Please use the print button in the share bar at the top of the page.
November 27, 2023

Amazing Marlins: Superb Condition & Engraving

By Kurt Allemeier

Share this post:

John Mahlon Marlin started with single shot pistols before jumping into lever action rifles that have proved to be some of the most popular ever.

Marlin, who worked for a time at the Colt factory in Connecticut, set out on his own in 1870 after getting his first two patents. He made single shot pistols, single action revolvers, and single shot rifles before settling into lever action rifles with the Model 1881.

At its Dec. 8-10 Premier Auction in Bedford, Texas, Rock Island Auction Company will offer some of the finest conditioned Marlin long guns bearing bright, dazzling finishes and brilliant engraving and inlays, making them the envy of collectors.

John Marlin and His Guns

Born in 1836, Marlin was apprenticed to a machine shop before moving on to gun making. When Marlin set out on his own, he started with single shot Derringers in a range of calibers and whimsical names like “OK,” “Never Miss,” “Victor,” and “Stonewall.” Following the pocket pistols, he made single action and double action revolvers.

Marlin’s company was tasked with manufacturing and improving the action on the Ballard rifle, what was one of the finest single-shot rifles of the 19th century, making them from 1875 to 1891. During that time he recognized the rise of repeating rifles and came out with the Model 1881 lever action rifle.

The company would follow the 1881 with several other repeaters before branching to pump action and bolt action rifles, and shotguns. Marlin died in 1901 and his sons Mahlon and John Howard took over the company. The company was bought by a New York syndicate in 1915.  Marlin became the biggest producer of machine guns in the world during World War 1, making Colt “Potato Diggers” and Browning Automatic Rifles.

A closeup look at the engraving on a Marlin Model 1897. The company had levels of engraving from the least expensive, Level 1, to the most expensive, Level 15. This gun is covered with Level 10 engraving that included a wildlife scene and extensive floral and scroll engraving as well as precious metal inlays.

Marlin Engraving

Conrad Ulrich did most of the engraving for Marlin from 1881 to 1910, establishing the patterns for the factory. He eventually left to work for Winchester. His son, Alden George Ulrich apprenticed at Marlin and worked there until the end of World War 1 when he, too, went to work for Winchester.

Standard engraving patterns were developed starting with the Model 1889. Company catalogs listed that engraving was available for $5 and up but the 1897 catalog listed grades of engraving but without examples. Customers could send for a book that showed engraving, checkering and prices.

According to the price book, the lowest level of engraving, Grade No. 1, cost $5 for scrollwork, borders and a game animal in a circle on the left, while the highest, Grade No. 15, provided for finely detailed game scenes,  inlays and engraving on the barrel, hammer and lever, for $66. Gold and platinum inlays were available in Grade 10 on up.

Marlin Model 1881

Marlin’s first repeating rifle used an underhammer and tubular magazine but had issues, so John Marlin went back to the drawing board and with some tweaks the Model 1881 was born. Utilizing several patents, it was a side loading, top ejecting lever action that was chambered for several calibers but was the first repeater sturdy enough to handle the .45-70 big bore cartridge.

This Marlin Model 1881 is inscribed to former mayor of Sacramento, Calif., Clinton L. White, who graduated from Cornell College in Iowa in 1874 before heading west where he taught and practiced law, served in the California legislature, as deputy attorney general, as a colonel in the California National Guard, and a two-year term as Sacramento mayor. The gun has outstanding factory engraving by Conrad Ulrich of plain borders, floral scrollwork and punch dot background. The right side features a leaping stag in a circular panel, while the left has similar scroll engraving with White’s name on it. The rifle is topped by a Malcolm scope and is featured in William Brophy’s “Marlin Firearms.”

The Model 1881 magazine could hold nine cartridges that Marlin touted could be emptied in six to seven seconds. The action was simple but strong with an exposed hammer. About 20,000 were made, and 6,261 were chambered in .40-60 caliber like the rifle above. The gun was well received and used for hunting large game.

This special order Model 1881 Deluxe rifle has rare set triggers. Among the deluxe features are the checkered forearm and straight grip stock, casehardened engraved receiver and double set triggers. The receiver has floral scroll engraving and a punch dot background with a running buffalo in a circular panel on the right and a deer on the left side. A deer head tops the receiver. It is chambered in .45-70.

