Marlin 39 vs. Winchester 9422
A Subjective and Opinionated Comparison
By Tom Boyle
“Traditional” lever action .22rifles, to my mind, is an exclusive category comprising only two rifles----the Marlin 39 in its several variations, and the Winchester 9422. Sadly, this category is soon to have only one, with the imminent demise of the 9422 announced recently by Winchester.
The category is exclusive because these are the only two rifles that meet my admittedly restrictive requirements; steel and walnut construction, no plastic or aluminum parts (butt plates excluded) and a “traditional” action in which the trigger does not move with the lever, and an outside hammer strikes the firing pin. The Henry, Ruger, and Browning leverguns thus eliminated, we can move on to the only two candidates left.
The Marlin is, of course, the older of the two and deserving of consideration first. Born in 1891, its basic mechanism is the same as today’s despite going through several model and specification changes, and is what Marlin continues to call proudly the “oldest continuously produced shoulder arm.” With their long, octagonal barrels, sometimes case-hardened receivers, sculpted slim stocks, and classic, precise iron sights, the earlier models 91 and 97s, as well as some of the first 39s, were arms of a grace and beauty somewhat elusive to today’s manufacturers. It would, however be a bit unfair to compare a 1920sMarlin to a 1970s Winchester, so we will confine this comparison to more modern versions of the Marlin, say, 1950s or later.
The classic Marlin 39A is a long 24” barreled rifle, with a pistol grip stock. While Marlin has sold bushels of them, and continues to do so, the only similar Winchester offering has been the “Legacy” model, a pistol-gripped 24” barreled version. In my opinion, there is no real comparison between the two; the Marlin looks right, feels right in the hand, and the Winchester just looks, well…awkward, like a shriveled Model 64. So, to keep the playing field level, we’ll let apples be apples and (usually) compare the straight-gripped 20” versions of the two, since that is what I have…mostly.
Marlin’s offering (not currently cataloged,) has been usually dubbed the “Mountie,” whether it was a “Golden 39AMountie,” or, as later versions (and mine) were called, the “Golden 39MMountie.” Same gun, different appointments. The barrel is the carbine-standard 20”, and has varied in weights and tapers from its introduction in the 1950s to its demise in the 1990s. Levers, originally rounded, were later squared in the 1980s----the only 39 to be given this treatment.
Hooded ramp front sights with gold beads have been standard, with rear sights starting out as a bent steel-flattop to a more flexible (albeit less robust) folding buckhorn in theater versions from the ‘70s on. Occasional versions (“Octagon” models and the39D in the 1970s, and the 1897 models in the 1990s,) were throwbacks to a rampless dovetailed bead front sight, but by and large, the hooded front ramp has been standard on all Marlins since at least the 50s.
Winchester’s 9422, introduced in the early 70s, duplicated the style of the Marlin at the same time it varied from it and challenged it. The 9422 is supposed to be an understudy of the centerfire 94, the classic “thutty-thutty.” In exterior appearance and weight, balance, etc., it is very close and owes much to its father. Its mother, however, is the old slim, trim Model 61 pump action, with much of the action innards borrowed from this classic and reliable gun. Winchester did a nicer job on its rear sight than the Marlin, I think, virtually duplicating the standard rear semi-buckhorn sight found on its centerfire 94. No fold-down feature as on the later Marlins, but a tougher sight, with, I think, a nicer sight picture. If a receiver sight such as a Lyman 66 or Williams Foolproof is preferred, then points go to Marlin, who, at least until recently, has always drilled and tapped the side of their receivers for such sights. For the Winchester, one must get the receiver drilled and tapped, or find a variation that will fit in the scope-mounting grooves atop the receiver----messy and bothersome, to say the least. Their centerfire 94 has been drilled & tapped for receiver sights since the early ‘50s---why not their 9422? A tang peep sight is another option, but neither the Marlin nor the Winchester is factory drilled and tapped for it, so I won’t consider it for either. It is probably illegal on older Marlins such as mine, anyway, as it would cover up the serial number. More recent 39s, I believe, have moved the serial number to accommodate those who wish to mount a tang peep.
