Gun Review: Big Horn Armory Model 89

Image: Chris Dumm

The S&W Model 500 revolver always looked like something Yosemite Sam would carry. The staggering, over-the-top handgun ballistics this cartridge produces have always fascinated me, but it’s a fascination I’ve been happy to indulge from a safe distance. The high price of .500 ammo and pistols (and the reputedly brutal recoil of the affordable H&R Handi-Rifle that also fires it) have kept me out of the .500 game. Until recently, that is . . .

The Model 89

Big Horn Armory’s Model 89 is based on John Moses Browning’s Winchester models of 1886 and 1892. It uses the same design and lockup as the old Winchesters, but falls between the two models in size. It’s made entirely of 17-4 stainless steel, and it’s available either in satin-finished stainless or ‘Hunter Black,’ a finish that resembles Glock’s proprietary Tenifer or SIG/Sauer’s Nitron finish, but smoother and shinier. Both Model 89 finishes are completely weatherproof, and both look completely awesome.

The Model 89 rifle’s half-length magazine tube holds five rounds of .500 S&W, which is more than you’ll ever need for any land animal roaming the planet. There’s a half-cock notch but no manual safety, and the trigger can’t be pulled unless the lever is fully closed and the bolt fully in battery. Many hunters carry their lever-actions with an empty chamber, and that would be a wise practice with the Big Horn Model 89. An empty chamber is safer than a half-cocked hammer, but just as fast to bring into action with a lever gun.

There’s a rear sling mount just forward of the toe of the buttstock, along with a snag-free front sling mount machined into the steel fore-end cap. The Model 89 is a powerful rifle that generates significant recoil, and a poorly designed front sling stud can take a chunk of flesh from the index finger of your support hand. I’ve done this myself and it hurts like hell; this is why dangerous-game rifles always mount their slings on a barrel band instead of the fore-end. This isn’t the only dangerous-game feature of the Model 89.

Image: Chris Dumm The rear sight is a large aperture peep sight, fully adjustable for windage and elevation. The aperture is so large that it almost qualifies as a ghost ring. It lacks some precision (particularly if you’re not blessed with good eyesight) but it’s perfect for low-light shooting and rapid target acquisition. This is particularly good if you’re hunting any of the dangerous critters that this rifle can anchor with a single shot.

Unlike any other lever-action I’ve ever seen, the Model 89 has its rear sight attached to the bolt instead of the barrel or receiver. It’s an interesting design choice; I would have expected to see a Williams or Lyman receiver sight instead, but Big Horn’s design seems to work just fine.

Is it just me, or does that rear sight ramp look like it was borrowed from a Remington Model 700? The rear sight is fully adjustable, but that adjustment requires a careful hand on the (very small) screwdriver. When you loosen the locking screw the sight slides up and down the elevation ramp freely, so be sure to hold it in place and nudge it up or down just a bit. The index marks help, but only if you make a note of where the sight is set before you make the adjustment. Be sure to tighten the sight screw firmly once you’re done.

The front sight is a tall post with a brass bead for visibility, although an imitation ivory bead would have looked even cooler. The tall front and rear sights help with rapid acquisition, and they also mean you don’t have to scrunch your face down too close to the stock. You’ll like this when you’re shooting the heaviest .500 S&W loads, which are almost comparable to the recoil of a .375 H&H Magnum.

Image courtesy Big Horn Armory

The 18″ Model 89 Carbine is also available.

Our test gun was the Model 89 Rifle with a 22-inch barrel. If you need a handier gun and don’t mind sacrificing a few feet per second, the Model 89 Carbine version shown here wears a slightly shorter 18″ barrel.

Ballistics, or ‘Is This Really A Handgun Cartridge?’

Image: Chris Dumm

It shot halfway through this 10″ stack of books. Dry.

I’ve never had the opportunity to touch off a .500 S&W cartridge in a handgun. Then again, I’ve never fired 12-guage 3″ rifled slugs out of a pistol either. I don’t believe I’m missing anything particularly pleasant in either caliber, since 12-guage slugs leave me punch-drunk after a dozen rounds or so from an 18″ shotgun, and the mighty .500 S&W delivers almost the same muzzle energy from an 8″ pistol. After the amazing results of our .357 Magnum pistol vs. lever-action carbine ballistics tests, I really wanted to know how much bigger a can of whoop-ass the .500 S&W would open up from a long-barreled rifle.

To that end, we spent a minor king’s ransom to purchase 80 rounds of .500 S&W ammo. Before the recent price panic, the same wad of cash ($180) would have delivered at least 800 rounds of 5.56 to my door, but that’s another story for another day. Half of the ammo were 400-grain Double Tap hard-cast lead flatpoints, and the rest were from HSM: gas-checked 440-grain lead flatpoints (called their “Bear Load”) and some very mild 300-grain plated hollowpoints.

