John Mahlon Marlin was born a couple of months after the Alamo fell to Mexican troops in 1836. He turned 21 as Oliver Fisher Winchester bought the ailing Volcanic Repeating Arms Co. for $40,000, reorganized it as New Haven Arms and hired Benjamin Tyler Henry to run the shop. The Union Army was using Henry’s .44 rimfire repeater when Marlin finished his apprenticeship and pocketed his first weekly $1.50 check as a machinist.
Early Marlin firearms patents applied to handguns. Rifles, on C.H. Ballard’s 1861 action, came in 1875. The Model 1881 in .40-60 and .45-70 was the first successful Marlin lever-action. Though it was heavy, with an imperfect dust cover and balky carrier, the ’81 could purge its 10-shot magazine in seven seconds. Bill Cody and Doc Carver liked this rifle. The 1881’s progeny would compete with John Browning-designed Winchesters of the late 19th century. Collectively, these exposed-hammer, tube-fed lever-actions came to define America’s deer rifle.
The newest Marlin, arriving 140 years after the 1881’s debut, is manufactured by Sturm, Ruger.
Marlin manufacture of its popular lever rifles ended in December 2007, when the company was acquired by Remington Arms and folded into The Freedom Group, an investment consortium. Two years after shuttering Marlin’s H&R plant in Gardner, Massachusetts, in 2008, Remington closed the company’s main operation in North Haven, Connecticut. Production of Marlin rifles moved to Remington’s factory in Ilion, New York. Alas, quality did not match that of original Marlins. Explained a Remington foreman: “North Haven’s machinery was aging, some of it worn out. It was hard to move and reinstall. It had been nursed along by skilled workers who’d learned to bring the best from it, but only a few of those veterans moved to Ilion. Also, Remington had no history with lever rifles. Our learning curve was steep.”
In July 2020, Remington filed for its second Chapter 11 bankruptcy in as many months. After an Alabama court approved the sale of Remington’s non-Marlin firearms business to the Roundhill Group for $13 million, Ruger bought Marlin for $28.3 million.
Ruger CEO Chris Killoy and VP Mickey Wilson had visited Ilion before the 2020 auction. Their aim was to move the Marlin operation, then employ Ruger’s manufacturing methods to build traditional Marlin rifles to higher quality standards. They had to act swiftly, to beat winter’s blast. Ruger engineers hurried to plan the extraction of 40,000-pound loads and take the measure of tooling to prepare a manufacturing cell for Marlin at Ruger’s Mayodan, North Carolina, plant 650 miles away.
In November, Darryl Freeman, facilities chief at Mayodan, kept decommissioning crews on task overtime to complete a two-month job in one. They loaded the last of 150 tractor-trailers December 9, as snow came to Ilion. The haul included 450-odd pallets of unfinished and out-of-spec parts. Marlin’s new home would be a 105×180-foot block designed to bring parts in a compact loop through 53 manufacturing steps. Materials would be fed and people stationed to make efficient use of space and motion.
Bruce Rozum, who I’d met when he’d headed R&D at Marlin, was now chief engineer at Ruger’s Newport, New Hampshire, facility. On the Marlin project, he used auto-CAD drawings from North Haven to design CNC tolerances of .002 into a rifle developed 125 years ago!
A History of Marlin Firearms
The talented engineer that gave Marlin its original market foothold was Lewis Hepburn. Born in 1832, he built muzzleloading rifles from 1855 until 1871, when Remington hired him. A fine marksman, he fired with the first Creedmoor team, which famously beat Ireland’s best marksmen in 1874. Remington’s 1886 financial crisis sent him to Marlin, where his genius became evident in models of 1888, 1889, 1891, 1892, 1893, 1894, 1895 and 1897. In January, 1910, Hepburn fell on ice. Bedridden with a broken hip, he failed to recover, passing in August 1914, as Europe went to war.
Brisk demand for lightweight rifles prospered Marlin’s Model 1888 in .32-20, .38-40 and .44-40. But fewer than 5,000 were built before it sired the Model 1889, Marlin’s first side-ejecting rifle. Saddle-ring 1889 carbines in .44-40 sold especially well in the frontier West.
The Model 1891was Marlin’s first rimfire lever rifle. Exhibitions by Annie Oakley gave this .22 a boost. A .32 version, circa 1892, cycled .32 centerfire rounds with a change of the firing pin. The similar Model 1892 was listed from 1896 until 1915.
Marlin Models 1893, 1894 and 1895 were larger versions of the 1892. The 1893 came in .32-40 and .38-55. Stouter lock-up and a two-piece firing pin distinguished it from the 1889. (At a starting price of $13, it sold for $5 less!) Model 1893s competed with Winchester 1894s and stayed in production until the Great War. The ’93 returned in 1922, adding the .30-30 and .32 Special to its cartridge roster.
Marlin’s Model 1895 was essentially an 1893 for bigger cases. First in .38-56, .40-65, .45-70 and .45-90, it added the .40-70 in 1897, the .33 Winchester in 1912. Price: $22, plus $3.50 for the take-down version. A short-action Model 1894 came in .25-20, .32-20, .38-40 and .44-40. To spur sales in a sluggish 1901 market, Marlin cut its price to $10.40! A Model 1897 .22 take-down rifle followed.
