When Marlin Firearms Company introduced the .444 Marlin to the shooting community in early 1964, it was the only true big bore lever action offered at the time! The Winchester 1886 had long been discontinued in all chamberings (1935), and the Winchester 71 chambered in .348 Winchester had been discontinued since 1958. During the next eight years until 1972, when Marlin produced their now popular Model 1895SS in .45-70, the Triple-Four was the only big-bore lever action gun available.
Although many embraced the .444 Marlin from its introduction, many were skeptics prophesying a short lived production run for both the new rifle and cartridge. Many "experts" declared the end of an era where big-bore lever guns had outlived their practical hunting usefulness, others simply stated that a cartridge chambered only by one manufacturer, for one model firearm and factory loadings available only from one ammunition supplier was doomed to obsolescence imminently. Too, .444 brass isn't readily formed from other existing brass either, making it a proprietary proposition with one manufacturer for brass cases even for the experienced handloader. Couple these factors with only two bullet weight selections in factory ammunition (now limited to only one factory loading from Remington), a 240 grain and 265 grain soft-nosed jacketed bullet and yet more nay-sayers relegated the .444 to a predicted early retirement.
However, the .444 Marlin had too many good things going for it to die so quickly! Not only could woods-wise hunters not only see, but appreciate the power and flexibility of the new rifle and cartridge, but the familiarity of the Marlin Model 336 in both .30-30 and .35 Remington was retained in the new powerhouse offering from Marlin. Too, the .444 had an eight year head start on the introduction of Marlin's .45-70 in the Model 1895, at which point the Triple Four had established it's place in the game fields on it's own merits.
In this series of articles on the .444 we will take a look not only some of the common merits of the gun and cartridge, but also it's application, sights, accessories, high-end load development, lower velocity load development and applications of those loads, specialty loads for the Triple-Four, and cartridge interchangeability. Long term viability in remote areas or survival situations including cartridge case forming from a surprising array of sources for such uses, and a final overview of the composite picture of all these elements when rolled into one most versatile package called the .444 Marlin.
First off, let us address the perennial .444 vs. .45-70 argument! This long-lived topic of controversy is just about as balanced as the .270 vs. .30-06 feud. The .444 will never throw as large a piece of lead as the .45-70, and using paper ballistics, the ..45-70 will always appear as a cartridge with more muscle. Too, the emotional pull of a cartridge over a century old still doing it's job in the game fields, (better today than ever before), sometimes clouds sound reason and judgment when taking an objective view of the .444 Marlin. What most writers, and shooter's compare, are the factory ballistics of the .444 and the .45-70. To the handloader, both cartridges change complexion entirely. When loaded with only factory 240 grain ammo, the .444 appears to be at best a 125 yard deer cartridge. However, when loaded with 300+ grain bullets to well over 2,000 feet per second, and those projectiles having ballistic coefficients of .239 and greater, the .444 Marlin becomes viable 200+ yard elk, moose and big bear medicine to the extreme! (We will look specifically at these types of loads in Part II of .444 Marlin-America's Most Versatile Big-Bore) The intent here is not to settle the comparison between the two, show one superior over the other in performance, but to finally allow Marlin's Triple-Four to stand in the lime-light on it's own merits, and not in the shadow of the .45-70, and to demonstrate the truly more versatile character of the .444 over the .45-70 in a most definitive fashion.
In looking at the firearms for the .444 Marlin, we have of course Marlin's .444S Model with 336 style semi-pistol grip butstock and tang with 22" barrel, their new Model .444P with straight grip butstock and 18 1/2" ported barrel. (These two firearms are the ones that will be employed in all tests during this series of articles.) We now also have Winchester's Model 94 Big Bore named the Timber Carbine chambered for the .444 Marlin as well as H&R's single shot rifles since Marlin has acquired H&R 1871 Inc. Yes, there are chamberings for the T/C Contender, Encore, and a host of custom and semi-custom revolvers chambered for the .444, but the focus of our attention here is on the Marlin lever action rifles.
As shipped from Marlin, the .444's (both models) carry their customary hooded ramp bead front sight with the usual semi-buckhorn folding rear sight. Both front and rear sights are windage adjustable, the the rear sight adjusted for elevation using a traditional stepped sliding wedge. The factory sights are both rugged and serviceable, but to my notion lack the speed of acquisition for fast snap shots in close quarters, as well as being deficit in precision for the longer ranges that the .444 can and does lend itself to performing.
The clean top receiver of these rifles is drilled and tapped for scope mounting, as well as being drilled on the left side of the receiver for receiver sight mounting. The side ejection is perfectly suited to scope use, and many prefer the addition of a scope on their .444's. Here of course is a potential hotspot for controversy, but few will honestly contest the suggestion of a compact straight 4X scope or the addition of a 1.5-5x variable on these rifles for those who choose to use glass optics on their .444 rifle. These lower power scopes offer wide field of view as well as excellent light transmission for low light hunting conditions, yet are compact and relatively light weight, not disturbing to great degree the wonderful balance and pointability of these lever action rifles.
