July 03, 2020
By Patrick Sweeney
The Marlin 1895 Dark Series is a new take on an old idea. The old idea is still valid, and the new things Marlin has done, to my mind, just make the original even better.
The lever-action rifle is a distinctly American tool. Invented and perfected here, it has not received the love overseas that it has had here for generations. As the gun that won the West (and yes, there are arguments about exactly which one was most responsible, but we’ll not go there now) the lever action rifle was a mainstay of hunters for generations.
The main push to change came from the returning Doughboys, who had had exposure to the bolt-action rifle during their sojourn into The Great War. The bolt-action rifle market grew after that, but leverguns held on. After WWII, returning GIs were even more eager to embrace the bolt action, but the lever action held on, in part because the lever action was felt to be a superior hunting tool in thick woods, and also the influence of the Westerns that lit up movie screens across America in the 1950s and 1960s.
The lever action faded from the scene, having a strong following in areas where its strengths (and its lack of high-BC bullet options) found favor. In thick brush, or close hunting areas, oh, like Pennsylvania and Michigan, the lever action was still a strong presence in hunting camps. Inside of 100 yards you don’t need a high-BC bullet. A medium-caliber bullet, at moderate velocities, does just as well on deer, and you can get a follow-up shot a lot faster with a lever action than a bolt action rifle, before the deer crosses the ridgeline.
But the bolt action rifle had its day, and the Modern Sporting Rifle has been taking hold. But the lever action still has a following, and the reasons for that following are still valid.
And then there is the increased power a lever action rifle can generate, which brings us to the Marlin 1895. Marlin brought it out in 1972, when the .45-70 was not exactly a spring chicken. In fact, Marlin themselves had already tried to replace the old buffalo cartridge, when in 1964 they introduced the .444 Marlin. The .444 is a slightly tapered case that uses a bullet of .429 of an inch diameter, and that was part of the problem. Remington said the bullet they loaded in the .444 was not the same as that used in the .44 magnum. Both were 240 grains. Experimenters, testers and gun writers of the time disagreed. Bullets meant for the .44 Magnum were allegedly too lightly constructed for the velocities the .444 could generate. Reloaders could use the same 240-grain bullets as they used in their .44 Magnum, but the controversy of “is it or isn’t it?” didn’t help. The lack of (at the time) heavier bullets also didn’t help. The barrel twist rate of the original .444 Marlin rifles was too slow for heavier bullets, a serious impediment for those wanting to reload and use heavier bullets. In all, a good idea handled perhaps not well.
So, in 1972, Marlin came out with the 1895 in .45-70, and all of a sudden, life was good. The full panoply of .45-70 loads from the ammo companies could be used, and even better, the Marlin action was so much stronger than the Trapdoor Springfield that experimenters could boost velocities significantly. Sometimes too much. The .45-70 uses bullets of .458" diameter, which means none of the .45 ACP or .45 Colt bullets would work, and that was a potential problem avoided. Since normal, regular, bullets for the .45-70 could be commonly found as heavy as 500 grains, the twist rate was fast enough for any bullet of .458" diameter.
The 1895, like the .444 Marlin before it, uses the basic Marlin 336 action. This is a solid steel receiver with an ejection port on the upper right side of the action, and a loading port on the lower right side. Unlike earlier designs of the lever action, the Marlin ejects the empties to the side. The top of the receiver is closed and solid, not open like your 19th century levergun, and it is possible to mount a scope on top.
For the longest time Marlin did not drill and tap the receivers for scope mounts. Hey, in 1972, no one who was thinking of lever action rifles for hunting was thinking “I should mount a scope on this thing.” Back when I was a gunsmith a decade later than the 1895s introduction, I did a good volume of drill, tap and scope mount on Marlin rifles. Even after they did introduce rifles ready for scopes, there were still a bazillion Marlins out there lacking the scope mount holes.
