Should the lever action be relegated to yesteryear’s tactical guns, or does the brand new Marlin Dark Series 30-30 rifle deserve a slot next to your AR-15 collection? I took the new Dark Series lever action hog hunting at the family farm, back to the place where my hunting history began. We’re only talking ten years ago, not 1895 when Winchester Repeating Arms created the 30-30.
At the time, my foray into the hunting world had just begun and I had very limited exposure to different hunting calibers. So when a friend of mine asked me if I wanted to borrow his 30-30 lever action rifle, it was a no-brainer. It would prove faster to run than my inherited .30-06 bolt gun and led to a great hunt. Ironically, for many years there was more 30-30 ammo in my collection than any other caliber, but there was no 30-30 rifle in my own collection.
Fast forward to the day after our son was born. My in-laws made the pilgrimage paying homage to their first grandson. With a newborn in hand, my wife was due a much deserved break from our two oldest so I put them in the car along with my father-in-law and headed to the nearby Cabela’s. The kids love going there to look at the different animals and my father-in-law had never been.
While visiting the store, my father-in-law almost pulled the trigger on purchasing a Marlin 336 30-30. While he didn’t get one that day, he did end up getting one for Christmas this past year along with my collection of 30-30 ammo. This was a win for me, too. I still have an attachment to the Marlin lever action and can obviously borrow it occasionally. In the short time he’s had it, my father-in-law has put several pigs down. It is a great truck gun for him.
As you can imagine, when Jonathan asked if I wanted to take the new Marlin Dark Series 30-30 lever action, I was more than excited. I’ve shoot a lot of really great and fun guns, but there’s always a place in my heart for this time defying, lever action, classic rifle.
When the Dark Series Model 336 arrived, I found some big differences between it and my father-in-law’s Marlin that jumped out right away. The most obvious one was the color. The new Marlin Dark Series is completely black.
The stock is not synthetic like I thought at first glance, but a black-webbed hardwood stock. The texture of this stock is also significantly different from other lever guns as the paint used for the stock provides a sporadic, stipple-like texture instead of the smooth polished wood on the other 336’s. It was not a fine stipple job like you would expect on a Glock or handgun of your choice, but it was a noticeable difference that I preferred on this rifle.
Unlike Marlin’s traditional lever guns, the Dark Series comes with a paracord sling. This was a plus because the 30-30 my father-in-law got for Christmas required an additional purchase to add the sling. The sling is not the only place I found Para cord, the largest piece of the lever is wrapped in it as well.
This isn’t a normal lever though, it is the big loop lever which can also be found on the on Marlin 336BL. The big loop is a winner for people with big hands, those who wear gloves when shooting and – in my opinion – the rifle’s aesthetics. I didn’t discover the other addition until I got home and heard a little rattling in the box. It turns out that the 336 Dark Series comes with a hammer spur. If you are not familiar with a hammer spur, it’s about a 1” long, round piece of metal that attaches perpendicularly to the hammer and allows the shooter to pull back the hammer more easily.
The ghost ring sight and XS Lever Rail are new to this lever gun. While I’d never used a ghost ring before it proved the biggest, most pleasant, surprise for me. At first I wasn’t sure how it would impact my hunting. Despite my hesitation, it worked out well as you will see below (that’s called foreshadowing!).
The rail is a win, allowing you to mount the optic of your choice if open sights isn’t the direction you wish to go. For me, the rail was vital because I hunted at night and mounted my Pulsar Trail XP50 with my DLOC mount. This allowed the gun to transform from a daytime gun with open sights to a nighttime gun with my thermal on top.
Perhaps the best feature to me is the threaded 16.25″ barrel. This allowed me to put my AAC suppressor mount on it that I robbed from my 300 Blackout Pistol that I built recently. Next I added my AAC SDN-6 to keep things quiet.
The rifle itself weighs 7.65 pounds with an overall length of 34.5″. Once I added my mount and my can it was a little over 9 pounds which proved manageable and the extra weight on the front helped with the recoil of the rifle, not that there was much recoil to begin with.
