Modern Day “Big .50″
The Big Horn Armory 89 chambers the powerful .500 S&W cartridge.
The Model 89 lever-action from Big Horn Armory is an outstanding rifle. It is exceptionally well made, reliable, accurate, well balanced, with the classic looks of traditional lever actions. Handling the Model 89, I’m reminded of its illustrious ancestors, the Winchester 1886 and 1892 rifles, and the explorers and adventurers who depended on them.
And yet it is not a nostalgic reproduction. It is a tough, hard-working and practical sporting rifle. Chambered for the .500 S&W cartridge, it puts tremendous power in a relatively compact and lightweight package. The rifle model is featured here. There is also a carbine model with an 18-inch barrel and full-length magazine.
The Model 89 designation (midway between 86 and 92) is a gesture of respect to the original rifles and to their designer, the legendary John Browning. It isn’t an exact copy of either, nor is it intended to be. The 86 was made for big, powerful cartridges such as .45-70 and .50-110 while the 92 was for smaller cartridges from the .25-20 to the .44-40 Winchester.
While the Big Horn Armory 89 uses the operating principle of the 86/92, it is roughly between the two in size. The .500 S&W is a cartridge of intermediate size, but more powerful than any of the older cartridges for which the Winchester’s were chambered.
Speaking of Winchester, the Model 89 traces its roots back to the 1880s. Winchester needed a replacement for its 1876 lever action. Though made with excellent workmanship and capable of taking big cartridges, the ’76 design was inherently not very strong. John Browning designed the prototype which would lead to the 1886—a very strong, smooth-working, reliable and durable rifle that easily transitioned from black powder to smokeless powder.
In the opinion of many of those who study firearm design, “… a more ingenious and wholly admirable mechanism was never embodied in a firearm than that lever-and-lock combination in the 86 and 92 models.” (John M. Browning, American Gunmaker by John Browning & Curt Gentry)
The book recounts how John Browning and his brother Matt showed the prototype to a Winchester representative, who examined it carefully, passed it back to John, and commented, “John Browning, I know I don’t have to tell you this, but what you are holding is the best rifle in the world. You’re also holding the future of the Winchester Arms Company.”
Following the success of the 1886, Winchester wanted a smaller, lighter version, to fill the niche of the 1873 model. Browning was offered $10,000 if he could have a prototype ready in three months, $15,000 if it could be done in two months. The biography recounts John Browning’s counter offer: $20,000 in 30 days, or it’s free. He made it with time to spare.
The light, handy, reliable 92 outsold the 86 by a wide margin, over 1,000,000 compared to about 160,000. Both rifles were used all over America by hunters, farmers, ranchers, trappers, and around the world by explorers and adventurers.
The new Model 89 shares the same basic operating principle as the classic Winchesters. Like the originals, the 89 is manufactured in the USA. It is made to the same high standards of materials and workmanship. It even costs about the same. Back in the 1890s if you wanted an 1886 Winchester with a fancy walnut stock it cost around 1.2 ounces of gold.
Based on prices as I write this, the same 1.2 ounces of gold will about pay for a Big Horn Armory Model 89. Of course it does take a lot more of those pretty colored pieces of paper we call money.
Workmanship on the Big Horn Armory Model 89 is exceptionally good. All metal components are machined with crisp lines. The stock and forearm are likewise well made, fitted and finished. The half-magazine of the rifle version holds five cartridges.
Quality of materials and workmanship of the Big Horn Armory 89 is exceptionally good.
Note the excellent wood to metal fit, smooth finish and crisp, clean machining.
The Big Horn Armory Model 89 is right at home in tough conditions. All metal components are precision-machined stainless steel, and the walnut stock has a tough synthetic finish. Weighing just less than 8 pounds the rifle balances and handles beautifully.
The 89 is manufactured from 17-4 stainless steel, machined to extremely tight tolerances and heat-treated for strength. Finish is either Hunter Black or natural stainless. Standard stock and forearm are a good grade of American black walnut. Overall workmanship—fit, finish, and quality of parts—is exceptionally good. Metal and wood components are smoothly and handsomely finished, with precise wood-to-metal fit. There’s a sling swivel stud on the buttstock and a neat, integral sling attachment on the forearm.
The action operates crisply and with a pleasing sense of solidity and precision. I’ve handled vintage 86s and 92s, which cycled a bit easier, the result of smoothing up over thousands of operations. The 89 tested was perfectly satisfactory out of the box and will only get better over time.
Like the originals the Model 89 is not well adapted to scope use. Instead of the barrel-mounted open sights of the originals the 89 has a peep sight mounted on the bolt. A sight mounted on a moving component is inherently less precise than one mounted on receiver or barrel. On the Model 89 the bolt is fitted with great precision and with no perceptible play, taking care of the problem nicely.
The Winchester 86 was introduced shortly before the smokeless powder era began. Black powder is bulky stuff; the only way to move a big bullet at reasonable speed is with lots of black powder, requiring a large case. Winchester offered the 86 in two .50-cal. loadings, though the case was identical; the only difference in the rifles was rate of twist.