Early Marlin catalogs offered plenty of extra features that could be special ordered. Rifle butt plates could be ordered in place of standard shotgun butts. Extra-heavy, half-octagon, and different barrel lengths could also be ordered.

This special order factory engraved Model 1881 retains 75 percent of its case colors and nitre blue remains on the loading gate. On the right side of the receiver is a bear encircled by scroll engraving, while the left side features similar scrolling surrounding a running deer.

Marlin submitted the Model 1881 for U.S. military trials in 1881-1882 but the gun failed because of explosions in the magazine tube. The Model 1881 was well-praised but would set the stage for rifles with improved and more reliable mechanisms.

This blued Model 1881 is near mint with a special order barrel length of 28 inches, double set triggers and pistol grip stock that is checkered along with the forend. The gun is inscribed “C.F. Luebben” on the right side. He was a German immigrant who lived as a farmer/laborer in several western states.

Marlin Model 1889

The Model 1881 eventually gave way to the Model 1888, followed quickly by the Model 1889. The 1889 moved the ejection port to the right side of the receiver so that used cases were thrown to the side rather than straight up out of the gun. The solid top and side ejection port – a first for Marlin rifles -- were the most obvious change from the Model 1888, but internally, a locking lug and firing pin system was added to prevent accidental discharge until the bolt was locked. The gun also included a cartridge carrier intended to stop jams.

The gun, called the “New Safety Repeating Rifle,” was chambered for pistol calibers of .32-20, .38-40, and .44-40.  Well received, more than 55,000 Model 1889 rifles were made from 1889 to 1903.

Manufactured in 1893, this Deluxe Model 1889 has a casehardened receiver embellished with attractive factory floral scrollwork on a punch dot background, borders and a stag in a circular panel on the left side. The rifle is fitted with a highly desirable Freund elevation adjustable “V” notch rear sight. The casehardening pops from the receiver and is at 80 percent of its original finish. The barrel and magazine have 95 percent of their original bluing.

Marlin Model 1893

John Marlin anticipated a change from black powder to smokeless powder and knew his guns would need stronger steel for the barrels. He was awarded a patent for a new locking bolt system and a two-piece firing pin that could handle the stronger smokeless powder and started production of the 1893 with the intent for it to take the newer powder cartridges and longer cartridges. This Deluxe Model 1893 shown below is an outstanding example of turn of the century factory engraved artistry from Marlin.

A 1922 company catalog describes the Model 1893 as the “Ideal rifle for hunting all species of big game found on the North American continent.” Marlin manufactured 73,186 Model 1893 rifles.

Manufactured in 1895, the rifle’s casehardened receiver still shines and the engraving is highlighted by touches of inlaid gold and platinum borders. The floral scrollwork is on a stippled background with bordering. The right side of the receiver offers leaves outlined in gold and platinum while its opposite side is an oval panel depicting the detailed scene of a hunter taking aim at a buck ringed by gold and platinum borders. The scroll engraving and precious metal inlays continue on top of the receiver and barrel as well as the underside and the lever. The forend and wrist of the stock are finely checkered.

Marlin Model 1894

The Model 1894 returned to taking pistol cartridges with a short receiver for the same bullets as the early Models 1888 and 1889. The company stated “This rifle is practically the Model 1893 rifle adapted for shorter cartridges.” The company brought the rifle back in the 1960s to handle .44 Magnum rounds.

Rock Island Auction had the pleasure of selling Annie Oakley’s Conrad F. Ulrich engraved Model 1893 rifle for $460,000 at its December, 2020 Premier Auction.

This Deluxe Model 1894 in takedown configuration is exceptional with its fine factory floral scrolling and borders on the receiver. The left side has a wildlife scene of two deer inside an oval. The scroll engraving carries over to the top of the receiver and the barrel near the breech. Casehardening is still visible on the trigger guard and hammer and a gold wash can be seen on the screws. The gun’s forend and wrist of the stock are checkered. Model 1894 rifles are rarely found documented as factory engraved.

