November 12, 2019
By Tom Beckstrand
Marlin’s 1894 SBL is as pretty a lever action as we’ll ever see roll out of the factory doors. In an age where rifles tend to be black with rail everywhere, it’s nice to see Marlin tip their hat to the carbines that got us where we are today.
I’ve always been a huge fan of lever-action rifles. My very first rifle was a Marlin 39M chambered in .22LR and I still have it today. That first rifle is what made me a fan of Marlin lever actions, a long and proud tradition that dates all the way back to the 1880s.
To The Side
Marlin made the decision to make their lever-action rifles eject to the side with the introduction of the Model 1889. This allowed Marlin to do a number of things that no one else was doing at the time.
Side ejection allowed Marlin to design a cartridge carrier (the piece that lifts the loaded cartridge from the tubular magazine to the chamber) that wasn’t dependent on cartridge length. The way the cartridge carrier works on all Marlin lever-action rifles is the opening of the lever allows one cartridge to exit the magazine before the carrier raises up to block the next cartridge before it can also leave the magazine. This makes the Marlin lever guns invulnerable to variations in cartridge length, variations that might otherwise cause feeding issues.
This was a big deal at the time because cartridges with improper neck tension could have bullets slip back into the case a bit from recoil, causing them to be too short to feed reliably. There’s a lot of weight pushing against the bullet’s nose during recoil when all those cartridges are in a line.
Marlin’s cartridge carrier design is a big deal now because it lets Model 1894s chambered in .357 Magnum fire .38 Special cartridges with no worries. Likewise, this 1894 SBL chambered in .44 Magnum can fire .44 Special and .44 Russian just as efficiently.
The Marlin 1894 SBL seen here comes chambered in .44 Magnum and the carrier allows the owner to shoot a wide range of bullet weights and lengths without worrying about feeding issues. I’ve always thought the Marlin lever-action rifles had the best cartridge carrier for this reason.
Another aspect of these lever-action rifles that has always been a relevant feature is their bolt design. The 1894’s father was the Model 1893, and it had a square bolt and a long enough receiver to accommodate the most popular rifle cartridges at the time. It’s important to remember that the 1894 is nothing more than a smaller version of the ’93, a trend that was popular at the time.
Both Marlin and Winchester designed popular lever-action rifles chambered in rifle cartridges first. Winchester developed the 1886 while Marlin developed the 1893. When it came to chambering lever actions in pistol cartridges, both manufacturers shrunk down the earlier rifles to fit the short cartridges and labeled them the 1892 and 1894, respectively.
Some will argue that Marlin’s 1894 has more in common with Marlin’s first pistol-caliber lever gun, the 1889, but I disagree. The 1894 retains one of the 1893’s best features and one that’s missing on the 1889: the two-piece firing pin.
The 1894 SBL comes chambered in .44 Magnum, which has a chamber pressure of 36,000 pounds per square inch (psi). Combine that high pressure with the size of the .44 Magnum’s case head, and the combination yields tremendous bolt thrust. Bolt thrust is the amount of force the cartridge puts on the rifle’s breech or bolt face.
Should a lever-action rifle shooter close the bolt just enough to fire without being closed and locked in place, there is a chance some of that high pressure can rupture the case and blow pieces of brass and powder back into the shooter’s face. This is called an “out-of-battery” fire and the results are catastrophic.
Marlin designed the two-piece firing pin to make sure that an out-of-battery fire never happens. Splitting the firing pin in two made it possible for Marlin engineers to have the locking block push the firing pin into alignment right as the lever fully closes. If the lever isn’t closed all the way, the two pins don’t line up and the rifle won’t fire. As far as lever actions go, there isn’t a stronger or safer action available.
Speaking of action strength, I checked with Dave Emary, who used to be Hornady’s lead ballistician. Emary and Hornady did a bunch of testing on Marlin actions when they developed the .308 Marlin Express. This was a hot-loaded, semi-rimmed cartridge that was very close ballistically to a .308 Winchester. Hornady’s testing showed that Marlin actions are well-suited for high-pressure loads. I’d expect this 1894 could handle a steady diet of 40,000 psi without much difficulty. The reason the 1894 is so strong has to do with how the locking block engages the bolt, but the strength also comes from the forged receiver Marlin uses in every 1894 rifle.
Forging the receiver in the 1894 does three things that help create a strong action. The first thing it accomplishes is structural integrity. Smashing steel with big heavy machinery eliminates any voids in the material or gas pockets that can create unseen weaknesses. The second thing forging does is create chemical uniformity by dispersing and alloy segregation. Smashing it helps mix the alloy together. Finally, forging compresses the steel and makes it denser. This makes it hard for cracks to form.
Sighting Options And Range Time
The Marlin 1894 SBL comes with an XS Lever Rail, which gives the owner plenty of sighting options. This rail has 11 inches of surface upon which the owner can attach a red-dot optic or traditional scope.
I did most of my testing on this rifle with a red-dot optic and found that this sight is well-suited to the 1894’s stock. There is some drop in the comb as the rifle was originally intended for use with iron sights, but a red dot doesn’t sit much higher than the irons.
Mounting a variable-powered scope is also possible, but it does take some effort. I mounted a Bushnell 4.5-18x44mm LRTS for accuracy testing and found it works well, but anyone planning to mount a scope like this on the rifle should know a couple things in advance.
The rear aperture sight must be removed before mounting a scope. I used 1.25-inch tall rings to mount the Bushnell and found the ocular housing hit the rear sight. It’s not too bad to remove, but some heat may be required to get the screw holding the rear sight in place to loosen. Use of taller rings would place the scope so high that any contact between the shooter’s head and the stock would be impossible.
Rings that are 1.25-inches tall give a 30mm maintube scope with a 44mm objective lens housing just enough room to clear the Lever Rail’s sections of Picatinny. If I was mounting a scope like this to the 1894 SBL for the long haul, I’d invest in a stock pack and use the cheekpad to help firm up the connection between my head and the stock.
As far as accuracy is concerned, the limiting factor here is the shooter’s eyesight. The front sight has a nice flat top, so it has a sharp edge that helps with shooting accurately.
One tip when accuracy testing lever-action Marlins that has served me well: place the front rest support close to the receiver. The Marlin 1894 SBL has the forend attached directly to the tubular magazine and barrel. The further the shooting support gets away from the receiver, the more influence it has on the barrel. I always accuracy test lever guns with the support as close to the receiver as comfortably possible and I’ve seen a slight accuracy improvement when doing so.
Marlin 1894 SBL Specs
- Type: Lever action repeater
- Cartridge: .44 Mag./.44 Special
- Capacity: 8+1 rds.
- Barrel: 16.5 in.; 1:38-in. twist
- Overall Length: 35 in.
- Weight: 6.5 lbs.
- Stock: Black/gray laminate
- Length of Pull: 13.5 in.
- Finish: Stainless steel
- Sights: XS sights Lever Rail with ghost ring
- Safety: Two-position cross-bar
- MSRP: $1,214
- Manufacturer: Marlin; marlinfirearms.com
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