Marlin 1895 SBL
- By Pete Moore
- 0 Comments
- Last updated: 10/06/2023
In terms of lever-action rifles, although the buzzword is still Winchester, its greatest rival was Marlin, who launched their first lever action in 1894. The major difference and key to its future success was the closed-topped, side-ejecting action, which made for a generally stronger build, allowing more powerful calibres and later on scope mounting possibilities. All subsequent models followed this blueprint. Born again and again In 2007, Remington bought Marlin and moved the factory, but these Remington/Marlins were not of the quality of the originals. Remington went bankrupt in 2020 and Ruger stepped in, bought Marlin and relaunched it. First off the blocks is the 1895 SBL (stainless big loop). Chambered in 45-70, it offers a compact and hard hitting package for those needing a practical rifle that packs a punch! Introduced in 1873, it was originally a black powder number and has survived for 149 years, and as we shall see, has undergone somewhat of a metamorphosis in terms of ballistics. There are three 1895 models currently available, all in 45-70 only - the SBL, Trapper and Guide Gun, that only differ in the finish, dimensions and sighting systems. Notable is the fact that Marlin’s other cartridges, the 308, 338 Express, 444 and 450 Marlin are no longer shown. Coming soon will be the model 336, chambered in 30-30 Winchester and 35 Remington. Also, the pistol calibre 1894, which I assume will be available in 357 and 44 Magnum. Sadly, the 22LR 39A lever-action is not shown.
The rifle is eye-catching, to say the least, with its polished, all-stainless barreled action and grey/black laminate furniture. This makes it very much an all-weather option. With its 19.1” barrel, the SBL tips the scale at 7.3 lbs (barebacked) and is a handy, shootable and hard-hitting package at 37.25” long. Let’s be honest, it’s pretty hard to deviate from the traditional lever action design and there’s little need to do so, as it’s very much fit for purpose! And Marlin has stuck with what they know. Some might criticize the fixed tube magazine, saying it’s low in capacity and slow to load, but that would be missing the point, as for its role, it’s entirely practical. So, let’s look at what’s old and proven and what’s new and adds to shootability. The cylindrical bolt is now fluted, which probably makes the action a bit slicker, as it better resists the build-up of foreign objects getting inside and slowing it down. As before, it locks at the rear by a single rising lug, operated by the SBL lever. The SBL lever itself allows full access and easy operation by a gloved hand, without sacrificing tactility. This improves operation in cold weather, which is attested to by the gun’s popularity amongst game guides and hunters in colder climates like Alaska. Plus, in normal conditions, it offers no impediment.
The 1895 uses an external hammer, which offers full and half cock, the latter giving a physical safety, as you can carry it with one up the spout and nothing can happen until you pull it back. There’s also an applied safety in the form of a cross-bolt button at the rear of the receiver, which pushes right to left to FIRE and reverses for SAFE. Here, you can carry it at full cock and just flip the safety off to shoot. Loading is by a gate on the right of the action and it does feel smoother in operation than I remember, as sliding in those big 45-70 shells was slick and fast. Capacity is 6+1 and the magazine follower is a hi-visibility orange, so it’s easier to see when it’s empty. The trigger is not bad and breaks at a reasonably crisp 4-5 lbs and I found it perfectly adequate. I am sure that with use, it would run itself in a bit. The laminate furniture offers a good bit of girth to hang onto. The butt shows a low comb and thick rubber recoil pad, which is appreciated. However, the 13.38” length of pull is a tad short. The forend is full and both items have some nicely aggressive chequering applied. QD sling studs are fitted fore and aft.
