The hottest news in rifles as we approached and entered the 21st century was the proliferation of "short-fat" cartridges, and rifles to shoot them.

You remember the hoopla. The defining belief was that shorter, fatter cartridges exposed more propellant to the primer ignition flame, thus making a more efficient burn, gaining more horsepower out of less powder. The thicker, shorter powder column was said to be conducive to better accuracy, although this was debatable.

I bought into all these theories, even wrote about this movement to shorter, fatter rounds (most based on the old .404 Jeffery, a thick-based shell of African heritage), and got as excited as anyone with the continuing development of newer, shorter cartridges.

The whole premise, as I saw it, was to gain "magnum" velocities out of medium-length cartridges, thus allowing shorter rifles that were lighter and easier to carry and use.

I was tired of lugging my beloved 7MM Remington Magnum Parker-Hale up and down pipelines, and banging it around even in comfortable box stands. I had refurbished it several years ago, and had a custom 26-inch barrel on it. The gun shoots into one hole three times at 100 yards, but it is quite definitely a "bean-field" rifle, and not one for a temporary stand on the side of an oak tree.

Thus I looked forward to seeing all the new shorter carbine-style rifles that would be developed with these new cartridges that would fit in medium-length cartridge chambers.

I was to be disappointed.

Suddenly, every manufacturer seemed to be offering rifles in the short magnums, and if you wanted one in a reasonable deer hunting caliber, from .270 to .300 say, you got a full-sized rifle, generally with barrels starting at lengths of 23 inches and going up from there.

My excitement for the short magnums took a decided turn downward - why go invent something supposed to give you equally efficient powder burn, and equal the vaunted 7mm Remington and .300 Winchester Magnums in velocity and flat trajectory, and not put it in shorter, easier to carry rifles?

Then, I was introduced to the Merkel KR-1.

This high-end result of German engineering puts a 24-inch barrel in a short package that makes one want to keep hanging the incorrect title of "carbine" on it. It's not.

But it is, due to an unusual and innovative design, able to put a .270 or .300 WSM caliber rifle in a bolt-design as easy to carry as the immensely popular lever guns Americans love.

I had first admired these rifles at Hebert's Guns and Bowie Outfitters, both in the Baton Rouge area. The tales of superb accuracy were almost too good to be true, particularly since these were rifles with "switch-barrel" capabilities.

In other words, within the "family" of cartridge lengths, it's possible to loosen two lugs with a hexagonal wrench, and change barrels, allowing a great versatility in hunting calibers from the same rifle.

Within the "standard" group, it is possible to buy barrels for .25-06, 7x57, .243, 7mm-08, .270, .308, .30-06 and several more.

The "magnum" group offers choices of interchanges between 7mm Rem. Mag., .338 Win. Mag., .300 WSM, .300 Win. Mag. and .270 WSM. One need only change the bolt head, a simple job, and he can also switch groups, offering even more versatility.

Because the mounts are attached to the barrel rather than the receiver, If the rifle needs to be broken down for travel, according to the manufacturer, the scope and special mounts can be removed and reattached with no change in bullet point of impact.

The Merkel KR-1 has a highly unusual bolt design that utilizes a sort of "hood" effect over the bolt, encapsulating the entire area of the bolt and chamber of the barrel. Lifting and pulling on the short-stroke and small angle of bolt throw exposes the top of the magazine.

And the magazine is directly above the trigger group, rather than in front of it like most bolt guns.

This design allows the rifle to have the barrel set back farther into the action, and with the much shorter stroke of the bolt, noticeably reduces the overall length of the gun. Even in magnum calibers with a 24-inch barrel, the guns do not exceed 40 inches in overall length - which results in a pleasing, easily carried length.

It also results in a weight (minus scope) of less than 6 1/2 pounds. In the rifle I tested, I noticed a definite difference in recoil when I switched bullet weights. Testing the gun in .270 WSM, I started with 130-grain bullets. When I switched to 150-grain "Fusion" bullets, I noticed the difference in recoil immediately.

I'm not recoil-sensitive, but the kick got my attention. "Like the Hammer of Thor" might be a reasonable approximation.

