Gun(smith) Review: Wild West Guns “Marlin 1894C Rescue Project”

The much-troubled Marlin 1894C has been my project gun since early May, when the backordered and pricey ‘diamond in the rough’ arrived at my FFL guy’s door. With a misfit stock, mangled screw heads and the world’s worst trigger pull, it was a big disappointment. About the only things ‘right’ about it were its quick handling, beautiful blue finish and surprising accuracy potential. Potential I was determined to explore . . .

When the stars lined up and the trigger broke just right, the Marlin’s 18.5 inch Ballard-cut barrel could deliver the goods as ordered, to the tune of 2 MOA accuracy at 100 yards. The rest of the time, however, its infuriating trigger pull turned every third or fourth shot into a “%$#*, I blew it!” flyer.

The verdict was in on Marlin and its disappointing quality control, and they stand convicted of almost criminal negligence for shipping a brand-new gun in such deplorable condition. Like a kitten abandoned on my doorstep, however, I just couldn’t leave the poor thing in such bad shape, and I couldn’t put it down either.

So I sent the Marlin to Wild West Guns of Anchorage, Alaska for a few modifications to smooth out the action and the trigger, a few rugged replacement parts, and a few cosmetic repairs.

Let’s see how they turned out:

Modification #1: “Happy Trigger”=Trigger Happy

There are many custom shops which cater to crestfallen Marlin owners, but Wild West makes an $89 one-piece replacement trigger, called the “Happy Trigger Kit,”which looked like just the cure for Marlin’s suck-tacular factory trigger.

The “Happy Trigger” lives up to its rather goofy name, and in a good way. Instead of a long and incredibly gritty eight-pound trigger pull, the Marlin is now blessed with a smooth four-pound pull and a clean break with no overtravel. As an added bonus, Wild West’s trigger eliminates the disconcerting ‘Marlin Trigger Flop’ syndrome, where the stock two-piece trigger flops and rattles around in the trigger guard even when the rifle is cocked.

The outstanding trigger lets you Be All You Can Be when it comes to accuracy, because pulling it doesn’t feel like dragging a dumpster across a gravel parking lot with your index finger. Infuriating flyers (at least, the ones you can blame on the gun) are a thing of the past, and accurate offhand shooting is now merely a challenge instead of an impossibility.

40 yard groups like this now depend only on your skill and your choice in ammo, and not on the intercession of St. Gabriel Possenti, the patron saint of marksmen.

Modification #2: The Big Loop Lever

Wild West mills their own ($189 or less) custom-shaped levers for Marlin rifles, giving them an enlarged and radiused finger loop. The loop isn’t ridiculously large (unlike some factory Winchester 1894 Trappers) and it’s not designed for rifle twirlin’ or trick shootin’ tom-foolery: it’s designed to be fast, and to accommodate the gloved fingers of Cowboy Action Shooters.

All the contact surfaces of the action bar are polished bright and smooth to minimize friction, and they also modify the lever retention stud so the lever is easier to get started.  The Marlin used to require several pounds of force to un-stick the lever from the receiver, and this bruised my knuckles after a few boxes of ammo. Never again.

As I hinted at in my preview video, the result is a slick and very quick lever. To work the gun you just flick your hand forward and flick it back; your cheek never leaves the comb and your sights never leave the target.

Notice the shit-eating grin?  You probably noticed the feeding hiccup, which is about the only vice the Marlin still occasionally exhibits. I’m not complaining, because I was shooting 158-grain lead semi-wadcutters, and many lever-action rifles refuse to feed them at all.

I’m no Rooster Cogburn; it’s been 13 years since I sold my last lever gun. I’ve only put about 600 rounds through this one, but this rifle almost makes me look like I know what I’m doing.

Modification #3: A Lever Action Tune?

Anything by Roy Rogers works for me, but Wild West Guns went all industrial on the Marlin with their $75 “Lever Action Tune” package. They polished the contact surfaces of the lever, bolt, receiver, locking lugs, hammer and shell lifter to a fine sheen, and the result is a much smoother and lighter action.

Functioning was 100% reliable before the modification. And now it’s . . . 100% reliable.  But it’s a lot more comfortable. If you can only afford to play a few songs from the Wild West Guns Jukebox, the Lever Action Tune should be second on your playlist. The Happy Trigger should be first.

Modification #4: Bear-Proof Ejector

Stock Marlin lever-actions ship with a delicate two-piece ejector: a larger ejector prong that mounts into the inside wall of the receiver, and a delicate spring which is inserted (precariously) into the prong. When you remove the bolt, the bigger part can fall out of the receiver, and when it hits the floor the spring usually pops out of it and bounces away.  It happened to me twice.

