Marlin's "Cheap" Bolt-Action Rifle
November 01, 2010
There is absolutely nothing wrong with a cheap rifle, if it is the right cheap rifle. The Marlin XL7 and XS7, recently rechristened the X7, are a couple of the best values on the gun rack, and the line continues to grow.
When reviewing the then-new Marlin XL7 a couple of years ago for Shooting Times (Bargain Beauty) , I did not make any grand predictions that the rifle would be a barn-burner in terms of sales for Marlin or upend the rifle world as we know it. I merely said it "offers riflemen a lot for their money," and my guess was that it would sell well. After all, when the Indianapolis Colts picked up a quarterback from the University of Tennessee in 1998, it was my guess that Peyton Manning lacked the arm strength and speed to play the game. I have avoided prognosticating ever since.
Thankfully, the sweet, little bolt gun has sold well, and the XL is now a rifle on the move. The line has expanded from the long-action-only, synthetic-stock-only option I reviewed two years ago and is getting bigger by the minute. Six months after the rifle's introduction, Marlin rolled out a wood-stocked version; that was soon followed by one with a camo stock. Last fall, I took a prototype short-action rifle, dubbed the XS7, on a Carmen whitetail and aoudad hunt in the Trans Pecos region of Texas. Now stainless-steel versions of both the long- and short-action models are available, and in the future the line--long and short actions collectively--will simply be known as "X7" rifles. While all the current-cataloged rifles are pretty standard in stock design and barrel contour, Marlin plans to roll out a heavy-barreled version in .308 and .22-250 this fall. The barrel will also grow from a standard 22-inch tube to a 26-inch version that should help wring out a few more feet per second from the barn-burning .22-250.
There are tons and tons of bolt actions, value-priced bolt actions--read cheap--lining gunshop shelves, so why is the Marlin doing so well? Simplicity and quality are the answers. In the three years it took to design, Marlin engineers pared the X7 down to the basics, simplifying a previous Marlin bolt rifle to make it less expensive to produce. And simple is good most of the time. But other companies trying to produce value-priced rifles, from what I can tell, cut their corners in all the wrong places with admittedly simple designs. The X7 rifles have nice lines, and fire controls do not look and feel like add-on parts thrown together at the last minute. Instead of a rough-edged safety stamped from sheet metal, all the rifles have an electroless nickel-Teflon coated safety that is held in place with a detent. Quieting one of my personal pet peeves, the magazine box is tabbed and screwed to the receiver so that it does not rattle around. These little touches make the rifle look, feel, and perform like a real rifle, not some tinny, cheap piece of junk.
While some nonstressed parts--like the bolt shroud--are cast or MIM (metal injection molded), the receiver is machined from a 4140 steel alloy, and the bolt rides on rails within to prevent binding, another inexpensive feature that improves performance. The button-rifled barrels are turned out by the same skilled artisans on the same high-end machinery that kicks out barrels for Marlin's most expensive rifles. Barrels are secured to the receiver, and headspace is set with a barrel nut, a mass-production technique pioneered by Savage.
Injection-molded stocks are hardly sexy, but at least Marlin stuck with classic lines and included a functional recoil pad. The stock has two steel pillars to maintain a consistent stock/action interface. Checkering panels wrap around the pistol grip and stretch down the fore-end. Quite a few other bargain rifles have molded-in sling swivels that work great for slings but are not much help if you want to mount a bipod. Traditional sling studs can be found both fore and aft on the X7. Marlin did change out the plain checkered pistol-grip cap for one with Marlin's iconic "M" on the new short-action X7.
After covering the basics, Marlin's rifle designers then added some very high-quality features, most notably an end-user-adjustable trigger that is close to perfect. Design engineer Bruce Rozum said the trigger was an 11th-hour addition that took six months to design and test. Preset at 3.5 pounds at the factory, the unit has an adjustment range from 2.5 pounds on up to impossible. At the front of the unit's cast alloy housing is an Allen-head screw secured by a jam nut. To reduce the pull weight, simply loosen the jam nut and turn the screw counterclockwise. Turning the screw clockwise increases the pull weight. Other critical dimensions and interfaces--like overtravel and sear engagement--are determined by the internal parts' geometry and set at the factory. Both the X7 samples had great triggers with a slight hint of creep and no overtravel.
