Marlin Model 338MXLR .338 Express Rifle

By the Guns and Shooting Online Staff

Marlin Model 338MXLR
Illustration courtesy of the Marlin Firearms Company.

The Marlin XLR rifles are becoming a familiar sight here at Guns and Shooting Online. We reviewed the Model 336XLR in .30-30 when it was introduced and then the identical (except for caliber) Model 308MXLR when it was introduced. Now Marlin has introduced a new caliber, the .338 Marlin Express and chambered it in what they call the Model 338MXLR. All of these XLR series rifles are essentially identical except for caliber.

Why Marlin has chosen to change the model designation with the caliber is anybody's guess, as it is not standard practice with most rifle manufacturers. (Imagine if Remington changed the model number for every one of the 18 or so calibers offered in their Model 700 CDL rifle!) If you choose your Marlin XLR rifle in .30-30 or .35 Rem. it is a Model 336XLR, in .308 Marlin Express it becomes a Model 308MXLR, in the new .338 Marlin Express caliber it is called the Model 338MXLR, in .444 Marlin it is a Model 444XLR, in .45-70 it is a Model 1895XLR and in .450 Marlin it is a Model 1895MXLR.

The "M" in MXLR presumably represents a more powerful cartridge (as in "magnum"), although none of these are magnum calibers. If it is based on power level, one wonders why the 444XLR does not also rate an "M." None of this affects the value or performance of the rifle, of course, but we find it irritating when manufacturers make things more complicated than necessary, especially for the new shooters that our sport desperately needs to attract.

Regardless of the nomenclature, all of these rifles are built on variations of the proven Model 336 action. The XLR series differ from standard Model 336 Marlins principally by having weather-resistant stainless steel barreled actions and grey/black laminated hardwood stocks, deluxe recoil pads to soften the kick, fluted bolts to reduce operating friction and 24 inch barrels for maximum velocity.

In addition, they eschew carbine-style barrel bands, instead attaching the magazine tube to the barrel by means of a dovetail fitting for enhanced accuracy. The forend is secured at the tip by a forend cap rather than a barrel band for the same reason. These changes were inspired by the introduction of, and are intended to take full advantage of, the benefits offered by Hornady's revolutionary LEVERevolution ammunition featuring unique Flex-Tip (FTX) boat-tail spitzer bullets.

The trigger pull of our test rifle measured a surprisingly light 3.5 pounds with only a little preliminary creep. This is the first Marlin rifle that we have reviewed in some time that did not require a trigger job before it could be taken hunting. Let us hope this is a new trend at Marlin. Overall, the action felt smoother in operation right out of the box than the Model 308MXLR that we reviewed in 2007.

Our test rifle came with the ubiquitous Marlin cross-bolt safety that blocks the hammer when applied. This safety is handy for dry firing the rifle and it is reasonably unobtrusive. The hammer retains a quarter cock "safety" notch, which is all the safety a lever action rifle needs in the field, especially when equipped with a telescopic sight that effectively prevents the rifle being dropped in such a way as to force the hammer.

The laminated pistol grip stock is supplied with a beavertail forend that is too thick and should be slenderized. Reducing the girth of the forend would lighten the rifle forward of the receiver (resulting is slightly faster handling), look more attractive and feel better in the hand. The pistol grip is excessively thick, but oval in cross section to increase shooter comfort. The drop at comb and heel is a good compromise for use with either the supplied iron sights or a low mounted telescopic sight. All XLR stocks are supplied with a fluted comb, black pistol grip cap and Pachmayr Decelerator recoil pad. Detachable sling swivel studs are provided. Wood to metal fit is good; the stock and barrel are carefully inletted, but the beavertail forend is hugely proud.

The pistol grip area receives generous, two-panel, machine cut checkering, while the forend is checkered in a wrap-around point pattern. The shape and coverage of the checkering patterns is good and the execution is fair. It is difficult to checker laminated wood stocks because the grain runs in different directions at different levels. Overall, it is an attractive stock.

Here are some basic specifications for the Marlin 338MXLR rifle.

  • Action: Lever; solid receiver top, side eject repeater
  • Caliber: .338 Marlin Express
  • Magazine capacity: 5 cartridges
  • Safety: Quarter cock hammer position plus hammer block cross-bolt; two-piece firing pin and automatic trigger block prevent the rifle from being fired unless the lever and bolt are fully closed
  • Stock: Two-piece, black/gray laminated hardwood with pistol grip cap, cut checkering, deluxe recoil pad and nickel-plated sling swivel studs
  • Length of pull: 13-5/8"
  • Barrel length: 24"
  • Twist: 1:12" right hand; 6 grooves
  • Sights: Folding semi-buckhorn adjustable rear and ramp mounted front with brass bead and hood; receiver drilled and tapped for scope mounts
  • Weight as tested: 8 pounds, 10.8 ounces (empty) with scope and mount
  • Overall length: 42-1/2"
  • 2013 MSRP: $900

As regular Guns and Shooting Online readers know, soon after the introduction of the .308 Marlin Express cartridge we began publishing articles suggesting a .338 Marlin Express. Two years later, Marlin and Hornady complied by announcing their latest creation, the .338 Marlin Express and an XLR rifle in which to shoot it.

