November 19, 2020
At a quick glance, it’s easy to mischaracterize Marlin as the “lever-action” company. Marlin has been in the lever-action business since 1881 and, over time, became the world’s largest producer of lever-action firearms. In fact, Marlin’s 30-millionth lever gun was made in 2008, and there have been many more since.
Marlin’s lever-actions are important, but they are only a partial picture of Marlin’s heritage. In 150 years of continuous production, Marlin has manufactured nearly every type of firearm. Since 1891, Marlin has been a major producer of .22 rimfire rifles, including more than 10 million Model 60 semiautos and more than 2 million Model 39As. Thanks in large part to this success, there were times when Marlin could lay claim as “the world’s largest producer of sporting rifles.”
John M. Marlin, Pistol Maker
John Mahlon Marlin (1836-1901) was born in Hartford County, Connecticut, apprenticing to the American Machine Works in 1854 at age 18. His next decade is unclear, but he spent time working as a machinist and toolmaker for Colt in Hartford. What is clear, as detailed by Col. William Brophy in his standard reference, “Marlin Firearms — A History Of The Guns And The Company That Made Them” (Stackpole Books, 1989), is Marlin’s listing in New Haven’s city directory. From 1863 to 1867, it reads: “John M. Marlin — pistol maker!”
John Marlin’s first products were small, single-shot pocket pistols, often referred to a “derringers,” an irreversible corruption of Philadelphia gunmaker Henry Deringer. Production started in 1863 with what Marlin collectors now refer to as “1st Model.” This pre-dates Marlin’s “official” 1870 beginning. In 1868 to ’69, he was again in Hartford, perhaps raising capital and working on his first patent, issued April 5, 1870, for an ejector system for the small single-shot pistols with swing-out barrel. New Haven’s 1870 directory again lists Marlin as “pistol maker.” From 1871, his New Haven listing is elevated to “manufacturer of firearms” and, in 1875, to “pistol manufacturer.”
John Marlin made five models of single-shot derringers through 1881 with total production at about 17,000. In the style of the times, successive models had whimsical names: OK, Victor, Never Miss, and Stonewall. Starting in 1870, Marlin also manufactured solid-frame .22 Short pocket revolvers, adding a tip-up barrel revolver in 1872. These “Standard” revolvers, in several models and multiple versions, were similar to the early Smith & Wesson pocket revolvers, which were protected by the Rollin White patent until it expired in 1869. The lineage of these small pocket revolvers runs from S&W to Manhattan Firearms Company, and then to American Standard Tool Company, which dissolved in 1873. The Marlin revolvers included mechanical improvements and are distinctive with a birds-head grip, and are consistently marked “J. M. MARLIN NEW HAVEN, CT.” All were single-action-only and primarily rimfire, chambered variously to .22, .30, and .32 Short and Long cartridges, with no triggerguard. The first centerfire was the .38 Standard 1878, manufactured from 1878 to 1887 and chambered to .38 S&W.
The Marlin top-break double-action revolver was introduced in 1887, first as a five-shot .38 S&W and then .32 S&W (1888). By this time, both S&W and Colt were knee-deep in double-action revolvers. The Marlin is most similar to the S&W, but was protected by three 1887 John Marlin patents: A cylinder-locking mechanism, a cylinder-retaining catch, and an extractor mechanism. The second variation (from 1888) replaces Marlin’s extractor with D. H. Rice’s extractor, patented in 1888 and assigned to the Marlin Fire Arms Company. Previous handguns were roll-marked “J.M. MARLIN”, while the double-actions were roll-marked “MARLIN FIRE ARMS COMPANY” or, in grip logos, “MFAC.” Produced until 1899, the double-actions were the last Marlin handguns to date.
Rick Regnier, of the Marlin Firearm Collectors Association (MFCA, marlin-collectors.com), tells us there were 96 distinct variations. The MFCA is an active group, and provided invaluable assistance in developing this article. Few of us think of Marlin as a handgun manufacturer, but total production exceeded 100,000!
