Classic Gun Review: Marlin Model 39

The Marlin Model 39 claims to be the oldest continually-produced cartridge rifle in history.  Its parent design was born during the unexceptional presidency of Benjamin Harrison, whose bust never even made it onto the Mount Rushmore Commemorative Paperweight.  Unlike that former Commander-In-Chief, this 19th Century Fox was blessed with what sales and marketing types like to call ‘legs.’  Legs so long, in fact, that it’s still a perennial favorite here in the 21st Century.

Does it deserve it?  You bet it does…

Overview

The Marlin Model 39 is a lever-action .22 rimfire rifle, manufactured by Marlin between 1921 and 1937.  It has a 24″ fully octagonal barrel, a color-blued receiver, and a tube magazine that holds 16 and maybe 17 rounds of .22 Long Rifle.  The sighting apparatus is  a beaded front post and a drift-adjustable semi-buckhorn rear with an elevation ramp.    Like most .22 lever-actions it will also feed and fire .22 Short and Long cartridges, although we didn’t have any to run through our test rifle.

History

The Model 39 is descended from the Marlin Model 1891, a solid frame lever-action .22 introduced in…wait for it…1891.  The 1891 used the same side loading gate as the Winchester series of lever-actions, but jamming the tiny rimfire rounds through the tiny loading gate proved to be a major pain in the ass and Marlin switched to tube-loading the next year.  In keeping with their cryptic product designation codes, Marlin called this slightly-revised design the Model…1892.

Five years later the solid frame was changed to a takedown design which allowed the gun to be separated at the receiver for cleaning and storage, using a nickel for a screwdriver.  You’ve probably guessed that this model was called the Model 1897.  More minor changes were made in 1921 and the gun was renamed the Model 39, even though it wasn’t 1939 yet.  Go figure.

Toward the later part of the Model 39s long production run it became apparent that the old bolt design wasn’t strong enough to handle then-modern ‘high-speed’ .22 Long Rifle cartridges.  The bolt was redesigned to handle the higher pressures, and those Model 39s were designated with an “HS” prefix to their serial numbers.  Our test gun was such a rifle, happily safe to shoot with any .22 Long Rifle ammunition ever made.

Only minor changes were made throughout the evolution of the 1891/1892/1897/39/39A design, and most parts and dimensions remained constant from one year (and one model) to the next.  The 1897 has as much in common with a brand-new 39A as a 1980s Gen1 Glock has with its own latest iteration.  It’s not too much of a stretch to say that the 39A has been continuously produced since 1891, although there was a 4-year break in production during WWII.

Operation

The Model 39 is a little different in operation from a modern rimfire lever-action.  Which is to say, it’s a little bit better.  The despicable cross-bolt safety that has infected most of the lever-gun biosphere (although not the Henry) simply didn’t exist back then, and neither did the awkward and easily-broken tube magazine plunger.

My very first rifle was a Marlin Model 60 semi-automatic.  I still own it, but I can’t remember how many times I cringed as the spring-loaded plunger slammed violently into the magazine tube when I tipped the muzzle upwards to load it.  I also dropped it several times, and it’s a minor miracle (not quite the loaves and the fishes, but better than a good card trick) that it still works at all, much less perfectly.

The Model 39 is so old-school that they hadn’t invented that kind of silliness yet. Instead of pulling out the plunger with the magazine spring inside it, you press the detent button (above) and pull out the outer magazine tube itself.  When pulled out about 18 inches the outer tube locks in place, and this reveals an inner magazine tube with the little cartridge-shaped cutout to slip the rounds into.  Since the outer tube locks in the ‘open’ position, you can tip up the muzzle without the plunger ramming itself back down, and one-handed loading is suddenly made simple.

While it’s still slower than feeding cartridges through a receiver loading gate, the Model 39′s design is infinitely better than the ‘modern’ (read: cheap) loading design of my Model 60 and of the Model 39As.  It doesn’t take two people to load a Model 39!  Why do so many modern tube-fed rifles get it so wrong?  If the Henry Rifle Co. would switch to this much more elegant loading system it might cost a few more bucks, but could gain them legions of shooters who simply cannot abide their loading procedure.

