Last revised: Friday, August 11, 2006
What is Possible with the Marlin?
||Every gun design has
limitations and an assortment of strengths and weaknesses.
Modern Marlin lever-action centerfire rifles have
characteristics that present surprising potentials in terms
of dependability, muzzle energy and surprisingly to many
accuracy. However, each is limited, in one way or another,
by the basic design. In this piece, we will look at what can
be done and why we cannot expect more of the Marlin
Possible with the Marlin?
When I look at action developments
that reached something of an early zenith around 1890, I see two
distinct systems. First, we have the turn-bolt action design. Many
hunters would argue that practically every design change in this
basic system since the '98 Mauser has been a step in the wrong
As manufacturers continued to look for less expensive methods of
producing such rifles, particularly in the era before CNC (computer
numerically controlled) manufacturing, one significant '98 design
feature after another fell by the wayside, all on account of
affordability until the advent of the Savage AccuTriggerฎ I cannot
think of one change that could unequivocally be deemed an
improvement! The modern culmination of these changes is well
represented by the basic Savage and Remington bolt-actions.
These receiver systems are so different from the '98 that one could
argue that the only things these newer designs share with the '98
are two locking lugs and 90-degree bolt rotation! This is not quite
fair as the newer designs do have an integral trigger system and a
similar striker system but there, realistically, the similarities
end. Every major and minor component is designed and built
completely differently. A novice, when asked to compare these two
receiver systems, could be forgiven for concluding that the
differences far outweigh the similarities.
With CNC machining, the need for simplification, as a means of
achieving affordability, chiefly through reductions in production
and hand fitting time, has generally passed. The Classic Winchester
Model-70 proves this point, this gun is mechanically identical to
the legendary pre-64 Winchester Model-70 and therefore shares so
many characteristics with the '98 that no one could fail to see that
the two are very closely related in every aspect of design and
function. Nevertheless, with modern facilities, the manufacturer can
evidently profitably sell this rifle at a reasonably competitive
Now, consider the classic lever-action rifle, as originally
perfected, at just about the same time that Mauser was reaching a
zenith with his turn-bolt designs. In that era, both Browning and
Marlin incorporated vertical locking lugs into affordable designs.
While generally distinct in functionality, each of these designs
represents true genius. Here, let us consider the Marlin models of
1893 (hereafter the long-action) and 1894 (hereafter the
short-action). These Marlin designs utilize an ingenious combination
of geometric interaction with a few springs and one ratchet
mechanism to connect and manipulate every working part of the
Unlike the history of the turn-bolt, manufacturers were able to
maintain profitability with these complicated lever-action designs.
While "modern" lever-action designs came, and went!, none of those
have ever made any serious dent in the popularity or profitability
of these tubular magazine designs.
Since these guns are far more intricate and use many more moving
parts, compared to the '98 Mauser, one must wonder why this would be
true. It would seem that the same forces that drove less expensive
bolt-action designs to capture that portion of the market would have
driven less expensive lever-action designs to capture this portion
of the market. This just did not happen.
Consider the Model-88 Winchester. This rifle was introduced in 1955,
as a replacement for the then discontinued Model-71, which was based
upon the '86, one of the most intricate and therefore most expensive
of Browning designs. The '88 was chambered for a round that
essentially duplicated performance of the only '71 factory
chambering, the 348 WCF. The '88 was far less expensive to produce
and it eliminated one of the chief design weaknesses of the '71 (and
all other traditional lever-action designs), the two-piece stock.
When we ignore the 17 design modifications reported to have been
applied to the '88 trigger group, in a failed effort to eliminate
incidental discharges, and assume that the trigger group could have
been designed to work safely, we must conclude that this basic
design is eminently sound. I had the pleasure of working with one of
these guns chambered in 284 Winchester, about 1972. With N205 and
the Sierra 160 BTSP bullet, we were able to consistently produce
5-shot, 100-yard groups that measured less than one-inch,
on-centers. Our best groups measured less than 0.8-inch.
