THE .444 MARLIN

BY JOHN TAFFIN

            A look through the pages of the latest edition of Cartridges Of The World reveals 20 obsolete .44 American rifle cartridges with only one now being seen from time to time in replicas of the Sharps rifle, that being the .44-77. All the rest are long gone, dead, buried. However, we have one rifle cartridge today descended from this long line of mostly straight bodied .44s and that is the .444 Marlin. The fact the .444 Marlin still exists is a grand testimonial to its excellence, for it is not often that a cartridge is able to overcome the wrong configurations by both the rifle and ammunition manufacturer and manage to survive. The .444 Marlin is about as useful a close range, hard-hittin', easy handlin' levergun and cartridge combination that man could possibly conceive for anything short of the big bears and Africa's toughest, and with the right bullet and load it could even be used in these situations. With a heavy, tough jacketed or hard cast bullet in a short lightweight levergun it is near perfect.

The .444 Marlin levergun was introduced in 1964 and it was obvious from the start it did not know if it was fish or fowl. That first Model 444, as it was called, was a 24" barreled levergun with a two-thirds magazine, a straight-gripped stock, plus points for that, and a Monte Carlo Cheek piece, definitely minus points here; and for ammunition it was conceived as nothing more than a glorified .44 Magnum loading with the same 240 grain bullet the sixgun round utilized. The rifle was wrong and so was the ammunition. Long-range rifles are the proper home for 24” barrels, while the .444 loaded with the 240 grain could not really do anything not accomplished with the much easier handling, shorter, and lighter .44 Magnum Carbine. 

Remington gave us a much better choice of ammunition when they loaded the tougher 265 grain bullet, and in the 1990s, Marlin, with its Outfitter, brought forth an 18 1/2" barreled easier handling up close levergun.. Now we really had something. The 265 grain Remington load is gone but it has been replaced by several better heavy bulleted loads from Buffalo Bore and Cor-Bon. The latter has both a 280 and 305 grain load, while Buffalo Bore offers ammunition loaded with 270, 300, and 325 grain bullets. All of these loads are designed for tough use on tough critters; and they are at their best in leverguns close to the same size as similar guns chambered in .44 Magnum or  .44-40.   The .444 Marlin, at a length of 2.225", is not an elongated .44 Magnum as some may think. It is a slightly tapered case going from .470" at the base to .453" at the case mouth while the 1.285" long .44 Magnum is a straight case of .456" diameter. As we shall see in the next chapter one of the first, perhaps the first, experimenter to come up with the .44 Maximum idea was friend Lew Schafer who used a .444 Marlin cut to 1.6", turned on a lathe to be the same diameter as a .44 Magnum, and fired in a re-chambered 357 Dan Wesson SuperMag fitted with a .44 Magnum barrel. Then it was known as the .44 UltraMag. J.D. Jones also uses the .444 Marlin case as a basis for several wildcats including the superb .375 JDJ and way back in the early days trimmed the .444 Marlin one-tenth of an inch to come up with the .430JDJ for use with 300 to 340 hard cast bullets in the Thompson/Center Contender.

Marlin still offers their basic levergun though now offered with a 22" instead of a 24" barrel, as well as the above mentioned Outfitter. Even Winchester rode on the .444 bandwagon with both an 18" Timber Carbine on the Big Bore Angle Eject platform and a 20" Black Shadow Big Bore with a black synthetic stock. Both of these were long gone even before the closing of the Winchester plant. At its advent not only was the .444 Marlin saddled with a rifle that was too large and clumsy, and a bullet that was too small and fragile, it had to also overcome the fact that it was only chambered in a levergun that had Micro Groove rifling. This type of rifling uses more and shallower grooves than the conventional style. Everyone knows this type of rifling will not work with cast bullets. Wrong! Unfortunately this myth is still kept alive by those not in the know; as with most myths it does have a semblance of truth.     

            The truth of the myth surrounding the Marlin Micro Groove rifling is not cast bullets won't work but simply some cast bullets won't work. Do not pass up a good old Marlin .444 levergun because the barrel is marked "MICRO GROOVE." A good friend of mine in Texas loved the .444 Marlin but he had fallen in with the "won't shoot cast bullets crowd." I sent him a target shot with the .444 Marlin in my Micro Groove barreled  levergun. All the holes were tightly connected to each other. Immediately after he received the target with no comment attached I got a phone call from him. "How did you do that?" Four words answered the question: bullet weight and muzzle velocity. More on this shortly.