The rest of the rifle works exactly the way you’d want a lever-action to work.  Once you’ve loaded up the tube with sixteen rounds, you’re ready to rack and roll.  Unlike modern Marlin triggers, this old-school rifle sports a solid one-piece trigger which will not flop around.  It also uses a one-piece firing pin, which makes it more theoretically vulnerable to slam-fires if it’s dropped on its muzzle while loaded.  Since I’ve never done this with any firearm, I wasn’t concerned about it on the Model 39.

Takedown

With the twist of a nickel, the split receiver opens like a Faberge Egg, revealing a marvelous lockwork of hand-fit Steampunk intricacy.  This particular rifle was built between 1937 and 1939, with essentially the same lockwork that Marlin had been using for 30 years.  The craftsmen who built this gun knew what they were doing; even almost 75 years later it still fits together and runs like clockwork.  The only exception is the bolt itself, which seems as though it might have been a replacement part, transplanted from another rifle at some point.  It doesn’t fit with the same precision that every other part does, but it still fits better than the bolts I saw on new-manufacture Marlin 39As at a gun show last month.  And speaking of fit and finish…

Fit and Finish

You have to give a 75 year-old gun a little slack, especially when it comes to noncritical internal surfaces, blueing and wood-to-metal fit.  Those guys didn’t have CNC mills to do the work for them, and fancy coatings like Melonite or nickel-boron were decades in the future.  Every cut was measured twice, cut by hand-adjusted machine tools, and detail fit with files, stones, and emory cloth.  Steel was either in the white, color-hardened, or blued.

The blueing on this rifle has held up remarkably well.  I’m not a whiz at rating firearm finishes on the NRA scale, but the blued barrel still retains almost all of its original blueing except at the corners.  The color-hardened receiver hasn’t fared so well, because color hardening doesn’t produce as durable or protective a finish as ordinary blueing.  The receiver’s finish has dulled to a pleasing satin, with some patches of minor surface discoloration.

The wood is still in remarkably good shape.  75 years have caused some shrinkage away from the metal in places, but it still boasts a wood-to-metal fit that puts modern Marlins to shame.  The only jarring ‘character mark’ on the whole rifle is the hard plastic buttplate.  It’s a poorly-fitting replacement part, not made for this rifle, and the heel of the buttplate sticks out about 1/4″ proud of the wood of the buttstock itself.  It’s a pity, but I wouldn’t dream of having it ‘repaired.’  A gun like this can be ‘restored’ by an expert restorer (more akin to a museum conservator than to a gunsmith) using period parts, but never ‘repaired.’

With this in mind, the quality of workmanship that went into this rifle is excellent. The octagonal barrel flats are true and flat, and the receiver halves mate together like the hand-fit sidelocks of a bespoke English double.  All of the moving parts, of course, are slicker and smoother than silvered glass: they’ve been lapping against each other for three-fourths of a century, yet somehow they’re still tight and solid.

The lever and trigger are better than a brand-new Marlin, which may be scant praise, but also slightly better than the action and trigger of a heavily-customized race gun like my .357 Magnum Model 1894.  The old Marlin is at least the equal of the finest brass-framed lever guns I’ve ever fired like Henrys and Ubertis, and that’s the highest praise I can give.

The lever works with smooth and nearly silent precision.  The trigger offers only minimal takeup, breaks very cleanly at exactly three pounds, and then follows up with a little more overtravel than we’d like to see.  Did it affect accuracy?  We doubt it.

Accuracy and Functioning

Feeding and functioning was, um, perfect.  The old Marlin fired all the contents of my ‘remainders’ bag of .22s: standard and high-velocity  roundnoses, hollowpoints and truncated cones from a half-dozen brands, randomly fed into the magazine tube.  Somehow the point of impact didn’t shift more than a quarter-inch at 30 yards from one brand of ammo to the next; I’m not sure that’s physically possible, but there it was.

It was also perfectly zeroed, right out of the gun case, with no fiddling whatever.  Neither of us are crack marksmen with iron sights (thanks for my crappy eyesight, law school) but Kurk and I discovered that we simply could not miss with this rifle; the trigger was so clean and the handling was so steady that even firing offhand at 50 yards we rarely missed a tin can or clay pigeon.  Or a bottle cap.  Or a fragment of a clay pigeon.

