August 2000

Big-Bore Lever-Action Hunting Guns: Pass On Marlin’s New .450

This chambering experienced function problems and didnít add enough performance to offset them. Instead, look to Winchesterís 94AE for a reliable .444 Marlin lever gun.

Some hunters like lever-action rifles for hunting, but they want more power than the .30-30 delivers, and so the medium-bore lever rifle cartridges were born. In days past these included the .348, various wildcats on that theme like the .450 Alaskan, the .45-70, and numerous blackpowder-era cartridges modernized with smokeless powder. Today, there is no shortage of them, though the old-timers have mostly died out. The most common cartridges now are the .444 Marlin, the .45-70, and the new .450 Marlin. (We’ll cover the .35 Remington or .356 Winchester another day.) Medium-bore lever rifles are made by Marlin and Winchester. Some companies, like Wild West in Alaska, do a bang-up business modifying existing lever rifles into whatever the mind of man can conceive.

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The concept of the fast, short, powerful lever-action rifle is probably best exemplified by the Co-Pilot, from Wild West Guns of Anchorage, Alaska. Back in January we tested this superb rifle along with the similar Marlin Guide Gun, both in .45-70. These two rifles were both light and, with outstanding Buffalo Bore ammunition, provided as modern and powerful ballistics as anyone could want. Specifically, the hot .45-70 Buffalo Bore (BB) ammunition gave a 405-grain bullet the astounding velocity of 1,900 fps, compared to 1,200 fps with the ordinary loading of that bullet by Remington. This BB ammunition defines today’s standard for the .45-70 for those rifles that can handle the pressure. This means Marlins, Ruger No. 1s, new Winchester 1886s, and the like.

To totally avoid any problems with hot-loaded .45-70 ammunition, Wild West Guns announced a new cartridge, the .457 Magnum. It drives a 350-grain bullet at 2,200 fps, about 150 fps faster than Buffalo Bore’s loads for that bullet weight in the .45-70. The rimmed .457 case is longer than the .45-70 but otherwise similar, its extra length keeping it out of chambers where it doesn’t belong. They also have the .50 Alaskan, which drives a 450-grain bullet at a claimed 2,050 fps—if you want still more power.

In contrast, Marlin had another idea entirely with the company’s new .450 Marlin, though we don’t know why the company didn’t just chamber an existing lever rifle for Wild West’s better cartridge idea. Marlin claims 2,100 fps out of a 350-grain bullet. The ammunition is made—so far—only by Hornady. The case is belted, the belt being longer than normal belted magnum brass, though the same diameter. (The .450 Marlin, by the way, is a ringer for the .458 American except for that longer belt. The .458 American was Frank Barnes’s idea, developed decades ago. It utilized a standard belted-mag case of 2.0-inch length. The .450 Marlin case is 2.1 inches long.)

This comparative cartridge information puts the performance of the new .450 Marlin in context, especially when the shooter considers how a slightly less powerful round, the well-known .444 Marlin, shoots. We wanted to test Marlin’s iteration of the .450 side by side with one of the company’s staple .444s, as well as Winchester’s Big Bore Side-Eject lever gun, originally chambered in the now-defunct .375 Winchester, but which is now cataloged in .444 Marlin (and .356 Winchester).

Toward that end, we obtained a pair of nearly identical Marlins chambered for the .444 Marlin, the Model 444P, and .450 Marlin, the Model 1895M. We also got a Winchester Model 94AE chambered for the .444 Marlin. The Winchester had a 20-inch barrel. The two Marlins had ported 18-inchers. All of these walnut-stocked rifles had iron sights only, which is how we tested them. The Winchester, thought, had a superb ghost-ring aperture sight by Ashley, which we though would give it an advantage. Let’s see what we found.

