The tactical lever gun, a concept scoffed at not long ago, was unquestionably one of the biggest trends in the firearm industry last year and given the huge pandemic-induced surge in defensive gun sales that occurred in early 2020, it couldn’t have come at a better time. Yes, we tend to think of our safety when times get tough and nothing inspires confidence quite like a familiar platform. Few platforms are as engrained within the American psyche as is the lever-action rifle.
Marlin introduced its Dark series in 2019 with tactical versions of the Model 336 and the Model 1895. For 2020 the company extended the line with two new 1894s. Also available in .357 Mag., the subject of this review is a Marlin 1894 Dark chambered in .44 Mag. Marlin’s 1894 Dark is a center-fire, lever-action rifle compact enough to be used to swing around corners, yet it still provides substantial firepower and sufficient accuracy to stop a threat or maybe even harvest medium game at short ranges.
As the name implies, the company set out to make this firearm as stealthy as possible through the use of darkened materials and finishes. The hardwood furniture is deeply blackened with a proprietary textured paint before it is mated to a parkerized carbon-steel receiver. The 1894 Dark operates like a traditional lever gun. The downstroke of the lever retracts the bolt, extracting and ejecting the fired casing from the chamber.
The offset spur on the Marlin 1894 Dark.
During this operation, the next round is also released from the magazine and the hammer is cocked by the rearward motion of the bolt. The return stroke raises the next round to the chamber before it is guided home by the bolt. A practiced operator can accomplish this maneuver in a fraction of a second, making this action a viable option for tactical use. Further enhancing tactical validity is the 1894 Dark’s “big-loop” lever that allows for easy manipulation in even the darkest situations.
The "big loop" lever with paracord wrapping attached.
This enlarged loop also allows for gloved operation, should you decide to chase winter whitetail with the same firearm. The loop comes wrapped in paracord to protect the back of the user’s hand during aggressive cycling and can also be unraveled and repurposed in a bind to solve a plethora of problems, if needed. The 1894 Dark series also comes with a pre-installed paracord sling that is connected to a pair of sling studs via typical sling swivels.
The black paracord sling that comes with the Marlin 1894 Dark.
Loading the tubular magazine is accomplished through the port on the right side of the receiver. Magazine capacity on both our .44 Mag. sample, as well as the .357 Mag. version, is eight rounds. This yields the highest possible capacity without the tube protruding past the rifle’s 16.50” barrel. Unloading the 1894 is accomplished by engaging the cross-bolt safety, pointing the firearm in a safe direction and cycling the action until all ammunition is emptied from both the magazine and the chamber.
The standard cross bolt safety.
While on the topic of safeties, the 1894 Dark retains the classic half-cock safety that is prevalent on many exposed-hammer firearms. Keeping the hammer in this position not only locks the trigger but also provides a drop safety if the gun takes a dive with a round in the chamber. An included offset hammer spur not only facilitates setting the gun on half-cock, but it also makes cocking the hammer much easier when an optic is installed atop the receiver.
The flat-top receiver with Picatinny rail segment for mounting optics.
The side ejection and flat top of the 1894’s receiver allow it to accept scope bases or, in the case of the Dark series, an extended Picatinny rail. Both models come with XS Sights’ 11” lever-gun rail pre-mounted. This rail offers 18 slots for accessories, as well as an oversized ghost-ring rear sight for rapid target acquisition. Up front is an equally large fixed blade with a brilliant white stripe to make it easier to find during low-light engagements.
The barrel of the Marlin 1894 Dark is 11/16x24 TPI threaded.
The comb of the pistol grip stock drops 1” for perfect alignment with the included iron sights, and proper alignment with a scope can also be achieved through the use of low rings. For our formal accuracy testing, we mounted a Riton X5 Tactix 1-6X optic atop the Marlin, this magnification range being equally well-suited to close-quarters defensive use and short-to-medium range hunting. On the range, we tested ammunition offerings from Black Hills, Remington and SIG Sauer.
The large ghost-ring rear sight at the back of the receiver.
The 1894 Dark’s sights are designed for quick use not precision, but our 10-shot groups were more than adequate for defending the home or taking that close-range shot at game. At just 34.25” in total length, the compact firearm handled seamlessly and shouldered without a hitch. The crisp, clean single-action trigger broke at just a hair over 6 lbs. and made sight picture retention effortless. Although comfortable when shouldered, the sub-7-lb. rifle produced noticeable recoil, particularly as we approached the end of our 250-plus-round test session.
The large front-sight post.
While the 0.75”-thick rubber recoil pad took up most of the thump, it would have been simple to screw a muzzle brake onto the 11/16x24 TPI threaded barrel. If you are considering this rifle for personal protection inside of the home, the 1894 Dark would make for a capable suppressor host. Overall, we liked the Marlin 1894 Dark’s magazine capacity and handiness. We found the blacked-out theme to be aesthetically pleasing, if unconventional, even if you have an affinity for classically styled cowboy guns.
The sights were amazingly fast to pick up and although less accurate than a match-style aperture, they would likely yield more hits on target due to rapid acquisition. The tactical lever gun may not be for everyone, but the concept has its place, and the features offered by Marlin’s Model 1894 Dark make it one of the most capable such options on the market.