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Review: Marlin Dark Lever Action Rifle

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Long before we enjoyed our modern sporting rifles and polymer-frame handguns, there was one gun that reigned supreme: the lever gun. They have been the heart of America since the mid-1800s. The first lever-actions to hit the market were Henrys and Winchesters, and as the cliché goes, the rest is history. The lever gun’s impact on American history cannot be understated, and it continues to be a popular firearm today. More than 150 years after the first model rolled out, the mighty lever gun still finds its way into gun safes and hunting lodges around the country. As with all things, though, modern times tend to influence these items and the lever gun has seen the same evolution. Today, the well-known lever gun maker Marlin Firearms brings us the new Marlin 1895 Dark Series in .45-70 Gov’t. While it has the classic bones of the lever guns of the past, it is finished as a rifle that can perform in tactical applications.

Marlin first introduced the Dark series in 2019. In fact, it appeared on the cover of this very magazine. At the time, the Marlin brand was owned by Remington, but that company’s bankruptcy forced the sale of the Marlin marque. From the ashes of the old Remington business, Marlin once again found a home, this time with Ruger. In short order, the Dark series was brought back to life, and the rifles are even better than they were in the first run.

The new Dark comes with a 16.17-inch, cold-hammer-forged barrel. At the end sits the Marlin radial muzzle brake that can be easily removed should you want to run the gun suppressed. As with any modern rifle, shooters will want to mount an optic. Marlin answered that call and included a 23-slot, 11.25-inch rail. Of course, iron sights are still desirable, and the rifle is set up nicely. At the rear of the action, there’s a fully adjustable ghost-ring sight and at the muzzle there’s a fiber-optic front blade with a tritium enhancement for increased visibility in low light. I found the front sight very easy to acquire and believe it is a solid choice for this rifle.

Marlin Dark features

Viewed from above, the lever-action Marlin Dark doesn’t look too much different from a traditional semi-automatic carbine, with plentiful Picatinny rail space for optics, and a muzzle brake • Enlarged to aid in ejection of the big spent casings, the cavernous .45-70 Gov’t chamber fostered smooth operation • While the hammer has a lengthy spur, it’s hardly needed in normal operation of the rifle, and does have a half-cock notch for safety • Should a sound suppressor or other muzzle device be desired, Marlin’s radial muzzle brake can be removed, reveal- ing 11/16×24 tpi threads • A pushbutton safety confirms instantly whether the Marlin is ready to fire or on safe • Should you prefer iron sights over a powered or magnified optic, the pairing of a ghost- ring rear sight with a green tritium-enhanced, fiber-optic front pipe for added low-light visibility offers excellent contrast and fast acquisition.

The buttstock is one of the most eye-catching points on the carbine and is a departure from the classic wooden stock to which we are accustomed (and which the Remington Marlin Dark simply painted black to achieve a more “tactical” look). While it maintains its traditional shape and lines, it is made from nylon-reinforced polymer. The center of the stock has three cut-out M-Lok slots to allow you to mount pretty much any accessory you would need. Marlin has given this stock design some thought, and included a cheek riser should you choose to shoot with a mounted optic. It attaches easily and allows you good alignment with the glass you choose. Should you choose to run the classic iron sights, then simply skip attaching the riser and you will have excellent alignment with the iron sights. The grip is a textured insert and provides good purchase without being too aggressive, and the buttstock is finished off with an effective rubber recoil pad.

Keeping up with the “tactical” flavor, the gun includes steel studs to accept QD sling swivels. The other eye-catching aspect of the gun is the black 13.6-inch anodized aluminum handguard with M-Lok slots along the bottom and sides. Inside the handguard sits a five-round magazine tube to hold the hefty .45-70 Gov’t rounds. As with all other Marlin guns we have seen in the modern age, it comes complete with a cross-bolt safety and the traditional half-cock hammer. The bolt and lever are treated with a nitride finish for wear resistance, and the other major components are enhanced with a Graphite Black Cerakote finish for durability. Once again, Marlin has put serious thought into the gun and made it to be more than just a safe queen—it is designed to be out in the field and used.

