During a month when we celebrate all the Dads out there, we thought it might be a good time to talk about a firearms company that has twice been handed down from father to son. A company that remained family owned and operated for nearly a century and embodied true American values. The Marlin Firearms Company is perhaps best known for its quality lever action and small caliber semi-auto rifles, but the key to its longevity entailed so much more than just the guns.
Marlin, much like many of the firearm companies that came into existence around the time of the Civil War, has had an interesting and at times turbulent journey, filled with ups and downs that included ownership changes, the need for innovative and creative product lines, and pioneering marketing strategies. The combined effort and determination of all those involved is what helped assure the survival of The Marlin Firearms Company through two World Wars, the Korean War, the Great Depression, and into the third century of firearm production. In this article, we would like to briefly run through a summary of Marlin’s timeline and discuss a small part of the history of this great American gun manufacturer.
It all began with John Mahlon Marlin when he was a young man in his late twenties. Starting at the age of eighteen he spent a few years working as a machinist for the American Machine Works Company, then moved on to a similar position in the Connecticut based Colt factory. It was there that he was probably first introduced to the gun building trade. However, by the time he was twenty-eight, Marlin’s entrepreneur spirit had led him away from Colt. He sought to make a name for himself by opening up a small shop in New Haven, Connecticut. He did so by simply hanging a sign outside his building that read “Pistol Maker” and began manufacturing firearms under his own name “J.M. Marlin”. At first he built just small single shot style pistols that were intended for ladies, or to be carried concealed for protection.
In the years following the Civil War (1861-1865), many firearm companies were sprouting up and looking to capitalize on the demand generated by the influx of settlers headed out west. The need for food and protection was a top priority for every person that was migrating into these new territories. The industry was booming! But manufacturing only small guns certainly was not going be enough to allow Marlin to compete with so many others trying to do the very same thing.
So when a businessman named Charles Daly presented an opportunity to John Marlin, he took the first step in assuring his long-standing legacy. Charles Daly of Shoverling & Daly in NYC had just recently gained the manufacturing and patent rights to the Ballard Rifle design through the acquisition of the failing Brown Manufacturing Company. Daly approached Marlin about developing these rifles, requesting that he makes some improvements to make the Ballard appeal to sportsmen. Up to this point the Ballard was considered a military rifle seeing most of its use during the war.
The agreement was mutually beneficial and it helped to grow Marlin's customer base. Shoverling & Daly of course became the sole agents of the Marlin Ballard Rifles. John Marlin took full advantage of the opportunity and produced the Ballard Rifle from 1875 to 1890. Shoverling & Daly saw potential in Marlin's abilities and invested a large amount of money in his business. They also secured other stakeholders to help incorporate his company. The Marlin Fire Arms Company was officially formed in 1881.
Charles Daly was the first president of the newly formed company and would help oversee the growth of Marlin’s production. They purchased an iron foundry and built additional space for the business in Hartford, Connecticut. Thanks in part to Daly’s business sense, John Marlin would eventually accumulate a fair amount of wealth. In time Marlin was able to purchase all outstanding shares and become the sole owner of the company that shared his name.
Over the years he built a reputation for meticulously crafting his guns, and even registered a number of firearm related patents. Although, his first real mainstream success would come from further development of patents owned by an inventor named Andrew Burgess. After obtaining the rights to use these ideas, Marlin was able to develop the first successful repeating rifle for The Marlin Fire Arms Company, and the industry's first repeating rifle strong enough to handle the .45-70 big bore caliber. The Marlin 1881 unmistakably had some similarities to the Colt Burgess rifle due to the use of Burgess’ patents, but the rifle was a standout because of its much heavier frame. It was also the only real competition at the time for the very popular Winchester 1873 lever action rifle.
Marlin Model 60
In the coming years, Marlin would introduce a handful of other repeating rifles. The 1888, 1889, and 1891 models would all pave the way for Marlins future lever action designs. A combination of patents from John Marlin and L.L. Hepburn were used in creating these guns, which included the introduction of the first .22 caliber rimfire repeater. Each rifle would continue to be scrutinized and inspected by John Marlin down to the smallest details of craftsmanship. This level of attention cemented his reputation as a quality gun builder throughout the firearm industry.
In 1901 John M. Marlin died and the company was left to his two sons. Mahlon Henry Marlin, who was thirty-seven at the time of his father's death, would become the company's president and treasurer. His younger brother, John Howard Marlin (25 years old), would become vice president and secretary.
