A Value Proposition

A Value Proposition

Marlin's new XL7 is an entry-level rifle that doesn't know it's an entry-level rifle.

I used to steal guns from my dad. Okay, maybe "steal" is too strong a word--"borrow" is more like it. All I can say is that during squirrel season my old man used to have hunt for his Marlin 39A before he could hunt for bushytails because, more often than not, the rifle was in the closet where I kept my meager gun collection. I coveted that rifle for years until, to his relief, I bought one of my own, and my 39A is a rifle I'll never part with.


I'm not alone. Lots of hunters and shooters have developed an affinity for one Marlin or another, and odds are it's a lever action. Yes, the company makes or has made rimfire bolt rifles and semiautos, pump shotguns, a bolt-action goose hunting shotgun (with 36-inch barrel, no less) and even handguns in its earliest days, but its bread and butter is the side-ejecting lever action, a design that dates back to the Model 1889.


Late last year, though, Marlin made the decision to revisit the centerfire bolt-action rifle market with the new XL7. I say revisit because, for those who missed it, Marlin produced a rifle called the MR-7 back in the mid-1990s. You're forgiven if you don't remember it since the gun didn't exactly set the world on fire; it was introduced in 1994-95 and was discontinued in 1998. (Marlin also produced bolt-action centerfire models 322/422 and 455 in the 1950s, but those were built on Sako and FN Mauser actions respectively.)

So why a new bolt action and why now? It's not as if the U.S. market is starving for bolt rifles, and with the advent of Hornady's LeverEvolution ammo and hot-shot lever guns such as Marlin's own XLR, the lever action is a better hunting gun than it's ever been.


But in the gun business, as in other consumer-product endeavors, survival often depends on diversification, and let's face it, there's a reason there are so many bolt actions on the market: They're far and away the most popular centerfire action for hunting.

"The XL7 opens up market segments and categories we're not in," Marlin's director of marketing, Matt Foster, told me as we popped the top on a couple of beers after a long, hard day of deer hunting in northcentral Kansas.

And one look at the XL7's suggested retail price tag--$326 for black stock, $356 for camo--tells you exactly what market segment Marlin is aiming for. I know some of you just let loose a little snort of derision. However, if you're the kind of shooter who judges value based solely on price, in the case of the Marlin you'd be wrong.

The XL7 has been in development for three years, and it's designed from scratch, sharing no parts with the MR-7. It's also designed with no apologies to be an entry-level gun.

The molded stock is glass-filled, nylon-reinforced Zytel into which the action is aluminum pillar bedded. The barrel is not free floated but instead rests on a pair of pressure pads at the fore-end tip, situated at five and seven o'clock.

The round receiver is machined from 4140 alloy bar stock and features Winchester Model 70 long-action scope base geometry up top. Initially chambered to .25-06, .270 Winchester and .30-06, it feeds four cartridges from a blind magazine, another cost-saving feature.

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Specifications:

MARLIN XL7

ACTION TYPE:2-lug centerfire bolt, sliding extractor, plunger ejector
CALIBER:.25-06, .270 Win., .30-06
CAPACITY:4+1 blind magazine
BARREL LENGTH: 22 in., 1:10 twist
OVERALL LENGTH:42 1/2 in.
WEIGHT:6 1/2 lb.
STOCK:black or camo (XL7 C) reinforced Zytel; 13 1/4 in. length of pull
FINISH:polished blue
SIGHTS:None; drilled and tapped; one-piece aluminum base included
TRIGGER:Pro-Fire with release, user adjustable to 2 1/2 lb.
PRICE:$326, $356 (XL7 C)
MANUFACTURER:Marlin, Marlinfirearms.com , 203-239-5621

The Pro-Fire trigger incorporates a release that locks the trigger until the release is depressed. Pull weight adjustable courtesy of a jam nut at the front of the tr

igger.

The bolt is fluted for looks and to reduce surface area. Fluting also gives dirt and grease someplace to go in order to achieve a smooth, non-binding bolt throw. To help with that, the right bolt lug has an anti-bind slot that matches a rail in the receiver.

