Marlin’s Magnificent Model 39
The Marlin 39A - Photo courtesy Lew Bonitz, Grizzly Custom Guns
It is without a doubt the coolest rimfire rifle in the world that no one is talking about. Marlin says “It has been in continuous production longer than any other rifle in America”. In an age where everyone is talking about the latest heavy barreled version of the Ruger 10/22, there remains a silent knowing minority of serious rimfire shooters who hold to their unaltered, out-of-the-box Marlin 39, knowing it’s the “best” rimfire rifle in existence.
Now let’s remember that we I say “best” I’m always talking of a very subjective term, and one person’s best could be another person’s worst. If we live in a world where “best” is defined by how many rifle matches are won by a given rifle, then the Marlin 39 probably doesn’t even get a mention. If “best” is most accurate, fastest shooting, has most accessories, or most tricked out; the ancient Model 39 again doesn’t even make the list, let alone the top rung.
If we’re talking about the more practical minded type of individual that requires sure-as-the-sun-rises reliability, “adult” rifle fit and handling, a butter smooth action, very good accuracy with a wide variety of ammunition, the flexibility to even load combinations of ammo (I mean a magazine holding a .22 Stinger, a .22 shot cartridge, a .22 short, a standard velocity .22 long, a .22 CB cap … well, you get the picture) in any weather, under any condition, all while looking better than most any other .22 rifle in existence – then there’s one rifle at the top of that list, Marlin’s magnificent Model 39.
With the engineering advances of today – things like Computer Aided drafting, computer modeling, and CNC machine equipment – it’s really amazing that a rifle that started out life in 1890 is still at the top of any list. Yet, the Marlin 39 still ranks as the cream of the crop in lever action .22’s; if you ask this writer, it’s in the elite class of any .22 rimfire rifle.
The History of the Marlin Model 39
Seizing on the near universal popularity of the lever action rifle and the mass market success of the .22 rimfire cartridge, John Marlin chose to be one of the first to pair the two together. Settling on an L.L. Hepburn patent of 1890, Marlin commenced production of the model of 1891, which eventually evolved into the Model 39 we know and love today. The original 1891 had a loading gate on the side of the receiver reminiscent of such notable lever action rifles as the Winchester Model 94 and that other Marlin classic, the Model 336. While the 1891 loaded through a loading gate, it took a special loading tube to fill the magazine due to the tiny size of the .22 cartridge. This “feature” proved unpopular, so in 1892 Marlin changed to the front loading tubular magazine seen on today’s rifle.
Photo courtesy Lew Bonitz, Grizzly Custom Guns
The solid top receiver was originally rounded, but was changed to a flat top design in the 1892 model and came drilled and tapped from the factory to accept another L.L. Hepburn patent – the adjustable peep sight, which became available as an option on all Marlin lever action rifles. At that time, all Marlin .22’s came blued with case hardened hammers and action levers. The 1891 rifle had a removable side plate, much like the removable side plates on modern DA revolvers.
In the 1890’s, the big competition in the rimfire repeater market was another absolute classic, Winchester’s famous 1890 pump action rifle. The 1890 Winchester had an advantage over the Marlin lever action rifle in that the Winchester was a takedown. Admittedly not a necessary feature, but I dare you to find me anyone who doesn’t think a takedown gun is cooler than a non-takedown.
So to keep up with the Jones’ (or in the case, the Winchesters’), Marlin took the 1897’s the removable side plate and made it part of the tang of the rear receiver and turned the little rifle into a takedown model, as it remains today.
The 1897 became the Model 39 in 1921 and eventually the 39A in 1937. Since then, there have been several different versions of the Model 39 built on the same basic action. A mainstay of Marlin lever action rifles is a cleverly designed lever that also serves as the locking mechanism, greatly simplifying the design.
Modern Design Changes
Skip to 1983 and we see the most recent significant change; undoubtedly prompted by non-shooting lawyers, Marlin added a cross-bolt safety on the off chance the general public was too dumb to figure out how to operate the half-cock safety that had been working just fine for the previous three centuries or so. Hey, lawyers serve a purpose, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it when they muck with a classic rifle that wasn’t in need of dumbing down.
The good news is, even with the addition of the cross-bolt safety, the basic rifle remains the same. The one downside of the cross bolt safety is the change to a rebounding hammer that always returns to a “half-cock” position. Rebounding hammers are nothing new; they came into common usage back in the late 1870s to early 1880s in fine double guns. The problem with the rebounding hammer of the Marlin 39 is that it’s not unheard of for the hammer strike to be insufficient to set off the cartridge. As a result, an extra power hammer spring has been a popular addition to the post-1983 Marlin 39s.
Now although I say it’s not unheard of, don’t be fooled into thinking that your average Marlin 39 has a habit of going click instead of bang, because like I said in the beginning of this article, this is one superbly reliable piece of hardware.
The 39 today
As one of the most successful sporting rifles in the history of sporting rifles, you can and should expect a lot from this rifle. When you pick up a Marlin 39, you feel the familiar heft of walnut and steel; a feeling that is becoming increasingly uncommon. The human engineering is so evident when it eases into your shoulder seemingly all by itself, sights magically falling into alignment as your cheek hits the comb of the stock. The 39 is a lightweight gun, but unlike so many tiny .22s, it’s not so light that you can’t hold her steady.
