Grulla Armas Model 216RL Side-By-Side Shotgun
By Chuck Hawks and the Guns and Shooting Online Staff
Most double gun connoisseurs are well aware of Grulla shotguns, but other readers may not be. So, we'll start this review with a brief overview of Grulla Armas. (For more information, see the article "Grulla Armas Shotguns" on the Shotgun Information Page.)
The small company that was to become Grulla Armas was initially formed in 1932 by five Basque gunmakers in Eibar, Spain. They took the name Union Armera for their Company and chose an elegant crane ("grulla" in Spanish) for their trademark. Eventually the symbol of the crane became better known than the Union Armera name and in 1983 the name of the Company was officially changed to Grulla Armas.
The men of Grulla endured many difficult times, including depression, civil war, world war and onerous trade restrictions after the end of W.W. II, but somehow they survived while many larger and better known Spanish firms failed. Today Grulla Armas is the oldest continuously operating manufacturer among the Spanish "best gun" companies.
By 1983 all but one of the original shareholders had passed away, so nine of the employees of the Company, under the leadership of Managing Director Jose Luis Usobiaga, purchased it from the heirs of the founders. Grulla Armas revised their line, began making only sidelock doubles and concentrated on upgrading their product.
Today Grulla Armas might be considered the "Holland & Holland of Spain," a goal that they have actively pursued. The upgrading of Grulla guns has required putting more labor time into each gun produced, since Grulla guns are hand built. This has naturally resulted in higher prices for the higher quality product.
Grulla is recognized both in Spain and internationally for the quality and excellence of their shotguns and rifles. Spain's King Juan Carlos, for example, shoots a pair of Grulla Royal guns. Grulla Armas can and does produce guns as fine as any in the world. Compared to the prices of American, British and Italian best guns, Grulla shotguns are a bargain, but like the other Basque best guns they are not actually inexpensive.
Grulla's annual production probably amounts to about 300 guns built by some 19 craftsmen. All Grulla grades are made to order for individual customers or distributors in various countries, including Spain, Germany, France, United Kingdom and the USA.
The current Grulla catalog shows seven basic models of side by side shotguns: Royal, Supreme, 216, Windsor, Consort, 215 and 209H. All models are handcrafted, bar action sidelocks with considerable engraving and stocks of good Spanish or Turkish thin-shell walnut. Grulla also makes a double rifle, the E-95, and this is built on what I believe is the only back action sidelock made in Spain.
Most Grulla models can be had with a traditional action body or a rounded action. (The Model 216RB is a round body Model 216, for instance.) The Model 216RL reviewed here is of round body persuasion. The Consort and 209H (H for Holland) come only with a traditional action body, while the Windsor is a round action only gun.
The Model 216 is built on Grulla's improved 5-pin (H&H style) sidelock. This action incorporates disc set strikers, gas escape valves, double safety sears and is available with hand detachable locks and assisted opening. The Grulla 216RB is roughly equivalent to a Piotti King #1 RB or a Holland & Holland 'Round Action Sidelock' shotgun.
Selective, automatic ejectors are standard on the Model 216, as are double triggers with an articulated front blade and gold line cocking indicators. (As far as I know, Grulla does not make a single trigger.) Stocks are made from nicely figured, select walnut. 216's are usually seen with straight hand stocks and splinter forends, like our test gun, but pistol grip stocks and semi-beavertail forends can be ordered, along with upgraded wood. The Model 216RL sent to us for review features spectacular Royal exhibition grade wood (see photo).
The 216 comes standard with attractive Purdy style fine English scroll hand engraving in a nearly 100% coverage pattern. The action of our test gun is handsomely case colored, as I requested, but an "old silver" finish is also offered to better showcase the engraving.
In the USA, Grulla guns are handled by Merkel USA, who is the sole American importer and distributor as of this writing. They are also the U.S. distributor for Merkel guns (Germany) and Anschutz rifles (Germany), so they are quite familiar with top quality guns. Merkel USA keeps a reasonable number of Grulla guns in their warehouse and can fill most customer requests from stock with no waiting.
They will also be happy to order bespoke Grulla guns for customers with special requirements. Grulla special orders can ordinarily be filled in a relatively short time, usually just a few months instead of the years required by many best gun manufacturers.
Here is a breakdown of the letter codes used by Grulla and Merkel USA. H = "Holland"; S = "side lock," which is redundant since all Grulla guns are built on side lock actions; R or RB = a "round body" action; L = "luxury" wood, a designation used only on guns imported by Merkel USA, as most feature upgraded wood.
Thus, a Grulla Model 216RB with luxury wood, such as the shotgun reviewed here, is designated a Model 216RL. I know, this is a little confusing. Spanish shotgun lines are often confusing, although the Grulla line is more straightforward than most. Merkel USA would do well to just add the "L" for luxury wood to the standard Grulla designation, as in "Model 216RB-L." The model designation of the guns imported by Merkel USA is engraved on the bottom tang, which will help future collectors and others shopping for a previously owned shotgun.
