Rifle Magazine: Merkel Custom .470 NE
Trekking across Africa in pursuit of dangerous game, flanking a professional hunter (PH) as he carried a .577 Nitro Express Best Quality British double rifle, my thoughts turned to the fact that the big-bore double rifle is not only alive and well, but also just as useful today as ever. Quizzing the PH confirmed this particular gun was his “favorite buffalo and elephant rifle,” which had accounted for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of each species.
He is a dedicated hunter but is also highly knowledgeable of many types of firearms and has an extensive collection at his fingertips. He could use any gun of his choosing, but the big British boxlock double was his first choice when dealing with large game that can and will stomp and kill the hunter in a split second if given the slightest opportunity. Evenings were spent around a campfire, and I listened intently to stories not normally shared in the pages of gun and hunting magazines of angry buff and elusive elephants. The big rifle had pulled him through many tough scrapes, even having the stock broken by a charging, wounded buffalo, but thanks to two fast shots and heavy, large-caliber solids, combined with excellent marksmanship, our PH lived to hunt another day.
Some may ask why a double gun for dangerous game, when high-grade bolt-action magazine rifles are so close to perfection and cost much less? Others feel double guns are outdated, used primarily by traditionalists. Actually there are several important virtues that make the double gun a top choice. Primarily they are two guns, with two locks (firing mechanisms), firing pins, triggers, barrels, etc. Should something break, a barrel become bulged from an obstruction or somehow the gun is damaged, the “second” rifle will probably still work. When a hunter is deep in the African bush with days of travel to the closest gunsmith, this feature alone may very well save his or her skin.
Another important feature is having two shots that can be fired in unusually short succession and without working a mechanical device. Having an instant follow-up shot is obviously valuable; however, having it ready to go without making any noise is especially important. For example, game often has no idea the hunter is present until the first shot is fired, and then they usually don’t know their exact location. If a second shot is necessary, it can be executed without making even the slightest noise and letting the animal know the hunter’s location.
Due largely to their actions, double guns are comparatively short and trim, with a natural balancing point that aids in their carry. Much of Africa is brushy, particularly areas where hunters chase elephant and buffalo, and a short rifle offers a certain handiness that bolt actions can’t match. With this compactness, along with correct stocking, they rise to the shoulder rapidly with instant sight alignment, like a fine shotgun. This is important, as hunters often come face to face with buffalo and elephant in close quarters, and choosing a rifle that comes to the shoulder quickly and naturally, along with an ultrafast second shot, has proven itself a lifesaver.
Experienced shooters can also reload a double gun with incredible speed, as they break open the action, drop two large cartridges home, then close it, all the while keeping their eyes on the target.
Most of the popular or classic cartridges for which double guns are chambered were developed with cordite powder (one of the earliest smokeless propellants developed in Great Britain) and were of relatively low pressures. This is important to mention for several reasons. First, Africa can be brutally hot, and ammunition exposed to such, with steel blue barrels that are likewise hot from the sun, can result in a significant increase in pressures. If a cartridge is already pushing “maximum” pressure, as many modern high-intensity loads are, the heat will often increase pressures to unsafe or problematic levels, such as sticky extraction, case head separation, blown primers, etc.
On the other hand, with cartridges developed for the big British double guns, pressure by comparison is low, which allows them to function reliability under all conditions. In short, there is substantially less chance of a sticky case or extraction, blown primers, etc. For these reasons, combined with the fact that most double guns are not brutally strong like modern bolt-action rifles, most British double rifle cartridges designed for smokeless powders generate between 30,000 and 40,000 psi. The double rifle is purely a sporting rifle and remains a first choice of many professionals and experienced hunters.
MERKEL CUSTOM GRADE .470 NITRO EXPRESS
Vintage double rifles from the golden era have become difficult to find and are also very expensive, with Best Quality guns often bringing $25,000 to $50,000 and beyond. Many have been shot almost to death, while others with decades of “experience” sometimes fail to perform as they once did. To further complicate matters, there are some specialized dealers asking far greater prices than their appraised value. As a result, some have purchased these rifles in hopes of using them and getting their investment back at some point only to have a rather unpleasant surprise – or should we say loss?
