Compared: Browning BLR and Marlin Model 1895 Big Bore Lever Guns
By Ed Turner
While these two fine, big bore lever rifles might be interchangeable for almost any task and the calibers and rifle types are similar, they make their marks in very different manners. Marlin .45-70's have been with us for well over 100 years, in one form or another, while the Browning BLR has been with us for only slightly more than 40 years and the .450 Marlin caliber for less than 10 years. The Marlin Model 1895 is offered in both .45-70 and .450 Marlin calibers, while the BLR is currently available only in .450.
These two rifles are, however, the epitome of the powerful and uniquely American lever action rifle. The calibers are actually so similar as to be ballistic twins. The facts show these two cartridges to be all but one in their sameness. They look and perform on a par when loaded similarly, but most .45-70 factory loaded ammo has been kept at low pressure (well under 28,000 PSI) in deference to the trapdoor rifles still out there, which are designed for use with black powder (or black power equivalent) loads.
Having a belted case prevents the similar looking .450 from being chambered in these older, weaker .45-70 actions and allows its owners a big performance boost over SAAMI standard .45-70 loads. Typical .45-70 loads drive a 300 grain bullet at around 1800 fps or a 400 grain bullet at around 1300 fps. The larger bullet, with its superior sectional density, will still get the job done on large game, such as elk, bear or moose at short ranges, but the 300 grain loads are usually intended for use on CXP2 size game. Yes, it is a big bullet, but most of these factory loads used a fast expanding "soft" bullet that, along with the poor sectional density, should convince most hunters to utilize heavier projectiles for large animals.
After spending all that time showing (or trying to) just how similar in function these two big boys are, why would someone (me!) end up with both of these rifles? Not so complicated, actually. I was enamored with the .45-70 for a good while, but knew I'd prefer the more powerful loads. These +P loads are not the least expensive rounds in the world to purchase, but they up the bar significantly from the standard loads. I simply put off my purchase long enough for the newer high octane version, the .450 Marlin, to arrive. When it did, I knew I would need one.
By the time I made my move, Browning had also jumped onto the .450 bandwagon with their fine BLR. My local gun dealer found me one with a straight grip and the purchase was made. The only factory load available at that time was the Hornady version with a 350 grain flat nose bullet at a claimed 2100 fps giving it almost 3500 ft. lbs. of kinetic energy. A very stout load, indeed. My intentions were to be able to load and shoot round nosed or pointed bullets in my BLR, as it had a detachable box magazine that made that practice safe.
Then, before the dust had settled on my newest purchase, Hornady's LeverEvolution ammo was introduced, giving the .45-70 (and .450) pointed bullets that could safely be used in the Marlin's tubular magazine. Talk about being a day late (and a grand short). The Browning continued to live at my house, but my eye now wandered to the Marlin .45-70 and the possibility of using factory loads not quite so stout, for deer hunting. I resisted for over two years, but finally succumbed when I found a dandy deal on a Marlin 1895 in .45-70. I decided on the 22" barreled model, knowing the overall length was still in my comfort zone at 40.5" and virtually the same as my 20" barreled BLR.
Marlin's Model 1895 in .45-70
As already mentioned, the old-timer here, the Marlin in .45-70, has been with us in one form or another for over 110 years. Marlin's first lever rifle to be chambered in the 45-70 was actually the older model 1881 and was, of course, a black powder rifle. The original model 1895 ceased production between 1910-1972, or thereabouts. Then Marlin correctly read a changing market and introduced the modern "Model 1895" (actually based on their 336 action) as a modern .45-70 thumper.
These new 1895's, produced since 1972, are built to withstand the higher pressures of +P .45-70 fodder. According to the experts at Marlin, the current 1895 is comfortable with maximum average pressures in the 40,000+ CUP range. Another model of the 336, called the ER (for extended range), formerly housed the powerful .356 Winchester, which operates in the 50,000 CUP range. Suffice to say, this new version of the 1895, which also houses the .450 and .444 Marlin cartridges, is a stout action capable of handling all but the most fire-breathing .45-70 loads. (The latter are usually restricted for use in Browning/Winchester or Ruger single shot rifles.) "Marlin only" .45-70 +P loads typically launch a 350-400 grain bullet from a 22" barrel at around 1900 fps.
When received, my Marlin showed fine finish and workmanship, along with a very pretty black walnut stock and forearm. The wood liked the Natchez Solution I slathered on it, just as had my Marlin 1894 in .44 Mag. The beavertail forend is a thicker and heavier than necessary, but the thin butt pad is skimpy. Hey Marlin, this is a real-world thumper at both ends! How about some real world help at the shoulder end? 'Nuff said!
I was disappointed with the trigger of the new Marlin. It was heavy and gritty, not exactly a stellar combination for any rifle. Lots of dry firing at least gave me a good feel for the lousy trigger. I next placed the new rifle side by side with a Marlin Model .444S from the mid-eighties for comparison. From several feet away one can easily see the more polished blue finish of the decades old .444 and the slight additional length in the magazine tube. This tube trend seems to have continued to this day as the .444 is still rated as holding one more round in it's slightly longer magazine. Seems to me another big cartridge might be a good thing for the .45-70 model, too. What do you think?
