Review: Marlin’s Big Lever Action and the .444 Cartridge

By Bob Campbell published on in Firearms

In 1964 there were no surviving bigbore, lever-action rifle cartridges. The Winchester lever-action rifles were long out of production and the Marlin .45-70 rifles only a memory. Marlin saw a market for a bigbore rifle that used a hard-hitting cartridge, which was instantly recognizable as a woods rifle. The result of its market research and testing was the .444 Marlin cartridge.

This is the author’s .444 Marlin rifle. It is rugged, reliable, and, most of all, powerful!

This is the author’s .444 Marlin rifle. It is rugged, reliable, and, most of all, powerful!

The .444 Marlin is basically a lengthened .44 Magnum revolver cartridge. However, the .444 Marlin is far more powerful than the .44 Magnum. While the .44 Magnum is a fine brush gun, and well suited for hog hunting at moderate range, the .444 Marlin can be a true big-game rifle. The .444 hasn’t replaced the .30-30, but it has enjoyed some popularity with the lever-action crowd. The introduction of the Marlin .45-70 rifle—or reintroduction, as it may be called—cut into the .444’s popularity considerably.

The .45-70 was widely perceived as the more powerful cartridge. Indeed, with proper loading, practice, and efficient use of .458-inch bullets, the .45-70 is a terrific game cartridge. For deer-size game, the cartridge may be loaded down; for bison-class animals, the .45-70 is loaded up. The .45-70 was originally intended for heavy long-range bullets of well over 400 grains. In comparison, the .444 is designed for use with .429-inch pistol bullets. It is obvious that a bullet designed for pistol use isn’t in the class with a bullet designed for use in the .458 Winchester rifle or even the old lead 500-grain cavalry load.

Long-range use aside, at typical woods hunting ranges the primary advantage of the .45-70 over the .444 is in penetration. Penetration demands that the projectile not upset or do so in a controlled manner. So, a pistol bullet boosted to 500 feet per second over the design envelope isn’t going to penetrate more, rather it will upset and perhaps even fragment. So, the .45-70 has demonstrated a considerable advantage over the .444 in a wide variety of test programs based on penetration.

Buffalo Bore ammunition was completely impressive as far as power and accuracy. This is a load well worth considering.

Buffalo Bore ammunition was completely impressive as far as power and accuracy. This is a load well worth considering.

However, the bottom line is that few of us are going after buffalo or elephant with the .444. As such, the rifle may just be as suitable for most North American game as the .45-70. Let’s take a hard look at the .444 and what the rifle will do.

I have to admit, it was by chance I ran across the .444 rifle. I was looking for a bigbore lever gun and came across the .444 at an attractive price. I am glad I did, as the rifle is not only an excellent performer but also a fertile field for research.

There are many advantages to the .444. The original rifle used microgroove rifling. In short, the microgroove rifle barrel has a greater number of lands and grooves, but they are shallower in depth. It’s not quite the polygonal rifling some like in their pistol barrels, but a different type of rifling. The barrel twist was 1:38 inches, seen as ideal for use with the original 240-grain bullet.

The .444 was rather stagnant as far as development goes until the .44 Magnum started getting the attention of bullet experimenters. The .444 Marlin benefited in the long run from a great deal of experimentation with the .44 Magnum handgun cartridge. Shooters began experimenting with hardcast bullets of 280 to 320 grains. Excellent accuracy and penetration were achieved.

The Marlin lever action appears to have a long throw, but when shouldered and properly operated, the rifle is actually fast in action and the action has plenty of leverage for the big .444 round.

The Marlin lever action appears to have a long throw, but when shouldered and properly operated, the rifle is actually fast in action and the action has plenty of leverage for the big .444 round.

These hard-hitting non-expanding bullets increased the usefulness of the .44 Magnum cartridge against the largest game. There is a qualitative difference between hunting with a pistol cartridge and taking a clean well-placed shot, and dropping an animal and stopping a charge. Just the same, the .44 Magnum proved to be capable of dropping game that common sense would tell us was out of pistol-performance range. Then again, a well-placed shot and good penetration go a long way toward a clean kill. There were some adjustments for microgroove barreling such as casting and sizing the bullets to a larger diameter, but in the end, the .444 proved a wonderful performer with these heavy bullets.