For scope mounting, though both accommodate this option, the kudos go to Winchester, I think, who grooved the top of their receiver for rimfire mounts. The grooves are unobtrusive if one prefers iron sights, but there if needed. Marlin’s mount must be screwed on to the top of the receiver after the tiny filler screws are removed, and though sturdy and effective when the scope is mounted, the mount is ugly if left on when using iron sights.
The stocks of both rifles are straight-gripped affairs, with both brands’ earlier versions being
uncheckered, and later versions on both checkered. Marlin’s forearms are fatter, hand-filling chunks of wood which may aid in off-hand shooting, but do not add to the aesthetics. They are also longer, contributing to a “big gun” feel. Nineteen Nineties’ versions of the 1897 had slimmer, more attractive forends that imitated the older 1920s guns. On both, a metal tip rather than a barrel band holds the
Winchester’s forends are shorter and more graceful, but attached with a barrel band, which, at least in centerfire guns, is said to detract from accuracy. Their magazine tube is also held to the barrel with another “accuracy-robbing” barrel-band, while the Marlin’s is a dovetailed arrangement.
Buttstocks are of similar configurations, with Marlin’s usually with a white-line spacer; an ugly example of ‘50s and ‘60s style, in my opinion. The Mountie originally had a neat fluted comb, which was done away with in the 80s; the Winchester’s was always
unfluted. Method of attachment to the action is quite different. Marlin’s buttstock screws into the tang of the action in the older, time-tried fashion of almost all traditional lever actions. Winchester employs a long stock bolt from the rear into the action, which requires removing the butt plate and employing a
long-shanked screwdriver should the buttstock come loose, as one of mine did.
The Winchester’s method, while just as effective, is, oddly, at variance from the centerfire model 94 it copies! It is, more like its mother, the old Model 61.
Finishes vary, from oiled walnut on earlier Marlins to a synthetic “Mar-shield” on later ones. Winchesters vary from an oiled-look to glossy, deluxe “XTR” versions. Winchester has typically chosen more figured walnut, however, and my vote goes slightly to their stocks, though their colors vary more than Marlins. I have one “XTR” that seems almost red, another with nicely figured, browner walnut finish. Winchester also briefly offered some laminated wood stocks called “Wintuff” which in some circles are going for a premium because of their rarity, but so far I have chosen to pass on them, as they just don’t seem that “traditional.”
Magazine tubes on both guns are steel, with the inner tube on the Winchester’s starting out as steel, and switching to brass in later versions. The inner steel tubes just seem tougher, though care must be taken to keep them oiled with something that will prevent them from rusting solid to the outer tube. Marlins’ inner tubes have always been brass, at least since the ‘50s. The Winchester’s outer tube seems to be thicker than the Marlin’s, giving the Winchester points for stoutness at that end. I once had a problem of the outer tube on my 39 Octagon separating from the receiver and hanging up cartridges. A trip to the gunsmith cured it, but the Winchester’s magazine just seems more solid all the way around.
Levers on the Winchester are rounded imitations of their centerfire 94s; on the Marlin Mounties, they changed in the 1970s from rounded to squared off ala original Marlins. Both brands are aesthetically pleasing----and the Marlin change was, I think, to the good, as the squared lever on my 1982 seems larger and more “old-timey” than on a ‘60sversion I once owned.
Which brings us to the heart of both rifles----the action. The 39 dates, as has been noted, from 1891, with few significant changes. Today’s model is a true takedown system, one having only to cock the hammer and unscrew the large thumbscrew on the right side of the receiver and then “break” the action into two parts. (Hopefully you took all the standard precautions to assure the gun was unloaded!) The bolt stays in the left side of the receiver unless removed, so the rifle can actually be stored this way in a case, such as provided for a few years in the late 80s and early 90s in the “TDS” version with a 16 1/2”“Trapper” edition. “TDS” apparently stood for “Take Down System,” but the only thing different really was that the shorter barrel length equalized the halves that were taken down; all Marlin 39s are “take-down systems.”