Or basically anything.  Out to 50 yards, anything big enough to see unaided was big enough to hit with the first round.

Fun

A marksman with better eyes than mine could teach more than a few bolt-action target shooters a lesson in accuracy with this rifle, but that’s not really what a lever-action .22 is for.  It’s built for small-game hunting, plinking and fun, and for me there may be no .22 rifle in the world that’s more fun a good lever-action.

How much fun is it?  Fun is hard to quantify (except perhaps in dollars, laughs or pints) but we had more of it after running 200 or so rounds through the Marlin than we did after running 400 rounds through my Evil Assault,  er, Modern Sporting Carbines.  We’d already had a great day shooting (great weather, no malfunctions, and we were both shooting exceptionally well) but the real fun didn’t start until we pulled out the Marlin.  After 75 years, it had both of us grinning like idiots and taking offhand potshots at tin cans 75 yards off.  And usually hitting them.

You just can’t buy that kind of fun.

Epilogue

No, I really meant it.  You can’t buy that kind of fun from Marlin; not today.  The virtues of this fine old rifle, sadly, are not embodied in the modern Model 39A’s on the rack at Wal-Mart.  Marlin’s historic Connecticut factory is an empty and shuttered ruin.  The clean lines of the Model 39′s receiver are now blemished by an ungainly cross-bolt safety with a plasticky look and feel.  The bright blued octagonal barrel is a thing of the past, replaced by a round barrel with a rough Dremel Tool finish.  The receiver halves of modern Model 39A’s no longer fit together tightly, and wood-to-metal fit is atrocious.

Marlin may yet rescue this design from a shameful demise (I keep hoping they’ll make it) but for now, if you want a good one, you have to get an old one.

RATINGS (out of five)

Accuracy:  ****
More accurate than I could hope to be with iron sights.  The excellent trigger, long barrel and sighting radius make it a marvelous offhand rifle.

Shooting Ergonomics:  ****
Marlin has had handling nailed for 120 years.   (Loading ergonomics are a different story: **1/2.  The old-style tubular magazine loading was vastly better then than it is now, but still awkward. )

Reliability: *****
It ate my whole bag of leftover .22s and then some.

Aesthetics: *****
The classic lines of a classic rifle that Marlin should never have changed.  Wish it still had its original buttplate, though.

Overall Rating: *****
How do you ‘rate’ a pre-’64 Model 70?  Or a pre-war Colt 1911, or a K98 Mauser?  The Model 39 is one of those designs that helped define what a firearm should be.

43 Responses to Classic Gun Review: Marlin Model 39

  1. avatarTom says:

    My first gun was a new Marlin 39A in 1963. More recently I found a ’69 vintage 39M. I tested the two rifles for accuracy and the 39M was much more accurate. After all the rounds I had put through my 39A in the ‘60s, the barrel was shot. I had it rebarreled at the factory and now the 39A and 39M are about equal in accuracy and ready for another 50 yrs. of use.

    • avatarTom says:

      Welcome Tom, I am the other Tom and I have a 39A built in the late 1970s which was not so great. Machining could have been better and I do not think the barrel to reciever is quite right. Gun had a lot of problems with the magazine tab and would jam. Finally got an old spacer of a 39 and it finally worked. Sights came loose as well. I was somewhat disappointed.

  2. avatarJay W. says:

    My first gun was a new 1972 Marlin 39M which I still have and my 14 year old son drools over the prospect of it being handed down to him some day. I am very fortunate that my grandfather was a die-hard, lever action fan and my grandparents spent the extra bucks on this gun for my 14th birthday present.

    It is a “dream” to shoot!

  3. avatarGS650G says:

    It’s sad to see Marlin going the way they are. I had a ,22 mag a number of years ago but the machining on the bolt and other surfaces looked unfinished, tool marks were everywhere. The Savage I replaced it with had far better machining and cost less too.
    I’m looking at Uberti and Henry as well as Rossi for a classic .22 and hope to try one soon,

    • avatarNelson Raebel says:

      Hi i bought a new 39a couple of weeks ago. pulled her down and compared to other older rifles in the club and i have to say i was impressed. the browning has a really excellent build but the 39a tops the scores more often than not. 70% of rifles in the lever action club would be Marlins.

