The Modern Lever Action Marlin: Model 336 XLR .30-30 Rifle

By Randy Wakeman

Marlin 336 XLR
Illustration courtesy of Marlin Firearms Co.

The Marlin 336 has been around for quite some time; it appeared around 1948 as the successor to Marlin’s Model 36 from 1936. The Marlin 336 is the second largest selling high-powered sporting rifle in U.S. history, second only to Winchester's Model 94. What seems to have made the 336 the lasting success, in addition to its obvious build quality and durability, is the ease of scope mounting, which the Model 94 never could properly address. The centerfire Model 336 and the rimfire Model 39A define “Marlin."

It would be hard to call the .30-30 an “under-rated cartridge” based on its tremendous success over the years. Yet, in many ways, I believe that it is. It has been a long while since 1895, when the .30-30 was introduced. Interestingly, the cartridge was first known as the .30 Winchester Center Fire (.30 WCF). The "dash 30" designation was added by Marlin soon after its introduction because Marlin did not want to stamp the name of their principal competitor on their rifles. The dash-30 refers to the original load of 30 grains of smokeless powder used by Union Metallic Cartridge (UMC), who developed loads with Marlin that were head-stamped “U.M.C. / .30-30 S.” Marlin’s .30-30 designation stuck and it has been the “thirty-thirty” ever since.

Being under-rated, perhaps helped along by magnum mania and wishful thinking marketing approaches, the .30-30 is often looked upon as being a “beginning” deer cartridge, or perhaps as a “minimal” big game cartridge. It seems that the more seasoned and proficient the hunter the better the .30-30 becomes. There is no suitable substitute for shot placement.

Over the years, we have had some wild swings in thinking about cartridge suitability. Elmer Keith, generally relying on anecdotal evidence rather than science, whined about the .30-30’s ability to “sour” game back in the 1930s. On the other end of the pendulum we had Roy Weatherby, who suggested that velocity was such an important component of game-getting performance he intentionally gut-shot animals an attempt to prove his magnum cartridges. If you think that the cheese might have slipped off Mr. Keith and Mr. Weatherby’s respective crackers from time to time, I agree. In truth, the .30-30 is an immensely practical deer and general CXP2 game cartridge with reasonable shot placement.

The .30-30 has always been a suitable 200 yard or so deer cartridge; Hornady’s LEVERevolution ammo extends that by about 50 yards for most hunters. According to accepted ballistics tables, the 160 grain Hornady load sighted in at 3 inches high at 100 yards is essentially dead on at 200 yards while still traveling above 1900 fps. The Marlin XLR rifle attempts to exploit this improved ammunition by elimination of the traditional barrel bands, a four inch longer barrel than standard Model 336s and, to a lesser degree, a reversion to the slightly slower twist rate (1:12) always used by Winchester, as opposed to the 1:10 twist generally found on Marlin .30-30 carbines.

I have always had good luck with Marlin 336’s, yet this gun is exceptional in many respects. The stainless steel metalwork shows no tooling marks or imperfections; the action cycles as smooth as glass. The trigger is close to a "glass break" at 4-1/4 lbs.; the best factory 336 trigger I’ve had. The entire gun has a sturdy, substantial feel to it. No shortcuts have been taken that I can discern. It is close to a work of art, considering that this is a factory mass-produced rifle.

I mounted Warne steel Weaver-type bases and used Warne Maxima “high” quick-release rings to mount a new Burris Ballistic-Plex 2-7x35mm Fullfield II. This gives me an instant sight picture, while allowing enough clearance to operate the hammer with ease without the supplied hammer spur. If the situation calls for it, a couple of quick twists and you are good to go with the factory iron sights. The rear sight folds forward, nowhere close to interfering with the objective bell of the scope even with lens caps installed.

At the range, I found the recoil moderate, even after shooting several boxes of Hornady LEVERevolution ammo. At 105 yards, the 336 XLR grouped consistently in the area of 1-3/4 inches, more than adequate to put venison in the freezer. It almost goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: no cycling problems, failures to feed or eject. The Marlin 336 XLR functioned flawlessly.

The .30-30 has always been a proper whitetail cartridge, increasing in lethality in concert with the seasoning of the hunter. Right now, thanks in no small measure to the Hornady ammo, it not as good as it once was, it is clearly better. The Marlin 336 XLR is an extremely competent deer rifle, ideal for use at ranges where most deer are taken and now suitable to 250 yards or so in the hands of a good shot. Some factory built rifles have sacrificed quality over the years, thankfully not so with the Marlin 336. It is a great classic rifle, made even better in its latest, XLR, incarnation.

Note: Another review of the Marlin 336 XLR rifle can be found on the Product Reviews page.

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Copyright 2008 by Randy Wakeman. All rights reserved.