Marlin Firearms, the very name conjures the image of a lean horseman,
red bandana wrapped around his dusty neck and a work-worn felt hat
jammed awkwardly onto his head, his chestnut mount braced at a sudden stop,
and both of them are intently focused on something just out of the picture.
The Marlin levergun is poised, almost at port-arms, ready to snap to
the rider's bestubbled face and deal the unseen threat a leaden blow.
It is a picture of a man, independent and free, taking care of himself.
This image has captivated generations of American shooters, and
undoubtedly has helped sell countless Marlin rifles over the years. After all, it is one of the central facets of how we
Americans view ourselves -- independent, free, and capable.
The Marlin rifleman (this long-standing Marlin advertising image was used as the cover art on William Brophy's excellent history of Marlin Firearms)
Most American shooters know that Marlin has
been around for quite a while, and that they have been making excellent
leverguns for many years, but may not realize all the twists and turns in the
trail that has made Marlin what it is today.
It is a trail that has been rough and rocky in places, and at times, it
didn't look like Marlin would survive, but survive it did, and today's
shooters should count themselves as fortunate as Marlin came back strong to
make some of the most popular leverguns of all time.
The story starts in 1836, when John Mahlon
Marlin was born in Connecticut. He
grew up in New England and entered the tool and die trade as a young man.
During the Civil War, he started building guns, working at the Colt
plant in Hartford. In 1870, he struck out on his own and founded Marlin Firearms
Company in New Haven, Connecticut. He
started off making single-shot brass framed derringers in .22 rimfire, and
eventually added .32 and .38 caliber rimfire derringers to his product line.
In 1875, Marlin added rifles to his product offerings, manufacturing
the single-shot Ballard rifles (which had previously been made by others).
A strategic business move was made in 1881, when Marlin introduced the
Model 1881 lever-action repeating rifle.
This was a well-built, accurate rifle, chambered for powerful hunting
rounds like the .45-70 and .38-55. Now
this was in the hey-day of the powerful Sharps single-shot rifles, but Marlin
was making a big-bore high-powered rifle, and they were making it in a lever-actioned
repeater (competing for the same
market niche that Winchester had created with the Model 1876).
The Marlin Model 1881 was well-received and firmly established Marlin
in the levergun market.
A Marlin "trademark" was
established a few years later when Marlin introduced the Model 1889, the first
levergun to have a solid top and eject the empties out of the side of the
receiver (the origin of the term "Marlin Safety"), instead of out
the top (like Winchester leverguns). While
19th century levergunners weren't interested in mounting telescopic sights on
their rifles, they did appreciate the fact that these new guns didn't toss hot
brass into their faces (or down their shirt collars). The 1889 was chambered for the popular pistol rounds of the
day, like .44-40, .38-40, .32-20 and .25-20.
This rifle would eventually lead to the Model 1894, a design that
Marlin continues to manufacture today (and is a favorite of Cowboy action
Marlin had a stroke of genius in 1891 when they applied this solid
top/side ejection to a smaller framed .22 rimfire levergun, that they named
the Model 1891. This would be the beginnings of the beloved Marlin 39A,
giving rise to what, more or less, amounts to the longest continuously
manufactured rifle in the world (production was briefly suspended from
1917-1922 for the War effort). When
it was re-introduced in 1922, this beautiful little rifle was renamed the
Model 39. Almost 3 million have
been made to date. The Marlin 39A
has been called "the Cadillac of the .22s", and I couldn't agree
more. I bought my first Marlin
39A (from McBride's, a fine gunshop in Austin, Texas) when I was a freshman in
college. That rifle has logged
many, many miles with me over the years, perforating thousands of pop-cans,
and filling many a crock-pot with the fixin's for Brunswick stew.
That rifle was given to my step-son when he turned 18, and he continues
to cherish it as I have over the decades (yes, I did go out and buy myself a
The Marlin 39A, the "Cadillac of the
In 1893 Marlin applied the "solid-top, side-ejection" concept
to full-length rifle cartridges with the Model 1893.
