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A Western movie spotlighted one Montana.

Gunsmith John M. Marlin’s revolutionary improvements to the design of the early Ballard rifle resulted in the Marlin-Ballards, in effect a new line of more than a dozen models manufactured from 1875 to 1891. The reconfigured Ballard was chambered for both rimfire and centerfire cartridges. One such variation, the Montana Rifle, produced from 1882 to 1884, might be the rarest of all Marlin-manufactured Ballard breechloaders. Its use on the Great Plains is not well documented, but of the 1,500 to 1,800 made, one stands out, as a Hollywood “celebrity.”

The history of Ballard rifles is convoluted. Charles H. Ballard of Worcester, Mass., invented the falling-block breechloading rifle, among the favorite cartridge rifles of the Civil War. Although patented by Ballard on November 5, 1861, these long arms were mostly manufactured by Worcester’s Ball & Williams Co. in contracts for the federal government and Kentucky. Some 22,000 Ballard rifles and carbines originated in Massachusetts, while failed Bridgeport, Conn., subcontractor Dwight, Chapin & Co. made an estimated 1,200.

At war’s end, Richard Ball (partner Warren Williams had retired) continued to manufacture the Ballard rifle. In 1866 the New York City firm of Merwin & Bray obtained the rights to produce the Ballard. A newly reorganized company, Merrimack Arms & Manufacturing Co., of Newburyport, Mass., produced 2,200 Ballards, mostly the sporting model, from 1867 to 1869. U.S. military interest fell off, as the largest cartridge used in the Ballard rifle, the .56-50 Spencer rimfire, could not compete with more powerful centerfire cartridges making a showing in the West.

A foreign military market remained. In 1869 Brown Manufacturing Co., also of Newburyport, headed by Charles Brown, purchased the manufacturing rights and introduced a few new products in the line, including a military-style bolt-action rifle completely unrelated to the Ballard in design. Along with sporting rifles, the Brown company produced some 1,000 military rifles in rather anemic .46 rimfire caliber in anticipation of high demand during the Franco-Prussian War, which began in 1870. But the war ended the next year, and Brown’s contracts dwindled. The company floundered until its collapse in July 1873. The Ballard rifle was going nowhere until Schoverling & Daly purchased Brown’s assets at auction. The company consulted beforehand with New Haven, Conn., gun maker John Marlin.

Marlin believed that by making a few improvements, he could work the action into a successful sporting rifle. By 1875 the J.M. Marlin Fire Arms Co. was offering the Ballard Hunter’s Rifle, which used the heavier centerfire cartridges. It was the basis for more than a dozen other Marlin-Ballard rifles during the next 16 years— everything from .22-caliber hunting rifles to finely engraved target rifles favored by the “Sunday sporting crowd.” But what distinguished the Ballard were powerful, heavy-framed centerfire hunting rifles used during the last great buffalo hunts.

J.M. Marlin’s Montana Rifle weighed 14 pounds and boasted a “No. 5 ½ weight” heavy octagonal barrel chambered for the .45-100 Sharps cartridge. It featured double set triggers that allowed the shooter either a standard 8- pound trigger pull or a hair-trigger pull, and it was available with either a flat shotgun-style butt plate or a crescent-type butt plate. By the time the Montana was introduced in 1882, advertised as “suited to the territory trade,” few game buffalo remained. As there was little need for such a big, heavy hunting rifle, the Montana Rifle was produced for little more than two years.

The most famous Marlin-Ballard model of the Old West—the No. 5 Pacific Rifle —was nearly indistinguishable from its Montana cousin. The slightly lighter Pacific first appeared about 1876 and was in production until 1891, when a reorganized Marlin Fire Arms dropped the Ballard line. Both the Montana and Pacific models came with an extended loop lever, specially designed for the set trigger feature, and a wooden wiping rod held beneath the barrel by thimbles. One difference, apparent on close inspection, is that the Montana’s heavier octagonal barrel is as large and wide as the rifle’s frame. The Montana Rifle was only available in .45-100, while the Pacific could be had in such smaller calibers as .38-55, .40-63 or even .44-40 Winchester.

Marlin also made Pacific Rifles for the .45-100 Sharps cartridge, per the Montana Rifle. When the author bought one such Pacific (top photo) in 1996, he discovered beneath the butt plate a folded piece of paper in the stock. Written in script on the parchment: ERNEST KNAEBEL, SANTA FE, NEW MEXICO DECEMBER 28, 1886. A previous owner likely placed the note in the stock to identify the rifle were it ever stolen.

The Marlin-Ballard Montana Rifle pictured above had no documentation, but it made a name for itself in its third century of existence when it “went Hollywood.” In 2003 it became, most likely, the first Montana Rifle ever seen in a Western film.

This mighty Montana, owned by Caravan West Productions armorer Larry Zeug, got big exposure during the first six minutes of the movie The Long Ride Home, starring Randy Travis, Ernest Borgnine, Stella Stevens, Eric Roberts, Vaughn Taylor and Peter Sherayko. In the opening scene, Deputy Hart (Paul Tinder) tries to ambush Jack Fowler (Travis), whom he has mistaken for outlaw Jack Cole. The deputy loads the big rifle, aims with cross sticks and fires at his human target. The sound effects are louder than life. The 490-grain slug goes slam-whack into Jack’s shoulder, knocking him from his horse. Most Westerns feature Winchester rifles, and gun-savvy viewers were delighted to see this rare weapon make it to the big screen. Of course, Hollywood rarely gets everything right. The Long Ride Home was set right after the Civil War, long before Marlin produced the Montana.

Today, this Holy Grail of Ballard rifles will reap from $6,500 to $12,500, according to the ninth edition of Flayderman’s Guide to Antique American Firearms. Only about 200 to 400 of them are still around. Its look-alike, the Pacific Rifle, appears in several Old West photos. Perhaps as many as 9,000 were made, and about 2,000 to 3,000 remain. Flayderman’s Guide values Pacific Rifles at between $2,000 and $5,000.


Originally published in the August 2010 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here