It was during the year 2020 that lever-gun enthusiasts finally got the news about what was to become of the beloved Marlin brand. After having been acquired by Remington in late 2007, Marlin products saw a steady decline in quality and craftsmanship that was precipitated by certain cost-saving measures and lost institutional knowledge. Marlin plants closed and machinery moved to Remington’s facilities. Lesser rifles followed. Now the Marlin 1895 SBL writes the next chapter of the famed brand.
Testing the Marlin 1895 SBL Lever-Action Rifle
None of this is news to hardcore fans of Marlin’s legendary rifles. The real news was the announcement of Sturm, Ruger & Company’s acquisition of the Marlin brand in 2020. This was after Remington declared bankruptcy a second time and the various businesses under its umbrella went up for sale.
Fast-forward to December of 2021—Ruger announced its first rifle to wear the Marlin name. Fittingly, it was the extremely popular 1895 SBL chambered in .45-70. It seems that during the previous year, the engineers at Ruger had spent a good amount of time inspecting machinery, making design tweaks and instituting their precise manufacturing process to produce their version of the iconic rifle. The result was simply stunning and quite possibly the best Marlin lever-action rifle ever made.
The Beauty Underneath
At first glance, the uninitiated might think that there’s nothing new to see with this Marlin 1895 SBL. On the surface, it looks pretty much the same. It still has an 18.5-inch barrel, a Picatinny rail and a capacity of 6+1 rounds. However, the real story lies within its lines and beneath the surface. The true character of a rifle lives here.
The first notable attribute comes in the forged receiver, heat-treated prior to machining. Heat-treating gives steel added strength. But if machining steel before heat-treating, the process potentially introduces shifts in dimensions and tolerances. That process can result in poor fit and lackluster performance. Heat-treating before machining costs more. It creates more wear and tear on the machines that do the work. But the result delivers a more precisely crafted firearm.
Tightening the Tolerances
That precision can also shows up in the seams between the fit of wood to metal where the stock and forend join against the receiver. Not to beat a dead horse, but during the Remington days, there were examples where you could almost fit a pencil into those seams. You’ll find none of that slop with the Ruger version of the 1895 SBL. Another upgrade is a slimmed-down forend that, while more expensive to process, greatly improves the handling and the overall appearance. Additionally, both the stock and forend include more pronounced and attractive laser-engraved checkering as well.
The barrel, as most riflemen know, is the beating heart of the rifle, and Ruger did us Marlin fans justice here as well. Using the company’s cold-hammer-forging process, Ruger crafts the barrel from 410 stainless steel. It includes six grooves with a 1-in-20-inch, right-hand twist. More importantly, the precision of Ruger’s machining allows barrel fitting without the use of shims (as done previously) for proper alignment with the sights.
It’s The Little Things
Aside from the major components above, there are other little touches done by Ruger that improve durability, handling and performance with the 1895 SBL. For example, the lines of the lever are generously radiused so the user doesn’t tear up their hand on sharp edges during extended shooting and lots of lever engagement. Also, the 1895 SBL comes out of the box with a threaded muzzle (11/16×24) for those that would like to run a suppressor or muzzle brake of some sort.
Another improvement comes in the slightly redesigned and beefier tang. It adds to the rifle’s durability and ensures proper stock fit. From there, both the fluted bolt and the loading gate feature nickel coatings for lubricity, aiding in smoother functioning. And up top, the 1895 SBL includes Ruger’s own newly designed sight package that includes a revamped Picatinny rail, a rear ghost ring and a high-visibility, fiber-optic front sight that integrates a tritium insert for low-light use.
Building it Better
There are improvements internally as well. First, the chambering is done with a two-stage process instead of a multiple-step process. Each additional step introduces more and more tolerance creep, so the fewer steps involved, the more precise the end result will be. Also, Ruger uses an electrical discharge machining (EDM) cutting process for the hammer notches and other internal parts. This translates to a precise engagement with the trigger sear that does away with the gritty and creepy pull for an ultra-crisp and exact trigger break.
With the laminate stock and polished stainless steel frame and barrel, the 1895 SBL begs for lots of time and work outdoors. That said, it comes with an MSRP of $1,399 for the package, which isn’t exactly on the cheap side of things. However, with all of the improvements I’ve seen thus far, and with Ruger’s obviously stringent quality-control process, I think it’s well worth a step up to get the best modern lever-action rifle ever made. Of course, time at the range would prove me either right or wrong on that score.