The core of the company saw little change under the control of John Marlin’s two sons, other than the continued pursuit of firearm development. They relied on the reputation built by their father and continued to manufacture quality hand crafted guns. One notable part of the two young Marlin’s tenure is that they seized the opportunity to grow their share of the industry by acquiring the Ideal Manufacturing Company. A company that produced reloading equipment and fit perfectly into Marlin’s forte of sporting arms.
It was not long before the two well-educated young men would be faced with some difficult business decisions. Most of Europe was at war, and the threat that the United States would soon enter the fight was looming. They knew if that were to happen, the commercial sales of sporting guns was going to plummet and leave them with much uncertainty.
As the global demand grew, firearm manufacturers in the United States were being offered contracts to supply military weapons, but Mahlon Marlin wanted little to do with it. He replied to such requests gracefully, stating that it would not be in the best interest of anyone involved because the company simply did not have the manufacturing space or capability to accommodate such a large and time sensitive demand. Based on letters written in response to these inquiries, it seemed that Mahlon had never considered the idea of halting production of Marlin’s guns in order to build war items. He looked at it as if he would have to grow the production capabilities in order to accommodate both, and that was apparently something that he was not willing to do.
Even though he had previously resisted the contract offers, Mahlon Marlin was approached again in 1915. A syndicate wished to purchase the entire company for the purpose of manufacturing weapons of war for England and Russia. The war had progressed, and it became nearly certain that the United States would be involved in the fight. In an effort to avoid any real financial loss, the Marlin brothers agreed to accept the offer and sold their father’s company.
In 1916 the syndicate would rename the company The Marlin Arms Corporation. The investor group, which was formed by William P. Bombright, with a direct affiliation to J.P. Morgan & Company, had appointed Albert F. Rockwell as president. Rockwell would oversee the company's transition from primarily manufacturing sporting arms to exclusively focusing on building tools of war.
Once transitioned, they would abruptly change the name again. They became known as the Marlin-Rockwell Corporation. Under the Marlin-Rockwell label, the company produced a number of weapons for the war effort, which included the Colt Model 1914 Machine Gun and the Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR).
Perhaps Marlin-Rockwell’s most significant contribution to the war effort came from their engineers who made major improvements to the military weapons. It’s hard to believe that anyone could improve on the legendary John Browning, but they did. They made the Colt 1914 much lighter and more efficient by adding a gas piston system to the weapon and eliminating the original lever type action of the old “Potato Digger”. They also invented the synchronization mechanism that allowed the gun to be mounted to an aircraft directly behind the propeller. The system enabled the gun to be fired without striking the blades while in flight. This became a major advantage in the aerial pursuits of the allied forces.
The fact that they were delivering such results made the war effort extremely beneficial for the growth of the Marlin-Rockwell Company. The company would go on to modify the Colt guns for use on tanks which brought in even more profits, and they would also be granted the first ever contracts for bomb development. Despite the world being at war, the company was growing and increasing production. They acquired a radiator manufacturer, a roller bearing business, and absorbed the Hopkins and Allen Company.
However, just as quickly as they grew, they began dismantling with equal haste. After the war, it was as if the syndicate had seen the end of the financial windfall or just no longer cared to be part of the industry. They quickly began divesting the holdings. The Marlin-Rockwell Company would hold on to the roller bearing business, but by 1922 the firearms company was being reestablished as the Marlin Firearms Corporation with completely new leadership. Their public notice of reorganization assured consumers that they would indeed be returning to the production of Marlin's repeating sporting rifles.
John Moran had joined Marlin-Rockwell when they acquired the radiator business. He would now take the helm of the reestablished firearms company. Moran tried to use his extensive sales experience to develop a successful strategy. He provided literature to retailers that he considered to be the tools needed by every salesman to provide the ultimate gun buying experience. However, there were many factors that Moran could not overcome while trying to bring the company back to its sporting arms glory. The costs involved in reorganizing, absorption of a large mortgage left from the rapid growth, and outstanding tax debt were all too large of a burden for the company to get any momentum for success. Essentially the guns that they were able to bring to the market were more of a luxury item in a post war economy.
On February 4, 1924, the assets of the Marlin Firearms Corporation were auctioned off by the Sheriff to satisfy the mortgage holders. Frank Kenna Sr. who was an attorney as well as a real estate investor opened and closed the bidding with $100 for the company’s land and thirteen buildings. He did so knowing that he would also be absorbing the current mortgage of $100,000.
Mr. Kenna could have easily repeated the failed effort that had fallen upon John Moran and the previous investors, but he proved to be much more business savvy. Frank Kenna Sr. believed in the Marlin brand, and was prepared to meet the challenges ahead. He developed other enterprises under the umbrella of Marlin that allowed the company to ride out even the most difficult times.
