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Review: Marlin Custom Shop Model 1895 Modern Lever Hunter Rifle

This article originally appeared in RECOIL Issue 39

NO. JOHN. WAYNE.

A Gipperless Ode to Marlin Custom Shop’s Modern Lever Hunter

There’s something incredibly gratifying about the sound of 45-70 Gov’t brass hitting the deck. The sound is deeper than the ‘tink- tink’ of smaller, bottlenecked brass. It’s more of a thud. Just like its big .45-caliber bullets, even the empty brass of 45-70 hits with authority.

That gratification continues when you pick up Marlin Custom Shop’s Model 1895SBL Modern Lever Hunter package. The rifle is slim for what it is, but it feels stout — dense, even. All that steel in the action, the heavy barrel, and the epoxy-coated composite wood stock. It’s tightly fitted and well balanced. No faint interior ticks or clicks suggest its mechanical purpose. Just the feeling of picking up the meanest man-club ever made.

The bullet in a 45-70 cartridge might only be a fraction of an inch larger than a more familiar .30-caliber rifle bullet, but that 0.15 inch translates to a 46-percent increase in diameter — a big difference when reminding something large and charging that it’s their time to die.

We further customized the Modern Lever Hunter by axing the Pic rail and direct-mounting our MRDS, using a smaller loop, flyweight loading gate, dovetail filler, and mag follower from Ranger Point Precision.

We further customized the Modern Lever Hunter by axing the Pic rail and direct-mounting our MRDS, using a smaller loop, flyweight loading gate, dovetail filler, and mag follower from Ranger Point Precision.

For this review, we ran the customized 1895 hard, extremely hard. We took Marlin’s Modern Lever Hunter to Gunsite’s inaugural Craft of the Lever Gun class taught by senior instructors Lew Gosnell, Ed Head, and Gary Smith. It was a three-day leverama that put about 400 rounds of 45-70 Government down the barrel. Considering 1895 is essentially a hunting rifle, that’s a career’s worth of ammo for any lever gun. Not to mention, 45-70 recoil is hell on everything from guns, to optics, to middle-aged men. If something were to give on the gun, we’d find out there.

History

We’re not sure how Marlin came up with the modern Model 1895’s name. Its industrial lineage flows like a meth head’s family tree. The gun was released in the early 1970s and named after Marlin’s original Model 1895, the year of its introduction. Pay attention, ’cause this gets weird.

The new 1895 is based on the Model 336, which was itself an updated Model 36 released in 1936. The Model 336 improved on the Model 36 in a few ways, most notably the change from a squared-off bolt to a round bolt, and the open ejection port. The 36’s steel action was strong, and the 336 updates made it stronger. With the locking bolt in place, it’s supported on three sides, as opposed to two in other lever designs of the time. It was strong enough that Marlin chambered it for the .444 Marlin (3,000 foot-pounds at the muzzle!) before choosing it for the 45-70 chambered Model 1895.

The hallmarks of the Model 1895/336 action are its simplicity and durability. There’s only a handful of moving parts in the action ... and none of them are dainty.

The hallmarks of the Model 1895/336 action are its simplicity and durability. There’s only a handful of moving parts in the action … and none of them are dainty.

45-70 Government

45-70 Gov’t is a straight-walled Mack truck compared to Corvette-ish bottleneck rifle cartridges. The name refers to the original, post Civil War-era cartridge load: a .45-caliber bullet with 70 grains of black powder.

Because the cartridge was designed to run in relatively weak 1870’s Springfield Trapdoor conversion actions in use by the U.S. Army at the time, the chamber pressure was limited to 28K psi. That number stuck, and it’s still the SAAMI-stated pressure limit listed for the cartridge more than 100 years later.

While the Springfield Trapdoor didn’t survive, the 45-70 lives on. Knowing the Model 1895/336 action ran 444 Marlin with pressures in the 42K psi range, it’s clear the 1895 can handle higher chamber pressures generated by modern powders.