The most common iteration of the Marlin 39 encountered today is the full sized rifle with 24″ heavy barrel. Between the length of the 39’s barrel and the short receiver, the overall size, weight and balance is very similar to the .30-30 caliber model 336 centerfire rifle, making the 39 a perfect understudy for the larger centerfire gun. A hunter armed with a model 39 and a 336 is well armed indeed, ready to hunt most North American game from squirrel on up to black bear or larger, depending on which iteration of the 336 you choose.
Photo courtesy Lew Bonitz, Grizzly Custom Guns
The 39’s 1 turn in 16″ “Micro-Groove” rifling is Marlin’s proprietary system of rifling a barrel that came about in the 1950s. Of course, Marlin touted their “Micro-Groove” rifling as superior to all other types of rifling. As time would prove, “Micro-Groove” rifling was really no better than any other rifling type, but it certainly was no worse. Whether it be in .22LR, .30-30, .44 Magnum, or .444 Marlin, “Micro-Grooved” barrels performed very well for most calibers and most bullet types.
The “Micro-Grooved” barrels proved less popular in the larger calibers (.35 cal and larger) because users of such large bore rifles often liked to use cast bullets, and reports of poor performance with cast bullets in “Micro-Grooved” barrels abounded. I have never personally used cast bullets in a “Micro-Groove” barrel, so I really can’t say whether this is true or not. What I do know is, plain lead bullets in a .22 caliber “Micro-Groove” barrel shoot wonderfully, so all-lead bullets in your Model 39 is no issue whatsoever! And while Marlin has moved away from “Micro-Groove” on their large bore guns, they have stuck with “Micro-Groove” on their .22s and I’ve yet to hear anyone complain; all the Marlin .22s shoot exceptionally well indeed.
Topping that nice heavy 24″ barrel is a brass bead front and semi-buckhorn rear sight that are a welcome upgrade from what is found on other, similar rifles. The front sight is actually a solid piece of brass that has been painted black, leaving the face of the bead the natural gold brass color. The front sight is adjustable via a drift punch for windage. The rear sight is a leaf with a very slight semi-buckhorn shape that makes for a very nice sight picture. Windage adjustment is also accomplished by drifting the sight to the right or left in its dovetail. Elevation adjustment is via a step “ladder” down the center of the sight. One will notice
that there is no “fine” adjustment center piece like that found on a Marble’s style open sight. This is not a problem, as the adjustment ladder has several more “steps” than the comparable Marble’s style sight, ensuring that the shooter will always be able to zero his rifle with his favorite load.
Since the afore-mentioned Hepburn peep sight is (unfortunately for us) a relic lost to the past, the top of the slab sided receiver is drilled and tapped for a scope base that is included with your new rifle. The 39 is also factory drilled and tapped on the side of the receiver for a more modern Williams, Redfield or Lyman receiver sight, something that is all but completely lost on new American rifles. Receiver mounted aperture sights were very common in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, but as peep sights gave way to scopes, factory drilled and tapped receiver sight accommodations faded away with them. I have many fond memories of my 39 equipped with a Williams FP (Fool Proof) receiver sight and a good collection of different sight apertures for any and all situations.
The stock and forend are nearly identical to those found on the 336, made of honest-to-goodness American Black Walnut for that classic American lever rifle look. The butt is finished with a hard rubber (or plastic) butt plate and the forend is capped with a steel end cap. Both butt and forend include quick detach sling swivels which just tells the shooter; “I’m ready to hunt.”
And hunt I did…
Scoped Marlin 39A with a Harvested Rockchuck
Personal Experiences with the Marlin 39
I bought my Marlin 39 in 1984, just after the addition of the cross-bolt safety. Since I’ve always had an affinity for iron sighting instruments, I fitted mine with the outstanding Williams FP peep sight, and set off on my cottontail Jihad. For over 20 years, I have hunted and shot this Marlin 39, until I managed to actually wear it out.
My Marlin 39 was owned during the peak of my shooting years, and if I went shooting (and I did that a lot), my Marlin 39 went with me, along with 500 rounds of whatever was cheap. Every outing saw a minimum of 500 rounds, and often more than that. In that time, I had the occasional failure to extract, which was easily cured by pressing a key firmly against the extractor while slowly sliding the bolt open. And on the odd occasion mine would fail to set off a round (remember, mine was a very early rebounding hammer gun), so I eventually swapped out the hammer spring for an extra power unit and that problem went away.
Cleaning came once or twice a year and that was it. When I got rid of it, the first 2 ½” of barrel had almost no perceivable rifling, yet you could still hit a squirrel at 25 yards. Getting the chance to swap it out for a barely used Browning BL-22 I jumped at the chance. The BL-22 is a nice little rifle, but not nearly as nice as the Marlin 39; I will be picking up another 39 someday.
Accuracy is excellent, and it’s a rare model 39 that won’t put all of its shots inside of 2″ at 50 yards with most any load. However, it’s still a good idea to grab a wide assortment of rimfire ammunition and spend some quality time at the bench to determine what the best load is for your rifle.
Even after 110 years, the Marlin 39 still enjoys brisk sales. While certainly not cheap, the Marlin’s time-tested design, superior accuracy and well-thought-out aesthetics make it an excellent value indeed. As I said in the beginning of this article, it’s the coolest .22 rifle that no one is talking about these days. I hope to add one to my collection again someday.
[Editor's Note: A special thanks to Lew Bonitz of Grizzly Custom Guns and to Guy Miner for the use of their photographs for this article.]