The .338 Marlin Express is Hornady’s newest cartridge in a dizzying flurry of new cartridges, but it is not the most powerful one ever chambered in a lever-action rifle. Browning’s long-action BLR Lightweight ’81, with its rotating, front-locking bolt head and detachable box magazine, can accommodate belted magnum rounds as long and energetic as the .300 Winchester Magnum. A dozen chamberings include the .325 WSM. That’s all the muscle your tender clavicle will want from a rifle with an alloy receiver and weighing 63/4 pounds with a 22-inch barrel.
But the BLR, like Winchester’s Model 88 and the forgotten Sako Finnwolf, are not traditional lever actions. Their lockup is as strong as that of most bolt rifles. While they lack the primary extraction power of the 98 Mauser and its derivatives, they can bottle 60,000 psi without strain. Even the rear-locking Savage 99 has a high-pressure ceiling—as proven by its .243, .308, .358 and .284 chamberings. Only action dimensions limit the 99 to short, rimless rounds.
Hornady’s focus over the last decade has been on exposed-hammer, rear-locking lever rifles with tube magazines—the Marlins and Winchesters whose ancestors defined the saddle carbine, won the West and became archetypal woods guns for whitetail hunters. Hornady’s great contribution to that hardware has been the “flex-tip” bullet in LEVERevolution ammunition. For more than a century, bullets for straight-tube magazines were stuck with blunt, ballistically inefficient noses. Pointed bullets resting against primers posed a hazard during recoil. Hornady solved that problem with soft but resilient plastic tips that deform easily under sudden pressure and are safe in tubular magazines, yet fly like hard-tipped spitzers.
Initially offered in .30-30, .35 Remington, .444 Marlin, .450 Marlin and .45-70 ammunition, the bullets are now available in several other Hornady LEVERevolution loads.
But Dave Emary and his engineering team didn’t stop at the bullet tip. They also experimented with new powders to boost muzzle velocities. Mechanical treatment of ball powders with special deterrents produces an early pressure curve ideal for short barrels. But the curve has a broad, gentle top, not a sharp peak. The curve’s shape and height and the area underneath show thrust imparted to the bullet.“Powders we developed specifically for LEVERevolution cartridges are not yet available in canisters for handloaders,” Dave emphasizes.
Dave promptly parlayed this work on traditional lever-action rounds into new cartridges. The .308 Marlin Express appeared three years ago. I used it in a Marlin 336 to kill an elk—and to fire some impressive groups. Based on the .307 Winchester hull shortened from 2.015 to 1.920, it outperforms not only the .300 Savage but also the .307. Indeed, it treads closely on the heels of the .308. Hornady’s reconfigured powders make such efficiency possible, and that at pressures less than 47,000 psi.
“We load to 46,500 psi,” Dave explains. “The 336 action will handle a bit more, but extraction can get sticky. We insist on smooth function.”
The .300 and .338 Ruger Compact Magnums came along just last year. Bolt-rifle rounds that don’t need flex-tip bullets, they were engineered to match the velocities of .300 and .338 Winchester Magnum bullets. The difference: RCM rounds can deliver those speeds from 20-inch barrels.
Never one to sit still, Dave told me even before the RCMs appeared that he planned to fashion a lever-action round to trump all others.
“My goal is a cartridge with a flex-tip bullet that performs at .30-06 levels,” he said. The .348 Winchester carries a wicked punch at the muzzle of the Model 71, and Winchester’s 1895 rifle was chambered in .30-06. But the .348’s tube magazine shackled it to blunt bullets that quickly fell behind .30-06 spitzers. The 1895 had a box magazine, but this rifle (a favorite of Teddy Roosevelt’s) was heavy, ponderous even, compared to lively Winchester and Marlin carbines. It also became notorious for vicious recoil, a fault due largely to a low-comb stock with a curved steel buttplate.
Marlin’s new Model 1895 in .450 Marlin hits hard indeed inside 200 yards. However, simply pointing its bullet can’t give it the ballistic coefficient of longer bullets smaller in diameter. It doesn’t shoot as flat as a .30-06. With Mitch Mittelstaedt and other colleagues, Dave narrowed his choice of bullet diameters. “The .35 is just not a popular size,” he told me after I suggested a super .358. “And to get the sectional density we want, the bullet would have to be quite heavy.”
He similarly dismissed the .30. “About all we can do to improve on the .308 Marlin Express is to increase case capacity and velocity. We’d run into space problems with bigger hulls; besides, bullet speeds above 2,700 fps often cost more than they’re worth.” He settled on the .33.
Some might say Federal beat him to the punch, with the excellent .338 Federal just now getting its legs. But the Federal round—a .308 Winchester necked up—was designed for short bolt actions, not lever rifles. Dave wanted more powder capacity to keep pressures modest without sacrificing ballistic muscle. In short order, he located a case with promise: the .376 Steyr. Hornady already manufactured the round, with 225- and 270-grain bullets.
“Marlin specified a rimmed case for its 1895 mechanism,” Dave explained. “We used the Steyr hull as a model but didn’t make the new round from that brass.”
