Lion Rifles, A Safari In Arms Part I: The Merkel 140AE Double Rifle, .375 H&H
Lion Rifles: A Limited Safari in Arms in Search of The Right Tool.
I’m off following Lion spoor about the Dark Continent on my next venture overseas in a few weeks, and have been giving a good few rifles mine and otherwise a run for the role of Lion hunting rifle. Before we can really discuss rifles, we must discuss Lion cartridges as that mandates the choices, and while Chuck Hawks has mused on this with, and perhaps it rude of me to assume this, little experience I feel there is room to expand on the subject needless to say. For me, the choice was extremely easy; .375 H&H. Those that know me, know why. Or was it such an easy choice? In a previous review of a Sauer 202 Takedown Forest in 9.3×62 I mentioned I purchased it for trial as my Lion iron, and for my own preferences and purposes found it severely wanting. At the same time, I purchased a Merkel 140AE double rifle in .375 H&H standard, standard noted to differentiate it from the Flanged. Frankly, I would have purchased one in .375 Flanged if it was available, it is however, not. I came to a curious understanding with my rimless chambered double rifle, it even has appeased my misgivings, for I love few things more than less junk on the hunting shelves, and one less cartridge to stock, one less brass hoard. It simply means less time organizing and sourcing the tools of hunting and more time afield. At least that’s how I see it, and I’m sure I’ll be grateful if my ammunition doesn’t arrive in Africa with the rifle.
This said, would I recommend a rimless chambering double rifle? Yes and no. For the purist or highly technical, the Flanged cartridges are without any question superior from a double compared to the rimless, most commonly found in doubles in the guises of the .375 H&H, rarely the .404 Jeffery, the .416 Rigby and now .450, and .458 Winchester & Lott. The Flange or rim to us Colonials ensures proper extraction, providing your rifle is working properly and is appropriately maintained. It is without question a compromise to chamber a double in a rimless chambering, and one I initially accepted begrudgingly only to find myself embracing. In the hundred or so rounds I’ve run through my double, the rimless ejectors have not hiccupped in the slightest. Will this be the case during a rapid reload with Lion at thirty yards? Perhaps not, that’s the nature of mechanical compromises. This compromise doesn’t actually instill steely confidence on close examination, featuring small spring loaded palls that engage the rimless cartridge. They are dainty, mechanically wanting devices that function with German precision and reliability. I haven’t once cleaned the palls, in order to check their character under duress, and have hauled the rifle through snow and thick bush after Bison now and the report is Germanically dull and functional.
So if asked if one should purchase a Flanged cartridge in a double over a modern rimless alternative I can’t say I would attempt to sway the purchaser from a Flanged classic. They are better. However if the question asked was whether I felt a rimless double, well made and preferably English or German, was a good choice in and of itself I would answer with a resounding yes. I would also throw a strong vote of confidence in for ejectors, another divergence from the classic options. Having of course shotgunned more than I will ever shoot hunting rifles, the joy of a good set of ejectors, the sound of hulls or brass briskly shucked aloft, the smell of spent cartridges arcing into a cool morning, now that’s the stuff of life. The speed this allows on reloads more than makes up for any risk one takes in their mechanical integrity, in my eyes. A double rifle is a user friendly device. It is generally very short due to essentially no action length, it swings and points like a biologic extension if it fits the wielder, balances between the hands naturally, with double triggers offers two complete mechanisms from the utmost of reliability, and generally exudes a sporting magic that is hard to summarize in prose. Double triggers are a classic choice I support 100%, I like a single selective on my double shotguns, but on a Dangerous Game hunting rifle give me the benefit of a pair of fire switches for ultimate redundancy. You’ll never recover to level before your finger has moved to that rear trigger anyhow, so you save no time on the single trigger.
The Ejectors At Work.
This all, roughly brings me to the Merkel 140AE .375 H&H, for which I shall write a review proper once Lion is grounded by it. For now I’ll explain to those unfamiliar my love affair, come marriage of circumstance with the .375 H&H, and the path to doubles for me. The .375 H&H modernized sporting Africa from the dark ages of cartridges in my eyes more than any other. It proved a .500, or even more, was not always the best medicine, though yes the brutes still have profound uses to this day. What it did was set a middle ground by its 1912 introduction between the brutes of old & yore, the classic heavies still advocated by many at that time for Africa, and the for the time the speed laced smokeless small bore military cartridges. The latter had proponents as strong as WDM Bell with experience that will remain unmatched, the former as strong as Frederick Selous. Though Selous certainly enjoyed his .256 in later years, as I’ve read it was paired with a .450 Nitro Express, itself a relative small bore compared to his earlier rifles. Selous in his younger years also favoured a 4 Bore for Elephants, taking almost a hundred of them as I understand it, and a 10 Bore for Lion. What the .375 H&H did with its standard 300 grain bullet of high sectional density was add strong insurance to the 7×57, .303 British, and 8×57 modernized high velocity cartridge concept. It retained the modern cartridges flat trajectories, and offered milder recoil than the heavies, with typically equal lethality. That is to say game shot with the .375 dies on average likely just as often as those shot with the .500 or 8 bore, stopping is an entirely different article I may offer my small change on in the future as I build a stronger resume for the thoughts.