Strangely enough, once I started shooting the gun on the range, I quit noticing the recoil. I attribute this to practice and to the design of the stock, a beautiful oil-rubbed select walnut with what is known as a "hog-back" comb and Bavarian cheek piece - sort of a mildly raised Monte-Carlo style that offers just the right amount of cheek support. I might add, the effect is absolutely gorgeous.

These are beautiful rifles - and not a style you are likely to see lining the gun racks of even the high-end hunting camps.

Raylin Massey, the manufacturer's representative, supplied me with a KR-1 Premium, which has a partially-engraved receiver, select wood in the stock and the aforementioned Bavarian cheek piece.

The trigger group unhinges and swings down to the front to allow access to the removable box magazine. In the short magnums, the magazine will accept only two rounds, giving the rifle a three-shot capacity. I found the magazine on my test rifle to be hard to pull through the bottom when loaded, so I only loaded from the top. I suspect, with wearing in, this problem would be eliminated.

My first range test was a bit disappointing. The rifle seemed to shoot tight on the first couple of shots, and then as I began testing for groups, it became erratic. It would group once, then throw a round outside the group. Returning it to Hebert Guns, I presented it to Vince Buckles, their gunsmith, who checked it over and discovered the rear locking lug was only finger-tight.

Apparently the barrels had been switched for demonstration purposes, and the lug was not tightened. Buckles put a torque of 45 pounds on each of the locking lugs, and returned the gun to me. This time, I carried a couple of boxes of Federal Fusion, the new bonded rounds that Federal says demand their own family name. I did not run these through my chronograph as I did the earlier Federal Premiums in 130 grain, but those turned in a consistent velocity of slightly over 3,200 feet per second.

I found the gun to shoot exceedingly well once we had worked out the "demo" twitches with it. Several groups came in that fell well under an inch, and in a couple of cases, under ½ inch. The rifle was outfitted with a new Monarch Gold select scope from Nikon; this particular scope was their 2.5-10x50 with their BDC (Bullet Drop Compensator) reticle.

While I've never been a fan of Nikon's lower-end scopes, this scope absolutely won me over. I was impressed with this new, improved version of the Monarch line, and only wish the scope had been a 4-16x40. The brightness and edge-to-edge clarity of this scope was phenomenal, and I can pay it no higher compliment than I would gladly mount it on any rifle I own and hunt with it.

The modular design of the rifle, allowing barrel changes, easy disassembly for cleaning or travel, and the ability to remove the scope and mounts and have them lock back on precisely (according to the manufacturer) were strong innovations in favor of this gun. While I did not remove the scope to test this, the quick-release mounts attached directly to the barrel instead of the receiver, are strong and solid, and impressed me.

The trigger was crisp with practically no let-off, so I really didn't see the need for the "set" feature that allows you to push the trigger forward to gain a "hair" setting of mere ounces. But I will tell you this. If you set the trigger, you had better consciously force yourself to keep your finger away from the trigger - it will fire with the weight of mere breath when "set."

These are not inexpensive rifles. High quality and innovation never are. With select walnut grades skyrocketing in price, stock blanks have become as expensive or more than the barreled actions. The cost will run as much as a low-end custom rifle, which is what these actually are. And that is not counting the special quick-release scope mounts or the scope - and the quality of this rifle demands a high-end scope.

But if you do buy one, you will have a rifle you can sling over your shoulder and carry all day, then climb in the most restricted of stands and be able to maneuver, while confident in the fact that even short, and light, it will produce magnum velocities, reach and, most importantly, superb accuracy.

Perhaps best of all, aside from the intrinsic beauty of these guns, when they are standing in the gun rack at the camp, there likely won't be anything else similar near it. Bragging rights come automatically with purchase.

 

Gordon Hutchinson's newest book, The Great New Orleans Gun Grab, written with Todd Masson, editor of this magazine, is an expose' of the gun confiscation scandal in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Thousands of guns were illegally seized from private citizens trying only to protect their personal property. You can read about the book at www.neworleansgungrab.com.

Hutchinson's first book, The Quest and the Quarry, is a generational tale that parallels the lives of a line of trophy bucks and the youth of a farming family that hunts them. It was chosen as a Book of the Year by the Southeastern Outdoor Press Association. It is a must-read for anyone interested in the quest for a trophy buck. You can read about it at www.thequestandthequarry.com.

Both books can be ordered on-line or by calling (800) 538-4355.