Unboxing the Other Marlin 1894C

There are two disadvantages to ordering gadgets (the fine and expensive kind) sight-unseen. The first is that whole, highly overrated ‘patience’ thing. Sometimes I can be as patient as a Zen monk. And sometimes (like when I’m waiting for a new gun) I want my instant gratification now. The second disadvantage is that you can’t hand-pick your cherries when you buy them off the truck; and you won’t know exactly sure what you’re getting until you get it. Sometimes your new pride and joy falls a little short of your high expectations, even when it’s a hand-made American icon like a Gibson Les Paul. Or a Marlin lever-action rifle . . .

My Marlin 1894C .357 arrived at my gunsmith’s shop on Friday morning. I’d been looking forward to this day for weeks. I was corroded with jealousy when Robert’s rifle arrived a few days before mine. After learning about the disintegration of his rifle’s buttstock, I wasn’t so jealous anymore. When my own rifle arrived, I inspected it very carefully before signing the ATF transfer application.

I’m relieved to report that unlike Robert’s rifle, my Marlin’s buttstock appears to be in no danger of snapping off. The lever action is a bit stiff but entirely workable. It actually cycles with exactly the same stiff, solid feel of my old Marlin Model 30, a gun I bought for a song and deeply regret selling. Unfortunately, the last 30 years haven’t improved Marlin’s trigger pulls: 1894′s trigger is heavy and gritty, just like the old Model 30′s.

All of the metal parts fit together smartly and the exterior metalwork shows a high degree of craftsmanship, with a few infuriating exceptions. The magazine tube, barrel, lever and receiver sides are deep, even satin-blue, even where they’re hidden under the fore-end wood. The top, bottom and rear of the receiver are a dark matte finish; so are the upper and lower tangs.

The metal finish is really nice; it’s a shame that someone at the factory had to dig the head of their screwdriver into this lovely dark bluing, while chewing up the front barrel band screw with an over-sized screwdriver. He was probably the same guy who stripped the head of the magazine cap screw.

For a rifle of this price and heritage, the technician responsible should be using the right tools for the job. He should have replaced the damaged parts and screws before passing this rifle down the assembly line.

Note to Bubba gunsmiths: Marlin slot-head screws have very thin slots, so don’t try to use your Leatherman screwdriver on them. Even my gunsmithing screwdriver set only had one blade thin enough. It fit into the thin slot-heads, but it was really much too narrow for most of the Marlin’s screws and I had to use it gingerly to avoid making the same mistake as the factory guy.

So the 1894c’s metalwork is basically stunning, except where one assembler literally screwed up. The woodworking, unfortunately, follows the same narrative. The buttstock is an absolutely gorgeous hunk of figured walnut with a satin finish. This grade of wood might look right at home on any rifle costing less than $1,000.00, but it is not properly fit to the receiver.

The above photo shows the bottom tang, with a nearly 2mm gap between the end of the tang and the end of the tang groove. The video below shows that the buttstock isn’t even remotely flush against the rear of the receiver, because the mounting holes in the grip are drilled at least 1mm too far forward. This may be a lesser example of the same stock problem that crippled Robert’s 1894C.  I hope I never find out.

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Come on, Marlin, you’ve known how to make lever-action rifles for more than 120 years! Even though it traces its lineage through the 336 and back to the Marlin Model of 1893, you don’t call my rifle the “1894″ for nothing. This kind of wood-to-metal fit is disappointing in a classic rifle with the such a long and respected history.

This photo shows us how wood-to-metal fitting looks when Marlin gets it right, as they used to.  This is the lower tang from a 1960s-vintage takedown Marlin Model 39, courtesy of my gunsmith Les at Clark County Gunsmithing.  As Les pointed out, you can’t slip a piece of paper between the steel and the walnut of a properly-fitted stock.

And you definitely shouldn’t be able to use it as a business-card holder. It does make a very bold fashion statement, but leaving a rifle pointed towards prospective clients is probably bad for business.

The poorly-fitting buttstock is only half of the stock’s problems. As the videos indicate, another technician completely forgot to put the satin finish on my rifle’s fore-end wood.

It’s a nicely cut and checkered piece of walnut, and the wood-to-metal finish is (ironically) outstanding, but it doesn’t look or feel like the buttstock does. I’m sure it will buff up beautifully once I give it a coat of “Gun Sav’r Hunter Satin” spray finish from Brownell’s, but isn’t the factory supposed to handle that? If I wanted to finish a rifle myself, I would have bought a blackpowder rifle kit and taken it back to Mr. Richardson’s eighth-grade wood shop.

If Robert’s rifle qualifies as an ‘Epic Fail’ on the safety and functionality scale, I suppose mine rates a ‘Mild Disappointment’ on the cosmetic scale. Even with these blemishes it still takes the prize as the most beautiful firearm I have ever owned.

Watch this space as for the shooting and handling reviews. It’s an odd comparison, but this gun shoulders and points like a properly-fit shotgun: instantly and instinctively. My original plan was to put a scout rail and Leupold scout scope on this rifle, but it handles so quickly and perfectly that I’m having second thoughts.

Watch this space.