According to our own chronograph tests, the heaviest bullet weight wasn’t the heaviest hitter. The 440-grain ‘Bear Loads’ averaged 1960 fps and 3753 lb-ft; they produced a long, rolling recoil which was firm but not too violent. The 300-grain plated HPs averaged 1510 fps and 1519 lb-ft, and they kicked less than a .45 Colt ‘cowboy’ load from a long-barreled Winchester rifle.

And then there were the 400-grain Double Taps. These monsters sizzled through the chrono traps at 2240 fps, producing a thundering 4,457 lb-ft. of muzzle energy and a Taylor KO factor of 64. This is more energy and a higher KO factor than the storied .404 Jeffery, and only 400 lb-ft. less than a .458 Winchester Magnum! These loads probably push the envelope when it comes to chamber pressure: the fired cases showed signs of primer cratering and flattening, and if I’d handloaded them I’d definitely want to back them down a few tenths of a grain to be on the safe side.

Recoil with the Double Taps was somewhere between a short-barreled 12-guage firing 3″ rifled slugs, and a bolt-action .375 H&H Magnum. Either way…ouch. The Model 89’s thick recoil pad does an excellent job of taming these beasts, at least when firing offhand.

I may never do it myself, but with short-range energy like this, the Model 89 certainly seems capable of bringing down just about anything that walks or crawls the Earth, including Africa’s ‘Big Five.’ If you can afford the travel costs and game management fees for an African safari, the price of the Model 89 and .500 S&W ammo certainly won’t bother you.

Fit And Finish

Image: Chris Dumm

As befits a $2,500 custom rifle, the Model 89 exhibits extremely good fit and finish in every detail. Visible surfaces are completely free of blemishes or toolmarks, and all parts fit together with what feels like hand-fit precision.

Image: Chris DummDouble-set action screws like these are a classy touch, straight from the sidelocks of a bespoke English double rifle. Despite being categorized as ‘#2 Walnut’, the stock is simply gorgeous. The wood has a three-dimensional luster that’s nearly impossible to capture in still photos, but somehow Big Horn’s #1 Walnut stocks are even fancier.

Excellent, But Not Quite Perfect

Image: Chris Dumm

There is but one aspect of fit, finish or function where the Model 89 merits any real criticism: the lever. It’s unnecessarily stiff to open, because the surfaces of the bolt and hammer are machined a bit too precisely. The sharp-edged bottom rear of the bolt has the job of cocking the hammer (above) and this action would be noticeably easier if these edges were polished and gently radiused. This is a cowboy race-gun trick, and it works wonders on almost any J.M. Browning design.

Image: Chris DummThe lever is also more difficult to work as you open it the last inch or so, as it engages the shell lifter. This photo shows the culprit. As you open the lever, the lever prong pushes upward (or downward, in this photo) against the white-metal bottom of the shell lifter. The bottom of this shell lifter has developed a serious gouge where the lever strikes it, and it takes a bit of extra effort to force the lever over the gouge and raise the lifter fully. Once you’re past this point, chambering the round and closing the action is smooth and easy.

This gouge looks like simple wear instead of a machining defect, and it would be an easy fix if I weren’t intimidated by the prospect of detail-stripping a Winchester lever gun. I’m pretty sure I could dress this surface with a polishing stone and make this lever much easier to cycle, but I don’t play gunsmith on somebody else’s guns.It’s a point of pride that I’ve never returned a test gun in pieces.

Reliability

The Model 89 functioned perfectly when we stuck to the heavy cast bullets. The magazine loading gate is a bit of a finger-biter, but that issue is common to almost all gate-fed lever guns. (Many detachable box magazines are also difficult to load, but that doesn’t detract from the utility or reliability of the gun.) By the time we’d shot up all the ammo we’d pretty much mastered the loading technique anyway.

The lightweight 300-grain plated hollowpoints gave us fits when trying to stuff them into the magazine. They sometimes hung up just before sliding fully into the magazine tube, and usually needed to be pried and wiggled to coax them in the last few millimeters. When firing the rifle, these light loads didn’t guide themselves smoothly into the chamber. They often needed an extra jiggle of the lever before it closed. I mentioned this to Big Horn president Greg Buchel, and he correctly noted that lever-actions are sensitive to bullet length and profile. The Model 89, he said, was intentionally designed for best performance with the heaviest bullets.

The heaviest bullets in this caliber are hard-cast lead bullets, shaped like slightly-streamlined soda cans with almost no ogive (conical nose) at all. Just like many 1911s prefer round-nose bullets to semi-wadcutters, the Model 89 prefers these long, nearly-cylindrical bullets to shorter round-nose bullets. These heavy bullets fed more easily into the magazine tube, and chambered with minimal effort.

Ejection was always flawless, with empty cases consistently flipping upward from the action and landing a few feet to the side.

One handling note must be mentioned: the Model 89 will not feed properly if the rifle is canted 90 degrees to the side. Like all open-topped lever actions, the next live round can fall out of the open action if you tilt it over too far. The shell lifter depends on gravity to hold the shell in place while it’s lifted to the chamber, so you won’t see Master Chief carrying a Model 89 in microgravity.