Marlin’s action is simplicity itself, with an easily removed, solid forged bolt providing a tight lockup, and a one-piece, drop-in firing pin that can be replaced in a second. Dry firing is a no-no on the Marlins, and I had to replace broken firing pin in my 1971 Octagon for this reason. I don’t dry fire the Winchesters just in case the same is true of them.
The Marlin’s ejector is a simple part, which must be held down in place by a screw on the left side of the receiver before the barrel can be cleaned from the breech, as it should. A simple turn of the screw pops the ejector back in place, the bolt is slid back into the left side of receiver, the two halves fitted together, the thumb screw tightened, and the gun is ready to go, a graceful miracle of 19th century technology!
Winchester’s action is a bit more complicated, and though it takes down in a similar fashion, is not really a “takedown-and go“ system. Borrowed from its mother’s revered Model 61 pump action that was a victim of the infamous Winchester 1964 reorganization, the 9422’s action is velvety-smooth compared to the Marlin’s. Takedown is accomplished by turning the screw on the LEFT side of the receiver with an appropriately sized screwdriver or a coin----no thumbscrew here. Breaking the action consists of lowering/backing the
buttstock/lever out of the receiver, and removing the bolt. The bolt itself does not lend itself to further dismantling---and such is discouraged by the Winchester manual. Care must be taken when removing the bolt not to lose the little pin that is inserted crossways init-----it falls out easily. Take down of the 9422 is really meant for cleaning only, and would be inconvenient at best, and disastrous at worst, if parts were to be inadvertently lost. The takedown does make possible cleaning the barrel from the breech, however, which is always preferred.
Comparing the two actions, then, one has the simplicity and versatility of a true takedown in the Marlin versus the smoothness, but also complexity, of the Winchester. I doubt if reliability—or the lack of it—is at all a factor in either gun, as both have proven extremely reliable and trouble-free. Granted, the Marlin has had over 100 years to work the bugs out, but the 30+ years of the Winchester’s production has resulted in no complaints. In his manual on
Gunsmithing, JB Woods has pronounced both as “one of the GOOD ones.”
With specific comparisons out of the way, let’s proceed to general impressions one gets from carrying and shooting each. I own couple of versions of each, so what follows is a composite.
Hand-carrying both is a joy. The Winchester carries and feels similar to its big brother, the 94 (as it no doubt was meant to do!) Its receiver is not as thin as the Marlin, but it balances easily in the hand, coming to the shoulder fast, with sights that are immediately in alignment. Winchester’s designers knew what they were doing when they tried to duplicate the centerfire 94’s feeling, and have come very close.
The Marlin, however, may carry a little bit easier with its slimmer receiver which you can really wrap your hand around. It’s fatter forearm and (slightly) heftier buttstock give it more of a “big-gun” feel, and this is ironic, since the Winchester is supposed to be a near-duplicate of a centerfire rifle. Weight of both---around 6 lbs., is the same, so this is not a factor. Length may be a factor, with the Marlin’s shorter receiver, at 36 1/2” being nearly an inch shorter than the Winchester. It is really a close call here, with both rifles being a joy to carry. My “Trapper” version of the 9422 carries in one hand even more handily, but that’s not fair, as I have no Marlin short-barreled “TDS” to compare it with. Let’s just call it a draw.
On one aspect of carrying, however, the Marlin wins hands down. It comes from the factory with sling swivels attached, making it unnecessary to mar the factory specs with a home-drilling job. When a singed rifle is called for, the Winchester stays home.
Marlin’s “Micro-Groove” barrels came about in the 50s, and though much touted by Marlin, I can’t really tell the difference. Before this, “Ballard” rifling was used, which sounds cool if you have one, and adds to the mystery, but I am not sure what effect it actually has on the accuracy.
The “accuracy-robbing” barrel-band issue on the Winchester does not seem to affect rimfires as it does
centerfire lever actions. Open sights or scope sights, I have tested both rifles and, at least with my limited abilities, they both shoot reliably and consistently for me. I have made more lucky, spectacular shots with a scoped 9422, though, than with the Marlin. This is, I am sure, due to the fact that the scope is friendlier to my aged eyes, and I have had this particular Winchester longer than this particular Marlin. I keep one 9422 scoped, another Trapper model with its open factory sights (a red bead front atop a white triangle in the buckhorn rear----something Winchester did in its more recent versions) and a Marlin with a front Williams Firesight and a rear Lyman 66 peep sight. So the comparison in this case really is apples to oranges; all sight configurations have been very accurate for me, and each rifle has accounted for untold numbers of local ground squirrels.
