Lever guns chambered in.308 Marlin Express take game with bolt-action authority.
By Jon R. Sundra
As venerated as the Marlin 336 lever-action rifle is by the millions of hunters who own one, it’s understandable if a lot of them have inferiority complexes. Why? Because almost every year they see new hot-rock cartridges introduced that they know could never be chambered in their beloved lever guns because the operating pressures are too high. Modern high-intensity cartridges are loaded to operating pressures of over 60,000 psi, and the most recent generations of magnums, super magnums and short magnums are pushing 65,000.
The Marlin, alas, is limited to 47,500 psi, which means that 336 fans can only look wistfully at most of the new and exciting cartridges that come along. It’s not that the Marlin isn’t strong enough or that it doesn’t have much of a safety margin. It’s just that, at pressures higher than 48,000 psi, the gun does not operate reliably enough. Not only that, but being saddled with a tubular magazine means these guns are further handicapped by the use of round- or flat-nosed bullets that are ballistically inferior to those of a spitzer shape.
The 336 has been in existence since 1948, when Marlin redesigned what was essentially the Model 1893. In its original form, however, the ’93 was strong enough to be chambered for the .30-30 WCF when it debuted in 1895, along with the .32 Special, .32-40 and .38-55, all of which made the transition to smokeless powder. The designation was again changed in 1936, but there were no substantive alterations in the basic design of the action. From 1937 to 1948, the gun was known as the Model 36 and was chambered only for the .30-30 and .32 Special.
There were two other centerfire lever actions made by Marlin - the 1894 and 1895 models. Both were similar to each other and to the Model 1893 in all basic mechanics, but differed in the cartridges they could digest. The ‘94, for example, was chambered for short rounds like the .25-20, .32-30, .38-40 and .44-40, while the Model 1895 could be had in the largest and most potent blackpowder rounds of the day, including the .40-70, .40-82 and the .45-70 Govt. The Model ‘95 was discontinued in 1915; the ‘94 in 1934.
From the time the new Model 36 came into existence in 1937 to 1948, all Marlin centerfire rifles were based on what was essentially the original Model 93. Prior to the birth of the Model 336 in 1948, all earlier Marlins had split receivers on the right side and a square bolt. With the 336, Marlin engineers unitized the receiver by bridging the gaping split on the right side with a web of steel. It was now a solid receiver with a round hole for the bolt raceway, with an ejection port of minimum size milled into its right side. For all its visible differences, the 336 still locks up the same as earlier Marlins in that a vertical-moving breech block engages a slot in the bottom of the bolt. Though its solid receiver is obviously stronger than its predecessor, it still is not capable of handling high-intensity cartridges or magnums, the tubular magazine notwithstanding. For all intents and purposes, the current Model 336 is essentially the same gun that appeared in 1948, so it’s been going strong now for well more than half a century.
It should be mentioned here, but only incidentally, that in response to the wave of nostalgia for old guns and cartridges that came over the industry in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, Marlin reintroduced in 1969 a modern-day replica of the original short-action Model 1894. It’s still being produced today in four different calibers ranging from the .32-20 Win to the .44 Mag/.44 S&W. In 1972, they did the same with the .45-70 by introducing a modern version of the Model 1895 chambered for the century-old martial cartridge of the United States. Though it was, and still is in the descriptions appearing in the current Marlin catalog as being a Model “1895,” it is built on the 336 action.
The first effort to change the image of the Marlin 336 from being a moderate-range deer-rifle-only came in 1964 with the introduction of the .444 Marlin, a cartridge developed for Marlin by Remington. It was essentially a rimmed .30-06 case topped with the same 240-grain bullet used in the .44 Magnum handgun round, one that was never meant to be pushed at the 2,350 fps claimed for that load. Hornady eventually came out with a 265-grain bullet specifically designed for the .444 that brings out the true capability of the round. I’ve used it to take three black bears and can attest to its effectiveness. It is available from Hornady as a factory load.
The next caliber to be added to the 336 lineup was the .375 Win in 1980. The round was developed for the same reason as the .444, namely, to bolster the reputation and capability of the Winchester Model 94 - the only real competitor the 336 has ever had. The .375 Win is shown as having a maximum product average chamber pressure of 55,000 cups, which translates to well over 60,000 psi, and thus far above what the 336 is capable of digesting. Yet the 336 was chambered for the .375 Win for eight years - 1980-87 (I had one and used it to take a mountain lion in Utah and never had any problems with it). How did they do it? It was never loaded by Winchester - the only source of factory ammo - to anywhere near the pressure level stated.
In 1982, Winchester came up with two more rounds specifically designed for the Big Bore 94 - the .307 Win and .356 Win. They were essentially rimmed versions of the .308 Win, but the case specs called for a thicker web section and sidewalls, so the capacity was about 7 percent less than that of the .308. Marlin quickly announced they, too, would chamber for both rounds. Again, these were high-intensity cartridges supposedly loaded to the same pressure levels as the .375 Win, i.e., far more than the 336 was designed for. As it turned out, only the .356 version went into production and was produced by Marlin for only three short years: 1983 through ’85. Again, neither cartridge was loaded to anywhere near SAAMI spec chamber pressures.
