feature By: Ernie Foster | June, 17
Although the chauffeur encouraged me to sit in the back seat, I insisted on the front, where I could view the countryside along the 130-mile route to the city of Suhl. Fortunately, the chauffeur spoke English, which allowed me to inquire about the sights of the villages and countryside on that beautiful September day.
I should back up for a minute. The red-eye had one stop in Iceland before its arrival in Frankfurt. Once out of Logan International Airport in Boston, I relaxed with a glass of wine. I thought of the firearms industry in Suhl, which goes back more than 500 years. The city of Suhl is the gateway to the Thuringian Forest, where iron ore and the wood to fire the ironworks were found in abundance. Suhl became an attraction for people who needed iron to manufacture their products. In those very early years, steel items were tools for the pioneer and the soldier. Be they for swords, spears, shields, battle-axes, suits of armor, picks, shovels or horseshoes, Suhl could offer the necessary metals.
The gun industry was not a factor back then because the use of powder and the design of firearms were in their infancy. Very early firearm designs – primitive R&D – surfaced in the 16th century, and the first guns to resemble barreled guns with shoulder mounts were the fuse-lock Arquebus and, soon after that, the Wheelock. At that time, the gunsmiths of Suhl were participants in the advancement of gun design, and by the 19th century, firearms of all sorts came into vogue, which drew more skilled gunsmiths to the Suhl area.
Over time, many village gunsmiths emerged to become well-known firearm manufacturers. These included famous names such as Gerbruder Merkel, J.P. Sauer & Sohn, Simpson & Co., H. Krieghoff, Inman & Meft, F. Jager & Co., F.W. Heyn, Ansechutz and Walther, to name a few. These well-known gunsmiths were supported by a number of skilled freelance gunsmiths and artisans who had their own shops in the nearby villages. The Suhl gun industry grew quickly, and by the early 20th century, Suhl was the gunmaking capital of the German empire.
I could imagine it unfolding: from century to century, from generation to generation, the family gun business grew; individuals served their apprenticeships, and in time, excelled in their areas of gunmaking. The passing of gunmaking skills from generation to generation seems to have cultivated, as it were, a cultural gene pool of some of the best gunmakers in the world.
Another group that flourished in the German gun trade comprised the engravers of the world – the talented artisans who could start with a blank piece of steel and convert it into a masterpiece. Many gun models from all makers displayed ornately embellished engravings of German floral and scroll, complete with game birds, big-game animals and field and woodland landscapes. The workmanship was of such fine detail that one might imagine it could only be created on canvas with a pen and brush.
The city soon earned the nickname “German Damascus” because its guns were so richly decorated. The people of the Suhl gun industry were proud of this name because it brought to mind the great tradition of the Damascus gunsmiths who had elevated engraving and firearm manufacturing to an art form.
As the decades rolled along, more and more skilled gunsmiths settled in Suhl, one being Friedrick Ernest Ferdinand Merkel who fathered 13 children, 11 of whom were sons who eventually found their ways into the gunmaking trade.
Friedrick apparently never opened his own firm, but all his sons, either individually or collectively, started their own manufacturing companies. The one Merkel firm that would last was founded by Gerbruder Merkel and included Albert Oskan and Gebhard Merkel, master gunsmiths, and Karl Paul Merkel, a master stock maker. The firm was founded in 1898 “for the purpose of manufacturing of firearms.”
The industrial revolution made Germany the third-largest industrial nation in the world, and many of the craftsmen’s workshops turned into gun factories to serve both military and hunting purposes. Yet the Merkels always maintained a strict demarcation between military firearms and the “fine guns” that were richly adorned and elegantly designed.
As we continued our drive to Suhl, the countryside began to consist of fields of corn and wheat. Along the tree line, I frequently saw the German box blinds used in pursuit of roe deer.
We arrived at the Goldener Hirsch Gasthaus & Hotel (Golden Deer Restaurant & Hotel), which embodied the architecture of the 17th century. Waiting there was a fraulein named Anke. She greeted me with warmth, and with the help of the chauffeur, she registered me in the hotel.
“We must move quickly. The German hunting licensing authorities’ headquarters are closed, but they are waiting for us,” Anke said. Merkel had arranged for me to share the evening’s red stag hunt with other journalists from various parts of the world who were also visiting the Merkel facilities.
The next morning, while driving to the industrial park, we passed the Suhl Friedberg shooting grounds where the World Shooting Championship was held in 1986.
How special it was, as we entered the Merkel foyer, to see my name posted on the welcome marquis. Better yet, to be greeted by the receptionist, Carola Knozh, as she laid down the chisel and hammer she was using to cut oak leaf clusters into the pistol grip of a shotgun stock. Nice touch! A great jump-start to my tour of the Merkel manufacturing facility.
Our first stop was the conference room, where a bevy of Merkel shotguns had been laid out on the table for me to view and handle.
Left alone with these beautiful guns, I fantasized about bringing one home. Quickly, however, I remembered the parting words of my wife: “We do not need another gun.” Those vows at the altar can shut up a gun lover!
Anke came back shortly with a treat and the choice of coffee, tea or water. We discussed the design and engineering that goes into each step of making such high-quality firearms.
She said, “It all starts with pride – in this case, German pride and the team of skilled individuals united as family to produce the best product possible.”
The door opened to the shop. My eyes perused the shop aisle, and I quickly noted the precisely placed storage carts that were used to transport the works in progress among some of the Computer Numerical Control (CNC) machines.
The modern manufacturing facility was complete with high-tech instruments, the latest technology in CNC machines offering Beethoven-like machining sounds.
