November 24, 2020
By Tom Beckstrand
Lever guns used to be a traditional affair with blued steel and walnut stocks being the norm. However, a few years ago Marlin updated their lever-actions with a “Dark” theme, which is now being copied by Henry and Rossi. Marlin’s rifles have a non-standard appearance that includes black-painted and textured stocks, optic-mounting rails atop the receiver, and muzzles threaded to accept suppressors.
Some initially tagged these black guns as a fad, but many consumers saw them as highly useful rifles that were legal to own in places where AR-15s were not. Since the first guns were Marlin’s Model 1895s and 336s chambered in .45-70 Government and .30-30 Winchester, they were obviously better suited for hunting than defense. However, the new Model 1894 Dark Series carbine is an ideal defensive firearm that is also a ton of fun to shoot.
The Marlin Difference
Back in 1889, Marlin bucked the top-eject trend set by Browning-designed Winchester lever-guns, and decided to run with a side-eject action — a decision that still pays dividends today, especially when it comes to mounting optics. Another endearing feature of Marlin lever-actions is their ability to reliably load and cycle cartridges of different lengths. Marlin rifles have this ability thanks to the design of the cartridge carrier.
The Marlin cartridge carrier works by allowing one cartridge to exit the tubular magazine and land on the carrier before blocking the next cartridge in the magazine. As long as the variations in cartridge length are reasonable, the carrier doesn’t care if the cartridge it’s loading is a .38 Special or a .357 Magnum. Winchester lever guns cannot make this same claim, and it’s because of the cartridge carrier design.
The Model 1894 Dark Series rifle seen here is chambered for .38 Special/.357 Magnum, and it fed both reliably during Guns & Ammo’s testing. This rifle also comes chambered in .44 Magnum/.44 Special, and other 1894 rifles I’ve tested in that chambering were equally reliable.
The Model 1894 rifles made today retain the square bolt they had when they entered production more than 130 years ago. The square bolt of the 1894 came from its parent, the Model 1893. The Model 1893 had a longer receiver than the 1894, and was chambered in rifle cartridges that were popular at the time. The Model 1894 was nothing more than a miniaturized version of the Model 1893, a concept that Winchester used with much success in the Model 1886 and Model 1892.
However, when Marlin designed the Model 1894, they included a feature that made it a better rifle than what was offered by the competition: a two-piece firing pin. The two-piece firing pin requires the action to be completely closed before the two pieces align and firing the rifle is possible. This prevents out-of-battery fire, which could happen with a lever gun if the person shooting it isn’t paying attention.
Marlin engineers accomplished this design by using a locking block that contains the rifle’s pressure and pushes the firing pin into alignment only when the action is fully closed. If the locking block isn’t completely seated in the receiver, the firing pin doesn’t line up and dropping the hammer yields a “click” instead of a bang.
Not only is the Model 1894 one of the safest lever-actions available, it is also one of the strongest. The massive locking block in the rifle has a lot of engagement surface inside the receiver and it handles high pressures well. As a testament, Hornady launched a new cartridge with Marlin in 2007 with the goal of getting .308 Winchester performance out of a .30-caliber lever gun. The cartridge Hornady designed for Marlin was the .308 Marlin Express. It was loaded to much higher chamber pressures than what was normally found in a lever-action rifle, and it did an admirable job of competing with the .308 Winchester. I spoke with Dave Emary, Hornady’s lead ballistician at the time, and the guy who was leading the charge with the .308 Marlin Express. Emary spoke highly of the Marlin lever-action receiver and, based on his data, I’d feel confident feeding this 1894 a steady diet of ammunition loaded to 40,000 psi without much worry. However, owners should always follow the manufacturer’s guidance.
The reasons the Marlin action is so strong is partly due to the locking block engagement with the receiver, but also due to the forging process Marlin uses during manufacture. Marlin uses a forged receiver in every Model 1894 because the process creates strength advantages that are difficult to replicate.
Forging a receiver aids in creating uniform structural integrity. Smashing the steel between two forging dies eliminates air bubbles (or voids) in the receiver. Left uncorrected, voids become the origin for cracks, so their elimination is vital for strength. Secondly, the forging process compresses the steel and makes it denser. When combined with the void elimination, the increased density makes it much harder for any cracks to form. For all of these reasons, Marlin receivers are well-equipped to handle high pressure.
