Compared: Marlin Model 336 and Winchester Model 94 Rifles

By Chuck Hawks


The lever action Marlin 336 and Winchester 94 are the two best selling sporting rifles in history, with millions upon millions sold in over a century of production. The Marlin design (by John Marlin) dates to 1893 and the Winchester design (by John Browning) to 1894.

These traditional lever action designs offer good accuracy, quick handling, fast repeat shots, big magazine capacity, ambidextrous operation, and the kind of reliability a man can bet his life on (and many have). The flat action makes these easy rifles to carry and, with no bolt handle sticking out of the side of the action, they are naturals to transport in a horse or motorcycle scabbard. They were designed for big game hunting but have been used for practically every application to which a rifle can be put, from home defense to revolution.

They have been chambered for a number of rifle cartridges over the years. These include (but are not limited to) the .219 Zipper, .25-35, 7-30 Waters, .307 Winchester, .32-40, .32 Special, .35 Remington, .356 Winchester, .375 Winchester, .38-55, and .444 Marlin.

They have been used to take every type of big game in North America, from varmints to bison, and similar game all over the world. But both rifles are best known as deer and black bear rifles chambered for the ubiquitous .30-30 Winchester cartridge, in which role they are unsurpassed. The rifles selected for this comparison are .30-30's. Now let's take a brief individual look at these famous sporting rifles.

Marlin Model 336

Marlin 336SS
Illustration courtesy of Marlin Firearms Co.

The Model 336 is the basis of Marlin's continuing success in the centerfire rifle market. There are currently three variations in the Model 336 line, but there have been others. At present we have the 336 Cowboy Gun (straight grip stock and 24" octagon barrel), the 336C (standard version with pistol grip walnut stock and 20" barrel), and the 336SS (the 336C with stainless steel metal parts). All stocks currently feature cut checkering in hand filling diamond point patterns and a satin Mar-Shield finish. The 336 Cowboy and 336C have a traditional deep blue metal finish, the 336SS has a satin stainless steel finish.

The 336 Cowboy is chambered for the .30-30 Winchester and .38-55 Winchester cartridges. The 336C is currently produced in .30-30 and .35 Remington. The 336SS comes in .30-30 only.

The Marlin's top selling point for years has been its strong, flat top receiver. An (originally) unintended benefit of this design is that it makes scope mounting a snap.

The heavy ("litigation special") 5.25 pound trigger pull of the test rifle does nothing for its practical accuracy, but at least it is fairly clean. Marlin triggers can be smoothed and lightened by a competent gunsmith. In fact, the whole action will get smoother as it breaks-in.

The basic specifications of the 336C, the standard model that is the focus of this comparison, are as follows: approximate weight 7 pounds; 20" Micro-Groove barrel with full length magazine tube; 6+1 cartridge capacity; overall length 38.5"; hammer block safety; adjustable folding semi-buckhorn rear sight and hooded ramp front sight with brass bead; tapped for receiver sight and scope mount; detachable sling swivel studs; comes with an ambidextrous off-set hammer spur for scope use. The pistol grip black walnut stock has a fluted comb and comes with a brown, solid rubber butt pad with black line spacer and a black pistol grip cap. Marlin still inlets their signature black and white "bullseye" near the toe of the stock.

Marlin has always believed in wood stocks and solid steel parts, which gives the 336 series rifles a quality look and feel plus legendary durability. It is a hard thing to fake.

Winchester Model 94

Winchester Model 94
Illustration courtesy of U.S. Repeating Arms Co., Inc.

From 1894 to 1963 the Model 94 lever action rifle had been manufactured using high quality forged steel parts and stocked in genuine American black walnut. The metal finish was a highly polished blue and in the later part of that era the stock had a gloss finish. It was a very solid and handsome rifle, a legend in its own time. It was also the world's most popular sporting rifle, and still is with over 6,300,000 sold by 2002.

In 1964 a number of changes were made to reduce the cost of production. These did not affect function, but cheapened the look of the rifle and were not well received by the buying public. The Model 94 has since been revised to restore the publics' perception of quality, so the 1964 changes are now a dead issue.

The traditional design of the Model 94 had some drawbacks. Paramount among these was its top ejection, which made low and overbore scope mounting impossible. The alternatives were an offset side mount on the receiver, or an extended eye relief scope (I believe the Leupold M8 2x was the first of these) mounted on the barrel forward of the receiver. Both of these solutions were less than perfect. The offset side mount introduced horizontal parallax in addition to the usual vertical drop that had to be accounted for, and the forward mount resulted in a greatly decreased field of view.