Overall, I was quite pleased with the Model 1885. It is a handsome rifle and seems to be well built. When I got it to a rifle range, it more than proved its mettle. I am a fan of the look of the 22" barrel and think it is well proportioned and handy. Of course, the Model 1895G Guide Gun is shorter and even handier, but I saw it as a case of diminishing returns. The LeverEvolution ammo gives us a 200 yard MPBR; why give back what we just got by buying a hunting rifle with a 3.5" shorter barrel? The Guide Gun version certainly fills its specialized niche for those who never plan on a 100+ yard shot. I am simply not willing to go there. Following are some Marlin Model 1895 specifications.
Browning's BLR Thumper in .450 Marlin
The Browning BLR has been with us since the end of the 1960's and has a legion of fans who love the idea of a lever rifle in modern, high intensity calibers, along with the quick repeat shots and narrow receiver for which the lever action is so well known. The BLR has been chambered for many different calibers and can perform a myriad of hunting tasks. Need a long range antelope and mule deer rifle? How about a BLR in .270 Win. or .270 WSM? Need a mule deer and elk combo rifle? How about a .300 WSM or perhaps even a .325 WSM.
Now, to the heart of the lever action thumper subject. Need to hunt big stuff and have protection from the big bears of the north? Well, how does a BLR in .450 Marlin strike your fancy?
If you like the thumper idea, as I do, it should sound good! Say what you want about big bore bolt rifles, but when Mr. Grizz breaks out of the brush at 35 yards with nothing but bad intentions, what would you like to have in hand?
If you have ever practiced fast repeat shots with both bolt and lever action rifles, you know that the lever action is simply faster. Keeping a lever to your shoulder and firing 2, 3 or 4 aimed shots as fast as you can is light years better than the same exercise with a bolt gun. I like my .338-06, .35 Whelen, .350 Rem. Mag. and 9.3x62 bolt rifles, but a .450 or .45-70 lever action is what I'd prefer to have in my hands at the moment of truth. Such scenarios are thankfully rare, but still worth considering.
The BLR is a more refined rifle than the Marlin. The blued steel is highly polished and the wood has a hard gloss finish. The receiver on the newer, lightweight version is aluminum alloy, saving weight over the older steel receiver version. I have read many comments written by the ignorant about this gun's inability to withstand heavy, high intensity loads over long periods due to the alloy receiver. Hogwash, plain and simple! The rotating bolt locks directly into the barrel and the receiver has zilch to do with the lockup and strength of the action. It could be formed from paper Mache' and still be completely functional.
The bolt is fluted and the gold plated trigger is curved, ribbed and wider than the Marlin's. The pull is somewhat heavy, but it breaks much cleaner than the Marlin's. The straight hand butt stock of my example has some nice figure, but Browning chose to use such dark stain that it is mostly hidden, such a waste. The BLR has a real recoil pad that actually helps after the trigger is pulled, far superior to the Marlin's thin pad. All in all a very good looking piece. The Browning BLR is also available in pistol grip version and both versions are now available in takedown models. (For more information, see the BLR reviews on the Product Reviews page.) Here are some Browning .450 BLR facts and figures:
The Browning's action is smoother than the Marlin's and when fired quickly from the shoulder the shorter throw and smoother action make it better for quick follow-up shots. The BLR's action uses a front locking, rotating bolt operated by a lever. Winchester's old Model 88 and the Sako Greywolf are previous examples of this more modern take on a lever action rifle.
One thing worth mentioning at this point: Marlin lever actions acquired a crossbolt safety in the mid-1980's that was designed to prevent accidental discharges when letting the hammer down to half cock. This feature is excellent safety-wise, but actually gives the Marlin a "double" safety when used in conjunction with the typical half cock safety position used for over a century on such rifles.
No big deal, you say. I say way big deal. If, or when, a close encounter of the animal kind occurs and a quick shot is necessary, the crossbolt safety will (if used) prevent the rifle from discharging/firing and that could be a very unpleasant thing. If this safety is inadvertently left on when you want to shoot a deer, "click," not "boom," will be the result. Irritating, yes, but not dangerous. Change the scenario to a large bear or a big hog at uncomfortably close range and it takes on a completely new meaning. As a dangerous game rifle, the BLR has some advantages over the Marlin. In typical hunting scenarios, the choice is a matter of personal preference.
A much wider range of .45-70 factory loads are available, ranging from lead "Cowboy" loads with velocities barely over 1,000 fps to minimize recoil, to 400 grain jacketed bullets at 1900 fps. The latter is a thumper load, believe me!
The .450 Marlin cartridge is found in only two factory loadings by Hornady, the designer of the cartridge. One is a 325 grain LeverEvolution bullet with a velocity of over 2200 fps and the other is a 350 grain FN bullet at 2100 FPS. Loads such as these are what these rifles' legends are built on. Ammo makers such as Stars & Stripes, Buffalo Bore, Corbon and Grizzly Ammo all offer some very powerful loads for both cartridges. If a hunter/shooter absolutely wants the most powerful lever available without reloading or searching out $50/box +P ammo, then the .450 makes great sense. At this writing, even with the continued climb of ammo prices, Hornady LeverEvolution ammo is still a relative bargain for the .450 Marlin.
My rifles will likely stick with Hornady fodder, for the time being. The .45-70 shooting the LeverEvolution 325 grain load for deer and bear and the .450 shooting both of Hornady's offerings, the 350 FN for an upcoming bear hunt and the 325 LeverEvolution when used for deer and elk hunting.
Note: Please see the Product Reviews page for more BLR and Marlin lever gun reviews.
Copyright 2009 by Ed Turner. All rights reserved.