This gave rise to the confusing bifurcation of the 45-70 cartridge into standard pressure loads and full pressure loads. Ammunition makers, such as Buffalo Big Bore Ammunition, load 45-70 Gov’t in both SAAMI compliant, 28K psi loads and in high-pressure loads that it calls “45-70 magnum.” Tim Sundles of Buffalo Big Bore says its 45-70 magnum loads run from 39,000 to 43,000 psi.

Barnes 300gr 45-70, left, is a flying tank compared to other popular lever gun cartridges, such as 30-30 and 44 Magnum. The bullet expands to 3/4 of an inch in ordnance gelatin.

Barnes 300gr 45-70, left, is a flying tank compared to other popular lever gun cartridges, such as 30-30 and 44 Magnum. The bullet expands to 3/4 of an inch in ordnance gelatin.

MARLIN-BARNES

Running 40 rounds of Buffalo Big Bore’s 45-70 300-grain magnum-rated loads in one sitting was a white-out, arrhythmia-inducing experience that had us trying to get out of the back seat for the rest of the day. It’s accurate ammunition, and based on  muzzle energy calculations, it should drop large bears and small buildings within a couple hundred yards of the muzzle.

The cartridge we shot the most, though, was the all-copper Barnes 300-grain VOR-TX. Shooting 400 rounds of the stuff over a few days got us used to mid-grade 45-70 recoil. We settled on it as our standard load, and at home the 1895 idles with a full mag of VOR-TX and one in the pipe as it waits for the world’s most unlucky coyote to harass our dogs.

Guide Gun

The Model 1895 with open or reflex sights, or a low power optic, does good work inside 400 yards, but it does its best work between 150 yards and the muzzle. For this reason hunters refer to it as an ideal guide gun.

We ran an informal 6-second test to suss the ‘guide gun’ idea out. Figuring a pissed-off bear will cover 60 yards in 6 seconds to get to a juicy client, we compared the number of shots we could get off in the protective guide role with our reflex sight-equipped Model 1895 to a scoped Remington 700. Standing, unsupported, we aimed in on generously sized 12×12-inch steel at 60 yards and emptied the 1895’s 6-shot magazine into the plate in the time it took to get off a just pair of shots with the bolt gun, it’s scope zoomed out to 5x magnification. The reflex sight and the enhanced ergonomics of the lever gun are much more of an advantage at close range than all the quarter-MOA groups your bolty can produce.

Craft

The Modern Lever Hunter begins life as a stock Model 1895SBL. To take the 1895SBL from “Hey, nice looking gun …” to “TAKE MY MONEY!” the Marlin Custom Shop spends 15 to 20 hours on each gun. A gunsmith in Sturgis, South Dakota, evaluates the fit of the components and their function, then renders it into a pile of parts, pins, and screws.

We swapped out the factory SBL lever for Ranger Point Precision’s Marlin lever for a small increase in efficiency.

We swapped out the factory SBL lever for Ranger Point Precision’s Marlin lever for a small increase in efficiency.

Jeremiah Ransom, the Marlin Custom Shop team leader, says, “We’re looking for any fit issues, metal on metal contact areas that we can improve and take the gun to the next level of appearance, feel, accuracy, and reliability.” He deburrs and polishes every single part, and that, he says, does a lot to smooth out the action. Then he recrowns the barrel, performs a detailed action job, and starts replacing parts.

The stock trigger is pitched and replaced with a Wild West Guns Trigger Happy trigger. The Happy trigger is two pieces like the original part, but instead of the shoe flopping around unsupported as it does on the stock version, it has a spring holding the shoe out. We measured the break at a crisp and repeatable 2.7 pounds, a far cry from the creepy stock trigger.

Skinner Sights’ new mounting plate for the Delta Point Pro offers reduced height over bore and lighter weight than running a Pic rail and adapter.

Skinner Sights’ new mounting plate for the Delta Point Pro offers reduced height over bore and lighter weight than running a Pic rail and adapter.