Over the years, this rifle would be chambered in .25-36, .30-30, .32
Special, .32-40, and .38-55. This
rifle was later re-named the Model 1936 (care to guess when? later this
designation was shortened simply to the Model 36).
The 1893/1936/36 had the same side ejection that its predecessors had,
with the flat-sided bolt and an open, square-cut bolt raceway milled through
the rear of the receiver for the bolt to move through.
The Model 36 was manufactured up through 1948.
Marlin Model 36 (both of these are .30-30s).
The .30-30 Winchester occupies a special place in my heart as it
constitutes an almost perfect cast bullet cartridge.
My personal favorite .30-30s are a pair of Marlin 36s, both dating from
the late 1940s. These rifles have
had many rounds down their bores over the years, and during the years that
I've owned them, not a one of them has worn a jacket.
My favorite "knock-about" load for these guns is the Lyman
#311041 170 grain GC-FP over 25.0 grains of H335 (inspired by Jim Taylor's pet
load using the RCBS 180 grain GC-FP), which produces about 1950 fps and fine
accuracy. When the hollow-point
version of the Lyman 311041 is substituted into this load one gets a load that
produces violent expansion and significant amounts of bloodshot meat (i.e. an
explosive varmint load, but more destructive than some meat hunters care for).
Excellent expansion and minimal bloodshot meat can be obtained with
cast hollow-points at around 1600 fps (18.0 grains of 4198 is a good recipe
for this velocity in the .30-30).
As long as we're on the topic of 1890s
vintage leverguns, a little-known fact is that Marlin made the first 8,000 or
so Savage 1895s (the predecessor to the Savage 99).
It seems that Mr. Savage had the rifle design, but did not have the
manufacturing capabilities, so he contracted this work out to Marlin.
These rifles can be identified by the "JM" that they have
stamped on the bottom side of the barrel.
After the turn of the century the Marlin
Company went through a tumultuous series of ownership changes.
In 1901, John Marlin died and his two sons inherited the business as a
part of his estate. In 1910, John Barlow retired from his post leading the Ideal
Reloading Tool Company, and Marlin bought Ideal, makers of the respected Ideal
bullet moulds (Marlin also took over publication of the Ideal Handbooks, which
they had been contributing to previously).
In 1915 the winds of war were swirling and it became apparent that the
United States might get involved in the war festering in Europe.
A group of investors (William Bonbright & Co. and Kissell-Kinnicut
& Co., both associated with J. P. Morgan)
bought the Marlin Company (at about the same time
Marlin sold off the Ideal Reloading Tool Company to Phineas Talcott, who later
sold it to Lyman). A. F.
Rockwell became president of the new Marlin Arms Corporation, and in 1916
re-named it the Marlin Rockwell Corporation, which went on to become one of
the largest machine gun manufacturers in the world.
In 1919, the owner/investors were lead by John. F. Moran.
As World War I ended, business faltered, and Marlin began to divest
itself of the various other businesses that it had acquired during the war
years (including the manufacture of ball bearings, roller bearings, radiators,
automobiles, wire, bombs and high explosive projectiles).
With a vastly simplified product line focused specifically on sporting
firearms, the Marlin Firearms Corporation was formed in 1921.
But business was not good, and in 1922 the company filed for bankruptcy
and went into foreclosure. In
1924, the company was put on the auction block.
According to the history posted on the Marlin website ( http://www.marlinfirearms.com
), this auction was attended by "several curious children, a small dog
and a lawyer named Frank Kenna". Mr.
Kenna bid $100 on the Marlin properties, and won the auction.
He also got the $100,000 debt that went along with them.
Kenna got the business back on stable footing and re-introduced several
of the popular guns from before the War.
The Marlin Firearms Company has been in the Kenna family ever since.
In 1949 the Model 36 was slightly redesigned,
and re-introduced as the now familiar Model 336, which Marlin still makes
today. The 336 had a bolt made
out of round-stock, and an improved extractor stamped out of spring steel.