Grulla guns, including the 216, are built on dropforged, hardened, nickel steel action frames of appropriate size for the intended gauge. The case colors are normally achieved by means of a hot cyanide bath process, but bone charcoal case coloring is available by special order. Our 20 gauge test gun is built on a true 20 gauge frame, which is smaller than a 16 gauge frame and larger than a 28 gauge frame.
All Grulla barrels are of the chopper lump type and our gun was ordered with a concave English style rib. Rib styles, barrel lengths and chokes are optional, but Merkel USA mostly stocks guns with 28" barrels and IC/Mod. chokes, which is how our 216RL is configured.
Model 216 barrels are made of best grade Bellota nickel steel. This is the barrel steel used in most Spanish best guns. Customers who desire slightly thinner (and hence lighter for the same strength) barrels for a gun of absolutely minimum weight can specify chrome-nickel alloy steel. Regardless of the alloy steel used, all Grulla shotgun barrels are preliminary and then final proof tested at the Eibar Proof House to the same high standard.
The stock of our 216RL is of the English straight hand persuasion with a splinter forend. Again, these are the characteristics that I prefer, but Merkel USA also carries guns with semi-beavertail forends. Pistol grip stocks are available by special order. The butt is decorated with skip line, flat diamond checkering without any plate or pad, although skeleton butt plates or recoil pads can be ordered. An Anson style push button latch, my favorite type, secures the forend. The highly polished stock finish is achieved with a proprietary formula of hand-rubbed linseed oil.
Merkel USA has stocks built to standard dimensions of about 14-3/4" LOP, 1-1/2" drop at comb and 1-9/16" drop at heel with a little cast off for right hand shooters. These dimensions have proven to fit most American shooters well.
The gun reviewed for this article is a Grulla Model 216RL provided by Merkel USA. Merkel USA's Marketing Director, Einer Hoff, graciously e-mailed me photos of the gun we were to review for my acceptance before the gun was shipped. (Some of those photos appear in this article.) This is a service that Merkel USA offers to provide for any customer ordering a Grulla shotgun, not just gun writers.
The particulars of our test gun are as follows:
As one might gather from the foregoing, our Grulla 216RL test gun is a real beauty, a true work of art. The Royal grade Spanish walnut is gorgeous and the stock and forend are well matched. The 100% coverage hand engraving is attractive. Screw heads are hand cut and properly indexed. The double bordered hand checkering patterns on the stock and forend (both wrap around) are ample in coverage and well executed at 24 lines per inch, although not quite in the same class as the best US hand checkering. (Top-flight American checkering is the best in the world.) The stock is slender, particularly at the wrist, which is oval in cross-section. The gun feels very good in the hands.
There are lots of nice little touches, as befits a best gun. Examples include a soft rubber bumper on the back of the trigger guard to cushion the knuckle of the middle finger of the shooting hand, a rolled edge on the right side of the trigger guard to protect the trigger finger from abrasion, an articulated front trigger to prevent possible bruising of the trigger finger from recoil when the rear trigger is pulled, arcaded fences, a gold inlaid "S" to indicate when the safety is on, and a silver oval in the stock for the owner's initials.
The action bar flats and barrel flats are engine turned. Inletting and wood to metal fit is excellent. Metal to metal fit is so precise that it is difficult to see, or even feel, the lines where parts join. The finish on all parts of this gun, stock, action and barrels is impeccable inside and out.
To get an idea of the workmanship that went into the inside of the gun, where most customers don't look, I had Guns and Shooting Online's own Rocky Hays, our staff gunmaking consultant, remove the side plates for inspection. Only one screw needs to be removed to do this, but the sideplates fit so snugly that they were difficult to remove. (If you attempt this, be sure to USE A SCREWDRIVER THAT EXACTLY FITS THE SCREW.)
Anyway, what we found are polished locks that are themselves works of art. If you have seen the photos of locks in the Grulla catalog or on the Grulla web site (www.grullaarmas.com), well, that is how they really look. The internal parts are highly polished and the inside of the lock plates are engine turned.
We also used an inside micrometer to measure the chokes and found them to be perfectly round. The Improved Cylinder barrel is marked with four stars near the breech, and the Modified barrel is marked with three stars.
The closer we looked the more impressed we became with the care and attention to detail that went into the creation of this Grulla. One small example: we found that the head of the screw that holds the forend iron in place is indexed and engraved. This screw is inside the forend and not even visible unless the forend is removed. Even the little jewelry size screw that secures the forend plunger is indexed.
