Big Horn Armory’s Model 89 Chambers The .500 S&W Magnum For Really Big Game
Story and photographs by Dave Campbell
Ever since the .500 Smith & Wesson Magnum came on the scene in 2003, there have been a bunch of folks trying to figure out how to cram this über-powered revolver cartridge into a rifle – especially a lever-action rifle. It’s been an American obsession ever since the cowboy days: A guy “needs” to have a lever-action rifle chambered for his handgun cartridge. Whether that need is real or not can be debated elsewhere, but the perception remains steadfast. Most of the popular revolver cartridges – from the .32-20 to the .45 Colt – have been made in a lever-action rifle. But there’s another advantage with the .500 S&W Magnum. In a rifle the .500 S&W begins to crowd the .458 Winchester Magnum in performance. Problem is, the .500 S&W Mag has a few dimensional issues to fit it into an established platform.
Frank Ehrenford, owner of Big Horn Armory, was one of those who dreamed of a lever gun in .500 S&W Magnum. In 2008 he partnered with Greg Buchel, master machinist and engineer, to see the project come to fruition. They tested a variety of lever-action rifles from the Marlin 336 to the Model 1895, but none were deemed suitable. So a year later they decided to build their own rifle from the ground up.
As a starting point they chose the Winchester Model 1886, the Browning-designed lever gun that features dual-opposing locking lugs to contain powerful cartridges. The Model 1892 is the same action scaled down to handle pistol-caliber cartridges. Unfortunately, the Model 1892 is too small for the .500 S&W Magnum.
Ehrenford, Buchel and Dan Brown, their machinist, decided to upsize the Model 92 to harness the new chambering. One regular complaint about the Model 92 is the dinky loading gate. Especially with larger cartridges like the .44-40, .44 Special/Mag and .45 Colt, it can become downright painful to load the magazine more than a couple of times a day. To address that issue, the team decided to adapt the loading gate design on the Model 86 to the new action. Loading the Model 89 is not as challenging as it can be with a Model 92.
DEAD FOOT ARMS
What they ended up with is a rifle about halfway between the size of an 86 and an 92 Winchester, hence the moniker Model 89. Parts for the rifle are made by stock removal on CNC machinery. There are no investment cast parts in this rifle, nor are there any forgings. As the company gets on its feet parts are made by an outside contractor located in the United States. Receivers are manufactured in Wyoming, and the stocks are made in Texas. Big Horn Armory began shipping completed rifles in 2011.
My range time showed me that a careful shot with superb eyesight might be able to stretch the range to as much as 300 yards, but for most of us mere mortals, two football fields should be considered max. I was able to hit an 18-inch square gong at 300 yards about four shots out of ten from a benchrest. A younger shooter with better eyes probably might pick up perhaps three more of those dingers at that range.
My sample Model 89 showed superb workmanship throughout the metal and wood. I had some initial concerns that the curved lever might prove painful under the stout recoil of the big .50 caliber, but those concerns proved meaningless. There’s plenty of room even for my bratwurst-sized digits in the loop, and the pistol grip helps greatly in controlling the rifle. The otherwise traditional look and lines of this rifle are melded with a couple of modernizations to help in its handling.
First, the traditional two-piece walnut stock is shod with a 1-inch-thick Pachmayr decelerator recoil pad. As a traditionalist, I normally tend to favor the old crescent-style steel buttplate – wickedly beautiful and equally wicked on the shoulder. Here is where good sense trumps tradition: the substantial recoil pad allows one to run this rifle without bludgeoning one’s shoulder into a massive hematoma. Too, a Marble receiver-mounted aperture sight replaces the traditional buckhorn or semibuckhorn sight usually seen on a lever action. This one is threaded in case you want to add a smaller, more precise peep to it, but the ghost-ring sight picture is perfect for this kind of rifle.
There are two basic versions of the Model 89 – rifle and carbine. Interestingly, because the rifle has a half magazine and the carbine is full length, the carbine holds two more rounds than the rifle. On the company’s website, BHA offers a plethora of options and upgrades. Buchel even showed me a prototype receiver with color case hardening for those customers who demand the most beauty in their guns.
As lever actions go, the stock on the Model 89 is straighter than on most other lever-guns – noticeably straighter than on a Model 94 Winchester, for example – and this helps with handling recoil. The drop at the comb is but ¾ inch. Nonetheless, the Model 89 turned in a respectable average of 2¼-inch groups at 100 yards. That’s plenty good for the brush where 100 yards is a long shot.
The 7¾-pound weight isn’t too much of a burden to pack, considering the power this rifle delivers. If I were traipsing around bear country in Alaska, the stainless-steel version would be a very comforting companion. Last year Big Horn Armory added a couple of new versions of its flagship rifle, the Model 90 in .460 S&W Magnum and the Model 90A in .454 Casull. For more information and an exhaustive list of accessories and upgrades check out bighornarmory.com. AmSJ
About the author: Dave Campbell began his hunting career with a spear off the southern California coast in the late 1960s, eventually graduating to the gun on land. Campbell is the founding editor in chief of the NRA’s Shooting Illustrated magazine.He returned to his beloved Wyoming in 2007 as a freelance writer, though he usually refers to himself now as an “editor in recovery.” You can keep up with Campbell at davecampbelloutdoors.com.