Field Review: Marlin 1894 CST .357 Magnum Lever-Action Rifle

posted on April 20, 2020
Personally, I have always been fond of the lever action rifle finding it to be the most pragmatic of design for general use.  While no doubt the notion of a "general purpose rifle" goes to the Scout Rifle, and for the definition Cooper assigned to it, yet my standard was somewhat different. Despite being an avid outdoorsman and hunter, my life has been spent mostly in and, around an urban environment of one type or another working. Early in my career as executive protection, use of a long arm was centered around a vehicle. This being in the middle of the infamous Assault Weapons Ban, I experimented with a Ruger Mini-14, a folding stocked Remington 870 and a Marlin 1894 chambered in 44 Magnum. The Marlin turned out to be preferred. Its flat frame and short length would allow me to slide it between the console and driver's seat, along the door jamb, or most frequently under the second row seat of my Principal's Yukon. If everything went to hell in a vehicle ambush scenario and we had to abandon said vehicle, I could pull both Principal and rifle out in two basic movements. 
In the wee morning hours, before wrapping up and heading to my Jeep, I often walked the property that was several acres in size. Having fashioned a sling that, when clipped onto the rear swivel, would ride diagonally in the old lanyard loop style, tucked out of the way, with my hand on the rifle's barrel this allowed it to be partially concealed it along the length of my body. It was sized so that the rifle could still be swung into action and shouldered quickly. I became a dyed-in-the-wool lever-gun aficionado, especially one chambered in a handgun cartridge.
I never got on with the 44 Magnum. The recoil wasn't substantial, it was deadly from five to one hundred yards, it certainly had enough, shall we say, "ballistic performance" down range and was more than accurate. It was not, however, all that economical to shoot. Yet, for some reason I just didn't care for cartridge/gun combinations. I have yet to figure out why.  Then in the fall of 2005 I acquired a companion piece to it,  an early '80s Marlin 1894 in .357 Magnum. A couple of years later the 44 Magnum Marlin was sold off to a Texan, the .357 Magnum remained and became my preferred long arm for social purposes.
Late last Winter word came that Marlin had finally brought about the return of the 1894 in 357 Magnum, albeit reconfigured for the modern era. April's arrival of a cardboard box that was about so long and yeah wide, with bold blue lettering that read Marlin, revealed a small, stainless lever gun chambered in the not quite yet hundred year old .357 Magnum inside. A knurled thread protector on the end of the barrel tells the story of how the tide has turned, where just a couple of decades ago suppressors were a rarity and having a barrel threaded required a gunsmith. Today's gun market shows the common usage of these noise reducing, hearing protectors so much so that one almost has to work to find a barrel not threaded. Unlike the lever guns of old, the barrel bands that once held magazine tube to barrel has been replaced with a stainless steel wedge dovetailing the two together. Also gone are the old semi-buckhorn rear sight and gold bead front sight. Instead the little carbine is fitted with an XS Ghost Ring rear sight mounted to the receiver and a tall, white lined ramp front sight, that is easily picked up. Where the traditional semi-buckhorn sights once strode atop the barrel is instead fitting with a dovetail sight blank, so that if so desired one could tap out the sight blank and use the space to install a Scout Scope mount.
Several years back, Marlin started utilizing the enlarged lever loops on their rifles, the 1894 model included. I've handled a variety of the enlarged lever loops both factory and custom over the years and, there is a bit of an art to getting the loop size just right. Too small and, they can be a chore for larger gloved hands to get into, too large and the lever throws longer than necessary and makes fast follow up shots a challenge. This one however is just right, with the most open portion of the loop extending out to the same point as the trigger guard. At one point I put on an old pair of snowmobile mittens and they slid into the loop without resistance. Follow-up shots on target cycled with short, quick, perfection with the loop not throwing too long and, not worrying about short-stroking the action. Also departing from the traditional straight stock grip, as found on my vintage 1894, the newest incarnation is fitted with a pistol grip stock. I've always been back and forth on pistol grip stocks on a lever gun, especially pistol caliber ones, with the enlarged lever loop the pistol grip seems more a natural fit as well as looking aesthetically appropriate. 
The rifle's first real range session wasn't a formal one. Shortly after its arrival, I left for an annual three-day camp trip with some friends. For the last ten years we've retreated into the Ozark mountains to camp, shoot and eat. With most of us having replaced our tents with hammocks, there in camp, stand a brace of pines that I claim usage to. One bearing a rather stout nail to hang my "camp" rifle from. In most cases this has been either a Winchester 94 or Marlin 336 chambered in .30-30, and suspended via rifle sling, in the barrel up position. Since the little 1894 Marlin comes equipped with sling swivels on both the butt stock and forearm, my old Browning horse hair sling that serves as a general purpose sling was pressed into service. 
When it wasn't suspended from the trunk of the pine at camp, it was on the range where it was passed around and shot with somewhere in the area of two hundred and fifty to three hundred rounds of .38 Special and .357 Magnum from distances of fifteen to just over fifty yards. Soda cans, and steel plates of the six, eight and ten inch variety were utilized. All rounds fed and fired. Factory or hand-load, target rounds or defensive JHPs. Shooting freehand to connect with the eight and ten inch plates at fifty-something yards was never an issue with the XS Ghost rings. The only thing I did notice, was after an extensive amount of shooting you did want to pay attention to the thread protector working itself loose to the touch. On the walk back to camp it required a good snug twist. Though probably not necessary I do wonder if a tiny set screw wouldn't be a good idea on the protector. Seven or eight years ago, I lost the thread protector to a Browning Buckmark .22 that was stowed a tanker holster, as the Business Partner and I were doing some consulting work in the desert along the U.S./Mexico border. After that I've become conscious of the potential loss of all thread protectors in the field. 