Into Lever Actions
In the 1870s, Oliver Winchester was doing well with lever-action rifles. Marlin lived in Winchester’s shadow for decades, but it’s a fact of history that Oliver Winchester was a businessman, not a gun guy. A partial secret to Winchester’s success was B. Tyler Henry, a great gun guy who brought us the Henry, the improved Winchester 1866, and the successful Winchester 1873. John Marlin was a gun guy, too. He acquired and hired a lot of talent, and had a role in the design and manufacturing of all 19th-century Marlin firearms.
In the 1870s, Marlin developed tool-room prototypes of both centerfire and .22 lever-actions. The Model 1881 centerfire was the first production rifle, incorporating patents of Andrew Burgess, H.F. Wheeler, E.A.F. Toepperwein — and John M. Marlin. Side-loading and top-eject, the 1881 Marlin was the first repeating rifle capable of housing the big .45-70 Government cartridge. Of necessity, it was a large, heavy rifle, initially with a 28-inch octagon barrel. The under-barrel tubular magazine held 10 cartridges, contributing considerably to overall weight.
With about 20,000 produced through 1903, the 1881 began Marlin’s long tradition of big, powerful lever-action rifles. The 1881 Marlin was probably a superior rifle to Winchester’s big Model 1876 Centennial, which was also not a huge seller.
Marlin’s Model 1888 was also a side-loading, top-eject lever-action. Designed by Lewis L. Hepburn, it was a smaller and much lighter rifle chambered to .32-20 Win., .38-40 Win., and .44-40 Win. Production was limited because the 1888 was quickly replaced by the Model 1889. Also designed by Hepburn, the Model 1889 included then-new features that became hallmarks of Marlin lever-actions such as the solid, flat-topped receiver and side ejection. The 1889 was chambered to the same cartridges as the 1888, with .25-20 Win. added later. Production continued until 1903 with 55,000 produced.
Then Marlin’s lever-action history becomes complicated as the 1891, 1892, 1893, 1894 and 1895 were introduced in quick succession. Both the Marlin 1891 and 1892 were primarily .22 rimfires, but were also chambered to .32 rimfire. Uniquely, the firing pin could be switched to centerfire (the firing pin was supplied), so .32 Short and Long could be used.
Another Hepburn design, the Marlin Model 1893 was essentially an improvement of his 1889, with different bolt lock-up and a two-piece firing pin. It has a longer action, introduced in blackpowder .32-40 and .38-55 Win., but was also stronger and suitable for smokeless powder, with .30-30 Win. and .32 Win. Special (WS) added later. The Model 1893 was, and is, Marlin’s longest-running and best-selling lever-action rifle with five model changes to date: M93 (1905); M1936 (1936); M36 (1937); and M336 (1948). Changes were primarily cosmetic until the 336, which replaced the traditional Marlin square bolt with the round bolt found on today’s Models 336, 444 (1965), and 1895 (1972). In a base model, the Model 336 was also marketed from 1964 to 1983 under the Glenfield name as M36 (1964) and M30 (1966). When the Glenfield line was discontinued in 1984, Marlin continued to market a no-frills 336 as the M30AS.
Variations are seemingly endless with chamberings including .219 Zipper, .35 Rem., .356 Win. (.307 Win. was also catalogued but never produced), .44 Rem. Mag., .444 Marlin, .45-70, .450 Marlin and, more recently, .308 and .338 Marlin Express. More than 3.5 million have been manufactured, making the Marlin 336 the world’s second-most popular sporting rifle (after the Winchester Model 1894).
Marlin’s Model 1894 was a return to, and improvement over, the short-action Models 1888 and 1889, and chambered to the same “pistol cartridges.” The M1894 remains in production today with relatively few changes. In addition to .25-20, .32-20, .38-40, and .44-40, the M1894 has been chambered to the .22 WMR (rimfire), .218 Bee, .357 Magnum, .45 Colt, and .44 Magnum.
