Once a Giant: Marlin Firearms By: Peter Suciu

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Lever-action rifles are practically synonymous with the name “Marlin,” and in 2008, the company sold its 30-millionth lever gun. Even today, it is impossible not to think of the Marlin Firearms Company and its connection to the rifles that were so widely used on the American frontier in the late 19th century, and which have remained a popular choice for sportsmen/sportswomen.

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Vintage Marlin Repeating Rifle ad
Marlin has been known for its solid top for more than a century! (Private Collection)

Yet, Marlin didn’t actually develop the lever-action, and it also produced a wide range of other firearms during its more than 150 years in business. It is time to set the record straight on this once giant of the American firearms industry.

John Mahlon Marlin – Pistol Maker

As with other successful firms that started up in the United States in the second half of the 19th century, a single individual could be credited with having the vision and fortitude to start a new company and build it into an empire. In this case, that individual was John Mahlon Marlin.

John Marlin
John Marlin may not be as famous as Samuel Colt, but he started a business almost as successful. (Public Domain)

In fact, the Marlin story isn’t that different from the origins of Colt, Remington, and Winchester—an East Coast inventor went into business and produced a firearm that would play a significant role in the country’s westward expansion. In the case of John Marlin, he was born in Hartford County, Connecticut, and as a teenager had already developed an interest in firearms.

He cut his teeth as an apprentice machinist at the American Machine Works—a job he started on his 18th birthday. The fact that he lived near “Gun Valley,” the region of Western Massachusetts and Connecticut that was home to companies such as the aforementioned Colt Manufacturing, allowed him his first break. Shortly after his 21st birthday, Marlin went to work at the Colt plant in Hartford, and during the American Civil War, he was among the workers producing pistols at the company’s New Haven plant.

From 1863 to 1867, the listing in the New Haven city directory even described him as “John M. Marlin—Pistol Maker.” Those firearms were actually small, single-shot pocket pistols, which today are known as “derringers,” a simple firearm that was first designed by Philadelphia gun maker Henry Deringer. Those early pistols, which were often sold to “ladies,” have become known to Marlin collectors as the “First Model” and actually pre-date the company’s official beginning.

Marlin Firearms

There are differing opinions on how John Marlin felt about producing those early single-shot pistols, but it is clear that he started to diversify, and began making single-action revolvers. In 1870, after raising capital and even working on his first patent—issued on April 5 of that year—for an ejector system for the small single-shot pistols with a swing-out barrel, Marlin branched out on his own.

The New Haven listing in 1872 described him as “Manufacturer of Firearms,” and the Marlin Fire Arms Company was officially born. It still produced those small pocket and purse pistols. Five models of the single-shot derringers were manufactured through 1881, and the total production was about 17,000. These had such whimsical names as “OK,” “Victor,” “Never Miss,” and “Stonewall.” These have become especially popular with collectors due to their rarity today.

Marlin Nevermiss Derringer
Manufactured between 1870 and 1881, an estimated 2,600 “Never Miss” derringers were produced (Photo: Rock Island Auction Company)

In addition, the company produced a solid-frame single-action .22 short pocket revolver, before expanding the product line to include .30 and .32 short and long cartridge models.

It was only in 1875 that the newly formed venture started producing rifles, but it still wasn’t the lever action. Instead, Marlin produced a model of the then-popular single-shot Ballard rifle. It sold reasonably well, but John Marlin apparently was still seeking to produce something different that would set the company apart.

It was in 1881 that Marlin introduced the Model 1881 lever-action repeating rifle—and soon after the company became well-known for the iconic firearm. It was a well-built rifle that was accurate. Chambered for powerful hunting rounds including the .45-70 and .38-55, it was well-received by the public and firmly established the company in the lever-action market.

Yet, it is important to note that Marlin didn’t sway from handguns, at least not initially. In 1887, the firm introduced its Model 1887 first top-break double-action revolver, first as a five-shot .38 Smith & Wesson, and later as .32 S&W. At the time, rivals S&W and Colt were also making double-action revolvers and dominated the market, but John Marlin’s design featured thee unique patented modifications, including a cylinder-locking mechanism, a cylinder-retaining catch, and an extractor mechanism.

A total of 15,000 of the Model 1887 were produced until it was discontinued in 1899—and it was the final handgun made by the company. While Marlin isn’t often remembered for its handguns, its total production of pistols and revolvers, including those ubiquitous derringers, actually exceeded 100,000 with nearly 100 distinct variations.

The Rifle Maker and More

In many ways, it would be fair to say—in the most positive way—that Marlin quickly became the main competitor to Winchester. Marlin was always Pepsi to Winchester’s Coca-Cola, but John Marlin still managed to carve out a crucial niche in the market. That was no easy task, as Oliver Winchester was more of a businessman than a gun designer.

Whereas Winchester was able to build on the designs of B. Tyler Henry, and proved successful in marketing its products; by contrast, John Marlin was a gun designer, first and foremost. He was able to refine the lever-action design, and this included the side ejection—known as the “Marlin Safety.” Though innovative, it would take years for that significant design modification to be truly appreciated.

