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Do yourself a favor and take this little test. Walk around your house and garage and identify those tools, books and truly useful items that you depend upon regularly. The pocket knife that goes with you everywhere; a shop tool you use daily; that good book you always return to time and time again; an old, comfortable hat that always performs as required.
Now do the same test with your firearms. Quickly, without over-analyzing, which rifle, shotgun or handgun do you always grab first? For me, itıs a model 1894 Marlin leveraction in .44 Magnum. Handy, powerful, accurate.
At 37.5 inches overall length, the 20-inch barreled M-1894 weighs 6 lbs. and holds 10 honest rounds of .44 Magnum and 11 rounds of .44 Special. The Marlin is more comfortable for me than the Winchester. And the styling appeals to me more than the Savage or Ruger leveractions.
Mine is equipped with Ashley aperture sights. When I throw it to my shoulder the front and rear sights naturally and easily align on target. It comes from the factory pre-drilled and tapped for either scope or aperture sight. And since it is designed with a side-eject system, the shooter of this rifle can use any sighting arrangement he wants. Redfield, Williams and others make very good aperture sights, all of which improve accuracy and are just as quick to use as standard iron rifle sights.
What many people may not know is how much can be done with a lever action, especially when chambered in .44 Magnum. I wanted to find out. Many people own rifles of different types, but few really wring them out entirely. They usually accept what they have heard or read somewhere as all there is to know about a weapon or cartridge. I wanted to know for myself from personal testing and empirical evidence what my weapon and cartridge could do. I tested the rifle and cartridge combination every way I personally knew; other people know much more than I do, but this was a test of me and my rifle.
First, let's look at the worthiness of the cartridge itself. Ballistically, it's close to the .30-30 Win. at iron-sight hunting ranges, but the .44 Magnum can be loaded with bullets ranging from 180-300 grains. A hard cast 245-grain Keith bullet will penetrate a black bear end to end at a starting velocity of only 1250 fps from an 8-inch S&W revolver. And 180-gr. bullets can be run up to 2000 fps in a rifle, making this one serious rifle.
The .44 bullet is nearly 50 percent larger in diameter than .30-caliber bullets. It uses only two-thirds the powder, making it more economical to reload and shoot. Out to 150 yards, it is plenty powerful for nearly any North American hunting need, except for very large animals. Even small game can be taken at closer distances without destroying too much meat if non-expanding bullets are used and shots are well placed.
Next, we'll look at accuracy and distance capability.
Once I got the hang of the buckhorn sights, I was easily able to get a five-shot group within the black of a rifle target at 100 yards. But that still represented groups with a 6-inch spread. An improvement in the sighting system was a must for any increase in distance capability beyond 100 yards.
One can only shoot as well as he can see; so, obviously, an aperture receiver sight would yield better accuracy than standard sights, and a telescope finer accuracy still. So I called Ashley Outdoor and ordered their aperture with matching front blade. Just a few $10 bills provided a marked improvement in accuracy. When the sighting system arrived, I simply screwed them into place in the predrilled holes on my Marlin and started shooting. No adjustments were made. With an aperture sight and .44 Special cartridges I was able to knock off upended 12 ga. shotgun shells from a sitting position at 25 yards. And with the .44 magnum loads after a bit of practice, my brother-in-law and I were able to whack an 8-inch steel gong regularly at 200 yards offhand.
My friend installed a set of aperture sights on his Marlin, also in .44 Magnum, and his groups shrank by half to about 1.5 inches at 50 yards, 3 inches at 100 yards and 6 inches at a full 150 yards. All of it was accomplished with an unaltered rifle, using a center-of-mass hold, having zeroed the carbine for 100 yards. In his case, jacketed hollow points improved accuracy even more over the semi-wadcutters I used. (Of course, if a guy puts as much effort into his leveractions as he does his bolt actions, he will see similar accuracy, MOA in many cases.)
The use of aperture sights makes keeping shots within an 8-inch vital zone easily attainable. (A steady hold or a rest goes without saying.) Which means the carbine can be used out as far as shots can be kept in an 8-inch circle and still provide appropriate terminal velocity. We may comfortably say the Marlin in .44 Magnum chambering, 240-grain bullets, is a 150-yard rig. With proper tuning and skill, I'm sure you can do much better.
Fourth, we will analyze rapid fire capability.
This testing was fun. I started with a full magazine load of 11 rounds of .44 Special (240-grain Hornady XTP JHPs over 17 grains of #2400). At the whistle, I shot as fast as accurately possible at a steel target 25 yards distant, then reloaded and fired again and again until a minute had elapsed. My rate of fire was 18 shots per minute. After running this drill several times, my best rate of fire was increased to 20 shots per minute. I ran this drill with 240-grain jacketed truncated cone and 240-grain Hornady XTP jacketed hollowpoint bullets.
With the .44 Magnum loads, I started with 10 rounds using Keith bullets. The results were about the same overall, 20 rounds per minute and no malfunctions.
