Share This Article

Penetrating the Winchester West.

Compared to the revolvers and repeating rifles made by the Big Four of U.S. gunmakers—Colt, Smith & Wesson, Remington and Winchester—the Marlin lever-action repeating rifles were the Johnny-come-latelies of the Old West. But whether used by the good guys or the bad guys, or by hunters to secure food, the high quality and accuracy of the Marlins quickly gave them a foothold on the frontier.

John Mahlon Marlin was not a newcomer to the gun business. He had been making single-shot cartridge pistols since 1863, and Colt and Smith & Wesson–type revolvers since 1870, after Smith & Wesson’s exclusive patent on cartridge revolvers had expired in 1867. And he had been producing the super-accurate Ballard single-shot cartridge rifles since 1875.

Born in 1836—ironically, the same year that Samuel Colt first produced his innovative cap-and-ball revolvers—Marlin worked for Colt before establishing his own company at Hartford, Conn., in 1863. After the success of his single-shot rifle manufacturing, Marlin realized that in spite of Winchester’s domination of the repeating rifle business, Winchester had still not manufactured a repeater that fired the popular .45-70 cartridge, which was the standard caliber of the U.S. Army-issue trapdoor Springfield single-shot military rifles and was also common in civilian single-shot rifles on the frontier.

In 1876 Winchester had come out with its massive lever-action Model 1876—a giant-sized version of the now-legendary .44-40-caliber Model 1873. The Model 1876 Winchester came in specially manufactured .40-60, .45-60, .45-75 and buffalo-killing .50- 95 calibers. But a frontiersman often had to special order these custom calibers, while the universally sold .45-70 cartridge was available throughout the still sparsely settled West. Being able to use the ammunition on hand was often a matter of life or death.

So John Marlin pooled his inventive abilities with gun designer Andrew Burgess, who had previously designed a lever-action repeating rifle mechanism for the Whitney Arms Company that had been produced in limited quantity from 1878 to 1882 but had been discontinued because of repeated malfunctions. The Marlin/Burgess collaboration led to the huge Model 1881 Marlin, which originally was only available in the .45-70 military caliber and a special Marlin .40-60 cartridge, but by 1885 was also offered in .32-40, .38-55 and .45-85 calibers. Its octagon barrels came in standard lengths from 24 to 30 inches. Like the Winchester repeaters, it had a magazine tube under the barrel that could hold eight to 10 cartridges.

According to Flayderman’s Guide To Antique American Firearms, “The Model 1881 was years ahead of the Model 1886 Winchester, and proved a very popular rifle.” (The Model 1886 Winchester was the first lever-action repeater designed for Winchester by John Browning, and it was the first Winchester that could handle the .45-70- caliber military cartridge.)

In October 1881, the Miles City, Montana Territory, gun dealer Broadwater, Hubbell & Co. advertised that a case of the Model 1881 Marlins had already been sold to “Hunters,” adding that, “these guns promise to be very popular and take preference over all others.” In March 1882, another of their advertisements lauded the Model 1881: “The New Buffalo Gun. A large Stock on hand, of various weights, from 8 to 16 lbs., from which to make selection. These are THE Buffalo Gun.” In 1882 other dealers—such as W.H. Bradt in Leadville, Colo., and C.D. Ladd in San Francisco—were also advertising the Model 1881. The Marlin Company itself promoted the Model 1881 in July 1885 in Denver’s Rocky Mountain News as “The Best In The World.” And in April 1889, Marlin advertised in the Sitka Alaskan, “The Best And Simplest Rifles Made, Strongest Shooting, Easiest Working.”

Apache Indian fighter Brig. Gen. George C. Crook, who coined the frontier axiom that “the only way to catch an Apache is with another Apache,” used a Model 1881 Marlin. Crook spent most of his military career trying to placate, instead of kill, renegade Indians from the Pacific Northwest to the central Plains. But he is most famous for bringing a semblance of peace to the Apache-ravaged southeast corner of Arizona Territory in the 1870s and again in the 1880s at a time when another frontier axiom was “the only good Indian is a dead Indian.”

One of the rifles that Crook passed down to his godson Webb C. Hayes (son of President Rutherford B. Hayes) is a .45-70 Model 1881 Marlin, serial number 4254. It was Webb Hayes’ favorite rifle on hunting trips with his godfather. The gun now resides in the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center in Fremont, Ohio.

Mixed-blood (part Mexican, Irish and Apache) Mickey Free, one of Crook’s most trusted Apache-wars Indian scouts, is also known to have favored a brass-tack Indian-decorated .45-70-caliber Model 1881 Marlin, which is now in the private collection of the Frontier Gun Shop in Tucson, Ariz. On January 27, 1861, Apache Indians had kidnapped 12-yearold Free from the ranch of his stepfather, John Ward, near Sonoita, Arizona Territory. The incident sparked the killing of Apache prisoners by the U.S. Army and white prisoners by the Apaches and drove Chief Cochise on a bloody warpath until 1872. Blinded in the left eye when he was young, the reddish blond–haired Free was raised by White Mountain Apaches. Free joined the U.S. Army’s Indian Scouts on December 2, 1872, and served with them until 1893.

A .40-60-caliber Model 1881 Marlin that was used by Oklahoma Territory outlaw “Red Buck” Waightman is now on display at the Ralph Foster Museum, College of the Ozarks, Point Lookout, Mo.

In spite of the Model 1881 repeating rifle’s reputation for quality and simplicity, John Marlin discontinued it in 1892 after having produced only about 20,000 of them, probably because of the popularity of the John Browning–designed .45-70 Model 1886 Winchester. Marlin went on to manufacture the Models 1888, 1889, 1891, 1892, 1893, 1894, 1895 (also made in .45-70 caliber) and 1897 lever-action repeating rifles in a multitude of smaller calibers before finally discontinuing the 1893 and 1894 models in 1935.

John Marlin presented several of his repeating rifles to “Little Miss Sure-Shot,” Annie Oakley, including a Model 1889, and a Model 1893 that was gold and platinum inlaid and engraved. And a blued and silver-plated engraved .38-55-caliber Model 1881 Marlin in the Greg Martin collection is inscribed, “Capt. E.E. Stubbs, Champion Rifle Shot of the World.”


Originally published in the August 2007 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here