Whenever someone mentions a .22 rimfire rifle, we often think of the inexpensive bolt actions or single-shots most kids get as a first gun. But this was never the case with the Marlin Model 39. Even in its earliest days, it was–comparatively speaking–never inexpensive. And rather than being eventually relegated to a darkened corner or closet, it was always a rifle for those who took their plinking and small-game hunting seriously.
The Model 39 started out in life 116 years ago as the Marlin Safety Repeating Rifle, Model 1891. It was a natural progression from Marlin’s already-successful line of bigbore lever actions models 1881, 1888 and the first of the solid-top side ejectors, the Model 1889. But the growing popularity of the inexpensive .22 rimfire cartridge seemed a natural for Marlin’s lever-action system, which had been perfected by Louis Lobdell Hepburn, a celebrated marksman and brilliant firearms designer.
The first Model 1891 rifles loaded from a side port in the receiver, much like its bigbore brethren–a somewhat awkward feat with the tiny rounds, which necessitated the invention of a “.22 Caliber Loading Tube.” For obvious reasons, the side-loading system was soon changed to the now-familiar tubular magazine that is withdrawn from under the barrel for loading via a cutout in the magazine tube.
Interestingly, the Model 1891 could handle .22 Short, Long and Long Rifle cartridges interchangeably, a feat not possible with other .22 repeaters such as Winchester’s Model 90.
The success of the Marlin 1891 led to the Model 1892, which was not actually introduced until 1895. In addition to .22 caliber, the Model 1892 was produced in .32 Short and .32 Long and was capable of firing both rimfire and centerfire ammunition by changing the firing pin.
Although the Model 1892 stayed in the line until 1915 (no doubt due to its .32-caliber offering, which Marlin touted as safer and more economical than the .32-20), its sales were soon overtaken by the appearance of the Model 1897, which not only inherited the Model 1892’s ability to digest .22 Short, Long and Long Rifle cartridges interchangeably but was enhanced by the addition of Hepburn’s convenient takedown feature.
Shooters simply brought the hammer to full cock, unscrewed the retaining screw on the right side of the receiver, gave the receiver a slap to free up the two sides and lifted the buttstock portion away from the frame. The breech bolt was then manually slid back and out as a separate piece within the action. Not only did this make the svelte .22 more convenient for transporting, it permitted cleaning from the breech end. (This simple but efficient system is still in use on the Marlin 39 today.)
To quote from Marlin’s 1897 catalog “This is just the gun to take on a summer vacation, or to the woods; it will come in handy for birds, snap-shooting, killing time on rainy days, etc.; it takes no room, it weighs next to nothing and can be put together and taken apart in less time than it takes to describe it. Just the thing to take on a bicycle trip through the woods and country.”
And, in fact, a shortened, 16-inch-barreled Bicycle Rifle (compared to the standard 24-inch-barreled rifle) was offered, inasmuch as bicycling was extremely popular in the late 1890s. With its case-hardened receiver, hammer and lever and blued octagon or round barrel, the Model 97 was handsome as well as accurate. Here at last was the perfect .22 for those who loved lever actions–and in the late 19th century, that meant just about everyone.
Among the Model 1897’s numerous admirers was famous trick shooter Annie Oakley, who Chief Sitting Bull christened “Little Sure Shot” when they were performing in William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody’s Wild West Show. The diminutive Oakley, who was only five feet tall, would consistently break feather-filled glass balls tossed in the air as she rapidly worked the lever of her Marlin 1897.
In 1905, following a company-wide reorganization, the Model 1897 was changed to the Model 97. It was manufactured until 1915, when sale of the company and the outbreak of World War I halted production. But the little gun was brought back in 1922, only this time it was renamed the Model 39, even though it was basically unchanged, aside from a now-standard pistol-grip stock.
A few years later a retention screw was added to keep cleaning patches from hanging up on the ejector spring. (However, if one did not remember to free up the spring after cleaning, the gun would fail to eject.) In 1932 the bolt was strengthened to permit use of the new high-speed .22 ammo; these rifles were identified by an “HS” prefix to their serial numbers. By now, at $26.50, the new, improved Marlin 39 was the most expensive .22 rifle on the market, but it was still the only .22 lever action you could buy. Perhaps that was the reason the Model 39 survived the Great Depression.
In 1939 the Model 39 began to morph into the gun we know today when it was revamped as the Model 39A. Modifications included changing the octagon barrel to round, incorporating deep-grooved Ballard rifling and upgrading the sights. One year later the slim, 19th century stocks were modernized with a semi-beavertail fore-end and a thicker pistol grip. In addition, the flat mainspring and trigger spring were changed to coil.
After a production hiatus prompted by World War II, the Model 39A was brought back essentially unchanged, except the case-hardened receiver was now blued and a ramped front sight was added. But the most dramatic alteration occurred in 1988 with a crossbolt safety and rebounding hammer to appease a litigation-happy society. Gone was the old half-cock, but the little Marlin retained its charm.
Over the last part of the 20th century, a number of variations were produced, including both rounded and square-profile levers, the addition of Micro-Groove rifling in 1954 for improved accuracy and configurations such as the short-barreled, straight-stocked Model 39-A Mountie in 1953, a 39A-DL deluxe version manufactured in 1961 and, appropriately, an 1897 Annie Oakley Commemorative in 1997.
Many years ago, when I interviewed the late Gail Davies for the Guns & Ammo Annual (the talented actress played Annie Oakley on TV from 1953 to 1956), she showed me a pair of nickel-plated Model 39s that the Marlin factory had presented to her. They featured a lasso-twirling cowgirl expertly relief-carved into the premium-grade stocks–one of the few instances of custom factory embellishments on a Model 39.
In my youth I coveted the Marlin Mountie, but my chances of obtaining one back then were about the same as getting a date with Marilyn Monroe. However, as an adult–and, more appropriately, a gunwriter–in 1988 I had the opportunity to test one of the then-new Marlin 39M takedown 16 1/2-inch-barreled carbines, which was as close to the old Mountie as I was going to get.
This was just before the crossbolt safety was mandated, and after punching out a 1 1/2-inch group at 50 yards with copper-plated bullets (soft lead ammo tended to clog the Micro-Groove rifling), I bought the TD. I still have it today and just recently popped three Bakersfield jackrabbits with as many shots.
With more than 2.2 million rifles produced to date, the Model 39 is the longest-running rifle still being manufactured by the company that originated it. The gun currently exists as the Model Golden 39A, a 24-inch-barreled rifle with pistol-gripped American black walnut stock, cut checkering and capable of holding 26 Short, 21 Long or 19 Long Rifle cartridges.
And even though its future is clouded by escalating costs, the Model 39 has been around long enough to become legendary.