A few years back, I wrote a perennially popular article about AR-15 setup titled “A Tale of Two Carbines.” Well, I’m going to borrow the title because it is apropos of what I’m going to talk about in this post.
Given my interest in hunting, I’ve developed quite the fascination with lever action rifles. I believe that they are still relevant today, especially in the contexts that I’m going to discuss below.
Let’s start with the hunting paradigm. I now have a brace of Marlin lever action carbines that are ideally set up for relatively close range hunting of most anything on the North American continent. One that I’ve discussed before here on the blog is my Marlin 336Y. The “Y” designates it as a youth model, which means it came from the factory with several useful (to me) modifications.
First of all, the stock has a reduced length of pull. This fits my stature well and makes the rifle easy to shoulder. Making the rifle even more handy is the short 16 inch barrel. Beyond these factory modifications, I further added to mine with a Lever Rail from XS Sights, a Wild West Guns Bear Proof Ejector, a simple sling, and an ammunition butt cuff from Hill People Gear. Finally, I added a safety delete from Beartooth Mercantile, preferring to rely on the historically valid precedent of the half cock notch. I’ve carried this rifle on my last few hunting trips and found it to be exceedingly handy in the field and in the blind. The ghost ring sights from XS are quite useable, but I have crappy eyesight that isn’t getting any better with age. To that end, I added one more thing to the gun…
I came of age reading the writings of Jeff Cooper. Among the many ideas that he codified was his Scout Rifle concept. A short and lightweight rifle chambered for a .30 projectile is a core tenet of the idea. In an exploration and execution of the concept, I recently outfitted my Marlin with a now discontinued Leupold FX-II 2.5×28 IER scope mounted low to the rail in QD rings. It may not exactly meet the specifications set forth by Colonel Cooper for a modern scout rifle, but it is still exceedingly light and handy with an optic that should allow me to make quick and easy hits out to nearly 200 yards.
This brings me to the second carbine. Recently on a foray to look for some gun related odds and ends, I saw a Marlin 1895 DARK chambered in .45-70 on the rack at a local sporting goods store that specializes in hunting and fishing gear. Apparently, the gun had been traded in the day before, but was in nearly new condition with the box and with all the accessories that come from the factory. I’m hard pressed to call this a need, but it’s been a long time want. I wasn’t planning to buy anything else this year after some recent purchases, but the price I paid was simply too good to pass up.
The Marlin DARK series of rifles came from the factory with a short 16.25 inch barrel, reduced length of pull, and XS Lever rail with ghost ring sights. Sound familiar? In addition, the rifles have wood stocks painted black with a pebble texture, come with a paracord sling and cord wrapped big loop lever, and have threaded muzzles for those that might want to mount a muzzle brake or suppressor. At the price that I got the rifle for, it was a steal that I’m not likely to ever repeat again.
I was able to source two boxes of Hornady LEVERevolution 325 gr FTX ammo. On my annual hunting trip this year, I checked zero and found it 3” high at 50 yards. The Hornady ballistics show 5.5” high at 100 yards with a 200 yard zero, so I figured good enough. The gun and ammo worked admirably on a 500 pound hog, knocking it on its side immediately. I did fire a second shot, only because the hog was still kicking, but it was probably unnecessary. (My annual hunting post will be published soon…)
My plan is to eventually mount a Burris Scout scope, accumulate ammo as I can, and use the gun for boar and bear. I’ve already installed a safety delete from Ranger Point Precision. I went with Ranger Point Precision this time around because the safety delete from Beartooth Mercantile has the appearance of a screw head. The DARK series of rifles use torx screws, so the plain safety delete from RPP looks better. I will probably invest in another Bear Proof Ejector from WWG for this gun as well. Both of these modifications are inexpensive projects that are easily done at home.
I have to say, if I ever happen to run across a used Marlin 336 DARK in .30-30 at a good price, I’ll probably buy it on the spot. I can see a subtle difference between the fit and finish and smoothness of the action of my 336Y (a transition gun with a JM marked barrel and NY receiver) and the Marlin 1895 DARK.
Now, on to more prescient and utilitarian concerns. Both of these rifles are perfectly legal in all 50 states. They aren’t exactly modern sporting rifles, but are nonetheless capable of being used for similar purposes in practiced hands. While I have black rifles and even an NFA registered SBR, the long guns in my quick access safe are wood stocked and either pump action or lever action. For home defense use, I’m quite comfortable with these variants. And to a jury of my blue state liberal “peers,” they are a lot less scary looking than the suppressed SBR in the safe.
The longer Lever Rails that are on both of my Marlins have some other benefits beyond allowing a forward mounted scout scope. With an offset mount, it’s also possible to install a weapon light in either the 11 o’clock or 1 o’clock position so that the tail cap is accessible to the thumb of the support hand in a firing position. Throw a red dot on the rail over the receiver and you have an eminently capable home defense long gun. As has been pointed out by Lee Weems of First Person Safety, another attribute of the lever gun is the negligible height over bore of the sights. No need to worry about offset when making close range precision shots. The manual of arms for keeping the gun loaded and ready is remarkably similar to running a pump action shotgun. The .30-30 is an excellent intermediate cartridge, and should easily handle any two or four legged threats in or around the home.
For predators a bit more substantial, the .45-70 cartridge is more than adequate and the lever action is quick to bring into action, whether utilizing the half cock safety or gun box ready. (“Gun Box Ready” is a term that I learned from Lee Weems that denotes a loaded magazine with empty chamber, similar to “cruiser ready” in shotgun lingo.) The gun is also an excellent candidate for a dangerous game rifle, at least on the North American Continent.
Both the .30-30 and the .45-70 are old cartridges that remain alive and well today, especially with modern ammunition choices. Similarly, the lever action is still going strong. What it does, it does exceedingly well. Lever action carbines are generally shorter, lighter, and slimmer than other designs, and as such, excel as pack guns, truck guns, and backcountry guns. As of this writing, the future of Marlin firearms is still somewhat in question after Remington’s bankruptcy, but I have high hopes for what Ruger may do with the brand.
So there you have it, a tale of two carbines, redux! If I could only have one rifle (and if I was independently wealthy), a strong contender would be a Wild West Guns Co-Pilot! Lever actions are fast and powerful rifles that have been getting the job done for more than 150 years. Barring unforeseen advancements in ammunition technology, I think the design still has a lot of life left in it.