A Fix for the Permanent Pucker

Calling can bring cats and coyotes on the run, but will it leave you disfigured?

A Fix for the Permanent Pucker

This lovely original Marlin 1894 chambered in .32-20 Win. lacks punch for big game, but those bullets are kind to fox and coyote pelts.

Bicycles didn’t get pedals until after our Civil War, to which there’s no obvious connection. As early as 1810, there were bicyclists, but they endured a hard ride scooting frame and unforgiving wheels along with their feet. Kind of like walking with a steel pillar under your pelvis. German inventor, Karl von Drais, promoted his primitive vehicle with the boast: “On a plain, even after a heavy rain, it will go 6 to 7 miles an hour [or] swift as a courier.”

            By the 1870s, other clever minds had put pedals on the front wheel. They soon found big wheels went faster; hence, front rims as tall as 5 feet, with tiny wheels trailing. Called the “penny-farthing,” this tall, capricious velocipede (“fast foot,” if you’re into Latin) drew much attention and threw many riders, Survivors were chastised for endangering pedestrians. Empowered as they felt by their height and speed, the fops on wheels paid little heed to such grumblings. “We perceive things which are hidden from them who only walk upon the earth,” exulted one in 1882, surely with his nose aloft. “We dash across the plain with a wild sense of freedom ….”

            The “safety” bike arrived in the 1890s, with inflatable tires to soften the ride and a chain driving a bigger rear wheel. With no function but to give the bike direction, the front wheel was reduced in size to match the rear. The bicycle became more manageable, spills less lethal. Young women took up cycling too. Victorian strictures were shed in the slip-stream, and many a romance was sparked from the saddle, far from parental scrutiny. “When you were riding a cycle, your mother didn’t know where you were!” 

            But as bicycles proliferated, competition on the road became violent. Collisions triggered fist-fights. Livery drivers might spit tobacco or even run over cyclists whose quick, quiet approach spooked their horses. Deferring to irate pedestrians, New York banned bicycles from city parks.

            What does this have to do with predator hunting? I’m getting to that.

            By 1900 the U.S. had well over a million bicyclists, and physicians were expressing alarm. Much time cleaving the wind could cause “bicycle face,” a fossilized grimace with eyes fixed ahead. Permanent hunching of the spine, common in cyclists bent on speed, was “kyphosis bicyclistarum.” By the time the medical profession figured out that bicycling was good for you, hunters were calling predators.

            Yes, there’s a connection.

            On a cold morning long ago, I was squealing into a Burnham Brothers mouthpiece without effect. No surprise. My rabbit imitation has often driven all manner of carnivory far from my lonely post. But the chill this day was so intense that when at last I pulled the call from my mouth, my mouth didn’t move.

Loathe to appear in public with a predatory pucker, I walked about a bit to warm up and exercise my lips. Reciting Robert Service poetry at last coaxed a quiver. By the time I’d stumbled through The Cremation of Sam McGee a dozen times, they’d become pliable in the middle. I motored the long route home, heater and fan in my ’66 International pickup on “high.” There was no lasting damage.

            But the prospect of a permanent pucker had been quite a fright. Determined to avoid the same again, I pondered other ways to probe the hinterlands for predators. Still-hunting came to mind. I’d recommend it to anyone threatened by an immobile mouth.

           As any big game hunter knows, still-hunting doesn’t require you to be still. At least, not forever. You slip slowly upwind or crosswind through likely cover, with frequent pauses. It’s not a cardiovascular workout, but unlike 20 motionless minutes with a call iced to your lips, your body temperature will stay within resuscitation range.  

            This is an especially propitious year to try still-hunting. If you’re a rifle enthusiast like me, you’ll have celebrated it already as Marlin’s 150th and the century mark for both Savage’s famous 99 rifle and its .300 Savage cartridge. Both companies gave us wonderful lever-actions that came to define “deer rifle” for generations of still-hunters. 

