We live in an age where traditional walnut and blued steel have been replaced by synthetics, stainless steel, and finishes impervious to everything but a nuclear attack. These rifles are practical, durable, and, often, boring. Fortunately for those of us who appreciate traditional hunting rifles, the pendulum is beginning to swing back a bit in our direction. Among the new rifles that mimic the qualities of their ancestor designs, the 150th Anniversary Marlin 444 stands out.
Although the company has a Custom Shop, many American hunters view Marlin as a company that makes serviceable and modestly priced rifles for everyday use. That wasn’t always the case. Marlin Firearms Co. was founded by John Marlin back in 1870, when the nation was still reeling from the Civil War. Marlin had been a tool-and-die maker who began his career building guns at Colt during the war. Americans were pushing into the western frontier in large numbers and needed reliable big-bore rifles for the endeavor. Marlin helped provide them, and his first lever-action repeater was introduced in 1881. The company produced millions of production guns, but it also built ornate rifles on special order. These guns featured beautiful hand-checkered walnut stocks and significant amounts of engraving. Today, these factory custom Marlins can sell for north of $20,000.
Though bolt-action and semiautomatic rifles dominate today’s hunting fields, the lever-action rifle reigned supreme for at least a century. To ignore the lever action is to ignore a sizable chunk of North America’s hunting heritage. Marlin was the first firm to introduce the solid-top, side-eject, lever-action design back in 1893, and when the scope era began in the next century, it became obvious that mounting an optic on a Marlin was easier than on lever-action rifles of other companies. Marlin flourished.
Marlin’s ownership changed hands in the 1920s. It was most recently purchased by Remington Outdoor Group in 2007 and continues to be the leader in the lever-action market. To pay homage to the company’s storied history, Marlin is building two 150th Anniversary rifles in 2020: a lever-action centerfire and a semiauto rimfire. The anni-versary lever gun is the 444, which is aptly named for its chambering in the .444 Marlin cartridge. “We wanted some features that we hadn’t done in a long time,” Marlin Senior Product Manager Eric Lundgren told me. “We put a lot of thought into this gun, and the result was exactly what we were looking for.” When I opened the commemorative box and removed the rifle from its protective cloth sleeve, I was pleasantly surprised. This is one of the most attractive factory-produced rifles I’ve used in a while, and I’m not even a lever-action guy.
The heart of the 444 is the steel receiver, which is CNC machined from forgings to its final dimensions. The receiver, lever, and bolt are engraved in a nice scroll pattern accented by touches of gold, including a facsimile of John Marlin’s signature. The pattern pays homage to some of the company’s historical guns with some modern elements added in. It’s nice without being gaudy. The engraving pattern was hand-cut by master engraver Jere Davidson on the first rifle and then duplicated on the production guns using automated tooling. There is a crossbolt safety as well as a transfer bar safety. The top of the action is drilled and tapped for a scope mount, and a removable hammer extension is included for those who will be using optics.
The 24-inch barrel is a half-octagon profile that transitions from octagon to round just forward of the forend. Marlin threw traditional cast bullet shooters a curveball when it introduced its Micro-Groove rifling in the 1980s, but those days are behind us. The 444 is rifled in the traditional Ballard method with six grooves and a 1:20-inch twist that will stabilize the heaviest of cast lead and jacketed bullets. Like all of the 444’s metalwork, the barrel is polished to a gloss finish and salt blued.
The handfit two-piece stock is cut from C-Grade American black walnut, which would be the traditional blank material for a rifle in this category. The wood finish is an attractive satin. Ours showed plenty of figure, some attractive mineral lines, and even some marbling. If you were going to find factory wood nicer than this, you’d be looking for a while. There is a non-standard pistol grip with an S-curve contour on the bottom. The checkered panels are machine-cut but done well. A brown recoil pad helps tame the .444 Marlin’s recoil.
These days, if a rifle even wears iron sights, they are cheap and more or less useless. The iron sights on the 444, however, are excellent. The front is a 0.95-inch white bead dovetailed into the barrel. The rear is a thing of its own. This folding ladder-style rear sight, which was designed specifically for this project, is machined from solid bar stock by the Skinner Sight Company in St. Ignatius, Montana. The sight alone retails for $159, and the quality of the construction is excellent. When the sight is folded down, it is a simple notched buckhorn, but when stood up, it’s a thing of beauty. The adjustable ladder can be positioned along the length of the sight to accommodate for elevation holds, essentially a 19th-century version of a BDC reticle. For the record, the values of the sight’s graduations are not made to a specific cartridge or sight radius, so the individual shooter will have to do the calculations and confirm their holds on the range. The sight secures to the ladder using a small hex setscrew, but Skinner will sell you a knurled thumb-screw version as an accessory.
Overall, the fit and finish on this gun was very good and far exceeds that of most off-the-rack rifles. This rifle looks like a real American classic, something Teddy Roosevelt would have used during his days in the Dakota Territory. The 444 is well balanced and relatively lightweight at seven pounds. The whole package simply feels solid. My only complaint about the 444 we tested was the trigger, which broke at 6.25 pounds, according to my gauge.
The .444 Marlin cartridge was introduced by the firm in 1964, when factory ammunition for big-bore lever guns pretty much had disappeared from the market. This rimmed cartridge shares much with the .44 Magnum, but the case is 0.94 inch longer. Bullets are 0.430 inch in diameter, and at 42,000 psi, the cartridge is loaded to far higher pressures than the straight-wall cartridges of its day. There aren’t many .444 Marlin loads on the market, but we managed to test four. Three of the loads came from Buffalo Bore in Salmon, Idaho, a company known for maximizing the ballistics of each cartridge it produces. Straight-walled big bores are the company’s specialty, and they produce three different choices: 300- and 335-grain cast LFNs and a 270-grain JFN. We also tested Hornady’s 265-grain FTX LEVERevolution. The heavy cast loads are ideal for larger game, such as elk and bears, while the two jacketed choices would be death on deer. Remington is producing the first-ever Marlin branded ammunition as well: a 265-grain softpoint load that will be available only during this anniversary year.
Physics won’t lie to you, and neither will I. Launching a 335-grain bullet at nearly 2,100 feet per second from a seven-pound rifle produces some recoil—especially from a bench or the prone position—but it is less pronounced than heavy .45-70 or .450 Marlin loads. You wouldn’t want to plink all day with this rifle, but you’d barely notice it in the field. I fired this rifle a substantial amount on several range trips, but I did not do any formal accuracy testing. We could have mounted a scope, but the idea seemed a bit sacrilegious. My only regret is that I did not have the rifle during the fall when I could have put it to better use.
With more and more states that don’t otherwise allow for rifle hunting now allowing straight-wall cartridges, lever guns are seeing a bit of a resurgence. After some growing pains after the Remington acquisition, Marlin is building some of the best guns it has ever produced in terms of uniformity, reliability, and accuracy. The 150th Anniversary is a great example of the craftsmanship that the company is capable of, and it is a worthy addition to Marlin’s history.
150th Anniversary Marlin 444 Specs
Type: Lever-action repeater
Caliber: .444 Marlin
Magazine Capacity: 6+1
Barrel: 24-in. half-octagon, 1:20 twist
Overall length: 40 in.
Weight, empty: 7 lbs.
Stock: Two-piece C-Grade American black walnut
Finish: Satin (stock); gloss, salt blued (metalwork)
Length of Pull: 13.375 in.
Sights: White bead front, Skinner ladder rear
Trigger: 6.25-lb. pull (measured)
Price/website: $1,889; marlinfirearms.com
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