Now, while this does not sound all that impressive today, in that
era, we could have won considerable cash if we had been able to find
enough bolt-action riflemen willing to bet that they could shoot
smaller groups with their best hunting load in their favorite
factory-stock bolt-action rifle.
By the way, our pet load produced an honest 3000-fps from the
22-inch barrel and therefore belied the then popular mantra that the
284 would not perform up to velocity expectations when shooting
heavier than standard bullets. I cannot know what pressure that load
generated and I suspect that it was on the high side but I do know
that extraction was flawless and we never lost a case to primer
Then, after developing and testing our hunting loads, we carried
that and my, then new, 270 Winchester, Remington 760, which produced
similar accuracy, into the hunting field. Then an incident occurred
that changed how I will always feel towards the Model-88.
My acquaintance and I were walking across a high mountain meadow on
a clear and beautiful October day. He was in front of and to my
side, perhaps ten feet away. We were walking on perfectly smooth
ground. He had the '88 slung over his shoulder, so that the muzzle
pointed skyward. He had a round chambered and the safety was in the
"safe" position. The receiver was behind his back and nothing was
touching either the sides or the bottom.
The gun fired! He froze. I froze. He slowly turned and, with his
ears ringing and his face turning pale, unable to stop himself, he
asked that inevitable stupid question, "Did this thing just fire?"
In disbelief, we checked. Yes, the safety was fully on; yes, the
chamber contained a fired case. Yes, the gun had fired itself and
for no reason that anyone could possibly determine. The mechanism
was perfect and it contained no grease, crud, or debris that might
have resulted in this event. IT JUST FIRED!
Needless to say, considering the potential for the muzzle of that
'88 to have been pointed at some portion of my anatomy, in those
young and careless days, we were both dumbfounded and just a bit
more than slightly concerned. Before the gun self-fired, an
inadvertent sweep of the muzzle certainly would have made me
nervous; after that event, it made me want to continue my hunt in a
different State! Our solution was to leave the chamber empty.
Aside from that not minor problem, the '88 is a most interesting
design. It incorporates an unusually rigid receiver, a decent
trigger (as far as let-off goes), a front-locking action that
features smooth operation and serious strength, and it has a
one-piece stock that eliminates the significant problems associated
with a two-piece stock. And, it has about as much appeal and
nostalgia as the modern box sedan. I suspect that even if Winchester
had been able to solve the trigger group problem, the '88 would have
long since died.
MODERN MARLIN DEVELOPMENT
Meanwhile, in the early 70s, as the '88 was heading toward the ranks
of abject gun design failures, traditional lever actions, despite
significant limitations associated with the tubular magazine and the
two-piece stock, never faltered. Winchester continued to produce
copious quantities of the '94 and Marlin went so far as to,
reluctantly, reintroduce (in response to an incessant din of
requests from shooters, such as this author) their short-action
In that era, Marlin was also modifying their long-action, first to
accommodate the newly developed 444 Marlin and then to handle the
legendary 45-70 Government. The 444 was a modification of the basic
30-06 case and was most similar to a wildcat that had then been a
popular conversion for at least a decade. The 45-70 conversion would
not have been possible if the original 45-70-500 loading had not,
long-since, been obsolete. The 45-70-500 is too long to work through
this action and the round nose bullet would have been unsafe for use
in a tubular magazine. It is quite surprising that an action
designed around the 38-55 case (basis of the 30-30) could be
modified to work perfectly with a case that is fully 20% larger in
diameter but, as we will see below, even the 45-70 is not the
performance pinnacle for this action.
As to the reintroduced 1894, Marlin originally offered that only in
44 Magnum. I am confident that they only stood the cost of retooling
for this gun because they expected that they could sell many
thousands to those folks who owned and used 44 Magnum revolvers and
who would, therefore, appreciate a companion carbine. Furthermore, I
am convinced that the Marlin officials who made that momentous
decision must have been shocked at how badly they had misjudged the
In the subsequent thirty some years, the 1894 has been offered in a
plethora of chamberings and configurations. Most recently Marlin has
even offered a pistol-grip model, which belies the traditional
carbine heritage but is, nonetheless, a fine gun.