I was excited to get it on the range and added just two items before we started. First was a Trijicon Credo 1-8×28 mm LPVO optic and a Blue Force Gear Vickers sling. The optic would serve me well when the time came to reach out at distance and the sling was purely for comfort. Ammo wise, I wanted to try three different rounds to test both accuracy as well as function. The flavors for the day were Federal Hammer Down 300-grain HP, Hornady LeveRevolution 325-grain FTX and Buffalo Bore’s 300-grain JHP. The .45-70 Gov’t round is capable at a variety of ranges, but I believe a 100-yard accuracy test would be best (and also Shooting Illustrated protocol). The winner in performance that day was Hornady’s 325-grain FTX with a group coming in at 1.35 inches. That is fantastic accuracy for the big, slow .45-70 Gov’t round. Now, understand that this was off a sandbag, using magnified optics and a rear bag to minimize human error. While it is not a sniper rifle, it is drastically more accurate than most people would initially think.

Marlin Dark features

M-Lok attachment points are plentiful on the fore-end, allowing the addition of lights, lasers, vertical or horizontal grips or any other accessory one might want to add to a handy carbine • With a removable cheekpiece, the polymer stock is actually more versatile than a prettier wooden variant • Easy to actuate, the lever is robust and accommodates gloved or just naturally large hands.

The action was smooth and I was able to run rounds at speed. The lever was finished well and had no sharp edges, making it comfortable to run. I used steel targets at ranges varying from 25 to 100 yards for the testing. With the Trijicon optic, it was easy for me to switch back and forth between my near and far targets. For those who may have not had the pleasure of running a big-bore lever gun, I suggest you take the chance to experience it. It is especially enjoyable on steel and at safe distances. The .45-70 Gov’t round has around 2,200 ft.-lbs. of energy, which is impressive. On steel, it sounds like a train hitting a wall. It is also why the round is popular in the hunting world, as its effectiveness is undeniable.

While I chose an LPVO optic for this test, I believe that there are two options for glass on the gun. If you are truly looking at it as a personal-defense rifle and nothing more, you might consider a simple, 1X red-dot optic. This will provide you with a good field-of-view and allow you to shoot with both eyes open. If you choose the hunting angle, then magnified optics are a must in my opinion. The rifle and round are capable of taking game ranging from deer and elk all the way up to brown bear inside 150 yards.

Marlin Dark shooting results

For this section of testing, I shot exclusively off-hand. This is the “worst-case scenario” in that I would not have anything on which to stabilize the gun to get every bit of accuracy out of it. In the hunting world, I would use shooting sticks or improvised rests to give me a better base.

What I found was that the gun was still quite accurate. The rubber buttstock made running the beefy .45-70 Gov’t easy and did not beat up my shoulder. Additionally, the Marlin radial muzzle brake performed well. Even though it weighs a mere 6 pounds, I had little muzzle rise with the gun. The only thing I noticed was the heat from the barrel after I got a little sporty and ran a couple of tubes very quickly. The .45-70 Gov’t round is frisky, with loads running out to about 2,000 fps, which will heat up any barrel.

Marlin Dark specsThe trigger broke consistently at 5 pounds using my trigger gauge. I did notice a slight grab in the travel of the trigger, but do not feel that it is a major flaw.

While it has a tactical vibe to it, the Dark is not a modern battle rifle. What it is, in my opinion, is a dual-purpose rifle. At 35 inches in overall length and coming in at 6 pounds, the rifle certainly has personal-protection capabilities. The .45-70 Gov’t round is without question a fight stopper. You might be wary of overpenetration, which is a concern with any rifle, but the .45-70 Gov’t round—particularly with a good, expanding bullet like the Hornady FTX—will dump its energy very quickly inside a threat and overpenetration is likely to be minimal, if it exists at all.

While I love my wooden-stocked rifles, the weather and elements can take a toll on them. Let’s face it, nobody sits around the fire talking about their ugly guns. We want our investments to maintain the same good looks they had when we first brought them home. A polymer-style stock and aluminum handguard will not even blink in the backcountry when the weather turns bad or you lean the rifle against a rock. The modern aspects of the gun will allow shooters to use high-performance optics as well as run the gun suppressed. It is truly the modernization of a classic rifle.

The Marlin Dark Series is the next step for Marlin,” said Ruger president and CEO Chris Killoy. “There is a growing demand for more modern lever rifles, and the previous Dark series rifles introduced Marlin into this space. We took a hard look at them and made several significant improvements.”

Marlin has done a good job and made the old, new again. The growing interest in lever guns is refreshing to a gun nerd like me. A unique angle of this gun is its availability around the country. While the powers that be work to unconstitutionally limit our access to semi-automatic rifles, lever-action guns are mostly left alone. Lever guns have been getting it done for the better part of 200 years now, and they still work today. While traditionalists may unjustly roll their eyes at the “tactical” aspects of the rifle, its performance is undeniable.

Marlin Dark



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