The receiver was milled with a window on the side for ejection and a
round window in the rear for bolt travel (instead of one big slot cut all the
way through), leaving the rear sidewall of the receiver intact, resulting in a
somewhat more solid, and stronger, receiver block.
A year later they added the .35 Remington (a rimless round that
Remington had first introduced in their Model 8 semi-auto) to create one of
the finest hunting rifles ever made. There
have been over 6 million rifles made in the 336 "family" of
Marlin Model 336 (l-r: the 336
Carbine (336-RC), the 336 Sporting Rifle (336-A), and the 336
"Texan" (straight grip version of the 336-RC); all three in .35
I have long been a fan of the .35 Remington.
I have been shooting, handloading for, and hunting with the .35
Remington now for over 15 years, and have used it to kill mule deer and feral
hogs. I have grown quite fond of
the Marlin 336 in .35 Remington and can testify as to how well this
combination shoots cast bullets. A
while back I had the opportunity to go hog hunting with some friends, and I
got the chance to use a special Marlin 336 in .35 Remington to shoot a pig
with (this rifle was a gift from a good friend, who knows how much I like both
the .35 Remington and the Marlin 336). The
RCBS 200 grain GC-FP at 2100 fps (38.0 grains of H335) flattened a nice little
150 lb meat hog with authority. I
like the way the .35 Remington does its job -- you shoot a critter with it,
and that critter tends to go down, quickly.
In the post-war growth of the "Baby
Boom" Marlin began to experiment with a number of new ideas.
Up to this point, all Marlin rifles had been made with so-called
"Ballard rifling". This
was typically 6-groove rifling that was cut one groove at a time, with each
groove being cut by multiple passes of the cutting head, generally to a depth
of about .004". This is the
time-tested method for making a rifled bore, but it is time-consuming and
tedious. In the early 1950s Marlin started experimenting with a new
form of rifling that was cut with a single pass of a multiple grooved tool
head (which presumably speeded up production significantly).
Each groove was smaller and shallower than "normal" in this
process. Since each land would
provide less overall "traction" on the bullet, Marlin put in a lot
more grooves and lands (commonly 16 or more).
Thus was born Micro-Groove rifling.
After Micro-Groove rifling had proven itself in Marlin's line of .22
rimfire rifles, it was added to the centerfire line in the mid-1950s.
Claims were made that Micro-Groove rifling produced better accuracy
because it distorted the bullet less, but I have never been able to tell any
significant difference in the accuracy between Ballard rifling and
Micro-Groove rifling in my own group shooting.
Please allow me a brief caveat --
Micro-Groove rifling somehow gained an undeserved reputation for not being
able to shoot cast bullets very well. This
just flat isn't true; some of my best cast bullet groups have been shot with
Micro-Groove barrels. For best
accuracy in Micro-Groove barrels, cast bullets need to be over-sized,
moderately hard (BHN of 12 or more), and gas-checked.
If one does these three things, then a Micro-Groove levergun will shoot
cast bullets just fine. Now it IS
true that a well worn Micro-Groove barrel may have trouble with cast bullets,
but that's true of any worn (or pitted) barrel.
It's not due to the form of the rifling, but rather the condition of
the bore. In good condition,
Micro-Groove rifling will shoot cast bullets as well as a cut rifled barrel in
Micro-Groove rifling was the standard of the Marlin line from the mid-1950s up through the mid-1990s. Along about 1997 or so, Micro-Groove rifling was dropped from the big-bore 336s and 1894s, and Marlin returned to 6-groove "Ballard" rifling for these guns. The .22 rimfire guns and .30-30 336s are still made with Micro-Groove rifling.
In the mid 1950s, Marlin began experimenting
with modernizing levergun design. In 1956, they introduced the Model 56, the first of an
entirely new class of Marlin leverguns. These
rifles had a very short 2" lever-throw, allowing for very speedy
reloading, and were named the Marlin "Levermatic".
