Tag Archives: Old West firearms

Western Wednesday — Marlin® Model 1894C


It’s still “M” Week at the blog, and today’s “M” stands for that classic American maker of lever-action rifles — Marlin.

Marlin Model 1894C in .38 SPL/.357 Magnum

Yes. It’s true. I have a soft spot for Old West-style firearms, as you may have surmised by now with my numerous articles on them (Winchester Rifles — Part 1; Winchester Rifles — Part 2; The Rifleman’s Rifle; Firearms — Television Westerns from the 1950s; A Tribute to Mike DiMuzio and a Look at the Interarms Rossi M92 in .45 Colt; USFA Rodeo; AWA Peacekeeper). Today we’re going to look at another firearm with roots in the 1800s. It’s a lever-action rifle, but this time it’s neither a Henry nor a Winchester. It’s a Marlin Model 1894C pistol-caliber carbine chambered in .38 Special/.357 Magnum.

Marlin 1894C Particulars:

  • Length: 36 inches/91.4 cm
  • Barrel Length: 18.5 inches/46.7 cm
  • Length of pull: 13.7 inches/34.7 cm
  • Weight: 6 pounds, 8.55 ounces (104.55 ounces)/2.96 kg
  • Caliber: .38 SPL/.357 Magnum
  • Capacity: 9-round tubular magazine
  • Trigger pull (measured by author; average of five): 2 pounds, 14.8 ounces/1.328 kilograms

My impressions upon handling the rifle: The lever action is stiff, bordering on mediocre. The rifle appears little to have been very lightly used, so this may be a break-in situation. The 1894C has a superlative, crisp trigger with no take up whatsoever, and it breaks consistently at just under three pounds. The crossbolt safety (if you’re into such things on a lever action) is easy to manipulate, positively blocks the hammer, and allows for safe decocking of the rifle. I may very well decide to take the Marlin out to the range and compare it against my Rossi R92 (Winchester Model 1892 clone) in the same caliber.

Marlin 1894C — Stiff lever; exceptional trigger

A little history on Marlin and the Model 1894: John Marlin founded the Marlin Fire Arms Company in 1870 in New Haven Connecticut (the company would in 1968 move to nearby North Haven). In 1881 Marlin expanded from single-shot rifles into the lever-action market, and in 1888 Marlin engineer Lewis Lobdon “L.L.” Hepburn revolutionized the concept with a lever-action rifle that ejected cartridges through the side of the receiver rather than via the top.

Marlin 1894C

In 1893 Mr. Hepburn continued to improve and strengthen his design, resulting in two new rifles — the Marlin Models 1894 and 1895. The Model 1894 with its solid-top/side-eject concept was an immediate hit in cold inclement environments such as Alaska and Canada, as the absence of an open-top ejection port prevented snow, rain, leaves, dirt, and other contaminants from dropping into the rifle. The design had the added benefit of being much stronger than the competing Winchester designs of the era.

Marlin 1894C

The Model 1894 differs from Marlin’s Model 1895 in that the 1894 is chambered in pistol calibers, while the 1895 was designed for more powerful rifle cartridges. In the Winchester world, it would be like comparing a Winchester Model 1892 (pistol calibers) to a Winchester Model 1894 (rifle rounds — although some past 1894 rifles were chambered in .44 Rem Mag and other pistol calibers).

Marlin 1894C

As a quick aside, today’s Model 1895 rifle is not quite the same as the original, which was discontinued in 1917. The reintroduction of the Model 1895 name in 1972 is based upon the Marlin 336 rifle dating from 1936, which further improved upon Mr. Hepburn’s 1893 developments.

Marlin 1894C

Marlin’s history has been a bit convoluted since 2007. It was in that year that Marlin fell into the evil clutches of the equity firm Cerebrus Capital Management via their holding company Freedom Group. Freedom Group would eventually try to hide this evil nature by changing its name to Remington Outdoor Group. But true to form, Remington collapsed into bankruptcy last year, taking with it Marlin, which had already been mismanaged into oblivion beginning in 2008 (more on that shortly).