As a result, changes have been made to the Model 94 design. The top ejection, which threw the empty cases basically straight up and over the shooter's shoulder, has been modified to permit conventional scope mounting. The so-called "angle ejection" became standard in 1982. A bit of the top right side of the receiver was milled away and the internals slightly modified to throw spent cases out at enough of an angle to the right to clear a centrally mounted scope. All angle eject Model 94's are drilled and tapped for two-piece top mounts.

In 1992 an unsightly crossbolt safety that blocks the hammer was introduced to please the corporate lawyers. Unfortunately, unlike Marlin's subtle crossbolt safety, the Winchester version was obvious and marred the clean look of the receiver. In 2003 Winchester dealt with the problem by moving the safety to the top tang, where it is less intrusive.

There has been a myriad of Model 94 variations in recent years. Some use actions that have been modified for use with revolver cartridges, and others are inferior economy models. The .30-30 model similar to the standard Model 94's of the past is the Traditional walnut.

The finish and overall appearance of the Model 94 Traditional are good. Its walnut stock is available with or without checkering. The checkered version is the Traditional-CW, which sells for about $40 more than the uncheckered version and about $40 less than the Marlin 336C. The Model 94 Traditional models are available chambered for the .30-30 rifle cartridge and the .44 Rem. Mag. revolver cartridge. Hunters seeking deer, black bear, and general CXP2 class game will do well to stay with the .30-30.

The current Model 94 action is a little rough, but it will smooth with use, as will the unnecessarily heavy trigger pull. A qualified gunsmith can smooth and lighten the trigger.

The basic specifications of the Model 94 Traditional-CW rifle, the model most directly comparable to the Marlin 336C, are as follows: solid frame, exposed hammer lever action with angled ejection and top tang safety; drilled and tapped for scope mounts (hammer extension included); 20 inch round barrel with hooded blade front sight and semi-buckhorn rear sight, rifled 1 turn in 12 inches; full length 6 shot tubular magazine; straight grip, satin finished American walnut stock and forearm with barrel band; length of pull 13 1/2 inches, drop at comb 1 1/8 inches, drop at heel 1 7/8 inches; overall length 38 1/8 inches; weight 6.25 pounds.

Marlin 336 advantages

Perhaps the biggest advantage possessed by the Marlin 336 is its solid top receiver, which allows a telescopic sight to be mounted low and overbore using a one-piece base (as opposed to a side mount or two-piece base). The Marlin action is reputed to be stronger than the Winchester action, due to its solid top receiver and round bolt. Its internal mechanism is simpler and easier to work on.

The Marlin's catalog weight is 3/4 pound heavier than the Winchester's, which helps to moderate recoil. The difference is not great, but it is noticeable. Of course, this also makes the 336 a slightly greater burden to carry over long distances. At only 7 pounds, however, the 336 is still a lightweight rifle.

The Marlin action feels tighter than the Winchester action, there is less lever slop, and the floorplate does not drop away from the receiver when the centrally mounted lever is operated, as does the Model 94. All of this adds up to an impression of solidity and quality that inspires confidence. As a friend of mine, who owns and shoots Model 94's, admitted: "The Marlin action feels more substantial."

The 336 comes with detachable sling swivel studs, which is a definite plus. The Marlin's walnut stock comes with a fluted comb, which I find attractive. I also like the solid rubber butt pad better than the Winchester's hard plastic butt plate.

The stainless steel barreled action of the 336SS is a definite plus. It looks good and offers the definite benefit of lower maintenance.

Winchester 94 advantages

The biggest supposed disadvantage of the Model 94, now that the top ejection has been replaced by angle ejection, is the open top receiver. When the bolt is all the way to the rear, bits of debris (snow, twigs, and the like) could theoretically drop into the action. But no one complains about the open top receivers of bolt action rifles, where exactly the same situation pertains. Personally, I think it is a non-issue.

The main advantages of the Model 94 are that its receiver is slightly slimmer than the Marlin 336, and has a flat bottom. This is due to its open top receiver and the fact that its lever is hinged internally rather than externally. The lever is also placed well toward the rear of the receiver. This design complicates the mechanism of the Model 94 (John Browning's designs tend to be over-engineered, yet very reliable), but make it exceptionally comfortable and convenient for one hand carry.

