by Bryce Towsley - Wednesday, February 4, 2015
European hunters have long favored guns that can multitask. Historically, these include double- or triple-barrel guns, often with both rifles and shotguns represented. The famous three-barrel drilling, for example, usually has two shotgun barrels with a third rifle barrel included. Or sometimes it’s two rifle barrels—occasionally chambered for two different cartridges—and a shotgun barrel. The goal is one gun that can handle almost any hunting scenario. They are truly marvels of European engineering, and the concept dates to the days when guns were handmade by master craftsmen.
In more recent times, repeating rifles with the ability to switch barrels for multiple cartridge options in one platform have been in demand. While they remain examples of clever engineering, these can be mass-produced and offered for a much lower price than custom-built guns. While still expensive by U.S. standards, these multitasking rifles bring the price down to a point where citizens without titles and a national treasury can afford them.
Often we Americans can’t really relate to the European reasoning behind this drive to make one gun do so many things. But, that doesn’t mean we have no use for this European concept.
The idea of a multi-cartridge, switcheroo-type gun is good, even in America. For one thing, it keeps all of our hunting guns on a single platform. That means one trigger and one rifle design to learn and master. “Beware of the guy with one rifle” and all that.
Also, those of us who travel to hunt suffer under another form of tyranny. The airlines no longer advertise “the friendly skies,” and in fact they have become very unfriendly in recent years. Among other things, allowable baggage weights have spiraled down and each bag you check requires an ever-escalating credit card payment. Hunting requires a lot of gear, and all those extra baggage fees add up. The idea of doing a multi-species hunting trip with one rifle is inviting. From prairie dogs to moose, if one rifle can get the job done, travel becomes a little easier.
Finally, European switch-barrel guns are engineering works of art, and are extremely well-designed and precisely executed. They are wonderful additions to any gun safe.
One good example is the Merkel RX Helix, which ignores the antiquated 19th-century design common to bolt-action rifles and is instead a straight-pull, switch-barrel gun. I first encountered straight-pull guns many years ago when I conducted a shooting test with multiple shooters and multiple guns to see which action type was fastest for aimed fire under hunting conditions. In the end, and much to my surprise, the straight-pull bolt-action took the top slot.
I understood why years later while hunting in Hungary, when I was charged by a wounded European boar of exceptional size. My first shot initiated the charge, and my second shot stopped the boar close enough that he sprayed snow on my boots when he skidded to a stop. I hate to think about what would have happened if I had a slower operating rifle. In the years that have followed I have used straight-pull bolt-action rifles from Africa to Alaska, including a lot of stops in between, and I have come to appreciate the speed and reliability of this rifle design.
My first experience with the Merkel Helix was in Zimbabwe in 2013. I brought a .300 Win. Mag. for a leopard hunt. While the leopard apparently never got the memo, I shot a bunch of plains game, mostly zebra and impala, with this rifle and was impressed with how well it handled the dusty, dirty conditions.
The newest addition to this line is the RX Helix Explorer. This version uses a synthetic stock, which makes the gun a better choice for hunting under tough conditions and keeps the price about $500 less than the wood-stocked rifle. The Helix stock is a two-piece deal with a separate fore-end and buttstock. The Explorer model’s composite stock has molded-in, stippled panels on the pistol grip and fore-end for gripping surface.
The straight-pull action design uses what Merkel calls a “transmission,” a linkage between the rotary bolt head and the slim bolt handle that makes the linear bolt throw very short. Everything remains contained inside the receiver so there is no bolt moving toward the shooter’s eye to distract him when working the action with the gun on the shoulder. The receiver is black-anodized aluminum alloy. The bolt handle points down and away from the receiver at an angle. It’s sculpted in the front and has a fine checkering pattern on the back to allow firm gripping. The length of travel for the bolt handle is just 2.5 inches—straight back and straight forward, even for magnum cartridges—making for a very fast cycling rate.
Taking down the gun and switching barrels can be done without tools. Just push on the lock button on the fore-end, slide the fore-end forward and remove. Then pull down on the barrel-locking lever near the front of the receiver’s left side, and pull out the barrel and bolt. To change calibers, slide in a new bolt and barrel, and lock it to the receiver with the lever. Replace the fore-end and, if necessary, insert a different magazine. All this can be accomplished in less time than it just took to read about it. Cartridge options include many popular choices from .222 Rem. to .300 Win. Mag., plus a few European favorites like 6.5x55mm Swedish and 9.3x62mm.
The gun is uncocked when on safety so it can be safely carried with a round in the chamber. Pushing the safety forward cocks the gun. While a bit stiffer than the traditional safeties most of us are used to, it is very easy to operate. To uncock the gun and put it back on safe, simply push the safety forward while pressing the unlocking button on its top, then let the spring-loaded lever slide back. When the safety/cocker is in the rear or “safe” position, the bolt is locked closed.
The Explorer I tested for this article has a 22-inch barrel chambered for .243 Win. Other barrel lengths are available depending on chambering. It’s equipped with fiber-optic sights. The rear sight is adjustable for windage, while the front sight has elevation adjustment. They are bright, sharp and easy to see, but who uses open sights on a .243? Weaver-style scope-mounting bases are integral to the receiver, so I added a Zeiss Victory HT 2.5X-10X-50mm scope. This is the same scope that served me so well on the wood-stocked Helix in Zimbabwe.
If I had a complaint about this system, it would be that the scope is mounted on the receiver. When switching barrels and cartridges, the optic must be re-zeroed or replaced.
The .243 Explorer proved to be very accurate and not particularly fussy about ammo. No doubt the outstanding trigger, which broke at an impressive pull weight of 2 pounds, 6 ounces, contributed to the “shootability” of this rifle, but the accuracy is pretty amazing for any out-of-the-box rifle. The Merkel RX Helix Explorer is not only an engineering marvel; it’s also very practical—even here in America.
Type: straight-pull, bolt-action repeating centerfire rifle
Caliber: .243 Win. (tested); other standard, European and magnum chamberings available
Barrel: 22"; cold-hammer-forged steel; 1:10" RH twist; interchangeable without tools
Magazine: detachable box; 3+1 capacity, 5+1 capacity available for some cartridges
Trigger: two-stage, adjustable; 2.4-lb. pull weight
Sights: fiber-optic, adjustable; Weaver-style bases integral to receiver for mounting optics
Safety: two-position, tang-mounted cocker/ decocker
Stock: two-piece, fiberglass-reinforced composite; straight comb; LOP 14.4"
Metal Finish: matte-black anodizing on receiver, matte-black oxide on barrel
Overall Length: 42.1"
Weight: 6.4 lbs.
Accessories: polymer case, sling swivels
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