Marlin 1894C

We’ve seen this scenario playout before with the iconic American brand Colt’s Manufacturing and Colt Defense. Then we have Winchester Repeating Arms Company; lever-action rifles bearing the Winchester brand are now manufactured in Japan. Yes, I despise predatory equity management firms, and I feel that’s with good reason.

Marlin 1894C

Fortunately, Remington’s recent (and entirely too predictable) bankruptcy has resulted in Marlin coming under the umbrella of my favorite U.S. firearms company — Sturm, Ruger & Co. If anyone can rescue and restore this historic brand, it’ll be Ruger.

On an unrelated side note: we can all breathe easier knowing that Colt’s Manufacturing now belongs to Česká zbrojovka Group (Czech armory Group — CZG), a company that understands the firearms business. It would have been better in my view if Colt had remained an entirely U.S. company, but at least this way Colt shall survive and prosper.

So, what has all this to do with a Marlin 1894C that dates to 2009? A lot if you’re a collector. Remington (a.k.a., Freedom Group, a.k.a., Cerebrus Capital Management) purchased Marlin in 2007, and took over both ownership and management the following year. Production initially continued at Marlin’s North Haven, Connecticut plant, using experienced Marlin craftsmen who understood the designs they were handcrafting, and who collectively had generations of experience among them.

“91” serial number should mean this rifle was made in North Haven in 2009

Marlin’s workers were also unionized. See where this is going now? Yep. In March 2010 Remington announced it would be closing Marlin’s historic North Haven plant, ending 141 years of continuity and experience. In April the following year, the Marlin plant was closed. The unionized craftsmen were terminated. The manufacturing equipment for the lever-action line was boxed up and shipped to a Remington facility in Ilion, New York. Manufacture of other Marlin rifles transferred to Remington’s Mayfield, Kentucky facility. And inexperienced, non-unionized workers began misassembling firearms they had no clue how to put together.

Quality collapsed, of course. Marlins went from being coveted rifles to a bad joke, with unsuspecting consumers supplying the punchline. Eventually, Remington employees would start to turn things around a few years later as they gained experience with the nuances of the designs. But Marlin rifles never fully regained the quality they once exhibited, and the reputational damage was by then complete.

Which brings us to today’s Model 1894C. And this is a weird one. The serial number indicates that the rifle was made in 2009. Production continued at the North Haven Marlin plant at least through the end of 2010, with the doors being locked one final time in April 2011. The barrel displays the North Haven roll mark. The fit and finish, particularly the mating of the walnut stocks to the receiver and barrel, scream Marlin quality. So, too, does the deep, rich bluing of the metal on both the barrel and the receiver.

North Haven roll mark on the barrel

But then there’s the proof mark. If you have a Marlin with a “JW” proof mark, then you have a true Marlin-made Marlin. If your serial number doesn’t start with “RM”, then you have a true Marlin-made Marlin. On the other hand, if you have a Marlin with an “REP” inside an oval-shaped stamp, or the serial number starts with “RM”, then you supposedly have a Remington-made Marlin.

But what if your rifle’s serial number isn’t prefixed with “RM”, the “91” at the beginning of the serial number indicates the rifle was made in 2009, the rifle has a barrel displaying the North Haven roll mark, the fit and finish all give the appearances of a clean, well-made North Haven example, yet your rifle bears the dreaded “REP” on the right side of the barrel? What do you have? Is it a Marlin, a Remlin, a Marlington, or an insidious Remington cleverly disguised as a quality Marlin?

REP-in-Oval is a Remington proof

So, what exactly is going on here? Well, there are several possibilities. Toward the end of production, North Haven produced receivers with serial numbers in the “92” (2008) “91” (2009), “90” (2010), and even a few in the “89” (2011) range.

