Annie Oakley’s Rimfire

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.

History

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.

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The final perfection of the .22 rimfire lever-action from Marlin was the Model 1897. It looked a lot like the Model 1892 and had a large thumbscrew on the receiver too, but the big difference was removal of the thumbscrew now allowed the receiver to be separated into two parts. To the right receiver side was attached the action and buttstock and the left side held the breech-bolt, barrel and magazine. During that period in firearms history “takedown” models as they were known had become very popular and most long-gun manufacturers offered versions in both rifles and/or shotguns. Breaking the gun into two pieces allowed for easy transportation and cleaning; Marlin also made a takedown Model 1897 with a 16-inch barrel for bicycle carry using a special canvas and leather case. There were many versions of the Model 1897, with variations in barrel length, magazine capacity, stock design and finish. By the time production ceased in 1916, over 81,000 had been produced.

In 1922, Marlin essentially reissued the Model 1897 lever-action .22 with a pistol grip stock and 24-inch octagonal barrel and dubbed it the Model 39. The famous Marlin “Bullseye” was first embedded into the stock on this rifle and it was made until 1936; afterwards it was renamed the Model 39A in 1939. Improvements to the line included a new cartridge ejector design and a coil spring that replaced the flat spring powering the hammer. Over the ensuing years there were again many versions with various barrel lengths, magazine capacities and stock designs, including the Model 39A “Mountie” and several commemorative models. 1953 saw the introduction of Micro-Groove rifling which replaced the previous Ballard-type rifling.

Sixteen small grooves with a 1-in-16-inch right-hand twist replaced the conventional 4 to 6 grooves and provided less bullet distortion, plus improved gas sealing, which resulted in better accuracy. The word “Golden” was added to the Model 39A designation in 1957 as it was given a gold-plated trigger. A crossbolt safety and hammer rebound became standard in 1988. The Model Golden 39A is still in production today; it holds the record for having the longest period of continuous production of any rifle in the world, tracing its lineage back to the Model 1891.

Gun Details

Unlike years past, today the Marlin 39A comes in only one “flavor”—a rifle version with a 24-inch round barrel and a pistol-grip stock, much like the first Model 1897 from 1922. When I picked up the Model 39A the first word that came to my mind was “solid.” In today’s world of plastics, polymers, space-age metal alloys and wood laminates, the Marlin lever-action Model 39A is simply made from the finest genuine American black walnut and heat-treated, machined steel forgings. My little testing magnet stuck to everything metal that I touched on this rifle’s exterior. The finish is blue with the receivers top and bottom surfaces sandblasted and the stock has well-executed checkering with a diamond pattern on the pistol grip and forend. The interpolation of all this wood and steel equals what some might consider a downside, which is a weight of 6.5 pounds.

To my way of thinking this is a positive, not a negative. The Marlin is an adult .22 rifle—if you’re looking for one for the kiddies this isn’t it. That weight coupled with superb balance make the Model 39A steady on the target, with excellent pointing characteristics and potential for quick follow-up shots. It is definitely a gun you can load on Sunday and shoot all week long. The full-length magazine tube will hold 26 Short rounds, 21 Longs or 19 Long Rifle cartridges. The Micro-Groove barrel is heavy with a diameter of 0.80 inches near the breech, tapering gently to 0.70 inches near the muzzle, which has a rounded crown. There’s a ramped front sight with a gold bead, which is covered with a protective hood. A folding-leaf rear sight is step-adjustable for elevation and is mounted on the barrel in a dovetail, allowing it to be pushed laterally to a degree for windage. By the rear sight on the left side of the barrel is stamped “ORIGINAL GOLDEN-39A,” which is gold filled.

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The receiver is compact with the most notable feature being the large thumbscrew on the right side, used for takedown. Above it and angled slightly rearward is the cross-bolt safety. Along the top and left side, the receiver has been drilled and tapped for the addition of peep sights or scope mounting. The finger-lever curves downward slightly to accommodate the stock’s pistol grip. Being brand-spanking new, my rifle had a relatively stiff action that I’m sure will improve with use and age. The gold trigger had a pull weight of at least 8 pounds, but broke crisply and cleanly. The hammer spur is somewhat narrow and laterally serrated for good thumb purchase. There is an offset hammer spur that comes with each rifle and should be attached if you decide to mount a scope.

Checkering on the walnut stock as I mentioned before is well done; obviously by a machine. The buttstock comb is fluted on both sides and the pistol grip has a black cap, plus there’s a black spacer between the rear of the stock and the brown rubber recoil pad. The rear of the pad features the famous Marlin mounted cowboy logo and the bottom of the stock is inlayed with the traditional black and white bulls-eye. Included are sling swivel studs on the buttstock and forend cap. Wood to metal fit is good generally and the grain of the black walnut while straight is nonetheless attractive with a Mar-Shield finish that imitates hand-rubbed oil, offering a nice burnished glow. Overall quality I would have to rate as outstanding, given that hand-fitting is kept to a minimum.

Range Time

For a range evaluation I used four brands of .22LR ammunition from CCI, Federal, Remington, and Winchester. All were solids, save for the Winchester Super-X, which had a hollow point. Loads ranged from high velocity, to standard velocity, to target grade. On a rather hot day in late May I took the Marlin 39A to an outdoor range and did some shooting from the bench at 25 yards, using the rifles open sights. Five, five-shot groups were fired with each of the four test cartridges for best and average group sizes. Most .22 rimfires are peculiar about what ammo they prefer, so I wasn’t shocked when this gun did its best with CCI Mini-Mag high velocity cartridges. My best of the day was 0.48 inches with the CCI load and it also produced the best overall average.

I couldn’t even see the targets I used for 25 yards at 50 yards, so I put up one big target and shot 20 rounds of mixed .22 LR at it, also from the bench. The group could easily be covered with my hand and I’m sure a more astute rifleman with younger eyes could do a whole lot better as the Marlin 39A has lots of accuracy potential when the user does his/her part.

The backside of the range I utilize is set up for Western Action Shooting (WAS) so with the paper-punching completed, I had a go at steel targets with some fellow NCOWS shooters. The Marlin pinged steel at distances anywhere from 25 to over 75 yards away on level ground, as well as shooting at some targets placed up on a wooded hillside. I had no malfunctions attributable to the firearm; it ejected empties with aplomb, the report was mild and recoil practically non-existent. This would definitely make a great rifle for .22 rimfire side-matches, which are common at WAS events.

Final Notes

With a design that has a heritage over 120 years old, the Marlin Model Golden 39A in .22 rimfire is loads of fun to shoot. It’s both accurate and reliable and as I said earlier, just a bit on the stiff side action-wise—nothing a lot of shooting won’t cure, and believe me you’ll want to do a lot with this nifty lever-gun. It will serve you well in competition, hunting or just plain plinking. Listen closely as you lever in a round and the bullet “cracks” going downrange, you can almost hear the cheering of the crowd as Annie Oakley performed her marvelous shooting tricks in those halcyon days of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West! For more information call 800-544-8892 or visit marlinfirearms.com.