While this cartridge uses standard diameter .338-inch bullets, it is not based on a necked-up .308 Marlin case. That approach would have allowed for a muzzle velocity of around 2450 fps with relatively mild recoil for a medium bore.

However, Marlin and Hornady wanted more velocity for marketing reasons (speed sells). The new cartridge is based on an entirely new case that can be loosely described as akin to a rimmed, shortened, necked-down version of the .376 Steyr with a short neck and a sharp shoulder. (The .376 Steyr was designed by Hornady several years ago.) The rim and head diameters of the .338 Marlin are noticeably larger than the .308 Marlin, although the overall length of the loaded cartridge is identical to the .308 Marlin and the .30-30. Thus, the new case has greater powder capacity.

Published LEVERevolution factory load ballistics from a 24" barrel call for a 200-grain FTX bullet (BC .430, SD .250) at a MV of 2565 fps and muzzle energy (ME) of 2921 ft. lbs. At 100 yards, the velocity is 2365 fps and the remaining energy 2483 ft. lbs. This allows for a Hornady H.I.T.S. killing power rating of 1184, indicating that the cartridge is suitable for 800-pound CXP3 game at that distance.

Trajectory information printed on the boxes of the sample .338 Marlin Express ammunition supplied for testing show that if a scoped rifle is zeroed to put the bullet three inches high at 100 yards, it should hit 0.7 inches high at 200 yards and 8.9 inches below the point of aim at 300 yards. Our calculations show a maximum point blank range (+/- 3 inches) of about 255 yards. Hornady says this about their new cartridge:

“The bullet has a B.C. of .430 and matches 180 grain 30-06 ballistics in terms of energy and trajectory out to 400 yards. The 200-grain FTX is built tough and designed for hunting large game like elk, moose and bear, but would be equally at home hunting large plains game in Africa. The 338 Marlin Express is the first ever long range, big game, lever gun specific cartridge to ever hit the market and opens a new class of hunting to the lever gun—the only all-American rifle design.”

The .338 Marlin Express is an excellent, all-around, medium bore cartridge. It is an outstanding woods and brush country deer cartridge, as well as an effective elk cartridge. It kicks a little less than the .338 Federal in rifles of the same weight and a lot less than the .338 Magnums. Its only real competition in a lever gun is the .358 Winchester cartridge offered in the Browning BLR rifle. Hornady and Remington offer factory loaded .338 Marlin Express ammunition; the latter comes with a 250 grain Soft Point bullet.

We chose a Weaver Classic Extreme 1.5-4.5x24mm riflescope for the 338MXLR and mounted it using a one-piece Leupold STD base and low rings. (You can read a review of this scope on the Product Reviews page.) This all steel scope mounting system is our favored choice for Marlin lever action rifles.

The scope features a 30mm main tube and an illuminated dot in the center of its Duplex-type reticle. It seemed a good choice for a medium bore lever gun and, in fact, worked well. The low 1.5x magnification setting provides a very generous field of view for short range shots at large animals and the maximum 4.5x magnification is adequate for shooting big game to beyond the MPBR of the .338 Marlin cartridge.

The new .338 Marlin Express is a neat cartridge and the Model 338MXLR rifle looks good, but we were curious to see how it performed at the rifle range. To find out, we visited the Izaak Walton outdoor gun range south of Eugene, Oregon, our usual gun testing venue.

This facility offers bench rests and covered shooting positions with target stands at 25, 50, 100 and 200 yards. The early summer weather was mostly cloudy during our range days with high temperatures of about 77 degrees F and light winds that we judged to have minimal effect on our .338 bullet at 100 yards.

Our friends at Marlin and Hornady supplied us with .338 Marlin LEVERevolution factory loaded ammunition for this review. Participating in the test shooting were Guns and Shooting Online staff members Nathan Rauzon, Jim Fleck and Chuck Hawks.

We did our shooting for record at 100 yards on Champion Score Keeper targets. All groups consisted of three shots fired from a shooting bench using a Caldwell Lead Sled rifle rest weighted with two bags (50 pounds) of lead shot. We allowed the barrel to cool between groups, but not between individual shots. Fortunately, barrel temperature seemed to have no influence on group size. Here are the shooting results:

  • Hornady LEVERevolution (200 grain) - smallest group 1-1/4"; largest group 2-1/4"; mean average group = 1.83".

Subjectively, the Marlin 336MXLR kicked a little less than the .270 Win. Ruger No. 1B or the .30-06 Winchester Model 70 Super Grade rifles that we also had with us at the range. It is the most "shootable" (mildest kicking) .338 medium bore rifle that we have reviewed.

It provides medium bore bullet weight and diameter with less recoil than the .338 Federal, .338-06, .35 Whelen, .350 Rem. Mag. or .338 Win. Mag. and better sectional density, more energy and a flatter trajectory than the .35 Remington or .358 Winchester. It should be an excellent slayer of deer, black bear, elk and moose, so it is unlikely that the North American hunter will ever need a more powerful cartridge.