In nearly 20 years having the .444 as my primary long gun afield, it has accounted for more big game than have all my other long guns combined! During those years of hunting, I have developed some seriously biased opinions concerning sight selection for these fine rifles. (Please be advised, these are MY preferences, and not necessarily the definitive word on the subject in any way!) My hands-down favorite is a receiver sight on the .444. I have both Williams 5D and the very fine Ashley Outdoors sights on my two .444's that go afield.
The Williams sight has lived atop the rear of the receiver of my .444S since day one when it followed me home, and has been exceedingly serviceable, rugged and reliable for nearly twenty years, they point quickly and intuitively and can be employed with the existing factory front sights. For a mere thirty-five dollar investment,. these Williams sights are a vast improvement over the factory open sights in all aspects. When using them in the field however, be sure to remove the screw-in sight aperture and use only the remaining "ghost-ring" of the sight. This allows faster sight acquisition for snap-shots or running shots as well as the ability to shoot in lower light conditions. The same sight virtues mentioned here would also apply to the Williams Fool-Proof receiver sight, as well as the excellent all steel Lyman receiver sights made for the Marlin. The Lyman sights seem to my notion to be more bulky than either of the Williams offerings, but on the other hand the Williams sights are aluminum rather than machined steel. In the many firearms I own and have used, quite a number wear peep sights of one description or another, many Williams and nearly an equal number of Lyman, none have ever failed to keep their adjustment to point of aim through sometimes very rough and constant use, nor have any ever broken or bent.
The newer .444P Model rifle wears a set of Ashley Outdoors ghost ring sights as its only sighting system. These are by far the most excellent aperture type sights I have ever used. They have a big aperture that lets in lots of light under all conditions, even usable when most inexpensive scopes begin to fail during low light conditions. These too are rugged sights, being milled out of steel, not aluminum, and once set for windage and elevation, nearly impossible to knock out of adjustment without totally destroying the sight. The front sight on the .444 Marlin must be changed in order to use these sights, but Ashley Outdoors sells their sights for these rifles in sets, including the necessary front sight. That front sight included in the set is an excellent sourdough-type flat-topped post, with a very fine white center line inscribed down the center. The white line feature makes this sight very fast to acquire, and exceptionally easy to find in low-light conditions. If I were to find fault with the Ashley sights, it would simply be this: the sights sit up about 1/2" higher than would the Williams series of receiver sights, and as such, you have to "reach" slightly off the comb of the butstock to view the sights. This lifting of the cheek isn't nearly as much as that necessary to use a scope, and many use scopes with perfect satisfaction with the Marlin lever action rifles, but it isn't quite as intuitive as finding the sighting plane as with the Williams or Lyman receiver sights which sit at the same height as the factory sights in relation to the axis of the bore. Having used the Ashley sights on the .444P, I can't think of a better choice for a levergun that uses iron for it's only sight system.
In the accompanying photo, you may see the .444S receiver with both a Weaver scope base mounted as well as a Williams 5D receiver sight. The receiver sight may be used without hindrance when the base is mounted. However, it takes modification of the scope base to accomplish this combination. The Weaver base comes with four mounting screw holes, but by merely cutting off the rearward most hole using either a hacksaw or Dremel cut-off wheel, dressing the end of the mount and blacking the new cut, the stock Weaver scope mount may be employed with a Williams receiver sight when so altered. Why the need for a scope mount and receiver sight? Well, for the simple reason that you can increase the versatility of the .444 in so doing. The addition of a scope can provide a welcomed benefit in precise shot placement, target identification and light gathering benefits in low light conditions, and mounting it in either traditional Weaver type rings or Warne quick-detachable rings will allow a very reasonable return to zero when the scope is removed then remounted. The addition of a simple 4X scope can be a big benefit when sitting on a stand, or hunting in open country. I often times will use the scope for these applications, yet remove it and stow it away in my daypack or fanny-pack when still-hunting in adverse weather or in very brushy or close cover timber, preferring the quickness of the peep sights. Having altered the Weaver base, you have the advantages of both worlds.
Too, using the altered Weaver base, the addition of an inexpensive laser sight such as the pictured BSA is quickly done. Notice the photograph of the altered Weaver base, and there is a drilled indent where the rail-lock screw clamps down on the BSA laser mount. By so indexing the Weaver base, even the laser sight can be installed and removed quickly and without adverse shift in zero of point of impact with the laser, as it always goes back on the rail in the same place with the same orientation. In those states where a laser is legal to hunt with, it can be an excellent tool, especially during low light conditions when hunting from a stand. My purposes are for hunting predators at night. The Triple-Four, with the right load is a superb after dark varmint harvester when coupled with a laser sight. Here again, with the setup described, when the laser comes off, you once again have your ever-ready receiver sights.
