Back around the turn of the century, slide-action rifles were all the rage. You see this was before the age of the reliable semi-auto and many makers had jumped on the pump gun bandwagon. No less a company than J. Marlin's firearms factory was no exception, turning out no less than a half dozen models before World War Two.
(Marlin Model 18)
Why the slide?
In the 1900s, if you wanted a fast handling rifle, you went pump action. With no reliable semi-automatics on the market, bolt-actions reserved for military use, and lever actions seen by many to be a holdover from the "Old West" the slide or pump-action rifle was cutting edge for the time. Companies from Remington to Winchester were fast on the slide gun concept, marketing both plinking guns for sideshow shooting galleries and small game hunters, and versions in larger calibers to put meat on the table and vanquish predators on both two and four legs.
In a move to give the public what they wanted, Marlin started work on pump-action rifles around 1905. The company made pump-action shotguns for almost 90 years, beginning a decade before that date, so they had the basics of the technology down pat. In all they made eight models of these takedown capable guns before the Great Depression shut the line down on these guns, which were often referred to in ads of the day as "Trombone Action."
The Model 18 "Baby Featherweight Repeater"
Marlin genius L.L Hepburn came up with the basic design of this exposed hammer four-pound (3-pound, 10-ounce actually) rifle in 1905, with production beginning the next year. This pump gun could take .22 shorts, longs or long rifles in an under barrel tubular magazine (anybody thinking of the Model 60 right about now?) and was a handy little plinker. The rifle had a 20-inch round or octagonal barrel with a solid frame. Sights were basic, with just a bead front and a fixed rear slot, but hey, it was meant for clay ducks and tin cans. Get your kewpie doll! Production ended in 1909 but an estimated 15,000 of these guns, which retailed for $7 at the time, were made.
The Model 20
These guns were an improvement over the '18. With production beginning on these in 1907, they remained in production for 15 years in several subvariants with some 35,000+ made according to Brophy's serial number references. While these guns had the same exposed hammer, receiver, sights, and action of its predecessor, they had a longer 24-inch barrel, a plain forearm, and an option for a half-length magazine tube that held 10 22LR rounds.
The Model 25
When we say popguns, we mean it. This model, set up to fire .22 Shorts only, was marketed as an indoor shooting gallery gun. Its 24-inch barrel was the same as the earlier Model 20, but its half-length mag tube only held 15 of the smaller shorts rounds. Some collectors today, if they shoot these guns, do so with .22 CB caps.
The Model 27
The gun that used this modified design, the six-pound Model 27, was more of a hunting piece. As far as I can tell, it is the only centerfire pump-action rifle that Marlin ever made. Chambered in .25 Rimfire (go ahead and find that load these days!) .25-20 and .32-20, it was capable of taking down small deer as well as coyotes and other predators of all sorts. It proved remarkably popular, with some 60,000 being made from 1910-16 when the looming war ended production, then brought back and made until 1932. These are also the most collectable of Marlin pump rifles, with nice examples running close to $800 . Not bad for a gun that retailed for $12 in 1910.
Carl Gustave Swebilius, the man who later went on to found High Standard firearms, maker of the world's grooviest little .22 pistols and rifles, made some improvements to Mr. Hepburn's slide-action design. Principal in this is he made the action hammerless. Other than that, it's the spitting image of the previous Model 20. The public reception evidently wasn't very good on these, only remaining in production for a year. The gun was brought back after WWI for a final go as the Model 38 and proved better loved, being in production until 1930.
Marlin went back to the old Hepburn style of exposed hammer rimfire trombones in 1923, turning out first the Model 37, then the Model 47 in low numbers over the course of the decade. These guns are generally similar to the previous pre-war Model 20 with the exception that the first had an octagonal 24-inch barrel while the later had a round 23.
How to get your own.
As we said, the centerfire guns are much more collectable, with bottom dollar prices on these running close to $500, even though they were made in greater quantity. The rimfire versions are typically a little less, but only a little.
(When we say these guns take down, this is what we mean, however look closely...)
(...They really take down right in half as seen on this late Model 47 rifle)
On former gallery guns, condition is everything. If a Model 25 looks perfect, you may have a diamond worth $500 or more. However if that gun is also brown instead of blue, the rifling is worn flat, and it won't cycle, its value is dubious. Another common problem encountered is mismatched forward and rear halves. This came about when carnival staff broke the guns down at night (remember, all the guns in this series are take down models) to clean the gunk out of them, and then reassembled them the next morning with no guarantee that they matched the right forward section to the correct rear. Multiply that by 365 days a year and dozens of years and you see what we mean.
Be careful when shooting any gun in this class as even the youngest is over eighty-years old. All should be checked by a competent gunsmith before firing.
(Photo Julia Auction House)
Also, note that several of these guns were made in presentation grades, which included factory #10 engraving and exquisite gold inlay. In 2012, a trio that included a Marlin Model 20 pump action rifle from Mahon Marlin estate, a Model 38 pump-action, and a Model 27S pump-action went for over $112,000 at auction.
So if you run across one of those at a good price, grab it.