By J. Scott Rupp
Several years ago at a writer seminar, Marlin announced the return of the Marlin 444, which had been out of production since 2011. Unfortunately, during early production and testing, the company realized the rifle wasn’t ready for prime time. Now it is.
Introduced in 1965 with the .444 Marlin cartridge, the Model 444 was the most powerful lever action of its day. It originally had a 24-inch barrel, straight-grip Monte Carlo stock and double barrel band, but by 1976 those features had been changed to what we see today in what Marlin is calling the Model 1895–.444 Marlin: 22-inch barrel, pistol-grip stock and steel fore-end cap. The current version retains the maligned but easily ignored crossbolt safety that was inflicted on the rifle in 1988.
The most significant change, the one that caused the stop-and-start reintroduction, involved the Ballard rifling. Designers decided to change it to a 1:20 twist to improve accuracy with current loads.
When the straight-wall .444 Marlin round made its debut, it offered a huge advantage over the .45-70 Gov’t due to its much higher pressure ceiling. And according to William S. Brophy’s book Marlin Firearms, the firm made a big deal out of this power in the announcement for rifle and round: “The mighty Marlin .444 has a higher Knock-Out value than even the .338 Winchester Magnum at ranges beyond 100 yards! At 150 yards, its K-O score dwarfs even the .300 H&H and the .30-06.”
Whether or not you subscribe to John Taylor’s K-O values, there’s no denying the .444’s power. Using the velocities I recorded with Hornady’s 265-grain flatpoint Superformance load, I calculated 3,239 ft.-lbs. of muzzle energy. Hornady’s book values for this load promise 2,300 ft.-lbs. at 100 yards and 1,500 ft.-lbs. at 200 yards.
That’s serious medicine for the largest game in North America—save brown and polar bears. And it accomplishes this with relatively mild recoil. Granted, it’s not a lot of fun to shoot at the bench, but from field positions it’s actually pleasant. You get a good shove, sure, but it’s not a sharp shot to the shoulder.
I’ve used straight-grip centerfire lever actions all my life, but I found I really like the pistol-grip style, and the .444’s grip is nicely hand-filling—as is the fore-end. Both are of American black walnut and feature point checkering with a diamond in the center of the pattern. The buttstock is fitted with a thin, red rubber buttpad, which looks nice but doesn’t do much to tame recoil. The underside of the stock features the Marlin “bullseye,” and the grip is tastefully adorned with a plain black cap.
I’d intended to do the accuracy testing with the iron sights, but I discovered I simply can’t shoot semi-buckhorns anymore. I thought I’d hedged my bets correctly by ordering a Lyman 66 aperture receiver sight for the gun, but I discovered when it arrived that the .444’s receiver is not drilled and tapped for such a sight.
That surprised me, so I contacted Marlin fan Layne Simpson. He told me both of his older Marlin 444s are drilled and tapped, so apparently Marlin decided this extra machining step wasn’t worth the expense anymore. I have to disagree, but I understand the reasoning.
I bought an EGM rail for the receiver top and mounted my trusty Nikon Monarch 3 2-8X for the accuracy test. Depending on where and how you hunt, this would be a great combo. But I was thinking about elk in dark timber, and when I was done shooting groups, I removed the scope and installed an Aimpoint Micro H-2.
I shot it at 50 and 75 yards from offhand and sitting, and, man, is that the ticket. The red dot is super-fast to acquire and easy to hit with, and it doesn’t add weight. Plus, it allows me to carry the rifle in one hand, which is indispensable when maneuvering in tight cover. I can grip the rifle just at the front of the receiver, where it balances perfectly.
Even brand-new the Marlin’s lever works relatively effortlessly, although the trigger pull at five pounds, 14 ounces is heavy. That’s to be expected, but judging from the groups I got, it didn’t affect accuracy much.
When the Marlin folks told us last year the rifle would shoot an inch at 100 yards, I was skeptical. But they weren’t blowing smoke. Yes, this particular rifle didn’t care for the Remington Core-Lokts, but both Hornady loads shot well. I had a one-inch group with Superformance and two one-inchers with LeverEvolution, and the averages were better than I expected.
If you’re looking for a handy, powerful rifle capable of taking down elk, moose, hogs, black bear and deer, in a unique cartridge, the Model 1895–.444 Marlin just might be your gun.