April 21, 2021
Even in a world awash with modern bolt-guns chambered in hot 6.5mm cartridges the simple big-bore lever gun remains hugely popular with many. Models like the Marlin (MarlinFirearms.com)1895 Dark Series, reviewed here, are in high demand. The reason is simple enough, they are quick handling, carry well, accurate enough and hit very hard. While the classic .45-70 Government cartridge is a favorite, you should not overlook the .444 Marlin cartridge. A well thought out and modern design, the “Triple 4” is capable of excellent accuracy and, with the right loads, able to drop any game animal in North America.
A true sixties child, the .444 Marlin was conceived by two Marlin employees. Thomas Robinson, Marlin's director of research, and Arthur Burns, a metallurgist, developed this 19th Century looking round using an unfinished .30-‘06 case as a starting point. Drawn straight, and with a rim cut into it, the cartridge was intended to put more punch into Marlin's lever action line. The prototype was presented to Remington who agreed to develop production ammunition. When Marlin introduced the Model 444 rifle chambering the new round in 1965 it was the most powerful lever action rifle on the market.
The cartridge itself is deceptive in some ways. With its long straight-walled case, it appears as though it was designed with the low pressures of black powder in mind. It wasn't. Then, there's that name, .444 Marlin. Examining it, one soon learns it's no more a true .44 than the .44 Magnum is. Rather, it was designed to throw .429-inch diameter slugs intended for Harry Callahan's Magnum. Performance? Originally a 240-grain bullet was driven at close to 2,300 fps and delivered over 3,000 ft-lbs. of energy.
Marlin offered the new cartridge in a nicely made lever-action rifle onto which modern optics could be easily mounted. It was quick-handling, accurate and offered very fast follow-up shots. The fly in the ointment were the projectiles. Driving a bullet designed for pistol velocities at over 2,000 fps did not provide optimum penetration and terminal performance on really large and tough animals. When Marlin introduced a lever action .45-70 Government model in 1972, the old military cartridge was destined to eventually eclipse the newer round. This was mainly due to the .45-70 Government having stoutly constructed projectiles intended for rifle velocities readily available.
Despite the .45-70s re-emergence, the .444 Marlin has doggedly hung on and remains popular with many. It has a dedicated cult following due to its impressive real-world performance on big game, such as elk and moose. Over the years both projectiles and factory ammunition has improved further enhancing its performance. Although it's not widely loaded, Hornady does offer it in their LEVERevolution and Superformance lines loaded with 265-grain bullets. Buffalo Bore offers three heavy loads running in weight from 270 to 335 grains, Underwood Ammunition loads the .444 Marlin as does Remington.
The traditional home for the .444 Marlin cartridge is a beefed-up version of the Model 336 rifle called, appropriately enough, the Model 444. At 40.5 inches long and weighing just 7.5 pounds, the Model 444 is right at home hunting in thick cover. It carries wonderfully. Grasp it by the action and you can go all day without noticing it's even there until you need it. When its services are required, the Marlin shoulders quickly, swings easily and speaks with authority. As the rifle recoils, a reflexive swing of the hand ejects the spent cartridge case and chambers a fresh round. Follow-up shots are very fast, with its only real negative being a slow reload.
Performance? I checked my old data book to find some real-world numbers. Hornady's old 265-grain JFP Light Magnum load (now replaced in their line by their Superformance load) averaged 1.3-inch five-shot groups at 100 yards. Velocity of this load averaged 2,292 fps. Buffalo Bore’s 270-grain JFP averaged 1.5 inches at 2,245 fps. So, accuracy is quite good.
.444 Marlin Accuracy and Velocity Chart
Load: Buffalo Bore 270 grain JFP
Velocity: 2,245 fps
100 yards: 1.5 inches
Load: Hornady Light Magnum 265 grain JFP
Velocity: 2,292 fps
100 yards: 1.3 inches
Note: Groups are an average of four five-shot groups fired from a rest at 100 yards. Velocity readings are an average of 10 rounds recorded 15 feet from the muzzle with an Oehler 35P chronograph at 100 feet above Sea Level at an ambient temperature of 31 degrees F.
Punching the data into Sierra's Infinity Ballistic software churned up some interesting numbers. Hornady's Light Magnum load generated 3,090 ft-lbs. of energy at the muzzle, 2,074 ft-lbs. at 100 yards and 1,355 ft-lbs. at 200 yards. With a 150-yard zero, this load is 1.8 inches high at 100 yards and only 4.8 inches low at 200 yards. To be blunt, that's excellent performance from a lever action 'brush gun'. Need more steam? Buffalo Bore offers a heavier 300-grain JFP at an advertised 2,150 fps. Not enough? Well, if you need more horsepower and deeper penetration you can step up to their 335-grain WFN which pounds out at 2,025 fps.
Want to handload? Consider Hornady dies, Barnes, Nosler, Speer, Remington and Hornady projectiles and Starline cases. For powders try Reloader 7, IMR 4198 and H322. The .444 is a relatively easy cartridge to load for, just remember to use a fairly heavy crimp to prevent bullet set-back in the tubular magazine under recoil.
While the .45-70 Government may get the glory, Marlin's .444 is still a mighty fine cartridge. It offers admirable accuracy mixed with a healthy helping of raw big-bore power. When combined with Marlin's Model 444 you have a quick handling hunting rifle which hangs nicely for shots taken offhand. If you are hunting in heavy cover the old “Triple 4” may be all you want or need.
About the author:
David M. Fortier has been covering firearms, ammunition and optics for 23 years. He is a recipient of the Carl Zeiss Outdoor Writer of the Year award and his writing has been recognized by the Civil Rights organization JPFO. In 2007 he covered the war in Iraq as an embedded journalist.