Merkel 141 Petite Frame Double Rifle
By the Guns and Shooting Online Staff
The arrival of our Merkel 141-Engraved Petite Frame Double Rifle for review was a notable occasion at Guns and Shooting Online. While we get to review many rifles in the course of a year, few are traditional side-by-side doubles. Thus, we were quick to open the outer cardboard shipping box and the inner Merkel box. What was revealed nestled inside of the latter was visually a most appealing double rifle chambered for the powerful 9.3x74R big game cartridge. The engraved receiver and forend metal have been left in the white, protected by a silver nitrate finish and a clear coat. The barrels, Greener cross-bolt, top lever, safety slider and trigger guard were polished using about 400 grit and deeply blued. The stock wears an oil finish polished to a glossy sheen.
The Merkel U.S.A. Model 141-Eng (known as the Model 141-1.1 in Europe) reviewed here is mechanically identical to the somewhat less expensive standard Model 141. The latter features laser-cut "small arabesque" engraving rather than the Model 141-Eng's more lavish hand-cut game scene engraving.
Regardless of the level of decoration, the Merkel 141's are take-down, break-open action, side-by-side, double-barreled rifles built on the same size frame as Merkel 28 gauge shotguns. In fact, you can order a set of 28 gauge shotgun barrels for your rifle if you so desire. Merkel calls the Model 141's "Petite Frame" double rifles and that is exactly what they are. A lighter, handier double rifle would be hard to find. The weight of these rifles is listed as 6.6 pounds (depending on caliber and density of wood). According to the Merkel catalog, the barrels are 21.65" long and the whole rifle measures only 38.19" in overall length. Our test rifle balances about 1/4" behind the hinge pin, making it a very fast pointing rifle.
The Merkel Petite Frame Doubles were primarily designed for European driven game hunting, but they are equally applicable to shooting from blinds and tree stands in North America and elsewhere. (Guns and Shooting Online contributing writer Ed Turner would especially appreciate this aspect of the little Merkel doubles.) With their excellent balance, trim lines, light weight and the fact that they are available in calibers including 7x57R, 7x65R and .30-06, as well as the powerful 9.3x74R, these rifles also have broad application as woods and brush country stalking (still hunting) rifles. Because they are easily taken down--Merkel offers fitted carrying cases--the Petite Frame Doubles would also make good travel rifles. Good iron sights are supplied and they can easily be fitted with a telescopic sight. (Merkel USA carries quick detachable mounts and rings.)
We requested our review rifle in 9.3x74R because it is a proven cartridge for hunting large and dangerous game, one of the things for which double rifles are most popular. This classic German/Continental powerhouse (with the proper loads) is adequate for all of the world's dangerous game, including the big cats and great bears. It has been widely used on large and dangerous African game in areas outside of the British colonial influence, in much the same way as the .375 H&H Flanged was used by British hunters. In Europe, it is a popular stag, bear, wild boar and Scandinavian moose (elg) cartridge. The 9.3x74R (with appropriate loads) is suitable for harvesting the largest North American game, including bison, moose, grizzly, brown and polar bear. Scandinavian hunters, in particular, have taken a lot of the latter with the cartridge. We feel, for example, that a 9.3x74R double rifle would be very appropriate for hunting the rugged and sometimes heavily wooded S.E. Alaskan coastline.
The Merkel 141.1 is built on a traditional Anson and Deely type boxlock action. This action uses precisely fitted double underbolts and a Greener top bolt to secure the barrels. Like all Merkel double guns, it is hell for strong. The metal-to-metal fit of this receiver is very tight. The action is precisely machined and fitted to such close tolerances that, right out of the box, it is difficult to open and close. The owner's manual states that after firing 100-200 rounds the action will begin to work more smoothly and will be easier to operate. (That is a lot of shooting with a lightweight 9.3x74R caliber rifle!) We have no idea how long it will take before this action wears-in to the point that it can be operated at top speed.
