The Magnificent
500 S&W Magnum

World’S Heavyweight Champion!
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Who says powerful guns can’t be pretty too? Here’s a combo of the Big Horn Armory
Model 89 and S&W PC 500 S&W Magnum, suitable for taking any North American game.

If ever a cartridge were worthy of Magna Cum Laude status, the 500 S&W Magnum would hold those prestigious honors! Its reputation goes unchallenged, performance-wise. It plows deep, creating large, permanent wound channels through and through! Weighing over 400 grains, the projectiles begin at ½” before expansion with velocities of over 1,600 FPS!

No wonder it has the distinction as being the most powerful factory handgun cartridge in the world and this title shouldn’t be taken lightly! The 500 S&W Magnum is the equivalent of being heavyweight boxing champion of the world.

Both are heavy hitters, with everyone wanting to be their friend and not necessarily because of their charm or good looks — it’s because no one wants to risk being clobbered by the Champ

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Never be under-gunned with this nice kit for the 500 S&W Magnum —
Big Horn Armory Model 89, S&W Performance Center X-Frame, holstered
in a Barranti Leather holster and cartridge slide.

Two Fun Guns

To test the virtues of the 500 S&W Magnum I used two different guns. Companion guns chambered in the same cartridge is as traditional as the Old West itself as you only need to buy one cartridge caliber for your revolver and lever gun. To this end, the S&W Performance Center Model 500 3.5″ revolver paired with the Big Horn Armory Model 89 makes a dandy companion combo. Together they make a dandy dynamic duo of sorts, capable of taking anything walking the earth.

Three shots at 50 feet from a 3.5" 500 S&W Magnum.
Some would call it “holding the tiger by the tail!”

Backdrop

The 500 S&W Magnum first made its appearance at the 2003 SHOT show. Designed by the folks at Cor-Bon in partnership with S&W, the .50-caliber, semi-rimmed cartridge has two primary purposes. The first is being a handgun cartridge capable of taking any North American big-game species.

The second? Simply claiming bragging rights of being the most powerful production handgun cartridge ever produced. If you’re going to do something, you might as well do it big! What better reason is there?

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X-Frame Excellence

Launching a 440-grain hard cast bullet at 1,625 fps from a handgun is spectacular! In designing the new revolver, the engineers at S&W knew they needed a gun large enough to house the biggest of magnums while absorbing some of the recoil generated by the massive slugs. Yet not too large, as to make the gun cumbersome while carrying. After all, if a handgun isn’t packable, it defeats the purpose in the first place.

The answer? A new, larger, stronger-framed revolver called the X-Frame. It handled all necessary criteria splendidly, while adding a new frame size to the S&W line-up. The first X-frames sported barrels of 8.38″ to maximize velocity and handling characteristics when touching off those half-inch sticks of dynamite. Over time, shorter-barreled revolvers were added.

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Tank showing what the 500 S&W Magnum does best: Make meat!
In this case, a Russian sow into chops, sausage and ham.

The Performance Center 500

Anything from S&W Performance Center (PC) means it’s special and S&W fans know it. Here, guns are slicked-up and tuned, more so than S&W’s already high factory standards. Recently, the PC released the most packable of X-frame designs, one sporting a 3.5″ barrel in 500 S&W. Obviously, this gun was made more for packing than shooting but shooting we did!

Features include stylish barrel flats, a pinned HiViz fiber optic front sight and an overtravel stop, which combined with a PC-tuned action, makes follow-up shots as fast as possible. The unfluted 5-shot cylinder adds style and heft with recoil-absorbing weight. Soft synthetic black grips complement the brushed stainless finish and really do a tremendous job soaking up recoil. Overall length is 9.875″ and dry weight is 56.2 oz. Stainless steel is used for both the barrel and frame, giving them a rugged, rust-resistant finish.

