Is Marlin Firearms on the Brink of a Comeback?
After years of setbacks under Remington, expect to see new Marlin rifles later this year
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You always remember your first. Your first kiss, first deer, first love, and your first gun. Mine was a Marlin rifle, of course. My dad bribed me into a year of trumpet lessons, with the rifle as a reward. It’s a .22 rimfire; Model 80E, which was only made for a few years in the 1930s and is a bit rare today. I still have it and it’s not for sale.
I hunted deer that fall with a Marlin 1893 lever action cut down to “kid size” and chambered for the bitchin’ (It was the 60s) .38-55 cartridge. I borrowed it from my uncle shortly after he used it to kill a charging bear at powder-burn distance. So, for a little while at least, I was the coolest guy in the fifth grade.
But last August, Marlin ceased production of new rifles while its parent company, Remington Outdoor, was mired in financial troubles. Ruger purchased the company in September 2020 for approximately $28.3 million, plucking it out of the larger Remington Outdoor bankruptcy. That acquisition could very well be Marlin’s golden ticket. Ruger has been an industry leader in innovation and quality in recent years, and I fully expect that under their ownership we will see some great Marlin rifles soon.
The big bosses are not giving specifics about their future plans, but Ruger spokesman Paul Pluff told me that they plan to be shipping guns by the second half of 2021. Nobody will confirm or deny this, but my guess is the first guns out will be the 1895 and the 1894 lever actions.
One of the best aspects of Ruger buying Marlin is that Marlin remains an American company and its guns will be American-made. For many hunters and shooters drawn to lever actions, that’s important. My prediction is that once new Marlins start hitting store shelves, they’ll find plenty of eager hunters and shooters willing to take them home. Here’s why.
A Lever-Action Rifle Revival
Throughout its history Marlin is best known for its lever-action rifles. From .22 LR through blasters like the .45-70 or .450 Marlin with lots of cartridges in between, there is a Marlin lever action for everybody and every use. That’s a good thing, because we’ve recently seen an uptick in demand for the lever-gun platform.
Today, the fear of government gun bans is selling a lot of lever-action rifles. Many of the folks who live under state laws that restrict AR-15s are turning to lever-actions as personal protection firearms, because lever-action rifles in pistol cartridges hold a lot of rounds and can shoot quickly. Many people consider a Marlin 1894 in .357 or even .44 Magnum a good option for home defense. I quite agree. With practice, it’s easy to run them fast and those cartridges pack a serious punch from a carbine. Lever-gun makers have helped drive the trend by introducing tactical models over the last several years like the Henry Model X series, the Browning BLR 81 Takedown, and the Marlin 336 Dark Series.
Also, the bigger Marlins like the Model 1895 in .45-70, especially the Guide Gun model, are longtime favorites for big bear protection in Alaska, the Rocky Mountain States, and Canada. If you watched the movies “Wind River” or “Jurassic World” you have seen the 1895 in action. If Chris Pratt thinks it is enough gun for a T-Rex, who are we to argue?
Overall, use of lever actions for hunting may have waned a bit from the glory days, but lever actions will always be carried by hunters. From the 1870s through the mid 20th century, lever-action rifles dominated the woods and fields. Even today hunters still love them. In fact, we may even be seeing resurgence as Boomers get bored and decide to explore a little nostalgia.
I shot my first whitetail deer when I was 11 years old with a lever action in .38-40. I don’t think I have ever let a fall pass without at least a few days sharing the woods with one. Lever actions are a delight to carry, hit the shoulder fast, and are quick with follow up shots. Here in the East, it’s a rare thing to shoot a deer beyond 200 yards and the lever action is custom made for that kind of hunting. I have lost track of the deer and black bears I have shot with a Marlin lever action. I’ve even taken a huge Alaska moose with a Marlin lever gun. Better ammunition options like Hornady’s Leverevolution and Federal’s Hammer Down have made lever guns more relevant for modern hunters.
Plus, relatively new regulations—allowing straight-wall rifle cartridges in formerly shotgun-only deer hunting areas, mostly in the Midwest—were custom made for lever actions. The Model 444 in .444 Marlin or the 1895 in .45-70 are great choices.
Going back even a little further, Cowboy Action Shooting came along in the late eighties and revived interest in lever actions. Thousands of shooters are reliving the Wild West every weekend and doing some amazing things with lever-action rifles. If you’ve never seen a top CAS shooter work a lever action, you have a treat in your future. I have seen all 10 shots smack the target before the first empty hit the ground.
Full disclosure: I shot under the alias of Midnight Rambler and used a Marlin 1894 Cowboy in .38 Special. I will humbly note that while I am not quite fast enough to keep all the empties in the air, I did win more than a few matches with that gun.