While the heart and soul of this rifle is all Model 1894, there are some highly useful features Marlin includes that are unique to the Dark Series. The first is a threaded muzzle that allows for attaching muzzle devices and suppressors.
Lever-action rifles are ideal candidates for suppressors because the action remains closed until pressure inside the bore drops to zero. Unlike semiautomatic rifles that push hot gas (and noise) out the ejection port when suppressed, lever-action rifles see the full sound reduction benefits of a suppressor. This means the owner of such a rifle has the benefit of maximum signature reduction in a handy package that is capable of rapid fire.
I’ve always thought that a suppressed lever-action rifle would make a handy self-defense tool, especially in areas where AR-15s aren’t allowed. Also, some just don’t like AR-15s and are more enthusiastic about levers. For them, a suppressed lever-action rifle offers high capacity and short re-engagement times in a highly portable package when equipped with a 16-inch barrel. This Dark Series Model 1894 is the ideal representation of the rifle described above.
The Marlin Dark Series rifles have barrels that are threaded properly to accept muzzle devices and direct-thread suppressors. It’s not always as easy as just taking a rifle to a gunsmith and having him put some threads on the muzzle. The barrel has to have a heavy enough contour to leave a flat surface, or shoulder, against which the muzzle device or suppressor can index. If not fully supported, the suppressor or muzzle device may thread unevenly as it climbs onto the barrel’s shoulder, and may result in a bullet impacting the suppressor or muzzle device as it leaves the barrel. Marlin worked all that out prior to finalizing each Dark model’s design, so every barrel comes ready to reliably accept a suppressor, as well as the included knurled thread-protecting cap.
In addition to getting the barrel contour right, Marlin surveyed the aftermarket to offer a modern sighting system. They found XS Sights Lever Rail as a kit retailing for $180 on xssights.com. It includes an integrated ghost ring aperture rear sight, and a narrow front blade with white stripe for aiming. The front has some extra height in order to work with the taller rear sight. The extra sight height also allows the irons to be used with most suppressors, so any optic or red dot mounted to the rail will always have back-up iron sights present.
There are a couple caveats to the iron sights, though. The first is that the rear aperture necessitates scope rings taller than 11/4 inches. When I tried to mount a Bushnell 4.5-18x44 LRTS in 11/4-inch-high rings, the scope’s ocular housing hit the rear sight. While it’s a simple matter to get taller rings, doing so places the scope so high that the shooter’s cheek will be above the stock’s comb and the shooter will have no solid contact between his cheek and the stock. While the optics rail atop the receiver looks promising and offers no end to the sight mounting options, it works best with a red dot mounted as low as possible. I used an Aimpoint T2 in a low Larue mount, and that is a good solution for this rifle. The red dot allows for fast and precise shooting while keeping the shooter’s head anchored firmly to the stock where it belongs. Those desiring to use a magnified optic will need to use a stock pack that pads the comb.
Shooting .38 Special out of the rifle produced minimal muzzle blast and almost no recoil. The .357 Magnum rounds were a little spicier, but far from punishing. I did see a significant difference in accuracy between .357 Magnum ammunition and the .38 Special cartridges, with the magnums being a lot more accurate. Any rifleman looking for a centerfire levergun with readily available and inexpensive ammunition will be well-served by the Model 1894 Dark Series. Likewise, riflemen looking for a fast-handling legal-almost-everywhere defensive firearm would also be wise to check one out.
Marlin Model 1894 Dark Series Specs
- Type: Lever action
- Cartridge: .357 Mag./.38 Spl.
- Capacity: 8+1 rds.
- Barrel: 16.25 in.; 1:16-in twist; muzzle threaded ½-28
- Overall Length: 38 in.
- Weight: 7 lbs.
- Stock: Black (paint), wood laminate
- Length of Pull: 13.5 in.
- Finish: Parkerized (steel)
- Sights: XS Sights Lever Rail; blade (front), ghost ring (rear)
- Safety: Two position, crossbolt
- MSRP: $1,099
- Manufacturer: Marlin, 800-544-8892, marlinfirearms.com
Marlin Model 1894 Dark Series Performance
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