Review: Marlin Dark Series Lever-Action Rifles

Marlin’s new Dark Series rifles combine classic action with modern tactical features.

Review: Marlin Dark Series Lever-Action Rifles

No doubt the Marlin 1895 Dark Series will be met with disdain by lever-action purists. But purists aren’t the market for these rifles, and early indications show a solid market exists for the Dark Series. (Photo: Brian McCombie)

There’s not a thing wrong with old-school lever actions, with wood stocks and blued steel and a look that reminds us of America’s Old West history.

But there’s also nothing wrong with a new take on an old favorite, especially if the new take might draw in a different set of customers. That’s the approach Marlin Firearms has taken with the new Dark Series lever-action rifles. Introduced in April 2019 at the NRA Annual Meetings & Exhibitions, the Dark Series guns are based on standard Marlin models but incorporate a more tactical look and feel than the traditional blued-and-wood levers.

No doubt the Dark Series will be met with disdain by lever-action purists. But the purists really aren’t the market for these rifles, and the early indications are that a very solid market exists for the Dark Series.

I recently received a new 1895 Dark chambered in 45-70 Gov’t. Like the other rifles in the series, the 1895 Dark arrives complete with a rail atop the receiver and much of the barrel, a threaded barrel and Parkerized metal with a wood stock and fore end in a black-painted finish. Dark Series rifles also feature a black paracord wrapping on the lever loop and a black paracord sling.

On Target

Initially, I tried out the 1895 Dark using the standard iron sights. The 1895 Dark features an XS Lever Rail with ghost ring peep sight and a traditional front post. I was able to shoot 2-inch and smaller groups with the rifle at 50 yards, including a 1.30-inch 4-shot group with Barnes VOR-TX 45-70 firing a 300-grain TSX FN bullet.

But the XS Lever Rail on the 1895 Dark essentially makes this an “optics-ready” rifle, and I figured a scope would be a better way to judge accuracy at distances beyond 50 yards. So I mounted a Swarovski Z6i 1-6x24mm onto the 1895 Dark.

Mounting the Swarovski was easy enough. However, while the drop at the stock’s comb and heel are pretty much perfect for using the rear peep sight, these dimensions are too low for a scope. Even with an optic with a relatively low profile and mounting it with lower rings, I found it very hard to get a good cheek weld.

My solution? I strapped on the Urban Warfare IVS Cheek Pad made by Blackhawk. Once the cheek pad was on the stock, I had enough cheek weld for quality shooting.

I took on targets at 100 yards and was pleasantly surprised at how well the 1895 Dark grouped. I used the aforementioned Barnes ammunition, plus Federal Power-Shokwith a 300-grain jacketed soft-point bullet, and Hornady LEVERevolution 45-70 launching a 250-grain Monoflex bullet.

I had no problem pegging 2-inch groups at 100 yards, firing five shots. My best groups included a 1.30-inch 4-shot cluster with the Barnes.

I also shot a sub-MOA 3-shot group with the Federal Power-Shok that measured just .585-inches. Through my scope, I saw the three shots touching, got way too cocky and tried a fourth shot. I should’ve at least waited for the barrel and my excitement at the very tight group to cool a bit. That last shot went a little high and left, and expanded the group total to 1.36-inches. That’s still very, very good for a 45-70 lever-action hunting rifle with a 16.25-inch barrel.

Strong Features

The trigger on the 1895 Dark is a bit stiff, but breaks at a nice average of 3-pounds, 11-ounces, as measured by my Lyman Electronic Digital Trigger Pull Gauge.

The rifle’s lever action works very smoothly, easily cycling in live rounds and ejecting spent brass. The larger lever loop provides good leverage and the paracord wrapping around the loop provides a smooth surface for the back of the fingers when cycling the action. I had no problems loading the large 45-70 rounds through the side-loading gate and up and into the tubular magazine under the barrel.

The hardwood stock and forend are painted with a textured black finish, and that surface finish provides a nice grip. I didn’t even miss the traditional checkering.  