By now you should get the idea that I'm biased towards the receiver sight being the primary sighting device for the .444 Marlin. You're right! I've never had a receiver sight fog up on me. Never had a receiver sight so blurred from falling rain or snow that I couldn't see through it. I've never had glare off my receiver sight when shooting into the sun. Further, as mentioned before I've never had one change zero, even through tough, rough use, nor break in any way. The peep sight allows a huge field of vision, as you shoot with both eyes open using a ghost ring, and consequently your peripheral vision picks up not only other game when sighting, but the presence of other shoot/don't shoot factors as well. Too, with both eyes open when shooting, depth perception is greatly enhanced, especially if targeting running or moving game. Finally, a receiver sight allows carrying the rifle at it's balance point, with the hand securely wrapped around the receiver. Receiver sights don't add bulk to a rifle, and for the practical ranges of two-hundred yards and under in which the .444 is typically employed, it is fully adequate for all shooting needs. Finally, with the huge number of big game harvested using my .444's, none were taken using anything other than receiver sights. Yes, I have the versatility of a scope or a laser, but I so rarely ever use them that I've not taken a single big game animal with anything but the primary peep sights on the .444 Marlin.
A quick word about the factory front hood on your .444 Marlin rifle. Take it off and throw it into your parts drawer! Although fine in concept, the front hood can, and eventually will cost you a big-game animal. Over the years I've immediately taken them off all rifles that I intend to hunt with. They add bulk, distraction when using the sights (at least the odd-shaped Marlin hoods), and robs valuable light on the front sight in low-light conditions. Last elk season I was using my then new .444P Outfitter model, and a Williams Fool-Proof receiver sight. Before season I made the (poor) decision to leave the hood affixed to the front sight to protect it in the rifle scabbard while riding my Mule hunting in the high-country. I reasoned that I would prefer the protection to the bead sight afforded by the hood to whatever loss of light might be caused from the front sight hood. What a mistake! My son and I worked our way down a ridge, and I had a perfect frontal shot, a quick snapshot before the critter wheeled and turned, I was in the lead on the trail and took the fast shot. I missed, a clean miss. This was my first missed shot at a game animal in years. In fact, I couldn't believe that I had actually missed, and we looked for nearly two and a half hours for hair, bone, blood or any sign of a wounded animal. The shot was only 65 yards. Finally I went back once again to the place where I had fired from, looking over the sights where the animal had stood... then I saw what had happened. The blue finish on the sight hood had become worn on the leading edges of the hood while riding in and going in and out of the leather rifle scabbard. With the sun being over my shoulder and behind me, the glint off the now shiny rearward edge of the hood stood out brightly when compared with the front sight shaded by the hood, and in my quick sight acquisition for the fast shot, my brain had equated the bright left-hand edge of the sight hood with the actual sight. After realizing my error, we looked where the sights were actually pointing when the gun was sighted using the left edge of the hood as a front sight, and sure enough found the impact of my bullet fully three feet to the right of my intended point of aim! I soon remembered why I had thrown those confounded sight hoods into the parts box for so many years!
Recoil with heavy loads has always been a factor with shooters of the .444 Marlin. The .444S model has always just worn a simple black plastic but-plate (early .444T models with Monte Carlo style cheek-piece stocks and 24" barrels), or more recently a rubber but-plate which did nothing to reduce recoil, but did wonders for securing the but of the gun to your shoulder when shooting. Even now when doing extensive range work with the .444, I still use a twenty-five pound bag of lead shot between my shoulder and the but of the gun to keep from developing a nasty flinch from the gun. Nope, not a macho practice I suppose, but I don't have a case of terminal flinch when I pull the trigger either! In the field hunting, you'll never know the recoil, but off the bench it can be obnoxious, especially with the 300+ grain bullet loads going full throttle. No one ever said that a well stoked .444 Marlin was pleasant to shoot! However, the addition of a Pachmyer Decelerator Pad makes a world of difference in the pleasantries of shooting your .444 Marlin! A well placed investment if ever there were one when the serviceability of these guns is concerned. On my own guns though, I've still not done that little improvement. I don't notice the recoil in the field, and the gun fits me so well that I haven't messed with success!
