Four Affordable European Exotics

If there are two words that don’t commonly get paired up in the lexicon of firearms terminology, it’s “European hunting rifle” and “affordable.” With storied brands like Sauer & Sohn, Holland & Holland, Purdey & Sons, and of course, Mauser, being some of the continents best-known producers of hunting guns, the expectation is that one must spend thousands upon thousands of dollars to get a good, high-quality hunting rifle from a European manufacturer.

CZ 557 Ranger Rifle – Shooter’s Choice

We won’t beat around the bush: If you’re looking for a rifle that you plan to shoot first and foremost, and hunt with second, then the $1,225 CZ is absolutely the gun for you. Developed for the Canadian Ranger rifle procurement program that closed last year, the CZ 557 Ranger rifle is a sort of hodge-podge of other 557 models, all combined to try and make a “universal centerfire rifle intended for use by professionals who use their weapon for everyday work.” First, the rifle begins with the rail-equipped, box-magazine fed action of the 557 Varmint, and pairs it with the iron sight-equipped barrel of the Lux, FS, and Synthetic models, before adding the two things that are unique to the Ranger rifle: A factory-adjusted two-stage trigger and a beechwood stock styled after their 557 Sport’s walnut stock, albeit with a third sling swivel and a slightly straighter forestock.

In the hands, the CZ sets itself apart from the other rifles in this test by being, quite simply, beefy. Now, we don’t mean it’s heavy; unloaded and bereft of optics the rifle is the heaviest here at 8.06 lbs but that’s hardly overweight. What we mean is that everything feels very durable. From the receiver’s polished and blued finish to the aluminum baseplate on the steel magazine, to the heavier barrel profile, the entire gun just seems overbuilt in a manner that some would say is typical of an Eastern European manufacturing effort. In fact, while many of these rifles feature various polymer or plastic components, we found but one in the CZ: The magazine release. And then of course there’s the mass that’s simply added by the features this gun has that the others don’t, like the 10-round magazine, and rifle sights.

So why do we say this is the shooter’s choice? Well, as mentioned, the design of the CZ 557 is basically that of a push-feed, pre-64 Winchester Model 70… and if there was ever a rifle that defined the term “shooter’s rifle,” those early Model 70s are certainly worthy of the title. CZ’s addition of a fantastic two-stage trigger and a 10-round magazine just improves upon that formula even more. Plus, with a heavy barrel profile and coming in either .243 or (our choice) .308, it’s a flexible gun that’s as comfortable spending hours on a shooting bench perfecting technique as it is afield looking for game. In our testing, it certainly proved accurate, and with the wide variety of .308 factory ammo and the limitless possibilities of reloading such a popular cartridge, it’s a great gun for someone that is looking for one single rifle that can do as much as possible. Unfortunately, it is still the heaviest gun here, and with the protruding magazine, it was the worst gun here to carry afield and the hooded front sight grabbed the most foliage on the way through the bush. Not that it was unbearable… just, it wasn’t as good as the others when it came time to move rather than shoot.

But, like pretty much everything CZ builds, the quality of the machining and assembly is excellent… if there’s one rifle here that’s likely to be appreciated by future generations, this is it. It just has that certain feeling of personality that only good craftsmanship, wood stocks, and a lustrous blue finish can impart.

Merkel R15

If your idea of an ideal European rifle is one that follows in the great German gunmaking tradition, then look no further, because the Merkel R15 is the most prototypically German rifle here. Formerly produced by and branded as the Haenel Jaeger 10s (a German gunmaker owned by Merkel), Merkel added the rifle their brand in order to add a more affordable option to a lineup that otherwise starts at around $4,000.

And like most German rifles, the $920 R15 is undeniably handsome, from the lines of its cold-hammer forged receiver to its racy swept-back bolt handle. Like the receiver, the barrel is also cold-hammer forged, and the entire assembly is brought into battery by a three-lugged bolt that features a full-diameter bolt body and a sliding extractor. Like the Anschutz 1771 we tested earlier this year, the extractor is retained and sprung by a simple spring steel wire that comes out of the extractor, passes through the bolt lug the extractor rides in, and is wrapped around the bolt body.