Marlin razor blades was just one of Kenna’s ideas that kept Marlin a household name and provided the company with an additional income stream. He also created a real estate division that refurbished and rented out the company’s properties that were not being used for manufacturing.
Long before Frank Kenna had any involvement with Marlin, he had developed the concept to place news periodicals and eye-catching photographs near whatever information or items he wanted people to see. This idea later became part of the Marlin Industrial Division, and they began providing bulletin boards and signage to other companies as a way to communicate with their employees. This would later lead to the formation of The Marlin Company; a NYC based corporation that is still thriving today with his grandson Frank Kenna III as the CEO. It is now a fully digital signage company focused on workplace communication for safety and training purposes.
Other creative products produced by the industrial division included bicycles, wagons, calendars, hair brushes, shaving cream, and baby carriages.
Besides the alternative revenue sources, Frank Kenna found other ways to keep the company profitable and keep his workforce intact even at times of war. During WWII the Marlin Company took on government contracts to build parts for the military issued M1 Carbines. They turned out barrels, triggers, hammers, stocks, and handguards by the thousands. When the United States went to war in Korea, they did it again, and built barrels for the M3 Submachine Gun.
Frank Kenna was a dedicated family man with an incredible business mind. He cared about the success of the company and his employees. He wasn’t in it for a quick turn around profit like those before him, an ideology that he seemingly passed along to his children. His first born, Roger Kenna was a natural salesman. He worked his way up to president of Marlin’s solely owned subsidiary the L.C. Smith Gun Company when he was just thirty-five years old. So when his father died, Roger was the obvious replacement and was appointed by the board of directors as the president of Marlin.
He immediately took an aggressive sales and marketing approach to keep Marlin razor blades and firearms in the eyes of the American public. He purchased radio spots and ran cartoon television ads. Through his efforts, Roger Kenna was able to expand the company’s major accounts, which included major retailers like Sears & Roebuck. In a post WWII economy when most companies were struggling, Roger helped create a 50% increase in orders for Marlin products.
To grow Marlin’s share of mass-merchandising, Roger created another solely owned subsidiary called the Glenfield Products Division. Marketed through this company were guns made for catalog sales, which were primarily handled through J.C. Penney. The firearms that sold as Glenfield models were of the same Marlin quality, but costs were cut by using cheaper resources (eg: birch instead of walnut for the stocks).
Sadly, Roger Kenna died at the young age of forty-nine. The board wasted no time electing his younger brother Frank Kenna, Jr. as his successor.
Much like his father and John Marlin before him, Frank Jr. would be a hands-on president who was passionate about the quality of their products and the success of the company and its employees. Frank steered Marlin through rough financial times in the 1970’s to become an industry leader in production in the 1980’s. He incorporated scholarships for the children of his employees, tuition reimbursement programs for those furthering their education, and moved operations to a more modern facility.
One of Frank, Jr’s goals was to keep Marlin at the top of the industry by introducing new models and designs, which he did with success. Some of the firearms he brought forth were the Model 444 & the Papoose .22 semi-automatic, as well as the re-chambering of classic Marlin designs with modern calibers.
This is a direct quote taking from the book - Marlin Firearms – A History of the Guns and the Company that Made Them, 1989, by Lt. Col. William S. Brophy USAR, Ret. “It is under the leadership of Frank Kenna, Jr., that Marlin has reached a unique level in the firearms industry. For all intents and purposes the company is a family-owned company (none of the others can say this) and it now manufacturers more shoulder-fired rifles than any other company in the U.S. It is also the largest manufacturer of caliber .22 rifles in the U.S.”
Unfortunately, the days of a family owned Marlin Firearms Company with exceptional hand crafted detail may be over. Though Marlin Firearms Corporation continued to do well and was still expanding their holdings into the new millennium, with the acquisition of H&R 1871 Inc. in 2000; they eventually sold to the Remington Arms Company, which is now a subsidiary of the investment firm known as The Freedom Group.
Some final thoughts: Without question, the Kenna family can be credited with the long-term success of Marlin Firearms. Their family-oriented approach to business helped pioneer workplace communication that is still in use today, and the firearms that they produced will remain part of American families for many years to come. I know for me, my trusted Marlin 336 lever action rifle will be handed down to one of my children, and will hopefully be passed down to theirs, helping to assure the continued legacy of this great American firearms name. Obviously all of Marlin’s detailed history could not be covered in this simple article, so if you possess an interest in learning more, it is highly recommended that you read the book we cited above. It is a fascinating tale of economic survival through some tumultuous times in America.