Now that I had the gun, I needed some ammo. Thankfully, I got my hands on some Barnes 150gr TSX and Remington Whitetail Pro Core-Lokt 150gr ammo. Everything was ready to go for the hunt, but there was a several week wait before this hunt could happen due to my schedule. While we counted down the days to visit the farm, it was fun to pull the rifle out of the safe and have my 8, 5 and 2 year olds work that famous lever, look through the ghost ring and dry fire the rifle in our living room.
DAY 1 – Daylight Hog Hunting with Ghost Ring Sights
When we got to the farm, my father-in-law gave me an abysmal scouting report. He told me, “Not a lot of hogs out, it will be really, really hard to find any them this weekend.” They received more than four inches of rain the week before and he hadn’t seen any signs of hogs. That’s not what I wanted to hear but with my Pulsar Helion XP50, if the hogs were out I would definitely find them.
After receiving the not-so-encouraging report, I left the house for my customary quick scouting trip. Knowing that hogs could pop out of nowhere, I had loaded the Marlin Dark Series 30-30 with the Barnes ammo back at the house. There were about two hours of daylight left, so while I looked for hogs – or at least signs of them – I was really making a mental note of which fields had cattle and how the county roads were holding up after the rain. Getting stuck was not something I wanted to add to this story.
While driving down to the river, I called fellow SHWAT Pro Staffer, Casey Jones, to talk about a couple of items including a hunt we are planning for next month. As we were hashing out some details, a small sounder of hogs appeared on the east side of the highway. It was daylight hog hunting with an open scoped rifle. Not sure it could get any better!
HOGS 1 & 2
The truck was parked in the grassy shoulder of the road. As I exited the truck and grabbed my gear, I asked Casey if he wanted to stay on the phone with me while I hunted. He accepted my invitation to live vicariously through our conversation. It was more than 600 yards from the truck to the place where I would shoot. About halfway through my walk there, Casey impersonated one of my children and asked, “Are we there yet? How much further?” I guess we never grow out of it.
As I gave Casey an update on my location and the amount of pigs that are in the field, he asked me an important question, “Is your gun zeroed?” Honestly up to this point, the thought had never crossed my mind. Doesn’t that sound silly? I never owned an open sight gun and just assumed it was zeroed. His question caused some definite uncertainty about what was going to happen next, but there was only one way to find out.
As I got closer, it was easier to give more and more details to Casey about what I was seeing. I felt like a cross between an ESPN announcer and what I imagine a tip of the spear recon warrior on comms would do. “I’m about 75 yards away. There are at least 9 big pigs in this group with a bunch of piglets. The first pig will be about 50 yards from me when I shoot.” Maybe that’s a new business venture for somebody out there. At this point, I reached the corner where I could shoot. The hogs had no idea of my presence but they were about to become very aware.
My Primos Trigger Stick Tripod was set up and the rifle firmly settled in place. As I stared through the ghost ring towards the front sight, the light colored sow was only 40 yards from me. I slowly pulled back the hammer and slid over the manual safety with my shooting finger. After I took a deep breath and thought, “Dear Lord, please let this gun be somewhat zeroed,” I squeezed the trigger.
The Barnes bullet dropped the sow and also initiated the start of the “Let’s scramble for our dear lives” race for the rest of the swine. They were everywhere, somewhat confused but very aware of what was happening. My second shot missed but my third shot connected with a black hog about 80 yards out. This hog was shot further in the back than I would have liked and immediately lost the use of its hind legs. As it crawled away, I went ahead and did the right thing, putting it out of its misery while noticing the dust behind it kick up as the bullet passed all the way through. Two dead hogs out of that group with a new gun that I didn’t even know was sighted in. I’ll take that as a win!