The fore-end is replaced with a Midwest Industries Marlin M-LOK Handguard, and a house-made hammer extension is added. Cerakote is applied to the metallic parts, and the composite wood stock gets an epoxy resin treatment to match.

The Custom Shop offers the option of threading the muzzle for a brake or silencer, but that modification comes at the cost of one round because the full-length magazine has to be cut back to allow room to thread anything on the barrel. We chose capacity over cans, since that one round represents 15 percent of the gun’s 6+1 load.

When the gun’s reassembled, any fit deficiencies are addressed. For instance, the 1895SBL’s composite wood stock is completely refitted to the action. The tang slot is filled with Bondo and sanded till it fits as snugly as a prison wallet. The gun gets its XS Lever Rail and peep sights reinstalled. The finishing touch is the 550-cord wrap on the big loop handle. It’s regarded as either an aesthetic flourish or as a functional comfort upgrade, depending on the beholder.

Never Leave Well Enough Alone

It’s an old argument. Putting a scope on a lever gun is like putting a spoiler on a Honda Civic. Lever gun purists complain it ruins the lines of the gun. We imagine slick-backed-haired gentlemen saying this as they twist waxed mustaches. The classic buckhorn sights are reliable and snag free. We can’t argue too strongly against this aesthetic attack when we too love the balanced feeling of the gun when grabbed mid-action, thumb over the top. Fast handling is one of the most endearing qualities of the lever gun. So, we’re loath to strap a scope on top that makes it more than a handful to hold.

While we didn’t get cut by the well-deburred loading gate on the MCS 1895, after 150 rounds we did get a blister that called for some athletic tape.

While we didn’t get cut by the well-deburred loading gate on the MCS 1895, after 150 rounds we did get a blister that called for some athletic tape.

We ended up splitting the difference with a Leupold DeltaPoint Pro reflex optic. We shot a lot with it mounted on the XS rail, but decided our scopeless setup could be made more elegant with a direct mount. Nobody made a DPP plate for the Marlin, so we asked our leverthusiast friends at Skinner Sights for an assist. They made us a mounting plate for under $50. We pulled the rail, filled the barrel slot with a dovetail filler from Ranger Point Precision, and marveled at how we kept the classic lines of the gun, mostly, and accrued the speed advantage of a reflex sight.

As neat as that SBL lever was, we felt we could run the gun a little more efficiently with a smaller loop. We swapped in a Ranger Point Precision lever that combines the shape of the glove-friendly big loop with the speed and reach of a smaller lever.

Handling

One of the things we notice when shooting 45-70 all day is the heat it generates. It feels like there’s a small galaxy being born in the chamber. Compared to other big-bore lever gun fore-ends we handled during the Gunsite class, the Midwest Industries Handguard was noticeably cooler after strings of fire. In fact, we had no idea how hot the chamber end of our barrel was until we put a thumb over the top when putting the rifle in a rack between strings. It felt like a bee sting, but the handguard below was cool and comfortable.

MARLIN-NEW LEVER

Keeping the Marlin loaded was tough on the thumb. It didn’t take long to realize the value of athletic tape when loading a hundred-plus rounds a day through the 1895’s stiff loading gate. After three days of load-one, shoot-one, the regimen paid off in strength and callus. We were loading fast enough that we appreciated the lack of sharp edges on the loading gate and the loading gate spring.

The lever respects authority. As long as we worked the lever like we meant it, the rifle collected hits like a mafia enforcer. Go soft, and there’s a hitch as the bullet tip kisses the outside edge of the breech.

Performance

Older guys reading this article have probably been bracing for some John Wayne reference, and we’d love to oblige. But the closest we’ve come to sitting through a John Wayne western was watching Old Yeller projected on a baseball diamond backstop during a hometown community movie night. So, we can’t say the gun ran Gipperrificly, but we can say we watched Wind River and immediately considered accessorizing the 1895 with a fixed 2.5x Leupold and a snowmobile.
With a 50-yard zero, we could estimate bullet drop on the fly, ringing 12-inch steel at 200 yards from unsupported prone, and dropping 100-yard poppers while on the clock, standing, kneeling, and running the Gunsite Scrambler.