The modern Marlins all come drilled and tapped. They also have a few other details that we’ll get into as we discuss each area of the rifle.
The rifle is made of steel, and given a parkerized finish. Parkerized parts come out of the “park” tank a light or medium gray. The color we associate with Parkerizing is either trapped, oxidized oil (the various hues of green seen on WWII rifles and pistols) or dyed. The 1895 Marlin Dark Series is dyed black. The stock and forearm are wood, painted black to match the impression of the parkerized steel. The stock has a generous recoil pad on it, and if you are accustomed to the thin or non-existent recoil pad on an AR-15, you may think that a generous hunk of rubber is a curiosity. Trust me, you’ll come to love it. The handguard is beefy enough to get a good hold on (a very good thing) but not so large it becomes an impediment to quick shooting.
The stock has a small amount of drop to it, and this is another thing you’ll have to get used to, if all your previous shooting is with an AR-15. Under no circumstances are you to shoot the 1895 with your head bolt upright, and the stock toe only touching part of your shoulder. I call that the “bazooka hold” and while it works with an AR, it will crush you the one time you do it with a .45-70.
The hammer has a generous cocking piece added to the hammer, so you can thumb the hammer back, if you have put it on Safe. The safety is a crossbolt in the rear of the receiver. Press it one way, and see Red? That is Fire. Press it the other way, and not see Red? That is Safe. The safety blocks the travel of the hammer, not allowing it to contact the firing pin. There’s another safety system, inside of the bolt. The firing pin is made in two pieces. The lever both cycles the bolt back and forth, but also lifts the locking block to engage the bolt.
Part of the locking blocks job is to push up on the rear half of the two-piece firing pin. That part is spring-loaded so as to not line up with the firing pin unless the locking block has pushed it into alignment. As a result, if the lever is partway down, even if the hammer strikes the rear firing pin, that rear part isn’t in line with the front part, and the rifle can’t fire. The Marlin design can’t fire out of battery. As if that wasn’t enough, there is a small plunger behind the trigger. If the lever is out of place too much, the plunger acts to prevent the trigger from releasing the hammer.
The bolt is a cylindrical piece of steel, with a spring steel extractor clipped to it. You can see the extractor through the ejection port. With other designs, there might be some concern that the extractor is missing, chipped, worn or otherwise not sprung enough to do its job. All you’ve got to do with the Marlin is look. If you can see that it is all there, it is ready to go.
The loading gate is a simple spring steel part, and you load the rifle by pushing each cartridge in turn into the gate, nose first.
The magazine is the tube below the barrel, inside of the handguard. It holds five rounds of .45-70.
Before Hornady invented their FTX, flex-tip bullet, all lever action rifles were limited to bullets with a flat nose, a meplat, or a round nose of a large diameter. Anything that could impose the inertial recoil of the cartridge stack directly onto the primers of each was a hazard. And believe me when I tell you this was not a theoretical concern. Every few years there would be an article published on the problem, and I saw at least one myself in my years of gunsmithing. Primers abused by sharp-pointed bullets in recoil would fire, and the resulting detonation would split the magazine tube, fragment the handguard, and make a mess of things. Ammunition makers knew about it, and made ammunition appropriate for such use, with flat-nosed or blunt round-nosed bullets, in the calibers common for lever action rifles. You know, .30-30, .35 Remington, .444. .45-70. It was the reloaders who got into trouble.
The magazine is simplicity itself. It is a hollow tube with a follower and coil spring. The action parts are machined so that a cartridge of just the right length will get shoved out of the tube, held in place by the lifter, then lifted as you close the lever. If you load a cartridge of the incorrect length into the tube, the feeding will not go so smoothly. It may not feed at all. Again, ammo companies know this, and it is reloaders who can make trouble for themselves.
Once the round is lifted, the bolt, going forward, strips the cartridge off of the lifter and chambers it. The lever then finishes lifting the locking block, and the rifle is ready to fire.