  4. avatarAharon says:

    Chris, that was a great review about a great gun that once was built here in America.

    “More minor changes were made in 1921 and the gun was renamed the Model 39, even though it wasn’t 1939 yet. Go figure.”
    — Maybe it was 39″ long?

  5. avatargerald brady says:

    I have a Marlin model 39 serial 921. What can you tell me about it.

  6. avatarTexanHawk says:

    One of my best friends growing up had a 39 rifle and a 39 carbine. I loved that rifle. So much so that I recently tried to find one for a Christmas present for my boy. They seem to be rarer than hen’s teeth. I’m still looking but I think it’s going to be mine.

    • avatargabriel says:

      Hi,I have a marlin 39 carbine serial y17383. For sale in excellent con…they are rare…

  7. avatarMady Brown says:

    This is great timing to find this article. We found we at I think is this very gun in a garage in a case. Serial number 59164. Any information would be so helpful. It does have a little site that swings up from the stock. My nephew thinks the extraction mechanism is missing. any exploded views of parts for this gun so we can figure it out?

    Thanks in advance,
    M. Brown

    • avatarJohn says:

      I have model 39 ser #105xx and I believe it was made in 1922. If your serial number is not preceded by an “s”, then it was made prior to 1926, when the “s” was added.

  8. avatarJohn Sess says:

    Model 39 was made from 1922-1926 without an “s” preceding the serial number.

  9. avatarChris Dumm says:

    Since some of you are looking for information about your vintage Model 39s, here are a few of the resources I used when I researched my test model. I hope you find them useful:

    http://www.wisnersinc.com/additional_info/marlindatecode.htm

    http://armscollectors.com/sn/marlinlookup.php

    http://www.marlin-collectors.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=2&t=2288&sid=0d6bce235f9c8f4d0d48aea33447effe

  10. avatarMr. Carpenter says:

    I know we are talking the model 39 here, but I need to vent on Marlins recent manufacturing..I just purchased (12/24/2012) a new marlin lever gun 1895G in a 45/70 Govt. Cool gun…MANY problems right off the bat. Wouldnt even chamber a round/ eject a round/ the lever was so sharp it sliced my glove. The front hood is loose already and the rear sight is bent. WOW right out of the box. The company has some serious quality control issues. Sent it back, got it back in 1 month. Seems ok now. But come on…..

  11. avatarANTHONY KELLEY says:

    I BOUGHT A 39A LEVER 22 SEVERAL YEARS AGO WITH A SERIAL # B 3942. WHEN WOULD THIS GUN HAVE BEEN MADE AND IS IT WORTH ANYTHING.

  12. Could you please tell me where to fine the serial number on this gun.

  13. Sorry it is the model 39 Marlin but the sights are adjustable and have a pin hole to look through on the site closes to the lever.

  14. avatarNelson Raebel says:

    Hi guys from Australia. been a bolt gun user forever but decided to have a crack at Lever rifle comps. bought a new 39a last week. Dealer advises that earlier in 2012 marlin had revisited the problems aand made them good. backed up with a 5 year warrenty. woodwork is well done and fitted.overall finish is not to bad. not in the class of browning but is physically a full size gun compared to others.I will let you know after i have run a 1000 rounds thru her.
    Nelson nelfoto@hotmail.com

  15. avatarAnother Tom says:

    OK, everyone, eat your heart out! I just acquired a 1922 Model 39 ser. no. 8462 !! It’s all original. Though the finish is worn and somewhat pitted and the left buckhorn tip is broke, it still shoots like a dream. The parts fit like a glove. Just don’t make em like that anymore.

    • avatarjohn says:

      I have a model 39. Serial # 7046…in beautiful shape and I am only the third owner.my friends grandfather give it to him and I rescently got it off of him.his grandfather was the original owner…can someone tell me what this guns value would be(not for sale)

  16. avatarDave Schmid says:

    Have a Marlin model 1892, a 39 and a 39a. They all shoot well, especially the 39. Love the look and the way they shoot, SWEET!

