When one thinks of the guns of the Old West, the names that immediately come to mind are Colt and Winchester. And while there’s no doubt those companies’ wares certainly had a considerable presence on the frontier, there was one brand of long arm that many felt was at least the equal, if not the master, of Winchester, and that was the Marlin lever action. Such notables as “Buffalo Bill” Cody and Annie Oakley–not to mention countless cowboys, buffalo hunters and target shooters–also adopted some sort of Marlin as their gun of choice.
Actually, the firm’s lever rifles came on the scene well after it produced some derringers, revolvers and single-shot rifles, but it seems that despite these other excellent products–along with some top-notch shotguns–it is the repeaters that stick in the minds of most firearms aficionados. And with good reason: They were, and are, some of the finest sporting rifles ever made.
John Mahlon Marlin was born in 1836 near Hartford, Connecticut, one of the early gun-making centers in the United States. After serving his apprenticeship as a machinist, by 1863 he was in the business of manufacturing small .22, .30 and .32 rimfire single-shot derringers, expanding the line in 1870s to include similar guns in the popular .41 rimfire.
Also in that year, Marlin began making small pocket revolvers, similar in looks and construction to early Smith & Wessons. Quality was good, and business was brisk.
In 1875, Marlin took on the manufacture of Ballard single-shot rifles. Originally patented by C.H. Ballard in the 1860s, these falling blocks were first manufactured by Merrimack Arms, then by the Brown Manufacturing Company (which also offered a small single-shot derringer, the Southerner), both in Newburyport, Massachusetts.
Though these products were of good quality, it took Marlin to really get the line off the ground, expanding it to numerous styles and calibers. Production of Marlin-Ballards continued until the early part of the 1890s. Today some of the more exotic versions of these rifles such as Creedmoor and Union Hill models bring serious money from collectors.
As early as 1879, John Marlin patented his first lever-action rifle, and while it worked reasonably well it was an awkward-looking thing–something of a cross between a Spencer, Ball and Winchester–and it never really made it much past the drawing board.
In 1881, however, Marlin brought out a lever gun that was every bit a match for the Winchester. Relying upon patents by Marlin, Andrew Burgess and others, it was a solid, reliable piece of hardware. Ultimately available in several styles and calibers (.32-40, .38-55, .40-60 and .45-70), some 20,000 were turned out before cessation of production in 1892.
In the meantime, Marlin cataloged its Model 1888, which had the advantage of a shorter-throw mechanism to handle the pistol cartridges for which it was chambered: .32-20, .38-40 and .44-40.
Production lasted only one year, when the rifle was superseded by an improved model, the 1889. This was the first of the solid-top frame Marlins, a feature felt by many to be superior to some if its rivals and the first gun to possess the true “Marlin look.”
While centerfire rifles were certainly the staples of the company’s business, John Marlin also recognized the need for rimfire repeaters. Anticipating the famed Model 39, which would appear few decades later, the firm came out with a .22 and .30 Model 1891 lever gun, which the firm manufactured for six years, turning out almost 19,000 of the rifles in several variations.
This was followed by a Model 1892, made from 1895 to 1916. It was similar to its predecessor but had improved features such as a more efficient ejector and broader firing pin.
While Marlins had been enjoying reasonable popularity, it was rare for any particular model to exceed 50,000 units before being retired. All this would change with the highly popular Model 1893, again available in several calibers and styles. This rugged, reliable rifle continued in manufacture until 1935, by which time some 1 million guns had been made.
This was followed by the Model 1894, which had a shorter action to handle pistol cartridges. This rifle, while not coming close to matching the popularity or production numbers of the Winchester Model 92 or Model 94, still sold respectably well–with about a quarter of a million of them ending up in the hands of satisfied buyers.
Marlin’s 94 is an especially interesting arm for collectors because, like the Model 93, it was offered not only in rifle and carbine variations but also in long-barreled “musket” configurations, both of which bring premium prices.
When John Mahon Marlin died in 1901, the reins of the company were picked up by his sons, Mahalon Henry Marlin and John Howard Marlin. During their watch, the company continued to go from strength to strength, offering things as diverse as pump shotguns and machine guns. Eventually the company would continue under different leaders and organization. But the product never faltered.
The rifle end of the business was still of utmost importance, and the firm continued to turn out lever guns of great quality. In 1936, the Model 1936 was introduced, which was basically a variation of the Model 93.