Marlin .450 Model 1895M
Our recommendation: Don’t Buy the $560 Marlin .450 Model 1895M. In our estimation, there is no need for the cartridge, and the rifle didn’t work properly. In our tests, the gun was not as smooth as the .444, had less power than you can get out of a good .45-70 load, offered not a lot more power than you can get out of good .444 Marlin loads, and in short didn’t offer us anything at all that we wanted. Collectors might want to pick up one and never fire it, plus some ammunition, because we believe this gun will be very short-lived.

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The new Marlin .450 cartridge is supposed to be a hot choice for all medium-to-big game hunting. It’s a belted case, not the usual rimmed type one normally finds in lever rifles. Does a belted case make sense for a lever rifle? Based on our test results, we don’t think so.

The .450 Marlin’s belt is longer than that found on most belted magnum cases, which means you can’t make .450 Marlin cases out of normal belted magnum cases. Why, you ask, would a company do this? So you’ll have to buy your ammunition from the one-and-only maker, Hornady. While we applaud Marlin for adapting the lever-rifle concept to belted cases (this is probably not the first instance of this, but we can’t think of another), we reloaders don’t appreciate the fact that we have only one source of brass for our new rifle.

The long belt certainly does not add strength, no matter what you might have read elsewhere. How can a bit of brass added to a cartridge case make up for the exact same amount of steel removed from the chamber that holds it? It can’t. Brass case webs on rimmed cases, like the .45-70 or .444 Marlin, are more than strong enough for whatever pressure the stout Marlin action can take.

If, instead, the case had been developed around a standard belted brass case, we feel consumers would ultimately be better served by the Marlin 1895M. If it had been a rimmed case, sales and longevity would be higher still. As it is, we feel this odd belted design will only speed the demise of this rifle/cartridge combination, because it doesn’t make the least bit of sense to us. First of all, there’s no need for it. The .45-70 is far more versatile, and ammo is made by many companies. Hot-loaded .45-70 ammunition is currently available from Buffalo Bore in three different bullet weights. All of it is excellent ammunition, and it is packaged in clearly marked boxes as to what it is, and in which rifles it can be safely used. Buffalo Bore also loads three different weights of bullets in the .444 Marlin, and they give much better performance than ordinary .444 loads, and do so safely. There’s just no need for a “new” cartridge in this same performance range.

Setting aside the dubious qualities of the .450 Marlin cartridge, we noted the rifle that shot the rounds was well made. It had a plain but serviceable checkered walnut stock with trestle-style buttpad made of black rubberized “iron.” Why don’t manufacturers get the word here? A hard rubber buttpad doesn’t help the shooter, it hinders him from getting the most out of the rifle. Yes, the ported barrel helped cut muzzle flip, but our shoulders got sore from the too-hard pads on both Marlin rifles.

Back to the wood. The checkering was very well done, had a pleasing pattern, and it worked very well. The stock finish was very durable and hard, even though the pores were not fully filled. The finish was about average, we felt, for a modern rifle in this price category. Wood-to-metal fit was truly outstanding on both Marlin rifles. They were solidly made of steel and walnut, and looked like they would hold together for a long time.

Elsewhere, we noticed an anomaly between the two Marlins. The .444 felt noticeably smoother in its action than the .450. We would not mention this but for the fact that another shooter across the country reported to us he felt the exact same thing on two different Marlins. For some reason, the .450 wasn’t as smooth as the .444 we shot.

The 1895M was fitted with barrel-mounted iron sights, though it was also drilled and tapped for scope mounting. We can’t see the sense of a scope on a short, relatively light rifle, unless it’s done Scout-style like the Co-Pilot. We can, however, see the beauty of an aperture sight, and desperately wanted one on both of the Marlins, such as the excellent ghost-ring Ashley or the even better fully adjustable version from Wild West with its protective ears. The Wild West aperture rear sight costs $100 for Marlins, or $120 for Winchesters. A good aperture sight would be lighter, just as fast, and nearly as effective in most conditions as a scope, assuming the shooter has reasonably good eyesight.