Marlin 1894 and revolvers
Late June and into the early part of July found the Wife, the Kid, the Dog and myself camped out in the Sawtooths of Idaho, more than a thousand miles from home. Over time I've learned to become not only conscious about the guns I pack, but more practical. There's always the "harbinger of doom" mindset that persists in the back of my mind, that has in the past found me tossing in a self-loading application rifle and six, thirty round magazines, in the with the rest of the gear. That was not the methodology I followed on this trip. Instead, my three inch, Smith & Wesson 686+ along with the Marlin 1894 both chambered for the 357 magnum, and a couple of others, one being a Remington TAC14. 
Contrary to what you may have been led to believe, a lever-action rifle chambered in a revolver cartridge is not the antiquated concept some have made it out to be. For the modern "tactical" shooter, the lever-action rifle is often viewed as a "if that's all you have" kind of rifle, with some simply being unable to see past the "cowboy gun". The simple reality is the lever-action rifle was in fact the first real "tactical" firearm, and saw use among law enforcement, and counter revolutionaries well into the twentieth century on both the North and South American continents. Unlike lever guns chambered for rifle cartridges, those chambered in handgun cartridges come with myriad tactical advantages. Recoil is completely manageable, and the shorter lever throw allows one to stay on the gun while manipulating the action. Being manually operated also means that one can load the lightest to heaviest available factory or hand-loads without concern of  feeding malfunctions. The rifle is about as compact as you can get, yet it has robust sights that, once dialed in, essentially create a fixed-sight rifle. With a magazine capacity of 8+1 (that can be topped off as you go), the compact carbine bears all the hallmarks of being a practical defensive firearm. 

Prior to the trip, a friend asked me if I was worried about "bears", meaning Grizzly, as they are in Idaho. My solution was to keep the rifle's magazine loaded with Buffalo Bore's 180-grain Heavy Outdoorsman. If we were to encounter a bear of either ilk, it would be at bad breath distance and I felt confident that if that tougher-than-pine-knotted Guide in Alaska could anchor a coastal Grizzly with a 9mm Smith & Wesson loaded heavy, then Marlin's 357 Magnum carbine would most likely handle anything four legged in the lower 48, and certainly two legged.  I have never shot a bear, neither Grizzly nor Panda, in self-defense, but I think that too much has been devoted to the "bear gun" notion by people who know next to little about bears. If it came to it, the rifle and I would either get it done, or we would not. 
At night, camped at the foot of a mountain with the only light coming from either a Coleman lantern or campfire, the stainless steel carbine was slung off the back of my camp chair. Finally, after taking in all the stars we could for the evening we would retire to the inside of our small camper. With nothing in the chamber, the fixed magazine stoked full, the little gun would lay between the wall and my leg. Should things have gone upside down I wanted to be able to start and end the fracas with a rifle in my hands. Not work my way back to it.
There is no such thing as an ideal rifle, let alone handgun. Anyone who has studied the notion understands this. Wherever you might win in one area you lose in another. The Marlin 1894 chambered in 357 Magnum is not a lot of things. It's not a long distance precision rifle. It's not a door kicking, thirty round mag, dynamic entry gun, but then again the door kicking tactical carbine isn't a long range precision rifle, and the precision rifle isn't for dynamic entry. What the diminutive lever gun does well is be itself, and in the course of things handle many separate tasks. Loaded with 38 Specials, it is far from being obnoxiously loud, and easy enough to handle that it rivals the .22 for recreational shooting. It can defend a camp site, or an urban apartment, loaded up to Magnum power for one, down to .38 Special for another -- its manual operation is not reliant upon piston, gas nor recoil.
A year into living with two Marlin 1894's chambered for the 357 Magnum, one vintage and one a very modern rendition, I like both equally. Were I to find myself living a nomadic lifestyle of tent and truck in the most minimalist of fashion, traveling from one end of the country to the other, through any number of jurisdictions, or downsizing for one reason or another to a point where I required a rifle to fill all roles, I know my choice. Marlin's little 357 Magnum, all stainless steel lever action bears the capability to be it. Recreational shooter, Urban Defensive Carbine, Wilderness Survival Rifle, take your pick. It will do all that you ask, if you keep the questions reasonable.


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