The .444P Model from Marlin has two advantages going for it in regard to recoil. First is Marlin's excellent, most effective barrel porting, and a better than average factory recoil pad on the straight stocked but of these short rifles. When I first fired mine, I had installed a receiver sight, and selected some of my more tried and true handloads developed for the .444S, and went to the shop range equipped with targets, ammo, rifle, earmuffs and a twenty-five pound bag of shot to protect my shoulder. I dutifully made all preparations at the bench and downrange then grimaced as I gently applied pressure to the trigger, anticipating the inevitable pain this light, short handy little carbine would unleash on my shoulder and cheek-bone. First shot, not too bad, so I went ahead and shot for a group with the gun, as the first shot was reasonably on target at the initial 75 yard shot. Interestingly, after shooting the fourth shot of a five shot string, I noticed not only a nice neat cloverleaf on the 75 yard target, but that the forend wasn't even rising off the sandbags! I went ahead and fired my fifth and final shot to finish out the group, using the bag of lead shot between the butstock and my shoulder, did a sight adjustment and changed the target. My next five shots were fired without the sandbag, and whoa, it didn't wallop me any more than a stout loaded .30-30 carbine! I laughed out-loud! The porting on this short barreled Outfitter is amazingly effective. I'm sure the recoil pad helps as well, but the main improvement is the porting Marlin is using on these guns. After sighting the rifle to zero, using my favorite load with our 335g LFNGC bullet at over 2100 fps out of the Marlin, I shot forty consecutive rounds at targets 200-250 yards away off-hand and in nothing more than a T-shirt! No discomfort and no subsequent bruising! This rifle is FUN to shoot with any load! Now, this neat little compact model .444P has taken first place in my most useful and fun lever action rifle. I'm afraid that the original .444S will be awfully lonely during most hunting seasons.
A word about the porting on the .444P model here is in order. Many muzzle-brakes and porting processes make the firearm obnoxious to shoot, even in the field hunting without hearing protection. Some brakes, like the BOSS system used on both Winchester and Browning rifles have actually caused permanent hearing damage to shooters with only one shot fired in the field from a prone position without hearing protection. My curiosity about this highly effective brake in this regard was quickly satisfied. I fired about half a dozen of the above mentioned forty off-hand rounds without hearing protection for the sake of satisfying this question. The truth is, that I could detect no higher noise level from the short ported barrel of the Outfitter model than with the same load fired from the standard .444S with 22" barrel. However, the noise level to bystanders not standing directly behind the shooter is an entirely different story! The amount of blast perceived both by others as well as myself when someone else was shooting was very harsh, and incredibly loud, even with muffs on, when compared to standing in the same exact position when the traditional non-ported model was fired. Do not allow anyone to stand to the side of these ported barrel Marlin rifles when firing, either at the range or in the field, as permanent hearing impairment could take place in just a shot or two! The good news is that when hunting in the field, it is highly unlikely that you would have someone in such close proximity at your side as to cause hearing damage, and the noise level transmitted to the shooter is no more than that of non-ported models.
As we are comparing the .444S and the .444P Outfitter models, the balance of both is superb, and the pointability of both is excellent. However, the fast handling characteristics, and lighter weight of the .444P endears me to it. Although I have hunted for nearly twenty years with a .444S model, the advantages of lighter weight and shorter overall length just make sense on a rifle of this type. The velocity difference (as we will see in subsequent parts of this article) is so negligible in terms of the utility gained, that to my notion, I can't imagine someone not choosing the .444P model if purchasing a new rifle for it's handling, and reduced recoil as well as overall functional performance.
In new production guns both the .444S and .444P now employ a Ballard-style cut-rifled barrel with a 1:20" twist, whereas the older .444's had Micro-Groove barrels with a 1:38" twist. The new style barrels are more forgiving with poorly fit cast bullets, and shoot well with properly fit cast and jacketed bullets as well. However, the older Micro-Groove barreled guns had an undeserved reputation for not shooting cast bullets over 1600 fps. This was and is pure hogwash! The fault lies with the bullet and bullet fit! When these Micro-Groove barrels are properly fit with a well designed. hard, gas checked, with a strong front driving band, cast bullets will rival or even out perform jacketed pills at any velocity range reasonably attained with the .444 Marlin. (More on this in the load development segment of this multi-part article) Both new and old productions .444 Marlins are notorious for their outstanding accuracy potential. Both the original Micro-Groove and the newer Ballard-type barrels will deliver MOA accuracy in nearly all rifles with even modest load development, and throughout a whole host of bullet weights and designs.
Hopefully this introduction to the .444 Marlin has whetted your appetite for some more information with real meat to it in regard to loading data, load development and application of the .444 Marlin in the field. The next several articles will plow ground, much of which hasn't been covered before, and some which has only been addressed superficially by the the syndicated gun-writing press. Too I will be introducing some field proven (perhaps controversial) specialty loads for the .444 as well as other information unpublished up to this point on the .444 Marlin.
.444 Marlin- America's Most Versitile Big-Bore Part II | .444
Marlin- America's Most Versitile Big-Bore Part III
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