Factory loads tested by Tank included these four Buffalo Bore loads.
From left to right: the 440-grain hard cast, 400-grain mono-metal, 400
grain-JSP and 375-grain Barnes all-copper bullet. Note: The mono-metal
is only for use in the Big Horn Armory Model 89!

Big Horn Armory Model 89

In 2008, Big Horn Armory owner Greg Buchel desired to build a rifle strong enough to shoot the 500 S&W Magnum cartridge in a John Browning-style lever gun. Greg knew the slim and sleek Winchester Model 92 would be too small for such an endeavor but wanted the rifle’s action smaller than the big-bore Winchester 1886.

So Buchel did what so many others before him had done — he designed his own action, calling it the Model 89 (halfway between Winchesters’ ’92 and 1886). By using 17-4PH stainless steel, a steel three times stronger than originally used by Winchester, it worked. The Model 89 mid-sized action allowed adjustments to be made, moving pivot pins for carriers, release points for cartridge guides and other critical internal parts for a correct geometry to cycle the 500 S&W Magnum cartridge.

Long story short, Buchel and his group of engineers were successful. On my Model 89 I fitted a Trijicon RM06 red dot sight on the sight rail, as my primary sight. The Skinner Sight peep sight installed on the bolt of the rifle maximizes sight distance to the front sight, providing another tough, durable sighting system.

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Handloads consisted of an MP Molds 385 PB HP bullet as well as a LEE
440-grain GC solid loaded over Hodgdon H110 and Winchester large rifle primer.

Feeding The Beast

Buffalo Bore ammunition was used for the factory portion of testing while handloads accounted for the rest. Not surprisingly, the loads — 440-grain hard-cast LFN-GC (long flat nose gas check); 400-grain JFN (Jacketed Flat Nose); 375-grain BARNES XPB; 400-grain Mono-Metal DG (Dangerous Game) — all came in 200–300 FPS slower than factory listings from the 3″ revolver while the lever gun pushed it faster by roughly the same amount.

Handloads consisted of cast bullets from an MP Molds 385-grain hollow-point, plain base bullet and a 440-grain solid slug from a LEE double-cavity mold of gas check (GC) design. Loads of 37 grains of Hodgdon H110 was the propellant of choice, sparked by a Winchester large rifle primer. After casting, the bullets were powder-coated and sized 0.501″ with my Lee APP press. The bullets were loaded into Starline brass and assembled in my LEE Classic Turret press, using Hornady dies.

Again, not surprisingly, the velocity difference were on the order of 400 fps from the rifles versus revolver.

Shooting

Range day was a balmy 26 degrees with tropical breezes of 20 mph. Not surprisingly, I had the range to my lonesome. Shooting the 3.5″ PC gun was done at 50 feet for 3-shot groups. I fired double action, as this actually helped me “hold” onto the target better by not anticipating recoil. Plus, I wanted to shoot the way it would be done in the wilderness, if ever charged by something mean and nasty, meaning three shots were fired in roughly three seconds.

Surprisingly, my 3-shot groups went between 1.5″ to 2″ average. Did my hands sting? Yeah, sorta’. But it wasn’t unbearable.

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Lever Love!

Shooting the Big Horn Armory Model 89 was obviously more comfortable. Distance was moved back to 50 yards and typical groups went into 1.5″ to 2.5″ with a few snugging into 1″.

The rifle showed no preference, shooting all loads accurately. I’m sure a scope would tighten things up but the red dot is very fast getting on target, perfect for a hunting gun. My handloads shot on par with the Buffalo Bore ammunition accuracy-wise, which left me feeling warm, happy and content.

Final Word

The 500 S&W Magnum is a dandy cartridge. Whether fired from a revolver, or lever gun, it has the power to take anything walking the earth. While easier to shoot and control in the Big Horn Armory Model 89, it’s possible to control recoil from such a short-barreled gun as the S&W PC 3.5″ revolver.

While not for everyone, the 500 S&W Magnum has a place for those willing to work with it. Once conquered, you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing you can handle the world’s most powerful factory loaded handgun cartridge in the world.

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