Other than to suggest that continued success of these Marlin designs
proves the genius of this basic system, and that the two-piece stock
is still a limitation to accuracy potential (although my throughbolt
conversion significantly mitigates this) I will not further dwell
here with the history of these guns. What I wan to do is look at
what can be done with each.
These Marlin rifles have what I would deem a design flaw. Perhaps
surprisingly, this is not the rear-locking lug. Rather, it is the
relatively small diameter of the barrel threads. When chambering
modern cartridges, that work at modern pressures, having a case body
diameter larger than about 0.47-inch (Mauser and 30-06 related
chamberings, an interesting historical accident!) the weakest
portion of these barreled-actions is the chamber, under the barrel
Unfortunately, due to close proximity of the magazine port under the
barrel, it is not particularly feasible to enlarge these threads.
This is too bad, had John Marlin simply moved the magazine tube and
loading port 0.050-inch farther below the barrel he could have
enlarged the barrel threads by 0.1-inch and eliminated this
weakness. The subsequent design would have worked perfectly without
any other significant changes! And this does matter; early Marlins,
with softer barrel steel, are prone to chamber swelling. Modern guns
avoid this fate only because the steel used in the barrels has
significantly increased tensile strength.
My solution to this weakness is to modify the Marlin thread, so that
the thinnest portion of the chamber wall under the threads is as
thick as is feasible without significantly weakening the receiver.
To do this, I use a custom tool set built to my specifications by
custom reamer maker Dave Manson. My friend, Ben Forkin (Forkin
Custom Classics) originally persuaded Manson to make such a tool
set. These tools reduce height of the unnecessarily tall square
thread and true the factory cuts so that one can install a barrel
with precisely fitting threads.
The improvement is significant. With a properly fitted barrel,
thinnest portion of the chamber wall is about 0.035 inch thicker.
This may not sound like much until one considers that, for example,
in the factory 45-70 Marlin the thinnest portion of the chamber is
only 0.100-inch thick! Moreover, with precise threads in the
receiver, the gunsmith can fit the barrel threads so closely that
the receiver can share the load. While such a design is not ideal
(most manufacturers would prefer not to rely on the hoop strength of
the receiver to support he chamber), it is the best that we can do
with the standard Marlin.
The next weakness is the two-piece stock. With only the conventional
tang bolt attachment, any such stock is prone to failure.
Considering the limited amount of wood reaching forward of the tangs
and the stresses associated with side loading, we are not surprised
to see longitudinal cracks reaching rearward of the tangs in older,
The other problem with the two-piece stock is that this system makes
it impossible to isolate the barreled action from the bench and
associated variations in shooter hold, etc. Firing good groups with
any such gun is an exercise in patience and in paying attention to
details that even many serious benchrest shooters may have not even
After years of serious testing, I have concluded that how the
shooter holds his tongue probably matters! For sure, how solidly the
shooter holds the gun and presses his cheek against the stock will
significantly alter zero. In a related characteristic indicative of
just how significantly these guns interact with shooter and bench,
on a good day, I can call high and low hits when testing a Marlin
45-70 and I can do so without looking at the target all I have to
do is look at the chronograph! If shot velocity is slower than mean
velocity the bullet will hit low; if shot velocity is faster than
mean velocity, the bullet will hit high.
I mitigate these problems by installing a throughbolt that runs from
near the rear of the buttstock to a hanger that I install on a
replacement, hardened-steel tang bolt. With proper glass bedding,
this modification allows me to significantly compress the wood of
the stock along the grain (with about 1000 pounds force). Such
compression monumentally reduces potential for lateral loading to
result in a crack in the stock. It also allows me to bring 100% of
this force to bear on the front flats of the stock, where it should
be, so that buttstock and receiver are bonded in both the vertical
and the lateral plane, to the extent possible. Finally, because the
tightened throughbolt bends and stretches the tang bolt it
automatically clamps the rear of the tangs onto the corresponding
flats in the stock, which further improves vertical rigidity.
I owe this idea to my friend Steve Meacham, who uses a more elegant
version in his excellent reproduction 1885 Winchester rifles. In
those rifles, with the right chambering and best loads, I have
proven consistent varminting accuracy with the 225 Winchester
consistently producing groups in the 2s. This would simply not be
possible if buttstock and receiver were not so well bonded.
