Lever Guns - “Remlins”
Over the years, I have bought and sold or traded a number of different kinds of firearms, including revolvers and semiautomatic handguns; over and under, pump action, and semiautomatic shotguns; and bolt action, semiautomatic, and single-shot rifles. Calibers have included .22 Long Rifle, .380 ACP, .38 Special, 9x19mm, .357 Magnum, .45 ACP, .44 Magnum, .223 Remington/5.56 NATO, .300 Blackout, .30 Carbine, 7.62x39mm, 7.62x54R, .308 Winchester/7.62 NATO, 20 Gauge, and 12 Gauge. But until fairly recently in my personal gun-owning history, I had never owned a lever action rifle, chambered in a classic lever action caliber.
These days, as I’m entering “senior citizen” status, my personal focus on collecting and shooting has shifted away from an interest in the tactical and modern technologies, to an interest in the historical and legacy designs, and to the rifles and pistols of my youth. I’ve never forgotten the family doctor of my childhood years who was an avid hunter. He lived near my house, and his kids were my contemporaries and we all rambled around the area like a footloose band of young primates. One of the memories I’ve always had of being in my doctor’s house, was a glass-enclosed gun cabinet in fairly prominent display in one of the rooms, with a row of nice classic-looking lever action hunting rifles contained therein. This was in a day and age when people still had brains and morals, and it would not have occurred to anyone to try and break the glass and take the rifles - which were locked to a rack. My Dr was a WW2 vet, and I’m sure he would not have been above taking a life if necessary. Those rifles were perfectly safe and secure from theft, sitting in a glass-fronted gun cabinet back in that day and time.
Lever actions are absolutely iconic rifles. They have played major parts as props in western movies and television fare, and even as the core element of a popular old TV show, “The Rifleman” (1958-1963), starring Chuck Connors. They have been around since at least the American Civil War. Lever actions have been produced by a number of manufactures over the past century and a half, including (but not necessarily limited to) Colt, Henry (the original Henry), Winchester, Spencer, Marlin, and Henry (the new Henry). It is easily arguable that more American game animals have been harvested with a lever action rifle chambered in one of the many calibers available for them than any other design; and it is not a stretch to say that a lever action rifle chambered in .30/30 Winchester has taken more game than any other rifle/cartridge combination in our history.
So finally, after a lifetime’s secret longing, I bought my first lever action rifle a little over 18 months ago. That rifle is a Marlin 336BL chambered in .30/30 Winchester. This one is a “Remlin” .... a rifle made after Remington Arms’ buyout of Marlin Firearms Co. There is some controversy over the ongoing quality of Marlins manufactured after the buyout, but I’ll address the issue of “Remlin” quality a little further down in this article. First let me describe this particular model.
Marlin produces .30/30 caliber Model 336 lever action rifles in varying barrel lengths from 16.5” to 24”, with magazine tube capacities varying from 5 to 6 rounds, depending on model. The 336BL has a barrel of 18.5” with a 6 round magazine tube approximating the barrel in length (picture below). The distinguishing feature besides barrel length and magazine capacity is the “big loop” lever - hence the “BL” in the model number. The larger loop makes it easier for shooters with large and/or gloved hands to get a hand into the lever to work the action - particularly under stress. The butt stock and forearm are made from a wood laminate, and the butt stock has a decent rubber recoil pad affixed to it. I bought this particular model because I think that the 18.5” barrel is a nice handy length for a working truck gun, without sacrificing too much velocity or paying a weight penalty.
The Internet abounds with complaints about the quality of post-buyout Marlin rifles - which go by the nickname “Remlins”. The story of the Remington buyout of Marlin could fill a separate article, so I won’t give the details here. But the bottom line is that, since 2007, Marlin rifles have been manufactured on a Remington assembly line in Ilion, NY, rather than at the old Marlin factory in New Haven, Connecticut. I ordered my Marlin 336BL through a local FFL, and it was manufactured in the Remington factory that same year - 2016. Initially, I was not worried about it. I currently own a Remington 700 manufactured in 2007, and it is a fine rifle. I assumed that Remington, already knowing how to build decent rifles, would have gotten up to speed in the intervening 9 years since moving the Marlin production line to Remington’s factory, and would have overcome any of the bugs related to the production of Marlin’s lever guns. Unfortunately, this is not nearly the case. Remington’s quality control has suffered in others of its product lines. Again, that is another article than this one. But suffice it to say that I received a somewhat substandard product in this Marlin when compared to pre-Remington models - with ONE saving grace. Most of the issues were not discovered until after I got the rifle home - so I own it.
