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?

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

  1. avatarpoppymann says:

    Just a note: while HD dominated the heavyweight motorcycle market, Triumph was the best-selling brand with higher volume until the Japanese invasion.

  2. avatarBLAMMO says:

    I’ve heard conspiracy theories that George Soros is a major holder of Freedom Group / Cerberus with the intent of destroying the domestic arms industry. I have no idea if there is any truth to that.

  3. avatarGunmart says:

    Shouldn’t that be “are” Marlin/Remington the new 1970s Harley Davidson?

  4. avatarTTACer says:

    Don’t forget a big part of HD’s renaissance was protectionist tariffs against 750cc+ imports, not that I have a problem with that. The point is that most of their competition is already domestic, so trade policy will not save them.

  5. avatarjay says:

    the good news is that cebrus bought these companies just to package them and sell them as one large company. hilariously thought these guys have managed to spend millions on companies that have no stake in the fastest growing part of the market handguns. hopefully someone will rescue these historic brands.

  6. avatarKevin says:

    You didn’t mention this, but I’ve recently read in some random website that Richard Dyke, the founder of Bushmaster, has just purchased the old Bushmaster plant to make guns. Also, his non-compete with Freedom Group has just expired.

    http://thetruthaboutguns.com/2011/06/robert-farago/ex-bushmaster-owner-starts-windham-arms/

  7. avatartdiinva says:

    I have no issues with the performance of my SPS 700 but it does have a cheap feel to it.

  8. avatarJester says:

    This editorial is most ironic given the fact that many manufacturers in the firearms industry really worked hard to build their brands along the lines of the post AMF Harley case study. In the very late 1990′s the NSSF even had a Harley marketing guru put on a seminar at the SHOT SHOW. Consequently, by the mid 2000′s the major brands were floating out Harley styled consumer fan clubs and promotional merchandising hoping to build HD-esque consumer loyalty.

  9. avatarmiforest says:

    I have favored big green reflexively all my life what has happened to them is truly sad. I don’t think there’s any business cerburess couldn’t wreck.

  10. avatarChris Dumm says:

    My first gun was an H&R, and my third (which I still own and shoot) was a Marlin. I also love my (mid-1990s) Remington 700 and 870. As a longtime fan and owner of all these brands, I think what’s happening to them is a disgrace.

  11. I have an older Marlin 1895 .45-70 GOVT. that I had Wild West Guns work their magic with. I couldn’t be happier! The trigger is totally devoid of the usual lever-action slop/creep, the large loop lever is solid and strong, and the sights, magazine extension, and overall fit and finish are of the highest quality. Obviously, I have nothing but good things to say about Wild West Guns.

  12. avatarmatt says:

    I too have personally seen remington 700′s go to crap. and now marlins. I’ve got one newly purchased remington that I sent back and am waiting. I sold my remlin for a marlin and the quality difference is very noticeable.

    It is a shame. Remington use to be a good name, and now if remington, or I guess the people who own remington, touch anything, it goes to crap and the “poor quality” complaints start rolling in.
    Because of this, I will no longer buy any more new remingtons or new marlins because I’m tired of getting gypped out of thousands of dollars because they refuse to take back their crappy products and make the customer eat it.

  13. avatarClawbrant says:

    It is interesting how history is written. Everyone seems to know about how AMF nearly destroyed Harley Davidson, but very few seem to remember what they did to save the company. In 1969 Harley far from at the top of it’s game. They had an outdated product that couldn’t compete well with the British manufacturers, much less the Japanese. Their sales where in steep decline and there was a serious threat of a hostile takeover. It is true that quality went way down shortly after AMF took control, but it was back up by the late seventies, the damage to their reputation took longer to fix. AMF poured millions into Harley Davidson to modernize production and develop the Evolution engine. It wasn’t until after they finally pulled out that the rewards of this started to show. The AMF years were a dark time for sure but without them Harley Davidson would not be in the shape it is in today, it might not even be around. If Marlin is indeed the new AMF Harley then I look forward to buying a new Marlin rifle, just not for a while.

    • avatarMontesa_VR says:

      Clawbrant, thanks for that clarification on AMF and Harley. HD was in big trouble before AMF came along. I worked in a Harley shop in 1975 and guys would come in and add two quarts of oil after riding 150 miles. Back then I couldn’t have imagined the yuppie waiting lists of the mid nineties. The turnaround was dramatic, but as you point out, AMF money made it possible.

  14. avatarQuietman says:

    I’m an owner of a couple of Marlins. My favorite is a 338 Marlin Express. It was made before the plant closure, yet had to go back twice for cycling issues. The problems started before the plant was moved with Remington changing the way marlins were made. THe move to Ilion made things much worse.