After John M. Marlin died in 1901, sons Mahlon and John Howard took the company reins. Carl Gustaf Swebilius was then designing guns for Marlin. This Swedish immigrant arrived stateside in 1896 at age 17. He climbed Marlin’s ladder quickly to become chief engineer. Before his death in ’48, Swebilius also worked at Winchester and bought the defunct Hartford Arms Co. to produce High Standard pistols.
In July 1921, Marlin Firearms Corp. was formed in Delaware. Its first catalog (in ’22) announced the Model 39 at $26.50. A follow-on to the 1897, this .22 rimfire and its progeny, the 39A (in 1939 with coil mainspring, round barrel, beefier forend) would later boast the longest production record of any .22!
Back taxes, mortgage and reorganization costs, with tepid post-war demand, weighed heavily on Marlin. A foreclosure judgment in 1924 went to Charles and Lillian Haskell, who sold all property and obligations to Yale-educated attorney Frank Kenna for $1. Kenna was 52 in 1926 when he established the Marlin Firearms Co.
Depression throttled firearms development in the early ’30s, but improvements to Marlin’s 1893 in 1936 yielded the Model 1936, soon renamed the Model 36. In 1948, a year after Frank Kenna died and son Roger became company president, the Model 36 sired the Model 336. At $74, it became a top-selling deer rifle. In 1953, Micro-Groove rifling, ironed in with a tungsten carbide button, replaced its Ballard cut rifling. Most popular in .30-30, the 336 also thrived in .32 Special and .35 Remington. In .219 Zipper, it struggled. Only 3,230 Zippers were made before the chambering was dropped in ’59.
In 1969, Marlin operations moved to North Haven. A new Model 1895 followed, with cut rifling for cast bullets. Marlin added a hammer-blocking cross-bolt safety on all its centerfire lever rifles. Cut checkering appeared in 1994. The century ended with a number of new sub-models and chamberings in Marlin’s lever-action line.
Ruger’s reintroduction of Marlins started with the 1895, said Product Manager Eric Lundgren, “because we saw surging interest in the .45-70. And ours would be the only stainless lever rifle for that cartridge.” Mark Gurney, who apprises me of all things Ruger, agreed. “The .45-70’s big-bullet punch appeals to hunters of traditional bent, and has a century-long link to close-cover hunts with lever-actions.”
On schedule, the first Marlin from Mayodan, serial number RM0001001, was boxed September 30, 2021. In due time, a sample reached me. While its profile is unmistakably Marlin, the SBL (stainless, big loop) differs in several ways from its forebears. A gray laminate stock cradles the steel. A Picatinny rail anchors an adjustable ghost ring rear sight and runs 7 inches up the 19-inch barrel. The front sight, also by HiViz, is a thick blade holding a tritium-ringed fiber-optic rod. An over-size lever welcomes big hands. The six-shot magazine is dove-tailed to the barrel behind a muzzle threaded 11/16×24.
The capped forend (with swivel stud) has been slimmed slightly. Clean, generous point-pattern checkering on the grip and around the forend keeps you in control. Comb fluting, absent on “Remington Marlins,” is crisp and even, as on originals. A fluted, nickeled bolt and a red center in the Marlin bull’s-eye on the buttstock’s belly are fresh. Instead of a grip cap, there’s a laser-engraved horse-and-rider image from Frederick Remington’s 1890 painting, “Danger Ahead” (Marlin’s logo since 1900).
Accuracy tests require better aim than can be achieved with the iron sights I favor on lever rifles, so I affixed a Meopta Optika5 2-10×42 scope in rings that just allowed the tube to clear the aperture sight. For me, the SBL’s comb is too low even for irons, and the scope lifted sight-line 3/4 inch. A cheek pad from the FTW Ranch was a perfect fix.
Hornady 325-grain FTXs at 2,000 fps, Remington 300-grain semi-jacketed hollow-points at 1,900 and Black Hills 325-grain Honey Badgers at 1,775 fly flatter and hit harder than do 405-grain flat-noses held to 1,300 fps, per blackpowder loads. In my experience, they’re more accurate, too. The SBL wowed me by hurling FTXs into a 3/4-inch cloverleaf at 100 yards! Groups from the SJHPs and Honey Badgers averaged 1½ inches. Feeding and ejection were faultless. The black 1-inch recoil pad mitigated recoil.
The new Marlin’s action opens and shuts crisply, and cycles silkily. Mark pointed out that CNC machining reduces tolerance “stacks,” limiting “slop and rattle” in an action. Internal SBL components are tumbled to ensure slick, uniform engaging surfaces. Parts fit so well, I’m told, Ruger assembles this rifle without hammers, files or manual screwdrivers. Wood and steel are mated snugly.
Chris Killoy has emphasized that Ruger will continue to put quality over quantity as new models and chamberings come to the Marlin line. Mark cautioned that supply chain constraints affect production of “legacy firearms” (Ruger No. 1 rifles and Redhawk revolvers, for instance, but also Marlins) more than they do, say, polymer pistols. Sourcing specialty steels used in small quantities can also throttle output.
“More Marlins are coming,” Mark assured me. “Model 336s are in the works, and 1894s should ship from the Mayodan factory by year’s end [when this was written in late 2022]. Customers want Marlins; Ruger has committed to building them. The right way.”