Maximizing Your Marlin Lever Gun

There’s just something about a lever gun that is symbolically American. Maybe it’s the romance of the old West or just one too many John Wayne movie, but they hold a special place in my heart and my safe. I have to admit the first centerfire rifle I ever bought was a 444 Marlin.

Here in the southeast, lever guns used to be the mainstay for deer hunting before the bolt-action bean field guns made their debut. From the swamps of Florida to the thick woods of Alaska everyone regards them as great brush guns—but they can be so much more.

I find it interesting that the 45-70, a “brush gun” cartridge, was adopted by the military due to its greater range and accuracy than its predecessor. From Trapdoor’s to Gatling guns the 45-70 has proven itself a performer and a legacy round that refuses to die.

Quality components can turn a “brush gun” into an across the board performer.

The base gun for my quest to be able to use a lever gun for a bit more hunting begins life as a 45-70 Marlin GSBL, one of the hardiest finished lever guns Marlin ever produced. The black and green finishes over the stainless and laminate gun blend well in the outdoors and protect it from the elements.

To get the most from any rifle it at least needs a good trigger and sight system. The factory trigger, though not bad, is not what I would consider good. The same could be said of the barrel mounted buckhorn style sight.

Upgrades and Additions

Replacing the factory trigger with a Wild West Guns Trigger Happy Kit resulted in much smoother, no flop, lighter trigger that definitely aided in shooting groups at distance. The installation is easy and the folks at WWGs are super supportive. They’ve been doing custom lever guns since the 1990’s and make their own parts to ensure quality rather than outsourcing—I dig small shop USA-made!

Disassembly of the action took longer than installing the WWG Trigger Kit.

The factory trigger pull averaged just under 7 ½ lbs. on my trigger gauge, while the new WWG trigger averaged in at just over 3 ¼ lbs. This resulted in a tremendous difference in feel when shooting the gun though still heavy enough to be safe in the field.

The folks at WWGs are gunsmiths, shooters, hunters, and competitors so they are big on reliability. I took their advice and installed one of their “Bear Proof Ejectors and aluminum magazine followers to decrease the odds of having issues down the line.

The Bear Proof is a one-piece unit that replaces the factory two pieces, and the anodized aluminum follower replaces a factory plastic unit. WWG offers all 3 parts as a package deal in the Lever Happy Tune Kit.

I also opted to add a WWG Big Loop Lever for faster follow up shots and their Quick Release Screw to allow a tool-free lever/bolt removal for cleaning. They designed their lever based on experience gained from Alaskan hunting and Cowboy Action Shooting a great blend.

The limited sight radius provided by the sight being mounted on the barrel is easily improved by mounting a rear sight on the receiver or a scope. The XS Sights Lever Rail with Ghost Ring is the perfect answer for maximum versatility.

The XS rail screws to the top of the receiver and uses an insert in the rear sight dovetail of the barrel to firmly secure it to the gun. The peep sight at the rear of the rail provides a significant increase in sight radius and a lot of options for scope mounting positions. The XS rail stood up to the recoil of many, many rounds and kept the sights and scope securely in place for rock solid, repeatable performance.

Anchor point in barrel dovetail and 4 screws make for secure mounting of the XS rail. The added space could be used for night vision.

Using XS Sights or another receiver mounted peep extends your sight radius from 13″ to 21,” a greater than 50% increase in sight radius. This and the trigger change alone extended the reach of the big bullets easily to 200 yards.

The 200 yard groups were now looking pretty good and seemed to already burst the bubble of the “Brush Gun” stigma on the gun and cartridge, but to really maximize this blaster and make this be my go-to gun for deer, hogs, elk or whatever at reasonable distances than I still needed a bit more.

Ultimate Optic

A few years ago it would have been difficult to choose a scope that would support both the quick up close shooting needed in dense woods and longer range holdover needs of the 45-70 lever gun.  Luckily Nightforce released their NX8 model earlier this year and it is exactly what this gun needs.

On 1x the NX8 provides good field of view and outstanding illumination for fast shooting.
Photo 6 With magnification on 8x it’s easy to see the mil based reticle to and hold for the drop of the big 45 caliber bullets.

The NX8 is a very small 1-8 power scope with an illuminated mil-based reticle. The NX8 weighs just over a pound and is only 8 ¾” long. This small size supports mounting it very low and close on top of the gun. Equally important is the generous 3.75” eye relief that allows shooting the 45-70 and having space to not get tagged by the scope under recoil.

With magnification on 8x it’s easy to see the mil based reticle to and hold for the drop of the big 45 caliber bullets.

