Bargain Beauty: Marlin's XL7 Rifle

Sitting on the edge of a creek bottom in the early morning light of a Kansas sunrise, I admired a classy looking bolt rifle sitting upright in a set of shooting sticks and ready to go. Over the years, I have admired many such rifles--it is something to do when the deer do not show up when they should--and usually the level of admiration is directly related to the number of $100 bills I laid down months before the hunt.

But this rifle was a little different. It shot like a dream on the range, it had a good trigger, and the fit and finish were above average. The action was smooth, and the gun neither rattled nor did it have a tinny feel. The cost would be just over three $100 bills--one heck of a bargain, to say the least. The rifle in front of me was Marlin's brand-new XL7.

Marlin Firearms is one of America's oldest gun makers. John M. Marlin hung out his shingle in 1870 after working for Colt in Hartford, Connecticut. The Marlin name has become synonymous with lever guns, though the company has produced just about every action type over its long history. The company dabbled with bolt-action rifles in the 1950s, purchasing FN and Sako actions, and barreling and stocking them here in the States. 






SPECIFICATIONS
MAKER:Marlin Firearms Co.www.marlinfirearms.com
ACTION:Bolt-action centerfire rifle
CALIBER:.30-06 Sprg.
CAPACITY:4+1 rounds
BARREL LENGTH.:22 inches
OVERALL LENGTH:42 1/2 inches
WEIGHT:6 1/2 pounds
SIGHTS:None. Receiver drilled and tapped for scope mounts
FINISH:Black
PRICE:$326

Then in the mid-1990s, the MR-7 was to be the company's first proprietary foray into the world of bolt-actions. Introduced in 1995, it was one heck of a gun. Having benefited from all those years of riflemen griping and complaining about the Remington Model 700 and Winchester Model 70, Marlin sought to give them the perfect gun. A three-position safety, adjustable trigger, hinged floorplate, cocking indicator, forged receiver, and a bolt head surrounded by three rings of steel were a few of the MR-7's key features. The only hitch was that the rifle just did not sell, and production ceased just three years later.

Matt Foster, Marlin's current marketing director, chalked it up to an unlucky combination of price point and trying to compete in a very tough category. The company name just was not associated with bolt-actions, and the category was chocked full of rifles produced by respected and storied companies with decades of marketing muscle behind them.

Though the category is still a tough one today, it makes a lot of sense for Marlin to produce its own bolt rifle. The know-how and tools are all there to get the company into the over-200-yard-shot category. Marlin started working on a rifle that maintained the MR-7's quality and design innovations but with a price tag that was more affordable.

It took three years, but the end result met all the goals Marlin set out to accomplish. Bruce Rozum is a design engineer who has spent his entire, lengthy career designing guns for Marlin. He now heads up the research and development department. Rozum explained that the new XL7 would have appeared on gun store shelves sooner, but other high-priority lever-gun projects, like the XLR, took precedence. The tactical pause proved fruitful, giving designers a chance to check and recheck the design.

"We went through all the parts and features of the MR-7 and looked at ways to reduce manufacturing costs while keeping the important attributes," Rozum said. "We went from a flat-bottom receiver that was forged to ordinance-grade round bar stock that took a lot of cost out of machining the receiver."

The three-position safety was dropped in lieu of a more economical, but just as functional, two-position safety. The bolt sleeve was also dumped. Several non-critical parts were cast or created using metal injection molding (MIM). The beautiful hardwood stock of the MR-7 was replaced with a lightweight, molded synthetic stock. At the end of the design process, none of the MR-7's parts were interchangeable with the new XL7, and there were additional features and innovations the MR-7 lacked.

"The rifle was designed from scratch to meet a price point--a bargain one--but we knew we could still build a quality rifle," Foster said.

The round receiver is machined from a 4140 steel alloy and is 1.350 inches in diameter. The rear receiver bridge is contoured, and the action has the same base and hole spacing pattern as the Winchester Model 70. The rifle will be introduced in three standard-length chamberings: .30-06, .270 Winchester, and in a nod to Western hunters, .25-06. And the 3-inch-plus ejection port cut is plenty big for loading and unloading. A gas vent is drilled into the right-hand side, forward of the ejection port. The .185-inch-thick recoil lug is sandwiched between the receiver and the barrel.

Thankfully, the magazine box is locked into the receiver and does not rattle around in the stock. A small lip at the front of the magazine box slips into a slot milled into the receiver's bottom. A screw goes through a tab stamped into the box and threads into a hole just ahead of the trigger group. It is one of many nice touches on the XL7 that did not cost a fortune but adds to an overall sense of quality. A plastic follower and spring assembly match recesses in the stock's floor to complete the blind magazine.

ACCURACY RESULTS:
LOADAVERAGE VELOCITY (fps) AVERAGE ACCURACY (in.)
Remington 150-gr. AccuTip Boattail2910 1.02
Federal Premium 165-gr. Nosler Partition2830 1.03
Hornady Custom 165-gr. InterBond2800 0.73
Winchester 180-gr. Power-Poiint2700 1.61
Winchester Supreme Elite 180-gr. XP32750p 1.22
Accuracy is the average of five, five-shot groups at 100 yards fired from a Caldwell Rock BR rest. Velocity is the average of 10 rounds measured 15 feet from the gun's muzzle.

Up front, the bolt is very similar to the Savage Model 110. The bolt head is a separate piece that is pinned to the bolt body. A wave washer holds the bolt head in place, but there is some wiggle, which allows the dual, opposing locking lugs to center themselves in the lug recesses. The right-side lug houses the extractor, which Rozum described as a "detented sliding member." The MIM part is based on a 4140-alloy equivalent and slides in and out of a lateral cut in the lug's face. A slot cut into the same lug's side matches a rail in the inside of the bolt raceway and prevents binding. The plunger-style ejector sits at the 5 o'clock position on the bolt face.