There are many newly manufactured double rifles; some are excellent while others fail to perform as they should. One manufacturer worthy of consideration is Merkel, a German company that has offered fine firearms since around 1898. While it is particularly famous for its double shotguns and rifles, both side-by-side and over/under and in sidelock and boxlock configurations,it also offers a unique bolt-action rifle (KR1) with interchangeable barrels/calibers, a Jager-tilted breechblock centerfire single shot (K1 and K2), drillings and others. Its crowning jewel remains the side-by-side double gun – both shotguns and rifles. During the pre-World War II years, Merkel shotguns dominated in live bird shoots and enjoyed a reputation for being ultrareliable, refined and long lasting. Due to their locking system, the guns virtually never shot loose or had to be tightened.
Merkel’s Custom Grade “African Safari Series” Model 140-2.1 .470 Nitro Express is a top-of-line boxlock rifle that features a silver nitride receiver that is fully engraved in English-style arabesque and highlighted with gold. The engraving extends to the barrel breech and fully covers the trigger guard, pistol-grip cap and forearm hardware, all of which is tastefully executed. Appropriately, a Cape buffalo bust is inlayed in gold on the bottom of the frame. “AFRICAN SAFARI SERIES No.17” is inlaid in gold above the buffalo, and the en-graver discretely signs the masterpiece. Incidentally, when this rifle is chambered in .375 H&H Magnum, it features a gold inlaid lion, while the .450-400 is embellished with a leopard and the .500 NE, an elephant.
The barrels are blue finish, or what most readers know as rust blue, with a tone that is non-reflective yet highly attractive and pleasing to the eye. The 23.6-inch barrels are contoured and octagonal.
The action is the proven Anson and Deeley lockwork, with bushed firing pins, cocking indicators, double triggers and ejectors. (Not all Model 140-2.1s feature ejectors, with extractors being standard.) It also features the famous Greener cross bolt for enhanced strength and durability, and there is a double conventional bottom bite. The attention to detail is excellent, with each screw correctly tightened and the slots all horizontally oriented. The barrels are joined together with traditional soldering. In studying this junction, the craftsmen have certainly mastered the process, as there are no visible flaws. There is a mounting pin approximately 1.5 inches forward of the breech, centered through a solid rib that extends down through the barrels and acts to positively join the barrels. It is well concealed and only a trained eye will be able to see it disguised in the knurled rib. The tang safety is not one of those silly automatic arrangements that have no place on a dangerous game rifle!
The classic-styled stock with cheekpiece is half-luxus Turkish walnut that features attractive contrasting dark and light steaks. The grain is rather straight to assure that strength is not compromised. This is important for any dangerous game rifle, particularly when matched to a powerful cartridge such as the .470 Nitro Express.
The front sight is a gold bead, while the rear is housed in the solid barrel rib and has a single stationary wide English V, with three folding leafs that are U-notched and regulated at 50, 75 and 100 meters, respectively. This is a classic design that has proven useful for hunting big critters at close range when the chips are down.
Merkel manufactures firearms using a blend of modern precision tooling combined with hand craftsmanship. This results in a high-quality product that offers top-notch performance while retaining the grace and aesthetic beauty of a former era.
THE .470 NITRO EXPRESS
Most sources indicate the .470 Nitro Express (NE) was developed around 1907 by Joseph Lang, although some indicate it was first offered in 1900. Regardless, it became a favorite among the British gun trade and remains the most widely popular and available large-caliber cartridge designed for heavy game. Traditionally, it houses a 500-grain bullet pushed around 2,150 fps.
Beginning in 1989, Federal Cartridge developed several .470 NE loads utilizing several premium hunting bullets in both softpoint and solid configurations. This ammunition was carefully developed to duplicate pressures and velocities of the original loads so that it would properly regulate in vintage double rifles. This changed the outlook of the cartridge in the U.S., as ammunition, cases, bullets, etc. were now readily available. Naturally, interest in the grand, old cartridge has been renewed.
Hornady Manufacturing is now offering two .470 NE loads in its Dangerous Game Series of ammunition. The standard bullet weight is 500 grains, and muzzle speed is advertised at 2,150 fps.
In the words of noted Professional Hunter Harry Claassens, “If you are looking for a large-bore double rifle today, then I will definitely recommend the .470 NE. It still remains one of the very best large-bore calibers, and believe me, if you do your part, this grand, old caliber will never let you down!”
I might add that in interviewing a number of professional hunters and my own experience in testing bullets in mediums, .470 NE bullets are not prone to tumbling after impact as are some other big-bore cartridges. They are stable and have earned a great reputation on dangerous game where straight and deep penetration is essential.
FROM THE BENCH
The factory test target provided with the gun indicated it was capable of placing bullets from each barrel into what appears to be about 1.25 inches at 50 meters. Merkel is currently using Federal 500-grain Trophy Bonded Solids to regulate new rifles. Incidentally, the bullets are supposed to “cross” somewhere beyond 50 meters and before 100 meters. Based on this information, the bullets on the target had not crossed.