Marlin Firearms History
If we’re going to understand where Marlin is going, we’ve got to understand where it’s been. That takes us all the way back to 1836—the year John Mahlon Marlin was born near Windsor Locks, Connecticut. Upon turning 18 he signed on with American Machine Works for a three-year apprentice machinist program. Nobody knows for sure what he did after that until he entered into the gun business in 1863, but there is some indication he worked as a machinist and tool maker for Colt.
By 1863 he was in Hartford, Connecticut, and making tiny little pistols that could fit in the palm of your hand. One historical account I read indicated that it was a dangerous time for women, and the gun was marketed to them for protection. That one was called 1st Model and was chambered for .22 rimfire. Marlin followed with three more models, available in .22, .30, .32, and .41 rimfire cartridges. Marlin named them OK, Never Miss, and Victor. Approximately 16,000 of these pistols were made. From there Marlin went on to make a lot of different handguns.
In 1870 Marlin began making Ballard single-shot rifles. It’s said that he made 40,000 of these rifles. He also patented several aspects of a .22 lever-action rifle. For reasons unknown, it was never put into production. In addition to the growing multitude of pistols and the Ballard rifles, he wanted to expand into repeating rifles.
Marlin’s first rifle was the Model 1881. This rifle was a game changer as it was able to use big, powerful cartridges like the .45-70, along with other, now obsolete, bludgeon-category rifle cartridges. The rifle was a favorite of many notable people of the time, including Buffalo Bill Cody and Annie Oakley.
At the time, Remington employed a talented gun designer named Lewis Lobdell Hepburn (at least until Remington went bankrupt and into receivership). Hepburn had the patent for a lever-action rifle he called the Model 1884. He developed it when he was with Remington, but the bankrupt Remington couldn’t do anything with it. So Hepburn took it to Marlin. Marlin was able to hire Hepburn in 1886, and he played a big part in the design of future lever-action rifles. Hepburn’s patents include the following Marlin rifles: 1888, 1889, 1891, 1892, and the 1893 (the gun I hunted with.) Also the 1894 and 1895, both of which were made until 2020. And finally, the 1897. He also had a multitude of patents for various shotguns and .22 rimfire firearms.
One big change came with the Model 1889. This rifle introduced side ejection, which would become a symbol of Marlin lever-action rifles.
Marlin Handguns, and More
Marlin was still making handguns and they went on to produce just about every kind of rifle and shotgun you can imagine. They even built machine guns for a while.
They sold Marlin bullets and had a line of Marlin-named cartridges. Most are obsolete today. Marlin introduced the .444 Marlin in 1964. At the time it was the most powerful lever-action cartridge made. In 2000, some 30-odd years later, they brought out the .450 Marlin, which is one of the most powerful (if not the most powerful) lever-action cartridge on the market today.
Firearms accessories included bullet moulds, a speed loader for their Model 39 .22 lever action and far more other gadgets and goodies to list here. Like most of the gun makers of the day they branched out into other products. (The Marlin Wagon Company made a lot of kids happy; They also made baby carriages.)
Over the years Marlin has made cleaning gear and chemicals, duck decoy anchors, cookbooks, leather gun cases and cartridge belts, gun racks, and handcuffs. They even made a screwdriver keychain. I still have one I got from answering a magazine ad in the 60s.
Marlin Micro-Groove Barrels
In 1954 Marlin added their revolutionary Micro-Groove barrels. Micro Groove uses many more grooves than a conventionally rifled barrel. The grooves are also much shallower. Initially it was for the .22 rimfire rifles, but by 1956, Marlin was using it on all its rifles.
There were complaints that the new rifling didn’t play well with cast bullets. Although later developments discovered a way to use cast bullets successfully, the complaints persisted. Sometime later Marlin phased out the Micro-Groove barrels for some rifles, including the 1895. That rifle in .45-70 was the source of most complaints. They replaced Micro-Groove with “Ballard Cut Rifling” which is actually standard, deep-cut, land and groove rifling.
The modern Marlin Firearms Company, which I would loosely define as post-WWII, has produced an amazing number of different firearms in a multitude of configurations. The company made several models of shotguns. But I suspect most hunters of a certain age best remember their Model 55 Bolt Action shotguns. It seems that anybody who came of age in the 60s hunted with one at some time or another. The coolest model was the Goose Gun chambered for a 12-gauge 3-inch magnum and featuring a 36-inch, full-choke barrel. As kids we believed it could take down a goose flying close to the surface of the moon. Marlin was nothing if not diverse and they had single-barrel shotguns, over/unders, pump-actions, and even a lever-action .410 shotgun.
