Opinion: David reviews a classic lever action. The Marlin 94 Rifle.
New York – -(AmmoLand.com)- If you mention to anyone who is familiar with guns, particularly lever action rifles, the simple moniker of “Model 94” and you will get all of the tales of reverence of the Winchester Model 94 Rifle, and it’s hundred plus year history and with it of course arguably the most famous deer cartridge of all time, the .30-30. There is another rifle that goes by the same title that to some has a following that has sustained it for just as long, and that is the Marlin Model ’94 Lever-Action Rifle.
Marlin Model 94 Lever-Action Rifle
By the time 1894 rolled around, Winchester was already the big name when it came to lever action rifles. With the help of John Moses Browning providing one successful design on top of the other and earlier guns like the 1866 Yellow Boy and the 1873, Winchester was well entrenched and had the lion’s share of the market, especially in the west.
In 1881, an upstart by the name of John Mahlon Marlin started his own company, the Marlin Fire Arms Company, and his first gun, the Marlin 1881, launched a salvo across the bow of every other gun maker. The Model 1881, was the first lever action rifle capable of firing the .45-70 round along with other large caliber rounds up to the .45-85. What was noteworthy was that the Model 1881 came out five years before Winchester introduced the Model 1886, their big bore lever gun capable of handling the truly powerful hunting cartridges.
Marlin didn’t stop there, with the help of engineer and designer L.L. Hepburn, a new, smaller frame lever action was introduced in 1888 that was chambered in .32 WCF, .38 WCF, and .44 WCF, which were incidentally, the same calibers as the Winchester 1873 rifle.
The Model 1888 was a top eject design like the Winchester 1873 which caused it to run afoul of the New Haven Arms company. Only an estimated 4,800 Model 1888 Marlins were made before production ceased in 1889.
Hepburn and Marlin though were not finished, and what came next was what made them stand apart from Winchester and other companies then and now.
Marlin unveiled the Model 1889 lever action, which unlike the top eject design of the 1888 or what Winchester was producing, was the first lever action to have a flat solid receiver that ejected cartridges to the side. A few other upgrades from the earlier design strengthened the action so that the gun could not be fired unless it was closed. The caliber choices were the same three Winchester cartridges as the previous model, which were very popular and wildly popular.
While the 1889 Marlin was a good design, Winchester responded with the Model 1892, a smaller version of their Model 1886, both of which were designed by John Browning and chambered in the same cartridges as the 1889 Marlin. L.L. Hepburn didn’t back down from the challenge, taking the Model 1889 and refining it further. The action was strengthened, the 1889’s rear locking lug, which tended to pinch the shooter’s finger, was removed, the trigger was one piece, and the firing pin was converted to one that was a two-piece design, and the finger lock on the lever was removed. Again the calibers were held over from the Model 1889 except .25 WCF and .218 Bee which was added towards the end of the production of the first generation of the Marlin 94’s run.
The early Marlin 94 Rifle was available in the form of a rifle with a 24-inch barrel that was either octagon or round, came in either a full, three-quarter or half magazine, solid frame or takedown versions. The rifles all had case colored receivers, levers, hammers, butt plates & forend caps. The barrel and magazine tubes were blued.
You could also get the Marlin Lever Action 94 in the form of a saddle ring carbine with a 20-inch barrel or the Baby Carbine, which could be ordered with a barrel as short as 15-inches and with a half magazine. This version only weighed about five pounds and makes a great rifle to pack and carry.
The Marlin 94 Rifle like the other side eject rifles that were produced found favor in the colder climates like the Yukon because they didn’t get snow or ice in their actions like top eject designs and freeze up. I can say from experience, I often see more used Marlins on gun racks compared to the number of Winchesters here in the Adirondack Mountains, whether that was because they were more popular at the time because of the cold climate is something that has been lost to the ages.
Marlin produced the early Model 94 until 1933 before shutting down production. There is no way to know exactly how many were made since the serial number records only go up to 1906 and a little more than 355,000 and Marlin numbered all of their guns consecutively, so all of their models ran within the same number range. Marlin made over 450,000 lever action rifles, so it’s a certainty a lot of early Model 94’s were made.
Marlin though was not finished with the Model 94, although it took thirty-six years to get back to it. There were efforts to make .44 Magnum work in the Model 336, but the action just couldn’t be fitted to where it was reliable, so in 1969 the Model 94 came back in .44 Magnum, and that was it for many years. Then there was a run of cartridges that included the .357 Magnum, a couple of old favorites, the .25-20, .32-20, and the .218 Bee. The .41 Magnum and .45 Colt were also introduced. Today the Model 94 is offered in a variety of options, finishes, barrel lengths, and styles and in .357 Magnum, .44 Magnum, and .45 Colt.
I recently picked up a Marlin 94, it’s not my first, although the others I have owned were newer versions. I have owned a pair of 1894CL’s in both .25-20 and .32-20, a .41 Magnum version and an early 1970’s vintage Model 94 in .44 Magnum, but this particular version goes back to the early days, and as best as can be determined by the serial number, it was made sometime between 1916-1917.
This Model 94 is a rifle and in .32-20, one of my favorite calibers. There have been some rumors over the years that the early Marlins tend to have bores that are oversized for their calibers. I decided to test out some factory ammunition to see if that was true, this Marlin has some of the cleanest rifling I have seen in a long time.
At 25 yards with both Remington 100 grain ammunition and some Ultramax 115 loads, both of which fed through the old Marlin flawlessly and the empties ejected just as well out the right side. Both loads grouped very well, so I wonder if the rumors of those oversized bores on the Model 94 were just that.
I even tried out a few of my handloads, some mild loads with the Lyman 115 grain cast SWC. These were a little finicky because of their overall length, but they shot well on a rabbit silhouette I made up, a perfect target for the .32-20.
The Marlin Model 94 has been around a long time, and over the years it’s had some ups and downs, a long period where it wasn’t even available, but it appears now that it’s finally not going anywhere. It can be seen in the hands of Cowboy Action shooters, but don’t forget that it makes a darn good hunting rifle up close. The older versions with the smaller cartridges do very well on small game, and in the right circumstances, an occasional whitetail or two. Don’t pass one up if you get the chance to won it.
About David LaPell
David LaPell has been a Corrections Officer with the local Sheriff’s Department for thirteen years. A collector of antique and vintage firearms for over twenty years and an avid hunter. David has been writing articles about firearms, hunting and western history for ten years. In addition to having a passion for vintage guns, he is also a fan of old trucks and has written articles on those as well.