The Marlin’s rear sight was a spring-loaded buckhorn with U-notch. This was adjusted by means of a stepped elevating slide, a design as old as rifles and still functional today. Windage adjustments, though not needed, were done by drifting. The rear buckhorn blade did a grand job of obscuring everything on both sides of the target, and shooters would be much better served with a flat-top rear sight, or an aperture. The front sight was a gold-faced bead on a ramp underneath a protective hood. Adjacent to the hood were a total of 14 portholes in the barrel that did wonders to cut muzzle flip. Both rifles had this exact same setup.

At the range, the first shot told us that the Marlin .450 was a powerful rifle. It also told us that the brake did a lot of good, even though it was noisy. We learned the recoil pad, though firm, was almost adequate. We could live with it, though we’d have much preferred a softer pad.

Click here to view the Accuracy Data Chart for the rifles tested

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The second shot told us that something was drastically wrong somewhere. The round didn’t go off. Ejecting the round, after a suitable wait, we found the primer soundly indented (see photo). However, the primer was apparently not struck soundly enough. We assume a clump of grease or a small burr slowed down the firing pin just enough to prevent firing. But this problem never happened again.

One recurring problem, however, was the gun’s poor ejection. About half the time, the fired case didn’t clear the rifle. We didn’t make an effort to eject slowly or quickly, just operated the lever in a normal manner. If we worked it briskly, we got slightly better results, but that’s not how a rifle is supposed to work. The case should come out every time, no matter how the lever is operated. Ours didn’t. Accuracy was all that anyone would want. This Marlin, as we’ve come to expect from Marlins (especially the new breed with real rifling grooves) laid ‘em in there as well as we could hold with iron sights. We have no doubt that with a scope both of the Marlin rifles would average well under 2 inches at 100 yards, based on our iron-sight results.

The recoil of the .450 was a bit stiffer than the .444 Marlin with Buffalo Bore ammunition. The ported barrels of these rifles worked wonders to keep the muzzle down, but the rearward kick was still significant. Those unaccustomed to hard-kicking rifles will find either the .444 or the .450 a bit much on the shoulder until they get used to it. A good solution is to install a proper recoil-reducing pad like the Pachmayr Decelerator.

We measured the .450 Marlin’s velocity at 2,045 fps with the 350-grain Hornady Flat-Point Interlock bullet. Perhaps with a longer barrel the ammunition might achieve its claimed 2,100 fps. However, we measured Buffalo Bore’s 350-grain .45-70 load at 2,058 from their Guide Gun (on a cold day, unlike the blazing heat in which we tested the .450 Marlin). A full-length 22-inch Marlin gave us only 2,064 with that load, so we doubt that you’ll ever see 2,100 fps out of the .450 Marlin. The Buffalo Bore .45-70 load, same weight bullet, was faster than the .450 Marlin. What about the need for an idiot-proof cartridge in the first place? If you want a powerful lever-action .45-caliber rifle, you probably know what you’re doing. If you also shoot a Trapdoor Springfield or any other kind of weak-actioned rifle that takes the .45-70, it makes sense that you should not mix up your ammunition. Even better, if you need a hot 45-caliber lever rifle you probably don’t need that Trapdoor Springfield, so sell it. Problem solved.

Why didn’t Marlin simply lengthen the .45-70 cartridge as Wild West did? We’re not sure, but we would guess that Wild West, in Alaska, had a lock on the idea. Wild West was also the originator of the short, handy, powerful lever-rifle concept. Marlin’s introduction of the Guide Gun didn’t acknowledge Wild West Guns, so perhaps the reason for Marlin’s new cartridge stems from a desire to avoid copying Wild West yet again. This is pure conjecture, but the outcome is not—the .450 Marlin is pretty much a turkey, as we see it. With the good loads out there for the .45-70, and with Wild West’s .457 Magnum available, we see no need for the .450 Marlin.

