Meet the $50,000 Marlin Model 1889 Lever Action Rifle

  1. Editor
    Founded by John Mahlon Marlin in North Haven, Connecticut in 1870, the Marlin Firearms Company within just a couple decades had become a strong contender in the gun industry. One of its most popular, and in many ways, most enduring of designs, the Model of 1889, has proven to be among the most collectable of the breed. Moreover, you wouldn't believe what some of these old guns go for.


    The design of the 1889

    Marlin's first two cowboy rifles, the Models of 1881 and 1888, were catch-up guns to the then-standard Winchester '73 lever action rifles. As such, like the '73 and later follow-on Winnies, these early JM carbines were top-eject, meaning that the spent brass from the shell casings were thrown out the top of the receiver. Now, nobody likes hot brass in their face so Marlin engineer Lewis L. Hepburn in early 1889 took out patent number #400,679 for a side-loading and right-hand ejecting lever action system that, when matched to the existing M1888 rifle, soon became marketed as the ground-breaking Model 1889 Safety Repeating Rifle chambered in a choice between .32-20, .38-40, and .44-40, the classic blackpowder cowboy cartridges of the day.

    This same solid-top receiver rifle, changed internally over the past 125-years or so, remains the standard that Marlin lever actions are still built to.

    Remember those internal changes? Well that's the thing, the 1889 was only built for ten years, with some 55,000 rifles, muskets, and carbines coming off the line in that period before it was replaced by updated designs with different model numbers such as the 1893.


    These guns were made in both standard grade and deluxe special grades covered in scrollwork and engravings, more of which we will cover below.

    A $7,000 example

    This Model 1889, SN 55202 (they range from #25,000 to around #75,000) is chambered in .32-20 and has a 26-inch octagon barrel, which makes it a little rare, as most about 80 percent of the production run were 24-inch barreled guns. Further, this is a uber rare factory engraved deluxe model with "a vignette of a walking whitetail buck in a woodland scene all surrounded by very fine foliate arabesque patterns with latch hook border on the left side."

    (Photo by James D. Julia Auctioneers)

    This gun was valued at a recent auction at $4-$7,000, with the higher estimate being the closer one to the mark. It would have gone for more had the rifle not been repaired at some point in the past century with mismatched parts.

    A $15,000 '89

    This factory engraved Model 1889, SN 44294 in .44-40 is also a 26-inch barrel model but has the full-length magazine tube (which was standard) and is equipped with a Lyman # 15 sight and factory engravings. These, as described by Julia Auctions consist of, "...vignette of a standing grizzly bear in a mountain scene on left side with extremely well-executed foliate arabesque patterns and border patterns on left side with matching foliate arabesque patterns on right side and a flower blossom centered on the bolt. Light foliate arabesque patterns and straight line borders extend over the top & bottom of receiver and top tang."

    (Photo by James D. Julia Auctioneers)

    Value for this crisp masterpiece was set at between $15,000-$25,000 in 2012 when it came up for auction.

    The $50,000 gun

    In the fall of 2008, Julia brought up perhaps one of the rarest of all M1889 rifles, SN 87609. This 24-inch octagon barreled .38-40 with half magazine may have had the standard barrel length for the model, but that is about it. This gun was a presentation weapon delivered during the 1893 Chicago World's Fair to one H.W. Chester (who was a noted philanthropist in the area and treasurer of the Chicago Theological Seminary at that time) by Marlin itself.

    Gold plated with a German silver front sight, the rifle has center crotch cut American walnut furniture that is deeply hand checkered. The factory engravings by master artisan Conrad Ulrich features a " large vignette of a standing buck deer, a standing doe & a resting doe in a very highly detailed forest scene on left side and a deep relief standing bull elk in a mountain scene on right side, all surrounded by full coverage, very fine foliate arabesque patterns with punch dot background."

    (Photo by James D. Julia Auctioneers)

    (Photo by James D. Julia Auctioneers)

    Interestingly enough, this gun came back home to the Marlin Company in 1956 when the owner traded it for a new Model 336 right off the line. He was probably afraid to let this one get dirty in the woods!

    Good call because in this condition it sold for an amazing $48,300 in 2008.

    Why the big deal?

    Very few of the guns that left the factory had these upgrades, which make each one out there a valuable work of art not to mention firearms history.

    Therefore, in other words, the prices from these guns, some of which are on display in institutions such as the Frazier in Louisville and the Cody in Wyoming, are for the world to enjoy.


    Then of course, from time to time you can run across non-engraved surviving '89s with beautiful case hardened frames in working condition for a price closer to the $1000 ballpark.

    And as such, can start your own museum in the man cave of your choice

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