.
Krieghoff was founded in Ulm, Germany in 1886. They spent the next 60 years making fine German hunting guns. Around 1960 they expanded into competition O/U shotguns based on the old Remington Model 32 design.
Today Krieghoff is best known in the U.S. for their O/U trap and skeet guns, the K-80 and K-20 (20 gauge). These fine guns are available with many options including very fancy wood and extensive engraving.
Perhaps of greater interest to Guns and Shooting Online readers is the Krieghoff Essencia line of best quality game guns. These side-by-side shotguns are built on two basic frame sizes, 12 and 20. 16 and 28 gauge guns are built on the 20 gauge frame. There is an Essencia scalloped boxlock and an Essencia back action sidelock. Both are hand built bespoke guns. Delivery time is approximately one year after the order is received.
Krieghoff says this about the Essencia on their web site (www.krieghoff.com):
"Krieghoff, in partnership with German master gunsmith Jens Ziegenhahn, proudly offers a hand-built shotgun of the highest quality, worthy of the name Krieghoff. Available in 12, 16, 20 and 28 gauge, the gun is missing the ornate 'Continental' look one might expect from a fourth-generation German gunmaker; instead, its elegant lines more closely resemble traditional British 'best' sidelock guns. One hundred percent German-made."
Here are the specifications for the Krieghoff Essencia Boxlock: 16 Gauge, 20 Gauge and 28 Gauge, all on a 20 Gauge action; 28" or 30" barrels in all three gauges (Optional 26.5" barrel also available); Round-body, Boxlock action, Color Case Hardened; Choked 1/4 and 1/2 (IC/Mod); Solid, slightly raised rib; Automatic selective ejectors (H&H style); Front metal bead sight; Double triggers, the front articulated; gold-washed triggers; Fine English scroll engraving; color case-hardening; Automatic sliding tang safety; Trigger guard with decorative tip; stock of select Turkish walnut, with checkered butt; Tru-oil finish; Semi-beavertail forearm, Purdey-style pushbutton release; Approximate weight: 6-1/4 lbs. in 20 Gauge; Krieghoff trunk case. The 2007 retail price starts at $21,995.
Extra-cost Options for the Krieghoff Essencia Boxlock: Single non-selective trigger; Non-automatic safety; Wood upgrades; Custom engraving (buyer's choice); Finish options (coin-silver nitride, etc.); Initials in gold oval inlaid in bottom of buttstock; Briley thin-wall interchangeable choke tubes; Deluxe Oak/Leather case with accessories; Extra 16-gauge barrels with forend (fit on 20-gauge frame); Extra 28-gauge barrels with forend (fit on 20-gauge frame); Extra 20-gauge barrels (no extra forend necessary).
The Essencia sidelock is a rare back-action, round body design with a Purdy-style third fastener. Remove the locks and you find highly polished and gold-plated parts set between the color cased side plate and bridle. It's an impressive shotgun.
Here are the specifications for the Krieghoff Essencia Sidelock: 12, 16, 20, or 28 Gauge (16-28 gauge on a 20 Gauge action); 28" or 30" barrels (Optional 26.5" barrel also available); Choked 1/4 and 1/2 (IC/Mod); Solid, slightly raised rib; Automatic selective ejectors (H&H style); Front metal bead sight; Double triggers, the front articulated; gold-washed triggers and lockwork; Fine English scroll engraving; color case-hardening; Gold-plated cocking indicators; Automatic sliding tang safety; Trigger guard edges are rolled; guard tang with decorative tip; Straight-grip stock in select Turkish walnut, with checkered butt; Tru-oil finish; Semi-beavertail forearm, Purdey-style pushbutton release; Approximate weight: 6-1/4 lbs. in small gauges; 6-3/4 lbs. in 12 Gauge; Krieghoff leather trunk case. The 2007 retail price starts at $26,450.
Extra-cost Options for the Krieghoff Essencia Sidelock: Single non-selective trigger; Non-automatic safety; Wood upgrades; Custom engraving (buyer's choice); Finish options (coin-silver nitride, etc.); Initials in gold oval inlaid in bottom of buttstock; Briley thin-wall interchangeable choke tubes; Deluxe Oak/Leather case with accessories; Extra 16-gauge barrels with forend (fit on 20-gauge frame); Extra 28-gauge barrels with forend (fit on 20-gauge frame); Extra 20-gauge barrels (no extra forend necessary if base gun is a 20 Ga.).
As you can tell from the foregoing, these Krieghoff Essencias are very fine guns. The back-action sidelock, particularly, can stand in any company.
Another old and highly respected German name in the gun world is J.P. Sauer & Sohn. This 250+ year old company was founded in Suhl in 1751. In 1870 the German army ordered 150,000 rifles from Sauer and the Company hit the big time, specializing in military small arms. After Germany lost the Great War, in 1918 Sauer turned their attention to the production of civilian hunting guns in order to survive.
Expropriated after the Second World War, a branch of the Sauer family settled in West Germany, in Eckernförde (Schleswig-Holstein), and began production of the Sauer double-barrel shotgun. During the 1950's Sauer grew rapidly and in 1957 landed the contract to produce Weatherby rifles, a major breakthrough in the U.S. market. In 1976 the Swiss company SIG acquired majority control of Sauer and a few years later the first of the extremely successful SIG Sauer pistols were introduced.
J.P. Sauer & Sohn is now again German owned and, while they still produce the excellent SIG Sauer pistols and a variety of hunting rifles, the guns that could be called "best" in the context of this article are the Sterling Over/Under shotgun line, which is unfortunately not offered in the U.S., and the impeccable Meisterwerkflinte side-by-side shotgun. You can see these guns on the Sauer web site: www.sauer-waffen.de
The Meisterwerkflinte side-by-side shotgun is the reborn, modern version of the over 100 year old Sauer Meisterwerk double. Then and now, this "masterwork" shotgun is J.P. Sauer & Sohn's best gun. Working together, Sauer & Sohn, master gunsmith Marko Frühauf and master engraver Hendrik Frühauf created a bespoke sidelock double that uses a modern and unique action. It is furnished with exquisite wood and elaborate engraving and inlays and represents the ultimate in a modern German best gun.
Of the other German makers well known in the U.S. before the war, The H.A. Linder firm, to the best of my knowledge, did not survive the war. Heym is still in business in Gleichamberg, Germany producing very fine rifles and drillings, but they no longer make shotguns. You can see examples of their double rifles and other products on their web site: www.heym-waffenfabrik.de
German best shotguns have sometimes been criticized for failing to adhere to the British ideal of minimum weight and mass. The German penchant for deep relief engraving incorporating complicated game scenes and ornate stock carving has also come in for its share of criticism, again generally by those who favor the subdued scroll engraving and fine line checkering that traditionally grace a London best gun.
Such things are a matter of personal aesthetic sensibilities. Certainly there is a great deal that is praiseworthy about the British, Spanish and Italian guns built in the tradition of the London best gun. On the other hand, no one can criticize the German best guns on the basis of their quality, workmanship, finish or strength.
Note: A full review of the Merkel 47E shotgun may be found on the Product Review Page.
Copyright 2007 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.