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

In 1964 there were no surviving big-bore, 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 big-bore 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.

Origins of the .444 Marlin

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 .444 Marlin Ammo
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.

.444 Marlin Rifle

I have to admit, it was by chance I ran across the .444 rifle. I was looking for a big-bore 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 hard-cast bullets of 280 to 320 grains. Excellent accuracy and penetration were achieved.

.444 Marline Lever-action rifle
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.

Man shooting lever-action rifle with scope
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 big-bore lever guns had died out, and the interest in a successor was unproven, but the .444 Marlin proved a reasonably popular and profitable rifle.

Ammunition Options

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 flat-nose bullet, ballistic coefficient doesn’t mean much.

Lever-Action Rifle with Scope
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.

On the Range

The first load tested uses a 270-grain flat-nose 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 .444 Marlin Ammo Box
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 flat-nose. 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 hard-cast, flat-nose 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 flat-nose 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.


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.

About the Author:

Bob Campbell

Bob Campbell’s primary qualification is a lifelong love of firearms, writing, and scholarship. He holds a degree in Criminal Justice but is an autodidact in matters important to his readers. Campbell considers unarmed skills the first line of defense and the handgun the last resort. (He gets it honest- his uncle Jerry Campbell is in the Boxer’s Hall of Fame.)

Campbell has authored well over 6,000 articles columns and reviews and fourteen books for major publishers including Gun Digest, Skyhorse and Paladin Press. Campbell served as a peace officer and security professional and has made hundreds of arrests and been injured on the job more than once.

He has written curriculum on the university level, served as a lead missionary, and is desperately in love with Joyce. He is training his grandchildren not to be snowflakes. At an age when many are thinking of retirement, Bob is working a 60-hour week and awaits being taken up in a whirlwind many years in the future.

Published in
Black Belt Magazine
Combat Handguns
Rifle Magazine
Gun Digest
Gun World
Tactical World
SWAT Magazine
American Gunsmith
Gun Tests Magazine
Women and Guns
The Journal Voice of American Law Enforcement
Police Magazine
Law Enforcement Technology
The Firearms Instructor
Tactical World
Concealed Carry Magazine
Concealed Carry Handguns

Books published

Holsters for Combat and Concealed Carry
The 1911 Automatic Pistol
The Handgun in Personal Defense
The Illustrated Guide to Handgun Skills
The Hunter and the Hunted
The Gun Digest Book of Personal Defense
The Gun Digest Book of the 1911
The Gun Digest Book of the 1911 second edition
Dealing with the Great Ammunition Shortage
Commando Gunsmithing
The Ultimate Book of Gunfighting
Preppers Guide to Rifles
Preppers Guide to Shotguns
The Accurate Handgun
The Mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!'s blog, The Shooter's Log, is to provide information—not opinions—to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (26)

  1. I bought my 444 marlin in1980. Sighted in zero 180m and cannot fault it’s ability to carry out a one shot kill.
    I use my rifle as a scrub gun for pigs
    Using a hornardy 240g hollow cavity or 265g solid blunt nose projectiles, all hand loads.
    The rifle is topped with a Tasco propoint red dot site.
    No problem with recoil ( Great Rifle prfere it to my 45 70 )

  2. I bought my 444 marlin in 1980 and could not fault it’s ability to shoot accurate out to 180m.
    I use my rifle as a scrub gun for pigs
    Using a hornardy 240g hollow cavity or 265g solid blunt nose projectiles, all hand loads.
    The rifle is topped with a Tasco propoint red dot site.
    No problem with recoil ( Great Rifle prfere it to my to my 45 70 )

  3. I bought a .444 Marlin in the fall of 1980 for my dad to go deer hunting with and he was speechless (which was unusual for him to some degree being a retired ordained minister) when I gave it to him. Just stood there looking at it then looking at me. He went hunting with some guys upstate PA that fall but his health and heart were declining so no deer. The following January he died after a botched open heart surgery. I still have the rifle and sometimes take it out to shoot. It’s a head turner when it goes off, for sure. At 100 yards shooting thru underbrush at a target creates a firestorm of flying branches and twigs…LOL. So, I’m going deer hunting up in the Poconos in a few weeks and I think I’ll take both my .30-.30 Marlin and this one when I go. I’ve been invited to Florida to do some wild boar hunting and the .444 is the rifle I’ll be taking with me probably next spring.