It would undergo another name change before finally becoming the Model 336, one Marlin’s most popular and widely disseminated products. While maintaining the sold-frame action of the 93, the gun was given a mo
re modern stock configuration, calibers were added, and various special models were offered over its long career. It is still being sold, and the number of variations available offer a fertile field for shooters and collectors.
Naturally the Model 1936 and 36 will be the more elusive of the 336 variations and can command premiums, but the later 336s are also fun collectibles (plus great shooters). They are not only seen in some numbers (though admittedly there are scarce ones) but provide the enthusiast with a real challenge to amass anything close to a complete run.
Perhaps the only other rifle to rival the 336 in the Marlin pantheon is the Model 39 .22 rimfire. Designed under the aegis of the Marlin-Rockwell Corporation, this extremely reliable, well-made little .22 repeater appeared in 1922. (By the bye, while most Model 39s are marked Marlin, some early guns were stamped Marlin-Rockwell and will bring substantial premiums.)
It had the advantage of having a 25-shot tubular magazine and could also be easily taken down into two pieces for easy transport. Along with the 336, the Model 39 (and 39A) has been offered in scads of models and styles making it an excellent–and in many cases, especially with later guns, not too expensive a rifle to begin collecting.
The Model 39A, which was similar in looks to the 39, came out in 1939 and included a few cosmetic and mechanical changes. Collectors recognize different types: a 1st Model with case-hardened frame and no serial number prefix; 2nd Model with case-hardening and a B serial prefix; 3rd Model, 1st Variation with a blued receiver, new front sight and Ballard rifling; 3rd Model 2nd Variation with white pistol grip and buttplate spacers; and 3rd Model 3rd variation cut with Micro-groove rifling and no pistol grip.
The 39A was also available in a number of commemorative versions, including Mountie, 90th Anniversary, Presentation, Century Limited, Article II and more.
Lest one think the Marlin sold only lever guns, at about the same time as the appearance of the 39, the company was also selling pump .22s–the Models 20, 25 and 38–to compete with Winchester. (Marlin had also offered another pump, the Model 18, in 1906.)
There were other, later lever guns. The Model 444 was introduced in 1964 to accommodate Marlin’s .444 caliber cartridge. There was also a Model 375, which is really not much more than a 336 chambered to handle the .375 Winchester round.
The Model 1894 was made in several versions (from 1969 to date) in .44 Special and .44 Remington Magnum; in later years it was also chambered to .41 Remington Magnum, .357 Magnum and .38 Special.
The popular Model 1895 and variants were made from 1972 to date. This beefier action was chambered to .45-70–and later in .450 Marlin, .480 Ruger and .475 Linebaugh (the latter two were available only in 2004).
It’s a great shooter and collector. In fact, in 1994 the 95 was offered in a Century Limited edition of only 2,500 guns, and in 1994-95 there was a 100-rifle Employee Special Edition Century Limited. Both of these bring substantial prices, especially the Employee variant.
Marlin was no slouch in the bolt action and semiauto areas either, over the years turning out scads of .22s in those configurations. For the most part, these guns don’t bring much on the collector market, being valued mostly as shooters or heirloom wall-hangers. There were also some single-shot rimfires made by the company, but, again, most have little collector interest.
The Marlin lever-action receivers, like those of Winchesters, offer themselves particularly well to embellishment. Over the years some of the most spectacular, engraved, gold-inlaid firearms I have ever seen have been Marlins. Needless to say, such guns command rarified prices–and frankly they are well worth the tariff.
Even Marlins with light engraving or special-order features such as unusual barrel lengths or styles, unusual sights and fancy stocks can boost a fairly commonplace piece into another stratum of desirability. While most early Marlins you will find out there are good, working guns, occasionally a jewel does turn up, sometimes in the most unlikely place.
Marlin was also involved in making arms for the war effort. Much of the World War I product involved machine guns, so unless you are able to obtain a Class 3 license, your state permits it, and you have lots of money, collecting options here are somewhat limited.
In World War II, Marlin built the UDM (United Defense Supply Corporation) submachine gun, and also during WWII and Korea the company produced barrels and other parts for M1 Garands and M1 Carbines–as well as barrels for M3 “grease guns” during the Korean conflict.
While space precludes doing more than touching upon Marlin’s many interesting and collectible products, I hope that if nothing else this short piece has at least piqued your interest and you will go on to study more about these fascinating arms.