The little Marlin is capable of fairly rapid and accurate fire. At first try, I got off six shots and five hits (Lesson 1: you can't miss fast enough to matter) on a steel target at 25 yards in about 12 seconds. On second try, I got five shots and five hits in 9 seconds. On another day, I was able to get four shots and four hits on four separate steel targets, knocking them all down in 6.5 seconds. A trained leveraction user can reduce that time, potentially getting five shots and five useful hits in 5 seconds flat.
Just another word on this rate of fire business. If a skilled rifleman can shoot a round a second, we have a theoretical cyclic rate of 60 rounds per minute. Only one problem - reloading time. Shooting 10, then stopping to thumb in 10 more reduces shots per minute. It's not a belt-fed machinegun. Nor is it intended to be. It only has 10-11 shots per magazine load, but a lot can change with 10 rounds of accurate fire. but fast, accurate fire is possible. The potential cyclic rate of 60 rounds-per-minute is irrelevant because no one can actually do it. Thus we discover through personal testing that a practical rate of fire for me, including reloading time, and starting with a full magazine tube and an empty chamber, would be 18-22 rounds per minute. Not bad, especially if I can make a hit with each shot.
One of the most important aspects of any rifle is functional reliability. Using the same Keith bullets in .44 Special loads, my friends and I took turns shooting and put nearly 300 rounds through my Marlin one afternoon without a single malfunction of any kind, except for a couple of failures to go into battery when someone operated the lever too gingerly. A couple of dozen truncated cone and hollowpoint bullets were also fired with the same results.
So we've got a handy carbine and a good cartridge. What next? At this point, it would be well to discuss modes of carry.
The Marlin is small and flat enough to fit in any vehicle. You can put it behind the seat, in the gun rack, in the trunk or standing upright against the dash in a police-style quick-release retainer. Some like the traditional rifle rack mounted on the ceiling of their trucks to make them less visible to passersby, yet still available for instant use.
The carbine's smooth shape makes it easy to grab anywhere along its length. There are no sharp edges, except maybe the hammer spur and standard rear sight. It can be carried by hand at the balance without a bolt handle or irritating semi-auto magazine in the way. For long walking or shooting distances, a sling can be added for shoulder carry and a steadier hold.
With a scabbard, the little Marlin can be carried horseback or motorcycle, in an airplane or boat. It can even be tied to a backpack. I know one local knifemaker who slings his Marlin over his shoulder as he rides his bike to his shop. (Imagine the wide-eyed stares of big-city visitors to our town, our man peddling along the road with a real rifle slung across his back!)
It's simple to operate, too. Push a cartridge through the loading gate, operate the lever and you're ready to fire. A child can operate the mechanism. In fact, a .22 in lever action form is great for instructing your children to shoot. Adults can load a lever action on a cold day while wearing gloves or even in the dark without messing it up very often.
Caveat: When shooting the Marlin, try several bullet styles to see what works most reliably and accurately in your rifle. Some bullets feed better than others in untuned rifles. (Lesson 2: determine what works in your rifle and stick to it.)
In .44 Magnum chambering, the 6-lb. rifle has brisk yet controllable recoil. When I told my friends we were going to have a turkey shoot with .44 magnum ammo, they flinched in fear. They were thinking of revolver recoil. The 12 to 18 shots they would make (on a cool fall day with padded coats on) wouldn't hurt them.
Fear not, said I, for a rifle weighing more than twice that of a Model 29 S&W is easy to control and fun to shoot!
We actually used .44 Special +P loads with 240-grain bullets. The winner of the turkey shoot had never competed with a firearm before or shot a lever action. Four shots, four hits, four downed steel plates in slightly more than 6 seconds. He simply followed instructions and adhered to fundamentals, aiming carefully and shooting accurately. (Lesson 3: It's the skill of the rifleman, not the capacity of the magazine, that matters.)
For close quarters police or defense use, the Marlin 1894 is no more difficult to wield than a short-barreled shotgun, and offers greater precision.
Hunters have used the little rifle on everything up to small bears and more. It's a bit too expensive for regular use on rabbits and squirrels, but the carbine definitely works well on small and medium game. As for other game, just about anything you can get close to in the U.S., you can drag home - if you can place your shot with appropriate bullets.
If you have an older Marlin M-1894 (pre-1982) without the crossbolt safety, don't worry. Lever actions without safeties are no more dangerous than single or double action revolvers, Glock semi-autos or double-barreled shotguns. Just remember the four safety rules and you won't have any trouble.
For die-hard short rifle buffs, Marlin once made a limited run of The Marlin Limited in .44 Magnum with a 16-inch barrel. I know of one such rifle set up with a Williams receiver sight; the best of handiness and practical accuracy together on one rifle. What a honey!
In summary, I recommend getting some variant of the M1894. They are relatively inexpensive, well-made, simple and tough. But above all, they are relatively accurate, powerful and handy. Looking for all the world like antiques with their century-and-a-quarter-old design makes them politically correct. And reloads are easy to make.
Everyone I know who owns a Marlin M1894 in .44 Magnum chambering plans to keep it. They call it their .44 caliber friend because it is reliable, friendly and available when needed.