The German Damascus
There are regions and cities that cultivate a legacy: mechanical watches in Glashütte, lace in Brussels, red wine in Bordeaux. Suhl’s legacy is guns - since 1490 according to the latest findings. And the knowledge of making fine guns is deeply rooted in the collective memory of the people of this region.
The old city of Suhl is the gateway to the Thuringian Forest. Iron ore and the wood used to fire the ironworks are easily accessible here. Legend has it that gunsmiths from Nuremberg recognised the advantages of the location and settled here. At the time guns for defence and protection were produced. Since the Middle Ages Suhl has been looked upon as the gunmaking city of Europe.
Nevertheless the arts and crafts were not neglected in Suhl: the rifles were engraved on all sides and beautifully finished. The city soon earned the nickname “German Damascus” - the guns were richly decorated. The people of Suhl are proud of this name, because it brings to mind the great tradition of the Damascus gunsmiths. They elevated engraving and manufacturing to high art in the Arabian world.
In Suhl there was always a demarcation between military production and hunting guns. The “fine gun” remained the preserve of hunting - richly adorned and elegantly designed.
The Formative Years
The industrial revolution made Germany the third largest industrial nation in the world. And in Suhl the craftman’s workshops turned into manufactories and later into gun factories. The Merkel brothers wanted to be part of the unprecedented transformation of the national economy at the turn of the 19th Century.
Albert Oskar, Gebhard and Karl Paul Merkel came from a long line of engravers, stock makers and gunsmiths - and a family with many children. All eleven sons of the family found their way into the gunmaking trade. Albert Oskar and Gebhard Merkel were master gunsmiths. Karl Paul Merkel followed as a master stock maker - they founded a trading company “for the purpose of joint manufacture of firearms and other articles.” On 1st September 1898 the company started work in the second district. This was the start of a development that is remarkable even in the gunmaking town of Suhl.
During the formative years of the company the manufacture of hunting, sporting and luxury guns was booming in the old gunmaking town. The mechanical design of these guns was more elaborate and technically variable than military rifl es. Merkel was committed to the “fine gun” at all times; even in wartime it was never more than a parts supplier for military production. While the two great wars of the 20th Century turned some gunmakers into industrial enterprises, the Merkel workforce hardly ever rose above 350 employees during the war. Instead, the export-oriented company twice lost its important foreign markets.
From the outset the Merkels pinned their hopes on innovation. The Bock over-and-under gun with the two barrels lying upon one another originates from Suhl, and Merkel registered the “Bock” as a trademark. Merkel revolutionised sporting shooting and hunting with these rifles.
Between the Wars
From a business point of view, the First World War was a huge setback for Merkel. Merkelesque aesthetic is not sought after on the battlefi eld. The company - renowned for luxury and perfectly balanced hunting rifl es - lost many foreign markets. Nevertheless, shortly after the war, Merkel rifles were again being exported to 28 countries around the world, although the company did not fully recover from the consequences of the war until 1924. In 1931 Merkel registered a trademark: from now on the rights to the term “Bock” (over-and-under) for hunting and sporting rifles were reserved for Merkel.
The ingenious gun designer Gebhard Merkel died in 1933. He did not have the opportunity to witness one of the company’s greatest triumphs. In 1937 Merkel was awarded the “Grand Prix” at the World Exhibition in Paris for its range of hunting rifles. The World Exhibition, which was held under the motto “Art and technology applied in modern life”, honoured the aesthetic of the Merkel product range.
In 1938 the second generation assumed office: Ernst Merkel together with the adept businessman Adolf Schade, son-in-law of Karl-Paul Merkel, took over the management of the company. The Grand Prix boosted the export business. The company’s order books include the names of crowned heads of state, diplomats, maharajahs and industrial magnates. Famous big game hunters and explorers also ordered their rifl es from Merkel in Suhl. Even the world boxing champion Max Schmeling favoured hunting rifles made by Merkel.
Max Schmeling’s 321E over-and-under double rifle
The new gun museum in Suhl documents the past and the present of the city - as chronicler and preserver of a rich tradition of Suhl gunmakers since 1535. Merkel is the last great hunting gun manufactory operating out of Suhl. Merkel marked the opening of the museum with a special gift: the manufactory presented the museum with the original gun card from 1936 of the legendary boxing world champion Max Schmeling. The heavyweight went hunting with a Merkel 321E over-and-under express, with a made-to-measure stock and an ejector. Bottom left: the shooting target of Schmeling’s rifle.
War and the Postwar Period
Before the start of Second World War the company ran its own sales offices in many countries around the world. Merkel’s sales network spread from Argentina to Bessarabia to France, Greece, Norway, Rumania, Spain and the USA. This network was again broken up by the Second World War.
Hunting guns played a subordinate role in the war production from 1939. Merkel became a parts supplier for carburettor engines, carbines and rangefinders - and the number of employees rose to 350 in peak periods. Even in the anti-training atmosphere of wartime Germany, the Merkel company took the initiative to restructure the job specifications of the gunmaking trades, thereby ensuring the continuation of handcrafted gunmaking.
The war ended in Suhl on 3 April 1945 at 8.30 in the morning - of all the factories in the city, only Merkel was to escape dismantlement. The good reputation of the precious hunting guns spared Merkel this fate – the machine workshops, which were hi-tech for the time, were kept in Suhl.
By the end of 1945 hunting guns were being manufactured again; by 1947 almost 700 rifles had been sent to Eastern Europe as reparation payments. Merkel developed into a showcase company of the German Democratic Republic.
