Have you noticed how casually gun writers use the word “ultimate” in our description of new or modified products? Do you really believe we have the ability to work briefly with an item and somehow determine that no further improvements are possible? It took me years to realize that the only two truly “ultimate” things I’ve encountered in my life are my venison burritos and Irish coffees, and even these are suspect because some people will say anything to avoid cooking or mixing a drink in a hunting camp! What does excite me is a truly worthwhile product improvement, particularly in an item that had already been judged by many to be the “ultimate.” I’ve done a lot of hunting with (and some writing about) the XL (formerly Merrill) single shot pistols over the last few years, and I’ve been impressed enough that I now own several XL guns in a variety of calibers and barrel lengths.
So when Jim Rock of RPM offered me his new Hunter Model XL in .356 Win. for a fall elk hunt, I didn’t hesitate even though there wasn’t much time until my departure date. I didn’t worry about familiarization with the gun since the ergonomics hadn’t changed enough to cause my hand any recognition problems. I only needed one trip to the range to sight in.
Mounting Bausch & Lomb’s newest variable pistol scope, the 2-6x Elite Model 3000, I was printing 2″ groups about 3″ above point of aim at 100 meters with Winchester’s 200 grain rounds only a few minutes after arriving at the Lake Elsinore Sportsmen’s Association range.
With muzzle velocities crowding 2,200 fps, I figured my point blank range was somewhere out past the 200 meter mark which was about as long a shot as I might realistically try. This had been the simplest preparation effort I’d ever experienced in getting ready for a big game hunt
Pros & Cons
As many of you know, the XL is a break-open, single-shot handgun with superb balance and ergonomics along with easy access to the breach for loading and unloading. It is extremely thin (or flat) for a large-caliber single-shot, making it an extremely easy hunting handgun to holster and carry under an outer garment in inclement weather.
The old High Standard-style grip provides a great deal of tolerance in selecting different barrel lengths while maintaining balance for those difficult standing shots. With Weaver bases, scopes mount low on the barrel easing eye alignment and making the gun extremely compact for a full-power, optically equipped hunting handgun.
It is capable of great accuracy (1″ groups with preferred loads) which accounts for its tremendous popularity on the handgun silhouette circuit.
For hunting purposes, the XL has two flaws which have been reported to Jim Rock by serious handgun hunters. First is the gun’s tendency to “flex” with high-pressure rifle loads, jamming the top of the barrel against the release plate on the frame and making the action extremely difficult to open. This is due to the small size of the barrel bolt (or lug) and the angle at which it engages the recess slot in the frame. When the round fires, the bullet pushes forward against the barrel rifling and the case moves rearward against the breach face. These opposing thrust loads are transferred to the angled barrel bolt and the slot in the frame.
The only relief available to the metal parts is for them to slide apart thus trying to tip up the barrel and open the gun’s action.
The second flaw is the original extractor powered only by a small coil spring. Under field conditions with full-power hunting loads, it sometimes lacks sufficient force to push the rim, or head, of the cartridge case the initial 1/4″ out of the chamber to permit removal of the case by hand.
Jim’s solution to the first problem is simpler than my explanation of it. He beefed up the barrel bolt to a thickness of .312″ to absorb the heavy recoil of the larger loads, widened the recess slot in the frame to mate with the bigger barrel bolt, and made the engagement angle steeper to reduce the tendency of the mating parts to slide.
The second problem was a little trickier, but since Jim doesn’t work for the government, he decided it was better to borrow and utilize a good, proven concept rather than to invent and defend a stupid, unworkable idea.
Studying the old Marble Game Getter extractor, he mounted a slim, fixed plate on the frame at the front edge of the trigger guard, and a sliding plate above it on the barrel.
A piece of the frame plate extends upward and engages a notch in the sliding barrel plate. When the XL’s action is opened and cocked, the sliding barrel plate is pushed rearward.
You guessed it! At the breach end of the sliding plate is an extractor extending into the chamber under the cartridge rim, and as the plate/extractor moves rearward, the extractor pushes against the rim of the cartridge forcing the empty round out of the chamber. Reliability is much improved over the original coil spring-powered extractor.
It should be noted that this mechanical extractor system can only be used with rimmed cartridge cases; it won’t work with rimless brass due to the necessary rigid attachment of the extractor to the sliding plate. Considering the big bore factory rounds available — .356 Win., .375 Win., and .45-70 Gov’t, along with the JDJ series of cartridges on the .444 Marlin case — 1 don’t think giving up rimless cartridges imposes any limitations on the handgun hunter. And RPM already makes barrels in medium bore calibers based on the excellent .225 Win. rimmed case.
The only way to get all the new XL Hunter Model features — wide lug and mechanical extractor — is to buy a complete XL Hunter Model frame and barrel. You can later add other caliber barrels that also feature the matching lug and extractor.
There are some modifications possible on older, wide-model frames, but you end up with limited capabilities and possible confusion in matching barrels to the proper frames. Talk to the folks at RPM about your options, but don’t think it’s just a sales pitch when their first recommendation is to start with a completely new gun; it really is the best solution.
Two other features on this gun warrant comment. The 12″ barrel (you can order other lengths if you prefer) features RPM’s muzzle brake and slimmer barrel diameter. All RPM model guns come with chrome moly Douglas barrels. The brake adds about 1″ to your selected barrel length and less than .2″ to the diameter. (The skinny, new barrels are .8″ diameter and the muzzle brake measures .985″ diameter at the muzzle end.)
You can macho-master the big caliber guns without a muzzle brake under ideal range conditions “when you’re just showing off,” but you’re going to wish you had that brake the first time you have to shoot under field conditions that are less than optimum.
In terms of barrel length and its effect on muzzle velocity and overall balance of the gun, run your own tradeoffs and make a choice. Bigger bores have less metal in the barrel thus allowing you to select a longer barrel without moving the balance point toward the muzzle.
The gun I used also has the loading latch lever introduced by RPM a couple of years ago. It’s a great assist in opening the gun, particularly with cold hands in a hunting situation where you may need a quick second shot. It’s simply a rotating lever on the right side of the frame that engages the latch plate, letting you cam the plate open with a push of the thumb. This is much better than the old system requiring a squeeze grip on both sides of the plate.
Jim Rock was initially a bit concerned that the latch lever and the new extractor would ruin the sleek outline of the XL. I think the latch lever’s functional value overrides any aesthetic concerns, and the new extraction system blends nicely into the lines of the gun. The new Hunter Model may not be quite as sleek as the old one. but it’s definitely better for handgun hunters.
Frankly, I’m delighted that Jim isn’t totally satisfied with the results to date. It means he’s going to keep on looking for ways to improve his product, which means that a terrific gun may just continue to get better and better. So I’ll just call it the great, new XL Hunter Model rather than the “ultimate hunting handgun!”
Published: October 1995 – GUNS Magazine