Marlin introduced a series of popular lever-action rifles, including the Model 1889, which was chambered for popular handgun cartridges of the ear including the .44-40, .38-40, .32-20, and .25-20. That subsequently led to the Model 1894, which even today is favored by Cowboy action shooters. In addition, the Marlin Model 1891 became the first in a series of .22 rimfire lever-guns, leading to the development of the Model 39. Nearly a century and a half since their introduction, these small caliber rifles are still known as the “Cadillac of the .22s.”

Marlin Model 1894 Rifle
The Model 1894 is one of the most popular rifles ever made by Marlin. It was chambered for a variety of rounds such as .25-20 Winchester, .32-20 Winchester, .38-40, and .44-40 (Image: RIAC)

Just as it had proven successful with the smaller calibers, the same solid-top, side-ejection design was applied to full-length rifle cartridge models with the Model 1893—which would go on to be chambered in .25-35, .30-30, .32 Special, .32-40, and .38-55. This design would be refined as the Model 36, which then remained in production until 1948.

Marlin Vintage black and white ad
Marlin’s ads often lacked the visuals of Winchester, which could explain why it took a century to overtake its rival.

Those and other designs helped Marlin find its place in the lever-action market, made it able to stand alongside Winchester, and eventually become the dominant player in the market.

Notable Designers

Even as John Marlin had a hand in the designs of many of the guns to come out of his company—and he was awarded some 25 firearms-related patents between 1870 and 1889—Marlin also knew when to hire the best in the industry.

Designer, inventor, and noted competition shooter Lewis L. Hepburn played a significant hand in Marlin’s designs in the final decades of the 19th century. After coming over from Remington in 1886, he worked for Marlin for 30 years and was awarded a total of 26 patents. His contributions to the company included the Model 1888, as well as the Model 1891 and 1893. Annie Oakley reportedly used a Model 1891 for exhibition shooting, while Marlin also made her a special Model 1888.

Annie Oakley
Noted target shooter Annie Oakley used Marlin rifles including a custom-made Model 1888. (Public Domain)

In addition, Andrew Burgess, who had worked with Colt, Winchester, and Whitney, also worked for John Marlin, and a dozen of his patents were used in early Marlin lever-action designs. Carl Gustav “Gus” Swebilius, who served as the company’s chief engineer and designer from 1914 until 1929, was awarded a total of 26 patents while working at the company. He later formed the High Standard Manufacturing Company, which began manufacturing the High Standard pistols in 1931.

Death of John Marlin and a New Century

In 1901, at the age of 65, John Marlin passed away in New Haven, Connecticut. His sons Mahlon Henry and John Howard took over the company, and in 1910 acquired the Ideal Reloading Tool Company, which produced bullet molds. For a while, it looked as if the sons could carry on.

The Marlin Factory building
An image of the Marlin Factory in the early 20th century (Public Domain)

However, in 1915—after selling off Ideal—the company was acquired by a group of investors, and A.F. Rockwell became president, soon renaming it the Marlin Rockwell Corporation. The timing was notable, as Europe was already in the grips of the First World War, and despite a promise by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson to remain neutral; it looked like America would have to take sides.

During the war, Marlin became one of the largest producers of machine guns, making a vastly improved version of the Model 1895 Colt-Browning that became known as the “Marlin Gun.” It was optimized for use on airplanes. In addition, the company received a contract to produce 20,000 Browning Automatic Rifles (BARs), of which it delivered 16,000 by the end of the war. In total, Marlin Rockwell produced more than 60,000 machine guns and automatic weapons.

Marlin machine gun on tripod
The Marlin Gun was an improved version of the Colt-Browning M1894 machine gun. (Public Domain)
Marlin gun on airplane
Marlin gun mounted on De Havilland airplane, circa 1921

When the dust in Europe settled, Marlin was not well-positioned to transition back to the civilian market immediately and its business faltered. As a result, the company soon sold off businesses it had acquired during the war years—including firms that produced high-explosives, automobiles, and even ball bearings. Production returned to sporting firearms, and the company was reorganized as the Marlin Firearms Corporation.

Yet, it still failed to recover—and in 1922, Marlin was forced to file for bankruptcy and even went into foreclosure. Two years later, it was put on the auction block.

Enter the Kenna Family

If the stories are true, Marlin didn’t draw much attention when it was auctioned off, and lawyer Frank Kenna is purported to have acquired the company for $100—the only bid received. Of course, Kenna also took over the company’s more than $100,000 debt. Despite the challenges, he was able to get Marlin back on stable footing and reintroduced a number of popular rifle and shotgun models.

Frank Kenna Sr. proved to be a shrewd businessman, and he successfully led the new Marlin through the depression and the Second World War. After he passed away in 1947, his eldest son, Roger T. Kenna took the reins of the company. During his tenure, in 1953, the company introduced its unique Micro-Groove rifling.