The most successful effort prior to 2005 to breathe new life into the 336 was in 2000 with the introduction of the .450 Marlin, the most potent cartridge ever to be chambered for a traditional lever-action rifle. Developed by Hornady specifically for the 336, the belted .450 Marlin pushes a 350-grain Interlock bullet at 2,100 fps and develops 3,425 foot-pounds of muzzle energy — quite a difference from the .30-30 and .35 Rem that for so long were the only chamberings offered!
Despite all the aforementioned efforts to change the image and the capabilities of the Marlin lever-action rifle, they were all limited by the necessity of using blunt- or flat-nosed bullets because of the nose-to-primer orientation of cartridges stored in the tubular magazine. That all changed in 2006 with the introduction of Hornady’s LeverEvolution ammunition and FlexTip bullets. Developed in a cooperative effort between Hornady and Marlin, this new ammo allows pointed bullets to be used in tubular magazines. The combination of higher velocity, flatter trajectory and higher retained energies transformed a cartridge like the .30-30 into an honest 250-plus yard deer cartridge, and the other four calibers comprising the .336 lineup - the .35 Rem, .444 Marlin, .450 Marlin and .45-70 Govt — into 200-plus yard rounds. To distinguish these newly found capabilities, Marlin introduced a new, all-stainless version of the 336 with a black laminated stock and called it the XLR series.
Which brings us to present day and yet another breakthrough resulting from another collaborative effort between Hornady and Marlin: the .308 Marlin Express. The stated goal of this project was to come as close as possible to .308 Win performance in the 336, and, given the pressure limitations imposed, they came awfully close.
In a side by side comparison, the .308 Marlin Express is slightly shorter in body and overall case length than the .308 Win. This is so that the latter can’t be forced into a .308 ME chamber. So it has a shorter body length than the .308 Win, but not by much. According to my measurements, the ME has only 9 percent less powder capacity than the .308 Win case, yet it pushes its 160-grain FlexTip bullet at 2,660 fps. That compares quite favorably with the .308’s 165-grain loading at 2,685 fps. Zeroed-in to print 3 inches high at 100 yards, the .308 ME is only 6.7 inches low at 300 yards, where it’s still packing 1,460 foot-pounds of energy. Bottom line: We’re looking at a traditional lever-action rifle that under the right conditions can realistically put down a buck 300 yards distant.
I hasten to point out here that all XLR-series rifles feature 24-inch barrels rather than the usual 20-inch spouts that have predominated in the past. That, of course, helps these rounds achieve their impressive velocities. As it came from the box, our test gun weighed 7 pounds, 2 ounces, which is 2 ounces more than advertised. In addition to its distinctive all-stainless composition and black laminated stock with an effective recoil pad, these guns are further distinguished by a fluted bolt that reduces friction. The flutes are quite narrow and shallow, but they seem to achieve the desired end; either that, or Marlin has succeeded in smoothing up the action a bit.
To ready the test gun for the range, I mounted an Alpen 3-9x42 scope using a Weaver one-piece base and Warne lever rings. Normally, one wouldn’t put such a scope on a traditional lever-action rifle, but with the newfound potential of these XLRs and Hornady LEVERevolution ammo, a higher-magnification scope is warranted. Ready to go, the test gun weighed 8 3/4 pounds.
The primary reasons for a range test in this case were to see how well the only factory load available for this gun shoots, and to see if it lives up to its claimed velocity. I say that because there’s never a question about the 336’s functioning. Mr. Hepburn got it right when he designed the gun in 1893, and the Marlin folks improved upon it in 1948. I’ve never had one fail, nor have I ever heard of one failing. It came as no surprise, then, when the gun functioned perfectly over the course of firing some 60 rounds at the range. Empties were ejected with gusto, depending on how smartly I worked the lever, and the trigger broke at a relatively light - for an exposed-hammer gun — 4.5 pounds. And, of course, compared to a bolt gun, cycling the action from the shoulder is much easier and faster.
Following is the result of taking the best five three-shot groups fired from a cold barrel. Average velocity for a 10-shot string was 2,585 fps, or 75 fps short of nominal. According to Hornady’s tables, if zeroed 3 inches high at 100 yards, the .308 ME will impact 1.7 inches high at 200. In my tests, with that 3-inch-high zero at 100 yards, my three-shot groups were just about dead-on at 200 yards. Thus, the -6.7 inches claimed to be the POI at 300 yards is going to be closer to 9 inches, but still not enough to worry about.
One almost forgets in this day and age of the bolt-action rifle, just how much fun lever guns are to shoot! And now with the capability of harvesting deer-size critters out to 300 yards, the traditional lever-action rifle gets a whole new lease on life. Who woulda’ thunk!
Reprinted from the August 2007 issue of Buckmasters GunHunter Magazine. Subscribe today to have GunHunter delivered to your home.