Selective ejectors are standard, as they should be on any double rifle. These are the powerful Southgate impact type, the gold standard in ejectors.
The two-position sliding tang safety is automatic. That is, it automatically returns to the rearward (safe) position when the barrels are opened. This feature is acceptable (although not desirable) on a field grade shotgun, but not on a 9.3x74R rifle. Forgetting to release the automatic safety after an emergency reload could get you eaten by a lion or grizzly bear. In Merkel's defense, their Safari Grade Double Rifles (available in calibers from .375 H&H to .500 NE) come with manual-only safeties. This wise policy should be extended to the Petite Frame Double Rifles. If this review inspires you to try a Merkel Petite Frame double rifle, have your gunsmith deactivate the automatic feature of the safety.
Merkel Petite Frame double rifles come with either double triggers or a single non-selective trigger. The single trigger that we tried had a far too heavy pull weight (about 7 pounds), so we elected to go with the double triggers on our review rifle.
The Merkel double trigger mechanism uses the back trigger to fire the left barrel and the front trigger to fire the right barrel, which is standard fare. What is unusual about the Merkel double trigger mechanism is that the front trigger is of the "single set" type. This means that if the front trigger blade is pushed forward before firing, it is set to release at a very light pull weight (1.25 pounds in the case of our test rifle). If unset, the front trigger can be pulled normally and in our test rifle it released at about 4.5 pounds while the rear trigger broke at about 5 pounds, regardless of the order in which the triggers were pulled. These (unset) trigger pulls are nothing to brag about, but in a double rifle, where accuracy is usually measured in "Minutes of Pie Plate" at 100 yards, these pull weights were not a big problem. It is worth noting that Merkel recommends the front trigger be pulled first and that whenever possible a delay of not more than 12 seconds be allowed between shots from the two barrels, as the heat transfer between barrels can affect accuracy.
Most match shooters and some hunters prefer a very light trigger pull. However, very light triggers are hard to control when the hunter's body is awash with adrenalin and setting a trigger wastes valuable time. We would generally prefer a clean, consistent, single stage pull of about 3 pounds for both triggers on a dangerous game rifle.
The Merkel's 21-9/16" long barrels are nicely polished and attractively blued. They are soldered for almost their entire length, save the final 2-5/16" at the muzzle, which is where the fine regulation adjustment occurs. Adjustment screws are provided for this purpose and allow the owner to re-regulate the rifle should he ever change loads. The top rib is finely stippled throughout its length to cut glare. The barrel flats are serial numbered to the frame, stamped "9.3x74R" and bear proof marks. The front sling swivel is attached to the bottom rib with two screws. (These were the only screws we found on the whole rifle that were not indexed.)
The fancy, two-piece Turkish walnut stock and forend are attractive. The wood is a rich walnut color that is nicely accented by darker, semi-circular swirls of grain. This good looking, strong, functional stock should survive the recoil of a double rifle for a lifetime.
Our test rifle features a straight, fluted comb with a European style "pancake" cheekpiece. (Previously, stocks with European "hog back" combs were provided on Merkel Petite Frame double rifles, as per the rifle in the photo at the top of this page, but most Merkel USA rifles are now supplied with a straight comb and cheekpiece.) This cheekpiece is slightly concave along its lower edge, a nice aesthetic touch. The forend is a modest beavertail style secured by a Deely type latch. The screws inside the forend that secure the forend iron are engraved and indexed, showing commendable attention to detail. The stock and forend are carefully inletted, with the wood left slightly proud at all junctions with metal except the top and bottom tangs and the forend iron.