            When reaching for the .444 Marlin I am filling a need that may be a strain on the .44 Magnum levergun but with the same easy carrying and shooting qualities desired. My first big bore levergun was a Marlin 336 .44 Magnum picked up brand new in the 1960s. Instead of seeing how fast I could drive heavy bullets through it, I decided some time ago to build up the ideal levergun in .444 Marlin. A like new but used straight-gripped .444 Marlin was found at our local gunshop, Shapel's, fired to check out its worth, and then sent off to gunsmith Keith DeHart. It was during this initial testing that the total destruction of the two myths connected with Marlin .444's with Micro Groove rifling occurred. Those untruths spread for years were this caliber and rifling style would handle neither cast bullets nor heavyweight bullets.  My test results revealed 300 grain cast bullets would cut one hole groups for three shots at fifty yards. When the same results were obtained with 300 grain jacketed bullets, I knew the .444 Marlin Model 444 was a great choice for the conversion to a much handier levergun along the same lines as my Marlin 336 .44 Magnum. Gunsmith Keith DeHart  cut the original 24" barrel to 18 1/2", installed a full magazine tube holding six rounds, and the original bead front sight was mated up with a Lyman #66 Receiver sight.

            What a difference in handling qualities resulted! The clumsiness was gone and it handled as well as the slightly smaller .44 Magnum.  It almost seems Marlin looked in my gun safe before the advent of their .444 Outfitter; they missed the full magazine tube but returned to the straight-gripped stock and also went with a barrel length of 18 1/2". A look down the barrel of the Model 444P, as the Outfitter .444 is model numbered by Marlin, reveals a return to conventional rifling away from the many grooved MicroGrooved style.  

            These two Marlin leverguns now handle all of my .444 shooting chores and just to be a little different, the Outfitter now wears a Burris 2X LER scope on Ashley Outdoors new Scout-style scope base made specifically for the big bore leverguns from Marlin. Mounted far forward on the barrel, target acquisition is very fast and as an extra added bonus youngsters have no fear of getting rapped in the eye with the scope eyepiece. Installation is easy using the already drilled and tapped holes on the top of the receiver and the rear sight dovetail. Just in case conditions warrant iron sights instead of a scope, the Burris with its Weaver rings is easily removable, and the base of an Ashley Outdoors Ghost Ring is already at home on the Outfitter's receiver. 

            Unlike the mid-1960s when the .444 Marlin was introduced, we now have excellent .44 bullet choices both heavyweight cast and jacketed style.  The 300 grain bullets designed for the .44 Magnum that work so well in sixguns, are even better in the .444 Marlin but there are tradeoffs. When reloading for the .444 Marlin overall length must be watched closely and most bullets will need to be seated deep and crimped over the shoulder in the case of cast bullets.

            Forty-four caliber bullets designed for sixgun use in such long cylindered .44 Magnums as Ruger's Redhawk and Super Redhawk normally protrude too far from the .444 Marlin case to work through the action when crimped in the crimping groove. I always make up a dummy cartridge first to check all loads for positive feeding through the Marlin action. Even jacketed bullets may prove to provide an overall length that is too long if the crimping groove is used. Also the older .444 will accept rounds the newer guns will not. The problem is not feeding nor overall length but the wider bullets will not allow the cartridge to make the turn as it is inserted into the loading gate. Again check all rounds with DUMMY cartridges worked through the loading gate and action before loading up several boxes. Once the overall cartridge length is determined for total reliability these dummy rounds can be stored at the reloading area for setting the seating and crimping die in the future. 

I did not approach the .444 Marlin with the idea of somehow coming up with a ".44 Magnum Swift"; trying to see how fast I could drive a 240 grain .44 Magnum bullet did not even enter the picture. Instead I wanted the .444 to do with heavyweight bullets what the .44 Magnum could do with standard weight .44 bullets; perhaps even a little more. To this end I do not recall ever loading any bullets less than 265 grains in weight in the .444 Marlin.

            As stated earlier the first .444 Marlin ammunition from Remington used the same 240 grain bullet as the .44 Magnum revolver originally and the .444 really only came even remotely close to a big game rifle cartridge with the introduction of ammunition using Hornady's 265 grain JFN bullet. Just to show once again there is really nothing new under the sun, we can point out that before the advent of the .444, custom leverguns had been built up using the .30-40 Krag case blown out straight, loaded with .44 caliber sixgun bullets, and chambered in a Marlin 336 or Winchester 94. As with Marlin's Model 444, they too were hampered by the lack of suitable bullets. 