When Roger Kenna died in unexpectedly 1959, at the age of 49, his younger brother, Frank Kenna Junior, took charge and led the company for the next 35 years. The Kenna family remained at the helm, with Frank Kenna III as chairman until the company was sold to Remington in 2007.

Contributions to the Arsenal of Democracy

Even as the phoenix rose from the ashes after Frank Kenna took charge of Marlin and reestablished its place in the American firearms industry, the clouds of war were once more on the horizon. During the Second World War, virtually all of Marlin’s manufacturing was shifted to the war effort. The company produced some 15,000 United Defense M42 submachine guns, chambered in 9mm. Initially meant to replace the Thompson submachine gun; it was primarily used instead to supply partisan and resistance forces in Europe and the Far East. The use of the 9mm caliber allowed resistance forces to use captured German ammunition—which eliminated the need for resupply drops.

United Defense M42 submachine gun
The United Defense M42 was produced from 1942 to 1943 as a possible replacement for the Thompson submachine gun. As United Defense did not have any manufacturing capability, it contracted with Marlin Firearms to manufacture the firearm. (Public Domain)

However, the company’s bigger contribution during the conflict was in producing firearms components for other gun makers. By the end of World War II, Marlin had produced hundreds of thousands of stocks, handguards, barrels, and other parts for the M1 Garand and M1 carbine. None of the parts were actually stamped with the company’s name—and those marked “MARLIN” were instead produced during the Korean War.

A Post-War Comeback

Unlike after the First World War, Marlin was able to quickly adapt back to the civilian market. In 1949, its signature Model 36 was slightly redesigned and reintroduced as the Model 336, which has remained a popular firearm for hunters.

Marlin 336 lever-action rifle
Since its introduction in 1948, the Marlin 336 has been offered in a number of different calibers and barrel lengths. (Marlin)

The big change, of course, was the shift from the Ballard rifling to the Micro-Groove, which some Marlin fans will swear produces better accuracy. It became the standard of the Marlin line from its introduction until the mid-1990s when the company began to produce some models in the six-groove Ballard rifling again.

As lever actions began to see a decline after World War II, Marlin also modernized the design. This included the introduction of Model 56, which was the first of a new class of lever guns. It featured a two-inch lever throw, dubbed the Marlin “Levermatic,” while it was also fed from a box magazine.

In addition to developing a number of “store brands” for various retailers including Sears and Montgomery Ward in the 1960s, the company also introduced its .444 Marlin, which was built on the 336 action. With a factory ammo load it could launch a 240-grain bullet at more than 2,300 feet per second.

Marlin also saw the burgeoning popularity of big-frame handguns. It didn’t re-enter that market, but rather took advantage of the popularity of the .44 Magnum and .357 Magnum, and re-introduced its Model 1894 short-action rifle chambered for the modern high-pressure rounds. This allowed hunters to acquire a lever-action rifle that was in the same caliber round as those newly popular revolvers.

In addition, it further introduced a new rifle based on the 336 action, but for the .45-70 Government cartridge. Dubbed the Model 1895—a homage to the original model—it was a hit with hunters.

Thanks to efforts to remain innovative, Marlin—which had labored for more than a century as an underdog to Winchester—finally began to outpace its old rival in the late 1980s, when it became the dominant seller of lever-action rifles in North America.

While the original lever-action shooters might not have considered the importance of scopes when John Marlin started producing his first firearms, the use of side ejection for flat-topped firearms makes the mounting of scopes far easier than Winchester’s offerings. Moreover, Marlin was shown to have larger, stronger, and heavier lever-actions, which were also well suited to companion long guns for revolvers in the .357, .41, and .44 Magnum calibers.

The Decline But Not the End

Even as it had surpassed Winchester, the late 1990s were not kind to the American firearms industry, and the company faced declining sales. Marlin had sought to expand its business, and in late 2000, purchased the assets of H&R 1871, Inc., a Massachusetts-based firearms manufacturer of shotguns and rifles. Founded in 1871, it was then the largest producer of single-shot shotguns and rifles in the world in the early 2000s.

Though that gave Marlin a new product line, sales continued to decline.

In December 2007, Remington Arms Company acquired Marlin. Just a year later, Remington announced it would close the Marlin-owned H&R manufacturing plant in Gardner, Mass. that had been acquired in 2000. In 2020, Marlin further announced it would close the North Haven plant and move the work to Remington’s facilities in Ilion, New York, and Mayfield, Kentucky.

The Remington Outdoor Company, which was restructured in 2007, then faced its own issues and was forced into bankruptcy. In September 2020, its firearms business was acquired by Sturm, Ruger & Co.—which now controls the Marlin brand.

Though it isn’t the same company that John Marlin founded 152 years ago, Marlin remains one of the biggest names in lever-action rifles. The same products that were known for reliability and accuracy in John Marlin’s day will continue to be produced well into the 21st century and perhaps beyond.