The bolt body has straight, longitudinal flutes that reduce surface area by 20 percent and give all the nasty dirt and grime picked up in the field a place to go when the action is cycled. The depths of the flutes are finished in a matte black--the same as the shroud and bolt handle--while the body is left in the white with a brushed finish. The bolt handle is cast, has two checkered panels on the knob, and is copper brazed onto the bolt body.

The bolt shroud is also a casting, though an elegant one, complete with a small shoulder that protects the shooter from nasty gases in the event of a pierced primer. A small cocking indicator--a holdover from the MR-7--peeks out from underneath the shroud when cocked. Red highlights accentuate the visual cue.

One of the more important innovations that came along at the last minute was the trigger. We started with an MR-7 trigger, but at the 11th hour, we moved away from it and created something totally different," Rozum said. "It took about six months from concept to production. We wanted to offer the customer something that was user-adjustable and very safe."

The Pro-Fire trigger system has an articulating trigger-release lever that moves through a slot in the trigger bow and will not allow the trigger rearward until it is depressed. Parts are housed in an alloy casting, and sear engagement and overtravel are preset by the component's geometry. Pull weight is adjusted by first loosening a jam nut on a threaded set screw protruding from the front of the housing and then turning the set screw either in or out with an Allen-head wrench.

Turning the set screw in will increase the pull weight, and turning the set screw out reduces the pull weight. The pull weight ranges from can-hardly-make-it-go-off heavy to 2 1/2 pounds, where the unit bottoms out. Triggers come from the factory preset at 3 1/2 pounds.

Unlike the Savage AccuTrigger, which can be tripped without releasing the sear and then has to be recocked, the Pro-Fire trigger can be either pulled rearward or not, something determined by the position of the articulating trigger-release lever.

The trigger, sear, and cocking piece have a coating of electroless nickel-Teflon composite for lubricity and corrosion resistance. The Winchester-styled bolt release sits on the left side of the receiver and pivots on a pin that runs through the rear of the trigger housing. The two-position, trigger-block safety also wears the electroless nickel-Teflon finish and sits comfortably in a shallow recess in the tang. A spring-loaded plunger mates with two detent holes in the safety stamping, keeping it in its intended position.

Marlin is deservedly proud of its barrels and the accuracy they deliver. The barrel-shop foremen have more than 30 years of experience. The 22-inch tube is button rifled and has a recessed target crown. The profile is fairly standard, measuring 1.08 inches at the receiver and 0.60 inch at the muzzle. Like the receiver, the barrel has a polished-blue finish.

"Attaching the barrel to the receiver was one of the last things we reviewed in the manufacturing process," Rozum said. "We ended up using a barrel nut because it's a very cost-effective, consistent way to make a really accurate rifle."

The process is simple. A barrel is started into the receiver's threads, and a "go" gauge is place in the chamber with the bolt closed. The barrel is then threaded down onto the "go" gauge, and a barrel nut is tightened down with a torque wrench to lock the assembly in place. It is almost impossible to screw up the head spacing using this method. Marlin uses a slim, if not svelte, barrel nut that matches the receiver's contours to lock the two together.

"We were shooting for improved accuracy by leaning towards the minimum end of the head-spacing specification," Rozum said. "The barrel-nut system allows us to do that reliably and consistently."

At the bench, the XL7 shot very well. The rifle showed a preference for Hornady's 165-grain InterBond--five-shot groups averaged 0.73 inch. Remington's 150-grain AccuTip averaged 1.02 inches, and Winchester's Supreme Elite 180-grain XP3 averaged 1.22 inches. No factory load tested averaged over 1.75 inches, which nearly matched the MR-7's 1.50-inch accuracy guarantee.

Unlike other recently debuted rifles, Marlin stuck with very traditional stock lines. Molded-in checkering panels adorn the pistol grip, fore-end, and pistol-grip cap. The wrist is fairly thin, and stock dimensions follow industry norms--length of pull is 13 3/8 inches, drop at the heel is 3/4 inch, and drop at the straight comb is 5/8 inch. Steel sling-swivel studs are screwed directly into the stock.

The action and stock are held together with two Allen-head screws. The forward screw is recessed into the stock, and the rear screw passes through the trigger guard and threads into the tang. An additional screw secures the front of the trigger guard. Two steel pillars in each screw hole help maintain a consistent relationship between the action and stock.

Instead of free floating the barrel, designers placed two small pressure pads at the end of the fore-end. Since the stock is glass filled and synthetic, bending and warping are highly unlikely. The stock will come in two finishes this year--matte black and Realtree All Purpose Green HD.

"We put a lot of effort into designing the perfect recoil pad," Foster said. "The Soft-Tech pad reduces felt recoil and is very soft and comfortable to shoot--something we thought was important in a lightweight rifle like the XL7."

What will this quality rifle set the shooter back? Not much, actually. The black synthetic version retails for just $326, and the camo version lists for $356. Both prices include a Weaver-style aluminum scope base.

The XL7 is the platform that will relaunch Marlin into the world of bolt rifles. If it sells as well as I expect it will, watch for new action lengths, calibers, and stock configurations. This bargain-priced gun offers riflemen a lot for their money and simply feels like a more expensive rifle in the hands. Anyone looking for a bolt-action rifle should take a serious look at the XL7, not just those who are looking for a bargain.

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