Going from the butt stock forward ....
Although the recoil pad is well fitted to the butt stock and effective, the fit and finish of the laminated wood to the rest of the gun is poor. There are noticeable gaps between the wood and metal, and they stand proud of one another in various places, such that unless one has gloves on, one’s fingers are aware of the uneven interfaces between metal and wood even without looking. There is a pattern of checkering located on the pistol grip of the stock. It is not particularly precise, and gives the impression of having been stamped into the wood, rather than cut. It’s a cosmetic “meh”, but it does work to aid in improving grip on the stock while shooting. The forearm wood is much the same as the butt stock with similar checkering. Together, they work, but they are not not a mark of quality.
Laminated wood in and of itself is not a bad thing in a rifle stock. It provides a good strong stock that resists weather, and if properly done it can be a very handsome piece. I own a Ruger Gunsite Scout with a gray laminate stock that is quite attractive. But a laminated stock detracts from a gun’s appearance when there has been no attention paid to detail. Moving on ....
The bluing on the metal is even and consistent between receiver, barrel, and magazine tube, but the receiver’s metal betrays faint machining marks through the bluing, giving it more of a matte appearance than the shiny barrel and mag tube. I’m not a fan of laser etching the serial # and a QR code into the side of the receiver. From anything other than up close, it looks like a blemish In the finish.
Mechanically, the side loading gate is so stiff that it makes it very difficult to feed rounds into the magazine tube. In fact, I gave up trying during testing to load the magazine, and just fed rounds in one at a time through the ejection port. The amount of sideways force against the bullet as one tried to push the gate inward seemed to risk loosening the bullet in the cartridge neck. I would count this as a major problem, particularly for people with arthritic or injured hands, as it basically turned a 6 round lever action repeater into a single-shot lever action. It took money and some work to fix it.
The magazine tube came out of the box offset from centerline beneath the barrel, with the stud to which it attaches sticking out to the left side, and the whole thing was loose. I’ll cover the repairs further down, but this is going to be a recurring problem.
The OEM sights are serviceable, but not very good or sharp - particularly for someone who may have degraded eyesight. Despite having a brass-colored bead on the front sight blade, it was difficult to discern under anything but direct sunlight. Also, the provided front sight hood was sort of flat across the top, rather than arched (see these two photos). There is no hole cut in the top of the hood to allow any overhead light through, so very little light is allowed between the underside of the hood and the top of the sight blade. Again, this made it almost impossible to get a clear sight picture in anything except direct sun. I eventually took the stupid thing off.
The rear buckhorn sight seemed flimsy and not very precise, but in the end it didn’t matter because I had made up my mind to simply replace the whole shebang with a set of aftermarket iron sights and then top it with a scope.
The trigger is not excellent but neither is it terrible. I can feel some hitches in the action of the lever, but it also seems to be smoothing out over time. Spent brass ejects cleaning with authority, and despite the wonky magazine tube, feeding is reliable at this point. Sling swivels are included on the forearm tip and the butt stock. The rifle has a cross-bolt safety which, when pushed from the right to left, shows a red ring around the button when the weapon is hot. With the safety engaged (pushed back to the right) and the hammer cocked, one can pull the trigger, and the hammer falls on a block which keeps it from contacting the firing pin. The hammer does have a half-cock notch, and it should make the weapon safe to carry hot with the hammer on half-cock, but I would rather chamber a round and then manually drop the hammer all the way and carry it on “safe”. It’s not that big of a deal to take off a safety. There is a secondary safety feature in the action of the lever, which must be pressed tight up against the stock for the gun to fire. If the lever drops away from the stock just a tad, it engages a trigger block so that the gun cannot be fired.