A fascinating discovery was the work order card, which was found in the box with the gun. This is printed in Spanish, as are all hand written notations, of course, but we were able to figure out the meaning of most of it.
Among other things, this card reveals that the construction of this gun was begun on June 30, 2006. It was ordered in 20 gauge with 28" barrels, a concave rib, 76mm (3") chambers and choked IC/M. It was subjected to maximum proof testing for 3" magnum shells and both barrels are stamped "1370 bar" and bear Eibar proof marks.
The stock wood is Royal (exhibition) grade and the stock dimensions are specified (in metric measurements) on the card, including the amount of cast off. The chambers and bores are chrome plated. Receiver finish is color case.
Of course, we knew most of this from the specifications, but it was neat to see the details on the work order. Five craftsmen who worked on this gun signed the card, including the shop foreman, frame filer, engraver, stock maker (and/or possibly checkerer) and the fellow who timed the automatic, selective ejectors (and probably the rest of the action). Pride in workmanship clearly lives in the Basque country.
Functionally, the Grulla works as advertised. The selective ejectors eject very forcefully and when they are supposed to. The triggers are 100% reliable. The front trigger releases cleanly at 4 pounds and the rear trigger at 5.5 pounds with plenty of creep, according to my RCBS Premium trigger pull gauge. (The trigger pull weights noted on the work order card are "3 / 4" in whatever units of measurement were used.) The automatic safety goes on when the gun is opened and releases when pushed forward. The gun locks up tight with absolutely no play using double underbolts, which leaves a clean breech face.
In fact, out of the box the Grulla 216 is smooth but quite stiff to open with the hammers down (after firing), and once open it is even harder to close. (This is not the case if the gun is opened and closed with the hammers cocked.)
The Owner's Manual warns of this and advises that this is typical of quality hand-fitted firearms that are built to the highest standards. It also suggests that after firing 100-200 rounds the action will begin to work more smoothly and will be easier to operate. We found this to indeed be true after shooting about 200 shells.
The Owner's Manual suggests manually pressing the top lever to the left after the action is closed to ensure that the locking bolts are fully engaged, but advises against holding the top lever open (to the right) as the barrels are closed. To quote: "When closing the breech of the action let the top lever move freely to its locked position. Do not restrain its travel with your thumb." This, of course, directly contradicts the advice of most double gun enthusiasts who have learned to manually center the top lever with the thumb after the breech has been closed.
One thing I can say with certainty is to close any double gun gently. Do not slam it closed with an audible clunk. Fine double guns do not "shoot loose," they are loosened by being repeatedly slammed closed. That kind of abuse should never be allowed to occur. The Owner's Manual also inveighs against dry firing without snap caps to cushion the firing pins against the blow of the hammer.
The sliding tang safety blocks the sears to prevent inadvertent discharge. (Remember, though, that the only real safety on any firearm is between the shooter's ears.) This safety slider is very well shaped and correctly positioned for easy operation. The action incorporates interceptor sears to prevent accidental discharge should the gun be dropped hard enough to somehow jar a hammer from its sear notch.
Our Grulla 216 balances on the hinge pin and handles like, well, a best gun. It is lively and totally unlike (meaning vastly superior to) typical pumps and autos in terms of handling and "feel." It is also superior to mass produced double guns, particularly those of the over/under persuasion. If you need to get on a bird fast there is no equal to a side-by-side best gun.
Of course, the fun part of any gun review is shooting the gun. So, the first available Tuesday night found Guns and Shooting Online staff members Rocky Hays, Bob Fleck, Jim Fleck, Gordon Landers and me at the Cottage Grove - Eugene Sportsman's Club, which is actually located in Walker, Oregon. That's between Creswell and Cottage Grove, only a couple of miles from my home. This facility is open every Tuesday night and offers a number of standard American trap ranges, an international wobble trap layout, a skeet field, 5-stand sporting clays, and a patterning range (which, unfortunately, was out of service at the time of our visit). It's a good place to shoot that is run by nice folks and it's great for testing shotguns. We arranged for exclusive use of one of the club's practice trap layouts so that our constant experimentation and gun switching would not distract more serious shooters.
Naturally when you go to a trap range, you bring guns. Gordon brought a 12 gauge Ruger Gold Label side-by-side that we were also reviewing and a Winchester Model 24 side-by-side that he had recently acquired at a local gun show; Rocky showed up with a beautiful E grade Lefever 12 gauge side-by-side and a 28 gauge Hatfield side-by-side; Bob supplied a 12 gauge Savage/Fox Model B-DL side-by-side; Jim came armed with his 20 gauge Charles Daly 500 side-by-side; and I brought the 20 gauge Grulla 216RL.
All seven of these doubles are field guns. Four are 12 gauge guns and three are small gauge guns. None are trap guns, which was okay because we are duffer trap shooters anyway.