With a supply of Federal and Hornady factory loads, as well as handloads, I retired to my bench to check velocities and accuracy. Using Federal Premium CapeShok ammunition with 500-grain Trophy Bonded Sledgehammer solids, velocity clocked 2,096 fps with an extreme spread for five shots of 11 fps. Conditions were horrible, as the 95-degree August sun beat directly down on me, but even worse it glared heavily on the sights. This made precise sight alignment more difficult, but the Federal load managed to place two bullets (one fired from each barrel) into 1.2 inches from each other with approximately .5-inch elevation difference at 50 meters. The bullets had not “crossed” paths at this point. I was using an 8-inch black bullseye (Caldwell Orange Peel) with a 6-o’clock hold using the 100-meter leaf, and bullets were striking approximately one inch above the aiming point. The right barrel was fired first, with the second shot (left barrel) being fired within a few seconds of the first. Due to the heat associated with the first shot, the folks at Merkel suggest the left barrel be fired within four to seven seconds after the right barrel for best groups.
Switching to Hornady .470 NE factory loads with 500-grain DGX bullets, velocities clocked 2,120 fps and had an extreme spread of 14 fps for a five-shot string. At 50 meters, the Hornady load planted two bullets within 1.1 inches and was striking about one inch lower than the Federal load or exactly to the point of aim using the 100-meter leaf. This was repeated several times with nearly identical results. Using only the left barrel, three shots were fired at 75 yards, two of which were touching and the third bullet opened the group to just slightly over one inch center to center. With a suggested retail of $150.39, the Hornady loads have indeed domesticated the .470 NE. While no groups were fired at 50 meters with just one barrel, in overlapping the targets, it was clear that each barrel was capable of something around .5-or .625-inch groups at that distance.
Handloading the .470 NE can be accomplished successfully, but there are some pitfalls to be aware of. First, a chronograph is essential in determining velocities, which should more or less duplicate the above factory loads. Second, ignition is always a challenge when trying to ignite powder of this volume. For example, when the folks at Federal developed their factory loads, they found that a primer with greater gas gave more reliable ignition, so a special primer (known as the #216) was developed that is not available as a component. With the .470’s large powder capacity, some powders leave excess space and fail to produce consistent velocities and pressures and often will not regulate correctly. The industry maximum average pressure for the .470 NE is 41,000 psi, with pressures from Federal and Hornady factory loads being well below that figure.
I did take time to develop a handload containing the 500-grain Barnes FB Banded Solid behind 107.0 grains of Hodgdon 4831SC for 2,108 fps. There was a fair amount of shooting/chronographing to settle on this exact powder charge. The velocity falls exactly between the Federal and Hornady factory loads. Ignition was by Federal GM215M primers in Federal cases. Case length was 3.240 inches, and bullets were seated to an overall cartridge length of 3.970 inches, then a heavy crimp applied. Eight shots were checked for consistency across an Oehler Model 35P chronograph, which gave an extreme spread of 15 fps, and there were no signs of poor ignition. This load consistently grouped bullets, fired from each barrel, within 1 to 1.5 inches at 50 meters. At 75 yards, using the right barrel only, one group was recorded that measured exactly one inch center to center. Some may find it of interest that 80.0 grains of IMR-3031 or IMR-4895 will push 500-grain bullets to similar speeds and, according to Elmer Keith, will regulate in most vintage rifles. Deadlines being what they are, those handloads were not checked in the Merkel for accuracy or regulation.
Depending on load, most bullets appeared to be “crossing” paths at something close to 100 yards, which is ideal on a dangerous game double rifle. The gunsmith at Merkel tells me that some rifles will never cross, with some bullets remaining parallel at long distances, which works equally well.
Recoil is certainly present, but my teenage son was able to manage it. Long shooting sessions from sandbag rests and even chronograph sessions certainly wore on my shoulder, which is somewhat sore as I write these words. On the other hand, it is doubtful that recoil would ever be felt in the field, as this is a working rifle intended for large and dangerous game, which often results in a situation where recoil is usually the last thing on the hunter’s mind.
The Merkel 140-2.1 is a modern hunting rifle worthy of the African bush. For more information contact Steyr Arms at 7661 Commerce Lane, Trussville AL 35173; or www.merkel-usa.com.
Re-printed with permission from Rifle Magazine. Visit their website at www.riflemagazine.com.