On 1x with the reticle illuminated it is just as fast to shoot as the gun is with iron sights, allowing shooting with both eyes open to track your prey. While on 8x with the mil-based reticle it allowed me to make shots using the proper elevation hold to engage targets at longer distances.

Yes, I know I just put way more money on top of the gun than the gun itself costs. That’s typical with bolt guns too. If you want to really see a rifle perform, it usually takes more money in glass than it does for the gun.

Ammunition

The next major component needed to maximize the performance of this lever operated, large diameter lead dispenser was the right bullets. The 405 grain bullets have been around since the late 1800’s; I think we should be able to do better than that. The biggest bullet problem is that the tubular magazine doesn’t allow pointed bullets due to the dangers of the bullet point detonation the primer in front of it during recoil.

Hornady addressed this issue a few years back when it came out with its LEVERevolution ammunition utilizing a Flex Tip design. This allows higher ballistic coefficient bullets, which improves the performance of tubular magazine rifles.

The Hornady 325 grain FTX rounds performed well in initial group testing so were chosen for the longer range testing as well. They have a higher BC than the 250 grain or the 405’s. Deer I have shot with these rounds dropped in their tracks. No need for following blood trails when well hit with these thumpers.

Performance

First stop was a few shots across the Ohler chronograph to determine what velocity the available loads were leaving the 18.5” barrel. This data was needed to determine what the elevation holds needed to be for longer ranges.

Bullet

Velocity

Hornady 250 Grn FTX LEVERevolution

1980 fps

Hornady 325 Grn FTX LEVERevolution

1870 fps

Remington 405 Grn Flat Point

1762 fps

Cardboard backer behind 100-yard target shows the hole story on the combo’s performance.

I was truly astonished by the first group shot with the 325’s and the NX8, it was a 1.18” group of 5 rounds, with four of the five forming one large hole.  The 100-yard accuracy testing proved the Marlin would be deadly on targets well beyond brush gun ranges and that heart/lung shot accuracy could be possible out to 300-400 yards.

Similar 200-yard group sizes but vastly different points of impact (250’s ~11 inches higher).

At 200 yards the Hornady 325’s shot a respectable 2.75” 3 shot group, while the 250’s came in under 3” as well. Moving back to 300 yards, the 325 FTX rounds still managed a fantastic 4.5” 3 shot group; so the Marlin 1895 45-70 with this load was managing 1.5 minutes of angle accuracy out to 300 yards-impressive.

The fine elevation subtensions of NX8 scope allowed precise aiming for longer ranges, aiding in fantastic groups.

The Hornady ammunition was doing its part for sure, but the scope and the trigger were instrumental in allowing me to see, hold over and break the shots. The NX8 zoomed up to 8x and its .5 mil reticle allowed the elevation holds and precisely aim the shots, a very well designed piece of glass. The WWG’s trigger, at less than half the weight of the original, made the job of getting the shots off when the crosshair was settled so much easier.

Testing was accomplished off a variety of bags resulting in steady but not unrealistic shooting results.

I had initially planned to use a muzzle target crown cutter to put an 11 degree target crown on the muzzle but after seeing these results decided to leave the business end of this lever gun just like it is.

Pushing the Envelope

With such great results out to 300 yards, it seemed appropriate to stretch testing on out to 400 yards. Data shows that between 300-400 yards the bullets fall back below the speed of sound and this often times causes instability in bullets making that transition, negatively affecting accuracy.

The Marlin/ Nightforce/ Hornady/ WWG setup had proven to shoot 1.5 MOA out to 300, which should equate to about a 6” group at 400 yards. I wouldn’t typically do 400-yard shots with this gun in the field due to wind errors, but it’s nice to know the true capability of the scope/ rifle/ ammunition combination.

The first 3 Hornady LEVERevolution 325 grain bullets made an impressive sub-6-inch group at 400 yards. Quickly following up those three with two more rounds opened the five-round group up to around 12 inches, all in a vertical string along the same axis.

First 3 rounds at 400 yards are well within heart / lung size range of big game. Shots 4 and 5 opened group up a bit vertically.

Shooting at 400 yards revealed several items of interest: the magnification and clarity of the Nightforce NX8 made it easy to still see and engage targets at that distance. Secondly, that even the slightest breeze causes inches of drift on the big slow moving slugs. As with most rifles, accuracy goes downhill as the barrel heats up. Regardless, how many of these do you need on-target to get the job done?

Maximized

The 1895 with all its upgrades performed well beyond expectations when set-up and pushed to the max. It was 100% reliable in feeding, ejecting, firing and left little else to be desired. The WWG’s Trigger and the Nightforce scope really made this gun come alive as a performer.

Whether you decide to fully maximize your Marlin or just use a portion of the mentioned upgrades depends on purpose and budget. I know without a doubt that this gun is up to the task of taking deer, hogs, bear, elk or whatever crosses its path out to 300+ yards.