These big old black powder cases have more capacity than needed for smokeless powder. Certainly they can be used successfully with smokeless powders developing higher velocities; the limiting factor becomes pressure/action strength.
Though a smaller case than the old .50-110, the .500 S&W was designed for smokeless powder at higher pressure.
Ballistically it exceeds the .50-100 and .50-110 loads by a considerable margin. The 1:24-inch twist is fast enough to stabilize any rational bullet length.
There are wildcat .50s (e.g. the .50 Alaskan, based on the .348 Win case) and some hot .50-110 loads being used in Winchester and Marlin rifles. These are somewhat more powerful than the .500 S&W. However the .500 S&W provides all the power most shooters will ever want or need, uses readily available factory ammunition, and does so in a compact, fast-handling rifle.
The .500 S&W is quite popular as a revolver cartridge, with a great deal of load data available to reloaders, and with an excellent choice of factory ammunition. Winchester offers a moderate load with a 350-grain bullet, which produces around 1,100 fps in a 4-inch revolver barrel, and around 1,500 in the rifle barrel. It’s a pleasant load to shoot in a rifle and certainly has all the power needed for most close/moderate range hunting.
The Hornady 350-grain XTP is a full-power load, chronographing at 2,175 fps in the Model 89’s 22-inch barrel. Some reloads provided by Big Horn Armory used a hard-cast, 450-grain lead flatpoint bullet at 1,725 fps. Both loads provide plenty of power and tolerable recoil. Buffalo Bore offers a 440-grain hardcast lead bullet load which chronographs just under 1,900 fps in a 22-inch barrel.
There are a lot of variables involved but conservatively, you can expect 250 to 350 fps above factory claims (taken from handgun barrels) in the rifle barrel. Big Horn chronographed loads in a 4-inch revolver barrel and got as much as 500 or 600 fps more from the rifle barrel.
The rifle was reliable, with no malfunctions of any kind. Ejection is up and straight back; operating the action from the shoulder at normal speed would send ejected cases over the shooter’s head.
Accuracy was very good considering shooting was done with iron sights, and by a shooter who uses scopes almost exclusively. I could keep almost all the shots in 3 inches at 100 yards, with 2-inch groups fairly common. There were a couple of groups around 1-1/2 inches, but I freely admit these may have had some luck involved. I certainly couldn’t do it on demand. I do think though, for a good shooter used to iron sights and a bit of recoil, 2-MOA accuracy is a very reasonable expectation.
The trigger on the 89 broke crisply at 5-1/4 pounds, with some take-up and considerable overtravel. There is no manual safety. The hammer can be set in a safety notch by letting it down manually, obviously exercising great care in the process. Personally I see no need to chamber a cartridge until just before firing.
I carry hunting rifles with magazine loaded/chamber empty. With the 89’s smooth lever action a round can be chambered with no time lost as the rifle is being brought to firing position. Magazine capacity of the rifle is five cartridges.
Recoil is hard to convey since there are many variables, not the least of which is the shooter. To me, recoil of the 8-pound rifle with full-power loads felt similar to my .375 H&H and .375 Ruger rifles, all of which weigh around 9.5 pounds field ready. I ran the numbers on a recoil calculator and found they were indeed very similar; depending on the load both have around 16 or 17 fps recoil velocity and 36 to 38 ft.-lb. of recoil energy. The stock design and the 1-inch thick Pachmayr Decelerator recoil pad handle recoil very well.
This is a terrific rifle. It is very well made, operates with reliable, solid precision, handles beautifully, and looks great. It continues the long tradition of American lever-action quality.
By Dave Anderson
A Winchester 76 in .50-95 Express, custom built by John Hawk of Cody, Wyoming, (top) was the first .50 repeater. Smaller and lighter is the Big Horn Armory Model 89 in .500 S&W. American-made, big-bore lever guns have a long and honored history, which the new Model 89 is worthy to carry on. The custom Winchester ’76 is from the Al Hanson collection.
This group (above) was fired at 100 yards with reloads using a hardcast 450-grain lead flatnose bullet at a muzzle velocity of 1,725 fps. The Big Horn Armory Model 89 shot consistently into no more than 3 inches at 100 yards, and under 2 inches when the shooter did his part! The Big Horn Armory 89 loaded with Hornady 350-grain XTP bullet, at 100 yards delivered fine accuracy (below). Muzzle velocity of this load is just under 2,200 fps in 22-inch barrel.
Maker: Big Horn Armory, Inc.
774 Rd 2AB, P.O. Box 940
Cody, WY 82414
Caliber: .500 S&W
Overall Length: 41″
Weight: 7 pounds, 14 ounces,
Barrel Length: 22″ (twist: 1:24″)
Finish: Hunter black
Stock: American black walnut (optional treated maple)
Stock Finish: Synthetic Satin
Sights: Adjustable aperture rear, bead front
Price: $1,989 (stainless/walnut), $2,114 (Hunter black finish)
P.O. Box 1848, Grand Island, NE 68802
Mountain Plains Targets
3720 Otter Pl.
Lynchburg, VA 24503