The Model 56 was chambered for the .22 Long Rifle, and was fed with a
box-magazine. Shortly thereafter,
a tubular magazine version was introduced (named the Model 57), along with the
Model 57 Magnum, chambered in the .22 Magnum round.
Winchester was making news with its sleek, new Model 88, chambered in
hunting rounds like the .308 Winchester, and in 1962 Marlin entered the
centerfire market with a version of it Levermatic, tailored for short
centerfire rounds. Thus was born
the centerfire Model 62, chambered in .357 Magnum, .256 Winchester Magnum, and
.22 Remington Jet (and later on in .30 Carbine). The Marlin Levermatics were not popular sellers and were
dropped from production by 1973.
An example of the Marlin Levermatic; this one is a Model 62 chambered in .30 Carbine
Starting somewhere around 1960, Marlin also
made a number of "store brand" rifles for a variety of outlets
(Sears, J. C. Higgins, Wards, etc.). Most
notable in this regard was the Glenfield line of guns that were produced by
Marlin up through about 1982. The
Glenfield Model 30 was basically a Marlin 336 with a cheaper birch stock, and
stamped checkering. The Glenfield
line was made for high volume mass-marketers (e.g. Wal-Mart, K-Mart), who were
looking for an affordable rifle that still provided good value.
The Glenfield rifles do not have the Marlin signature bullseye, or
white line spacers, but they shoot and handle just like Marlins.
Marlin's next new idea was the introduction
of the .444 Marlin in 1964. The
Model 444 was built on the 336 action, and when loaded with factory ammo would
launch a 240 grain bullet at over 2300 fps (later a 265 grain load at 2200 fps
would be added). When handloaded,
the .444 Marlin could easily reach 2100 fps with 300 grains bullets, in some
ways reminiscent of the grand old .405 Winchester (which shot a 300 grain
bullet at 2200 fps). What's more,
having shot both rifles, I can testify that the .444 Marlin delivers this
level of ballistics from a stock design that is far more comfortable to shoot
than the .405 Winchester (that crescent steel butt-plate of the Winchester
Model 1895 can be hard on the shoulder with a cartridge that develops this
level of recoil). I have often
wondered why the ammunition makers don't offer a 300 grain load for the .444
Marlin -- it makes a fine combination. I
suspect that Teddy Roosevelt would have rather liked it. Shooters tend to have a nostalgic streak, and Marlin has
learned to cater to this tendency. In
any event, the .444 Marlin has gained a following and has been a mainstay in
the Marlin line ever since 1964.
Marlin Model 444-S (.444 Marlin).
Working up loads for new guns is one of my favorite past times.
I have played with a lot of different rounds over the years, but one of
my favorite ones is the .444 Marlin. In
fact, I like it so much that I recently had Mountain Molds make a mould for
me, designed specifically for the .444 Marlin levergun -- a 300 grain ogival
round-nose flat-point with a GC, and a 73% meplat. My favorite load for this bullet is 49.0 grains of H322 for
2100 fps, which delivers excellent accuracy.
If you find me in the woods during elk season in the Pacific Northwest,
don't be surprised if I'm carrying this load.
I really like it.
The next new idea that Marlin came out with
was a mixture of old and new. With
the surging popularity of the .44 Magnum handguns in the 1960s, Marlin
re-introduced the short-action Model 1894 in 1969, chambered for this modern
high-pressure round. This
combination created a light, hard-hitting carbine, ideal for still-hunting in
brushy country, where the fast-handling characteristics of the 1894 were a
real bonus. The .357 Magnum
chambering was added in the 1970s, and later (around 1990) a short run of .41
Magnum 1894s was also made. With
the growing popularity of both the 1894 and cowboy action shooting, other
cartridges were added to the line, later in the 1990s (.32-20, .25-20, .45
Colt, .44-40, even the .218 Bee!). Over
a million 1894s have been produced.
Marlin Model 1894 (l-r: 1895-C in .357 Magnum, 1894-S in .41 Magnum, 1894 in
.44 Magnum and 1894 in .45 Colt).