Get yourself an old West nostalgic Big Bore Marlin Lever Gun here and for a Nightforce NX8 to carry its performance into bolt gun ranges.

***Shop GunsAmerica for your next lever-action***

About the author: Jeff Cramblit is a world-class competitive shooter having won medals at both the 2012 IPSC World Shotgun Championship in Hungary and more recently the 2017 IPSC World Rifle Championship in Russia. He is passionate about shooting sports and the outdoors. He has followed that passion for over 30 years, hunting and competing in practical pistol, 3gun, precision rifle and sporting clays matches. Jeff is intimately familiar with the shooting industry – competitor, instructor, RO, range master, match director. Among his training credits include NRA Instructor, AR-15 armorer, FBI Rifle Instructor, and Officer Low Light Survival Instructor. As a sponsored shooter, Jeff has represented notable industry names such as: Benelli, 5.11 Tactical, Bushnell, Blackhawk, DoubleStar, and Hornady. He has been featured on several of Outdoor Channel’s Shooting Gallery episodes and on a Downrange TV series. Jeff’s current endeavors cover a broad spectrum and he can be found anywhere from local matches helping and encouraging new shooters as they develop their own love of the sport, to the dove field with his friends, a charity sporting clays shoot, backpack hunting public land in Montana, or the winners podium of a major championship.

{ 9 comments… add one }
  • Michael October 15, 2018, 11:02 pm

    I too have a 45-70, but it is the 1895CB (26″ barrel and magazine). I also have a 30AS (Montgomery Wards 1980 30-30 made by Marlin). I decided to go with Skinner Peep Sights for both which puts the rear sight just forward of the hammer. For the 1895, Skinner has a combo sight and rail for scopes (Express) that I mounted a Bushnell Banner scope in Warne 7.3 rings. Plenty on room to get to the hammer without a side hammer add-on.

  • Ross Neal October 15, 2018, 12:49 pm

    To David Siemens: Marlin lever actions usually come with an hammer spur attachment that allows you to attach it for a right or left hand shooter. This attachment makes it easier to thumb the hammer back when a scope is in place. I have one on my old 336C and it works great.

  • Darrell Holland October 15, 2018, 10:50 am

    Mr. Cramblit,

    As a survival oriented guy check out the following website.

    http://www.lightningstrikefirestarter.com

    Your field test would be greatly appreciated.

    D.H

  • John J Kable October 15, 2018, 8:27 am

    Did similar install a while ago before the posting of this blog. The Wild West Guns trigger was truly an eighteen minute installation from start to finish and I was extremely pleased with the results, breaks just a tad north of 3.5 lbs in my 1990 version of the Marlin 1895 45-70 rifle. Also acquired an original Marlin large loop lever and changed it out in about 2.5 minutes. While I do most of my hunting in heavy brush here in Ohio a scope even the very best is more of a hindrance than an aid,for me anyway, so decided to go with a Skinner peep sight set up. The Skinner and XS sights are quite similar in function and caveman simple to install, took about 4 minutes to set in place. Works well in low light with seventy year old eyes and very unobtrusive in the brush as well. The only suggestion, an imperative really for the newbie bench top guy would to acquire a good set of Gunsmith grade screwdrivers/bits and punch set. The proper tools will make for a professional looking appearance to the finished product.Regarding ammo, have found the 405 grain bullets are very effective for brush hunting, quintessentially definitive out to 100 yards or so IMHO….

  • David Siemens October 15, 2018, 7:30 am

    You have certainly made some interesting and effective changes in your lever gun. But, it looks like it would be difficult if not impossible to thumb the hammer back or ease it forward with the scope in the way. Or, am I just seeing it from an incorrect photographic perspective? Other than that, I like what you’ve done.

    • Phil October 15, 2018, 10:51 am

      Don’t know about the author’s rifle, but my 1895 GBL’s hammer, with a 2.5x Leupold scope installed, is tricky, but manageable to de-cock. They make little side hammer deals that attach with a set screw, but I was unable to make mine stay tight. I cope with the tricky de-cocking.

  • Thomas Nichols October 15, 2018, 4:10 am

    Do you make a 22, in this same rifle, if so, I would like to have have information on it. Thanks!!

    • Oaf October 15, 2018, 9:04 am

      I don’t think GA makes any rifles, .22 or otherwise. And is your Google finger broken so badly as to prevent you from using it to find info on Marlin lever action rifles on the internets?

  • Tom October 15, 2018, 2:55 am

    Thanks for taking the time. Another really nice lever is the Ranger Point Precision. You should check them out. They are great people to deal with and make excellent products for lever guns.

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