We found that the Grulla shot both barrels to the same point of aim at 40 yards, just as it was supposed to. The Improved Cylinder barrel shot sufficiently tight patterns to break 16 yard trap targets without a problem, and the Modified (left) barrel threw tighter patterns that would powder clays with a solid hit. We were shooting Federal standard velocity, 7/8 ounce target loads.
On the trap range, grinding away target after target, a heavy (and muzzle heavy) gun is really what is called for and one equipped with a thick recoil pad to boot. Fortunately, the lightweight Grulla's straight comb stock handles recoil pretty well and both we and the gun emerged unscathed.
Real trap guns are made only in 12 gauge and they are designed to shoot pretty high. Trap targets are always taken when rising, so this allows the shooter built-in vertical lead and a clear view of the target right up until he or she pulls the trigger.
A field gun, on the other hand, should shoot pretty much where it looks or only a little high, since the flight of a flushing bird cannot be predicted. A 20 gauge upland gun is definitely not the best choice for shooting trap, but we were able to cope. For me the correct vertical hold with the Grulla was when I saw a moderate amount of barrel below my line of sight and had the target just barely visible over the end of the barrels. We all found that when we held correctly and remembered to lead the targets and follow through after the shot, we could break them.
Part of the time I shot the Grulla starting from a low gun position, as I would in the field or when shooting sporting clays. What I discovered is that it mounts like lightning and is easy to get on target. It points almost instinctively for snap shots, which is what you want in an upland gun.
Key to the Grulla's excellent feel and handling is its perfect, on the hinge pin balance, English style stock, thin wrist, narrow chopper lump barrels and rounded action. Chopper lump barrels are narrower across the breech than through lump barrels or dovetailed barrels and are struck full length, unlike mono-block barrels. This allows the action to be narrower across the standing breech, as well as lighter. Rounding the action removes some unnecessary metal and makes the gun more comfortable in the hand. All of which contributes to the gun's intangible "feel."
Everyone took a turn with the new Grulla, as well as the other guns. Over coffee, after we finished shooting, we compared notes and were able to give the various guns a thorough evaluation. (Articles about all of these guns can be found on the Product Review page.)
Gordon made an interesting observation: ribs don't matter. The assortment of double guns that we were shooting wore every type of rib (ventilated, solid, concave, high, low, etc.) and nobody paid attention to any of them. You should be focusing on the target when you shoot a scattergun, not the rib. Personally, I like the appearance of the English concave rib, such as found on the Grulla, best of all.
The perfect metal to metal fit evidenced by the Grulla's action body particularly impressed Gordon, Jim and me. Bob and I also noted how smoothly the barrels of our test gun were struck and their elegant taper, indicative of first class barrel work. Also appreciated was the fact that the splinter forend was a little longer than on many English pattern game guns. This is visually attractive as well as functionally superior. Everyone commented favorably on the beauty of the Royal grade wood as well as the overall beauty of the gun. It attracted considerable attention from other shooters at the Club as well.
Bob and I particularly liked the mirror polished, high luster blue finish on the barrels. We think that it looks great and not just Grulla, but also Browning, Bernardelli, Holland & Holland, Weatherby and most Spanish, Belgian and Italian double gun companies use barrels with a similar finish on their high grade guns.
However, not everything about the Grulla 216RL found favor with everyone. Despite the fact that most new double guns come with automatic safeties, as does the Grulla, we all prefer a purely manual safety. Rocky Hays, gun maker, engraver and restorer of fine guns, had a real problem with the cyanide process frame coloring routinely used on practically all Spanish guns, unless bone charcoal case coloring is specially ordered. (He does traditional bone charcoal case coloring himself.) Personally, I'm fine with the hot cyanide bath frame colors; I have no particular emotional investment in any finishing process and the result in the case of our test gun is very attractive. Grulla also offers, of course, a coin finish for those who prefer that option.
Our test gun was selected by Merkel USA's Einar Hoff for this review. I merely specified the gauge (20), barrel length (28"), chokes (Modified and Improved Cylinder), rib (concave) receiver finish (color case), forend type (splinter), butt treatment (checkered), straight hand stock, declined assisted opening and asked for the best grade wood on our test gun.
The customer willing to special order a gun can get whatever he or she needs in the way of custom features, including wood, stock dimensions, stock style (straight or pistol grip), checkering and/or stock carving, butt treatment, barrel length and material, type of rib (concave, flat, Churchill), chokes, engraving, and extras. Grulla specializes in bespoke guns, including matched pairs and multi-barrel sets. Einar and his staff at Merkel USA will be pleased to help you special order the gun of your dreams.
In fact, exemplary service is the norm at both Grulla Armas and Merkel USA. They go out of their way to be "the best" in customer service as well as in gun making and it shows.
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