The .444 and Me

Terry, a young co-worker in the plant called me aside and asked me if I was a deer hunter. Now any Southerner knows it’s what “real men” do. So without hesitating I answered, “Sure. Why?” I thought he was about to ask me to go hunting with him.

The Marlin .444 lever action
The Marlin .444 lever action

“I got a rifle I need to sell,” he said.

“What is it?” I asked.

“A four-forty-four Marlin.”

“A what?” I asked.

“It’s a deer gun – a lever action. Got a scope, too. I bought it last year from my cousin and never got to go huntin’ with it. All this overtime we been workin’.” He cracked a little grin and added, “It kinda kicks. But it shoots real good. My cousin said he’s killed several deer with it and none of ‘em even tried to run after he shot ‘em. It’s a real hoss.”

To make a long story short, I bought the rifle from him the next day when I saw it. It was a beautiful rifle, well made, and it fit me almost perfectly, except for one little thing. That one little thing would come back to haunt me later: I had to raise my head slightly off the stock to get the correct view through the scope.

I assessed it as a heavy-duty deer-killing machine, with heavy being the operative word here. But considering the humongous size of the cartridges that he supplied with it, I figured all that steel must be needed to contain the power of those huge bullets. Most of my prior experience with rifles had been with a semi-auto .22 Model 77, and with my lever-action .22 magnum Model 255, both Winchesters. I considered myself highly proficient with those guns. But this Marlin was in a totally different category.

A few days later I was in the woods near my home with my “new” .444 lever gun looking for a place to try it out. I needed to check the gun’s 4X scope and get a feel for it before taking it hunting. I spotted a big white blotch on the bark of a pine tree about 25-yards from me. The tree was at the base of the hill behind it, providing a good backstop. A perfect place to start, I thought. Not too far away. I should hit the tree even if the scope is off a little. Then I can adjust it if needed. (Being older and wiser, I would now familiarize myself with its ballistics, take it to a range and use a rest and an actual target to sight it in.)

With the full confidence of an experienced rifleman, I raised the rifle to my shoulder, carefully centered that white spot on the bark in the crosshair, and squeezed off a shot.

I fought to keep my footing in the pine straw and leaves while the blast of the gun echoed again and again through the hills. I wasn’t expecting a kick like that – or the pain of its sledgehammer-like blow to my shoulder. The stock had somehow slammed into my cheek bone as the rifle leapt upward in recoil. Time has erased my exact thoughts at that moment but I do recall that it brought tears to my eyes. That had never happened to me, before or since. No, I wasn’t expecting to be thumped by the butt of my own gun. I wasn’t prepared for that at all. A nice, relaxed stance and grip on this baby was not going to cut it. I was getting the feel of it, and damn!

As I regained my composure, I looked up to see where the bullet hit – just in time to see the tree falling away from me and landing with a crash. You might call it a fluke. And granted, the tree was not large, about 7” in diameter where I shot into it. But that one shot had shattered enough of its trunk into splinters that it felled it. That white spot was gone, obliterated, so my scope’s settings were still not verified at that point. But the power of that cartridge was, to me. I was now convinced that it would take down anything it could hit.

At that time my past experience with riflescopes included missing a couple of good game-shot opportunities by having the early morning or late evening sun glaring through the glass. Considering that and the thumping it gave me, I removed the scope. I could now get my cheek down where it belonged. This wasn’t the prairie and I could simply use those fine iron sights on the Marlin. And with a little practice I learned how to brace for that awesome recoil. But shooting it was never, ever fun for me – it just hurt too much. Terry was right when he said, “It’s a real hoss.” And now I understood why he grinned when he said it: It kicked like one.

That was in 1978. I carried that .444 hunting several times. As luck would have it, I never got a shot on any of those hunts, but I held onto that rifle for years. It was my one gun that I knew would stop anything.

My personal and painful experience with the .444 is presented here to make you think, not to disparage the fine Marlin 444 rifle in any way. It is a terrific rifle with awesome power. I would trust it to get the job done in almost all situations out to about 220 yards. Bullet drop becomes excessive beyond that in my opinion. But if you are considering the purchase of a Marlin 444 or any heavy rifle, realize this: It may not be fun to shoot. In fact, it may be downright painful. You might think of it as loving a woman who knocks the snot out of you every time you kiss her. That’s something that usually doesn’t result in a long-term relationship.

Marlin 1894. 10 rounds of .44mag will do ya.
Marlin 1894. 10 rounds of .44mag will do ya.

If you’re like me, you will prefer a rifle that will do the job without the pain and purple shoulder. In my case, after a long departure from deer hunting, I eventually decided to get back into it and opted for a Marlin Model 1894 in the .44 Mag. I would have preferred a Ruger Deerfield but was unable to find one at a reasonable price. These both use a .240 gr. bullet, like the Marlin .444, but with less gunpowder. Of course, many other bullet weights and designs are available today and you might find one that you like better than the old-style 240 gr. soft-nose bullet.

The Model 1894 rifle is much lighter and shorter, and thereby easier and quicker to handle than its .444 big brother. With a useful range that easily extends beyond 120 yards, and the knockdown, brush-busting power of a big bore, heavy bullet, this little rifle is well worth considering. For me, hunting in woods where a shot opportunity as long as 100 yards is extremely rare, this trade-off of losing a little range (that I likely will never need) versus a teeth-rattling kick that’s guaranteed with every trigger pull seems to be a no-brainer.

Good hunting.

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