Like many novice riflemen, I started shooting with the goal of being a better shot. As a side branch to this, I’ve tried to find just what rifle out of all the choices would be the ‘perfect rifle’. Now to my way of thinking, a rifle should shoot well, but not just off a bench. Moving through woods, plinking, and the more active shooting sports have always captured my imagination.
In this day and age, shooters have their pick of an excellent selection of bolt action and semi-auto rifles, along with the pistols and shotguns that complement them. While I found favor with certain types of pistols and shotguns rather quickly, finding the perfect rifle always seemed to elude me. Accuracy was definitely available in many rifles I’ve used, but the other side of the equation was never quite right.
My experience using shotguns taught me how a gun should feel when shooting offhand. But I could never quite replicate that handling with a center fire rifle. By chance, I began using Marlin lever guns early this year, and now my search seems over.
Handling and balance are two intrinsic traits for rifles that don’t always reveal themselves ‘til you start shooting the gun. After all, you can describe balance, but only in a limited way. The gun usually has to hit the hands before you can ‘get it’. Due to my budding interest in wing- and clay-shooting, I soon realized that what makes a shotgun great, beyond obvious things like reliability, was the gun’s ability to move with you and swing naturally. A well fitted and balanced shotgun seems to move in sync with your body, with targets being destroyed by your thought and gaze.
In contrast, an ill fitted or clunky gun seems to crash through the sky, causing strained arms and wide misses. What does this have to do with Marlins? Well simply put, the balance on these rifles is just about perfect. 336’s and 1894’s in particular are easy to keep steady on a target, and yet agile enough to quickly and accurately move to another one. You don’t even have to take your head off the stock to cycle the action, just like a pump or semi-auto.
Most bolt actions, especially the new tactical ones, feel like a lead pipe with a grip stuck to it. Add on the gigantic flat forend that works so well for bench shooting and you’ve got a rifle that’s perfectly suited to sitting still. Many semi-autos aren’t bad, but tend be very heavy up front and hard to stabilize offhand due to the machinery inside them. AR-15’s are very close to the mark, but the in-line stock does not lend itself to natural movement. Pump action rifles are usually pretty good too, and certainly can equal a lever action in speed, but the moving forend tends to make sights wiggle and shake which can mess with accuracy. They also tend to be uncommon or antique. So with all the experimenting, a lever action Marlin really does seem to be the best choice for fast offhand shooting.
Just about everyone agrees that lever actions are fast. This statement is usually followed by the backhanded compliment that leverguns are ‘good woods guns’. In other words, minute of pizza pan, but don’t get your hopes up. I did not have anything to challenge this assumption right until I actually shot a Marlin lever action. Truth is the mechanical accuracy of a Marlin more than matches most autoloaders and with tuning and good ammo (I do handloads for all my guns) they can compete with bolt actions. I’ve handled many that shot the vaunted sub-MOA group at 100 yard ranges.
But more importantly to me, the levergun’s handling qualities allow you to make the most of mechanical accuracy away from the bench, where it matters most.
I’ve tested my little 336 against my customized AR-15 and VZ-2008 in offhand shooting, with the emphasis on good hits (about a 6 inch circle at all ranges offhand unsupported). In aimed rapid fire all three are evenly matched for speed at 100 yards. At 200 yards I can reliably hit the target with the 336 but not the others. I’ve been shooting the VZ and the AR for far longer so this was certainly an eye opener. There really is something special, something more than the sum of the parts, to a good lever gun, and offhand accuracy is part of that equation.
I’ve shot a lot of different rifles over the years, owned a few, but never considered lever actions ‘til earlier this year. This is a shame; because the Marlin lever action platform is the ‘perfect rifle’ that I was always looking for. I’ve heard, and sometimes given, many reasons why lever actions are outdated rifles, close range only, yesterday’s news. Thankfully these guns perform far beyond the faint praise they’re given.
Perhaps for some, the Marlin will never be the right gun, but I’ve found Marlins to be too useful, too intuitive, and too much fun to simply ignore. Old or new, classic or custom, I believe a Marlin has a place in just about any shooter’s stockpile, regardless of how old or new the shooter is.