An Illuminating Trip to the Marlin Firearms Factory
On the morning of Friday March 2, 2018, Hal Blood and I took a trip through the blizzard to Ilion, New York to tour the Marlin Firearms plant. As some of you might know, Hal is on the Quality Assurance Counsel for Remington so he was more familiar with the factory and the staff there than I was. We also met Charlie Conger, another member of the QAC. (I heard from a few present that Charlie is a hell of a marksman as well. He absolutely loves his Model 700s. I can tell you this; he’s also a nice guy and a wealth of information on various guns and shotguns.) Me, I’m just a hardcore Marlin rifle enthusiast and a tracker that loves carrying those storied rifles through the big woods. As such, I’ve been watching carefully the Marlin brand be rebuilt from the ground up over the past 7 years since Remington’s acquisition of the historical rifle maker. I have seen the quality of what’s been coming out of the plant improve dramatically in that span, and I felt it was time to get an inside look into how that was accomplished. I also explained to Remington brass specifically, that I wanted to do an inside story on how a 2018 Marlin Trapper is created, as that is the rifle I’ve decided to use for my 2018 tracking season in the Adirondacks.
Let me jump ahead a bit, and say that what I came away with after the tour was a new respect for what it takes to build a lever action rifle, and the massive investment Remington has put in place in manufacturing equipment, resources, both monetarily and personnel, and mostly by the people on the floor that make them. I left the plant impressed and encouraged by what I saw. The whole event of walking through those factory halls seemed distinctly, well…American.
Now, before I go into depth into the tour, it needs to be stated that Mr. Jim Baron, the Rifle Operations Manager for Marlin who provided the tour, was an open book. This attitude was gutsy. He was comfortable to let me videotape the entire manufacturing process, and explained how each process has been improved over the years. As someone who has seen the turnaround – from the transport of Marlin’s Connecticut factory assets to the Ilion plant in New York to the 9 million dollar investment in new CNC machinery – Jim was a wealth of information and knowledge. He is young, energetic, smart, and obviously loves the Marlin brand.
As a business owner myself, I pride myself on how open I am with a potential guest at one of my Freedom Model Retreats. Unlike my competitors, I allow a potential guest to tour either of my retreats and speak with the guests that are already enrolled, and spend time with the staff before they put their money down if they need that reassurance. No one in the drug and alcohol help field allows what I allow in this sense. But the reason I am able to do so, is because I have complete confidence in the Freedom Model System we’ve developed, my staff, the facilities, etc. With that said, I did not expect that kind of confidence in the management at Marlin when we pulled up to the gate that snow laden morning. To be honest, I didn’t know what to expect. The Marlin brand took quite a beating when Remington took over in 2009. The internet can be a fierce and negative place when you’ve taken a well known brand that was in deep trouble to begin with, and then you take the risks to rebuild it. With the overall gun industry in a slump currently, and the recent events in Florida, I half expected a siege mentality. But we got the opposite. No stone was left unturned by Mr. Baron. He was confident enough to discuss openly the challenges in the earlier days, and the ways they overcame many of those obstacles. Times like that make men tired or confident; there’s not much middle ground there. Jim is the latter and obviously the stronger for it.
To further my point here, some managers might be uncomfortable to give an inside look into their operation with a perfect stranger who is going to “write a series of articles about it.” But to then pile on the added pressure of giving said tour in front of two Quality Assurance personal, I cannot say I would have been as comfortable as Mr. Baron was.
When we sat in Jim’s office initially I explained that as a Marlin enthusiast I was tired of trying to get answers about how Marlin was improving their quality by searching the web. Some of the internet trolls say Marlin hasn’t invested in the brand at all. Others say they have spent millions on new line equipment. There seemed to be no middle ground that smelled of the facts or the truth. But based on what I’d been seeing on store shelves personally, and some recent purchases, I knew that quality was certainly there – but I wanted to know how that happened first hand. Also, as an outdoor writer, and as the speaker at The Tracker’s Rifle seminars on the outdoor show circuit, I was constantly getting asked – “Is Marlin back, Mark?” I decided after the Essex, Vermont show that if I wanted to answer that question honestly, I needed to see it with my own eyes. I wanted to look at the equipment, the new CNC machines building the receivers and carriers. I wanted to look at the stocks being worked by hand by 5th generation Ilion workers. I wanted to watch the barrels be cut. I wanted to see how a defective part might be identified on the line and then replaced before the gun left the plant. I wanted to feel reassured of what I was seeing as a consumer was in fact real, and I know a lot of others want that reassurance as well.