Notes for determining the manufacture date from the serial number:

  • For serial numbers starting with 27 through 00, just subtract those first two digits from 2000; example: 2000 – 22 = 1978
  • For numbers 99 through 89, subtract the first two digits from 2000 then change the first two numbers in the result from “19” to “20”; example: 2000 – 91 = 1909; change 19 to 20; final result = 2009
  • Manufacture dates prior to 1973 used various other schemes)

Sometime in 2011 serial numbers changed from “89” to the “RM” format. “RM” stood for “Remington-Marlin”. Marlin barrels may have changed prior to that, and it appears Ilion still used the North Haven roll mark for a time after Ilion took over at least some of the manufacturing. As to when precisely that occurred, I’ve not been able to discern. Additionally, some North Haven receivers and barrels were shipped to Ilion for final assembly, which would explain very neatly the “REP” on today’s example. There is also the possibility that North Haven sent completed rifles to Ilion, whereupon the “REP” stamp was then applied, but I somehow doubt that is the answer. I believe it’s probably more likely that North Haven transitioned to the “REP” stamp prior to operations moving to Ilion, but I cannot substantiate that as fact.

So, bottom line for the collector:

  • “JW” is the proof mark you want for maximum value.
  • Pre-crossbolt safety is also a big plus among lever action purists. For that you must get a Marlin made in 1982 or earlier.
  • “93” on the serial number (2007 manufacture) gets you out of this who-made-what-when mess altogether. Freedom Arms made the purchase of Marlin that year, but it wasn’t finalized until 2008.
  • “92” (2008) means you still definitely have a North Haven rifle, and it most certainly will have a “JW” proof as well. But that’s also the year Remington stepped into the mix. Things started getting dicey, I’m sure, and morale probably started falling at North Haven.
  • “91” (2009) — You’re probably still good, but watch out. Hopefully, you have a “JW” proof, but even so quality will be hit-or-miss with the decline in morale. Inspect that prospective acquisition carefully before laying down cash.
  • “90” (2010) is the year Freedom Group decided to eviscerate whatever was left of North Haven morale by telling the workforce to train their replacements and prepare for unemployment. At this point any incentive to provide a quality build had long since evaporated.
  • “89” (2011) — By now I’m going to say you might as well have an “RM” serial number. Who the heck knows what was going on in North Haven by then?
  • “RM” means you’re too late. You may have a shooter, or you may have a major gunsmithing project.

I’m not disappointed in this “91”. Not even close. It appears to be a quality rifle. Most, if not all, the parts are North Haven. I do wish it sported the “JW” proof, and if I knew then what I know now that “REP” stamp might have given me a bit more pause. I balked at the time only because the consignee didn’t bring into the gun shop the original box. He said he didn’t know where it was. I passed to the consignee through the shop owner a low-ball offer for the rifle without the box, and a slightly higher “incentive” offer if he located it. The incentive worked. The owner found the original box and took the latter offer, which was still below his initial asking price.

A Colt Cavalry (7½-inch barrel) Single Action Army just like Paladin’s and I’m all set

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Western Wednesday — Collectible 1973 Ruger Super Bearcat Shooting Review


Ruger Super Bearcat with box, manual, warranty card

It’s time for a Western Wednesday firearm review, and today’s shooting review is on a gun that Ruger made for less than three years (June 1971-January 1974)! I’ve already discussed Ruger’s alloy framed 1st edition Bearcat (see: Interesting Collectables: “Old” 1st issue Ruger Bearcats), in which I presented a rare ‘Alpha Cat’ Bearcat and one of the very first Bearcats (624th off the line) produced with oiled walnut grips rather than the previous rosen-impregnated rosewood grips. Here is an image of those early Bearcats:

Rare 1960 “Alpha Cat” (top); very early (1964) Bearcat with oiled walnut grips

‘Unmodified’ means that both of those Bearcats were never sent back to Ruger for the transfer bar modification that would make safe the loading all six cylinders. That is why I’m referring to these pistols as Old West-style firearms, as they adhere closely to the design of the Colt 1873 Single-Action Army ‘Peacemaker. Below shows a comparison of a copy of the original Colt 1873 design along with an old issue three-screw Ruger Single Six (also unmodified) and an old issue Bearcat, all of which are only safe when the hammer rest over an unloaded cylinder chamber (more on that below):

USFA Single-Action Army; unmodified 3-screw Ruger Single Six; 1960 Ruger Bearcat

These classics may have been called ‘Six-shooters’, but disregard what you saw on television and in the movies. Nobody in their right mind would holster one of these guns with all six chambers loaded.