Wild West replaces this with a robust single-piece ejector (pictured) for only $25. It mounts into the receiver the same way, but at least if it falls out you’ve only got one part to search for instead of two. Functionally, the end result is the same as the original ejector: 100% positive ejection, with your empties tossed just a few feet to your right.  Viva handloaders!

Modification #5: Machined Aluminum Magazine Follower

Marlin also goes cheap with its magazine followers. It ships its lever-actions with chintzy plastic plugs. They’re not captive in the magazine tube, so they can shoot out during disassembly if you don’t remove the front-end cap first. Wild West machines their own unbreakable followers in anodized aluminum ($20) and they carefully taper the back end of the magazine tube so they can’t fly out during disassembly.

In addition to being unbreakable, this also allows you to remove the magazine tube assembly as one unit (with the spring and follower still inside) while you clean or work on other parts of the gun. As Ron Weasely would say, “Bloody hell, Harry!  It’s brilliant!”

Repairs

Wild West Guns replaced the front magazine tube band and screw, which Marlin’s assemblers had stripped and gouged with an over-sized screwdriver. They also replaced the magazine end-cap screw, which Marlin mangled so badly that I couldn’t remove it at all. The Marlin’s metal is now in perfect condition, and all the screw-heads are clean and sharp.

Customer Service

Most of us have at some point been ‘back-burnered’ by a gunsmith who promises to repair or customize our pride and joy, and then strings us along for months like that pretty girl at the office who says she’d love to have dinner but always seems to have plans.

Three weeks of “Your gun hasn’t arrived yet” give way to “The parts are back-ordered”, and eventually “It’s almost finished” becomes “It’s ready for UPS to pick up now.” Three or four months later, your rifle finally returns along with a big bill for the work.

I’m kind of used to this, so I didn’t really expect to see the gun before September. I was really only hoping I’d get it back before the snows returned to the high country in October and closed my favorite shooting quarries. With a heavy heart, I dropped off the Marlin at the UPS depot on the afternoon of June 9th, with $69 air freight prepaid to Anchorage, Alaska.

And picked it up again, all work completed, on June 30th.

Shipping to Alaska takes about one week in each direction, so Wild West Guns only had a week to produce my episode of “Extreme Makeover: Marlin Edition.” Two thumbs up. Way up.

Summary

Wild West Guns can work quick miracles on your clunky Marlin lever-action rifle at prices comparable or favorable to those of other custom gunsmiths. The Happy Trigger and the Lever Action Tune can completely transform a stock Marlin’s handling qualities without throwing your house into foreclosure, and for a bit more you can get the custom look and muy rapidoso handling of the Big Loop Lever as well.

Speaking of that, here’s more amateur gun porn. I’ll spare you the porn jokes about shooting too quickly . . .

If the sky’s the limit, Wild West can add a set of their rugged high-visibility sights, port the barrel, and transform your gun into a packable takedown conversion. (I’ve always wanted a takedown rifle, but on my salary it will be a while.)

Note: Wild West is located in Anchorage, Alaska, and the single biggest cost item for most of you will be shipping your guns hither and yon. I’m about as close to Alaska as you can be in the Lower 48, and my UPS charges were almost $70 one-way.

My Marlin is now a fantastic gun with a phenomenal Shit Eating Grin factor. Whether it’s worth the $1,200 it would cost to assemble at retail is an open question.

For a full Wild West Guns custom project, it probably makes more sense to start with a .45-70, .450 Marlin or .450 Alaskan and go from there. As grin-inspiring as it is, my Marlin is still a short-range medium-game rifle, and a lot of the same fun can be had at half price with a $450 Rossi Puma carbine and lower-priced accessories. Not quite as much fun, though.

Marlin really bungled my rifle, but their Epic Fail was (eventually) my Epic Score. Wild West Guns can make a Marlin what it should have been to begin with and a lot more, and that makes a pretty damned good rifle.

RATINGS (out of five)

Accuracy * * * *

The Happy Trigger will let you shoot this gun to the limit of its ability, which is surprisingly good within 125 yards.

Ergonomics * * * * *

The handling was already excellent.  Now it’s excellenter.

Customize This *

Already done.  The only thing I’m still looking for is a sling.

Overall Rating * * * *

Light, quick, accurate, cheap to shoot, and packs enough power for anything under 300 pounds and 125 yards.

Gunsmith Customer Service * * * * *

To Alaska and back, with excellent work, in exactly three weeks.