  4. Bought the 444SS model in about 1982 after promising wifey a living room set. I was looking for a 45-70 lever but they were scarce at the time so the dealer at the store talked me into it after we looked at ballistics charts. Never shot anything other then Remington 240 grain soft points out of it. Got a couple dozen deer and 4 elk with it over the years. It’s always a 1 shot humane kill and doesn’t spoil much meat if you’re careful about shot placement. I’ll never hunt big game without it.

  5. Just to be clear, was the testing in this article done with an older Model 444 with the 1:38″ Microgroove rifling or a newer gun with the 1:20″ twist rate. I ask b/c I just bought a box of Hornady LeveRevolution ammo, and it says “1-20″ Barrel Twist & Faster” … I have a Model 444 from the early 80s with Microgroove and the much slower twist rate.

  6. Greetings all from Australia, love my old 444, great for a lefty like me.
    Best kill 28 inch stag, 290 yards, about 60 ft of elevation using handloaded 200 gr Hornady with 49.5 grains 2207 powder.
    Cheers Peter.

  7. Great article….I’ve been shooting my 444 since 1983. I don’t factory ammo for a number of years, but started having trouble with the ammo available at that time. I then had so custom work done to my 444s…and went to all hand loads. Then Hornady came out with the 240gr xtp….what a game changer for me. It just raised the level of my 444. It was designed for a pistol but shot great out the old girl.
    Now 35 years later and over 100 kills later. This is a much more versatile caliber than I could ever imagine. I’ve only had to fire more than one sho to 3 times. This is a one and done gun. I wouldn’t be afraid to hunt anything with this old thumper…power at it’s finest!!!

  8. i have owned Marlins and one Winny Black Shadow in 444 Marlin. i currently have two Marlin 444p’s and am still playing around working up loads for them. Accuracy at 100 yds is impressive with the right loads, at right around an inch or so. It can change to two inches with other loads. Thats not bad. But to say its a 200 yard rifle I think is not an accurate statement. With the horned Leverevolution boolits, you can reach out to 300 easily, for deer and elk or Mule deer with a good scope and some practice and the right load. Longest shot I have had was 200+ yards on a 240 pound hog. He fell to the ground and spun in circles for 15 seconds or so. Bullet went right thru its front shoulder and out its ribs. I was using a 295 grain LFN molded with wheel weights and 10 % lynotype. They shoot flatter and faster than a 45-70 and the result in ftp is about 100 pounds less when all things are equal. No knock on the 45-70. Its a great powerful cartridge. But i can’t believe after shooting the 45-70, and the 450 Marlin, that the 444 marlin isn’t raved about. In my case, the triple 4 is flatter, more accurate, and less recoil without giving up that much energy. i have a flat shooting 200 grain lead load that is cronoed at almost 2600 fps, with no sighs of over pressure. This is an advantage when hunting longer distances.

  9. I owned a Marlin 444 in the seventies. I hand loaded 240 gr bullets and zeroed at two hundred. Highly accurate and great gun. My first hunt I dropped two deer in one morning. The first one was at 213 yds and the and the secondition at 225 yds. Everyone of my shooting buddies was i,pressed with the gun and awed by the cartridge. The only negative was the pure stomping that recoil would dish out. The gun was scoped and if you hugged the eye piece too closely you would get a half moon bloody slit right between the eyes. One friend insisted on shooting from a squatting position. He ended up on his back, feet and gun pointin straight up. And a half moon decoration. Another friend ended up with that same distinguishin haft moon cut not once but twice. I sold the gun to a friend that begged endlessly for me sell it to him and have regretted that ever since. I am glad Marlin has started building the 444 again and plan to buy one when I find one. I hav ed since figured out the scoping problem could be cottected with a scope with longer eye relief.