The dispossession of the founding families followed in 1948 - under disastrous conditions, the descendants of the Merkels lost everything to Socialism; everything the brothers has built up and the second generation had developed. In 1952 the state-owned company again had 200 employees manufacturing hunting guns. The company was integrated into a state combine, but the brand and the products remained independent.
In 1953 the GDR government presented Merkel hunting rifles to the two most powerful men on earth at that time, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Nikita S. Chruschtschow. And in 1963 the first man in space, the cosmonaut Juri Gagarin, was honoured with a Merkel Drilling.
The german democratic republic - and reunification
The socialist workers‘ and farmers‘ state cultivated its export hit. In the 1970s a range of luxury guns was developed and sold around the world. The gun card archives include the names of illustrious personalities such as Gamal Abdel Nasser, Josip Brosz Tito and Mao Tse Tung. Even Franz Josef Strauß, the Bavarian Minister President and enthusiastic hunter, ordered his rifles from Suhl. Between 1945 and 1987, production of Merkel over-and-under guns alone reached 150,000. The GDR celebrated the success of Merkel rifles with a set of special postage stamps.
With hunting and sporting gun production flourishing after the war, Suhl became an important sports shooting centre. Around 100,000 visitors came to Thuringia for the world championships in 1986. For a few days the city with a long tradition of making firearms was the undisputed centre of world shooting sports. In his enthusiasm for the Merkel product range, the Mexican president of the International Shooting Sport Federation, Olegario Vázquez
Raña, proclaimed: “I think these are the most perfect hunting rifles in the world.” He thought the Merkel over-and-under shotgun to be, “the queen of hunting rifles“. And he should know - not only did Vázquez Raña hold the highest sports shooting office in the world, he was also world famous as a practicing trick shot artist. Between 1954 and 1989 sporting shooters using Merkel rifles won 45 titles at world and European championships.
In 1989 the German Democratic Republic came to end - the revolution came from below. It was unprecedented in its courageousness and its bloodlessness. With the slogan “We are the nation”, the people of the GDR freed themselves from the ruling powers.
Reunification was accompanied by considerable turmoil - many jobs were lost in Suhl. Nevertheless, the Suhl combine remained the largest producer of hunting guns in Europe. This is where the coveted Merkel rifles were manufactured - however, they were still at the technical level of the 1950s.
The Technological Breakthrough
Merkel to the end of the millennium - then the traditional brand found its feet again. Investors provided the backing which laid the foundations for new products and the continuation of the Suhl gunmaking tradition.
At the time of the change it became clear that there would be no future without maintaining the values of the past. Industrial precision cannot exist without handcraft skills. Merkel was always and remains today a major promoter of the different professions of the gunmaking art - because the company knows, needs and fosters its roots and skills. Merkel is very aware of the heritage of Suhl gunmaking.
The last great manufacturer of the old gunmaking town still sees itself as a manufactory in the image of the Merkel brothers. The Merkels were children of the Industrial Revolution - and understood how to adapt to these enormous leaps in technology. Despite the machinery, which was hi-tech at the time, they preserved the individual and handcrafted
character of their rifles. As early as the mid 1990s, the complete range of Merkel hunting guns underwent careful reengineering. Where technical advancement increased the safety of the riflemen, it was used. Where stateof-the-art technology improved the precision and prolonged the service life of a rifle, it was applied.
The visual appearance of a Merkel 303 made in 1924 differs only in details from a modern 303 over-and-under shotgun. And in 1924, as in 2008, these wonderful hunting guns were at the cutting edge of gun technology.
From the outset the Merkel brand was characterised by the work of specially trained craftsmen; by employees who know how to make a gunlock with only simple tools and without machines. And this, although they know how to handle computer-controlled machines and the most up-to-date surface finishing systems. Technology by tradition.
Merkel‘s only production site is in Suhl - we view the location as a guarantee of quality that is recognised in many countries around the world. The Suhl manufactory is an exceptional combination of hunting gun manufacturing and high-tech forging. Merkel combines the traditional manufacturing methods of handcrafted hunting guns with the highest standards of quality and safety - all achieved in what is, for this day and age, an unusually deep in-house range of manufacture, from cold forged barrels to hand engraving. With every part of a Merkel gun, careful consideration is given to whether, from the customer’s point of view, it should be handmade or machine produced.
Today Merkel exports to more than 40 countries all over the world and has close to 200 employees - each one a highly qualifi ed specialist. They often come from families that have worked in the gunmaking trade for generations. They bring to us the manufacturing skills and expertise to fi nd unusual solutions. Merkel employees defi ne themselves and their work on the basis of the long tradition of Suhl gunsmithing. Merkel is one of the very few factories that can manufacture both modern fi rearms and handcrafted hunting guns. No matter which category a customer chooses, a Merkel carries the Suhl genes: reverence to and the heritage of the German Damascus. And this has its own basic principles.
Merkel guns offer the customer the power reserves of the unique Merkel top-down principle. This means that the highest calibre of every gun class defines the breech of all the underlying versions. The breech of the Africa side-by-side rifle thus sets the standard for all the other side-by-side guns.
STEEL ON STEEL:
With Merkel locking mechanisms, the principle applies that steel is always locked on steel.
We have mastered the traditional manufacturing methods, which even today produce unequalled quality - we hand them down and develop them further. For example, we continue to practice the time-consuming process of brush oxidisation because it provides extra quality for our customers.
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