“What ranges am I looking at?” I asked Mark Galla, of Alaska Peak & Seas.
“Forty to 100 yards,” the gruff outfitter answered over the phone. “What kind of gun are you bringing?”
“A Marlin Guide Gun in .450 Marlin,” I replied. It was a month before the hunt, and I was making that oh-so-important telephonic reconnaissance.
“Good. Some folks come up here and don’t realize that our black bears run 300 to 500 pounds. You’ve got to have a big gun and still almost always need a second shot.”
And so started the adventure that was to pit a proven-tough carbine, a revolutionary cartridge and a plump editor against the wilderness of Prince of Wales Island and a large, tough old bear.
Marlin Firearms started off after the Civil War (OK, Great Secession) building ladies’ carry guns. By the turn of the century it was a top-quality designer and manufacturer of rugged lever-action working rifles and was renowned for high-quality rimfires.
Following the First World War, American hunters realized that the flat-nosed bullets required by lever-action, tubular-magazine rifles–the quintessentially American rifles that had swept the plains–placed those rifles and their cartridges into a permanent second-class ballistic ghetto. Mauser-based, box- and rotary-magazined bolt rifles could use the new and efficient spitzer bullets. This situation continued right up until August of 2005.
In a bid to erase this 85-plus-year disparity, Marlin’s long-time industry buddy, Hornady, put its talented crew to work to build a tube-capable spitzer. That’s right, a pointed bullet in a tube magazine–no go boom, neither.
|RUBBER BABY BUGGY BUMPERS|
“Dave Emary is the genius that is Hornady,” said Gary Paul Johnston. “He’s a wizard, all right,” adds fellow Hornady staffer Neil Davies.
Besides designing .450 Marlin in the first place, Emary also has TAP, Black TAP, .17 HMR, .204 and now LeveRevolution to his credit. The retired Air Force aeronautical engineer and former rocket scientist (literally) was hired by Steve Hornady about a decade ago and has been allowed to realize his potential many times over.
Gathering his crew of chemical, mechanical and ballistic gurus, Emary resolved to find a way to put spitzer bullets into tubular magazines. The last time this was done successfully was with the hyper-tapered 8mm Lebel, which still required a safety groove in the base of the casing.
The goal was to allow tubular-magazined lever guns to compete ballistically with box-magazine bolts and semiautos. You just can’t do that with a flat-nosed bullet. Why bother? Because lever guns offer distinct advantages in speed and handling.
Hornady’s LeverRevolution uses a polymer-elastomer with a memory to replace that little red plastic tip on the SST bullet. Emary’s crew tested it to the ridiculous–stacking a tube full of .45-70s and dropping it from 30 feet onto concrete numerous times. No problem. Then they fired full-proof loads, and the little red bumpers wouldn’t even scuff the primer. The bumper is supposed to outlast the metal magazine spring, but research on long-term storage is, well…long term. Also, Emary took it down to minus 40 degrees and up to 130, and it continues to be elastic.
The practical result is that your handy .30-30 just went from being a 150-yard cartridge to Bambi-capable at 250-yards (still going 1,721 fps!). The .45-70’s nine-foot drop (when sighted at 100 yards) at 300 yards is reduced to a manageable 25 inches.
Hornady the company is truly a reflection of Steve Hornady the man–professional, innovative and competitive but with a friendly face and a wickedly fun sense of humor. The company, founded by his late father, retains a strong sense of team spirit and has established alliances with able partners including Marlin. The two teamed up for the .450 Marlin and have worked together again to create a performance renaissance for the uniquely American lever-action, tubular-magazine rifle.
It was up to me to take the two to Alaska and prove the concept in the field. New technology mixed with traditional firearms usually makes folks uneasy, but in this case it may actually renew appreciation for the fast handling and easy carry of tube-magazined, lever-action firearms.
For three generations Marlin has been owned and ably guided by the highly respected Kenna family. The current generation possesses a deeply ingrained sense of stewardship and so has supported the management’s continuing efforts to pursue performance improvements while meeting the high consumer expectations of Marlin’s customers.
Today’s lever marketplace is loosely divided between pistol-caliber Cowboy guns and working traditionals in .30-30 or larger. Everybody and their brother is building Cowboy guns, but the working market is pretty much divided between Marlin and Winchester. The difference is that Winchester continues to produce known designs with peripheral modifications for a conservative buyership while Marlin considers its existing lineup as a staple while continuing to pursue bold innovations.
