Are Marlin/Remington The New 1970′s Harley-Davidson?

It’s a common and frequently warranted criticism of the gun industry that ‘press guns’ (loaned to writers and sometimes offered to them afterward at a discount) are the cherry-picked cream of the hand-built crop. Say what you will about Marlin (I certainly have) but you certainly can’t accuse them of that . . .

Farago and I have had a rough time with our pair of Marlin .357 carbines. While the internet was already abuzz with dark rumors about Marlin’s quality control, we had no idea how bad things really are. Six weeks after its catastrophic, epic failure, his rifle languishes in warranty-return purgatory and mine is taking an Alaskan holiday for repairs and modifications by Wild West Guns in Anchorage.

Perhaps the saddest thing about Marlin’s fall from grace is that we’ve seen it all before, with Harley-Davidson and AMF. I used to be a motorcycle guy as well as a gun guy, and every motorcycle guy knows the sad tale of how AMF nearly destroyed the American motorcycle. Even if you’re not a motorcycle guy, the AMF story has lessons that the American gun industry must remember or risk learning again the hard way.

The Fall Of An American Icon

Harley-Davidson was founded in 1903. Throughout its history, HD’s traditionally-styled motorcycles have been aimed at the American domestic market. After WWII and the demise of Indian Motorcycles, Harley-Davidson thoroughly dominated the American motorcycle market. The company had no serious challengers until the influx of Japanese motorcycles in the 1970s.

American Machine and Foundry (AMF) was a coin-operated vending machine maker who branched out into bicycles, bowling equipment, golf carts, and eventually motorcycles. AMF purchased Harley-Davidson in 1969, and quickly slashed the workforce to lower production costs. In 1973, AMF shuttered Harley-Davidson’s Milwaukee factory, leaving many trained workers behind. They moved production to a new factory in York, Pennsylvania where AMF also built not-so-iconic golf carts.

Product quality fell so low at the York plant during these “AMF years” that Harleys from that era are still legendary for their flawed castings, poor machining and ability to break down (sometimes permanently) before even driving themselves home from the showroom floor. Quality and reliability were so poor that the once-proud brand was mocked with nicknames like “Hardly Ableson” and “Hardly Driveable.”

AMF sold Harley-Davidson in 1981 to investors led by the grandson of founder William A. Davidson. But the brand’s reputation and market share had been decimated. There is a happy epilogue to the Harley-Davidson story, however. After decades of of ‘just-in-time’ inventory management and Japanese-style quality control, Harley-Davidson eventually regained much of its reputation and profitability. The company moved its headquarters and some powerplant manufacturing back to Milwaukee.

Dude, You Haven’t Even Talked About Guns Yet!

Cool your jets, I’m getting there. Eliphalet Remington started his gun company in 1828. Marlin firearms was founded in 1870, and since the early 1890s has produced iconic, traditionally-styled rifles primarily for the American domestic market. Remington went after some government and military contracts, but they aimed their product mostly at the domestic civilian market as well. Each company built their market share and their reputation on a few basic models: Marlin on its lever-action rifles and its .22 rimfires, and Remington on its shotguns and bolt-action rifles.

In 2007, Marlin and Remington were both bought by The Freedom Group, a firearms conglomerate owned by the Cerberus group.  (Yep, the same Cerberus group who ran Chrysler into the ground.) To reduce costs, Cerberus/Freedom Group shut down Marlin’s 140 year-old factory in North Haven, Connecticut earlier this year and dismissed 73 members of its skilled workforce. Some production was transferred to an expanded Remington plant in Ilion, New York (lured by nearly $2.5 million in government incentives). Most of the work was moved to a new factory in North Carolina.

Since the announced closure of the North Haven factory, the quality of Marlin lever-actions has gone completely to hell, as our two rifles attest. Anyone with 20/30 correctable vision would have noticed that our rifles were neither fit nor finished, nor in any condition to be offered for sale. But sold they were, and not to some soon-to-be-disappointed deer hunter in western Pennsylvania: Marlin sold them to two gun writers, who promised in advance to tell their adoring (?) readers every last detail about these classic lever-action icons. Boy, what that a mistake on their part.

The quality of Remington’s flagship 700 and 870 models has also declined since its acquisition by The Freedom Group. The Classifieds section of the American Rifleman magazine has become a multi-page Freedom Group Recall Notice. The Model 700 trigger has come under media scrutiny for autonomously firing when the safety is disengaged, and Remington .22 Hornet ammo has been simply exploding. Remington’s  .17 HMR Model 597 is acknowledged to be unsafe at any speed or with any ammo. It’s the subject of a recall and buyback, but they’re only offering a $200 Remington voucher in return for a worthless $350 rifle.

So let’s compare guns to motorcycles: respected and popular American companies get bought up by ambitious conglomerates who shutter the old factories, fire the experienced workers, and shuffle the deck chairs around on the Titanic while quality takes its inevitable nosedive. Formerly loyal customers vote with their feet and switch to other brands, and the once-proud companies race headlong to bankruptcy and oblivion until…

The Long-Term Solution: The Free Market

AMF came to realize the it couldn’t make a dime running Harley-Davidson. For the good of everyone involved, they let the junior Davidson scrape together the money to buy them out. Harley-Davidson survived, recovered, and even thrived until very recently. AMF survived also, and it’s still the logo you’re most likely to see above the pinsetting machine at the end of your bowling lane.

The Freedom Group may discover that it has expanded to fast and too far beyond its core competencies (manipulating government contracts and subsidies and such). They might sell off some of their troubled properties, such as Marlin. With the closure of the historic Marlin factory in North Haven, however, the Marlin brand may own precious little other than its name and its designs. Currently in free-fall, that Marlin name might not be worth much in a few years’ time.

In the meantime, as Marlin’s free-fall continues, Rossi and Mossberg will be happy to feed the American demand for lever-action rifles at rock-bottom prices. Winchester and Henry will be happy to steal Marlin’s gravy at the upper end of the market by selling their own high-priced American made rifles. What the people want, someone will manufacture, and the people want lever-actions. Vox populii, vox deii.

The Short-Term Solution: Gunsmiths

While we wait for Marlin and Remington to straighten up and fly right (or die like Ithaca and Winchester, to be reborn as diminished specialty manufacturers) we’ll take our money elsewhere or buy their products used.

And for those of us already stuck with troubled Marlins (whose warranty return process seems no more functional than its assembly process) a whole niche industry has sprung up to fix them—as long as we’ve got the money. Grizzly Custom Guns, Wild West Guns, and other gunsmith shops are delighted to lighten your wallet by a few (or several) C-Notes and turn your factory clunker into a tuned and rugged custom gun. They can even do full take-down conversions (lust!), but such mechanical marvels will double or triple the cost of guns that weren’t terribly cheap to begin with.

As I write, Wild West Guns is fixing up my Marlin (not pictured) with a custom big loop lever, a replacement trigger, a metal magazine follower, a new ejector and an action tune-up.  I’ll post a detailed before-and-after review of the semi-custom gun when it comes back from Alaska. It’s already a handy plinker, but I’m confident that it will shoot much better when it has a trigger pull that measures in the single digits.

Will Marlin and Remington avoid disaster and reinvent themselves as Harley-Davidson did? Or will they die and re-emerge only as expensive niche labels like the Winchester Model 1894 or the Ithaca Featherlight? Only time will tell. Are they headed for disaster, especially Marlin, at this moment? Does a 1977 Sportster leave a wet spot?