One feature of the Marlin I do not care for, however, is their newer “Wide-Scan” front sight hood, and usually remove it when shooting. I usually remove the Winchester’s, too, but would feel more comfortable shooting it with the sight hood on than the Marlin’s. Ken Waters in his discussion of centerfire leveractions with hooded front sights has said more than once that they are to protect the sight in transit and then be removed for hunting, so that has usually been my practice.
FIT AND FINISH:
This undoubtedly goes to the Winchester, in my opinion, at least to the earlier versions. I recently acquired a ‘70s.22 Magnum version in pristine condition which has a wonderfully figured piece of walnut. Bluing seems to be deeper than the Marlin’s, and the gun just seems to be more nicely finished all around. According to Rifle Magazine writer Brian Pearce’s sources, Winchester went “all out” in the 70s on quality with their introduction of the 9422, and skimped on nothing. My earlier, steel-tubed 70s models certainly reflect this. My later, brass-tubed “Trapper” model seems a bit rougher on the interior, and has ejection problems I have yet to deal with. It also had a buttplate screw hole that was missing any threading---the screw was just sitting there, ready to fall out! Filling the hole and screwing the buttplate back on solved the problem, but why should I have to do this on a brand-new gun? Scanning the Internet forums dealing with recent 9422s, apparently mine is not an isolated case.
In addition, the action of my latest 9422 “Trapper,” while smooth, is rougher than my ‘70s versions. Spent or unfired ammo ejects at any and all rates of speed from the older versions. A quick snap of the lever is necessary on my newer one, else the shell will not eject, but hangs upon the ejector!
All these issues with Winchester have caused me to question their latest commitment to quality, so a definite difference must be made when comparing older and newer versions of the9422. Maybe it’s better they are discontinuing it, if this is where their quality is headed…
Marlin certainly has nothing to be ashamed of in this department, however, and their efforts are definitely superior to most factory firearms made today. The white spacer at the buttplate definitely detracts, but is “period,” so I have left it there. More recent examples have dropped this in favor of soft rubber buttplates, but these also have a stock checkering style I can take or leave, so it is a trade-off one way or another with the Marlins. Quality is not the issue; aesthetics may be.
Manipulating both actions, one is definitely more impressed with the silky smooth lever action of the Winchester. It loads shells effortlessly, and one almost has to check to be sure it worked----believe me, it did, and does, every time. The Marlin has a solid, satisfying clack-clack metal on metal sound to it, though, with a more positive feel in chambering a cartridge. Neither is “better” than the other, just different; with the caveat, however, about newer Winchester actions’ ejection problems. The lever on the Marlin may require slightly more effort to work, as in prolonged quick-firing sessions with it I have noticed the outside of my right hand getting a bit sore----something that doesn’t happen with the 9422. There is obviously more metal-to-metal friction in operating the older Marlin system, and so slightly more effort in levering is required.
The half-cock safety on both is positive and catches with definition. Triggers are blued---normally gold-plated on the Marlin, but my 39M and 1973 Octagon are anomalies here, with plain, blued triggers. The 9422’s is nicely grooved, Marlin’s smooth. Marlin’s trigger pull is crisp and sufficiently light for accuracy, the9422’s has a bit of creep that has never bothered me. None of my triggers have been worked on, and maybe considered a bit heavy by an experienced target shooter.
The more recent Marlins since 1988have incorporated their crossbolt safety that is an abomination to many. I have an 1894CL 25-20 with it, and do not really mind it, though I am not enthusiastic about it. I don’t use it in the field, but it does seem to provide a margin of safety in unloading the magazine----I accidentally let off a round many years ago attempting to lever rounds out of my 39 Octagon too fast. Kits are apparently available on the internet to render the crossbolt safety inoperable and disguise it as another screw through the receiver, but I think Marlin did a pretty good job of integrating it into its traditional action, so have left it alone on my .25-20, and would if I had it on my 39. Fortunately, I do not---and do actually prefer the earlier models without it, for tradition’s sake if nothing else.