The first jacketed heavy-bullet design for the .444 Marlin was a 265-grain bullet, and the Hornady load using this weight is still a fine choice for thin-skinned game. For large deer and Russian boar, this load is a sure killer. There is more element to the equation than simple horsepower.

When performing some of the early benchrest testing with the Marlin rifle, I was expecting pedestrian accuracy and performance. I realize now that this impression was wrong. The Marlin is a very accurate rifle, and the .444 Marlin is more accurate than the best pistol-caliber carbines. It is more than a .44 Magnum/Magnum.

The real surprise came when chronographing the .444 over the Competition Electronics chrony. The Hornady loading exhibited a standard deviation of only three feet per second. That is correct, three SD. I have never recorded such a low SD with even the most expensive bolt guns and my own carefully individually weighed handloads. Perhaps load density or Hornady quality was at an all-time high, but I was impressed. At a long 100 yards, the Hornady 265-grain load delivered three bullets into 1 1/4 inch.

The lever throw of the Marlin is shorter than one would think. This is not a difficult rifle to handle, but it has plenty of punch for anything in North America.

The lever throw of the Marlin is shorter than one would think. This is not a difficult rifle to handle, but it has plenty of punch for anything in North America.

As I looked over the Marlin’s performance, I realized that Marlin had taken quite a steep bet on introducing the cartridge. R&D Director Thomas Robinson worked with Metallurgist Arthur Burns to produce a real winner. The bigbore lever guns had died out, and the interest in a successor was unproven, but the .444 Marlin proved a reasonably popular and profitable rifle.

For a generation, the Marlin proved to be a deer killer par excellence. The rifle is also effective for black bear, but bullet technology limited the rifle’s use on larger game. Today, the rules have changed because we have a crop of modern bullets that will serve much better than anything in the past. Not that there was a shortage of 240-grain JHP bullets—they simply performed more or less the same.

The introduction of the 265-grain bullet was followed by the 300-grain revolver bullet, and finally the heavy cast bullets had given the .444 a new lease on life. In my opinion, inside of 100 yards, the .444 hits much harder than any .30-caliber rifle. The lever action also offers an instant second shot for those skilled in the use of the type. As an example, be certain that you practice pressing the lever forward, not down, to open the action and eject the spent cartridge. Practicing rapid manipulation of the loading lever will give you confidence in taking a rapid follow-up shot if needed.

Tubular magazines limited the choice of bullets. After all, a pointed bullet could not be used. The pointed nose would rest against the primer of the cartridge ahead of it in the magazine—with predictable results. Flatnose bullets were the rule until the advent of the Hornady LeveRevolution bullets. With a flatnose bullet, ballistic coefficient doesn’t mean much.

The ultra-strong Marlin receiver is massive. This action is more than strong enough to handle the powerful .444 Marlin cartridge.

The ultra-strong Marlin receiver is massive. This action is more than strong enough to handle the powerful .444 Marlin cartridge.

Today, we have better bullets. For thin-skinned game, the lightest bullet I am comfortable with is a good 240-grain JHP such as the Hornady XTP. However, the Barnes bullet in 225-grain weight is a rule beater. The solid-copper construction makes the bullet stronger and more likely to offer good penetration compared with any other lightweight bullet.

Next comes the Hornady 265-grain Interlock and Hornady 300-grain XTP bullets. While I enjoy handloading, I seldom fire the Marlin for recreation, so a long-term loading program isn’t in the cards. I simply wish to sight in the rifle and have a load I am able to count on for taking down game.

Recently, I explored the .444 Marlin extensively with a number of modern, effective, and powerful loads from Buffalo Bore Ammunition. Frankly, these loadings leave nothing to be desired. They maximize the caliber, offer good accuracy, and burn clean. There are no signs of excess pressure and the predicted effect on game is good. I did a bit of informal penetration testing firing at wet newsprint and water jugs to test the Buffalo Bore loads’ performance. I was impressed.