A little while later I was on the phone with Jonathan when a boar crossed my path. This boar was about 250 yards from the road but there wasn’t really a good path to get to it except to walk down the dirt road right at it. I managed to get within about 70 yards of it when I lined up my shot. The first shot connected but the pig ran. The second shot was high, and the third shot was another hit. Unfortunately this pig somehow kept running and got to the next field before expiring.
At this point it was getting dark, really dark. On the way home, an animal scurried across the road. I could barely see it in my headlights and initially thought it was a deer. As I passed it and looked back towards what little of the sun was left, I could tell that it was a lone boar. There wasn’t a lot of time so the truck quickly found its way onto the shoulder. I grabbed my rifle and all I could see was that I had some part of the hog in the ghost ring. I shot and the hog collapsed. Another success and my last one for the day.
DAY TWO – Thermal Scope on a Marlin Lever Action
While this gun performed flawlessly during the day, it was time to see what it could do at night. I went to sight it in my Pulsar Trail XP50 thermal. As I left the house, I grabbed the two boxes of Remington ammo and headed towards the river. If you want a recipe for a challenge or a disaster, try sighting in on a target that’s on a tall cardboard box in a strong west Texas wind while shooting from a standing position on the Primos tripod.
I spent more time and ammo than I care to admit trying to get the thermal zeroed but eventually got it to where it was satisfactory. One thing I did notice was while suppressed the Remington ammo seemed louder than the Barnes ammo, but not loud enough for me to wear my ear protection.
The irony of this part of the hunt was that these hogs were shot in the same field where the gun was “somewhat” zeroed. It was about 11 pm when I pulled up to the gate and saw the sounder of about 15 hogs. I spotted the hogs with my Pulsar Helion XP50 450 yards from where the truck was parked, but I needed to get several hundred yards north of them because of the wind. The only issue, one hog was further north than the rest of the group.
Now I had to outpace that hog so he wouldn’t wind me and blow it for the whole sounder. He kept moving at a good clip and it eventually worked to my favor. There were cattle to the west in the same field which I had to factor into my plans. I wasn’t going to shoot with them in the background. This lead hog was now several hundred yards ahead of the rest of the sounder. Because I wanted to make sure I killed at least one hog with the Dark Series 30-30 set up with thermal I decided that I would start by shooting this one.
Remembering what Casey did to keep up with the Helion on his last hunt, I put the it into my HSGI taco. It was secure, not moving and allowing me to concentrate on getting this hog instead of fumbling around in the dark trying to find a place for the thermal spotter. As I looked through my Trail, the cattle were right behind the hog as he continued moving north.
I waited a couple of seconds before I could get my shot. He finally cleared the cattle and I took my chance. Even in the darkness of night, it was really easy to find that hammer spur. My thumb had a firm grip on it and eased the hammer back. I pushed the safety over and boom! It was a hit, but the dang hog didn’t go down, weaving instead through the cattle. As soon as I saw him break that way, I swung my rifle back to the south to see if I could get a shot at the remaining sounder before they exited the field. The wind was really in my favor and to my surprise the sounder was not fazed by what occurred. The suppressed Marlin lever action winning the night. On to the next hogs!
I was now in a good position with the wind and took my time getting to these pigs. Something out of the west spooked them and they started jogging back towards the truck. My first thought was that they would leave the field. Thankfully, they only ran about 150 yards and my strategy wasn’t altered. There was a straggler in this group and like the lions in Africa, I was okay with going after loner pig. After all, I wanted to collect a dead pig at night with this rig.
The almost full moon was the hogs’ ally, I remained wary not to get too close and let them see me. Where I got setup to shoot, I was close enough that my proximity would make up for what I lacked in zeroing the thermal in that wretched wind. I took a quick look around at the other pigs before I shot, it was time to execute my plan.
With the Trail zoomed in, I steadied the rifle and waited for the pig to turn broadside. As it turned and paused, I fired the Dark Series 336 Marlin. It was a hit and the rest of the pigs were running. The majority of them started running left from my 11 o’clock. My second shot was a miss (which seems might be the theme on this hunt), but my third shot dropped a HUGE boar.
