The author tests out the Marlin 1895 Dark Series, a .45-70 Gov’t lever-action with a tactical twist.
If you want to get opinions on rifles, go to a deer hunting camp. As I’m writing this, I’m sitting in a deer camp at the Lowrance Ranch in Truscott, Texas. This is mostly flat, open country, and you’d expect those who live, work and hunt this ground to be partial to a bolt-action rifle chambered for a flat-shooting cartridge. Given that, you might be surprised what the ranch hands there said about the Marlin Dark Series 1895 when I showed them a picture of it.
I limited these deer hunting cowboys to a one-word description of the Dark Series 1895. One old timer, who’d just showed me a photo of his pride and joy lever gun—a Winchester Model 71 chambered in 348 Winchester—described it as the “terminator.” Another ranch hand/hunter in a cowboy hat rambled something about a modern take on the lever gun, but when I pinned him down to one word, he called it “awesome.” Two other fellers agreed that “rugged” was the best description for this rifle. These were experienced deer hunters, right?
First, Some History
There’s no question that the new Dark Series rifle from Marlin is a modernization of the traditional lever action rifle, but what exactly does that mean, and whether you call it “modernized” or not, is all this modernization a good thing? To answer that, we have to go back in time a few years to 2019 when “Green” Marlin first introduced the Dark Series of traditional lever-action rifles.
First, and for clarification, “Green” Marlin describes the period when Marlin was owned by Remington. The new Ruger owned Marlins are “Red” Marlins, because when Ruger took over Marlin in 2020, they turned the Marlin logo Ruger red. And finally, the original North Haven, Connecticut, Marlins, are “Blue” Marlins to match the color of the logo when they were manufactured there. The 2019 Green Marlin Dark Series rifles were nothing more than an all-black version of the 336, 1894 and 1895 models, with an XS Sights lever rail installed.
These guns were well received, but they were not enough to save Marlin—or Remington—from bankruptcy.
The first rifle in the new Green Marlin Dark Series is the Model 1895, but Marlin says a Dark Series Model 336 and 1894 should be out sometime in 2024. The only similarity these new rifles have to the originals are the name, base model numbers, a half-cock hammer, the now common cross-bolt safety and their color. Marlin has substantially changed just about everything else, and these changes have altered the look, but more importantly the user interface.
Probably the most notable modernization is the absence of a wood forend. In its place, there’s a 135/8-inch anodized aluminum handguard with M-Lok slots around its circumference. In addition to the multitude of M-Lok slots, on the front end of the handguard, there’s two QD sling swivel sockets. The rifle is also fitted with a nicely contoured midsize finger lever, and the lever and bolt are finished in black nitride. The other important metal parts have a graphite black Cerakote finish.
The buttstock has also been modernized and is made of nylon-reinforced polymer, and it reattains the traditional shape. However, at the wrist, there are textured, removable grip inserts and a thick rubber recoil pad. The buttstock is dished out in the center where you’ll find three M-Lok slots. At the top rear of the buttstock, there’s a steel QD sling stud on each side, but this stud is also there to allow for the attachment of a polymer comb riser that comes with the rifle.
The rifle’s muzzle is threaded at 11/16×24, and it comes with a radial port break. But if you’re like me and despise these noisy abominations, you can unscrew it and replace it with the thread protector that comes with the rifle. Just behind the muzzle break is a high-profile fiber-optic front sight that’s encased inside a circle of Tritium for optimum visibility in low light. Further back on the barrel you run into the front of a 23-slot, 11¼-inch rail that extends all the way back to the receiver where you’ll find a fully adjustable ghost ring sight.
Because user interface is so important to a rifle, let’s delve into it. The buttstocks on traditional lever-action rifles and this new Dark Series are configured to best allow you to maintain a good cheek weld while using open sights. The problem comes when you mount a riflescope. This requires you to raise your cheek from the stock, and this complicates fast action and accurate shooting.
To solve this problem with the Dark Series, Marlin has configured a snap-on polymer cheek piece that’s held in place by the two QD sling swivel studs and the detent in the dished-out portion of the stock. This riser will allow you to get a good cheek weld when shooting a low-mounted optic.
The sight/optics rail also improves user interface. The integral ghost ring that’s paired with the high-visibility front sight is ideal for snap shooting at close range. And the rail will allow for the mounting of a traditional riflescope, a scout scope or a variety of red-dot sights. I tested the rifle with a Leupold VX-Freedom intermediate eye relief scope mounted just so the ocular bell was forward of the ghost ring sight. With QD rings, this allowed for easy on and off and near immediate access to the open sights.
The handguard also helps with user interface. It helps cut total rifle weight somewhat but more importantly its M-Lok compatibility allows for the attachment of a light or laser, which would be ideal for hunting feral hogs. I mounted a Spartan Precision bipod attachment to the bottom of the rail, which allows for interface with their excellent tripod or their super lightweight bipod.
Up until now, this has been something that was very difficult to do with a traditional lever gun. I also liked the ability to attach a QD sling swivel to the handguard, and the fact that I could sling up tightly with a shooting sling without the point of impact shifting. This shift in point of impact is something that’s common with traditional lever guns when you snug up tightly with a shooting sling.
It’s rare that I test a new rifle and like everything about it. This is partly due to my taste in rifles, but also partly because some rifles are just not made all that well. I’ve tested every new Marlin rifle that’s been produced since Ruger took ownership. Personal taste aside, I’m confident in saying these Red Marlins are the best Marlins ever made. Still, I had two complaints with the new Dark Series rifle.
The first was with the trigger. The triggers on all of the other Red Marlins have been somewhere between good and excellent, but the trigger on this rifle had just a little hitch right at the beginning of the press. From the bench, it was easy enough to manage but it did interfere a bit with off-hand shooting. It also broke right at 5 pounds. In my experience, this is the exception as opposed to the rule with these new Red Marlins. If it was my rifle—and it just might soon be—I’d send it to Jerry Dove at Dove Guns for some trigger work. With just a bit of TLC, this trigger would be just fine.
The other issue was with the snap-on polymer comb. First, it was a bit tedious to get the comb to snap in place. On the other hand, when installed it locked on solidly with no movement or shifting at all. However, while messing with it—possibly a bit rougher than I should have been—I broke off one of the flanges that holds the comb in place. Surprisingly, this didn’t interfere with a solid fit, and Marlin had me another comb in the mail the next day.
Traditional Versus Modern
Through the years, Marlin and even Winchester have tried to modernize the lever gun, usually with the introduction of new, flatter-shooting and harder-hitting cartridges, like the .307 Winchester or .308 Marlin Express. Though initially these cartridges created some buzz, they were by most measures, commercial failures.
Admittedly, I’m a lover of the traditional lever-action rifle and traditional lever-action cartridges. Also, admittedly, I don’t think this rifle looks very traditional. However, I do think it’s very well configured to appeal to the modern shooter or to any serious big-game hunter.
The way Marlin has designed the new Dark Series rifle, it’s ideally adapted to do anything a hunter could think about doing with a lever-action rifle in .45-70. In fact, it will allow a hunter to do things with a traditional lever action rifle that were nearly impossible before. I think the Texas cowboys I’ve been sharing camp with are mostly right.
This is an awesome looking and ruggedly built lever-action rifle, that in .45-70 is suitable for hunting and terminating anything on Earth. Now let us patiently wait for the Model 336 and 1894 Dark Series rifles. With apologies to AC/DC, you could say these new rifles are “back in black.”
Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the February 2024 issue of Gun Digest the Magazine.
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