The Saving Grace:
This rifle shoots reasonably well for what it is. The barrel has 1:10” Ballard-type rifling and it handles anything from 150 to 170 grains fairly well, but it seems have a preference for the heavier bullets. My first range day with it was a 70º day on December 31st, 2016, at Elm Fork Shooting Range in Dallas, Texas. I shot 3-round strings of the following loads with the following results - all shot over the original iron sights at just 25 yards. All were shot over a MagnetoSpeed V3 bayonet type chronograph, so all velocities are right at the muzzle. My (then) cataract-infested eyes account for the embarrassing results at the time. I’ve since had surgery in both eyes and am looking forward to getting this rifle back out to the range again for another test.
|CARTRIDGE||MIN FPS||MAX FPS||AVG FPS||ES||SD||GROUP SIZE|
|Federal Fusion 150 grain jacketed Soft Point||2,376||2,421||2,404||45||25||1.75”|
|Hornady American Whitetail 150 grain jacketed RNSP||2,364||2,386||2,372||22||12||1.40”|
|Hornady LEVERevolution 160 grain FTX||2,345||2,388||2,360||43||24||1.0” (2 in one hole)|
|Remington Core-Lokt 170 grain Jacketed Soft Point||2,149||2,170||2,159||21||11||1.0” (2 in one hole)|
It is worth noting that extreme spread (ES) and standard deviation (SD) didn’t seem to have much to do in this case with consistent performance. As you can see from the above chart, the rifle favored the 160 and 170 grain bullets for accuracy, and the 160 grain projectile was not at any real ballistic disadvantage to the 150 grain bullets. Until I can figure out a handload that duplicates the 160 grain load, Hornady LEVERevolution is going to be my go-to load for this rifle.
Nothing can be done really for the fit and finish issues for this rifle. Although it is substandard, it’s OK simply because I regard this as a truck gun that I won’t care much if it gets dinged up with rough use - so long as it keeps shooting straight.
I replaced the front and rear OEM sights with a Lever Rail Ghost Ring WS set from XS Sight Systems. This is a complete set which includes a white painted ramp on the front sight that stands out in clear relief from the background, and a Lever Rail Ghost Ring rear sight. The rail is a standard picatinny pattern, and the ghost ring which is threaded into it at the rear is adjustable for both elevation and windage. The system came with two sizes of ghost rings - a smaller one for more precision work, and a larger one for “express sights”. I mounted the larger one, since I was adding a scope and thought of the iron sights as strictly a backup proposition in the event that the scope gets broken. For a scope, I used a Leupold 1.5-5x33mm VX-R scout scope, mounted with the ocular lens just forward of the rear sight, using a pair of low Bushnell XTR quick release rings. The combination keeps the optic way down low on the rail, so one can maintain a traditional cheek weld without having to make adjustments for the scope. This is a long eye-relief scope, so there is no issue with the ocular lens being mounted forward of the rear iron sight. The rings pop off with a flick of a lever on each one if the scope goes down for some reason or other, and the iron sights need to be accessed.
Side Loading Gate:
Ranger Point Precision manufactures an array of replacement parts / upgrades for lever action rifles. One such upgrade they offer is a more lightly sprung loading gate. This piece is made from 7057-T6 aluminum, and reduces the effort of depressing the gate from well over 5 lbs, to 1.5 lbs. Now the rifle loads like it always should have, and just like pre-Remington Marlins used to load. Installation was fairly straightforward, but it’s not something I would advise to anyone who has never taken apart a lever action rifle or has no gunsmithing skills. I am fortunate in that my son worked as a gunsmith for several years, and big, bing, bang, it was installed. Now that I’ve seen it done, I would be willing to do it myself. Ranger Point Precision offers a video on their website with complete installation instructions, but my son has broken down so many Marlin and Winchester lever actions that he could do it with his eyes closed. What I CAN say is that, for $42.00, the new loading gate is a vast improvement over the OEM piece, and it is easy to use now.
Loose Magazine Tube:
As mentioned above (see picture above) the rifle was delivered with the magazine tube cocked off-center to the left by a substantial and visible amount. The tube attaches to the barrel by means of a threaded stud that fits in a dovetail on the underside of the barrel, below the front sight. A barrel band would not work there because of the front sight being in the way. The magazine plug threads into the muzzle end of the tube, and retains the magazine spring and follower. That plug has a screw that goes all the way through it vertically and threads into that stud. Thus, when the the plug is threaded into the tube, and the screw is threaded all the way in to the stud, it places the stud in tension against the dovetail, and it is supposed to anchor the end of the mag tube from wiggling around. Unfortunately, the system doesn’t work very well, and I’ve had to fix it more than once. Again, my gunsmith son was a big help the first time.
