Smokey Merkley

Smokey Merkley

I began hunting at a time when many sportsmen hunted with lever-action rifles such as the .25-35 Winchester Center Fire, .32 Winchester Special, 32-40 Winchester Center Fire, .348 Winchester Center Fire, 35-55 Winchester Center Fire, .30-30 Winchester and the old 45-70 Springfield, in the Winchester model 1886.

The rifle I carried hunting was the .30-30 Winchester, Model 94, which was dubbed “America’s favorite deer rifle.”

Those who used a lever-action for really big game such as bear, elk and moose generally used the Winchester Model 86 in .45-70 Springfield.

I remember that Marlin also made a lever-action in .30-30 Winchester.

By the early 1960s, the .45-70 had all but disappeared from the American marketplace. There was no big bore cartridge available in a lever-action rifle in current production, so Marlin decided to create a new big bore lever-action rifle that could fill the gap left by the discontinued Winchester Model 86 in .45-70 Springfield.

In 1964, Marlin introduced the .444 Marlin, which used the same 240-grain bullet as the .44 Magnum revolver. The case of the .444 Marlin was 2.225 inches long, and the .444 was capable of firing the 240-grain bullet at a muzzle velocity of 2,350 feet per second, and generated 2,942 foot-pounds of energy, making the rifle and caliber capable of hunting bear deer, elk and moose out to 200 or 250 yards.

Some hunters initially were disappointed with the .444 Marlin because they were using hand-loaded .429 bullets that were intended for handgun velocities and expanded too fast at .444 Marlin velocities. In spite of the complaints, the rifle gained popularity as 240-grain bullets were designed for the higher velocity.

Three years after the introduction of the .444 Marlin, Hornady introduced a heavier 265-grain bullet for use in the rifle for the largest game in North America. Today, there are a number of .444 Marlin cartridges in 240-, 265- and 300-grain loadings that will cleanly take bear, deer, elk or moose out to 250 yards. Muzzle energy of .444 cartridges range from 2,849 to 3,000 foot-pounds of energy.

Best accuracy with the .444 Marlin is attained with bullets sized to .432 diameter, both in the older micro-grooved and new “Ballard” style barrels. This bullet diameter is dictated more by the large diameter of chamber throats than by groove diameter of the barrel. Factory full velocity hand-loads when assembled using hard-cast gas-checked bullets of .432 diameter will rival the accuracy of any jacketed ammunition for this cartridge.

Hornady recently designed an improved version of the 265-grain bullet with it’s new LEVERevolution ammunition that has a soft polymer spire point that can be safely loaded in tubular magazines. It has an increased ballistic coefficient and increased velocity over 200 yards.

Other companies such as Baffalo Bore, Cor Bon and Grizzly also offer impressive loads for the .444 Marlin.

In 1972, Marlin re-introduced the .45-70 Springfield in a lever-action rifle, expanding their big bore lever-action line of rifles. Sales of the .444 are now overshadowed by the .45-70 ,which has enjoyed a resurgence of popularity among lever-action big bore hunters.

Today, bolt-action rifles from 6.5 Creedmoor on up to .300 Winchester or Weatherby magnums and .340 Weatherby magnums have taken over the market for big game hunting in North America. But there are still a select group of hunters who thrive on the ability to stalk close to big game and to make shots at 100 to 200 yards, or even closer. Many of these hunters prefer a big bore lever-action rifle in .444 Marlin or .45-70 Springfield, and Marlin has them covered.

If the challenge of getting close to big game appeals to you and you don’t mind a little recoil and watching the aspens quake for several seconds after the shot, you might enjoy big bore lever-action hunting.

Smokey Merkley was raised in Idaho and has been hunting since he was 10 years old. He was a member of the faculty of Texas A&M University for 25 years. There he taught orienteering, marksmanship, self-defense, fencing, scuba diving and boxing.

He was among the first DPS-certified Texas Concealed Handgun Instructors. He can be contacted at