The bolt head is pinned to the bolt body, and it self-centers so the lugs can get even engagement as they rotate into the locked position. A sliding extractor pulls cases from the chamber, and rounds are kicked out smartly courtesy of a plunger-style ejector.

The bolt features a full shroud for protection against escaping gases in the event of case rupture, and there's a red cocking indicator at the rear. The brazed-on bolt handle sports a nicely proportioned, partially stippled round knob.

The trigger-blocking safety is activated via a two-position rocker style lever on the right side of the tang, and a Model 70-type bolt release is located on the left side immediately behind the receiver.

At first glance, the rifle may remind you a bit of a Savage. For one thing, the trigger incorporates a release ala the Savage AccuTrigger, but this trigger is an in-house Marlin design developed by Bruce Rozum called the Pro-Fire. The trigger cannot move backward until the trigger release is depressed. This allows the trigger to be user-adjustable for weight (not travel) down to 21⁄2 pounds by turning a "jam nut" in or out.

The second feature reminiscent of Savage is the barrel nut that joins the barrel to receiver."We do that to ensure accuracy and consistent headspacing," Foster says. "It's straight go/no-go; you close the bolt and tighten the nut."

The 22-inch barrel is finished in a polished (but not highly polished) blue, and it's button rifled with a 1:10 twist. It tapers from 1.81 inches in front of the barrel nut to 0.72 at the midpoint to 0.59 at the muzzle. The crown boasts a target-style recess to protect it from damage.

The rifle comes with a gun lock and a one-piece aluminum Weaver-style scope base with ejection-port cutout.

I was fortunate to spend a fair bit of time with an early production rifle, chambered to .30-06, on the range and in the field. From the bench it proved to be a great shooter, with accuracy as good or better than what you might find on some more-expensive production rifles.

Honors for top average group size were a tie between Remington's Core-Lokt Ultra 150-grain round and Hornady's 180-grain Interlock. Both averaged 11⁄3 inches. Average groups for Winchester's AccuBond 180-grainer came in under 11⁄2, and Federal's Barnes Triple Shock X Bullet 165 was less than 13⁄4.

Taken as whole, this is one accurate and nicely consistent rifle; the difference between the worst average and the best average was about a third of an inch. I made no sight corrections during testing, and when I overlaid the targets I discovered that the XL7 put all four loads into essentially the same impact area--within 11⁄2 inches. It's certainly handy to have a rifle behave that way, especially if the gun is going to be asked to tackle a lot of chores from, say, antelope to elk, which a cartridge such as the .30-06 is certainly capable of handling.

After I got off the bench, I fired the rifle from offhand, sling-supported sitting and sitting off shooting sticks. The XL7 has a really nice balance to it, and the soft rubber recoil pad (Marlin is calling it Soft-Tech) does a yeoman's job of taming the recoil of the 180-grain loads.

The rear of the bolt features a full shroud and a red cocking indicator; the bolt handle is brazed on. The safety is a two-position rocker style.

Shooting the trigger just as it came from the factory (set at a sensible three pounds, two ounces on average, as measured with a Lyman digital gauge), I did occasionally notice a bit of creep when shooting off a rest, but from field positions all I felt was a nice, clean break.

Cycling is not as smooth as, say, a Remington 700, but it was certainly serviceable, and I didn't notice any bind in either slow or rapid fire.

For my whitetail hunt, I decided to take the 150-grain Remington load since it shot well and would be suitable for the open farm country of northcentral Kansas.

Normally a whitetail hunt involves sitting on your butt all day and waiting for a decent buck to appear. It's an effective tactic for sure, but it doesn't give you a great feel for a rifle beyond how it performs at game time. Fortunately for me, my experience wasn't limited to that.

Dan Pletcher of High Plains Hunting (highplainshunting.com, 785-346-6426) did put me on a stand, and a good one--a hay bale blind overlooking a green field of winter wheat. The first evening I saw several decent bucks, but Kansas is famous for giant racks, and I wasn't about to pull the trigger on some 21⁄2-year-old eight-pointer--at least not on the first day or two.

Over the next few days I saw some more just-okay bucks from that blind, but with the clear, windy weather that had swept in, it soon became apparent that if our party of four ne'er-do-well writers and Matt was going to score, we were going to have to take the fight to the deer. And when the plan called for a few midday pushes, I volunteered to play dog.