    This is the case of a consortium buying a profitable compamny and then driving it to ruin by “modernizing” the approach to manufacturing. They bought the company because it WAS profitable and thought they could do a better job with no true knowledge of what goes into lever gun production. Thye figured because they’ve bought into such crap as Sigma Six and ISO certification, they could do a better job. Instead, they’ve shown such approaches aren’t worth the paper they’re written on.

    As for me, I recently bought a Henry Frontier 22. Between the smoothness of the action, the quality of the bluing and finish, the accuracy and reliability, they have the potential to take the market away from Marlin in several areas. Plus they are an American made rifle through and through. I liked it so much, I’ve started a Henry Owners forum with my own money.

  15. avatarBlackwater says:

    It should be noted that during AMF’s run at making motorcycles they added disc brakes, alternator charging systems, oli coolers, a closed (as opposed to total loss) oil system, hydraulic lifter valve train, and many other non “stone-age” items to the Harley Davidson motorcycle. It should also be mentioned that AMF allowed the HD marque to continue and improve while others like Indian vanished completely.
    My ’79 AMF Harley has over 330,000 miles on it and is still going STRONG!!
    I’ll also add that if you owned or worked on a pre ’69 Harley you know they were no prize.

  16. avatarArtful says:

    http://www.indianmotorcycle.com/ – it has come back twice.
    Harley is a story of mismanagement
    I hope freedom group gets their ducks in a row, before too late.
    I wish windham arms all the luck in an over done AR market place.
    And Yes, I am a happy owner of old Remington and Marlins from the 70′s.

  17. avatarTom Collins says:

    As a 40+ year motorcycle guy, I worked in a HD shop in the 1970′s. It was not uncommon for a big twin to be just about out of oil (oil tank nearly empty) when they came back for the 500 mile service. I recall that there was some sort of a service bulletin/recall in which we were directed to add valve guide seals to all of them due to the high oil consumption. Once I was prepping a new bike for delivery and I had to change the starter relay twice just to get it to start. I ride a 2012 BMW now…

  18. avatarJonBurns says:

    If anyone does buy a newer Marlin, look carefully at the front sight. It leans slightly to the left. I saw one that leaned to the right as well. I also read that one particular guide gun with a rail on top was under so much tension that when the guy removed it, he could hardly get it back into place to screw it back down. He made a video on YouTube called, “The Death of a Lever Gun,” something like that anyway. Good luck!

  19. avatarThomas Palmer says:

    The best deer rifle I ever had was a 336 in .35 Remington. Accurate as a bolt action. I really hate to see the QA fall off so bad. Same with Reminton. My 870 broke its ejector the first time I took it hunting.

  20. avatarMike says:

    Keep in mind the Shovel was a Harley design, not AMF. Lots of great things came out of the AMF days, shark nose fairing, rubber mount engine, FXR, and the start of the Evo. Harleys ran the company nearly bankrupt.

  21. avatarggrimes2 says:

    I purchased one of the new(er) Remington’s made overseas by a communist bloc country. Scope and rifle combo, it was procured as a back-up firearm for my bad weather hunts. It goes “bang” and is fairly accurate but is a price point firearm with a minimum of quality and a cheap feel. My step dad had a 1970′s manufactured Model 700: The fit and finish is equal to that of the early Winchester’s or high end Browning rifle never had a trigger problem (then again it was about 4 lbs out of the box and crisp so we NEVER messed with it). I also wonder if the slip in quality control might have also impacted the trigger assembly over the years? I recently looked at one of the new “finest kind” model 700 at a LGS and there is a huge difference in quality between that and the old one. Remington it appears is run by a bunch who place profit above all else Quality, Customer Service and a desire to create a lasting relationship with a customer has been replaced by a sell as many as you can in the shorted amount of time then move on. My step brother aquired the old Remington and I now use either a Browning or an old BSA Monarch both of which have better fit/finish the the newer Remingtons.
    I also ride (currently a BMW) and am seeing again a huge slippage in quality at HD they now place more emphasis on the “Harley Expierence” than actually riding the bike. They would prefer to sell $50 T-shirts than actually getting you to do more than ride a few miles on your bike.

  22. avatarLudwig-Eugen Vogt says:

    not living in the US I have always been convinced by Marlins, in 2003 I orderderd a 39 in .22 in France, it was always double the price as in the States, I used it for some time on the shooting range, sometimes even shooting 300 – 400 rounds during a single afternoon, after some time it would net eject anymore, people told it was due to “wear and tear”, I had it repaired by two gunsmths, no way to recuperate, I odered a new Marlin 39 in 2011. As of the very first day it did not eject properly, my silly gunsmith wanted to have it replaced by Marlin and the french importer RIVOLIER, they were unable to replace it – unable to have it repaired I finally scrapped it: I would never ever buy any MARLIN rfile again, they are incompetent and never heard about “customer retention”…..I did not know MARLIN belongs to REMINGTON, I do have a Fieldmaster with a customized stock….it works, even though I hade to repair it once….what is happening there???

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