  17. avatarEd Card says:

    My dad gave me a new 39A in 1951. Serial number is H11724. I need a part or two and was wondering if someone could direct me towards a source. Need the following:
    Front Sight Ramp Hood
    Buttpad

    The Finger Lever is also loose and I’m wondering if either or both it and the Finger Lever Screw are worn out.

    I have a lot of memories in this rifle and would like to get it back to good, if not new condition.
    Thanks

  18. avatarKevin says:

    I have a Model 39, hex or octagon barrell acquired from my grandfather in 1967. He used it to kill hogs at his butcher shop and the muzzle apparently became flawed with all the moisture you would expect in a kill room. I had a local gunsmith bore and sleeve it in the ’70s. I know that probably hurt the value but I planned on shooting it, not selling it. Other wise it is in good condition with only normal wear expected over 75-80 or so years. Had to replace the part that holds the lever firm against the stock right after I got it. That’s it. I’ve shot it a lot. No H or S or HS preceeding serial # (I think a 5 digit #, I don’t have it with me now) but it shoots modern 22′s (S, L, LR) fine. My son has a 39 Golden M Mountie we got him (used) in the ’90′s. Shoots great, no problems. Marlin made a great little rifle for a bunch of years.

  19. avatarNelson Raebel says:

    Kevin sounds like you have a great old piece to be proud off. I have seen one like it.
    Regards Nelson .Australia

  20. avatarRusty says:

    I have a model 39a it shoots great probably the most consistent of any rifle i have ever been around. The problems people were running into with the newer rifle occured after Remington acquired them. I recently bought a new marlin bolt action x7vh in .308 and have been very happy

  21. avatarGary Davis says:

    I own a 39-A that was passed down from my father. The only S/N on the gun is under the lever on the tang. S/N is 480 with no letter prefix. Is there of telling when this gun was made?

  22. avatarRon M says:

    I am looking at a Marlin model 39 (not 39A). The serial number is either 516923 or S16923, the first character is either an S or 5. I would like to know the age and value range of the rifle.

    Thanks

  23. My partner and i like, trigger I found just what exactly I’m having a look with regard to. You’ve concluded my own Four evening extensive seek out! Our god Cheers man. Employ a terrific working day. Bye

  24. avatarroyal says:

    I have a model 39 s# S 55xx there is also a (star) by the name model 39.It has a pop up peep sight marbles gladestone mich. that works great.Iam now 72 and have the 39 for 50 years.All original and has a good butt plate in good condition.Do you have any ideal of a ballpark value?Thanks,Royal

  25. avatarJim_D says:

    I pulled out my Model 39 last week to admire it once again and decided to check things out like how to load it (I haven’t fired it since I got it 10 years ago). This article explained it all, thanks. I’ve also checked out the links about age of the gun, but there was nothing specific about the Model 39. Like a few others here, my serial starts with an S and is 4 digits long: 82XX, which would appear to be an early production number, but how early? Is the little star stamped in the receiver some kind of indication the gun passed some test? I think it has an aftermarket glenfield sight with knobs for elevation and windage and a “hooded” front sight. Any ideas?

    Thanks.

  26. avatarDAVID says:

    I HAVE A MARLIN 39….HAS “S” BEFORE S/N…( MY DAD GOT IT FOR HIS 10TH BIRTHDAY,,,I GOT THIS RIFLE FOR MY 12th BIRTHDAY….”NEVER” HAD A PROBLEM…..
    WITH 22 SHORT,LONG,RIFLE LONG OR THE GUN ITSELF, IT LOOKS GREAT….NO RUST….SHOOTS GREAT ,,CANT TAKE IT TO THE RANGE…FOLKS WANT TO LOOK..TOUCH…SHOOT…THIS RIFLE IS FOR MY GREAT-GRAND CHILD ..SHE,S 3YEARS OLD..