Another problem with any such rifle is the tubular magazine and
foreend that must necessarily hang from the barrel in some manner.
On two-piece stocked guns without a tubular magazine, it is feasible
to hang the foreend independently, using a separate receiver
protrusion. In an effort to improve accuracy, practically every
manufacturer who has ever made such a gun has tried this approach.
Almost invariably, such a design proves to be less accurate! The
reason for this is the tuning fork effect. With such a design,
inevitably, barrel and foreend will vibrate independently. These
vibrations will just as inevitably reinforce each other.
The best solution I have found came to me from custom riflesmith
Keith DeHart. It is high tech and involves one of those situations
where we can say, if Browning had had it, he would have used it!
This solution is to simply ensure that foreend and magazine tube do
not touch the barrel anywhere other than where this is necessary and
to then create a bed of RTV silicone between these pieces.
What the silicone does is to effectively kill vibrations while
helping to isolate the barrel from variations in shooter hold and
bag placement. Along with proper buttstock bedding and the
throughbolt, the accuracy improvement for bench shooting is
impressive. This difference is not so much a matter of what the gun
may occasionally do, but what it will repeatedly do. For example, I
expect a modified Marlin to shoot three-shot groups under one-inch
using any decent modern ammunition. With several rifles, I have seen
five-shot groups approaching the one-half MOA benchmark, which is
rather impressive, considering the accuracy limitations of the
hunting bullets involved in these tests.
An obvious limitation to each Marlin design (long and short action
alike) is maximum potential cartridge length and maximum potential
Now, to the heart of the matter, just exactly what is the limit for
cartridge diameter and length in each of these basic Marlin designs?
The short answer is provided in the following table.
Cartridge lengths indicated require significant albeit feasible
action modifications. These alterations do not in any meaningful way
weaken or compromise functionality of these actions. Furthermore,
action manipulation force and finger lever travel are identical to
stock Marlin rifles (assuming the same level of action smoothing).
Case designs suggested in the table just happen to represent all
that is feasible to accomplish and, by quirk of fate, basic cases
useful for each are now readily available from Starline (50 AE and
50/110 WCF). Maximum performance with each will occur when firing
bullets of 0.510-inch diameter. However, in the short-action gun,
reliability and smoothness of action manipulation will likely be
compromised if we try to go to that bullet diameter, which will
require a cylindrical case, rather than the slightly tapered case
used with the 50 AE and 0.500-inch bullets.
A similar situation exists with the basic 50/110 case (which is
slightly shortened and given a slight bottleneck for use in the
Marlin as the 510 Kodiak Express); we could expand this case to
cylindrical and thereby use bullets of about 0.525-inch diameter.
However, even if such bullets were readily available, it would be
difficult to achieve smooth action functioning. Hence, we are
realistically limited to bullets of 0.510-inch diameter, which is
convenient since such bullets are readily available.
Of course, chamberings based upon necked-down versions of each of
these cases are feasible. In the short-action gun, we can envision
potentially useful conversions with bullet diameters as small as
30-caliber. Bullets designed for the 30-30 will be useful in such a
case and, by quirk of fate, cannelure placement and case length are
perfect! For this reason alone I have just decided that my next
Conversion Marlin will be a 30-caliber on the short action.
In the long-action gun, realistic bullet design limitations and the
modest potential BCs that are available with any flat point bullet
(as required for safe use in a tubular magazine) would argue against
any chambering smaller than 35-caliber. Here, bullets designed for
the 356 Winchester would be marginally useful the caveat is a
result of the potential velocity that this relatively large case
could generate; very likely, existing bullets will not hold together
on close-range impacts if launched with full-pressure loads from
In the table below, we will assume that ideal jacketed or cast
bullets, as applicable, could be obtained for each of these
hypothetical chamberings. In some instances, this is a reasonable
assumption; in others, it would require new bullets. In either case,
the following table suggests limits of performance potential with
the modern short- and long-action Marlin.
