ShootingUK: Merkel 303 20-bore shotgun review
This Merkel 303 sidelock 20-bore shotgun has superb German craftsmanship and unusual detailing.
There are occasions in the gun trade, albeit increasingly rare, when one comes across a genuine sleeper. That is, a gun, usually fine quality, that has lain unused for many years, cocooned in its own forgotten world against the ravages of time and wear. There is something very special about such guns. The walnut has a subtle glow, the barrel blacking seems less dense than many modern finishes, the classic lines and obvious proof of craftsmanship make you want to reach out and touch it to assure yourself it is indeed real. AN INTRIGUING BLEND The subject of this test, the Merkel 303 sidelock, evoked similar impressions of that same timeless quality, almost of a gun belonging to another era. It is true its beauty is a little less restrained than an English gun, but it carries with it a slightly exotic air that only serves to make one want to know more. This intriguing mix of understated elegance and exotic beauty, even if it is not to one's particular taste, is carried out with great skill. The most eye-catching aspect is the action with its deep lockplates and, in Merkel's words, its rich English-style arabesque with chiselled base and medium scrolls. Though the decoration is in the carved style that has become something of a trademark for German guns, it has a lightness that may appeal to British tastes.
No expense has been spared with the decoration on the lockplates and action body, much of the trigger-guard and tang, top-strap, top-lever, fore-end catch and the sides of the monoblock barrel assembly.
It is the detail, at first not obvious, that is really impressive. There are the small screw pins incorporated to lock some of the larger screw pins into place. Another example is the way the screw pins in the base of the action blend in so well as to be almost invisible, given away only by the turnscrew slots.
Then there is the tiny but beautifully evenly distributed jewelling on the action face. Having the barrel selector on the triggerplate, though unconventional, is quite sensible. It is easy to use and allows for a dainty safety button with a suitably slim top-strap.
Most impressive, though, is the concealed screw for removing the hand-detachable sidelocks. The small crescent slot (just big enough to insert a fingernail) is the only indicator that something a little unusual is afoot. Open it and a circular trap door clicks open - the means of unscrewing the single pin that secures the locks.
Add to these features others such as the raised cocking indicators, neat engraving on the tang and butt-plate screws and a fine, artistically shaped trigger, and you get the impression that this gun is put together just right.
THAT GROWN-THERE LOOK
No high-quality gun would be complete without suitably complementary walnut and in this department the Merkel excels. The oil-finished stock has a marbled effect - a reddish-brown background with prolific dark veining.
The wood on the slim, tapered fore-end is the kind of close match that suggests it has all been made from the same blank and the hand chequering is very finely cut.
The wood-to-metal fit is super, an example of that much sought-after but rarely achieved 'grown-there' look. The fore-end's three-piece design was once common on good over-unders.
Though it is now regarded as a little bit old hat, it is technically very good. The top parts of the fore-end, which in most other designs are vulnerable to damage, are secured to the barrel side ribs. This means they can be exceptionally slim for pleasing styling.
As a result the detachable piece of the fore-end that carries the ejectors is proportionally stiff and strong. It is an expensive way to make a fore-end and difficult to make it look like one piece of wood.
Some aspects of the Merkel are very conventional, such as the two-lump doublebite system found most often on side-by-side guns. This means it locks shut in the same way, with the curved rear of the front lump (run up) and curved front part of the real lump (draw) making a tight lock-up.
A belt-and-braces measure is the double-barrel top extensions, through which the cross-bolt engages. The monoblock method of barrel assembly is similarly conventional. The joining in the top barrel is almost invisible and it has been treated with the usual decorative band.
The barrel tubes have fixed chokes, deeply curved side ribs and a well-lain tapered top-rib with matted finish and brass bead foresight. Both internally and externally the barrels are flawless, exhibiting the kind of finish only attainable with careful handwork.
On this model, chokes measured a tight half in the top barrel and a quarter in the lower. However, as this is a handcrafted gun, individual specifications can be accommodated.
The lockwork of a sidelock gun is usually of interest, and the Merkel is no exception. In gunsmiths' techno-speak there are bar locks with back-action mainsprings.
This simply means the forward part of the lockplate fits into the projecting bar of the action body and the mainspring is held towards the back of the plate.
There is decorative jewelling in abundance and the six-pin design incorporates desirable features such as intercepting sears - for safety - and a short throw hammer (or tumbler) to provide ultraquick lock time. At just over 5lb, the trigger pulls are a little heavier than I expected, but it was not obvious as the break was very crisp and clean.
SLIM & REFINED
Even with its 26.3/4in barrels, weighing just less than 7lb, the Merkel is not particularly light for a 20-bore. The method of construction requires a fairly deep action and the quality and therefore density of the walnut all contribute towards that weight.
However, it is a portly gun. Rather it is slim and refined - balancing so well it feels much lighter, as if the word pointability might have been specially invented to describe the handling characteristics of such an example of the gunmaker's art.
It even fitted me fairly well with a reasonable amount of right-hand cast and a drop across the comb of 1.5/8in to 2.5/8in. Only the length of pull at 14.1/2in was a little short for me, but again this is a dimension that would be tailored to the client.
A GUN WITH SOUL
Out on test, everything performed exactly as it should. The barrel selection was positive but effortless, the dinky but practically shaped auto-safety snicked back and forwards in a crisp manner and the ejectors are timed to go off exactly together.
Patterns, with the cartridges I used, were some of the best I have seen. There was a very even and noticeably uniform spread of shot.
This is the kind of gun that inspires the user to try that bit harder, while at the same time it quickly feels so familiar that one can forget the gun and concentrate on the shooting.
Its handling characteristics are such that it is almost the magic wand that shooters dream about. It is a gun with soul, the result of hours of painstaking, skilled work by people who have an intimate knowledge of the product.
A CONNOISSEUR'S GUN?
In spite of my enthusiasm, I have to concede that it is perhaps a gun for the individual who can afford a handcrafted item tailored to their requirements but who is prepared to accept that colleagues may find their choice a little quirky. It may be one for the connoisseur who feels no obligation to follow the crowd.
This is probably a good thing as production of this model normally runs at 50 per year. Of that modest number, a handful are destined for the UK market. A case of good things coming in small numbers.
Shot patterns 5 / 5
Reliability: 5 / 5
Handling: 5 / 5
Trigger: 2 / 5
Finish: 5 / 5
Stock: 5 / 5
Value: 5 / 5