That gave me a whole lot of walking time with the rifle, threading in and out of thick cover along a winding stream bottom. A lot of deer had taken refuge there, and most of the time the XL7 was at port arms just in case.

The rifle weighs 61⁄2 pounds--not counting the Leupold 2.5-8X VX-III, which was a perfect match for the gun--and it was a pleasure to carry and felt great in my hands. It shouldered with ease on several occasions when bucks presented opportunities I didn't take, including one young eight-pointer that stared at me from its blowdown bed a scant 30 yards away. The crosshairs locked on his chest without thought, and had he been a good buck it would've been lights out.

The hunt did bring out my only two criticisms of the rifle. One, I don't like blind magazines. When you're unloading a lot during the day (before getting into a vehicle, for example), it's a pain to have to cycle the action to get all the cartridges out.

I also didn't care for the follower design. I found I had to concentrate on positioning each round before pushing it home. If I didn't focus, the rounds didn't seem to want to situate correctly.

My chance to take a deer came on the next-to-last evening. Dan and I had spotted a good buck that morning, and we hiked a mile or so back to the area in t

he afternoon in hopes of catching sight of him again. Sure enough, as the sun began to set, we saw the handsome 10-pointer follow a doe out of a tree line several hundred yards away.

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Accuracy Results:

MARLIN XL7

.30-06 SpringfieldBullet
Weight (gr.)
Muzzle
Velocity (fps)
Standard
Deviation
Avg.
Group (in.)
Remington Core-Lokt Ultra1502,69024.31.33
Hornady InterLock1802,45613.81.33
Winchester AccuBond1802,56827.51.46
Federal Barnes Triple Shock1652,5839.01.68
Notes: Accuracy tested off a benchrest at 100 yards; figures are averages of three three-shot groups. Rifle cleaned after each type, followed by a fouler shot, Velocities measured 12 feet from the muzzle with CED Millenium chronograph

The author found the rifle to be a great hunting gun that carried nicely, handled well and got the job done when the time came to take this Kansas buck.

The doe drifted toward us, the buck 50 yards or so behind, before disappearing into a brushy ravine. She emerged from the other side and jumped a fence that put her smack on Dan's lease. And while this kind of thing hardly ever happens to me, the buck followed the script to the letter just a few minutes later--jumping the fence at the exact same spot.

We were 250 yards away, hunkered down in the sparsest cover imaginable, but when the deer vanished into the ravine, the rifle was already on the shooting sticks, and I maneuvered myself into a solid sitting position oriented on the spot where we hoped the whitetails would cross.

When the buck bounded over the wire, all I had to do was move the rifle just the tiniest bit and wait until he took two steps to clear a piece of brush before I sent the bullet on its way. At the shot, I saw the buck kick his hind legs back and heard the smack of the bullet hitting home, but he took off like a scalded dog. As the deer sprinted across the field, I let loose a volley of three shots before he disappeared into the brush on the other side.

We were both sure I'd hit the deer, and I was sure he was well-hit, but I was still on high alert and a bit anxious as we walked quickly to where we'd last seen him. We found blood right away and followed the trail, a 30-yard buttonhook just inside the edge of the brush, to find the buck stone dead.

I wish I could tell you I connected with any of those 200- to 300-yard running shots but, alas, all I can say is that my first shot was true--right through the boiler room. It's certainly not the gun's fault that I can't hit running game; the XL7 does get all the credit, however, for enabling me to rack off three shots in a very short time span.

Gun writers tend to throw around labels such as "utilitarian," and I'm sure that term or something like it will be applied to the new Marlin. But I think that particular label doesn't do this rifle justice because the XL7 is everything a hunting rifle needs to be: dependable, tough, accurate and handy. Further, if my early production sample is any indication, you get all those characteristics plus accuracy that's on par with what you'd find in some other production rifles costing a hell of a lot more money. And that, my friends, is the true meaning of the word "value."

Gun services provided by Turners Outdoorsman ( turners.com ). Range facilities provided by Angeles Ranges ( angelesranges.com ).

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