Marlin Model 444P
Our recommendation: Marlin ought to know by now how to make a flawless .444 Marlin. This one didn’t work. We also had problems with the function of the .450 Marlin. What’s going on? We’d like to see Marlin spend its efforts making great rifles perfectly, rather than expending energy on useless new projects like the .450 Marlin. We believe the development time used up by Marlin on that rifle could have been spent promoting the grand versatility of the .45-70 Guide Gun, letting folks know that it can handle good stout loads like those from Buffalo Bore, and making the Guide Gun exactly the way it should be, with an aperture rear sight right from the factory, softer recoil pad, and the slickest possible action.

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Still, one wonders: Is there a need for a .444 Guide Gun, the 444P? For that matter, is there a need for the .444 in any gun version, even though they cost $550 MSRP and have a low street price around $400? Obviously, many rifleman have voted yes, because Marlin has sold many, many .444s. Though we believe the .45-70 version is a much better bet, many riflemen who also own .44-caliber handguns will want to own the .444 Marlin, and it’s a pretty good rifle. Based on the function of the gun we had, we would have to say Don’t Buy the 444P. However, if we found a gun which didn’t have ejection problems like those we note below, we’d upgrade that recommendation to a Conditional Buy for the pistol shooter who already owns .44 Magnums or Specials.

Our test .444 Marlin 444P was essentially a .444 Guide Gun, having the same ideas behind it as Marlin’s best-selling .45-70 version. In fact, with hot Buffalo Bore loads, the performance of the .444 Marlin would be ballistically better than ordinary loads in the .45-70 Guide Gun. However, with Buffalo Bore’s good .45-70 loads, the Guide Gun would do anything anyone would want from a medium- to big-bore lever gun, vastly exceeding the maximum performance of the .444, and with lots of space to decrease performance as needed, even down to sub-444 levels. This means there’s precious little need for the .444 in our book.

However, the .444 owner can reload using many pistol bullets available for the .44 Magnum or .44 Special handguns, and that might be a factor in favor of the .444 over the .45-70 with its 0.458-inch bore size. That size requires rifle, not pistol, bullets.

Like the .450, the .444 Marlin rifle was very well made. The walnut was very decent wood, nicer than that on the .450. It had a red cast in direct sunlight and was very attractive. The checkering was fully functional, well done, and attractive. The wood-to-metal fit was again superb. Marlin’s inletting has been quite good in all examples of the company’s rifles we’ve seen. The metal polishing and bluing on both Marlin rifles was superbly done, dead-flat sides with semi-glossy finish, sharp but not offensive corners, matted edges to the all-steel action, all of the metalwork just plain nice. Our only complaint, a mild one, is we’d like to see a wood finish that fills the pores more completely while still letting the wood figure come through.

The straight-hand stock had a sling swivel stud in the butt, and another on the steel that attached the wood forend. There were no aluminum or plastic parts visible, though close inspection showed the magazine follower to be orange polymer. Each Marlin had a safety block, a device passing crosswise through the rear of the action that prevented the hammer from striking the firing pin. We didn’t like these, having become thoroughly used to the half-cock position on hammer rifles. With the hammer block there is the possibility of forgetting to press the little button before the shot, and thus losing the shot at the game animal. However, some shooters like the extra margin of safety, and it’s there if desired.

The wood pores of the 444P were no better filled than on the other rifle. The buttpad was a ventilated hard rubber pad. The trigger pull on the 444P was 4.3 pounds with prominent creep but very little overtravel. It was easy to cycle the .444 from the shoulder, but, unfortunately, the rifle prevented that nearly half the time. For our very first shots with the .444 Marlin, we loaded two rounds. We fired one, and the second jammed coming out of the tubular magazine. We dug it out with a knife, reloaded two more, and again the second round failed to feed.

We tried a different brand of ammunition and the rifle worked fine … for awhile. Then, later in our testing, we again encountered this failure to feed, and not just from the last round in the magazine. We eventually decided there was something seriously wrong with this rifle, and though we liked its feel, looks, and accuracy, we wouldn’t buy this one.