            If it seems to you that Arthur Savage designed his most famous rifle long before 1920, you’re half right. He was 35 years old when, in 1892, he invented the Savage No. 1, a hammerless lever-action cycled with the near (or little) finger. An ingenious rotary magazine held eight cartridges. The rifle had a 29-inch barrel, a musket-style stock. In ordnance trials, it lost to the Norwegian-designed Krag-Jorgensen bolt gun, which became the official U.S. service arm. So Savage trimmed the No. 1 for hunters, reducing magazine capacity to five and enlarging the lever for three fingers. Patents in 1893 described a prototype in .32-20. Arthur followed with his own smokeless cartridge, that outperformed not only the anemic .32-20 but the more powerful and popular .30 W.C.F. (.30-30). On April 5, 1894, he formed the Savage Repeating Arms Company in Utica, New York. The next year, Marlin Firearms Co. of New Haven, Connecticut, supplied tooling and built the first Model 1895 Savage rifles, magazines sized for the new .303 Savage round. 

Saddle-friendly and quick to cheek from any position, traditional lever rifles are fun and easy to use
Saddle-friendly and quick to cheek from any position, traditional lever rifles are fun and easy to use

The 1895 had a coil mainspring, first-ever on a commercial lever gun. A through-bolt held butt-stock to receiver, a more secure arrangement than wood screws in tang extensions. The rotary magazine was shielded from water, debris and impact by the receiver. Because cartridge weight stayed between the hands, balance was unaffected by the number of rounds in reserve. Importantly, this spool also permitted safe use of pointed bullets. 

Soon, with tweaks, the Model 1895 became the Model 1899.

            Hunters worldwide welcomed the .303 Savage cartridge, which hurled 190-grain bullets as fast as the original .30 W.C.F loads sent 160s (about 1,970 fps). A woodsman from British Columbia claimed 18 kills with a box of 20 cartridges, with two grizzlies in the tally. Harry Caldwell, who dedicated his life to mission work in China, used a Savage rifle in .303 to shoot tigers.           

            The 1899’s faithful included “Cougar Pete” Peterson, the first government hunter in the Pacific Northwest. Once, running to the yelps of his hounds, he met an enormous bear with an Airedale clamped in its mouth. A .303 bullet clipped the dog’s whiskers en route to the bear’s brain. Pete liked the round so well, he re-chambered a 94 Winchester to .303. 

The Model 1899 appeared in many forms and other chamberings, including .25-35, .30 W.C.F., .22 Hi-Power and Charles Newton’s .250-3000. In 1920 it became the Model 99, and the new powerful .300 Savage joined its cartridge roster. Designed to perform in the same class as the .30-06, it operates at nearly the same pressure. But its case is .62 shorter, so velocities fall 250 fps shy of the ‘06’s. Still, the .300 Savage became hugely popular. It remained the Model 99’s most potent chambering until the .308 Winchester appeared in 1952.

            While John Moses Browning designed the most enduring Winchester lever rifles, from the 1886 to the 1895, John Mahlon Marlin may have fielded the best. His Model of 1893 competed ably with the 1894 Winchester. A short-action Marlin 1894 vied for market share with Winchester’s 1892. 

            John Marlin entered the firearms industry at age 18 as an apprentice at American Machine Works near his Windsor Locks, Connecticut birthplace. He agreed to work unpaid for six months, then accept at $1.50 per week. After a year, he would get $2.50, with 50-cent increases to follow semi-annually. Later, he probably worked for Colt. His first gun patents, in 1870, show a Hartford address. “Never Miss” and “Victor” were single-shot rimfire pistols. By 1870 Marlin was building single-action revolvers. He added a .38 centerfire tip-up revolver in 1887. By then, he had 10 handgun patents and was producing rifles too. The first, in 1875, was a version of the 1861 single-shot by C.H. Ballard. Marlin eventually cataloged 20 Ballards, .22 rimfire to .45-100. Plain hunting models cost about $22. 