We started by unthreading the screw from the plug, and the plug from the mag tube. At the far end of the forearm opposite the receiver, there is a metal forearm tip (see top picture of rifle) which caps the end of the wood, and which attaches via a screw on either side to a forearm tip tenon which rides in a second dovetail on the underside of the barrel. We removed both screws, the forearm tip, the tenon, and the forearm, so as to expose the magazine tube where it inserts into the action. All appeared to be well on the action end, so we began reassembly. That’s where we ran into a second problem.
Many other older Marlins use a system similar to this one to pin the mag tube in place without ever experiencing any of these problems, so it’s not a design issue. It is purely an issue of shoddy workmanship and feckless quality control. We put the forearm tip tenon back into place in its dovetail, and the magazine tube stud into its dovetail. Then we threaded the magazine plug back into the magazine tube, and threaded the magazine plug screw back into the magazine tube stud - making sure that tension was kept against the stud, while also making sure that the magazine tube was properly centered beneath the barrel. Enter the second problem..... When we replaced the forearm wood and the forearm tip and properly aligned them, the screw holes in the forearm tip no longer lined up with the screw holes in the forearm tip tenon. Again, the jackwagons in Remington’s QC dept were not paying attention to detail. We finally did get the screws threaded in, but although they are properly threaded in, they appear as if cross-threaded. It is functional, but it looks like crap.
I paid in the vicinity of $650 for the basic rifle, brand new in the box. I already owned the Leupold scope, which I had bought a few years ago from SWFA for $599 - originally to be used on my Gunsite Scout. The upgraded iron sights were $180, and the rings were $72 from Amazon. The upgraded loading gate was $42 direct from Ranger Point Precision. So I have a total of $1,543 in it, not counting tax and freight, or possible gunsmithing fees for repairs and/or installing parts like the loading gate. Links for all of these items are listed below.
Buying this particular “Remlin” has been both the satisfaction of a long held desire, and an exercise in frustration and disappointment. I do like nice rifles, but in the end, I care less about what this particular rifle looks like, than I care about how it functions and its reliability. I can live with the cobby fit and finish of the wood stock and forearm to the receiver, and with the cosmetic abomination of the forearm tip tenon screws looking crossthreaded. Like I said, I think of it as a working rifle, and over the course of its life, it’s going to get dinged up a bit. And as long as it shoots well I can live with it. But, I am not confident that the magazine tube will hold up. It is very obviously cheaply made, and had to have been assembled by a drunk. It very obviously could not pass a conscientious QC inspector’s scrutiny. It is still loose, even after having been realigned and properly tightened down. It is utterly ridiculous to assert that it was designed that way; it was not. I have handled other, older pre-Remington Marlins, and they do not have that kind of shoddy workmanship. I worry that if I ever drop this rifle hard out in the field, I’d end up with a rifle that I can't reload if necessary. I am even giving serious thought to just throwing esthetics to the winds and using some black duct tape wrapped around barrel and tube to keep it from falling off some day. Exactly NO rifles should come out of the box that crapulently made, at any price. Remington pulled a boner with this one. Since I can’t resell it for anything like what I paid for it initially, I’ll just keep it until it gives up the ghost, but is not a rifle I would brag about.
Here are some pictures of the finished rifle:
Here are the links for the rifle and the upgrades I purchased:
- Marlin 336BL: https://www.marlinfirearms.com/lever-action/model-336/model-336bl
- Leupold 1.5-5x33mm VX-R Scope: https://swfa.com/leupold-15-5x33-vx-r-30mm-scout-scope-108090.html
- XS Sight Systems Lever Rail Ghost Ring WS kit: https://www.xssights.com/Detail.aspx?PROD=993388&CAT=8291
- Burris XTR QD low mount rings: https://www.amazon.com/Burris-30mm-LOW-Height-Ring/dp/B004P8A148/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1534119754&sr=8-1&keywords=Burris+30mm+Height+One+Ring+%281%2F4-Inch+Low%29
- Ranger Point Precision loading gate: http://www.rangerpointstore.com/shop-all/marlin-loading-gate-spring-flyweight-fast-easy-smooth/
Please check back for the articles I will be publishing about a modern Henry “Frontier Octagon” .22 lever action, and a pre-Remington Marlin 1895 chambered in .45/70.