Mad Ogre spent last week on Twitter praising the new Marlin rifles produced by Ruger displayed at SHOT.

If you read the internet, the consensus is Marlin was a great company that made great guns, Remington bought them and destroyed them, Ruger bought Marlin from Remington after Remington went bankrupt, and the Ruger ones are great.

There is a lot more to that story.  I’ve been sitting on it for a while and it’s time it gets told.

Everyone loves their Connecticut-made Marlin rifles.

The Connecticut-made guns were some of the last, probably the last, gunsmith-built guns in volume production in the country.  Marlin rifles were assembled by men with gray beards, sitting at workbenches with files, fitting the guns together to make them work.

That may have worked well back in the day, but that’s not how modern guns are manufactured.  Go to a modern firearms manufacturing facility, it’s like any other manufacturing facility, parts come off machining and finishing and go to assembly, where they are put together.

None of the automotive manufacturers are having workers hand-fit components during assembly.  That’s not how it works.

It’s just not profitable to have skilled people hand-fitting parts at high wages.  The gun companies that do sell hand-fit guns do so at low volume and high prices.  They are custom or at least semi-custom guns.  Not production guns.

The way Marlin built guns was the way they built guns when they first started building these new models in the 1970s (the Model 1985, for instance, was named for the original 1895 but was designed in 1972).  Much of the equipment was dated to that same era.

That was one of the big problems.  The old men with gray beards who did that were retiring or dying.  They couldn’t train younger people to build guns like that at assembly wages.  An assembly tech is not a gunsmith.  Marlin, on its own, didn’t have much of a future under its business model.  They just couldn’t meet demand building guns the way they did.

The goal in the acquisition of Marlin by Remington was to turn Marlin into a modern production gun company so that it could be cost-competitive.

Henry rifles are not hand-fit.  They are assembled from parts made to spec on modern CNC equipment and designed with GD&T (geometric dimensioning and tolerancing) to work.  They will tell you that during their factory tour.

When Remington got hold of Marlin, nobody knew just how much work needed to go into a Marlin rifle to get it to run reliably.  Remington moved production out of Connecticut and it didn’t go smoothly.

The job of turning Marlin from old-school, making parts and fit at assembly, into a modern machine and assemble production fell onto Remington R&D.

When Remington R&D got the old prints from Marlin and plugged them into AUTOCAD, quite often, the CAD software spit them back out for being over-dimensionalized, under-dimensionalized, having no or bad datums, etc.

I’ve written about the NASA Artemis before.  Why NASA was asked why they were creating a new rocket instead of just building the Saturn V again.  Their response was that they couldn’t.  Each Saturn V was fit at assembly.  They didn’t know what was done by the engineers between what was off-print and what they did to make the engines work.  Most of the engineers who made Saturn V were dead and they took their tribal knowledge to the grave with them.  It was easier to start over with CAD than try to decipher the old prints and handwritten notes and put them together into a working engine.

Well, Marlin was exactly like that, except Remington couldn’t start over because people wanted the guns they knew.

There were other problems as well.  Many of the old Marlin vendors (companies that made small parts like screws and springs) had gone out of business.  The old companies often made parts that worked but were different from the prints, because years ago they tweaked something at the request of Marlin but never noted it.  Parts made by newer vendors using old prints didn’t function.

Remington R&D started with the premier gun, the Model 1895 in 45-70, and effectively re-invented the inside of that gun with all-new GD&T.  At some points old guns that were made to work were reverse-engineered to figure out what corners were broken, what surfaces filed down, what had been changed from print to get the guns to work.

After the Model 1895, the Model 336 was next, then the Model 1894, and so on, until every gun in the Marlin lineup had been fully modernized.

Herein lies the problem.

While R&D was doing this, a process that took years, Remington was still building Marlin rifles and trying to get them to run in production.  The decision was made, for better or worse, that production of Marlin was not going to be stopped during the refresh.  The idea was if Marlins were not on the shelf during that time, Henry would just come along and eat Marlin’s lunch, take its market share, and Marlin would never be able to get its ground back after disappearing from store shelves for a few years.  As a result, there were Marlin rifles of less than stellar functionality that went to consumers.

Later year Remington made Marlins, the ones produced from the new prints created by Remington R&D are great guns.  They work well, but that is eclipsed by the reputation Remington made Marlins developed in the early years of production.

Everyone knows what happened next, Remington went bankrupt and Ruger bought Marlin.

They didn’t just buy the name, however, they bought all the work done by Remington R&D.  The new prints, the new specs, the new G&D, the designs designed to be manufactured on modern CNC equipment and put together at assembly that work without hand-fitting.

There is a lot more detail and complication in the story of why Marlin had quality issues than just “Remington made shit.”

Much of it has to do with prints that were a half-century old, designed to be made on equipment that was half a century out of date, and a style of manufacturing that was obsolete by half a century, and the engineering challenges of trying to modernize a legacy product while simultaneously trying to produce it.

Ruger Marlins work and they work well, but that’s not all just Ruger.  It was years of work put in by Remington R&D engineers behind the scenes and it was a labor of love for all involved with it.

That’s the truth the internet has never told you.

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By J. Kb

5 thoughts on “The story of Marlin you have never heard”
  1. Fascinating. And makes perfect sense.
    The problem of tribal knowledge – great term for it – beinf lost is not limited to guns. I first heard of it re Triumph motorcycles, and often run into it at large facilities that have been around for a while. The designers and builders were thinking 20-yesr lifetime, max, but there we are 60+ years later and it’s still running.
    And let’s not start down the “we have a CAD model but it was never updated to the as-built” path … At least, not before coffee. 🙂

  2. We have an early Remington-made Marlin in our store and it’s … not a good rifle. It runs so bad that I keep it for myself, tinkering with it to get it run smoothly while I use other guns for hunting.

    We sold the last of the Remington made Marlins before they were sold to Ruger and they were of really good quality.

    Now we’re waiting for the first shipments of Ruger-made Marlins.

  3. Interesting (maybe) Marlin story- a friend of my dad in the early 80s went to Alaska. He was horseback riding with a guide. They stopped to take a break, he looked down and on the ground was a rusty rifle with the wood rotted off. He bought it home and gave it to my dad. We discovered it was a Marlin and serial number according to Marlin it was sold to a gunstore in Alaska in the 50s. Unfortunately during my first disaster of a marriage it along with 2 other firearms disappeared… it was a fascinating piece

  4. I had never heard or suspected that part of the story buy laying it out like that it makes sense.

    I truly want the Rulin line to succeed and expand.

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