Most Marlin owners know of their long legacy of lever action rifles, .22 rimfire guns, and others. However, what most don't know is that the company was one of the largest manufacturers of machine guns in World War One.
The Colt-Marlin Light Machine Gun
In 1915, during World War I, a New York syndicate bought the company from the sons of John Marlin, the company's founder, and renamed it the Marlin Rockwell Corporation (MRC). In that same year, MRC obtained license to the 1895 Colt Light Machine Gun. Colt had been manufacturing their 'potato-digger' machine gun for twenty years and the weapon had been made in a half dozen calibers not only for the US Army and Navy but also for Belgium, Canada, France, Italy, and Imperial Russia. With World War I becoming a boom for Colt and other firearms manufacturers producing weapons for Western European clients, the company was anxious to rid itself of the old Model 1895. Colt sold all of the rights, tooling, plans, and patents to MRC and washed their hands of the old potato digger.
A Marlin 1895/15 from Julia Auctions, note the spare barrel and barrel holder on the bipod. This was cutting edge for light machine guns in 1916.
The Design of the 1895/15 Marlin
The original Colt 1895 dated back to an old design by John Moses Browning, inventor of among other things, the Colt 1911. It was a fully automatic lever action rifle that fired from a 400-round cloth belt. It fired from a fixed barrel and had a high tripod. Overall, the machine gun was 41-inches long including its 28-inch barrel and weighed 35-pounds with the tripod attached. In 1914, Colt had modified the legacy design by giving it a shorter tripod so that it could be fired from a prone position. This is when the gun earned its nickname of 'potato digger' as the pivoting lever that worked the action would dig into the dirt under the gun if placed too low to the ground. It was this version that Marlin took over. Given a detachable barrel with multiple radial fins, Marlin sold these to the Italian Navy in 6.5mm and the Imperial Russian Army in 7.62x54R through 1917. When the US entered the War in April 1917, Marlin sold a few 30.06 caliber models to the US Army for training purposes.
Marlin light machine gun for tank service. Note the finned aluminum barrel shroud and shorter tripod.
Carl G. Swebilius, a longtime Marlin engineer originally from Sweden, designed a stripped down version of the 1895, dubbed the M1917 that was sold to the Army in quantities as a machine gun for tanks. The M1917 used a linear gas piston that ran parallel along the bottom of the barrel instead of the old Browning-Colt lever action (there isn't a lot of room for a swinging lever inside a tank!) This stepped the old design up from its original 400-rounds per minute to nearly 650-rounds per minute, as the piston was a shorter action than the original pivoting lever design.
An even further improved version, the M1918 that used many aluminum parts to conserve weight, was sold to the Army for use in airplanes. These guns used stantinesco synchronizing gear and were twin mounted on DH-4, SPAD, Salmson and Brequet airplanes, firing through the plane's spinning propellers. These were well received as the Lewis guns used before their adoption often froze solid at high altitude. After they were tested, the following note was sent to Army Headquarters, "Marlin aircraft guns have been fired successfully on four trips from 13,000 to 15,000 feet altitudes at a temperature of -20 degrees Fahrenheit. On one trip guns completely covered with ice. Both metallic links and fabric belts proved satisfactory." They were additionally subjected to an endurance test of 10,000 rounds without a single stoppage or malfunction. Impressive even today.
The M1918 for aircraft use -- Just add Snoopy and you can take down the Red Baron.
Twenty-two squadrons of the US Army Air Corps in France were supplied with Marlin machine guns during World War One. More than 15,000 M1918s and 23,000 M1917s were sent to the Army who held them in front line service until 1925. It was then that they were put in reserve stocks...just in case they were needed again.
The Marlin Machine Gun in World War Two
During the Second World War several hundred 1895/1917/1918 Marlin light machine guns were dusted off and used extensively by the Coast Guard Reserve Corsair Navy, a group today known as the USCG Auxiliary who used their own personal boats to look for German and Japanese submarines off of all three coasts. A number of these obsolete old guns (by then some 30-40 years old) were sent to Great Britain to help with their Home Guard. One British design was to take four old Marlins and mount them on a quad mountwith a single sight and operator.
According to Ian at Forgotten Weapons, "Each gun was equipped with an ammo spool holding 300 rounds, and shell deflectors were in place to prevent the gunner from being hit by any brass."
Today all of these Marlin guns are rarely encountered and when they do run over $10,000 in working condition. Not bad for a weapon that fought in two world wars.