As for my personal introduction to the .375, I had my first fall in my lap due to the very acute dislike for too many varieties of gear mentioned earlier in this article, and I sought a rifle I could stock a single set of components and accessories for and take anywhere in the world. I travel extensively by trade, nature, and lifestyle. While I would love a room full of irons suited to particular tasks and have had just such a room in the past, I find it wholly unsuited to my actual tastes and requirements. Some years ago I was taking off chasing helicopters to fly around Northern Canada for my day job, and could only take what fit in the vehicle. I also wanted any gear purchased to be useful anywhere in the World for my hunting. One rifle, one chambering, the World overs spells one thing; .375 Holland & Holland Magnum. Not that it is always the best chambering for a task, in fact by acute and honest analysis it never could be. There is always a better rifle; one with more power, lighter, more cartridge capacity, less recoil, flatter trajectory etc etc that may minutely suit a given shot better than what you’re holding. However for the gross majority of shots and hunting there is essentially nothing that can be done with a rifle that a .375 H&H cannot do with an appropriate load. It does everything in the middle; bullet weight, velocity, magazine capacity, recoil. The middle was exactly what I sought, and the chambering has taken game from tens of pounds to thousands of pounds in body weight now, all with equal aplomb.
The final considerations are the forced ones, such as legal requirements, and the realities of less than perfect shot placements. Many countries mandate a minimum Dangerous Game chambering, and that is nearly universally the .375 H&H. There is sound logic to this. However, as a keen student of Bell’s, it should be mentioned I full heartedly believe his argument in precision placement of small chamberings being superior to mediocre placement of large ones. Frankly it is more than an argument, it’s science. If one can graduate to expert field marksman, under all field conditions, and I estimate this at less than one in a thousand big game hunters and I don’t yet include myself, you only need a cartridge capable of penetrating to the vital area you seek. Things don’t always work that way, and as with all things that may be viewed statistically, if the first shot is marginal, the follow up shots often become exponentially more marginal in placement. Hunting away from home on a tight schedule with perhaps fleeting shot opportunities, with unfamiliar habitat and anatomy despite the best studying and mental visualization, can result in slightly imperfect placement. Certainly more often than a hunter would experience in his own backyard and more than most would like to admit, then consider the undeniable durability of African big game, especially Wildebeest and up. Typically the hunter will experience forced poor shot angles and opportunities on a wounded game follow up as a result of moving game and the dense places they hide, the quarry’s adrenaline is also by then spiked as well markedly increasing their durability. In the case of Dangerous Game it gets worse, with animals that hold a credible threat of sharing your personal space in short order, some modicum of horsepower is highly desirable. The .375 H&H provides recoil tolerable to practiced shooters, meets all legal requirements for Dangerous Game in the countries I’ve hunted, and represents the minimum end of “stopping power” cartridges. This rounds out the technical aspects of my selection for it. Years of personal experience with it on dozens of head of game, seals it.
Local Friends: It’s Actually the Black Bears that Worry me More, but a Nice Photo.
Now, in seeking a Lion hunting rifle, and this was the express purpose for this purchase as it will be used to hunt Lions as well as other cats and bears, .375 H&H was the natural selection for all the reasons detailed above. Is Lion really a species heavy enough to demand a .375 or up chambering? No, not when everything goes well, on a good day and if it were legal a .300 would prove perfect. When it doesn’t, few things this side of the Starship Enterprise will close the gap faster between hunter and prey, or invert the understanding of that relationship to the hunter, than Lions. I had a brief affair with the 9.3×62, and found its recoil in expediting 286 grains of Norma’s finest to be exceptional mild, akin to a .30-06 due to the rifle weight of over nine pounds. I ran into several issues with the 9.3×62, first it barely met the energy requirement of the first jurisdiction I planned to hunt Lion in, requiring hot rodding at the loading bench to do it. The requirement is based on, you guessed it, the .375 H&H’s baseline or classic load performance, essentially matching a 300 grain bullet at 2,500 feet per second. Second, it was another cartridge to stock, hand load, and get to know, crossing my personal ethos mentioned earlier in the article. Third, I didn’t gain any speed whatsoever on follow ups, even using a svelte little 20″ barrel Sauer Forest of ample weight to tame the recoil to negligible. I could find no good reason to give up performance and try and make the 9.3 something it is not, when .375s are so readily available in excellent configurations. Now, my 9.3 was a takedown 20″ barrelled carbine, as small and comfortable a package as one can find. To compete, and this is where my original .375 H&H Ruger RSM was struck from the roster, the .375 would need to be equally compact and quick handling, and hit and follow up better than the milder 9.3. A fair challenge.