The real abomination that was Winchester’s crossbolt safety on its centerfire 94s fortunately never made it over to the rimfire line. Winchester’s recent conversion to a tang safety on their 94 has also not made it, as the 9422 is being discontinued this year. I wouldn’t be surprised if it reappeared with anew tang safety, however. Some prefer this arrangement to the crossbolt safety, but it does preclude the use of a tang peep sight, if that is desired.
Both rifles have particular qualities which define them as the great firearms they are. Both come to the shoulder quickly with iron sights, the sight picture on the Winchester slightly preferable to me. I like the scope mounting system on the Winchester better---its grooved receiver is cleaner, quicker and less bothersome than the Marlin’s, which has a put-on or take-off screw-on base provided. That said, let me contradict myself by saying I prefer the Marlin once a scope is mounted----I had a Leupold 2 1/2 power on my Mountie that was wonderful; the rifle had more of a “big gun” feel than the 9422. But, I decided to put it on my .25-20 and put a peep on the Mountie. Attempting to mount a peep on the Winchester would be, I think, a pain; I could not bear to drill and tap its receiver. Brian Pearce in his Rifle article on the 9422 suggests using the One Ragged Hole rear sight, but I have not yet tried one, and it seems like it would actually obscure the sight picture.
Both actions are slick, the Marlin feeling more mechanical and the Winchester’s slicker. I like both, depending on my mood when shooting. The Winchester’s magazine has a disturbing tendency to come unlatched and go flying, particularly when taking it out of a case---I have simply learned to watch it, preferring not to dimple the inside tube or any of the other home remedies I have read that were suggested. Marlin perfected a locking latch system in the ‘80s that works beautifully, positively locking the tube. Its outside magazine tube is not as heavy, however, and more prone to denting.
The Marlin action seems to get grittier faster with repeated firings, and may need cleaning more often. I am talking about hundreds of firings here, so it is really a small concession to the Winchester action’s smoothness. And, again, the Marlin is easier to take down for that cleaning.
My Marlin Mountie has a small hole in its left side, added in the ‘80s as a safety valve for a ruptured case, I would guess. I wonder what incident caused this to be added? It is definitely not to be used to determine if there is a shell in the chamber. Earlier Marlins had no such hole; later ones also have another hole to check to see if the magazine has shells in it.
Ah, yes, the old “If I could only have one gun…” syndrome. My first Marlin was a 1960s Mountie, so my sentiments definitely lean that way. But my first centerfire rifle was a 1940s 94Winchester, so my sentiments definitely lean that way. Confused? So am I----many times.
If reduced to one lever action rimfire for all purposes, I would probably go with the Marlin. Although I do not like its original open sights as much as the Winchester’s, it is already tapped for a receiver peep sight, at least older versions. Although it is more of a hassle to mount a scope on it, once it is done, the results are preferable to the Winchester, if one is going to keep the scope on it. The Marlin has a heftier feel to it, and seems amore shooter-friendly platform with the scope. And, it does wear a sling well with its factory swivels. Still…
The Winchester is slicker, better finished, (at least the older versions are…) and, though a newer design, almost a dead ringer for its big brother, the 94. Though a little fatter around the receiver than the Marlin, it carries just as well, and with its slimmer forearm has a different, faster feel when shooting offhand.
My first 9422 was actually a Magnum model. Already having a Marlin .22, I wanted a .22 Magnum, and Marlin’s offering was really a rimfire adaptation of the centerfire 1894 action, not a 39. As such, the gun seemed overbuilt; since it is the same action that houses the .357 and .44 magnum offerings, although without the loading gate in the .22 Magnum. The 1894 .22 Magnum model was short lived however, dying by the 1990s, and in some circles the rifle carries a premium because of its relative scarcity. This does not include me; I knew which .22 Magnum I wanted.