The standard Model 94 stock has a straight hand, which I prefer to the pistol grip stock on the Marlin 336C and 336SS, and also a slimmer forend. These features, together with the 94's slimmer receiver, make the whole rifle handier, trimmer, and slightly more attractive than the Marlin (at least to me), although both are good looking rifles. If there were an award for the "World's Best Handling Hunting Rifle," I would nominate the Winchester Model 94.

These differences make the Model 94 Traditional walnut slightly lighter than a Model 336C; a benefit if the rifle must carried long distances. Lower weight inevitably means more recoil, but most shooters find the Model 94 in caliber .30-30 reasonably pleasant to shoot.

Last, the Model 94 Traditional-CW is somewhat less expensive than the Model 336C. The difference in price is not great, but it is real--and it is in Winchester's favor.

Accuracy and function

I have had a reasonable amount of experience with Marlin 336 and Winchester 94 lever action rifles. And I have never found either lacking in practical accuracy or reliability.

The out of the box accuracy of a new 336 rifle that I happen to have in my possession is probably about average for the breed. Using a 3x scope, the first 75 rounds from this rifle averaged groups of about 2" center to center for 3 shots at 100 yards. Function and feeding were perfect. In fact, I cannot remember a jam with a Marlin 336 rifle.

I have owned both pre and post 1964 Model 94's, and I can testify that none of the 1964 manufacturing shortcuts affected the rifle's function or accuracy. The most accurate Model 94 I have ever owned was a 1966 Centennial commemorative model. This rifle came with a heavy 26 inch octagon barrel and wore a long eye relief Leupold M8 2x scope mounted forward of the receiver to clear the top ejection. Its trigger had been slicked-up and broke at about 4 pounds. It would average about 1.5 minute of angle (MOA) groups at 100 yards if I did my part, and occasionally shoot a 1 MOA group. That rifle favored handloads using IMR 3031 powder and the Speer 150 grain flat-point bullet.

Current Model 94 Traditional-CW rifles have the same (lawyer induced) heavy trigger problem as current Marlin 336C's. In my experience scoped Model 94's will put three bullets into groups of about 2 MOA on the average. Malfunctions are almost unheard of.

There appears to be no difference in the inherent accuracy or reliability of the Marlin 336 and Winchester Model 94. Either is more than accurate enough to take full advantage of the 225 yard maximum point blank range of the .30-30 cartridge. If an individual rifle were to shoot groups 1 MOA smaller or larger than the average it would make no practical difference for deer hunting.

Recoil

A 6.25 pound Model 94 .30-30, shooting a 150 grain bullet at a MV of 2400 fps, delivers about 12.5 ft. lbs. of recoil energy and has a recoil velocity of 11.3 fps. Add a scope and mount weighing 1 pound and the recoil energy drops to about 10.8 ft. lbs. and the recoil velocity to 9.8 fps.

A 7 pound Model 336 shooting the same load delivers about 11.1 ft. lbs. of recoil energy and has a recoil velocity of 10.1 fps. Add a scope and mount weighing 1 pound and the recoil energy drops to about 9.8 ft. lbs. and the recoil velocity to 8.9 fps.

Conclusion

The Winchester 94 has always been a reliable rifle, the kind you can depend on. With a 20" barrel it is exceptionally easy to carry and feels better in the hand than any other rifle with which I am familiar. Due to its compact action, straight grip stock and slender forend it is definitely the sleeker rifle. I regard it as the fastest pointing, best handling, deadliest medium range deer rifle ever invented. My all-time favorite .30-30 is a pre-1964 Model 94.

The current Model 94 Traditional-CW is a handsome rifle worthy of the Winchester name. Scope mounting is now easy to accomplish. Choosing between it and the Marlin 336C is just a matter of personal opinion. The hunter who selects a new Winchester Model 94 need make no excuses to anyone.

However, over the years I have come to prefer the Marlin 336 action. I appreciate the extra strength, solid top receiver, and simpler internal mechanism of the Marlin design. It is a great hunting rifle of obvious quality.

Combine either of these two fine rifles with the game getting effectiveness of the .30-30 cartridge and I venture to say that you have pretty close to the perfect deer rifle. After all, many millions of satisfied owners can't be wrong.

Note: Individual, full length reviews of these rifles can be found on the Product Reviews page.




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Copyright 2004, 2012 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.


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