For years I thought the handiest rifle ever made was the lever-action. I grew up in North Carolina and the 30-30 was and probably is as popular as sweet tea and ACC basketball. Then, I handled the Merkel Helix RX and everything changed.
I was first introduced to the Merkel line of German-built rifles by Mike Nischalke, their PR guy at SHOT Show 2014 in Las Vegas. If you don’t know Mike, then you’re robbing yourself of a fine conversation about guns and the Marine Corps. I have fond memories of both. As a 20-year Navy combat photojournalist I learned quickly that if I was going in harm’s way it was always best to do so with Marines. I always came home, so when a Marine gives me advice I listen. Mike told me I needed to see Merkel’s new takedown rifle. I followed his advice.
The Helix RX is a straight-pull bolt-action rifle. This means instead of having to lift the bolt handle up, at all, you simply push and pull it, as you need to work the action. Guess what folks, not only is it simpler, it’s a lot faster and it’s inherently better for hunters who keep their targets squarely in their sights after the first shot. It uses a rotary bolt head with a straight-pull bolt action just like Merkel´s Africa rifles.
The fun doesn’t stop there. The rifle can break down in about 20 seconds, and if you are so inclined you can change calibers from gopher-gun to Cape Buffalos faster than it takes most PC’s to boot. But, as fancy and well built as the Merkel is I suppose I’m just not educated enough to rave about its German ingenuity, fine craftsmanship and superb build quality. Nope, what this Carolina boy likes, in fact loves, is how the rifle handles. This rifle is the most fluid, quick and totable rifle I have ever used. I liked it so much I requested to take one, in the Mack Truck hitting 9.3x62mm on my very first elk hunt this fall in Wyoming. I’ll be writing a much more thorough review about this rifle in a few days. I’ll let you know how it groups with some great ammunition from Nosler and Hornady. I’ll talk about how it feeds, its recoil, its precision and it’s build quality. I promise. But, for now, I just wanted to tell anyone and everyone I could about my first love-at-first sight experience with a firearm. While the details matter in a rifle, when you’re a hunter, there always needs to be a certain feel a gun has, a connection to its owner that needs to exist. It breeds confidence and sometimes-even optimism when the rifle you use just feels right to hold, to carry and to shoot.
I’m spoiled now thanks to Mike, so much so that my dogs don’t eat premium dog food anymore as I think about saving up for this German bombshell. Like I said, everything is different now. Well, not sweet tea. That’s still God’s syrup.
About the 9.3x62mm: Before we get into how the rifle performed, let me tell you a little more about the metric masher, the 9.3x62mm. Just a few years after the 1898 Mauser was introduced, a German gun maker named Otto Bock engineered the 9.3x62mm rifle cartridge, which is the largest caliber available on a standard action. Hunters who choose the 9.3x62mm will be able to push the popular 286 grain bullet at about 2350 fps, with lighter bullets like the 250 grain moving faster and heavier bullets like the 300 grain moving slower. In the United States, the round has a small following and its mention will get a nod of respect from most experienced hunters. It quickly gained a religious following in Africa and Europe for being a reliable and accurate hunting caliber for all wild game. In fact, in many African countries where there are minimum caliber restrictions for dangerous game, specific exceptions are made just for the 9.3x62mm because it simply works and has more than proven itself in the hands of African hunters for more than a 100 years. In fact, its penetrating ability has a reputation, which is legendary within the hunting community. World-class hunter and rifle builder Bill Wilson’s favorite caliber is in fact the 9.3x62mm. When I asked him during a visit to Texas this year what was the best penetrating caliber was he had ever used, he quickly answered a 250 Barnes bullet in a 9.3x62mm on a Cape buffalo. Game, set, and match folks. Very few American production rifle companies chamber for the round, although superb rifle makers like Kimber, Nosler and Ruger do. I’m sure there might be a few more, but by and large if you want a rifle in a 9.3x62mm, names like Steyr, Anschutz, CZ, Blaser, Sako, Tikka, Mauser, Merkel and I am sure more are going to offer you a better selection, but maybe not a better rifle. Custom gun makers all over the world know and build the 9.3x62mm, like Charlie Sisk of Sisk Rifles in Texas, or Doug Heritage of Occoquan Custom Guns, here in Virginia.
Shooting: OK, back to my bench and a few boxes of 9.3x62mm ammunition. First the technical stuff: I used a Merkel Helex RX in 9.3x62mm. It has a 22-inch barrel with iron sights designed by people who use them and want them. The rifle, with a synthetic stock and forearm, weighs about 6.4 pounds so it is very light. I topped the Merkel with a reliable Zeiss 3-9x40mm Conquest I bought a few years ago and married the two with a set of Weaver rings. I used three different brands of ammunition in a 286-grain variety from Nosler, Hornady and Federal Premium.
Getting behind the Merkel Helix RX: There is a recoil pad on the rifle’s butt stock. I checked, twice, after I shot it for the first time. It’s there. Like I said in my first post about the Merkel Helix RX, the short, snappy and light rifle makes it a dream to handle, tote and engage. Once that trigger is pulled, however, any doubt about the fierce power of the standard-length caliber is pushed from the tip of your tongue through the back of your head and a few feet into the ground behind you. After a quick bore sight back at the house, sighting in the Helix RX took three shots. I’m a big fan of bore sighting because it saves you time and money. I’m prepping the Helix RX for a scheduled elk hunt in Wyoming this fall so I am shooting the rifle early and often. Today’s chronographing and grouping work at the bench was quick but necessary work.
The first ammunition to go through the rifle was Nosler’s Custom 286 grain Partition. It shot well. My RCBS chronograph measured an average muzzle velocity of 2326 fps and gave me a three-shot group at 100 yards of .709 inches. Next up was Hornady’s 286 grain Interlock which shot an average of 2221 fps with a 100 yard three-shot group of 1.21 inches, and finally Federal Premium’s Cape Shok’s 286 grain which perked along at an average velocity of 2335 fps and grouped a respectable .984 inches for a three-shot group at 100 yards. All in all, the rifle averaged a group size of .968 inches with factory-loaded ammunition using 286-grain bullets going an average of 2294 fps at 100 yards. I used a portable rifle bench with a sandbagged rest and given the rifle’s personality, I took my time between groups so the barrel never got warm and I became a big fan of the PAST Mag Plus Recoil Shield.
There were no failures to feed from the magazine and while I tried dropping feeding rounds into the chamber, I don’t recommend it as it feeds much more smoothly from its magazine. I had no failures to fire and despite the robust push from the rifle when it barked, the muzzle jump was never severe enough to cause me to lose sight of my target. The bolt worked smoothly each and every time. The mechanical safety is deliberate and slow but it worked every time I tried to override it.
Bottom line: The Merkel Helix RX is a superb rifle made to hunt all day in every terrain, weather and situation. It balances ergonomics, engineering and reliability with good enough accuracy to make sure your rifle is never the reason you come home empty-handed on your next hunt.
by James Pinsky