            So for me reloading for the .444 Marlin starts with the Hornady 265 grain Jacketed Flat Point and ends with Cast Performance Bullet Company's 320 grain hard cast LBT flat nosed gas check. The latter is chosen as the ultimate heavyweight bullet simply due to the fact that even it must be seated so deep to allow it to enter the loading gate and work through the action a bullet of any greater length would simply not be practical. In between these two bullet selections are several options both cast and jacketed in weight ranges from 275 to 310 grains.

            My first ventures in loading heavyweight bullets for the .444 Marlin were simply making hopefully sound judgments backed up by a whole lot of experience. Things are much less complicated now with heavyweight loads from Buffalo Bore and Cor-Bon. Not only are these excellent loads for the non-reloader who is looking for a tough bullet to handle big game, they also give us guidelines for our own reloading ventures. I have no way of reading pressures, Buffalo Bore and Cor-Bon do. I try to stay at or below their muzzle velocities with respected bullet weights.

            Here are those parameters with all loads clocked in my 18 1/2" custom .444 over Oehler's Model 35P sky screens. From Buffalo Bore, the 270 grain JFN does 2210 fps; the 300 grain JFN, 2095 fps; and the 325 gain LBT LFN hard cast, 2009 fps. With Cor-Bon's two loadings we find the 280 grain Bonded Core at 2248 fps and the 305 grain JFP at 2070. In my reloading of the .444 Marlin I have used jacketed bullets from Barnes, Freedom Arms, Hornady, Sierra, and Speer. There are certainly others available however these are the ones I have used not only in the .444 Marlin but the little brother .44 Magnum as well. Barnes marks their bullets for the .44 Magnum and .444 Marlin while all the others were developed to give reloaders a tough bullet for use in .44 Magnum sixguns.

            For most of us whose big game hunting is restricted to whitetail deer and maybe, if we are fortunate, a chance at a black bear, the 265 Hornady remains a fine choice. This is one of those bullets so good I almost think it was simply discovered rather than invented. It gives superb long range accuracy in .44 Magnum sixguns, I used it for years for long range silhouetting, as well as being suitable for hunting big game. When it comes to cast bullets, and this is what I mostly use in the .444 Marlin now that the poor accuracy with cast bullets myth has been laid to rest, I once again use the same heavy bullets that have been so successful in .44 Magnum sixguns. Both the BRP 295 grain gas checked semi-wadcutter and RCBS's 300 grain versions of the same bullet are traditional Keith designs with flat points and wide front driving bands. They are not recognizable as such when loaded in the .444 Marlin as they must be crimped over the front shoulder to allow feeding.

For top accuracy I found that these bullets as well as their jacketed counterparts should be driven to a minimum velocity of 1900 feet per second in the original 24" barrel. That is the bullet weight and muzzle velocity mentioned earlier. A 300 grain bullet at 1900 feet per second or more in the .444 Marlin, even with MicroGroove rifling, will perform. One can only dream of what could be done with these in a longer action.             The slightly heavier bullets from the old SSK #310.430 mold and Cast Performance Bullet Co.'s 320 grain LBT gas check are both very flat nosed for maximum energy transfer when they hit. These are probably the best choice in cast bullets for using the .444 Marlin on really big tough critters. They break big bones and penetrate heavy muscles.     

            If my levergun was to be used only for small deer and small hogs I would go with the .44 Magnum. If the menu included the larger bears and possibly Africa, my choice would certainly be the .45-70. But for a levergun that can nearly do it all, the .444 Marlin, properly loaded, remains an excellent choice.  It spite of all the testing that has been done with results to the contrary over the past 50+ years, from time to time we still see articles published about best 'brush' cartridges with conclusions certain bullet weights and calibers would somehow 'cut brush'. This is wrong!  There are no cartridges that can be counted on to deliver killing shots through brush of any size. When a high-peed projectile hits a twig or sapling or brush or bush or tree, anything can happen and very little of it is positive. Of course some are better than others. I would certainly expect a 500 grain .458 bullet to 'cut brush' better than a high-speed projectile such as the .220 Swift. Maybe. At least if one hits a small tree in front of the intended quarry, the .458 might go through completely; again, maybe.