Notes: all loads in this table assume the
existence of an ideal propellant and that loads are at or near the
50,000 psi pressure limit that will assure smooth extraction and
safe use. Realistically, generally, actual performance of best loads
should come reasonably close to these predictions. Lengths for some
of the hypothetical cast bullets would vary, depending upon actual
design and alloy and, therefore, potential velocity could vary by
about +/- 50 fps for such loads. Performance comments for jacketed
bullets are based upon intended design velocity and may or may not
reflect reality (history has demonstrated that just because the
bullet was supposedly designed for a given muzzle velocity does not
mean that it will perform properly when launched at that velocity!).
As I have safe loads that generate 4000 foot pounds of muzzle
energy in my modified 45-70 Marlin, the predictions for the
long-action gun do not surprise me. Similarly, as we have already
built short-action guns in 475 Linebaugh and 50 AE, we know that
performance potential is significant for example, in the original
16-inch barreled conversion 475, factory loads launch the 420-grain
cast bullet at about 1650 fps and thereby generate 2540 foot pounds
of muzzle energy, so it is not hard to imagine that the longer load
in the larger bottlenecked 50 AE case would reach the performance
levels indicated. What surprised me was the discovery that loads in
properly necked down 50 AE cases will significantly surpass factory
30-30 and 35 Remington ballistics, respectively.
So, what is possible with the modern Marlin rifle? Certainly far
more than Mr. Marlin could have dreamed. As to accuracy and
dependability, likely far more than most shooters would ever expect.
As to performance potential, with the right loads in the right
factory and wildcat chamberings, these guns are suitable for
practically any application, worldwide.
Note, in the above text and in the picture captions, I have used
monikers that may require a bit of explaining. First is the KE
abbreviation, this stands for Kodiak Express but it is reminiscent
of Kinetic Energy, which is no accident. Basically, I have chosen to
dub any necked-down version of the 510 KE with a name reflecting
bullet diameter (in thousandths of an inch) followed by the KE
Second, is M3 (pronounced M-cubed), this stands for McPherson Marlin
Maximum. I probably would never have thought of this and probably
would not have used it if I had thought of it. However, Dave Manson
suggested it and, upon reflection, if it is good enough for him, it
is good enough for me. It certainly captures the essence of the
matter, for each given bore size, these designs produce all the
performance possible in the short-action Marlin.
Names applied in the picture caption generally reflect caliber
followed by M-cubed but exceptions exist. The 44 is actually a 42-
or 43-caliber gun depending upon how one defines caliber but can
you imagine a 43 Magnum! Or a 43 anything for that matter, just does
not roll off the tongue; I used 475 for the same how does it sound
reason; since 45 would lead to confusion over correct bullet
diameter, I used 458 for the 45-caliber version).
I do occasionally do a bit of gunsmithing on Marlin rifles. Those
interested are hereby invited to visit my web site:
A note on the photographs: Other than the 44 M3, which uses the
standard 440 Cor-Bon case, the bottlenecked designs depicted in the
following pictures are mock-ups made with tools at hand. In some,
shoulder angle matches what I would probably use in the actual
design (30-degrees); in others, it does not. Neck lengths are
approximately correct all such designs are intended to have a case
neck with an outside length that is about two-thirds of groove
Body taper on all mocked-up cases is exaggerated. On M3 examples, I
would eliminate the modest taper from the 50 AE case. Similarly, in
the KE designs, I would use the same taper as the 510 KE, which is
about one-half that of the 50/110 WCF case (used to make these
mock-ups) the tiny bottleneck on the 510 KE is included to prevent
chambering in a 50/110 chambered gun.
Forkin Custom Classics
P.O. Box 444
205 10th Avenue SW
White Sulfur Springs, MT 59645
Meacham Tool & Hardware Inc.
