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Hunting with the .308 Marlin Express
Iím going to go against the grain in this article and challenge a lot of conventional wisdom. To establish a little credibility with first time readers, I will state that I believe I have more practical North American field hunting experience than most. I have hunted big game in over 30 of the 50 states. This includes Rocky Mountain elk and black bear, Great Plains pronghorn, moose, feral hogs, exotics, Asian water buffalo and most of all, whitetail and mule deer. Iíve also been on an African plains game hunt and plan to return shortly for a Cape buffalo hunt. I have not attempted a grizzly bear or caribou hunt, but they are on my short list. Each season Iíll take from three to four deer, usually each with a different firearm that I am testing. Iíve hunted for over 40 years and gone down the glimmering road of new product introductions more times than I care to remember, especially with muzzleloaders. I do not want to begin to list all the hunting rounds I have used.
Naturally, I have come to have some strong general beliefs about hunters, rifles and cartridges. Of course, there are always common sense exceptions to these observations, but generally, I believe that they are accurate.
Very few North American hunting rifles are ever worn out from shooting. The vast majority of big game is taken at a range of less than 150 yards. Commercial ammunition is so good that there is very little need or justification to hand load unless you shoot the same load a lot. Many, if not most, hunters use far more powerful rifles than they need or can properly handle. The most common failure Iíve witnessed is that hunters often try to make shots that they havenít the skill to make because they are unwilling to close the range. The second most common problem has involved scope failure or zero shift. Modern scopes are very dependable, but they must be checked before every hunting season. Many hunters fail to do this.
While anyone can shoot better target groups sighting with a scope, a big game hunter with a good set of binoculars and a flat shooting rifle normally does not need a scope to be successful. All but the most expert riflemen have a practical shooting range limit of 200 yards. Without significant training and practice, it is irresponsible for most sportsmen to attempt a big game shot beyond 200 yards. While there is an accuracy and cartridge extraction advantage to a bolt action rifle, it makes little difference what configuration of rifle you carry as long as you can shoot it well and it fits your needs.
Therefore, a knowledgeable hunter with a dependable rifle of proper power that he can shoot with a reasonable degree of accuracy with commonly available factory ammunition will encounter very few failures in the field. You choose a rifle that you can consistently shoot well and you work to get within 200 yards of big game before even considering a shot. These are the goals I set for myself when I go hunting and I very seldom fail.
There are many situations when I prefer to use an iron sighted, flat shooting rifle in a lighter caliber than is often conservatively suggested. The most common reasons for this have involved portability, poor weather conditions, recoil traits and dependability. In my home state of Kansas, Texas and all of the plains, southeastern and mid-west states, a hunter with a .30-30 or .243 Winchester class rifle has all the big game rifle he will ever need. The vast majority of casual big game sport hunters would be better off shooting a rifle of that class. They have more than enough power and range to do the job and most people can shoot them more accurately than calibers that are more powerful without developing a flinch. If you include the Rocky Mountain West, a hunter with the proper .30-06 loads can confidently do it all.
All of which brings me to the subject of this article, the .308 Marlin Express. Of all the new (and mostly redundant) cartridge introductions in the past half-decade, this round makes the most sense. It makes the Marlin 336 rifle, one of the most dependable, adaptable and well balanced hunting instruments ever created, a universal North American big game rifle. The .308 Marlin uses a 160 grain bullet at a muzzle velocity (MV) of 2660 fps and muzzle energy (ME) of 2513 ft. lbs. At 100 yards, published energy figures claim 2430 fps/2111 ft. lbs. At 200 yards the figures are 2226 fps/1761 ft. lbs., and at 300 yards it is 2026 fps/1457 ft. lbs. A .308 Marlin Express sighted 2Ē high at 100 yards will be on target at 200 yards and around 8 inches low at 300 yards. The round performs very similarly to the .308 Winchester.
If we go back to the opinions I have about common North American hunting rifles and combine them into an overall rifle and cartridge configuration, the .308 Marlin Express is a nearly perfect North American hunting rifle for the vast majority of situations, up to and including elk hunting. Lever action rifles from Browning and Marlin are much more accurate and dependable than the pundits give them credit for being. The Marlin is a tube feed design and the Browning feeds rounds from a magazine. The Browning is able to use spitzer style bullet loads and, until the development of Hornadyís LeverEvolution rounds, was capable of greater effective range than the Marlin.
Tube feed lever actions, until recently, were limited to shooting cartridges loaded with flat point bullets. Only Marlin is currently producing lever guns in heavy calibers. While the Browning BLR is a fine, accurate rifle, I have never felt that it had the handling qualities or balance of the Marlin 336. The only reason I preferred the BLR for many hunting situations was its cartridge capability. My .30-06 BLR always felt awkward to me in spite of the excellent performance it provided. I felt that I had bolt action rifles that handled better and I let it go.
For years I used bolt action rifles for many hunts when I would have preferred a lever action. While first shot capability is paramount for successful hunting and no one advocates blazing away at game, a lever action delivers second and third rounds immediately with a minimum of sight displacement. Those critics who claim a hunter can make repeat shots with a bolt action almost as quickly as a lever action are shoveling a significant amount of horse poop and calling it roses! ďAlmostĒ is simply the most promising comparison they could make. I have some very quick bolt actions that I have trained myself to shoot from the shoulder for bolting second and third rounds and Iím pretty good at it, but in no way do they compare to the speed and on target recovery time of the lever action. What Iíve always wanted is a lever action with the balance of a Marlin 336 and the approximate power of a Browning BLR in .30-06 or .308 Win.