The original Model 1895 is essentially the same action as the M1893, but upsized for larger cartridges. It was probably manufactured until 1915, with a lightweight version catalogued through 1917. Chamberings included .38-56, .40-65 (.40-60 Marlin), .40-82, .45-70, and .45-90. Like the M1893, it was suitable for smokeless powder, with .33 Win. added in 1912. In 1972, Marlin proudly borrowed the 1895 model designation when they brought out the New Model 1895, using an upsized version of the round-bolt M336 action. The original M1895 didn’t sell much better than the large-action 1881, but the .45-70 refuses to die. In recent years, largely sparked by the “guide gun” concept, big-bore lever actions earned a new lease on life. Marlin catalogues an array of M1895 rifles, from traditional with walnut, blued steel and octagon barrels to modern with laminate, synthetic, stainless steel and Cerakote. They have also brought back the M444 in the powerful .444 Marlin, choosing it for one of their embellished 150th Anniversary limited editions.
.22s, Shotguns & More
Marlin’s first .22, the M1891, primarily a Hepburn design, was offered in side-loading and tube-loading, with the magazine patented by John Marlin. Called the “Safety Repeating Rifle,” the M1891 had a lever-activated safety that created some play in the trigger. Many shooters didn’t like it. Even so, the 1891 was successful, and even used by Annie Oakley for exhibition shooting. The 1891 Marlin was the first repeater to accept .22 Short, Long, Long Rifle and .22 shot cartridges, which Oakley no doubt used to shatter her glass balls.
Although designated M1892, the M1891’s successor didn’t appear until 1896. It was essentially identical, side-eject and solid top, but with a different trigger system that precluded firing unless the lever was fully closed, a feature continued on the M39 and 39A. The M1897 was almost identical to the M1892, except it added a takedown feature that had become popular on centerfire lever-actions. Operated by a large knurled screw on the right side of the receiver, this feature continued to the 39 and 39A. The M1897 was discontinued in 1915 because of World War I production. In 1922, the newly formed Marlin Firearms Corporation catalogued the M39 lever-action .22, essentially identical to the M1897, but modified in 1932 to accept high-velocity .22 Long Rifle. In 1939, the designation was changed to 39A, which would become another of Marlin’s million-sellers. Although not yet back in production, my friends at Marlin assure us that we’ll see the Model 39A again.
Marlin’s Levermatic series, a modern design with a very short lever throw, arrived in 1955. Offered in both tubular magazine and clip-fed versions, the rimfire Levermatics were Models 56 and 57, with the centerfire M62 introduced in 1962. The M62 was a fast, accurate little rifle in search of a good cartridge. It was initially chambered to the short-lived .256 Win. Mag., with a .30 Carbine version added in 1962.
Starting in 1930, Marlin manufactured a series of semiautomatic .22s, sound rifles all, but none were winners. In 1959, they found success with a semiauto .22 designed by Marlin engineer Ewald Nichol. Introduced as the Model 99, Nichol’s action has been offered in numerous configurations and model designations (99C, 989, 990, 995, 65, 70, 75), but since 1960 it has been best-known — and is still manufactured — as the M60, probably the world’s second-best-selling .22 (following Bill Ruger’s 10/22). The Model 60 was chosen, along with the M444, to celebrate Marlin’s 150th anniversary.
From 1906 to 1932, Marlin produced a series of slide-action rifles, including both rimfire and centerfire models. They got in the bolt-action business in 1935. Although perhaps best-known for their rugged, accurate rimfires, they have also produced several centerfire models, plus a bolt-action shotgun in several versions, as well as a slug gun and a 10 gauge. Starting in 1898, Marlin was also a major producer of slide-action shotguns, including early exposed-hammer designs and hammerless pump guns later. Between 1937 and 1963, they also produced about 34,000 M90 over/under shotguns in numerous configurations. Much less known is that in 1935 Marlin purchased Hunter Arms Company that manufactured the L.C. Smith side-by-side shotguns, one of very few American sidelock shotguns. Marlin reorganized L.C. Smith Gun Company as a subsidiary, manufacturing at the old Fulton, New York, plant from 1945 to 1949, and produced a some 58,000 shotguns! Operations ceased when part of the floor of the factory collapsed, fortunately in the middle of the night. Parts and machinery were salvaged and moved to Marlin’s New Haven plant. Under Frank Kenna Jr.’s leadership, Marlin brought the L.C. Smith sidelock back. Between 1968 and 1971, nearly 2,000 were produced, but continuing production was not cost-effective.