In the case of the highly successful Guide Gun, Marlin realized that if its overbuilt Model 336 receiver could handle the stout .444 Marlin (introduced in 1964), it could be modified to handle the brutish .45-70.
Then things became curiouser and curiouser. At almost the same time, Cor-Bon and Garret threw legalistic caution to the winds and introduced very hot .45-70 loads with ample warnings on the packages (Note bene: Firing these loads in a Trapdoor or early-20th century lever gun may result in you being listed on Findadeath.com, in the Darwin Awards or both).
Marlin’s Tony Aeschliman credits these über-scorchers with the phenomenal success of the 1895s, of which over half are now sold in .45-70. “When the Hammerheads and the Cor-Bon loads souped up the performance, sales really took off, and it’s still one of our leading performers.”
According to Aeschliman, who has been the public face of Marlin for almost 30 years, Hornady wanted to create a sort of +P+ .45-70 but wanted a case redux to keep someone’s Trapdoor from opening up like a can of beans. They put a high, thin belt on the case so that, even when placed in a worn chamber, it won’t allow the bolt to close.
The 1895M Guide Gun has a good drop to the stock, which makes it ideal for quick off-hand shots. It is also short, meaning that the weight is well back. Combining these positive attributes with the .450 “Help, I pulled the trigger and I can’t get up!” Marlin cartridge results in punishing recoil, the kind you don’t care about–or even feel–when Ursus reallyfargging-closus is suddenly in your lap but that leads to very short range sessions.
This makes the .45-70 a bit more appealing to the average sportsman. For the range, you can get some Cowboy Action loads that are quite mild or load up to hotter performance to rival the .450.
For the stats-mongers among us, the .450 Marlin launches a 325-grain Hornady SST at 2,225 fps, (about 1,950 out of the 18.5-inch Guide Gun), which generates 3,260 ft-lbs of energy. This is well over 50 percent more energy than a traditional smokeless load for the .45-70 and about two-thirds of a .458 Win. Mag.
The 1895 is available in a number of barrel lengths, materials and calibers, many with different names. Marlin’s lever guns come with a massive separate action lock and a hammer extension for use with traditional scopes. Mark Galla said, “We won’t even consider buying something if it isn’t stainless, and a synthetic stock is even better.” His top hand, Marlin Benedict, agreed: “There’s too much to do to be worrying about getting the salt spray off your rifles,” adding, “I sure wish they’d come out with a .450 in stainless.”
Although an aftermarket synthetic stock is available, Marlin likes to do things itself. Molds are prohibitively expensive, and there are no current plans to produce one. “Stainless and synthetic go together like blackbear and salmon,” Aeschliman told me, adding that Marlin has always prided itself in responding to customer requests (hint, hint).
In the last few years, a series of high-profile bear attacks have stimulated wide interest in extra-large-caliber handguns and carbines. Whether you are a hunter, angler or bird watcher, when a bear actually appears, having a carbine can save your life or, at the least, save you some laundry bills.
Shortly after talking to Galla on the phone, I’d had a chance encounter with Hunting publisher Kevin Steele. “Get a set of Ashleys,” he’d sagely advised. Finding a set was another matter. To make a long story short, the company has gone through about four name changes and is now–and we hope it stays–XS Sight Systems. At present, it is the choice for Marlin owners.
A beefy, fully adjustable ghost ring bolts up to the rear scope-base holes, yielding a 10-inch bonus sight radius. The front is a massive, luminous rectangular blade that retains enough light for shooting until it’s no longer possible to see your target, and the rear is a true ghost ring–it is perceived more than seen. You have to readjust your stockweld slightly, as they are about 3/8 inch above the factory, but they’re fast–very fast–and yielded a navel-orange-size group off the bench at 100 yards.
Marlin used to drill and tap every rifle for Lyman or Williams receiver sights, but only about 5 percent were using them, so it discontinued the practice. However, Marlin and its crew are all about customer service, and if you send them the rifle, they will drill and tap the receiver for free.