All Is Right Again
So far, I’ve taken the 1895 SBL to the range on three different occasions and have let shooting buddies have a go at it as well. Through it all, there’s been nothing but praise from anyone who has seen, handled or fired the 1895 SBL. Most of the compliments were regarding the clean fit and finish and the very smooth action, but the handling and even the loading gate got a thumbs-up. That said, I’ll just get this out of the way right now. The 1895 SBL still has that trigger jiggle to it when it’s uncocked. The only way to remedy that at the moment is with an aftermarket solution.
However, the trigger yielded an extremely crisp break, though it was a little on the heavier side. That’s typical with lever guns, and it wasn’t a burdensome pull, either. The break weight of the trigger measured an average of 5.25 pounds, and it didn’t affect any of the accuracy testing we did with some Hornady and Buffalo Bore rounds that I prefer for my .45-70 rifles. The Hornady LEVERevolution loads give me the extra range when I need it, and the Buffalo Bore ammunition gives me that sweet satisfaction of an extra-hard-hitting round when added power is required.
With the Vudu 1-6X scope mounted, I zeroed it at 100 yards, since the rifle was going to be used more for defensive purposes. With both the 325-grain Hornady load and the 430-grain Buffalo Bore load, there’s only about an inch difference in point of impact between 50 and 100 yards, and that’s about perfect for my use case. The accuracy of all the rounds fired was pretty damn good for a lever gun, with the 325-grain LEVERevolution load taking the blue ribbon with a best group of 0.84 inches and an average group size of 1.16 inches.
Marlin 1895 SBL Accessories
I had no issue with getting a good cheek weld and a proper eyeline with the Vudu 1-6x24mm installed. However, I’m a big guy with a meaty body, so your mileage may vary. It’s possible you might have to throw on an aftermarket, adjustable cheekrest to make the 1895 SBL work for you as configured.
For field carry and a bit more efficiency, I installed a GrovTec Mountaineer sling and a GrovTec hammer extension for easier access to the hammer around the Vudu’s fat ocular bell. Both are excellent pieces of kit that bump up the already fantastic handling and utility of the Marlin 1895 SBL to the next level. Speaking of which, it’s the handling, features and the action components that set the 1895 SBL apart from other lever guns in its class.
The reliability was just as good if not better than the accuracy, thanks to the glassy-smooth action of the nickel-coated bolt. There was no hitch or catch in the lever throw, just a silky travel to chamber the next round. Working with the loading gate was a cinch as well. It offered just about the perfect amount of tension to balance easy insertion of the cartridges with long-term durability while doing its assigned function.
Despite the fact that I mounted the Vudu 1-6X, the iron sights on the 1895 SBL are fantastic considering what you typically get with most standard, lever-action rifles. While a peep sight might offer better precision for something like hunting or target shooting, I prefer the Marlin ghost-ring sight for the more defensive setup. It’s faster for general target acquisition, especially with the highly visible fiber-optic sight up front.
Best In Class
So, with all this praise I’m heaping on the new 1895 SBL, was there anything I didn’t like? Sure there was—that confounded crossbolt safety! When will it ever go away? But I do like that the Marlin has the traditional half-cock safety, a feature that’s missing on one or two of its competitors in the market. It’s worth doing a little reading on the subject, though, to ensure that you use best practices in working with the half-cock safety.
Aside from that, Ruger has absolutely knocked it out of the park with its iteration of the Marlin 1895 SBL. All of the attention to detail that the Ruger folks have paid, and all of the extra (not so) little touches, has resulted in what I would argue is the best modern production lever gun on the market today. If you want a piece of old-world heritage that is crafted with the very best technology that’s available, the 1895 SBL is the rifle for you.
For now, I’ll enjoy this beautiful specimen while I keep it with me on road and trail, but I’m chomping at the bit to see what Ruger does next with the 1894 and the 336. I’ve already got big plans in mind for those, also. If it sounds like I’m excited, that’s because I am. It’s been a long wait for some of us, but we once again have a rifle worthy of the legendary Marlin name. For more information, visit marlinfirearms.com.
This story originally ran in the Summer 2022 issue of American Frontiersman. For more great reads, get your copy at OutdoorGroupStore.com.
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