1973 Ruger Super Bearcat with Super Bearcat box

That means, unless you are physically at the range, on the firing line, and preparing to fire the weapon, the cylinder should be loaded so that the hammer rests upon an empty chamber. How do you do that? Here’s a recap from my previous article on the original (1958-1970) Ruger Bearcat:

Proper (safe) loading sequence for any Single-Action Army-type pistol or unmodified (no transfer bar) Ruger single-action revolver:

  1. Count out and place five (for a six-round weapon) bullets before you
  2. Five rounds only!
  3. Put the rest of the ammunition out of reach
  4. Thumb back the hammer two clicks, to the half-cock position; this frees the cylinder for rotation by hand
  5. Open the loading gate
  6. Visually inspect all cylinder chambers, making certain no bullets are loaded, by rotating the cylinder while peering down through the open loading gate
  7. After verifying all chambers are empty, place one round in the chamber exposed through the open loading gate (we’ll call this “Chamber 5”)
  8. Rotate the cylinder, bypassing the next empty chamber (Chamber 6) and proceeding to the second empty chamber (Chamber 1—why the skip will become evident in a moment); load one bullet into Chamber 1
  9. Continue loading the next three chambers in order (Chambers 2, 3, and 4)
  10. Close the loading gate
  11. Loaded Chamber 5 is next in line for the barrel, a.k.a., firing position
  12. Thumb back the hammer to the fully cocked position; doing this rotates loaded Chamber 5 away from the barrel
  13. Empty Chamber 6 is now in the firing position
  14. Holding the hammer back with your thumb, squeeze the trigger until the hammer releases
  15. Keeping the trigger pulled, gently lowering the hammer all the way to the frame with your thumb; failure to keep pulling the trigger will result in the hammer stopping at the half-cock loading position, which is not safe

You’re done. Your “six shooter” is now properly loaded with five bullets, and if you followed these directions the hammer is safely resting over an empty chamber and the weapon is safe to carry.

1973 Ruger Super Bearcat

Production of Ruger’s alloy-framed Bearcat was terminated in 1970 as the company retooled production in favor of an all-steel frame, and in June of 1971 the Super Bearcat was introduced. Initially, the Super Bearcat retained the anodized aluminum trigger guard, but even this was converted to steel after old stock was exhausted. Here you can see the Super Bearcat with steel frame and trigger guard beneath two previous Bearcats with alloy frames and anodized trigger guards:

Ruger “Alpha” Bearcat (top); Bearcat (middle); SuperBearcat (bottom)

During Ruger’s two-year seven-month run of the Super Bearcat, approximately 64,000 were produced. Of that number, the first 37,000 used the previous anodized trigger guard. Thus, beginning in early 1972, only the last 27,000 Super Bearcats produced had trigger guards of blued steel.

Super Bearcat with blued steel trigger guard

Ruger’s roll marks between the Bearcat and the Super Bearcat differed slightly, with addition to the latter of the weapon’s caliber and an ® indicating a registered trademark:

Ruger Super Bearcat roll mark

The Super Bearcat retained the lightly stamped Ruger eagle medallion and oiled grips that began with the previous Bearcat line beginning in 1964.

Super Bearcat oiled walnut grip with stamped medallion

And one touch that started with the original 1st edition Bearcats in 1958, continued through the 2nd edition Super Bearcat era ending in 1974, and carried on beginning with the reintroduction of the 3rd edition Bearcat in 1993 through today is an engraved cylinder:

Engraved cylinder common to all three Bearcat editions

So, how does this weapon shoot? The trigger is incredibly light, and initially the breaking of the trigger took me by surprise, but I soon got past that. I set at 10 yards/9.1 meters a target printed onto 8.5×11-inch/216x279mm standard letter-sized paper. I then loaded up and fired three full cylinders’ worth of Remington 36-grain .22 LR Plated Hollow Points, for a total of eighteen total shots. Here are the results:

Eighteen rounds at 10 yards/9.1 meters

For additional reading on both the 1st edition Ruger  Bearcat and 2nd edition Super Bearcat, I highly recommend the following great articles:

Unmodified 1973 Ruger Super Bearcat

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Interesting Collectables: “Old” 1st issue Ruger Bearcats


Rare unmodified Ruger “Alpha Cat” Bearcat

Until recently the Ruger Bearcat wasn’t even on my radar, as the new production models are pricey (MSRP $639 blued; $689 stainless) and older models seldom come up in the market. So, when the above pictured Bearcat showed up at my favorite local gun store (Collector’s Gun Exchange) for what looked to be a relatively so-so price, I took a chance. The only reason I did was because this particular example had not been modified with the Ruger transfer bar system. Thus, cocking the four-stage hammer gave me that very satisfying, nostalgic, Old West quadruple C-O-L-T click. The bore was clean, the rifling intact, the cylinder lock-up good. Several of those beautiful cocking sounds later I asked the salesman to stuff it behind the counter while I looked around the shop and thought it over.

Rare unmodified Ruger “Alpha Cat” Bearcat

After completing my rounds I headed back to that Ruger Bearcat and cocked it a few more times. By this time another collector whom I know had walked into the shop and told me if I didn’t take it, he would. So, it followed me home, whereupon I started doing research and found I’d inadvertently struck pay dirt. The shop thought this particular Bearcat was from 1971. It wasn’t. It was from 1960, the third year of a fourteen-year production (1958-1971) before the alloy frame was changed to steel (1971-1974). Not only that, this particular example was a rare “Alpha Cat”, which used a letter at the beginning of the serial number (A001 through Z999 excluding the letter “O” for obvious reasons). Additionally, this was a very late “Alpha Cat” on which the front sight had been reduced in height ¼-inch to improve aim. This modification probably started around serial number X165 and ran through Z999, continuing on through later numbering schemes until the end of “1st issue” production. Thus, at most, only 2,382 “Alpha Cats” were produced with that lowered sight.

Y293 — “Alpha Cats” X165 through Z999 had reduced height front sights

Where did I get all this wonderful Bearcat 1st issue information? From an article written by noted Ruger collector Bill Hamm and posted online at GunBlast.com. Here’s a link to that article: Ruger Bearcat 1958 to 1970. Thanks, Bill!

Reading up on values, I was pleased to see what I thought was only a so-so deal turned out to be $200 to the good on my side. Add another $75 if the darned thing had come with the original box and owner’s manual, which it didn’t. But then a funny thing happened exactly two weeks to the day later, same gun store, when I ran into another 1st issue Bearcat.

1964 Ruger Bearcat with lightly stamped “Ruger Eagle” on walnut grips

At first I thought this one had non-original grips, because these grips were oiled walnut instead of the shiny rosin-impregnated rosewood grips on the earlier Bearcat.

1964 Ruger Bearcat — early oiled-walnut grip variant

This post-Alpha Cat example was also unmodified, and so still had that wonderful Single Action quadruple click. But in this case it wasn’t the gun I was after, even though it was a beauty despite the shiny drag mark around the circumference of the cylinder. So, what was I really after? This:

Original Ruger Bearcat box and owner’s manual

Considering that the box and manual added about $75 to the value of the “Alpha Cat”, I figure I got are really good deal on this later oiled walnut Ruger with the “aftermarket” grips. Well, it turns out those oiled-walnut grips are factory, and that this particular example is one of the first ones to come out of the factory that way. Oiled walnut grips were used starting at serial number 35000 through the end of 1st issue production. This Bearcat is number 35623, meaning only 623 Bearcats with oiled walnut grips preceded it out of the Ruger factory door. It’s also one of only about 15,000 Bearcats in the 35000-to-114000 serial number range that retained the original steel ejector housing before Ruger switched to aluminum. Yes, I checked that with a magnet. It’s steel.

35623 makes this the 623rd Bearcat to come with oiled walnut grips

So, while the original Ruger box and manual came with this 1964 Bearcat, they are now paired with the “Alpha Cat”.