The stock and forend are hand checkered in a conventional, bordered, approximately 20 lpi point pattern. The checkering is not up to American custom rifle standards, but it provides a secure grip for sweaty hands. Guns and Shooting Online's Gunsmithing Editor and custom gun maker, Rocky Hays, said that he could clean-up the checkering in about an hour. The wood is finished with what appears to be multiple layers of hand rubbed Tru-Oil. The pores of the wood are filled and the finish has been buffed to an attractive gloss. The butt is protected by a thin (much too thin!), contoured, Pachmayr rubber pad. Surely, a rifle chambered for so powerful a cartridge deserves a standard, 1" thick, Decelerator recoil pad. The pistol grip is protected by what appears to be a bakelite cap. Permanent sling swivels, not studs, are provided.
The Germanic style, hand cut engraving was signed by engraver Doreen Grill. This hand cut engraving includes game scenes on both sides of the receiver (a buck deer on the left and a bugling stag on the right) as well as rather coarse scrollwork on the sides and bottom of the frame, action balls, top lever and trigger guard. All of the screw heads are hand cut. This is augmented by simple laser cut borders, line pattern laser engraving and some stamped decoration. A small scroll pattern was rolled into both sides of the barrel breeches. There are borders and line engraving on the forend latch, tangs and barrel extension. The top of the receiver is covered by fine stippling. The engraving coverage on the receiver probably amounts to about 50% on the bottom and 75% on the sides.
The combination of line, scroll and game scene patterns is reasonably attractive, certainly much nicer than if the rifle had not been engraved at all, but evidences no coherent artistic design. We would have preferred a simpler and more integrated scroll engraving pattern.
The iron sights supplied on our test rifle are high visibility fiber optic type open sights, sort of the Germanic equivalent of Williams Fire Sights. The tall, ramp mounted front sight terminates in a translucent red plastic blade and the lofty rear open sight has a square shaped notch with amber colored plastic dots at each side and the bottom of the notch. In good light, the front blade and rear dots gather light and appear to glow. The top of the rear sight soars about 7/8" over the centerline of the bores. These sights offer a more precise sight picture than traditional express sights, at some sacrifice in speed of acquisition.
One peculiarity that applies to all current Merkel rifles is that they mount the rear sight backwards. The rear sight blade is set at an angle, which should be angled toward the shooter. This means that the side of the rear sight blade facing the shooter's eye is ordinarily shaded, thereby decreasing glare and increasing contrast against a target illuminated by skylight. It also increases the contrast and visibility of the fiber optic dots. Merkel, however, mounts their rear sight blades slanting forward, away from the shooter's eye, which makes them prone to glare in sunlight and decreases contrast against the target. We have no explanation for the way Merkel mounts their rear sights. Fortunately, since the rear sight base is symmetrical, slides laterally in a dovetail in the top rib and is secured by a setscrew, it is easy to remove and reverse the rear sight. (That is what Managing Editor Chuck Hawks did with the rear sight on his personal Merkel K3 Jagd single shot rifle.)
The owner's manual is clearly written and covers basic safety and operation, but totally omits mention of how to use the barrel regulation screws at the rifle's muzzle. Some additional information, written in German, was also supplied. This included what is evidently a copy of the proof form for our test rifle, a copy of the factory regulation target and what appeared to be another owner's manual. Unfortunately, none of us reads German so we were unable to translate these documents.
Speaking of regulation, the supplied Xerox of the factory test target showed the two barrels impacting 3.5 cm (approx. 1-3/8") apart and pretty much at the point of aim at 50 meters. The ammo that the factory chose to use to regulate this rifle was a Norma factory load using a proprietary 232 grain Vulkan bullet at a muzzle velocity (MV) of 2625 fps. This bullet and load is unique to Norma and is not available from other manufacturers, at least in the U.S. Most 9.3x74R factory loads use an 18.5 gram (285-286 grain) bullet at a nominal muzzle velocity of 2300-2360 fps. Such loads are offered by Stars & Stripes, Hornady, Nosler, A-Square, Sellier & Bellot and Norma here in the U.S. It is this heavy 18.5 gram bullet with its .307 sectional density that made the 9.3x74R's reputation.