The first load tested uses a 270-grain flatnose bullet. This load breaks over 2,200 fps and gave excellent accuracy. Three shots at 100 yards settled into just over an inch. At first glance, this would appear to be a better choice than most in the .444 class for thin-skinned game. This is true when compared to the 240-grain loads. However, when compared with the 265-grain loads in wet newsprint testing, the 270-grain load actually penetrated less.

Buffalo Bore’s .444 Marlin loads bring the old lever gun into a new level of accuracy and power.

Buffalo Bore’s .444 Marlin loads bring the old lever gun into a new level of accuracy and power.

Sometimes, the bullet broke up more so than the Hornady bullets. For thin-skinned game and broadside shots, the 270-grain load is faster with more energy than common factory loads but offers no real advantage against bear or larger thin-skinned game. For heavy use, move to the 300-grain JFN or jacketed flatnose. The 300-grain JFN bullet offers plenty of penetration. While the horsepower is there, this load offered lighter subjective recoil than the 270-grain load. This load would be a good choice for thin-skinned game but should serve well against black bear.

The final load tested is a blockbuster. A 335-grain hardcast flatnose bullet is launched at well over 2,000 fps. This one offers the stoutest recoil of any .444 Marlin load tested. The results on target are consummate with the power exhibited. Penetration was considerably more than any other load tested—the big flatnose slug simply shot through the penetration boxes as if they were thin air.

I did not test it to the elephant level, but suffice to say, this load will rattle out your fillings and penetrate more meat and bone than anything I need to kill. This is the load for grizzly or anything else that may be addressed with the .444 Marlin. Testing this load off the benchrest wasn’t quite as brutal, but I was glad to have my PAST shoulder rest in place. This load slipped three bullets into 1.5 inches at 100 yards.

In closing, the .444 Marlin is one whale of an effective cartridge. Not too much for deer, about right for hogs, and possibly one of the better choices for larger game at modest range. At least with Buffalo Bore loads, the .444 may be among the most underrated for rifle cartridges.

Optics

The rifle was found with a Game Stalker scope already fitted and incidentally properly zeroed for 100 yards. There is a second reticle line for long-range use, and the turrets are marked for 300- and 400-yard adjustments, which is optimistic for this cartridge. I am not certain who made the Game Stalker, but it looks like a number of Tasco types I have used in the past. I suppose it falls into the inexpensive category, but it performed well and took the .444’s recoil without a problem.

Have you ever fired the .444 Marlin? What was your experience? Share your answers in the comment section.

SLRule

Bob Campbell is a former peace officer and published author with over 40 years combined shooting and police and security experience. Bob holds a degree in Criminal Justice. Bob is the author of the books, The Handgun in Personal Defense, Holsters for Combat and Concealed Carry, The 1911 Automatic Pistol, The Gun Digest Book of Personal Protection and Home Defense, The Shooter’s Guide to the 1911, The Hunter and the Hunted, and The Complete Illustrated Manual of Handgun Skills. His latest book is Dealing with the Great Ammo Shortage. He is also a regular contributor to Gun Tests, American Gunsmith, Small Arms Review, Gun Digest, Concealed Carry Magazine, Knife World, Women and Guns, Handloader and other publications. Bob is well-known for his firearm testing.

View all articles by Bob Campbell

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Comments (15)

  • Lobo

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    I remember reading about this cartridge as a young man when it came out in the mid 60’s. I thought it was a rifle I’d like to own. Fast forward to the 80’s, I had the opportunity to purchase one from a co-worker who was just about giving it away. I have used it hunting, dropping everything on the spot! Target shooting is a little harsh but doable. Being that I am also a .44 Mag revolver shooter/hunter having the same caliber is economical for reloading in all bullet weights. All in all a great round!

    Reply

  • Alvin

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    I got my !st .444 ‘cuz of all the crowin’ about the .45/70 but have owned and loaded both for use on game up to Bison. With appropriate slugs…, what one will do; the other will do. From hand loaders point…, more options for the .45…,from a HUNTING point; what one will do; the other will do .

    Reply

  • MICHAEL HANEWICH

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    I have a centennial addition 1976 that i purchased from a good friend. I have used it most deer hunting outings in New York. I live in Texas now, the land of the rich mans hunting experience so i have not used it much. It will liquify everything in the vitals. I love it.

    Reply

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