1964 Bearcat in its original box

Here is a comparison of the rosin-impregnated rosewood grips originally used on the early Bearcat next to the oiled walnut grips with lightly stamped Ruger Eagle medallion that first appeared in 1964:

Rare 1960 “Alpha Cat” (top); very early (1964) oiled-walnut Bearcat

1964 oiled-walnut Bearcat (top); 1960 rosin-impregnated Bearcat

The Bearcat is a smaller cousin to Ruger’s very popular Single Six (see: Six Shooter Week — Ruger Single-Six Convertible). In my previous article on the Single-Six I displayed a new engraved example next to a two-screw example from 1976. What wasn’t pictured is an unmodified (no transfer bar) three-screw example from 1971 that I acquired after that article was written. Because the three-screw is unmodified, it also comes with that nostalgia-inducing C-O-L-T click when cocked. The all-steel Single Six is big, though, and heavier than the original alloy frame Bearcat, as you can see here:

Size comparison — Ruger Single Six (top); Ruger Bearcat

Indeed, the Single Six is nearly as big as a full-size copy of Colt’s original 1873 Single Action Army pistol. Here is a comparison beneath a USFA Rodeo (see: U.S. Fire Arms Mfg. Co. — A Look at the Premier “Colt” Model 1873 Single Action) standing in for a Colt:

USFA Single Action Army; unmodified 3-screw Ruger Single Six; 1960 Ruger Bearcat

The “Alpha Cat” is now retired, reunited with an original Bearcat box and owner’s manual and potentially becoming too valuable to keep shooting. The 1964 Bearcat is well used, and will continue to see time at the range. Look for a firing review on that pistol, along with a direct comparison to its three-screw Single Six cousin, in a future article. For now, I’ll just close with observations about the pistol and how it handles. The original alloy frame Bearcat is light, well-balanced, and comfortable in the hand, more so on all counts than the Single Six. The trigger is a real gem—fairly light (not as light as an El Patron Competition, but lighter than the USFA Rodeo), and with a very crisp break with absolutely no play whatsoever. It should be a great shooter.

A word of warning about acquiring any early unmodified Ruger single-action revolver: These pistols do not have a trigger-activated transfer bar between the hammer and frame-mounted firing pin. As such, it is not safe to carry such “six shooters” with all six cylinder chambers loaded. For safety, the hammer must rest over an empty chamber. Failure to do this can result in an unintended discharge if the weapon is dropped or otherwise forcefully impacted in any manner. Bad things happen with unintended discharges, including damage to property, nearby people, or even the shooter.

Proper (safe) loading sequence for any Single Action Army-type pistol or unmodified (no transfer bar) Ruger single action revolver:

  1. Count out and place five (for a six-round weapon) bullets before you
  2. Five rounds only!
  3. Put the rest of the ammunition out of reach
  4. Thumb back the hammer two clicks, to the half-cock position; this frees the cylinder for rotation by hand
  5. Open the loading gate
  6. Visually inspect all cylinder chambers, making certain no bullets are loaded, by rotating the cylinder while peering down through the open loading gate
  7. After verifying all chambers are empty, place one round in the chamber exposed through the open loading gate (we’ll call this “Chamber 5”)
  8. Rotate the cylinder, bypassing the next empty chamber (Chamber 6) and proceeding to the second empty chamber (Chamber 1—why the skip will become evident in a moment); load one bullet into Chamber 1
  9. Continue loading the next three chambers in order (Chambers 2, 3, and 4)
  10. Close the loading gate
  11. Loaded Chamber 5 is next in line for the barrel, a.k.a., firing position
  12. Thumb back the hammer to the fully cocked position; doing this rotates loaded Chamber 5 away from the barrel
  13. Empty Chamber 6 is now in the firing position
  14. Holding the hammer back with your thumb, squeeze the trigger until the hammer releases
  15. Keeping the trigger pulled, gently lowering the hammer all the way to the frame with your thumb; failure to keep pulling the trigger will result in the hammer stopping at the half-cock loading position, which is not safe

You’re done. Your “six shooter” is now properly loaded with five bullets, and if you followed these directions the hammer is safely resting over an empty chamber and the weapon is safe to carry.

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