When someone mentions guns of the Old West, I’d venture to say that the images conjured up by most folks would be of Colt six-shooters and Winchester lever-action rifles. That is the indoctrination my generation has had watching innumerable “Horse Operas” at the movies or on television. Rarely did anything else but a Colt or Winchester materialize out of Hollywood prop rooms—and if it did, little attention was afforded it. Thankfully that situation has changed for the better in recent years as researchers and screenwriters do a better job in the gun department, plus there are so many good replicas being made nowadays. One classic producer of Old West firearms that often gets a short-shift is the Marlin Firearms Company.
John Mahlon Marlin was born in 1836 and hailed from the heartland of the American firearms industry in Connecticut. He apprenticed as a machinist and is said to have worked at the Colt factory in Hartford for a time. In 1863, during the mid-point of the War Between the States, Marlin relocated to New Haven and there listed his business as pistolmaker. His first firearms were small, single-shot handguns in .22, .30, .32, and .41 caliber models. He later added tip-up and hinged-frame revolvers to his lineup, competing with Smith & Wesson and others, making concealment-type handguns until 1899. In 1875 Marlin took over manufacture of the Ballard single-shot rifle, offering hunting and target-grade versions until about 1890. But what really put Marlin on the map was lever-action rifles.
Marlin’s first repeating lever-gun was introduced in 1881 and chambered such large-bore cartridges as the .45-70 Gov’t and .40-60 Marlin. These rifles were relatively massive with long 28- to 30-inch barrels; the tubular magazine held 10 rounds. Later a smaller rifle design called the Model 1888 was produced and was chambered for such popular cartridges as the .44-40, .38-40 and .32-20. These two rifles along with lever-actions from Winchester, Burgess and others featured conventional top ejection. The rifle that revolutionized the Marlin line came along in 1889 and was based on an L.L. Hepburn patent for a lever-action with side-ejection. The Model 1889 took the same three cartridges as the Model 1888 and was made in versions varying from short-barreled carbines to 30-inch barrel muskets.
In 1890 L.L. Hepburn patented yet another new design, this one being a second side-ejecting lever-action, but it was chambered for the increasing popular .22 rimfire cartridge. Known as the Model 1891, the very first models used a loading gate in the right side of the receiver like most other guns of that type, but manipulation of the small cartridges into the loading gate proved unsatisfactory. Shortly thereafter magazine tube loading was introduced and is still the standard on tubular-magazine .22 rifles today. The Model 1891 was a favorite of exhibition shooter Annie Oakley, who toured with Buffalo Bill and his Wild West Show. Called “Little Sure Shot” by Sioux Chief Sitting Bull, who was also a part of the show at one time, she was also an international competitive marksman. On March 10, 1893 Annie Oakley used her Model 1891 to shoot a jagged one-hole group into the center of an Ace of Hearts playing card. What was astounding was the fact that this was done off-hand, from a distance of 12 yards, and she fired 25 shots in just 27 seconds, using .22 Short cartridges.
In that era the outside lubrication on .22 rimfire cartridges was messy and tended to melt during protracted shooting sessions, permeating the rifle action and eventually gumming it up. As a cure to this ill, Marlin put a large thumbscrew on the right side of the Model 1891 that upon removal, allowed the sideplate of the receiver to be removed exposing the action for cleaning. The Model 1891 rifles chambered .22 Short, Long and Long Rifle ammunition interchangeably. Early production Model 1891 rifles had round or octagonal 24-inch barrels, straight stocks, and short or 2/3 length magazine tubes, with a blued finish. This model was later supplanted by the Model 1892, which had a better trigger design.