Marlin 1894 Rifle Review

There was a lot of moaning and groaning from the gun world when Freedom Group purchased Marlin Firearms Company. Thoughts were that an iconic brand would be swallowed up and ruined by corporate America. When substandard Marlins started hitting dealers’ shelves, it seemed that the fears had been realized. This was only partially true.

In the firearms world, Freedom Group is a corporate giant that some say has grown too big. However, it never set out to ruin Marlin. Before Freedom Group aquired Marlin, it was doing a decent job of that already. It was building guns on antiquated and tired machines using tolerances on drawings with years of hand-sketched dimensional changes to account for the wear in tooling. It was just a matter of time until the horse gave out. Freedom Group saved Marlin, but what it did not realize was how much skilled labor was required to build what many regard as the best lever-action rifles in the world.

Mechanical timing, fit and finish make lever guns a challenge to manufacture.

Mechanical timing, fit and finish make lever guns a challenge to manufacture.

In 2011, the Marlin machines arrived in Ilion, New York, and when Freedom Group turned them on, what came out were not the Marlin lever guns we grew up with. According to Eric Lundgren, the man responsible for fixing Marlin, “Lever-action rifles are harder to make than most other platforms. Function is so dependent on bolt, lever and carrier design. Very small inconsistencies can mean that timing is off, and feeding issues can occur. In addition, a proper wood-to-metal fit is a critical indicator of quality in a lever rifle. The machines that were brought in from North Haven, Connecticut, were old by any standard, and tolerances were very hard to maintain. Because of that, the quality of function and fit suffered.”

The 1894 model perhaps suffered the most. Starting over was the only viable answer. Lundgren told G&A, “The 1894 line went through an overhaul in 2013. New engineering drawings, new manufacturing processes, new machinery, inspection criteria, etc., were put into place for the 1894 line.” That’s not as easy as it might sound because every variation of the 1894 is a bit different. Lundgren continued, “Each caliber and rifle configuration reintroduction will require design and process acceptance by a team of cross-functional engineers, and each new model will go through complete testing and evaluation before it can be released for production. The process has taken over a year, and it is still ongoing. It will take a little more time to fill out the line as it was before the move.”

Is the Model 1894 back? We can only guess, and G&A can only base our assumptions on the rifle provided for review. Could it have received some hand-work before it was delivered? Sure, though we could find no evidence of that when it was disassembled. Is it representative of an 1894 that we hope you’ll soon be fondling down at the local firearms emporium. After talking with the suits at Freedom Group, they have their hat in their hand. They’ve been humbled by the Marlin experience, and are dedicated to fixing it.

Left- and right-side overview of the Marlin 1894.

Left- and right-side overview of the Marlin 1894.

Those suits are camo. These decision makers are gun owners, shooters and hunters, and if you’re a gun owner, shooter or hunter, Marlin means something. Many readers have said their first rifles were a Marlin, and others of us grew up with a Marlin catalog instead of a wish book. Lundgren’s first rifle was a Marlin 336; he’s been hunting for 35 years and still owns that rifle. It’s also partly because, like we told a “let-go” Freedom Group executive who had proposed cutting corners to make Marlins more affordable, “Everyone has a little cowboy in them.” Gun people want their cowboy to come out, and a good Marlin can make that happen.

The 1894 our staff reviewed was put together as well as any 1894 we’ve seen. Wood-to-metal fit was very nice, and the finish on both was exceptional. Moving parts moved like they should and made the things they are supposed to make happen, happen. Yes, the crossbolt safety is still there, and yes, the forearm is still a bit wider than necessary, but we’ll give Marlin a pass because this rifle worked.

Thinking it would be absurd, we did not put a riflescope on the Marlin for testing. Ashley Emerson, originator of the Ashley Express Sight, known now as the XS Ghost Ring Sight, once said, “There’s a special place in hell for anyone who puts a scope on a lever gun.” While we agree, we recognize that there are some exceptions, like with a Savage 99 or, in some instances, a scout scope. Even though the 1894 is drilled and tapped for scope bases, we felt that attaching an optic to this fast-handling fire stick would make about as much sense as putting a saddle on a cat.

Chambered for the powerful .44 Magnum, Marlin's new 1894 is once again a big-game-capable carbine.

Chambered for the powerful .44 Magnum, Marlin’s new 1894 is once again a big-game-capable carbine.

That means that all testing was conducted with the factory open sights, and the bench testing was conducted at 50 instead of 100 yards. This shorter range was dictated by a front sight that appeared to be almost invisible, which made it rather difficult to line up on target while keeping it in the notch of the semibuckhorn rear blade. Also, we consider the .44 Magnum cartridge, as powerful as it is in a carbine, to still be a short-range tool. Zeroed at 50 yards, it’s 8 inches low at 150.

This is not a rifle; it is a quick-handling carbine designed for putting lots of energy on targets fast. We found this new Marlin averaged 2½ inches at 50 yards from a sandbag rest. We also found that from the seated position at 100 yards, all shots could be placed inside an 8-inch circle.

To see how handy the little carbine was when rushed, the Marlin was run through Richard Mann’s, a frequent G&A contributor, Scout Rifle Workout (SRW) drill five times. For this drill, you fire one round standing, one kneeling, one sitting and one from the prone position in 30 seconds. The goal is to put every shot within a 5-inch circle at 50 yards. Three of the five runs were clean, attempt number one resulted in two misses, and attempt number three produced one. Average time: 26 seconds.

marlin_1894_lever_action_rifle_12The little rifle will certainly shoot, and in 250 rounds not a single issue was experienced. The lever was butter smooth, and the trigger was not bad, though it had an infinitesimal amount of takeup. It broke crisply at a surprising 3 pounds, with just a bit of overtravel. By lever-gun standards, it could be considered exceptional.

Aging eyes will likely not enjoy shooting the 1894 with the factory sights. We’d consider replacing them with an XS Sights’ aperture at the rear along with one of its white-striped post front sights. If nothing else, we’d recommend throwing the front sight hood in a keepsake box. It will likely work loose after about 30 full-power loads. (Ours did.)

Marlin tells us this is one of the first guns off the line and that it’s representative of the quality consumers can expect. If that’s true, there’s no question that the 1894 is back; it’s just a matter of which variation will be perfected next. We’ve been craving another Marlin, an 1894 in .357 Magnum. Lundgren says the company has almost got the bugs worked out of one chambered for .38 Special/.357 Magnum. It and a .45 Colt Cowboy version should be available by year’s end. That’s a good thing; like Marlin, it’s time we all found our way back into a saddle with a lever gun in the scabbard.