All of the factory ammunition supplied to Guns and Shooting Online by Nosler, Hornady, Sellier & Bellot and Stars & Stripes for use in this review was loaded with 285-286 grain bullets. Because of this, we asked our friends at Merkel to regulate our test rifle for ammunition using 18.5 gram bullets. Unfortunately, somewhere along the line, this request was apparently overlooked and the gun was shipped to us "as is."
Perhaps Merkel chose to regulate their Petite Frame double rifles for the less common 232 grain bullet to minimize recoil, which is plenty in a 7 pound 9.3x74R rifle. According to our recoil calculations, a 7 pound 9.3x74R rifle using 64.5grains of powder to drive a 286 grain bullet at a MV of 2360 fps belts the shooter with 39.4 ft. lbs. of recoil energy and has a whopping recoil velocity of 19 fps. That recoil velocity is similar to a .378 Weatherby Magnum, although with only about 2/3 of the energy behind it. So much for the alleged "slow push" of heavy caliber rifles!
Here are some specifications and actual measurements for our Merkel Petite Frame Double Rifle.
We ordinarily mount a telescopic sight on the rifles that we review, but a scope seems somewhat out of place on a powerful double rifle. A scope overhangs the breech, can slow reloading and negatively affects the double's point shooting capability. Therefore, although Merkel USA's Einar Hoff kindly offered to have scope mounts fitted to our test rifle, we declined. Fortunately, the Merkel 141 comes with good open sights.
A supply of ammunition is a requirement for any gun review. 9.3x74R ammo is as rare as unobtainum where we live, so we requested ammo for this review from our friends at Stars & Stripes (286 grain A-Square Triad bullets at 2360 fps), Hornady (286 grain Interlock SP-RP bullet at 2360 fps), Sellier & Bellot (285 grain Soft Point bullet at 2360 fps) and Nosler (286 grain Partition bullet at 3200 fps). All four manufacturers came through and we would like to thank them for their efforts on our behalf.
Guns and Shooting Online staff members Bob Fleck, Rocky Hays and Chuck Hawks participated in the shooting chores, which were conducted over two days at the Isaac Walton outdoor rifle range south of Eugene, Oregon. The summer weather featured sunny skies with a high temperature of about 80 degrees F and negligible wind.
A departure from the norm was our choice of 50 yards as the test range for bench rest (and later unsupported) shooting with the Merkel 141. Regular Guns and Shooting Online readers know that we traditionally shoot groups for record at 100 yards. The shorter range was chosen because that is the distance for which Merkel regulated the rifle. We used Champion 25 yard slow fire pistol targets for the bench rest portion of our shooting. These targets feature a black bull with a blaze orange "10 ring" for high visibility over iron sights. We put an effective Pachmayr Decelerator slip-on pad on the rifle to help attenuate its recoil and wore Browning Reactor Pad shooting vests. Iron nerves also helped, because this little rifle kicks.
Unfortunately, we did not get far with our bench rest testing. As mentioned, we only had ammunition loaded with 285-286 grain bullets and the little Merkel was regulated for 232 grain bullets. We found that all of our 18.5 gram factory loads cross fired badly at 50 yards when firing both barrels from the bench rest. By "cross fire," we mean that the right barrel printed about 2" to the left of the point of aim and the left barrel printed about 2" to the right of the point of aim. We tried reducing the distance to 25 yards and firing from an unsupported offhand (standing) position, but found that the barrels were still cross firing, although only by about half as much.
This is typical of a double gun firing a load for which it is not regulated and not an indictment of the Merkel 141. Because any double gun's barrels are farther apart (center to center) at the breech than at the muzzle, they can only be regulated to shoot one specific load at one specific distance. This regulation is typically done from a special rest in the standing position; the point of impact will often change if a double rifle is fired from a conventional bench rest. Unfortunately, our Merkel was regulated for a unique load to which we did not have access.