Most notable is the change in sighting systems from the original and traditional, semi-buckhorn, elevator wedge rear and brass-tipped front blade. As standard, the SBL comes with a long Picatinny rail over the action and rear of the barrel. As can be imagined, mounting any type of optic is a doddle, from a red dot to a scout or a traditional scope. The rifle came with a Leupold 1-5x24, which for me was pretty much ideal, fitting in nicely with its ethos. But it doesn’t stop there, as iron sights are also included. At the rear of the rail is a Skinner adjustable ghost ring and up front, a tall, fixed blade with a green, hi-vis, Tritium fibre optic insert. The aperture is large and easy to centre and see around, plus the insert literally glows in all lighting conditions, making it quick to place on the target. One thing though, if you want to fit a scope, then you need to fit high mounts if you don’t want to have to remove the ghost ring, which I think is a bit of a waste as it’s a practical and bomb-proof system.
The barrel is a big lump of metal and at sub-20”, a little short. My choice would have been 22”, but hey, that’s the way it is! Pleasingly for a lever-action, the muzzle is threaded 11/16x24, so moderators or even muzzle brakes are an option. Also, Marlin has dropped its signature Microgroove rifling system for a standard, 6-groove, 1-20” twist rate. So, that’s the 1895 SBL, a really sweet and well-made rifle that is once again offering a top-quality product, worthy of the name. If I have one niggle, and I always do, I’d have preferred a matte stainless finish, as that shiny steel is very bright and reflective.
Now, the best bit, shooting and ballistics. The 45-70 has a bit of a split personality, as an original black powder cartridge designed for the Trapdoor Springfield rifle, it was quite lowpowered to suit the gun’s action. The popularity of the calibre and advances in design have allowed it to be stoked up a little in stronger actions like the 1895, plus modern single shots. So much so in the latter, with reloading, you can be approaching 458 Win Mag levels. Reloading data indicates this with LOW, MEDIUM and HIGH recipes to suit the various gun types. The 1895 sits in the middle class and can easily accommodate modern factory ammo.
Up until Hornady, literally, reinvented the wheel for tube magazine rifles, all hunting ammo was either jacketed or soft-tipped in either flat, round or hollow point configurations. This was done to negate the possibility of a ‘chain detonation’ in the magazine under recoil when using a more ballistically efficient, pointed bullet. The view is that if a point was sitting on the primer of the round above it, recoil forces could/might cause it to hit the primer and ignite the cartridge. Not an ideal situation! What Hornady did was invent a pointed, polymer-tipped bullet that gave a higher/better BC (ballistic coefficient) and also negated the risk of a chain detonation, as the tip was not hard enough to ignite the primer. So, Lever Evolution Flex Tip ammo was born. The higher BC means better down range power and accuracy potential, thus elevating the lever-action from a short to a medium-range proposition - genius!
Importers, Viking Arms, provided the classic hunting load, a 405-grain, jacketed-flat-nose from Sellier & Bellot. The 45-70 is never going to win any medals for sprinting and below 2000 fps, energy on paper seems unimpressive. Plus, the SBL’s short 19.1” tube is not ideal, so expect a significant drop-off from any factory quote. For example, the S&B load quotes 1509 fps, but over the chrono that dropped 100 fps to give 1802 ft/lbs. But that big 405-grain bullet carries a lot of grunt in weight alone and that’s what does the killing. The original 405-grain, lead Trapdoor black powder load is running around 1300 fps and produces just 1500 ft/lbs, and it will take large deer species like Elk with consummate ease! The real eye-opener was some Hornady 325-grain Lever Evolution FTX ammo. Sprinting along at an average of 2000 fps, it generated 3066 ft/lbs and produced some lovely 0.519” cloverleaf groups at 50 yards. However, the S&B managed 0.683”, so not too shabby either. The FTX adds improved energy and trajectory, plus recoil is up a little, but I know which one I’d pick!
I’m biased and being a big lever-action and 45-70 fan, I am very impressed with the Ruger Marlin collaboration. But the question remains, what do you do with one in the UK? It will drop any deer, antelope or boar on the planet, but I think the barrel could be longer. 22” would be great, but for me, 24” would be perfect, so I could squeeze every ft/lb and fps out of it. Whatever, it’s a cracking rifle!