In the 1950s, Marlin tried bolt-action centerfire rifles like the Model 322 chambered for .222, but the Micro-Groove barrels failed in as few as 500 shots. Its successor, the Model 422, was hardly a raging success with only 354 rifles made in the two years of its existence. The Model 455 rifle in .30-06 and .308 didn’t do much better. In fact, they only made 59 of them in .308 Winchester between 1955 and 1959.
Fast forward to 1996, when Marlin decided once again to step away from the safety of lever actions with another bolt-action centerfire. Called the MR7, it was a well-built and functional rifle that completely lacked identity. It had a Remington bolt, a Winchester safety, and a Ruger stock. What it didn’t have was the soul of a Marlin—or any grace or appeal—and the MR7 died a quick death. (Full disclosure: I bought one anyway.)
You have to admire Marlin’s fighting spirit, because the company made another run at the bolt action market in 2008 with the Marlin XL7 and, later, the short action XS7. They were early innovators in the inexpensive rifle category. We see the Ruger American and the Savage Axis rifles doing well today. They may well owe a debt to Marlin’s XL7 for paving the way for them. That Marlin rifle probably would have done very well, except the Remington horror show killed production (more on this in a minute).
Marlin made some semi-auto rifles they called “camp guns” in 9mm and .45 ACP. Again, ahead of their time, given the current popularity of pistol-caliber carbines.
Marlin made a few muzzleloaders as well, including one I was asked to consult on. They ignored me and it, like its predecessor, failed.
When it comes to sheer numbers, the modern Marlin Company has probably shipped more rimfire rifles than any other type of rifle. The company has made bolt-action, pump-action, single-shot and semi-auto rifles in .22. They made bolt-action rifles in .17 HMR and .17 Mach 2. Marlin made bolt-action target rifles and, of course, they made lever actions. The Levermatic, full-stock rifles were made in .22, but branched out to .30 Carbine and .256 Winchester. But the most famous lever action in .22 is the Model 39, which has been offered over the years in about eleventy-seven different configurations. The 39A is considered, at least in my family, to be the best squirrel rifle ever made.
The Remington Years
While I was at Marlin consulting on the muzzleloader, I toured their factory. I was amazed at the giant broaches that filled the shop. These huge machines reached the ceiling and must have been more than 10 feet tall. I have toured a lot of gun factories and had never seen anything like them in current use. If I remember the story correctly, the Marlin guys told me that they were war surplus—WWI, I think. The broaches were antiquated and about worn out, yet they were still producing some amazingly high-quality parts. I talked with some of the operators and learned that running them was often a legacy job, passed from father to son. The walls were covered with notes about how to run the machines to compensate for their age. “Hacks,” I guess we could call them today. Those notes identified the quirks of the machines and what was needed to run them. All the set up info was there, along with specifications for each machine. They system worked and the guns Marlin produced from that era were good quality and well respected.
In 2000, Marlin purchased the assets of H&R 1871 which included New England Firearms. That added to their résumé a claim to be the largest manufacturer of single-shot rifles and shotguns in the world.
Then in 2007 along came Remington, which was part of Freedom Group, or Remington Outdoor Group (they changed names quite often and it’s hard to keep up). Anyway, the group owned by Cerberus Capital Management bought Marlin. Soon after, they fired all the Marlin people with historical manufacturing knowledge and moved the equipment to Ilion, New York. Those moves pretty much killed the brand.
Once those huge broaches were set up in New York, there was nobody around who knew how run them. By the time somebody thought to go back and collect decades’ worth of info on the machines, some genius had painted over the walls.
One of the Remington executives told me that they figured the issue was the wear on the broaches and that they were spending a huge amount of money to refurbish them. We were enjoying some magic amber liquid late in the evening when he asked me what I thought. I told him the machines were old, antiquated, and difficult to use (a handful of other folks felt the same way at the time). I said that he would be better off investing that money into new CNC machines. He did not follow that advice.
But two or three years later they had ordered some CNC machines; They were scrapping the “refurbished” broaches.
For years we gun writers would attend the annual Remington new products seminar, and the Marlin presentation would always be hosted by a red-faced employee who repeated the same lines from the previous year: “We don’t have much to show you today. But, we are making huge progress and will have a lot of new Marlin products for you to review next year.”
Eventually Remington did start producing Marlin rifles, but the early years were plagued with quality issues. Finally, they figured it out and Remington began shipping Marlin rifles that were excellent, perhaps as good as any that have hit the market. That’s about when Remington filed bankruptcy.
So, I’m optimistic about the Marlin comeback. One enduring aspect of lever-action rifles is that they are America’s rifle. The lever action is embedded deep into our history and culture. Americans will always love lever guns. I predict that when these new lever-action rifles hit the market, Marlin will not be able to build them fast enough.