1070 Angel Ridge Road
Peck, ID 83545
Lune Lake Precision
8200 Embury Road
Grand Blanc, MI 48439
Buffalo Arms Company
99 Raven Ridge
Sandpoint, ID 83864
1) 1894 Conversion 50 M3 in port bottom view
This view shows a 50 M3 cartridge partially inserted into loading
port. This port was one of the few things on the receiver not
requiring modification for this conversion. This case just barely
enters, if case diameter were any larger this conversion would not
be feasible because case would not eject from receiver -- case
diameter would exceed bolt-opening height! Cartridge overall length
for the various M3 wildcat conversions is set near 1.83-inch, which
takes advantage of maximum feasible cartridge handling length of
this receiver (requires significant modifications to many parts but
does not alter finger-lever travel or increase action manipulation
2) Selected 1894 Conversions
Left to right: 50 AE (a simpler but significantly less powerful 1894
conversion), 50 M3,
475 M3, 44 M3,
30 M3, 44 Remington Magnum (for
comparison). Consider that the 50 M3 easily generates twice the
muzzle energy of factory 44 Magnum loads. With performance
significantly surpassing even top-end 30-30 handloads, the 30 M3
changes the character of the Marlin carbine; loaded with the
unusually efficient Speer FN bullets; this is a genuine 300-yard
3) Deceiving comparison 30 M3, versus 30 WCF
Case diameter matters; so does permissible chamber pressure. While
factory 30-30 loads generally produce only about 2250 fps with
150-grain bullets, maximum handloads that reliably extract freely
may reach 2500 fps (safe in some strong, modern guns); conversely,
the 30 M3 (right) easily reaches 2550 with the 150-grain Speer FN.
The excellent Speer 130-grain FN reaches 2750 fps and is an
outstanding option for all lighter deer species.
4) Loading 50 M3 into 1894 chamber
This is the proverbial fit no extra room, either in length or
diameter. If case were any larger in diameter it would not eject.
5) Ejecting 50 M3 from 1894
This view demonstrates degree of fit between this cartridge and this
receiver. Without building a new (taller) bolt and widening receiver
opening, to accommodate that (which is not feasible), a larger
diameter case could not be used in the 1894 Marlin. Since the 50 AE
case is only about 0.020 inch smaller than maximum feasible case
diameter (without running into pressure limitations, to prevent
overstressing the chamber), this is not a significant restriction.
6) Ejecting 30 M3 from 1894
This looks rather odd but it is difficult to argue with performance.
Loaded with the unusually efficient 130-grain Speer FN, at 2750-fps
muzzle velocity, this is a serious 300-yard chambering. Terminal
performance testing of all available 30-caliber tubular-magazine
bullets suggests that this bullet, despite the unusually low mass,
against smaller species, this is among the most effective of all
bullets designed for the 30-30.
7) Selected 1895 Conversions
Left to right: Starline 50-110 WCF case (Buffalo Arms offers redrawn
348 WCF cases trimmed to correct 50 Kodiak Express length; these are
fully 25 grains lighter than Starline 50/110 cases); 510 KE, 458 KE,
358 KE, 45-70 Government (for comparison). As an example of
potential performance in the converted 1895 Marlin, with these and
similar cartridges in calibers from about 35 to 50, the 458 KE
easily duplicates standard 458 Winchester Magnum loads. If we could
get properly constructed bullets, the 35 KE would certainly be a
serious 300-yard elk chambering. However, no such bullet now exists,
the 35-caliber Speer FN bullets are too long (proper crimping would
require a shorter case neck, which is certainly feasible) but I must
note a concern about using any bullet with such a small meplat in a
tubular magazine gun generating this level of recoil.
8) 1894 Conversion Cartridges as of March 05
Left to right: 475 Linebaugh, 44 M3 (McPherson Marlin Maximum), and
50 Action Express. These chamberings function perfectly in rifles we
have already built.
9) 1894 Conversion Cartridges
Left to right: 44 Magnum and 454 Casull (for comparison); 41 M3
(McPherson Marlin Maximum), 44 M3, 458 M3, 480 Ruger (fires in 475
Linebaugh conversion rifle), 475 Linebaugh, 475 M3, 50 AE, and 50
M3. From left to right, these represent a few of the feasible
conversion chamberings for the 1894 Marlin. (Note that bullets used
in some of these mocked up prototypes are wholly inappropriate,
longer cast bullets would be superior choices for some.)