            No, brush guns do not enable us to shoot through brush. They are so named simply because they handle easier in heavy cover or thick brush and most importantly, they come up to the shoulder and swing ever so quickly. Try carrying and swinging a 24” barreled rifle in heavy cover; the noted elephant hunter, Pondoro Taylor, wrote of almost being killed when the long barrel of his rifle got caught up in brush. The easiest carrying brush guns are short barreled, quick on the first shot, and just as quick to chamber a second shot. That means a levergun and we do not need 300 yard cartridges or rifles. Again, we are not talking cartridges that will penetrate brush; we are instead talking close-range cartridges that will deliver a big heavy bullet at ranges up to 100 yards, more likely 50 yards, and do it quickly and efficiently. Here are some loads capable of doing exactly what we are talking about. Expect a lot more recoil than that generated by a similarly sized .44 Magnum levergun and one-inch, three- shot groups at 50 yards:

Load                                                                MV 18 1/2” Barrel                                          

Barnes 275 JFP/48.0 gr. H322                         1956 fps

Barnes 275 JFP/46.0 grs. RE-7                                    2081 fps

Barnes 300 JFP/45.0 grs. RE-7                                    2030 fps

Freedom Arms 300/48.0 gr. H322                               2006 fps                        

Hornady 265 JFP/50.8 gr. H322                                  2000 fps                      

Hornady 265 JFP/51.3 gr. H4895                                2046 fps                      

Hornady 265 JFP/47.0 gr. RE-7                                   2067 fps

Hornady 300 XTP/51.3 gr. H4895                               1927 fps                      

Hornady 300 XTP/48.0 gr. H322                                 2075 fps                      

Sierra 300 JFP/51.3 gr. H4895                                    1894 fps                      

Sierra 300 JFP/48.0 gr. H322                                      2006 fps                      

Speer 300 JFP/48.0 gr. H322                                      2036 fps                      

Speer 300 JFP/51.3 gr. H4895                                    1923 fps                      

Speer 300 JFP/49.6 gr. H4895                                    1728 fps                      

BRP 295 GC/51.3 gr. H4895                                       1900 fps                      

BRP 295 GC/49.3 gr. H4895                                       1831 fps                      

BRP 295 GC/46.0 grs. RE-7                                        2142 fps

Cast Performance 320/45.0 grs RE-7                           2065 fps

RCBS #44-300 SWC GC/49.3 gr. H4895                   1831 fps                      

SSK 310 FP/ 51.3 gr. H4895                                      1906 fps                      

            There is a natural niche in between the .44 Magnum of 1956 and the .444 Marlin of 1964. As we shall see in the next chapter it arrived in the 1980s in several forms.

 

 

39-1) Excellent heavy bullets for use in the .444 Marlin include Hornady's 265 FP,

Speer’s 270 and 300 JFNs, Sierra’s 300 FP, and BRP 295 grain GC.

 

 

 

 

39-2) The .444 Marlin cartridge case is not only longer than the .44 Magnum

it is also longer than the .45-70.

 

 

 

39-3) Taffin's favorite powders for loading the .444 Marlin are Alliant’s Reloder 7,

and Hodgdon’s H4895 and H322.

 

 

 

39-4) Marlin’s 444 Outfitter, bottom, is the same overall length as the Marlin

444 shortened and slimmed by Keith DeHart.

 

 

 

39-5) After Keith DeHart shortened this Marlin Model 444 to 18 1/2” and slimmed

down the buttstock and forearm, Taffin added a Lyman receiver sight.

 

 

 

 

39-6 & 39-7) The shortened barrel, slimmed wood, and Lyman receiver sight

all combine to make this .444 Marlin an exceptional woods rifle capable of taking anything.

 

 

 

39-8) The .444 Marlin definitely shoots!

 

 

 

39-9) The Marlin Outfitter handles much easier than the original Model 444.

 

 

 

39-10) “Don't worry about me boys. I have my Marlin .444 and the two of us

can handle anything.”

 

 

 

39-11) That top group is three shots at 50 yards with the .444 Marlin.

 

 

 

39-12) Clint Smith looks on as Mike Venturino enjoys the results of his buffalo

hunt with a 19th-century .44 long gun, the .44-77 Sharps.

Photo courtesy of Mike Venturino.

 

 

 

39-13) Two of the .444 Marlin's ancestors from the 19th-century are the Sharps

and the Remington Rolling Block both chambered in .44-77.

Photo courtesy of Mike Venturino.

 

 

 

39-14) The T/C Contender is perfectly suited to handle the .444 Marlin;

this one started as a .44 Magnum.

Photo courtesy of Glen Fryxell.

 

 

 

39-15) It is obvious from this picture how deeply 300 grain bullets must be

seated to function through the action of the Marlin levergun.

Photo courtesy of Glen Fryxell.

 

 

 

39-16) Cor-Bon’s heavy .444 Marlin loads consist of a 280 grain bonded bullet

at 2200 fps and 305 FP at 2100 fps.

 

 

39-17) Buffalo Bore offers three Heavy .444 Marlin loads: a 335 LFN at 2025 fps,

a 300 JFN at 2150 fps, and a 270 JFN at 2250 fps. 

 

Chapter 38         Chapter 40