The finished product comes from the assembly of the “bill of materials” – the parts required to produce the product. Each part has been precisely engineered and goes through the engineering and manufacturing process to assume its role in the functioning of the gun.
Merkel offers a wide range of quality firearms, so it is not uncommon to see bolt-action and automatic rifles as well as side-by-side and over-under shotguns, double rifles and combination guns, both in standard grades (models) and with various embellishments for custom orders.
In much of the European hunting theater, the hunter encounters various species of big game as well as game birds. The drilling and combination guns allow the hunter to harvest either prey. Therefore, in the European market, combination guns are the most popular variety.
Now let’s get back to the gun manufacturing process prior to the initial assembly. Each gun has a processing card that routes the parts through the manufacturing process. Some guns are standard models, which are fairly straightforward, but others must be routed to custom workstations to be completed.
Let’s set aside the bench worker who assembles the components and tackle three areas of gun manufacturing that were of particular interest to me. They require old-school gunsmithing knowledge and skills that cannot be attained by modern technology or robots.
In addition to the proper gun fit and gun mount, the barrels of side-by-side and over-under guns need to be regulated for consistent shot placement. You cannot have one barrel shooting at two o’clock and the other at seven o’clock and still expect to harvest a bird in flight or break a clay target. Expert regulating is the only solution. In Merkel’s case, this is done using old-school techniques and starts with the soldering of the barrels to the ribs.
Case coloring is a delicate process. The makeup and temperature of the brine mixture are critical for producing an acceptable case color finish. The other critical step is the temperature of the steel prior to being submerged in the brine. Improper temperature of the brine or steel can cause poor quality, warping or shrinkage. Merkel adds a third element to the quality outcome – the metallurgy of the steel, type of steel and surface finish. Case color is another old-school technique, and the process is often kept secret by gun manufacturers.
After a break for lunch, we visited the workstations. The weißfertig (“mounted in white”) station is where each finished machined part is filed, polished and honed to achieve a perfect fit in the assembly of the gun. Once the skilled bench worker is satisfied, the gun is disassembled, and the parts are routed to their next operation.
Day Two found us continuing to view the manufacturing process, the custom gun workstations, where in the case of the stock, the figured grain flowed beautifully, and stock shape could only be rated a 10.
During lunch, we learned that the case color operation was to take place, so we spent the afternoon watching the sequence of events that produced the color. The parts are placed in a lid-covered sheet metal container with charcoal (carbon). The container is placed in a furnace where the parts are brought up to a high temperature, as specified by engineering, and the red glow satisfactory to the craftsman. When the temperature is ready, the container is submerged in the vat of brine, which causes the multicolors to develop. Once done, as determined by the operator, the container is removed and placed on a rack to drain and cool.
The craftsman was extremely proud of his old-school knowledge and skill – his artistic contributions to the gun. By the way, he had made up the brine bath mixture before our arrival, as this was his secret mix.
Day Three found us observing the barrel rib soldering and the initial operation to barrel regulating. The regulating starts with the soldering of the ribs to barrels. The ribs are fitted to the tubes, and the adjoining surfaces fluxed and tinned with solder. The traditional method of jigging the barrel ribs for soldering is done with steel wedges placed on the ribs and then wired tightly to apply pressure on the barrels and ribs. The barrels are slowly brought back to temperature along their length, employing heating rods inside the bores and torch heat outside. Once the solder from the tinning starts to flow, more soft solder is applied along the length of the top and bottom ribs. Once completed, and the solder is still hot, the barrel craftsman uses his special tool, in concert with a visual level to make the initial adjustment. The barrels are then quickly bore sighted against a pattern on the wall, and he makes any necessary adjustments.
After lunch, Anke and I toured the incredible firearm museum, Waffenmuseum Suhl, in the downtown area. It’s a must-see for any gun enthusiast, and yes, they displayed weapons made in Suhl 500 years ago.
Although Gebruder Merkel, in its early years, focused on high-quality side-by-side, double and combination guns, the Merkel name is better known for its over-under guns with a distinctive barrel-breech-joining design. Early on, Merkel referred to this over-under gun with two barrels lying upon one another as the “Bock.” The Bock barrel system is still in use today for all Merkel break-open over-under guns. In addition to the Bock barrel system, Gerbruder Merkel, in concert with gun designer Gustav Kersten, designed the double cross-bolt extension-locking system, which was incorporated in its over-under Model 303 as early as 1924.
Merkel went through some hard times during World War II. Not only was the demand for high-quality hunting rifles very low, but also Merkel, under the Nazi regime, became a parts supplier for carburetor engines, carbines and range finders. When the war was over in 1945, only Merkel out of all the prominent firearms manufacturers escaped dismantlement. Having salvaged the building, machines and personnel, Merkel stayed in the hunting gun business while nearly all the other gunmaking firms in Suhl either were destroyed or left for West Germany. Unfortunately, at the end of the war, Suhl was incorporated into Communist East Germany and controlled by the German Democratic Republic. Over the course of the next 46 years, Merkel guns were almost impossible to acquire outside the Communist bloc.
Merkel is now actively marketing its products in the U.S., imported exclusively by Steyr Arms, Inc. (www.steyrarms.com). I have had the good fortune to own prewar and postwar Merkel side-by-side and over-under guns as well as to view the manufacture of these types of guns in 2016. German management has remained committed to using advanced engineering, modern technology and skilled craftsman to produce some of the finest firearms in the world. Whether it’s displayed in a basic off-the-shelf grade or in an upscale custom gun, Merkel metal craftsmanship is second to none, and the German engraving is some of the best in the world. Among all the options out there, a Merkel gun is a gun to consider.