If you do not wish to fire at the moment, you can do one of four things. You can carefully ease the hammer down to the safety notch. You can press the crossbolt safety across. You can push the crossbolt safety across and then ease the hammer down. You can press the crossbolt safety across, ease the hammer to the safety notch, then press the crossbolt back to Fire.
Whichever you select, you have to remember that that is what you did. If you use the crossbolt safety, you have to remember to press it to Fire, or all you will get when you want to fire is a click, instead of a bang. This is just one of the modern, 21st century, details you have to keep on top of.
The barrel of the Dark Series is sixteen and a quarter inches long. The idea is simple: you don’t need more than that to get all of the velocity you are going to need out of a .45-70. Like the .45 ACP, the .45-70 does its work by means of bullet diameter and mass, and not solely through velocity. Once you have gotten a 300 grain or heavier projectile up to useful speed, the law of diminishing returns takes effect pretty quickly. And vigorously too, I might add.
The barrel of the 1895 Dark Series is threaded at the muzzle for a flash hider, muzzle brake or suppressor. If you do entertain the notion of running your Dark Series ammunition at the max level of oomph, you will find that a muzzle brake would be welcome indeed. If you are using your Dark Series for vermin control, a suppressor could be just the ticket. And they each increase the fun quotient.
The threaded muzzle has a thread protector screwed on, and right behind that is the front sight, a blade with a vertical white line down its center. On the back of the receiver there is a ghost ring sight, aka an aperture sight, and that is mounted to an extended rail that extends out over the barrel. The rail is there in case you want to mount a scope or red-dot optic. The rail comes from XS Sights.
The ghost ring sight is just as fast and more precise than the traditional open sights found on lever action rifles for a century-plus prior to now. The use of an aperture sight, with a large diameter, called a ghost ring, was championed by Jeff Cooper back in the 1960 and 1970s. If you need fast, it is fast. If you need precision, it is precise enough. To make aiming more precise you have to make the aperture smaller, and that hinders speed.<
Carrying handguns, we use special carry implements known as holsters. For rifles, they are called slings. The Dark Series sling is….interesting. It is a braided length of paracord, aka 550 cord. It is unbreakable under normal use, and if you did happen to find yourself in a wilderness predicament, unbraiding the sling would net you a hundred feet or so of paracord, enough to solve many wilderness problems.
The lever is also wrapped in paracord, and that is not just to match the looks of the sling. The .45-70 can recoil with enthusiasm. I have high-speed video of me shooting a .45-70 lever action, and as the rifle and I retreat to the rear during recoil, you can see the band on my wristwatch working overtime. It stretches as things go back, then snaps tight, closing up again.
The front loop of the lever can come back fast enough, that if your firing hand does not maintain a boa constrictor like grip on the wrist of the stock, your hand will slip, and the loop can rap your knuckles. The paracord can take much of the sting out of that rap. It also makes it easier to run the lever, and speed up follow-up shots.
The Marlin receiver, as the originating Model 336, does not have to have its external dimensions increased, to contain the .45-70. The internals have been modified and redesigned to handle the .45-70, and that is all it needed. So, you get a medium-weight and sized lever action, chambered in a heavyweight cartridge. As a comparison, the Dark Series is a fast-handling sports car, compared to the Winchester 1886 or Model 71. The 1886 was chambered in .45-70, the Model 71 in .348, which is in effect a necked-down .45-70 case. (The actual parent case was the .50-110, ouch.) I had long lusted after the 1886 and M-71, until I had a chance to heft one of each. Compared to the 1895, they are anvils. (Sorry, Winchester fans, it’s the truth.) The spec weight of the M-71 is always given as 8-3/4 pounds, but I had a bunch come through the shop over the years, and none ever tipped the scales at less than nine-pounds-plus. (I kept hoping I’d find one that wasn’t a boat anchor.) The 1886 was even worse.