|Manufacturer:||Marlin Firearms Co., 800-243-9700|
|Model:||X7 Short Action|
|Caliber:||308 Win. (as tested), .243 Win., 7mm-08|
|Magazine Capacity:||Four Rounds|
|Barrel:||22 in.; rifling: six grooves, 1:12 RH twist (.308)|
|Overall Length:||42.5 in.|
|Weight, empty:||6.5 lbs.|
|Stock:||Synthetic with pillar bed-ding, Soft-Tech recoil pad, and sling swivel studs|
|Length of Pull:||13.38 in|
|Finish:||Polished blue steel, black or Realtree APG camo stock|
|Sights:||None; drilled and tapped for scope mounts|
|Trigger:||Adjustable Marlin Pro-Fire system|
|Price:||$397 (black stock), $432 (camo stock)|
So for about $397 on the low end and $589 on the high end, shooters are getting one heck of a rifle when they lay down the dollars for a short- or long-action X7 in its many and ever-increasing guises.
History often repeats itself, and Marlin's home-run effort to produce a value-priced rifle is not without precedent. In 1967 Remington introduced the Model 788, which was intended to compete with cheaper rifles that were giving the vaunted Model 700 a run for its money. By simplifying the design, Remington accidentally created a rifle that often rivaled its more expensive big brother, the Model 700, in the accuracy department. It was clever design that moved the locking lugs to the rear of the bolt, reduced bolt throw, and made the receiver extremely rigid. The 788 also had one of the fastest locktimes around. In the South at least, the Model 788 has a cult following, and many shooters will pay a premium for a beat-up 788 and leave a more beautiful Model 700 BDL sitting on the rack. With the Model 788 and Marlin's X7, shooters are not giving up anything in terms of accuracy and performance; they just save a couple hundred bucks.
Because it is so perfect and versatile, I despise the .30-06 and have tried to avoid owning one. But my first sample X7 shot so well and was such a nice rifle, it now has a place in my gun safe. So does the prototype .308 X7, and for many of the same reasons. So when I have to pick between the two, which rifle is unlimbered and which is left behind to sulk?
Some parts, such as the bolt shroud, are metal injection molded to reduce costs but are very well executed.
With modern bullets and propellants, the .308 can do just about anything the .30-06 can do and save a little weight and overall length--everything is a half-inch shorter on the short-action X7. While some chalk up inherent accuracy to just the cartridge, I also think short-action rifles benefit greatly from a smaller ejection port and stiffer receiver when compared to long-action rifles. They add up to providing a greater potential for accuracy. Given the chance, I will go short every time, and I was glad to see the X7 rifle family expand to include short-action rifles. Marlin is currently chambering two short-action calibers in addition to the .308. The 7mm-08 is a great round that really realizes its potential with handloads, and with the ever-expanding options in bullet weights, the .243 is a varmint and predator powerhouse as well as a great medium big-game round.
All the theoretical cartridge and rifle talk aside, the Marlin bolt gun handles like a champ in the field and on the range. According to my notes, I have spent a total of 20 days afield with the short- and long-action X7 and have taken five head of big game with the pair. Field performance has been excellent.
I downed a nice buck in Kansas with the XL7 (paired with a Leupold 3-9X 40mm scope) chambered in the aforementioned .30-06. Space limitations in my first story about the rifle did not allow me to reveal the whole story though. We had miserable hunting conditions, and on the last day, the outfitter decided to push some bottoms and draws in an effort to get our tags filled. While some of my Southern friends who hunt with dogs and my Iowa buddies who push all the time might chuckle, I had only taken three deer that were moving in my entire life and they were walking. I grew up still-hunting or sitting on stands where generally, if you were patient enough, you could pick your shots. There was just never any reason to shoot at a running deer. I was as nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs.
Other features, like a cocking indicator and two-position, nickel-coated safety, are upgrades not found on most bargain-priced rifles. The bolt design has an extractor recessed into the right bolt lug and a fairly standard ejector. The groove in the right lug rides on rails machined into the bolt raceway to smooth up feeding and prevent binding.
The drivers had no more stepped into the woods on their end of the draw a half-mile away when a buck jumped cover. I heard the alarm shout and starting speed scanning the draw ahead of me, only to see the buck streaking down a tree line in the wide open. My first shot came at 120 or so yards and, though I had no way of knowing it, was lethal and split the buck's heart wide open. He broke cover and headed out full speed in a death sprint across a cut bean field. The buck was running hard on adrenaline, as was I, and three more rounds went downrange before the buck tipped over. Three out of four rounds found their mark in the vitals. My hunting companions accused me of slipping a Garand in my pack the shots came so fast.