The rifle that ended up meeting that challenge was sourced at the same time as the Sauer, another German, the Merkel 140AE .375 H&H with Recknagel mounts and quick detach rings. I ordered this on a whim despite at the time thinking the Sauer was all that was required as something in my sixth hunter’s sense, which my wife would argue is a nonsense, perhaps foresaw the issues I found with the Sauer 202 Forest Takedown for my uses. Those are in the review of the 202 Takedown Forest, a link to which you can find on the main page of my site. The Merkel double offered many things I really only properly came to appreciate in hindsight after using it a good deal. Among them, the fastest follow up shot of respectable power I’ve ever been able to dispatch from any rifle, whilst hitting my desired target, an extremely short overall length as a result of the lack of action length common to all doubles, natural handling to an avid shotgunner with a preference for side by sides, perfect tang safety rendered non-automatic, and a panache befitting of African Dangerous Game hunts- certainly the last aspect is dubious and sentimental. Many would argue panache begins at a far higher price point carrying an English name, however I truly beat up my rifles in use and have trouble justifying such truly beautiful and refined tools. This is a half ton pickup of a double rifle, being tough, affordable, not the prettiest, and remarkably functional. You also find you’re not afraid to use it as any Northern Canadian rifle ought to be used; many months a year, in adverse conditions. It has already experienced frost, rain, dirt, and a black spruce thrashing for instance, not to mention plenty of under seat and pack transport. In my time with a gun room alluded to above, I owned a fine little Holland & Holland that I wouldn’t dare expose to any of this fun. And where the dirt and maltreatment is, truly lies the fun.
The Merkel Taken Down, With the Sauer 202 Forest Takedown.
The Merkel double has quickly become a favourite, and has accompanied me working in Grizzly country thanks to its tiny size when broken down, a mere two foot long bundle easily stowed. Ready in a flash as such? No, but a lot better than the conventional .375 left at home. It gained valuable experience when called upon to follow and put down a wild Wood Bison bull by the conservation officers, the bull wounded by poachers and vital evidence that was about to walk off to the Wolves. I met him at a handful of yards in black spruce best described in opaqueness as a wall. The double was kind comfort and an able friend under the circumstances, dropping the very disgruntled, huffing and swaying bull in his place a spit away. My affinity for it has grown further as my time with it increases, hits falling naturally, though admittedly not with varmint rifle precision, in killing zones with little setup time or breathing focus. It is not, of course, a tack driver. My briefly mentioned other .375, the conventional bolt action, is a precision instrument, and scantly comparable in paper performance to the imprecise squat German double gun. However sending round after round into one hole means little to Lions or most game really, where the ability to place the quick shot made in the moment of opportunity well means more than a hundred rounds placed into a 1/2″ group that misses on the snap shot. The double provides this reflex shooting for me. At 100 yards, the two barrels print 3″ apart using 300gr Federal blue box budget fodder, with a nicely centred pattern using the 75 yard blade. Groups do not change with continued shooting and barrel warming, remaining tea saucer for both barrels combined. This would be appalling to many a Western bolt action hunter, but to those who have used doubles on game and acquired the taste for the feeling, it is quickly realized lethality isn’t affected at all in the off hand field shooting of game by the double’s liberties.
The Merkel At Work, Ending Discomfort for a Poacher Wounded Bull.
The final important consideration is that double rifles take down into very small components with ease for transport, an invaluable consideration to the travelling hunter. The Merkel is a two foot long package taken down, assembles to ready in about five seconds, cleans like a dream, and suffers no compromises in being a take down as it is merely an intrinsic part of its nature. I have not been overly smitten with my take down bolt actions. There can be frustrations in assembly and disassembly and zero retention I have not yet experienced with a double. The difference to my eye is a double is a purpose built gun that just happens to take down, where a take down bolt action is a modification or compromise of a design not generally planned for takedown. This said, I have yet to review a takedown of extreme quality, the Sauer being the highest I’ve reached so far at the $6,000 or a bit more range. I very much look forward to trying a Dakota Traveler for a future article. For now, I’ve found a gun I’m perfectly happy with, a very rare feat. I will be sure to offer a proper review of this proper Dangerous Game rifle, in weeks to come after it has played the dangerous game. As always, thank you for reading, the pleasure was mine.