The concern you might have is: is the Marlin, at just over seven and a half pounds, perhaps too light for the .45-70? That’s where the thick and broad recoil pad comes in. It takes the steam out of the recoil to an extent good enough you can shoot even the heaviest loads.
Using a lever action rifle is a skill that used to be so common it went without comment. Now, we have to offer guidance, and offer tips. The first tip: you cannot have the buttplate or recoil pad of a lever-action rifle wedged too tightly into your shoulder. Not out on the shoulder joint, or up on the collarbone and above, but all of it solidly in contact with your shoulder, verging onto your chest. Second, work the lever like you hate it. Just like pump-action shotguns, babying the lever is just asking for problems. Work it vigorously or even harder. Unless you are built like Andre the Giant, you can’t bend the lever.
Don’t shoot, then let recoil move you, slowly get the rifle back down on the target, and then work the lever. If you want a fast follow-up shot, work the lever as soon in the recoil process as you can get it started.
When it came time for accuracy testing, I considered using a magnifying optic with a lot of Xs to it. After all, if we are trying to shoot small groups, we should be using a 20X scope or more, right? Except, we aren’t using the 1895 Dark Series for long-distance precision shooting, tiny varmints, or the PRS competition. We’re concerned with medium to close range hammer-of-Thor situations. That calls for a red-dot optic. A compact, handy rifle like this deserves an optic that matches it, so I rang up Aimpoint and had them send me an Acros. A 1X optic with a 3.5 MOA dot in the field of view, it weighs a fraction over two ounces, a battery lasts for years, and it is compact and rugged enough to stand up to .45-70 recoil. And probably stand up to recoil better than any of us, if you’re curious.
I did the accuracy testing for the most part at 50 yards, again, because this is a close-range nuke ‘em into submission firearm. I did take the most promising load and test it at 100 yards, just to see the results.
Disassembly and cleaning of the Marlin design could not be easier. There’s a large-headed screw on the pivot of the lever. Open the action halfway and leave it open. In the old days, you’d use a properly-fitting screwdriver and remove that screw. Today, marlin has moved to torx-head fasteners, and I for one am happy to see them. Many Marlins showed up at the shop with the screwheads a sorry mess of ill-fitting screwdrivers and hasty, forced removal. Replacing screws and trying to buff out the scratches got old after a while. Not a problem with torx-head.
You can now pull the lever down out of the action, and remove the bolt to the rear. You might have to press the hammer down a bit to get clearance for the bolt. Also, pay attention to the ejector. It is simply resting in a hole drilled in the left sidewall of the receiver. Some will resist removal, others will fall out at the slightest urging. If you drop it and overlook it, your rifle will not eject empties at the next range session.
For normal cleaning, you do not have to do any more. You do not have to remove the extractor, or the spring off of the ejector, or the firing pin segments from the bolt. In fact, I urge you to not do any of those unless you have taken a spill into something profoundly yucky, and have to do a detailed cleaning of everything.
With the bolt out, bore cleaning is as easy as a bolt-action rifle.
Reassembly is equally easy. Insert the ejector into its seat in the receiver wall. Press the bolt over the hammer, and slide it in, making sure the ejector slot on the bolt lines up with the ejector. Stop halfway, weasel the lever up from below and insert its front tab into the bolt, and line up with the pivot screw. Install and tighten down the pivot screw. Make sure the lever cycles properly. Done.
What might you be needing a rifle like this for? (We’ll gently avert our attention from the question of “wants versus needs”) It is clearly much more than needed for deer hunting. Well, perhaps it is, and perhaps it isn’t. If you hunt in a thick-scrub swampy area, you do not want your deer to go any further than possible, once you have shot it. Following a blood trail in a forest, or across a bean field is one thing, following a trail in a swamp is another order of magnitude more difficult. And if your quarry gets itself deeper in the swamp, that just means it will that much more difficult to haul it out. It would be not much of a joke for you to use a cartridge that was “good enough” and then suffer a heart attack trying to haul your deer back to camp.
