Although I spent many hours poring over the 1965 Marlin catalog, sipping coffee and listening to Gordon Light foot, my attention was always directed at either the Model 336 (a real deer rifle) or the modern (and modernistic) short-throw Levermatic Model 57 .22 Long Rifle. I doubt that I ever cast more than a glance at the pages extolling the virtues of the Model 39A.
To my callow and untutored eye, the 39A was both old-fashioned and ungainly. The barrel was too long, the action too small, and the overly generous forend seemed out of proportion. It vaguely resembled the lever actions of the television westerns, but not in a way I would like. I never gave it a second thought.
Today, the Model 57 I so admired has been consigned to the scrap heap of history, discontinued in 1965 as an intriguing concept that didn’t work out, while the old Model 39A is still with us, still being made (albeit as a custom proposition) and, while a used Model 57 sells for relative peanuts even to its minor cult following, Model 39 variations are collector’s items that sell for good money, sometimes big money. Obviously, a lot of people knew a lot more than I did about what was a good rifle and what was not.
If that statement needs reinforcement, consider this: At last count, the Model 39A and its antecedents had been in production almost 130 years, and Marlin has sold more than 2.2 million of them. By comparison, the Model 57 was in production a mere six years, during which time fewer than 35,000 were made. During its 130 years, the 39 has chalked up a number of firsts: It was the first lever action for the .22 Long Rifle, and the first to be able to handle .22 Short, Long and Long Rifle cartridges interchangeably in its (also revolutionary) tubular magazine. This magazine was also the first to offer loading from the front rather than being fed through a gate in the action.
The rifle began life in its earliest form in 1891. Designed by Lewis L. Hepburn, a famous target shooter and highly respected gun designer, it was called the Model 1891, was modified and renamed in 1892 and then again in 1897. It remained the Model 1897 until 1921, when it was renamed the Model 39. More changes were made in 1939, when it became the Model 39A and remained so henceforth. Tracing this lineage, it has been in continuous production since 1891, except for brief pauses when Marlin turned to military production during the two world wars. This makes it the longest-produced shoulder firearm in history.
During those 130 years, the rifle that became the Model 39A underwent both technical modifications and cosmetic changes. There were also different models and options, at least for a while, and Marlin offered it in several grades, up to and including the very finest, during the heyday of American engraving and rifle embellishment of the 1920s. As a result, a collector could concentrate on just the Marlin Model 39, its forerunners, variations and grades; if he managed to obtain every variation possible, it would comprise a substantial collection.
The Model 39 managed to survive about a halfdozen changes in corporate ownership and management structure, and many of the cosmetic changes over the years were made to accommodate changing tastes of either the buying public or the company management. As well, at one point the company deliberately eliminated most of the options available, such as different barrel lengths or grip styles, in order to simplify and reduce costs. This was the opposite of the policy of some of Marlin’s competitors such as Savage and Winchester, which seemed intent on overwhelming potential buyers with choices in every conceivable area.
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