  27. avatarClinton says:

    I’d love to own another 39 D. I owned one roughly 38 years ago. It was the best 22 I’ve ever owned. PERIOD! The 39 D was a carbine version of the 39A. It shot accurately and HARD. Plus, it was an absolutely gorgeous gun. Unfortunately, being young and dumb, I sold it when I got hard up for money. Now they no longer make it; and I’d LOVE to have another. Lesson learned.

  28. avatarWilliam R. Milne says:

    In Scotland I owned a .22 Marlin lever action rifle. It had a 28″ barrel and a spring loaded sleeve over the magazine which made it look like a large calibre rifle. When I emigrated to Canada in 1955 I sold it anticipating buying a new identical model. This is to my everlasting regret because the Marlin 39 I bought although good does not have the appeal of the other. It was a marvellous rifle – I could hit anything I aimed at regardless of range. Can anybody tell me which model Marlin it was from my description here given. Thanks in anticipation. W.R. Milne, Vancouver, BC

  29. avatarJohn says:

    What year(s) did Marlin produce the best Model 39′s?

    • avatarTerry says:

      1958 (-; because that’s the year I’ve got. Just bought it this week. Not a scratch on her. Can’t wait to take it out squirrel hunting.

  30. avatarjason says:

    I have a 1954 39A and it is GREAT. One thing though: I don’t find loading it a problem, even though the magazine ‘tube’ is pulled all the way out. And I use a Spee-D-Loader to make it faster.

    Oh, and ‘my’ 39A is better than ‘yours’ because mine holds 19 rounds of .22lr. So there. Hah!

    Just kidding.

    Ed Card: look up numrich gun parts. They have a LOT of parts for old firearms.

    Didn’t Anne Oakley make a name for herself using the 1891 for her trick shooting of putting something like 22 shots through the ace of hearts in 27 seconds at 25 feet? Some shooting!!!!

    With my experience with my 39A I can believe it.

    in all honesty, they are all great guns.

  31. avatarJohn M says:

    Thanks for your marvelous review of the beloved Marlin Model 39. I inherited mine from my dad in 1960. He passed it down to me on my thirteenth birthday, as he had recieved it on his thirteenth birthday in 1922 from his dad. In 1963 while firing modern ammo in it, the bolt broke. We packed up the rifle and mailed it to Marlin where it was fitted with a stronger bolt, modified to fit our gun from a then current production rifle. Marlin charged us nothing for the repair. It has been faithfully firing away ever since.

    Our Model 39 is truly a family heirloom, It is fitted with a “Wee-Weaver” scope and we still have and use the special slide-in breech ejector spring protector for cleaning.

    I had no idea just how accurate it was until recently when I carried it to a local indoor range where under controlled conditions, the ’39 and I produced some pretty amazing shot groups. Ninety years young and still going strong. My dad would surely be pleased, his dad would probably be stunned.

    My two son’s are both grown and now the biggest question is which one of them will get to keep it most often at their house. But for now, it stands guard in my home.

    John M (Atlanta, GA)

  32. I have a model 39 marlin, round blue barrel, case hardened receiver,lever and hammer. A crescent shaped buttstock with a black plastic butt plate. The top of the tang is marked Model 39. However the barrel is marked 39A. The serial number is on the bottom of the tang and is marked HS and the serial number 1515.
    The gun has a property tag on the left hand side that says MCI Norfolk. I found this to mean Massachussets Correctional Institute, in Norfolk Mass. What can you tell me about year of production etc? Thanks,,,Kelly

  33. avatars bartel says:

    marlin 39 A serial number 6911668 what year would this be and aprox value fair condition

  34. avatarcasey says:

    i own couple old 39a.best rifles i was ever around.love them.one of em is pre micro groove.sn. D8262.would like to know more about it.numbers on stock do not match and would like to know where i might find replacement butt stock cause it is also cracked badly.can u still find replacement iron sites fronn thst era

  35. avatarSam says:

    Howdy, quick question, have you ever had an issue with the gun not firing when pointed even slightly downward? I’ve been having this problem, and I’m not sure if the firing pin has gotten worn down or if there is a spring missing internally. Any help is greatly appreciated.

  36. avatarDaveG says:

    Nice, aren’t they?

    My, similar vintage octagonal barrel, 39 has a Marble’s tang sight installed :-D

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