Whereas the .308 Marlin Express features a thinner web than the .307 Winchester (for added capacity), the new .33 has a thicker web than the .376 Steyr (for added strength).
“We re-engineered our 200-grain .338 Winchester Magnum bullet with a thinner jacket to encourage upset at long range. Of course, it has a flexible tip.”
The new cartridge, dubbed the .338 Marlin Express, measures 2.60 inches as factory loaded. The 1.89-inch semi-rimmed case has a 25-degree shoulder, a base diameter of .553. At .30, the neck might seem a bit short of ideal by traditional handloading standards, but given limits imposed by the action, it’s surely long enough. In profile, the cartridge looks efficient and muscular.
The chronograph shows it has plenty of pep, too. In fact, at 2,565 fps, the new .338’s pointed 200-grain bullet matches the velocity and energy of the .348 Winchester bullet at the muzzle, then quickly leaves it behind. The .338 Marlin Express bullet can’t quite deliver the energy of the much heavier (325-grain) .450 Marlin. But at the 100-yard mark, they have equal punch, and beyond that, the ballistically superior .338 takes over. It very nearly duplicates the arc and payload of a 210-grain Nosler Partition from the .338 Federal but at significantly lower pressure.
Like its sibling, the .308 Marlin Express, the .338 traces a flat trajectory. With a scope adjusted to land bullets three inches high at 100 yards, the 160-grain .308 ME and 200-grain .338 ME stay within a half-inch of each other to 200 yards, where they strike about 1 1/2 inches low. At 300 yards, the .308 ME drops roughly seven inches, the .338 ME drops eight. At 400 they’re down 23 1/2 and 25 1/2 inches, respectively. That far off, a 180-grain .30-06 bullet started at 2,700 fps strikes 21 1/2 inches low.
Retained energy at 400 yards for the 200-grain .338 ME and 180-grain .30-06 bullets are essentially the same at 1,760 ft-lbs. Actually, the .338 ME may have an edge on the ’06, as few factory .30-06 loads clock the claimed 2,700 fps. Dave insists he was careful in listing velocities for the new .33 in the 24-inch barrels to be installed by Marlin.
I got my first look at a prototype rifle in .338 Marlin Express this past summer in Illinois. My first three-shot group measured a hair under one inch. The mechanism worked smoothly, cartridges feeding as if they were designed for the magazine and carrier. Hulls flew smartly from the port. The trigger pull did not match that of a tuned bolt-gun trigger, but then most bolt-gun triggers are not tuned. Recoil was stiffer than that of my .308 ME. Still, it didn’t rattle my teeth, even in prone position with my collarbone hard against the butt.
At this writing, I’m planning an elk hunt with the .338 Marlin Express. The rifle is already in the rack—a standard Marlin 1895 with two-thirds magazine. Of stainless steel with a gray laminated stock, it does not wear a scope. I’ll be using a receiver sight. Oh, yes, the cartridge has enough reach to justify a scope. And it may be that I’ll get my best opportunity far from the muzzle. Still, a Marlin 1895 (a 336 with big ports and magazine tube) looks and handles best with iron sights. It hails from a day, more than a century ago, when riflemen carried their hardware in scabbards and kept their shots short.
When Marlin’s 1893 became the Model 36 in 1937, it sold for $32 to hunters emerging from very hard times. Heralded as “a new gun especially for American big game,” the 1936 carbine featured a “solid frame, 20-inch round tapered special smokeless barrel; proof-tested, crown muzzle; Ballard-type rifling; visible hammer; case-hardened receiver; steel butt plate. New design full pistol grip buttstock of genuine American black walnut… ‘Sure-Grip’ semi-beavertail forearm, rounded and nicely shaped, Silver bead front sight dovetailed to the barrel and flat top Rocky Mountain rear sight… Overall length: 38 inches. Weight: about 61/2 pounds. Full magazine. Seven shots in caliber .30-30 or .32 Special.”
A rifle version added inches and ounces. Eleven years later the 336 replaced the 36. The transitions drained nothing from the mechanism’s sleek but Spartan profile, its slick cycling and gunny feel. Rifle and carbine versions still balance beautifully and point naturally. While Marlin has made much of the solid-top receiver that, unlike Winchester’s ’94, readily accepts scopes, the 336 and 1895 both respond quicker with iron sights and seem more at ease.
If Hornady’s LEVERevolution ammo hasn’t compelled you to give John Mahlon Marlin’s classic big-game rifles another look, maybe the new .338 Marlin Express will. Wrapping your hand about a slim machined-steel receiver and the most potent lever-action round available is potentially addictive. Since my season with a Marlin .30-30 a few years ago, I’ve added several lever-action rifles to my rack. Hornady’s LEVERevolution ammo has killed cleanly for me to distances that define my normal limit. In .30-30, .32 Special and .308 ME, Marlins firing red-tipped bullets have taken three six-point elk. I’m not sure this new rifle in .338 Marlin Express is necessary. I’m very sure I’ll like it anyway.