Lever guns are hungry. Keep ammo on tap on the gun or on your person … or both. Versacarry supplied us with their new dual position Ammo Caddy in 45-70 Gov’t. It’s an efficient and versatile way to carry a reload. The Velcro-backed carrier attaches to a leather belt loop and/or an adhesive-backed loop field placed on the rifle butt.

Lever guns are hungry. Keep ammo on tap on the gun or on your person … or both. Versacarry supplied us with their new dual position Ammo Caddy in 45-70 Gov’t. It’s an efficient and versatile way to carry a reload. The Velcro-backed carrier attaches to a leather belt loop and/or an adhesive-backed loop field placed on the rifle butt.

We poured one out for the Leupold Mark 8 3.5-25 we feared might die mounted to the 1895 during accuracy testing. We shot our standard layout of five, five-round groups with a handful of ammo types, plus ran a few reload drills. The rifle’s best groups were under an MOA, which is damned good for a big-bore rifle. Those big, heavy .45-caliber bullets drop slow and shed energy a lot faster than a .30-cal bullet, which is why we think of it as a 200-yard fist with 1x sights or a low power optic. Oh, and the scope withstood more than 200 rounds on that day without issue.

Wrap Up

There’s some wear where the Cerakote wore off the loading gate, but that’s all there is to complain about. This isn’t your grandpa’s Marlin, and even though Marlin’s quality was an issue as a result of Remington moving the factory from New Haven, Connecticut to Ilion, New York, in 2010, this gun bears none of that mechanical malaise.

The 18.5-inch barreled MLH is the modern incarnation of a century-old design. Compared to its longtime rival, the Winchester 94, the Marlin 1895/336 is simpler and a bit more elegant. When running the lever on a 94, you watch the bottom of the gun come apart, the top slide back, and the receiver open up. The mechanics of the 336/1895 action feels simple and sturdy. In comparison, the internal clicking and whirring of the 94 reminds us of the clockwork inside a Victorian boardwalk arcade game.

marlin ammo test

After running more than 850 rounds, about half of that over just three days at Gunsite, we declare the MLH is supremely reliable and exceedingly accurate. Looking beyond the gun’s performance and at its value, we were shocked to hear the Custom Shop invests 15 to 20 hours of labor into each gun. Doing the math, we figure Marlin is collecting barely $27 an hour for gunsmith labor; compare that to the $50 to $100 many gunsmiths charge. If you’re in the market for a top-shelf, no-nonsense guide gun, jump on the Marlin Custom Shop’s Modern Lever Hunter package before they realize how much they’ve undervalued their time and raise the price.

And, best of all … it might not be semi-auto or have a 30-round mag, but our custom Modern Lever Hunter has a heart far blacker than any AR.


marlin

Visit https://www.marlinfirearms.com/


HAMMER TIME

One of the most disconcerting things for any responsible shooter picking up a lever gun is the use of the hammer as a safety. While there’s a cross-bolt safety on the guns, it’s thought of as an abomination brought about by litigation. The preferred lever gun manual of arms is to leave the hammer half-cocked, cocking it as the gun is shouldered. In the half-cocked position, the sear sits in a second, lipped notch on the hammer that prevents the sear from moving. The hammer never rests on the firing pin, and it can’t move any lower in this configuration anyway, rendering the gun safe.

MARLIN-Sidebar1

The uncomfortable part comes when you cock the hammer or run the action on a loaded magazine, but decide not to shoot. You could snap the cross-bolt safety and call it good, but because the hammer still falls on a safe gun, and there’s so much going on with the shotgun-like manual of arms you could pull the trigger three times before you realize the gun isn’t broken. So, as Lew Gosnell teaches at Gunsite, the preferred method to safe a lever gun is to place a thumb on the hammer, pull the trigger, and lower the hammer to half-cocked. It’s unsettling, but it becomes second nature. And there’s still the cross-bolt safety if you want to run the gun that way.


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