If you are going after bigger game, then it isn’t possible to have “too much” horsepower, is it? If you are hunting elk in thick brush, moose, or bear, you want as much power as you can handle. In the case of the elk or moose, it is the same problem as the deer, but at four to ten times the weight. And bear? Using a cartridge that isn’t quite up to the task of properly dealing with Mr. or Ms. Bruin strikes me as not unlike equally-skilled samurai, who kill each other in a duel. Really? You want to be that guy?
As a camp gun, we have all spent a lot of time considering this-or-that handgun as being “enough gun” for bear in a hunting camp. Me, I’d rather it was the Marlin 1895 Dark Series, in .45-70, close enough at hand to be useful if an unwanted visitor shows up.
Another use would be for hogs. No, it isn’t going to provide you the fast follow-up shots that a semi-auto would, but my experience (albeit not extensive) is that you don’t get much follow-up. You get whoever you get, and you’d best be hitting them hard, or they get away. It is hard to top the “hitting hard” of the .45-70.
As mentioned, the recoil of the .45-70, especially in the stouter loads, can be quite unsettling. However, reloading the .45-70 is easy. It is a gently tapered case, with plenty of neck to hold whatever bullet you choose. Berry’s offers a plated 350 grain bullet specifically for the .45-70, and loading that up for practice (and gradually increasing the power) would be a good start. You can go with a coated bullet, such as those from Acme Bullets. They offer weights from 300 to 500 grains, and since the coated bullets come in colors, you can color-code your ammo.
The Hornady Flex-Tip bullet is a pointed, but soft-tip one, and you can load those to full power for your hunting needs.
In testing, I have to admit I chickened out. I shot the chronograph tests offhand, shooting the ammo from the shoulder. I wanted to gauge the recoil, and see what was enough, and what was too much. But when it came time to settle down behind a rife on the bench, I opted to let technology do the work. The Caldwell Hydrosled took the impact. It’s not just a shooting rest, but a shooting rest you can weigh down with water. (All together, from grade school: “A pint’s a pound, the world round.”) The rear shoulder rest holds and contains the buttplate, and the weight of the sled stops the rifle from coming back on you too hard. This is an upgrade from the old Lead Sled, and when the Hydrosled is empty it is easy to move. When it is full, the two gallons of water add sixteen pounds to the weight of the rig. (The plastic and steel of the Hydrosled add another 19 pounds, for a total of 35 pounds of recoil-killing weight.)
Now with that I can shoot .45-70s all day long, and not get loopy from recoil.
Oh, and it should be obvious, but it bears repeating: different bullet weights, and now velocities as well, can cause shifts in point of impact. The Full power Black Hills Honey Badger, and the Hornady Subsonic seen in the photo did not strike that close to each other. I was actually aiming at another dot for one of those groups. So, sight in with what you are going to use, and don’t’ trust another load until you have checked it, too. This is not the fault of the Marlin 1895, it is caused by physics. If you have a problem, take it with Sir Isaac Newton.
Once I hefted each of them, my ardor for the two Winchesters faded quickly. I’ve always been a fan of the Marlin 336, and wondered about the .45-70 chambering. Now I might have to get one, just in case there’s ever a bear loose in my suburban neighborhood. Or, to take along with me the next time I find myself on Kodiak Island in Alaska.
You can’t be too prepared, right?
Marlin 1895 Dark Series Specs
- Type: Lever-action rifle
- Caliber: .45-70
- Capacity: 5+1 round
- Barrel: 16.25"
- Length: 34.5"
- Height: 7.5"
- Weight: 7 lbs 9 oz
- Trigger: 5 lbs
- Finish: Parkerized steel
- MSRP: $949
- Maker: Marlin Firearms, MarlinFirearms.com, (800) 544-8892
Marlin 1895 Dark Series Accuracy Results