Hornadyís LeverEvolution round uses a soft polymer tipped spitzer bullet and new powder technology for better performance from tubular magazine fed lever actions. I didnít get on the LeverEvolution band wagon at first because I was perfectly satisfied with my my old Mossberg and Marlin lever actions for whitetail deer hunting, the only game that I was still regularly hunting with a tube feed lever action. I used my .30-30ís for camp and home defense and carried a Marlin .45-70 Guide Gun on some mountain horseback treks in case I ran into a hostile bear. Iím not much for handguns anymore and I felt that a lever action carbine slung over my shoulder was far more comforting. At the ranges I used these open sight carbines, I didnít see the benefit of the LeverEvolution and I like the way a flat point bullet delivers energy on game.
Not long ago I finished restoring an old Stevens bolt action .30-30 with a 2-6X scope. The Stevens was shooting very well and I bought a box of LeverEvolution rounds to see if the performance would really be that much better. My 100 yard groups were an inch flatter and my 150 yard groups were almost 2Ē better. "Not too bad," I thought to myself, so I dug out my sonís .30-30 Marlin and tried some 150 yard open sight groups. I decided that, at least in the scope sighted Stevens, the LeverEvolution rounds were worth using. I remember thinking at the time that it would be a real advantage to develop a LeverEvolution load that approximated the power of a .30-06 if the Marlin mechanism could handle the pressure.
The next winter Marlin and Hornady took almost that exact step by creating the .308 Marlin Express. The .308 Winchester cartridge is a little too long and operates at too high a MAP for the Marlin action, so Hornady and Marlin created a new medium pressure round that fits a 336 action and equaled the power and range of the .308 Winchester. When rifles finally arrived in my area, I traded in a couple of bolt actions I was no longer using for a new walnut and blue steel .308MX Marlin Express. At the time Iíd have preferred the stainless steel XLR model with a 24Ē barrel, but my dealer could only get the 22Ē model and I didnít want to wait. In the end, Iím glad that I got the model I did.
I chose a William WMS FP-336 receiver sight rather than a scope for the new rifle. I wanted a 200 yard lever action rifle that I could jam in my saddle scabbard, keep behind the seat of my Suzuki Samurai, use to backup big game hunts and as a pack rifle.
My rifle weighs the advertised seven pounds and the receiver sight does not affect its balance or handling characteristics. The trigger is no worse and no better than any other lever action Iíve fired. Fit and finish are good and the semi-buckhorn open sights are adequate. Most people will benefit from mounting a scope on the .308 Marlin Express, many because they simply have not learned how to use open sights or understand the advantages of a receiver sight. I like the idea of an iron sight, lever action rifle in a dangerous game or tight cover situation. Generally speaking, a receiver sight allows a shooter to equal the performance of a scope at 100 yards and delivers much tighter groups than open sights at 150.
I can put three rounds in or very near an orange, eight inch target dot at 200 yard from a solid rest using receiver sights, sighting dead on the orange roundel, with this .308 Marlin Express. I can come close with a black target, but I cannot see it as well. I realize that does not sound very impressive to those of you who frequent the gun magazines. It impresses the heck out of me. That is sterling performance from an off-the-shelf production rifle in my hands. Recoil is quite comparable to the Model 336 in .30-30 with a 20Ē barrel. Suddenly, I began thinking about a black bear back pack or horse back elk hunt in the deep woods above Cuchara, Colorado, caribou hunting in a tundra snow storm, or stalking Texas feral hogs with a long range, lever action rifle.
I used the Marlin Express to fill my doe tags. I took my first doe at 120 yards from a hilltop sitting position. My next doe fell from an offhand 80 yard shot as she bounded for deep woods cover. My first round was low and behind. I levered my second round and sent her rolling with a solid hit in the front shoulder. I doubt I could have managed that shot with any of my bolt actions. She would have made cover before I could have gotten back on her for a second shot.
I had a chance at a coyote at around 180 yards, but my sight system (not the .308 Marlin cartridge) let me down. I caught him in the open in front of some tall weeds, just after sunrise. When I drew the receiver sights down on him, his light color against the yellow winter weeds caused his form to lose definition. From his reaction I must have been very close to hitting him, but I really needed a scope on the Marlin that morning. Iím still debating if I want to mount a scope on the Marlin Express, but if it were my only rifle, I certainly would.
I am impressed with the .308 Marlin Express round. The only drawbacks that I can see are that there isnít a heavier bullet available for game larger than elk and that Iíll need to be certain to pack along plenty of extra ammunition in case it is not available in the area Iím hunting. Beyond that, this is the lever action rifle I have always wanted.
How popular this round will be is uncertain. The almost comparable .307 Winchester did not do very well, but it cannot quite match the performance of the .308 Marlin because of its flat point bullet. Some writers have pointed out that the .308 Marlin Express is just a reworking of the .300 Savage, a cartridge that did very well in its time. I have a certain ďso whatĒ feeling about that. Iíve never handled a .300 Savage. I know that the price of an old .300 Savage lever action is often higher than a new .308 Marlin Express. I donít have a .300 Savage and I do not intend to pay collectorsí prices for one. I do have a .308 Marlin Express.
I donít know how many old timers want a tube feed lever action rifle that performs like this. Many youngsters are enamored with the bolt action and do not know how good a lever action can be. However, Marlin has the rifle priced very competitively and the factory loaded ammunition is reasonable. For a comparable amount of what it takes to buy a Marlin .45-70 Guide Gun, Model 1895, or a high grade .30-30 Model 336, you can own a .308 Marlin Express. Iíll choose the .308 every time because it can match or exceed the performance of all the others in one neat package. I like this rifle and cartridge a lot.
Note: An article about the .308 Marlin Express along with articles comparing it to other cartridges can be found on the Rifle Cartridge Page.
Copyright 2008 by Randy D. Smith. All rights reserved.