As the tour started Jim made it known that he knows improvements can still be made and that the search for those higher standards should never end. That is why the brand has come so far in the last 7 years. Unlike many managers I’ve met in the business world, he is open to criticism and adjusts to those realities. So while the brand isn’t exactly where he wants it to be, we are now getting into what I like to call the “nitpicky category.” The guns that in the past might have ended up in a gun store with obvious defects, are pulled off the line today and fixed. What makes it out of the doors is solid and well made, and here is why…
My number one request when we began the tour was, show me the oldest equipment still in use, and then show me the newest. Jim said, “No problem,” and he brought us to the barrel cutters – giant monstrosities bathed in oil vats; both from pre-WWI. Yup, that old. But as I watched the behemoths cut thorough the bore like butter, cutting the lands and grooves in a single pass, I now knew why my Marlins always shot like they did – especially my new 1895 Guide Gun I’ve appropriately nicknamed “Cloverleaf.” If it works don’t fix it. Marlins have great barrels. Always have. I’ve owned dozens of JM stamped rifles. Some shoot better than others, but always accurate enough to slay the deer and bear I chased through the mountains. That holds true today with the Remington made Marlins I’ve owned. While the giant barrel press might be more than a century old, the cutter passing through the barrel blank isn’t. They are changed regularly, and that precision shows in how they shoot.
Immediately after seeing the barrels be made, we came to a single room where 80% of the equipment to make a Marlin rifle sits. None of that machinery existed 4 years ago, and none of it came from Connecticut. This was what I came to the factory to see. The failing Connecticut machinery was replaced with what I was looking at. The new CNC machines are a wonder to witness as they churn out receivers, bolts, carriers, fasteners; all the goodies that make a modern Marlin such a clean design. Take a 2018 made Marlin. Set it next to a pre-2006 JM stamped rifle. You will notice how sharp and clean the lines are on all the metal work of the new gun. That’s a result of computer CNC machining. Ironically, if you were to listen to the internet trolls, you’d think these new cleaner lines were somehow a bad sign of the times. Nope, old equipment makes receivers that look nostalgic yes, but are out of spec by modern standards from a tolerance perspective. The investment in this room was made so every receiver, bolt, carrier or fastener is identical to the specs for a perfect fit. Are there anomalies? Yup, as with any manufacturing process there are the bad ones. But with a computer measuring the units being made, those bad apples are easily identified. I watched it happen as the computer did its measuring and when a field on the screen turned from green to red, the adjustments were made on the spot, and the next receiver was again made to spec. The other went into the filings bin.
What I came away with from this visit was a sense of the smashing together of old and new. Sorting through what works and does not work was the great challenge here. I was able to witness the result of that intense weeding out process and also meet the people on the floor who really knew what they were doing as they made that all happen. They were happy to have their jobs, and they were proud to show me exactly what they were doing. So while the brand certainly went through a difficult time, and the new workforce needed to learn an entire new line of guns – they are Marlin workers now. I became acutely aware of this blending of old and new when Jim pointed out an older gentlemen diligently working on a Marlin stock. Jim looked at us and said, “He is the longest running Remington employee, coming up on 50 years with the company.” I sat there in amazement as I watched him carefully sanding a Marlin stock oblivious to our presence. So my answer to everyone out there thinking about buying a Marlin and asking about quality, my answer is yes, Marlin is back. But it’s not because of one single decision, or a certain process being handled differently. It’s because they figured out how to sort through thousands of variables over seven years, with 20% old and 80% new being the correct mix. Based on what I saw with these ingredients, I think Marlin’s best years are still ahead.
To see a video of the CNC Machining Room for Marlin Rifles click below: Please be aware that while I am an accomplished writer, professional videographer I am not. However, even with my amateur video recording skills, you too can witness the actual investment made by Marlin in new manufacturing equipment at the Ilion, NY plant.
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