Even though our test rifle came chambered in .30-06 and was, as a result, a longer action than all but the Sauer (which was also a long action), the Merkel managed to tip the scales as the second lightest rifle in the lot; weighing just 7.12 lbs empty and sans optics. That’s surprising, given the action itself is very robust, with a bolt body that measures 0.79” across and receiver walls that are a whopping 0.28” thick. To put that in perspective, the beefy CZ’s bolt body is 0.70” across, and the receiver is just 0.19” at the bolt raceways. Of course, Merkel’s saved a lot of weight by using polymers and plastics in place of steel for the three-round magazine baseplate, magazine well, trigger guard, and magazine release. And the barrel profile is a conventional sporter profile, so it tapers down to its minimum diameter quite rapidly. So what little weight the Merkel is carrying, is mostly within the action itself, which gives the gun an excellent feel in the hands. It carries easily thanks to the smooth, flush-fitting magazine, and balances excellently from the shoulder. Simply put, it feels lively.

In terms of additional features, the rifle has an incredibly good single-stage trigger that breaks at a scant 3 pounds. Is has no creep, and a hair of overtravel, but for a field gun the bang switch is absolutely second to none. The two-position safety acts directly upon the sear rather than the trigger, which supposedly enhances reliability, but it’s the chamber lock that we’re impressed by. When the safety is switched on, a small tab is revealed below the safety’s off position, and pushing the tab down allows the gun to be unloaded without taking the safety off. It’s a nicer solution than many of the three position safeties on the market. Oh, and the stock is crossbolted in the style of the original Mauser, just to help the stock deal with the gun’s recoil.

Which is good, because as tested in .30-06, this thing has some significant punch. It knocked the entire ocular/eyepiece out of the Vortex Golden Eagle scope we use to shoot test groups. Of course shooting off a bench tends to exaggerate recoil, but even compared to every other rifle tested, the Merkel was significantly more punishing. Likewise, we found the action to be less slick than the others, due to it taking more effort to open than the rest, and the bolt handle actually bumping the safety when we put it back into battery. But given how well the rifle carried and its lively nature, it’d be a great choice for someone that wanted a seriously handsome, accurate rifle for their next hunt.

Bergara B14 Timber

Probably the best-known rifle here, the rifles from Spanish firm Bergara have been attracting plenty of attention since they broke cover a few year ago, including being awarded with more than a few awards. But in this company, their B14 Timber rifle is something of the odd man out, being easily the most “conventional” rifle here. In fact, if one were to simply glance at it, one might think it was little more than yet another Remington 700 clone.

And if we’re blunt, functionally, that’s almost exactly what it is. In fact, a B14 should drop into most Remington 700 stocks, and is compatible with most other Remington 700 components, including triggers and sight rails (we used an MDT Remington 700 rail for our accuracy testing). Likewise, it handles, and feels a lot like a 700. The safety is a two-position in the same place as you’d find a 700’s, and the traditional floorplate of the Timber model is released the same way you’d release a 700’s.

Of course, there are some differences, the most obvious being the bolt. Where a Remington 700 uses a spring steel collar contained within those vaunted “three rings of steel” to contain and extract a round, the Bergara uses a more conventional layout with no ring on the bolt face ahead of the bolt lugs, and a sliding-type extractor. Likewise, Bergara touts the recoil lug as “improved,” and boasts a Melonite finish, and a large, European-style nylon bolt handle.

But all that pales compared to the Bergara’s biggest departure from the Remington 700 from which it borrows so much: The barrel. Bergara is, and remains, a barrel maker. They’re very proud of their performance as a barrel maker, and like our own Colt Canada, are quite happy to flaunt their barrel making prowess as one of their key selling features. And like Colt Canada, one of their biggest claims to fame is their ability to produce a smooth, consistent bore; in Bergara’s case that comes as the result of using three diamond-tipped honing spindles rather than a reamer to initially bore the barrel. This ensures a smooth bore for the ensuring button-rifling process, and results in a bore that’s good enough for Bergara’s sub-MOA guarantee at 100 yards with match ammunition.

And that level of attention-to-detail really dominates the B14. Sure, it may look, work, and handle like a Remington 700, but the reality is that it feels, in every way, about 20% better in every way than the average Remington you’ll find at the Bergara’s $1,200 price point. The Melonite finish is nicer than the parkerizing of your average 700 at this price point. The 3 pound trigger breaks just a bit more cleanly. The action feels slicker. And of course, there’s the added confidence you get from having a rifle with absolutely zero plastic parts, as opposed to the plastic trigger guard you’ll find on Remington 700 SPS. In fact, even in this heady European company, the Bergara was the only one of these four rifles to feature entirely steel construction. That, combined with the performance put up on the range, and its familiar feel made it an easy contender for the title as the best field rifle here. In fact, if you want a finely made hunting rifle, but don’t care if it’s particular European in style or design, this would be the one we’d pick. It’s a truly great value.