The Marlin 1894 chambered in .44 Magnum, .41 Magnum or .45 Colt makes
an excellent hunter. The 1 in
38" twist used in the .44 Magnum limits this rifle to bullets no heavier
than the 320 grain SSK FP, but the .45 Colt has a 1 in 16" twist and can
easily handle a wide variety of bullet weights.
The .357 Magnum version is one of my favorite plinking rifles when
stoked with .38 special ammo, and makes a spectacular varmint rifle for game
like jack rabbits and ground squirrels when loaded with ammo designed for
rapid expansion. My favorite load
for these pursuits is Ray Thompson's cast hollow-point (the Lyman 358156 HP)
over 14.0 grains of 2400, for over 1700 fps.
The short-nosed SWC profile feeds just fine in the Marlin, and the cast
HP really delivers the goods when it gets where it's going.
The Marlin .357 Magnum also makes a first-rate home-defense gun when
loaded with suitable ammo.
The next "new idea" that Marlin
experimented with was another classic combination of old and new, and one that
has resonated strongly with American hunters for the last 30+ years.
In 1972-1973 Marlin introduced a new rifle based on their 336 action,
chambered for the .45-70 Government cartridge.
This rifle was named the Model 1895 (not to be confused with the old
Model 1895, which was a unique variant of the 1893 action, and was also
chambered for large, powerful hunting cartridges).
This new .45-70 levergun was an immediate hit with hunters who pursued
big game in heavy woods. Attention
must be paid to overall cartridge length in these rifles, and loads must be
heavily crimped, for ammunition to function properly.
However, with suitable bullets properly loaded, this gun delivers
impressive performance (e.g. 400 grain bullets at 1700-1800 fps).
My first experience with the Model 1895 was
indeed memorable. The rifle had
just recently been introduced and Dale Harber (a family friend who would take
me shooting every so often) had gotten his hands on one.
I was in junior high at the time, had the physique of a tomato stake,
and couldn't have weighed more than about 105 lbs, soaking wet.
One Saturday morning, Dale came by and picked me up and we went out to
the rifle range out at the Annex outside of town.
This was a very fun morning and we shot all kinds of different guns. We finished the morning up with the Marlin .45-70 and some
handloads that Dale had assembled, with (as I recall) 350 grain bullets at
1900 fps. Dale took the first few
shots, to make sure the gun was properly sighted in.
I recall watching him shoot that rifle, and the effect that its recoil
had on him. I wasn't intimidated
per se, but I'll admit I was a little apprehensive. He showed me how to tuck the butt of the rifle into the
"pocket" of my shoulder, told me to grip the rifle firmly, and to
squeeze the trigger. I
established my best offhand position, and did all the things that Dale had
told me to do. Well, sort of. Somewhere between the start of the trigger squeeze, and the
final panicked yank of the trigger, I'm pretty sure my eyes closed
involuntarily. I seem to recall
that the sights were more or less on the target as my eyes closed, and that
when they opened I was looking at the underside of the tin roof over the
firing line, with the muzzle of the rifle almost vertical.
I straightened back up and looked around behind me to find Dale
standing there, ready to catch the rifle in case I had let go.
He had a big grin on his face (I guess I did too).
"That wasn't so bad, was it?", he asked.
"Uhhh, no, I guess not. Did
I hit the target?". We
carefully scanned the target through the spotting scope and there was no
evidence of my shot. "Would you like to try again?" Dale asked.
"Yeah, I would." Same
basic procedure, except this time my eyes were only half-closed when the
Hammer of Thor roared. Dale was
watching the impact area and reported that my shot fell just off the paper at
3 o'clock. Eager to prove that I
could indeed hit the target, I asked for another round, which Dale gave me.
This time I was focused on the target, got a little sloppy and wasn't
holding the rifle as tightly as I should have been, and it smacked my bony
teenaged shoulder smartly, leaving a purple bruise.