Accuracy

Truth be told, we didn’t spend a lot of time bench-resting the Model 89. Other gunwriters have reported 2-3 MOA accuracy; pretty impressive results, considering the Model 89’s ghost-ring sights and rollicking recoil. We spent the first 15 rounds (of our precious 80 rounds) shooting over the chronograph screens and evaluating recoil.

Shooting at 50 yards from an improvised bench (in a blinding snowstorm) the 400-grain Double Taps were giving us 3″-4″ groups. We didn’t get impressive groups on paper with these monstrously powerful loads, but again, conditions were absolutely horrible.

We had so much fun blowing stuff up with the 400-grain dinosaur-killers that we forgot to save any of them for more careful accuracy testing. We saved about 15 rounds each of the 300-grain and 440-grain loads, and their performance vindicated the Model 89’s accuracy.

Image: Chris Dumm

The 300-grain loads averaged 1.4 inches at 50 yards, and the 440-grain loads averaged 1.2 inches at 50 yards.

The 440-grain HSMs produced 3″ groups at 100 yards, but I ran out of the 300-grain plated hollowpoints before I got to the 100-yard range. I’m not a terribly good shot with iron sights at 100 yards, and I’m frankly surprised that I shot this well with the Model 89’s ghost-ring sights.

I’m certain this gun can shoot more precisely with a low-magnification scout scope, but the extra bulk and weight might not be worth it. The nearly-cylindrical bullets are ballistically inefficient, and they shed their energy and drop like footballs at ranges beyond 200 yards.

Blowing Stuff Up

Farago gave me just one command before shipping this gun to my FFL guy: shoot lots of watermelons. Roger that.

But Wait, There’s More!

And now in slow-motion!

One of our non-exploding targets was a 10″ stack of packed dry law books. Wet newsprint is a low-cost ballistic medium which crudely simulates animal tissue, and Big Horn president Greg Buchel advised me that heavy loads were getting 15″ to 18″ of penetration through it. This 10-inch stack of newsprint was all I had to work with, so we decided to see how the .500 did on packed dry newsprint instead.

IMG_1186

The Double Tap loads drove their 400-grain dinosaur killers all the way through five inches of this incredibly tough ballistic medium, which tends to disintegrate bullets in the first inch after impact. The first 2.5″ thick book had a half-inch entrance wound and a thumb-sized exit hole. The second 2.5″ thick book had a huge entrance hole in the front and a torn bulge in the back cover, from which large lead fragments protruded slightly into the third book.

The Coolest Thing About This Gun:

The coolest thing about the Big Horn Armory Model 89 is that it’s so damn powerful yet still so fun and easy to shoot. Whether you’re hunting Kodiak browns or just blasting tree stumps into geysers of wood pulp, the .500 S&W cartridge blows stuff up better than anything this side of a .458 Winchester Magnum. That’s cool in and of itself.

Unlike other dangerous-game rifles, the Model 89 is also massively fun to shoot. If you ever benchrest a .375 H&H, you’ll dread the trigger by the third round, but you’ll never get tired of the Model 89. You’ll run out of ammo or targets, but you’ll never stop having fun. My biggest frustration with the Model 89 was that we only had 80 rounds to play with.

It’s a well-designed gun that won’t beat you senseless, and its ammo is only half the price of other elephant cartridges. $180 bought us 80 rounds of .500 S&W, but it would barely buy you two boxes of full-power .458 Win. Mag. If you handload your own cast bullets, you can cut loose with this field artillery for about the same shooting cost as factory .30-06.

The Least-Cool Thing About it:

This much fun never comes cheap. $2500 isn’t out of line with the price of other super-powerful custom lever guns or dangerous game rifles, but it will put it out of reach of many shooters.

Specifications:

Barrel length:               22″
Caliber:                            .500 S&W
Twist rate:                      1 in 24″
Barreled Action:          17-4 Stainless
Sights:                              Aperture rear, blade front
Magazine capacity:    5
Length of pull:              13 5/8″
Overall length:              41″
Weight:                             7 lb. 14 oz.

Ratings (out of five stars):

Accuracy * * * *
3-inch groups at 100 yards are more than acceptable when compared to other dangerous-game rifles, and more than accurate enough for a brain shot on an elephant or a spine shot on a cape buffalo.

Reliability * * * * *
Perfect functioning with heavy bullets. Three stars if you want to shoot the 300-grain squibs.

Aesthetics * * * * 1/2
The rear sight ramp looks a little odd, but overall this rifle is still a knockout: the cowboy carbine on steroids.

Fit And Finish * * * *1/2
With some smoothing and dehorning of the action, it would be just about perfect.

Handling * * * 1/2
This gun could have been brutal to shoot, but Big Horn made it extremely comfortable with a well-designed stock and a good trigger. Handling will be outstanding once our test gun’s balky lever gets smoothed out.

How Bad Do I want It?
Don’t ask me that. It’s just not fair.