Born in Massachusetts in the 1820s, Charles Ballard was a machinist with a good eye for details. In 1861, Ballard filed patent No. 33,631 for a single-shot rifle that reloaded a cartridge from the breech with a rolling block mechanism.
Deep cut rifling grooves helped keep the rounds on target at extremely long ranges. This was a big thing at the time as almost every rifle of the day was a muzzle loading cap-and-ball type. Ball and Williams, Ballard's employer during the Civil War (1861-65), made some 16,000. After the war, however, sales slowed. Ballard stood on shaky ground then with only a few more years on his patent so he turned around and sold the rights to another small company, who resold them, who resold them, who resold them until....
Enter John Marlin
In 1874, the New York based company of Schoverling and Daly owned the rights to Mr. Ballard's patent and approached a young gunmaker in New Haven Connecticut about putting it into production. You see, S&D, while having the patent in hand, did not have a factory yet alone the know how to make the design work. It's a good thing that John Mahlon Marlin, the above-mentioned Connecticut gun maker had both on tap. Marlin quickly reworked Ballard's original concept, added a few tweaks, and released the Marlin Hunter in 1876. Chambered in both .44 Ballard Rimfire and .44 Ballard Centerfire, the firing pin could be reversed to fire either type of round. The gun sold well and soon was offered in .45-70 Government for Buffalo hunters and those traveling to all points west.
Over the next fifteen years, no less than 23 distinct models and submodels of Ballard-design rifles were made by the Marlin factory. With so many follow-on variants, the Marlin Hunter became the Marlin No. 1 Hunter, then followed the No 1 1/2, Model 1 3/4, Model No. 2, and so on and so forth. These guns were designed for hard service and reliability with Rocky Mountain Sights, solid construction, and beefy stocks that could take abuse. They came in large calibers that included not only the very respectable .45-70, but also .45-100, .44-77 Sharps, and .40-90 Ballard. These rounds were extremely accurate at long range while still carrying a tremendous amount of energy downrange. As such, they were among the most popular big game guns of the late 19th and early 20th century and many a prospector, hunter, and homesteader carried them into the wilderness from Colorado to Alaska and felt better for it.
One model, the No. 6 Schuetzen, wasnt created for bear hunters in Idaho in mind but rather for gentlemanly target shooters in Boston, New York, and Baltimore. European-style target shooting with elaborate stocks and very heavy barreled rifles (weighing as much as 15-pounds) was popular at the time and Marlin introduced these very well equipped guns for that bowler hat and wool jacket-clad crowd.
Even though the company stopped making Ballard rifles in 1891, they continued to use "Ballard Rifling" for several decades to come.
Ballards were chambered for many different rounds, almost all of which are extinct now. If you chose to shoot yours, be aware that it was designed and built for blackpoweder rounds, and never use modern smokeless ones in a vintage Marlin Ballard.
Marlin Ballards are some of the most collectable and expensive rifles ever made in the United States. Just a quick look at the open market finds them readily available if you have a thick pocket book anywhere from $1500- $30,000. Since the value ranges so widely on these models, it's best to have one inspected by a firearms expert knowledgeable in these guns before taking or making an offer on one. The only exception to this is if you just stumble across one that is priced super low. A friend of mine once bought a beautiful .38-55 caliber No. 4 with an octagon barrel as a dusty $100 "wall-hanger" in an antique shop in Foley, Alabama. He refused all offers for it since then and the gun, once carefully cleaned, grades to well over VG condition.
Even the simplest Marlin Ballards should still have easily readable marks on the left hand of the receiver. Look for Ballard's 1861 patent date (this is NOT the date the gun was made!), and the Marlin mention above it.
These guns will all have the same simple Ballard rolling block action, Marlin markings, and Ballard's original 1861 patent dates. Earlier guns will be marked "JM Marlin" while later models will be marked "Marlin Firearms". With the exception of the .45-70 caliber firearms, most are chambered for long obsolete and unobtainable cartridges (just go ahead and try to find 40-63 Ballard on the shelf of your local Big Box). Some are breathtakingly beautiful, with European style scroll-work engraving, fine hardwoods, and inlays that show the care and artisanship of a time long forgotten.
So yeah, if you are poking around and find one for what you consider your own right price, grab it, as you have a piece of Marlin history. You won't be sorry.