            John Marlin’s first repeater, an under-hammer lever-action, didn’t sell. In 1882, he announced a better design. Six years later, it became the Model 1881. Incorporating patents by Andrew Burgess, H.F. Wheeler and E.A.F. Topperwein, this top-ejecting rifle came in .45-70 and .40-60. A small-frame version came later, in .32-40 and .38-55. 

            Enter Lewis Hepburn, an able engineer who worked at Remington until the company’s financial woes in 1886, nudged him to Marlin, where he used his considerable talents to design and manufacture the lever-action Models 1888, 1889, 1891, 1892, 1893, 1894, 1895 and 1897. Early in 1910, Hepburn slipped on ice and broke a hip. Bedridden, he lingered four years, dying in August 1914.

            Growing demand for lightweight rifles blessed Marlin’s Model 1888 in .32-20, .38-40 and .44-40. Its successor, the Model 1889, was Marlin’s first side-ejecting rifle. Chambered for the same short W.C.F. rounds, it was a best-seller in .44-40 (.44 W.C.F.). Another Hepburn hit was the Model 1891, Marlin’s first successful .22 lever-action. Exhibition shooting by Annie Oakley gave this $18 rifle an instant boost. It gave way to the similar 1892.

            Marlin Models 1893, 1894 and 1895 were larger versions of the 1892. The 1893 ($13.35 to start) handled the .32-40 and .38-55. More reliable lock-up and a two-piece firing pin distinguished it from the 1889. After a war-time hiatus (1917-22), it was offered in .30-30 and .32 Special. The Model 1893 faded after Wall Street’s collapse in ’29 and was discontinued in 1936. The carbine version of its short-action sibling, the 1894, scaled just 5 ½ pounds in .44-40. Discounted in 1901, the 1894 sold for as little as $10.40! 

            The Model 1895 was a beefed-up 1893, for bigger cases. First in .38-56, .40-65, .45-70 and .45-90, it added the .40-70 in 1897.

            When John Mahlon Marlin died in 1901, sons, Mahlon and John Howard, took over. After some corporate shuffling and the Great War, the Marlin Firearms Corporation issued its debut catalog in 1922. There it introduced the Model 39, a lever-action .22 based on its Model 1892 and subsequent 1897 rifles. An improved 39A, with coil mainspring, would follow in 1939. 

The author crawled inside 100 yards for an iron-sight shot with this .300 Savage.
The author crawled inside 100 yards for an iron-sight shot with this .300 Savage.

Back taxes, a stiff mortgage and tepid demand after the Versailles Treaty put Marlin in financial distress. Entrepreneur Frank Kenna bought it and conveyed everything to the Marlin Firearms Company, which he organized in 1926. A decade later, changes in Marlin’s Model 1893 resulted in the Model 1936. Within months, the label was shortened to Model 36. In 1948 it would sire the Model 336. Introduced at $74, the 336 sold well in .30-30. Viable in .32 Special and .35 Remington too, it struggled in .219 Zipper, a chambering dropped in ‘59. The 336, a quintessential deer rifle is still Marlin’s flagship. 

            In eastern woodlands and western mountains, on deer hunts and coyote patrols, traditional lever-action rifles remain popular. Iron-sighted carbines (20-inch barrels) handle like wands. Modest recoil with the .30-30 and kin suits them to small-framed shooters and permits quick follow-up shots. I’ve taken elk, black bear and pronghorns as well as whitetail, blacktail and mule deer with these traditional woods rifles. They slide eagerly into saddle scabbards and under pickup seats and tuck neatly to your chest when you must crawl to get close. 

            You can reach farther with a scoped bolt rifle, and perhaps see more coyotes if you plant yourself and call. But still-hunting with a carbine whose roots wind to the 19th century is fun. And prowling cover for predators in the off-season prepares you for big game, without imposing a permanent pucker.


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