The War Effort
In April 1915, with World War I just six months old, Marlin was approached on a contract for 100,000 7x57 Mauser rifles. Marlin President Mahlon Marlin demurred, believing such an order was too large to deliver in a timely manner. But Marlin would not stay out of the war. In December 1915, the Marlin Fire Arms Company was acquired by a syndicate and the Marlin Arms Corporation was formed, with the name soon changed to Marlin-Rockwell. Marlin was headed by Albert Rockwell from 1915 to 1920.
Part of the arrangement was an initial contract to produce 12,000 1914 Colt machine guns. The so-called “potato digger” was significantly improved into the 1917 Marlin-Rockwell machine gun. Marlin became one of the largest producers of machine guns, making both Colt and Browning 1918 guns for aircraft use. In 1918, they received a contract for 20,000 Browning Automatic Rifles (BAR), delivering 16,000 by the end of the war. During World War I, Marlin-Rockwell produced more than 60,000 machine guns and Browning Automatic Rifles (BAR).
During World War II, virtually all manufacturing facilities focused on the war effort. Marlin manufactured about 15,000 United Defense M42 sub-machine guns, but the majority of the wartime manufacture was parts. Hundreds of thousands of stocks, handguards, and barrels for the M1 carbine, barrel assemblies for the Garand, and various parts for both aircraft and small arms were made. During the Korean War, Marlin tooled up again, producing Garand and carbine parts, and thousands of barrels for the M3 sub-machine gun. Many World War II parts are not marked as made by Marlin, but carbine barrels and all barrels made during the Korean era are stamped “MARLIN”.
Between 1870 and 1889, Marlin was awarded 25 firearms-related patents, but Marlin also recognized talent. Firearms designer Andrew Burgess did work for Colt, Winchester, and Whitney, but fully 12 of his patents were used in early Marlin lever-actions. Lewis Hepburn was both an inventor and a champion long-range competitor. He came to Marlin from Remington in 1886, and during his 30 years with Marlin was awarded 26 patents. Carl Gustav “Gus” Swebilius followed Hepburn as Marlin’s chief engineer and designer, serving both Marlin and Marlin-Rockwell from 1914 until 1929, during which he was awarded 36 patents assigned to Marlin. In 1926, Swebilius formed the High Standard Manufacturing Company, turning to manufacturing High Standard pistols in 1931.
After his father’s death, Mahlon H. Marlin assumed the reins of the company as president and treasurer, working with his brother John H. Marlin, who served as vice president and secretary, continuing business as usual until World War I intervened. Albert Rockwell led Marlin well during the war, but after the war there were tough times. John Moran led the Marlin Firearms Corporation in 1921, but it failed a year later. Frank Kenna Sr. formed a new Marlin Firearms Company in 1926. A shrewd businessman and great leader, Kenna (Sr.) led Marlin through the depression and World War II, and his legacy remains indelibly etched on Marlin to this day. His eldest son, Roger T. Kenna, took the reins following his father’s death in 1947. It was during Roger Kenna’s presidency, in 1953, that Marlin’s unique Micro-Groove rifling was patented and adopted across Marlin rifles.
Roger Kenna died at just 49, in 1959, but was succeeded by his younger brother, Frank Kenna Jr. Frank Kenna Jr. would lead Marlin for the next 35 years, but that was hardly the end of the Kenna dynasty. In 1995, Frank Kenna Jr. became chairman of Marlin, and Roger Kenna’s son, Stephen assumed the presidency. In 1999, Frank Kenna Jr. retired. His son, Frank Kenna III became chairman, and remained in that post until Marlin’s sale to Remington in 2007.
It must be admitted that Marlin had challenges following its acquisition by Remington, in large part resulting from closure of plants in Gardner, Massachusetts, and North Haven, Connecticut, and movement to Remington facilities in Kentucky, North Carolina, and New York. Today, the picture isn’t all roses, but Marlin’s signature lever-actions are making a significant comeback in popularity. From rifles I’ve seen, that “stern and demanding” John Mahlon Marlin would be pleased.
Enjoy articles like this?
Subscribe to the magazine.
Get access to everything Guns & Ammo has to offer.
Subscribe to the Magazine