Lever Action Perfection

It wasn’t particularly cold the November morning 1 was creeping around in the ice-damaged, grape-tangled timber, so I wasn’t wearing gloves when the big 7-pointer came crashing out of the thicket 50 yards down the ridge below me. As he charged through the trees I swung on him like I would a grouse and slapped the trigger, the heavy slug smacking him a hair behind where the neck and shoulder meet. He turned a beautiful forward flip as I quickly worked the lever, never losing the sight picture. He was stone dead lie-fore the ejected brass hit the leaves and I didn’t even have time to think about it before it was over. That is my kind of deer hunting, and for that style of jump-and-shoot hunting, there are few rifles better than a lever action.

Development of the Lever

The 1894 Marlin was a parallel development with the 1892 Winchester, a rifle that would be chambered for handgun cartridges and act as a companion long arm for those very same chambered handguns. The longer barrel of the rifle increased the velocity of the round and extended the range of the caliber; indeed, then, as it does now, it is easier to )>e accurate at distance with a rifle than a handgun. Attesting to the practicality of this concept, the Marlin and the Winchester both sold extremely well, particularly since they provided soldiers, frontiersmen and hunters of the day with a means to get off quick follow-up shots—much quicker than a single-shot front-stuffer ever could.

The lever-action firearms concept is an American icon in firearms history. Beginning with the introduction of the «Volition» and «Volcanic» rifles and handguns in the period from about 1848, the lever-action concept became the cutting-edge technology of repeating rifle development. The Winchester and Marlin family companies would, in the late 19th century, begin a competition with the action that continues even today, though American Winchester production of its 1894 rifle ended in 2006 {the company reintroduced the model in 2010 but it is no longer made in America).

Marlin began its repeating rifle success with the Model 1881, a large-bore rifle with top ejection. The side-ejection Model 1891 and 1893 rifles, which eventually evolved into the modern Model 39 and 336 guns, represent the oldest sporting rifles still in current production by their original company. Winchester had pioneered the concept of the «companion» handgun-cartridge-chambered rifle with its Model 1892, a scaled-down Model 1886, and it was only natural that Marlin would follow suit with the Model 1894, a scaled-down Model 1893.

The principal difference between the lever rifles from Winchester and Marlin is the side ejection of the Marlin, whereas the Winchester utilizes the top ejection. The Marlin was readily adapted to telescope use where the Winchester had to utilize a side mount and later was modified to «angle ejection» to accommodate scope usage. While both designs are adequately strong for the cartridges in question, the Marlin with its solid top receiver has always been perceived as the stronger of the two. Neither was ever expected to be a long-range rifle; these are short, light, fast-handling carbines, well-suited to close-range hunting or self-defense. For the deer, hog or black bear hunter bent on working the mountain rhododendron thickets or the sawgrass and cane breaks of the southern swamps, I can think of no better tool for the job at hand.

The Marlin 1894

The first 1894 Marlins were chambered for the most popular handgun cartridges of the day, the .38/40, the .44/40, the .25/20 and the .32/20. Subsequent development resulted in chambering that became its most popular offering, the .44 Magnum (1969), which will also chamber the .44 Special, then later the .357 Magnum (and .38 Special, in 1979), followed by the .41 Magnum (1984). The concept of the short, powerful carbine gave rise to the terms «saddle gun,» «truck gun» and «pack gun;» indeed, a take-down Model 1894 packed in its own case would make a heck of a survival rifle for the truck, camper, boat or light plane. In fact. I’m trying to save enough to buy an 1894 in .45 Long Colt if I can find one.

The advent of cowboy action shooting has revived the interest in «Old West» firearms, and the Model 1894 has seen several variations based on this popularity. The «Century Limited” and «Cowbov» variants have been popular, and used 1894 guns, both original vintage and modern variations, still command top dollar on the gun market.

The rifle that I used on the buck in the beginning of this story was the 1894S variant, chambered for .44 Magnum, which has a 20-inch Micro Groove round barrel with 12-groove rifling in a 1:20 twist and has the ridiculous button safety on the receiver. The American walnut stocks are not checkered, and the rifle comes from the factory with sling swivels and a hard, rubber bull pad installed. The magazine tube capacity is 10 rounds.

I have used the rifle with both open sights and scope, and even though my eyes aren’t what they once were, I still prefer the gun without a scope attached. It is, after all, for generally closer shots where game might be moving.

That said, with the scope in place (1 use an old Redfield 4X), the rifle, with Winchester 240-grain factory ammo, will put three shots in a 1 1/2-inch group at 100 yards.

The 1894 Marlin embodies the intent and design of the original lever actions and is a neat, accurate and handy rifle well suited to close-range hunting. I know mine has certainly found a home, and I anticipate getting many, many more years of hunting use out of it.

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