Polymer parts are cheap and easy to produce, so the X7 has a plastic trigger guard secured by the rear action screw and a standard screw up front.
That might not say a lot about my own confidence shooting at running game, but it does tell you how the rifle handles in a pinch. A bolt that functions smoothly, an action that cycles rounds reliably, and a trigger that breaks cleanly will help a novice to execute in unfamiliar territory.
While it may look similar to the Savage AccuTrigger, the Marlin Pro-Fire
trigger is mechanically quite different, though an articulating member physically locks the trigger bow in place until pressed completely to the rear. All of the trigger's components are housed in a casting and are precisely set to eli
minate creep and overtravel. The Allen-head screw at the front of the trigger housing reduces or increases pull weight after the jam nut is loosened.
I topped the short-action version with a fancy Swarovski Z5 3.5-18X 44mm scope and headed out on a Carmen whitetail and aoudad hunt last fall with Backcountry Hunts. The hunt was a grand success, and I was able to get both in just two days of hunting. The big aoudad ram was down in the bottoms feeding in the oaks and sticking tight to cover. I had to thread a single shot through a basketball-sized opening in a scrub oak canopy after I had hiked a mile or three over rough, nasty terrain. It was one of the better shots I have made while hunting and having an accurate rifle sure helped, even if it only cost $400.
My guide was a hard-working, blue-collar fellow who saved all of his vacation days to guide big-game hunts. He carried a stainless-steel, laminate-stocked Savage bolt action in .300 Winchester Magnum, a nod to versatility and frugality, and shot everything from coyotes to elk with that rifle. Taking a break from glassing the first morning, talk turned to my rifle, and he looked both it and the optic over and gave an approving nod. When I told him the fine rifle in his hands was less than $400, you could have tipped him over with a feather.
When given a choice between short-action or long-action cartridges and rifles, the author will go short just about every time given the advancements in bullets and propellants that have leveled the playing field. Though it only shortens the rifle by a half-inch and shaves off a few ounces, the author would pick a .308 over a .30-06 just about every time.
"It just doesn't look or feel like it should cost just $400," I remember him saying. All of my other shooting and hunting companions said much the same.
During several range sessions, I fired over 150 rounds with each rifle. In an effort to disprove my short-action accuracy theory, the .30-06 outshot the .308--go figure--but both rifles shot acceptable groups. The .30-06 shot the best with Hornady Custom 165-grain InterBond, with five-shot groups averaging just 0.73 inch. While I could be accused of cheating, it was hard not to shoot a box of Federal Premium Gold Match 168-grain Sierra HPBT through the .308 just to see what would happen. A 0.91-inch average was the result. Most hunting ammunition averaged around 1.75 inches, and that is a five-shot average.
Barrel nuts are not new, but they are an excellent way to quickly and accurately set headspace.
I have been extremely impressed with the Marlin budget bolt rifle, both in the hunting fields and on the shooting bench. It easily tops the list of rifles I would recommend to friends looking to spend less than $400 for a centerfire and also sits on the short list of the most rifle for the money along with Savage and Tikka. The Marlin X7 in no way reinvents the wheel or blazes new trails. The end-user-adjustable trigger and barrel nut are nothing new. Injection-molded stocks are nothing new. But not cutting corners and putting the right parts in the right place on a budget rifle has never been so well executed. The X7, in present and future models, is not just a great budget-priced rifle, it's a great rifle period.
|MARLIN X7 SHORT-ACTION 100-YARD ACCURACY (INCHES)|
|Ammunition||Group 1||Group 2||Group 3||Group 4||Average|
|Federal Fusion 150-gr. PSP|| 1.39 || 1.88 ||1.60|| 1.67 || 1.63 |
|Hornady 150-gr. SST|| 1.79 || 1.75 ||1.91|| 1.87 || 1.83 |
|Remington Premier Scirocco 165-gr. Bonded PSP|| 1.94 || 2.00 ||1.89|| 1.99 || 1.96 |
|Federal Premium Gold Match 168-gr. Sierra HPBT|| 0.79 || 0.96 ||0.93|| 0.98 || 0.91 |
|Hornady Match 168-gr. A-Max|| 1.22 || 1.00 ||1.05|| 1.11 || 1.10 |
|NOTES: Accuracy is the average of four, five-shot groups fired from a Caldwell Rock BR front rest and rear bag.|