Sauer 100

Which brings us to the Sauer 100. Like the Merkel, the Sauer is a thoroughly German rifle, albeit one with something of a twist. Where most German manufacturers will lean heavily on tradition and convention, Sauer is unabashed in their acceptance of modern techniques, in case the nylon stock didn’t make that abundantly clear. But Sauer doesn’t stop there. They’re happy to admit that the $1,120 Sauer 100 is machined almost entirely on thoroughly modern CNC machines, and has almost none of the “hand-made,” or “artisanal” mystique of other German rifles.

And you know what? We like the honesty. In fact, we like it enough to jump straight to the conclusion that the Sauer 100 is our pick for the best overtly European hunting rifle in this quintuplet. Why? Well, because it’s quite apparent that the money Sauer saved on things like the stock and appearance of the rifle has been spent on the manufacturing and design of this rifle. We won’t lie: In our opinion this is definitely the ugliest rifle here, what with its oddly shaped ejection port, relatively crude engraving, plastic stock, and mix-n-match barrel and receiver finish… but it’s also a great marriage of typically smart German design features with some nods to modern rifle manufacturing.

And so we end up with a rifle action that almost mirrors that of other German rifles, with a three-lugged bolt, full-diameter bolt body, and sliding, wire-spring actuated extractor. However, the Sauer’s bolt features two plunger-type ejectors where most rifles feature two, leading to extremely potent and consistent ejection of spent rounds. It’s also easily opened and cocked, and is extremely smooth, due in so small part to the extremely well machined surfaces of the bolt. In terms of additional features, the rifle obviously features a nicely textured bolt handle (which features the Sauer logo on the bottom, a nice touch we thought), a well-knurled three-position safety in the conventional position, and a detachable, flush-fitting five-round polymer magazine.

So where does the Sauer differ? Well, unlike every other rifle here, the Sauer’s bolt locks directly into the barrel… not the receiver. The lug recesses are milled directly into the barrel, and the barrel and receiver are fitted together by “heat shrinking,” wherein the receiver is expanded with heat and pressed together with the barrel. This may turn off some that expect to replace a barrel in their lifetime, but for most hunters, it’s a perfectly adequate method of building a gun. Likewise, where most of the Sauer’s competition feature a recoil lug hung from the receiver/barrel joint, the Sauer features a series of slots milled into the receiver itself, which then interface with corresponding slotted aluminum blocks in the stock. They call this the “Ever Rest” system.

The result of all this is that the Sauer, which only comes in a long-action format (our .308 featured an internally shortened magazine to take up the difference in length), is the lightest rifle here at 6.875 lbs and feels absolutely fantastic. The three lug design, receiver shape, and bolt handle all ensure it still feels thoroughly European, while the flush-fitting magazine and rounded bottom metal all make it extremely comfortable to carry. Likewise, the nylon stock takes some of the stress out of carrying it afield, and the texturing of the grip panels was a real boon in both dry and wet conditions. The 3-lb trigger is the best out-of-the-box single-stage trigger here, due largely to the complete lack of overtravel, and the wide shoe makes it extremely comfortable to shoot.

We did have one problem with the Sauer though: It was picky. Accuracy was well beyond “acceptable” standards for a field gun pretty much across the board, but we had difficulty chambering any ammunition that wasn’t simply brass-cased; specifically nickel plated cases gave us fits. We suspect it was simply an issue with a recalcitrant extractor making trouble with the less slippers case rims of nickel-plated cases, but nonetheless, it was frustrating.

Conclusion

Obviously there’s no winner here; these rifles are all too different to warrant awarding any individual rifle the clear title of “winner.” But there are some standout take-home lessons learned. The CZ is, without a doubt, the shooter’s choice. If you want a rifle you can shoot year-round, and drag out into the woods come hunting season, that’s your gun. If you want a rifle you can tinker with, or that marries a typically European emphasis on quality with a familiar American design and handling, the Bergara has to be your jam. The Merkel is the Germanic rifle of the bunch; beautiful, lithe, lively and full of personality. And the Sauer? Well, that’s the Jack of all trades, master of none in this company, as it’s neither the most satisfyingly European, nor the most flexibly useful, what with its great performance afield but largely irreplaceable barrel. And so, the only conclusion we can reach is that we’re damned glad these rifles aren’t more expensive than they are, because at least that way we can figure out a way to keep ‘em all somehow.

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