Like most new cartridges, the .338 Marlin Express is relatively fat for its length, has very little case taper and a sharp shoulder. It also has a smaller rim flange than a .30-30 or .308 Marlin case for the extractor to grasp. These characteristics negatively affect operating reliability. More effort is required to chamber the cartridges and remove fired cases than with a Marlin .30-30. This probably contributed to the malfunction we experienced.

Historically, Marlin lever guns earned a good reputation for reliability. Since being acquired by the Freedom Group, which resulted in the closing of the Marlin factory and moving production to Remington, this has not always been the case. Unfortunately, our test rifle broke its extractor after the third shot. We finished our test firing by loading cartridges one at a time directly into the chamber.

The story of the broken extractor turned out to be a more complex problem than expected. Here is a synopsis of the rest of the story.

A telephone call to our friends at Marlin got a replacement part on the way, which arrived promptly via next day air. The bolt can be removed from a Marlin 336 action simply by unscrewing the single screw that attaches the lever. The extractor is a spring steel part that merely snaps around the bolt, so it is easy to remove and replace.

We installed the new extractor as soon as it arrived. The next time we got the Marlin 338MXLR to the range, we found that the bolt would not lock closed with the new extractor in place; it did not fit the extractor cut in the receiver. (Obviously, this rifle was shipped without the benefit of any quality control!) Rocky Hays, our Gunsmithing Editor, enlarged the extractor cut to cure the problem, but we were still not home free.

The .338 Marlin cartridge is very fat compared to a .30-30, for which the Marlin action was actually designed. The rather abrupt feed angle required by the action's pivoted cartridge carrier jammed the nose of the .338 FTX bullet against the roughly machined top of the chamber a little way into the chamber, with the side of the case wedged against the sharp bottom edge of the chamber, making it impossible to chamber the cartridge.

Close examination revealed that the problem was exacerbated by the hook of the new extractor being so close to the bolt face that the rim of the cartridge was not able to slip under the extractor, increasing the angle of attack of the cartridge in relation to the chamber. Rocky cured that by very carefully chamfering the lower edge of the chamber, polishing its interior and relieving the face of the extractor's hook.

At last we were able to chamber cartridges! Needless to say, this whole process is not something that most potential rifle buyers should try at home. Anyway, as soon as the weather and our schedule permitted, we were off to the range again. Unfortunately, after actually firing a cartridge, we found that when the extractor pulled the spent case from the chamber, it now dropped down into the action, making it impossible to feed another cartridge and tying-up the action.

At that point, we called Customer Service at Marlin and told them about our series of problems. The root cause is the comparatively fat, straight .338 Marlin case, exacerbated by inferior machining, polishing and parts fit. Marlin requested that we return the rifle to them for inspection and we did so.

That was the last we heard of the matter for some weeks, until the rifle reappeared on our doorstep. We have had no further contact with anyone at Marlin since sending off the rifle, but the work order that accompanied it when it was returned indicated that the repair shop had replaced the bolt, extractor and rebarreled the rifle. (Kinda what we expected.)

We checked to be sure that the rifle was empty, set the crossbolt safety, then loaded three cartridges into the magazine. Operating the lever deliberately, we watched the mechanism raise the first cartridge and the bolt begin its forward travel. The bolt face started to push the cartridge into the chamber, where upon it jammed with the tip of its FTX bullet wedged against the top of the chamber and the lower side of the case caught on the bottom edge of the chamber!

However, being persistent, we found that about half of the time a cartridge will chamber when the lever is operated slowly. Not good, but all lever guns work best when their levers are operated briskly.

When the action is operated with dispatch, the 338MXLR will now feed its cartridge into the chamber reliably and also eject them reliably. However, when inspected the cycled cartridges show a long scratch in the brass case (no doubt caused by the sharp lower edge of the chamber) and small dents in the shoulder area. The latter are presumably caused by contacting the top of the chamber. Reloaders will not be happy with this.

The bottom line to all of this is that we think Marlin would have been wise to follow our original suggestion to base their new .338 Marlin Express cartridge on the thinner .308 Marlin case. The fatter case geometry actually adopted is not a good match for the 336 action and the operation of this previously very reliable action, even after having been rebuilt and individually tuned by the factory, is marginal.

We are saddened by this story, as we strongly approve of the .338 Marlin Express concept. We would like to see this cartridge offered in the Browning BLR rifle, where we expect it would work fine. It is our hope that Marlin will make whatever modifications are necessary to the 338MXLR action to reliably and properly operate with the .338 Marlin cartridge.


  • Make and Model: Marlin Model 338MXLR
  • Type: Hunting rifle
  • Action: Lever, repeater
  • Stock: Gray laminated hardwood
  • Caliber Reviewed: .338 Marlin Express
  • Best Features: Stainless steel barreled action; Tubular magazine; Easy scope mounting; Fast repeat shots; Good handling qualities; Good recoil pad
  • Worst Features: Forend too bulky; Initial failure to feed reliably; Action scratches cases; Poorly manufactured; Absence of quality control
  • Overall Grade: D- (Poor)

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