Marlin Model 1897

John Marlin decided the company needed a .22 caliber takedown rifle, and the Model 1897 was born. The company even offered a canvas case that could be strapped to a bicycle frame. From the catalog: “This is just the gun to take on a summer vacation, or to the woods; it will come in handy for birds, snap shooting, killing time on rainy days, etc. it takes no room; it weighs next to nothing and can be put together and taken apart in less time than it takes to describe it. Just the thing to take on a bicycle trip through the woods and country.”

Rock Island Auction Company had the privilege of selling Annie Oakley’s presentation engraved and gold plated Marlin Model 1897 for an eye-popping $575,000 at its December, 2019 Premier Auction.

Manufactured in its first year of production, this Model 1897 has nearly top-tier embellishing. Grape leaves are engraved on a fine punch dot background and the highly detailed game scenes are bordered by gold inlay. The left side of the receiver shows a doe and buck in a forest scene with the oval panel rimmed in gold. The right side depicts a squirrel in a tree inside a round panel outlined in gold. Scrolling also decorates the forend cap and lever. Gold inlays can also be found on the forend cap and the lever. The breech of the barrel is also adorned with light scrollwork and lines of gold and platinum are inlaid. The forend and pistol grip stock have a factory checkering pattern using grape leaves. This rifle is accompanied by two additional barrels.

Marlin Model 20-S

The first of five pump-action takedown rifles Marlin made was the Model 20. Introduced in 1906 in .22 caliber, this rifle was built until 1916. In the company catalog, the Model 20 is described as “…a take-down .22 caliber repeater with the popular trombone action, using in the same rifle without any alteration or adjustment the short, long and long-rifle cartridges, black and smokeless as used in the Models 1892 and 1897.” The Model 20-S had a shorter locking bolt for a stronger receiver.

The Model 20-S is scarce to begin with, but add special order features and they become super scarce. Add monogramed initials “ESB” and it is truly a one of a kind gun. The punch dot background and scrollwork display both the beauty and precision of Alden George Ulrich’s work. A buck and doe are on the left of the receiver and a bloom is engraved on the takedown knob surrounded by engraving on the right side. The right side of the butt stock has a carved duck and floral carving on a stippled background.

Marlin Model 90 Shotgun

Marlin added shotguns to its line in 1898. In 1936, Sears and Roebuck requested Marlin make an over/under shotgun to offer for sale.  The company agreed but only if it could also sell the gun to its customers. For Sears it was marked “Ranger” before World War 2 or “J.C. Higgins” after the war. It was first offered in 12 gauge but later also in 16 and 20 gauges.

Marlin wasn’t a company that provided many presentation pieces. We’ve seen the two that were given to Annie Oakley, and now famous actor and “King of the Cowboys” Tom Mix’s Model 90 shotgun. The company presented him the shotgun for his work on Marlin’s gun handling and safety program for American youths as well as promotion of the Marlin Model 100-S “Tom Mix Special” rifle.

This Model 90 shotgun was presented to “King of the Cowboys” Tom Mix. Marlin didn’t have an engraver on staff after Alden George Ulrich left after World War 1, so the work on this shotgun was performed by engravers Charles Preiss and Dan Cavanaugh. It features a gold inlay of Mix’s autograph surrounded by a six-shooter, holster rig, and Mix’s trademark cowboy hat interlaced with floral scrolling and borders on the right side of the action. Scrolling and depictions of Mix, roping, bronco busting, and riding a horse decorate the left side. The forend and pistol grip buttstock are also checkered.

Marvelous Marlins

John Marlin’s rifles often fell to second place behind Winchester, but his guns were amazing firearms that received engraving that matched and at times surpassed those of Winchesters’ engravers thanks to Conrad Ulrich Jr. Rock Island Auction Company’s inaugural Premier Auction at its Bedford, Texas location Dec. 8-10 offers an amazing opportunity for Marlin collectors to get their hands on some of the highest conditioned and fantastically adorned rifles and shotgun available.


"Marlin and Ballard Firearms & History," by Bill West

"Marlin Firearms: A History of the Guns and the Company that Made Them," by William S. Brophy

The Marvels of Marlin’s Model 89, by Phil Spangenberger, True West Magazine

Recent Posts

MAC-10 vs Uzi

For arms collectors, military historians, and any fan of hard-hitting heavy metal, it doesn’t get much better than the machine gun. The MAC-10 vs Uzi


Please login to post a comment.