  10. I have had a itch for a 444 marlin for many years , I was about to settle for a 45-70 but find that marlin finely came back with the 444 marlin. can’t wait to get one. Hope they will be in Canada soon. From the people who have them and what I read it seems like the perfect all round hunting for Canada from varmints to moose . Hits hard but won’t travel to far, and great for the bush. I use a 44 mag now but would like a bit longer range and flatter bullet. I shoot mostly in my back yard for fun and like seeing what a bullet will go through.

  11. 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!

  12. 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 .

  13. 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.

  14. Great write up. Bob!
    One Grandfather my uncle and my Dad, all had the Marlin .444 here in Alaska. I don’t know what happened to Grandads but my Uncles came to me when he passed several years ago. Dad still has his but at 92 it’s not his go-to rifle any longer. I have and carry a 45-70 Guide Gun when out an about, in the boat when fishing, in camp and so forth.its always been more defensive rifle than anything else. I use a Barns 45-70 Goverment loads they produce.
    The Uncles .444 has been sitting in the Wall rack now for several years. It seems I have been doing it an injustice by this action which you have brought to my attention! With Spring arrived it’s time to start thinking of dark timber fly fishing and those meat in the freezer an smoker Salmon runs.
    I’m thinking it may be a perfect time to bring along that .444 in a med to heavy load and put it back to work.
    Would you consider making a suggestion as to a Kodiak or Coastal Brown Bear load for it?
    Thanks for bringing it to my attention. It deserves to still be in the bush instead of just hanging around in the rack!

  15. I bought my Marlin 444 in 1966 in the West Texas city of Midland. I wanted this rifle because of its beautiful styling and appearance. I quickly learned that it truly did have a surprise in store for me. I have consistently used the stock Hornady 265 gr. and have a good record of coyote kills at or around 100 yds. As you would expect, it drops them immediately so searching for them was short and sweet. It is only because my shoulder needed a break did I go back to my 30 30 lever actions. But it always remained my favorite caliber of choice when I went out in the brush.

  16. I bought my Marlin 444 back in the mid to late ’70s. I love it. I used it for deer hunting in Pennsylvania brush. I live in Texas now and only take it out for target practice. Thanks for the great article on it.

  17. I have heard stories of troops in Vietnam ording the Marlin .444 out of the sear catalog to deal with VC and NVA bunkers as he round would penetrate through the vegetation as well as the banyan and palm trees the enemy was using for bunkers. Thereby saving lives. I have no idea if this is indeed true but it does make for a good story.

  18. I had this rifle for a while my only problem with it was it was a real meat destroyer when you shot deer or hog with it and past 100 yards was not very accurate to me .I since have switched to the 45.70 single shot H&R when they opened up Ohio too straight walled cases from slug guns cases i was in tenn and fla before most my life hunting with high powered rifles .To me the 45.70 is far superior to the .444 and if given the choice again would buy the 45.70 lever instead .It just rips the game meat apart to bad for me .JMHO.

  19. Great article, as a big bore revolver fan, I love reading about big bore cartridges and their history. Now I have to find one of these fine rifles….

  20. Yes I have fired one , I use it every year for 4 day hunt in Vt for deer n bear season,little bit over kill for deer but bring along for bear. It was given to me few years back by old friend who did the same as I in Vt back in 70s so when he new I was hunting in Vt n he found out he had cancer n only had few years left he wanted me to have it,it shoots nice pie plate at 100 yards with old 70s scope on it .tony

  21. When the .444 Marlin was introduced I saw that it was a good round right away, but I asked myself “What can ot do that the .45-70 can’t do? I still haven’t found that answer.

    1. Actually far less the 45.70 has way more options and has= to more energy and uses a real 45 cal bullet having shot and owned and hand loaded for both stick with the 45.70 save ya money on this it is just a novelty rifle to me and not as effective as the 45.70 .JMHO.

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