The XS Lever Rail runs from the rear of the receiver to approximately halfway up the length of the barrel. That extra rail length will be very handy for the hunter who might like to attach a night vision or thermal scope or attachment and do some hunting after dark for hogs and the like (where legal, of course).

The Dark Series rifles arrive from the factory already threaded for a suppressor or muzzle brake, and thread protector is included. On the 1895 Dark, the threading is at 11/16-24. The rifle also sports a cross-bolt safety, sling studs and a hammer extension. The latter provided a handy assist when I had the scope attached to the rifle.

Consumer Interest

Marlin first released the 336 Dark chambered in 30-30 Win. a couple months prior to the 1895 Dark in 45-70 Gov’t. Based on the reception the 336 Dark received, Eric Lundgren, Marlin’s senior product manager for rifles, believes that FFL retailers will find good demand for the 1895 Dark and the other rifles in the series.

As Lundgren explained, reactions were very positive when initial reviews of the 336 Dark were posted online.

“One of the reviews was posted to a larger firearms website and it did very well there,” Lundgren noted. “That website then put it up on its Facebook page, and in just a week, it was shared over 1,000 times on Facebook and to other social media platforms.”

While there were some dissenting opinions about a lever with a tactical look, most comments were very positive.

“One of the things the readers of the original reviews really liked was that the Dark Series rifles come factory-threaded for a suppressor,” he added. “In the past, it could be difficult to get a lever action threaded. Almost none came that way from the factory, and the tubular magazine presented difficulties for many gunsmiths.”

So, a good sales strategy is to stress not only the 1895 Dark tactical accessories but their very functional uses. Start with the threaded barrel, then move to the XS Lever Rail and how it works for optics and other accessories. Point out that the paracord sling is included with the rifle, as well as the paracord wrapped loop, sling studs and hammer extension.

Selling It

“The target market for the Dark Series rifles is really those people who’ve never considered a lever action before,” Lundgren noted. “The 1895 Dark and the other Dark rifles are essentially hybrids that combine a traditional platform with modern features. So, I think you’d do well to not go the standard lever-action route and pair up these rifles with displays featuring rustic woods and cowboy accessories.”

One display option, then, is to make sure you have at least one rifle out of the gun rack and shown in profile so customers can see the rail and paracord. If you have a suppressor on hand, attach that, too, so customers understand this is suppressor-ready. (Your signage will need to explain, “Suppressor not included.”)

You might also want to attach a rifle scope to the 1895 Dark — again explaining the optic is not included — as a way to show off the rifle’s capabilities and to potentially generate an optics sale.

The people who generally purchase tactical rifles often start their “window shopping” with AR-platform rifles, so you may even want to display the 1895 Dark and the other Dark Series models with your store’s ARs.

Marlin sales staff are ready and eager to help retailers, too, with in-store visits and suggestions for selling the Dark Series to a particular establishment’s customer base. Marlin also has a full slate of Dark Series advertising in the queue, both for print and online platforms, designed to drive consumers to retail.

And Marlin isn’t done with the tactical approach.

In addition to the 336 and 1894 Dark, Marlin has other rifles in the series forthcoming. These include an 1895 Dark chambered in .444 Marlin, an 1894 Dark in .357 Mag/.38Spl, another 1894 Dark in .44 Rem Mag/.44 Spl., and a .410 lever-action shotgun under the 1895 Series.

Specs: Model 1895 Dark Series

Caliber: 45-70 Govt.
Action:  Lever
Barrel:  16.25-inch carbon steel
Barrel Twist:  1:20, six groove Ballard style
Receiver:  Forged carbon steel, machined and polished
Capacity: 5-shot, full-length tubular magazine
Safety:  Cross-Bolt Style
Finish:  Black, Parkerized
Overall Length: 34.5 inches
Approximate Weight: 7.65 lbs.
Stock: Hardwood, painted black with black webbing surface
Muzzle: threaded at 11/16x24
Includes: Paracord Sling, XS Lever Rail with Ghost Ring, Big Loop Lever also paracord wrapped, sling studs, and hammer extension.
Overall Length: 34.5 inches
Approximate Weight: 7.65lbs

MSRP:  $949


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