The 9422 was designed from the start as a .22 Magnum, and simply converted “down” to a Long Rifle. The lever arc for the Long Rifle model is thus actually a bit shorter than the Magnums----and the Marlin’s, for that matter. The gun is a natural .22 Magnum, and is the same delight to carry in the field as the .22 Long Rifle version. I have two; one scoped with a 3x Leupold and the other with open sights. Both have been deadly accurate and silky smooth. My open sighted version came in handy one Sunday afternoon as I heard my free-ranging chickens squawking and looked out the window to see a coyote making off with a prized hen. Snatching the Winchester I keep loaded for such occasions, I levered a 40-grain Maxi-Mag into the chamber after I emerged from the house and dropped the thief with one hasty shot at the blur that was racing away. Hit in his paunch at 40 yards, a second shot finished him. Too late to save my hen, but that 9422M sure tried!
So, if one prefers “matching rimfires,” then Winchester is your game. They even came out with one in the .17 Hornady, though those were the first to be discontinued last year. It is possible, then, to have the same gun in three rimfire calibers if one so desires-----not possible with the Marlin.
Not confined to the “one gun” scenario, I have chosen to have six----so far. My 1973 Marlin Octagon wears its original iron sights, and its classic simplicity is a throwback to almost what Marlins looked and handled like in the20s. My 1982 39M is, to me, the “peak” of the Marlin design; shorter barrel, straight stock, squared finger lever, locking magazine tube, and no crossbolt safety yet. It has proven versatile in all lighting conditions with its Lyman peep and Williams “Fire” sight.
My 70s 9422 Long Rifle wears a cheap 4x scope, but has made so many amazing shots for me that I haven’t yet bought the scope it deserves. And my90s “Trapper” with its red front and white triangle rear buckhorn sight has proven to be very handy, fast, and accurate on raiding ground squirrels, though not as slick as the older one, and a real putz when it comes to ejecting shells. The two 9422Ms I mentioned take on the heavier varmints and have proved wonderfully accurate at longer rimfire ranges.
Is six too many? Well, the Winchester is being discontinued, and the only Marlin 39 currently offered is the traditional long-barreled pistol gripped model. I don’t have a Marlin with a scope on it, and I don’t have a Winchester in the .17 Hornady, and I don’t have a Marlin in the Trapper style, so, maybe six is just not enough?
First time buyer? My advice, for what it’s worth, is if you want a Winchester, get a steel-tubed, non-checkered ‘70s edition. They seem to be more finely made, eject more reliably, and exhibit finer craftsmanship. They can be found in good condition; .22s don’t wear a barrel out much, even when it isn’t cleaned often. The .22 magnum versions seem to be in especially good condition, perhaps because the cost of .22 magnum ammo kept them from being shot too much. The jacketed bullets of the .22 magnum probably wear a barrel more, so checking that is a must.
For the Marlin, if you don’t mind the modern extra safety model, they still make them, although only in the pistol-gripped 24” version, and you have to either like or not like their checkering pattern. The classic subtlety of Winchester stocks seem to elude Marlin, at least since the 1930s.
That said, I think the “epitome” of Marlin production was in the early 1980s when their 20” straight –stocked “Mountie” version was produced without the shiny “Golden” trigger, (the purpose of which I have never figured out…) the squared finger lever, and the locking magazine tube, and no crossbolt safety! A 20” barrel really makes more sense, since tests have long shown a .22 rimfire achieves its greatest velocity gain in only 16” of barrel, and actually loses velocity in a 24” barrel! Trying to find a Mountie, though, is something else----checking the Internet auction sites, you will find dozens of 39As for every Mountie you see. If this is not a reflection of a production disparity, then it is pretty plain that Mountie owners don’t part with their rifles as often as 39Aowners! I know the feeling; I wouldn’t either.
As a platform for many and any sight configurations, the Marlin is a good choice to make, at least until they stopped drilling and tapping for receiver sights. Thus a ‘50s to late ‘80s would be the choice, if the non-safety model is preferred.
If however, you want a “matched set” then the Winchester is your game. Both the .22 magnum and .22 rimfire are identical, and you can even get a .17! Better hurry, though-----this is the last year for them!