My shot still fell just off the paper to the right, but I was done
shooting for the day. I have
since learned how to shoot rifles with this level of recoil and have grown
quite fond of the big-bore Marlin leverguns, but I'll remember that first day
with the .45-70 for a long time.
Along about 1983, in the interest of safety,
Marlin added a cross-bolt safety to its leverguns.
This elicited a large collective groan from much of the shooting
community, but it's easily ignored if one doesn't care for it.
Aside from the solid top, side ejection,
round bolt and spring steel extractor, there are a couple of other distinctive
style features that make a Marlin 336 and 39A levergun easy to identify.
First off there is the signature Marlin "bullseye" on the
underside of the buttstock. Contrary
to what some mis-informed "know-it-alls" will tell you, this is NOT
where one is supposed to screw in the sling swivel!
Don't do it! This is just
a small plastic plug that is put in place for decoration purposes only. Screwing a sling swivel into this little piece of plastic
will ruin it, and even if the screw does manage to stay in place for a little
while, a sling so mounted will not support the weight of the rifle.
The sling swivel screw needs to have its threads well entrenched in
hardwood, not soft plastic. The
other distinctive style feature of the Marlin 336 and 39A family of leverguns
is the white line spacers in the buttplate and the pistolgrip cap.
Some shooters find this flourish attractive, some don't care for it at
all. But the bottom line is that
these two features allow one to pick out the Marlin leverguns from a jumbled
up pile of rifles on a gunshow table, even without being able to see anything
forward of the pistol grip.
couple of Marlin "signatures"; the Marlin "bullseye" and
In each of our lives there come special moments where inspirational
figures move us to better ourselves. One
such moment happened to me in a caliche creek bed in central Texas, when I was
about 12 years old. Once again, I
was plinking with Dale Harber, a family friend who would take me shooting
every so often. We were shooting
his Marlin 39A, and the targets du jour were
pecans, placed on the far embankment of the creek, about 30 yards off.
I had just run back from placing a fresh batch of targets up on the
bank (there was a pecan tree nearby). Dale
topped off the magazine, and handed me the Marlin.
"Let me see you hit that one." he said pointing.
I took the rifle and started to drop into my favored open-legged
sitting position, "Offhand." he said sternly. Dale was an officer in the Army, and knew how to give an
order. I remember thinking to
myself, "Why bother? Why
even waste the ammo? It would be impossible to hit that pecan from here
offhand!", but the challenge had been issued, and I was not going to let
it go unanswered (besides, it was Dale's ammo).
I levered a round home, and settled into my best offhand form.
I watched the crosshairs as they danced around that pecan.
I certainly wished that they would sit still!
The hammer dropped and the shot fell wide by a couple of inches. Again and again I tried, each time with the same result.
After 5 or 6 shots, the chosen pecan stood untouched in a wash of
impact craters. Dale was working
hard not to smirk. My budding
young machismo was bruised, and I
sensed his amusement, "OK, let's see YOU do it!".
He took the Marlin, and never said a word.
He set his feet, carefully levered a round home, and settled into his
best offhand stance. He let his
breath out with the discipline of a trained rifleman and started a slow,
deliberate trigger squeeze. At
the crack of the Marlin, that pecan simply ceased to exist.
He didn't just nick it and knock it a few feet of to one side, he
center-punched it, shattering it, and scattering the fragments upon the four
winds. I vowed to myself, there
and then, that someday I would be able to shoot like that.
It's good to have strong role models.
By the way, don't try to tell me that Micro-Groove barrels can't shoot
lead bullets accurately!
has been around for 136 years (as of this writing) and they have made some of
the most popular leverguns ever. Not
a bad legacy for a young man from New England, setting out on his own to make
a living, right after the Civil War.
26 million guns later, they continue to build on this legacy every day.
For those that would like to learn more about
Marlin and its history, I recommend the book "Marlin Firearms: A
History of the Guns and the Company That Made Them", written by William
S. Brophy and published by Stackpole Books (1989).
The Marlin Collectors Association ( http://www.marlin-collectors.com
) is also a valuable source of information.