With no time to celebrate, I swung the rifle back to my right and saw another part of the group running for the brush. I fired again and another pig tumbled as it crossed into the taller wheat that was off limits to the cattle. As I scanned back to my left, that dang first hog that was shot was out of sight. These pigs are so stinking resilient and it’s honestly pretty admirable.
As I came up to the boar, I realized he was way bigger than I thought. He might be the biggest if not one of the biggest pigs I’ve killed out there. He wasn’t very long but he was huge. Judging by the heart girth scale, the boar weighed about 325 pounds. He was so big, in fact, that when my father-in-law was checking cattle the next day he said he thought I shot one of the calves before taking a closer look!
DAY 3 – The Family That Hog Hunts Together…
We were packed up and ready to go home. The family was in the vehicle but I wanted to go down to the river and get a couple of pictures before the sun went down. As we drove to the river, there was a group of hogs in the same field as hogs 1 & 2 but a little further south. There was now a question that I needed to answer, “Do I want to shoot pigs or shoot pictures?” I rationalized that I could always shoot pictures of the Black Series Marlin back home.
My hunting gear was strategically placed where it was easily accessible in the Tahoe. It was time to go hunting and this time, my family could watch from the comfort of the vehicle as I stalked the pigs in gym shorts and sneakers, not your typical hunting garb. The hogs were about 400 yards away and there were only about 20-30 minutes of good hunting light left.
Knowing time was not in my favor, I was doing the Olympic speed walking program across the field. These are big open wheat fields and I went out of my way, further south, to try to get some of the vegetation along the fence line between me and the hogs. At one point, when I was about 100 yards away, one of the hogs spotted me. I froze and waited.
The hog eventually went back to foraging for food and I was about to get to into a great position behind the only two small trees in the area. While the left side of the tree provided a little more concealment, I positioned myself on the right side of the tree since it gave me a better view of the pigs. The two closest pigs were tussling with each other, causing one to jog closer towards me. Now she is in an open area where I can get a shot off. Boom!
She is hurt but gingerly running away. She wouldn’t get far. My attention turned to the others fleeing the field. I ran the Marlin lever then squeezed off another round. That hog dropped. The first hog, the wounded one, was about to trip over the aging bodies of hogs 1 & 2 if she’s not careful. Yet it was going to get away if I didn’t act fast. I grabbed my tripod and started running, almost in a full sprint, to catch up to her. I was breathing hard from the 190 yard jog and ended up finishing her off right where I shot hogs 1 & 2. The hunt had come full circle. The first shots and the last shot were made in the same exact place. Lethal poetry.
A couple of tips that I took away from this hunt…
When using a new gun, any gun, I would suggest making sure it is zeroed before you actually take it hunting. Also, I will zero if at all possible at a gun range. The conditions were just too wild and the wind was too unpredictable to get a good zero on my thermal
Next time I use this gun, I will to try a two-for-one special on the hogs. It seemed like there were a lot of shots that passed cleanly through the hogs. If I can get a couple line up next to each other, I believe that I can get two of them with a single shot.
When I hunt I usually shoot a gun with a larger capacity magazine. I didn’t know how much I would like shooting something that was a 5+1, especially when I got into a good sized sounder. However, I am not Casey Jones and don’t typically use a whole magazine in one field so this wasn’t really an issue for me. However, it is something to think about as you decide how you would use this rifle. I always carry a sidearm with a light on it as a backup when I hunt and this proved a continuing a good strategy.
I’m not sure why Marlin put together this gun but I think they might have said, “Let’s pull the best features from our collection of lever guns, add a ghost ring sight, a rail, throw in a sling and paint in black!” In this process, they put together a tactical 30-30 that you can take down multiple pigs during the day or night. Well done, Marlin!
The MSRP on the Marlin Black Series Model 336 lever action rifle is $949. They also make one in .45-70.