GUN AS FIELD TOOL
The hunt consisted of six days of skiffing from the good ship Bear Necessity, a spacious, comfortable and well-maintained 53-foot hunting camp, to the salmon streams. Ashore, we’d follow the streams as the wind permitted. Galla glided ahead while using his Smoke in a Bottle, and I stumbled along over the dead falls and through the salmon-choked pools trying to keep my balance on slippery logs and rocks. We’d settle in to cover prime zones from 20 minutes to two hours, depending on the wind.
This is where the narrow waist of the Guide Gun came in handy. We all know and respect the hunter’s-safety caution about unloading your rifle and handing it to a friend when crossing an obstacle. But in Alaska, you cross one about every 20 yards. The Marlin can be carried with a full tube, half-cock, safety on and empty chamber, and when a position is taken you can run one up the snout. As such, its rugged construction and soft buttpad create it into a grappling hook and walking stick for negotiating collapsing banks and slippery deadfalls. The balance is at the front of the receiver, and the lever pivot extensi
on fits nicely against the little finger, preventing slippage.
Day six, and we’d seen 24 bears and no keepers. The hunt was extended three days. Half an hour before dark on day eight: I was seated on the low bank on the right bank of the stream, Galla slightly ahead, when we spotted a majestic shadow crossing an elevated deadfall. It was about 125 yards upstream. No cub-size shadows were seen.
We waited for it to come out on a heavily used open bank about 30 yards from us. After about 20 minutes, I heard a rustling in the bushes to my right and dismissed it as salmon flushing in the stream. But when I glanced over my right shoulder, there was a large bear entering the stream.
Knowing Galla would hear it, too, I pivoted my torso almost 90 degrees to the right (until vertebrae popped) as I shouldered the carbine. Galla did a quick examination–a fat nose and no cubs–and said, “Shoot it.”
The big bruin was facing directly at me as I took up slack on the trigger, the big post centered on his chest, and he had just started to turn. The Marlin slammed back into my shoulder, and I saw the spinning bear recoil, too. I could see the hole in his chest. I jacked another round into the chamber while bringing the rifle down out of recoil, but the bear had already disappeared over the bank and into his tunnel in the brush. He dodged a backing shot from Galla’s big .375 H&H as he did so–Mark had delayed to allow yours truly to try for a second shot.
We searched for an hour in the labyrinth of deadfalls and devil’s club then slogged back to the skiff. Returning the next morning, we found him after four hours of tracking that would have made a Kalahari bushman proud. He was less than a hundred yards from the shot but had looped around like a pretzel to get there.
The Hornady SST had struck the point of his chest as he spun, leaving a pear-size entry wound and exploding the right pectoral. It slammed into the right shoulder and then ricocheted through the ribcage, leaving a neat, three-quarter-inch hole. Missing the lung, it continued through the diaphram into the liver and beyond.
He squared at seven feet, eight inches, and the green skull was 2113?16 inches. He was an old bear and had a years–or decades–old shoulder wound from someone who hadn’t brought “enough gun.”
Ironically, I had come to Alaska to test a bullet designed to increase the effective range of lever-action rifles and had taken this great old bear at nine yards. Looking at the wound, Galla said, “Your taxidermist is going to have to do some fancy work just to get rid of the powder burns.”
SO, YOU WANT TO HUNT BEAR IN ALASKA?
Alaska Peak & Sea’s Mark Galla is everything you would expect of a veteran outfitter. Not only must he retain endurance and agility, he must be a mariner, navigator, hydrologist, meteorologist, mechanic and an ad hoc travel agent and connoisieur of what works and doesn’t work in salt spray, salmon streams and mossy bear forests.
Galla was kind enough to prepare a hard-learned list of tips for first-time Alaska hunters:
- Prepare physically, and know what to expect. Call the outfitter to ask
questions, and try to contact previous clients of your outfitter.
- Bring quality optics–Alaska is very hard on equipment.
- Use enough gun. Bears are far, far tougher than you think.
- Buy quality gear. The middle of a storm is no time to have buyer remorse.
- Pay attention to the gear list provided. Hunting is done differently here.
- Practice shooting in various positions. Ranges are short, but bears come out
- Go with realistic expectations. A hunt does not guarantee a trophy.
- Listen to your guide. You are paying him for his acquired knowledge and
- Purchase travel insurance to protect against cancellation due to illness, etc.
- Be a participant in your hunt. Help glass for bear, assist in skinning, etc. The harder you work, the harder the guide works. Don’t just sit there waiting for the tap on the shoulder to shoot your bear.