Winchester Model 94AE Big Bore
Our recommendation: We liked the Winchester .444 Marlin. For $404, we’d give it a Buy rating, being a better deal than the $550 Marlin. We know that Winchester has brought out a shorter-barrel version of this rifle, complete with ported muzzle, but we don’t see a real need for it. The weight of the present version was about as light as we’d like to see a .444 rifle. It’s at the lower weight limit for maximum loads in the .444, and even with a muzzle brake we don’t believe a shorter version would be all that good an idea.

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The $404 Side Eject Winchester felt like a toy compared to the relatively bulky Marlins. This was largely because of the slim forend wood. The Marlins were much fatter than the 94AE. Our loaner was fitted with a ghost-ring Ashley aperture sight held to the receiver with two screws. This straddled the bolt, but was much too far forward for proper use by our test personnel. It was so far from the eye it was easy to see the front bead in just about any position within the ghost ring. If the ring had been nearer the eye, the front sight would have been “forced” into the center of the ring, and we would have gotten better accuracy.

As it was, we liked the ring for its simplicity, but it was extremely vulnerable, sticking up in the breeze. The Wild West version ($100) has steel wings to protect it, and would a better aperture choice. The Ashley was drift-adjustable using opposing screws, though we could see no easy way to adjust it for elevation. The rifle was fitted with a Pachmayr Decelerator stock but had no ports. Recoil was manageable thanks to the soft pad, but the rifle had much greater muzzle flip than the ported Marlins.

Winchester put decent walnut on this all-steel rifle, and did a great job of finishing and checkering the wood. The pores were well filled, though the finish material seemed a bit softer than that of the Marlins. There were two large panels of checkering on the straight-hand grip. The slim forend had wrap-around checkering. Both forend and wrist checkering had a darker finish than the rest of the wood, and it added to the looks of the rifle. The checkering was fully functional. Like the Marlins, the Winchester had a cross-bolt safety but the owner had locked it out so the rifle would fire every time the hammer fell.

The inletting was nowhere near as good as on the Marlins. The wood at the rear of the receiver was much smaller in spots than the steel. Also, the steel-to-steel fit wasn’t quite as good as Marlin’s, nor was the metal polishing. There were faint instances of dished-out holes in the receiver sides, where the buffing wheel went into the screw holes. A small point perhaps, but the action bottom at the balance point was squared on the Winchester, but nicely rounded on the Marlins, and that made the Marlin easier to carry.

Still, we liked the lively feel of the 94AE. The action was slick, about as good as the .444 Marlin. The quality of bluing on the Winchester was excellent, in spite of the slight metal-polishing problems. However, the trigger pull was in desperate need of work. It had a very long first stage, which wasn’t a problem. Then it had a distinct hitch to a solid stop, then a hard pull of 5 pounds followed by lots of overtravel—not the sort of action we look for in rifle triggers.

At the range the Winchester was flawless in function. It didn’t punch out groups as small as those with the Marlin .444, but it was accurate enough to take hunting. With the Buffalo Bore 335-grain load, the Winchester made two groups, each about 4 inches apart. It didn’t do this with any of the other loads. Best grouping was with Buffalo Bore’s 300-grain load, just over 3 inches at 50 yards. Our shooting was hampered by the trigger and by the huge ghost-ring rear sight.

Gun Tests Recommends
Marlin 444P .444 Marlin, $550. We hesitate to recommend this gun because of our rifle’s probably temporary, but very real, feeding problem that needed to be fixed. Based on that flaw, we’d have to say Don’t Buy it. But if you find a sample that doesn’t exhibit the problem and you have zillions of .44 pistol bullets you want to shoot in it, then we’d give it a Conditional Buy.

Marlin 1895M .450 Marlin, $560. Don’t Buy. This cartridge is useless, and it may have caused a host of ejection problems in our test gun. Being bracketed by the proven .444 Marlin and .45-70, the belted .450 Marlin doesn’t fill a lever-gun niche any better than the other cartridges.

Winchester Big Bore 94AE .444 Marlin, $404. Buy it. It costs less than the Marlins and delivered excellent quality and adequate accuracy for a big-game rifle.