As previously mentioned, the Merkel 141 design allows the owner to regulate the rifle for whatever load he or she chooses by means of small screws at the muzzle. We did not attempt to regulate the gun for our 286 grain loads because, 1) it was not our rifle, having only been consigned to us for review, and 2) we only had a couple of boxes of any one of our four available loads and by the time we got the rifle re-regulated by trial and error (remember, the supplied instruction manual does not address regulation) we probably would not have had any cartridges left to shoot.
What we did instead was to shoot some three-shot groups using only one barrel to get an idea of the practical accuracy of the 141-Eng. Using the front trigger (right barrel) only, we achieved 2-1/8" groups at 50 yards shooting from an unsupported sitting position with Sellier & Bellot ammunition. This is not bench rest accuracy, but then we were not shooting from a bench rest. It is, however, reasonable practical accuracy for a double rifle.
During our range time, we found that the Merkel's open sights give a clear, relatively easy to align sight picture. As open sights go, these are good ones.
We initially tried the front trigger set feature, but did not like it. We found the 1.25 pound set trigger pull to be too light for a hunting rifle, particularly an iron-sighted double fired offhand, and ignored the set trigger feature for the rest of our shooting. Used in the conventional manner, the double triggers worked fine.
The automatic safety was roundly condemned by all shooters, as it was easy to forget after reloading for follow-up shots. Such a device simply has no place on a hunting rifle. The selective ejectors worked perfectly and tossed fired cases several feet behind the rifle. There were no misfires or breakages.
Our only real complaint is that the 9.3x74R is way too much cartridge for this lightweight rifle. No matter how tightly we held the rifle, it kicked violently backward and upward. It would jump so violently that the comb repeatedly hit all three shooters on the cheekbone. The recoil of the nine pound, 9.3x74R Ruger No. 1-S that we had along for comparison (usually considered a hard kicking rifle in its own right) seemed gentle after firing the Merkel 141.
If we were doing it over, we would scope this rifle. A scope would add some badly needed weight over the receiver and also raise the line of sight, getting the comb farther away from the shooter's cheek bone. If you decide to mount a scope on a 9.3x74R Petite Frame Double, make sure that it has plenty of eye relief. A Leupold VX-III 1.5-5x20mm variable power scope, with up to 5.3" of eye relief, would be our first choice.
We would also install a mercury recoil reducer in the butt (thus adding more weight) and fit a one inch Pachmayr Decelerator recoil pad. These changes would make the rifle more comfortable to shoot.
A reloader who owned one of these rifles and who was willing to regulate it for a "reduced recoil" load could drastically decrease the recoil. According to data on the "Expanded Rife Recoil Table" (see the Tables, Charts and Lists page), a 250 grain Nosler bullet could be driven at a MV of approximately 2270 fps. That would result in recoil energy of 27.7 ft. lbs. and a recoil velocity of 16.0 fps when fired in a seven pound rifle. Increase the weight of the Merkel 141 to eight pounds by adding a scope and mounts and, with that same reload, the recoil energy falls to 24.2 ft. lbs and the recoil velocity to 14.0 fps.
Offhand, we cannot think of another rifle of equivalent power that matches the Merkel Petite Frame Double in length, weight, overall size and handling speed. Merkel doesn't market their 9.3x74R Petite Frame Double as a "guide rifle," but they certainly could and, at least in the US, probably should. It is the ultimate rifle of the type. If you are serious about a rifle for protection in the field and can afford to buy the best, consider a 9.3x74R Merkel 141.
The hunter operating from a tree stand, still hunting, or pursuing driven game would do better to order a Merkel 141 in the milder 7x57R caliber. This excellent cartridge is pleasant to shoot, accurate and entirely capable of cleanly harvesting all CXP2 game. It would be appropriate for use with a telescopic sight, if desired. A Merkel 141 Petite Frame Double Rifle will make you the envy of your hunting companions and is certain to be a conversation starter in deer camp!
RIFLE REVIEW SUMMARY
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