Big Horn Armory Model 89 Lever-Action 500 S&W Magnum Carbine


by Jeff Quinn

photography by Jeff Quinn & Boge Quinn

July 9th, 2010




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The 500 S&W Magnum cartridge has been around for over seven years now. I reviewed the then-new cartridge and the massive revolver built to fire it back in 2003. Since then, Smith & Wesson has produced several variations of that big five-shot revolver, and other handguns have been chambered for the big cartridge as well, along with at least one single-shot rifle. However, no repeating rifles have been built to fire the 500 S&W Magnum cartridge, until now.

I first got the opportunity to fire the new Big Horn Armory Model 89 the day before the 2010 SHOT Show in Las Vegas, Nevada back in January of this year. That first prototype rifle shot well, handled well, and easily handled the big 500 cartridge. Since then, at the 2010 Shootist Holiday near Raton, New Mexico back in early June, I got to fire another example of the Model 89, but production rifles were still not quite ready. Production is just now getting up and running, and new rifles and carbines will begin shipping shortly. The carbine shown here is still a prototype, but has the features of the production rifles, such as the excellent aperture rear sight and CNC machining.

There has been a lot of interest in chambering a lever gun for the 500 S&W ever since the cartridge’s introduction. The Winchester Model 92 action is a very strong design, but is too small to handle the 500 S&W. The Winchester 86 is a fine design, but is longer than necessary for the cartridge; plus, it is already available in the 45-70 chambering, and it also has already been chambered for cartridges as large as the 50-110. What was needed is a scaled-up Model 92 Winchester, but strengthened to handle the pressures of the 500 S&W cartridge, which runs around 50,000 psi with some loads. Big Horn Armory designed their rifle around the 500 S&W Magnum cartridge, instead of trying to adapt an existing rifle to fire the cartridge. Made primarily of 17-4 stainless steel and American black walnut, the Model 89 is a very good-looking and robust rifle, but still light enough and trim enough for quick handling. The carbine shown here weighs in at seven pounds, nine ounces on my scale. It has an eighteen inch barrel and a full length magazine tube which holds seven cartridges. There is also a rifle version available with a twenty-two inch barrel and a five-shot magazine. A few options are available, such as a laminated maple stock and cut checkering, for those who desire such. Personally, I prefer the smooth walnut as shown on the carbine here.

The Big Horn Model 89 is a classy-looking carbine, very well fitted and finished. The walnut wears a durable synthetic finish and a thick, effective Pachmayr Decelerator butt pad. The forend has a slight belly to it for a secure grip, but is not overly done, and goes well with the pistol grip buttstock. The metal has a matte finish that looks both handsome and businesslike, and an optional black finish is offered as well. The aperture rear sight is adjustable for both windage and elevation, and the steep ramp offers a lot of adjustment range in elevation to allow the carbine to be sighted in at a wide variance of distances with a variety of bullet weights. The front post sight is also adjustable for windage correction, and is black with a vertical white bar in its rear face. The rear aperture is also black, but has a brass insert, and the aperture can be removed, leaving a .19 inch diameter ghost ring.

The lever on the Model 89 is curved for comfort and quick operation, and is plenty large enough to use with gloves. The action has the traditional half-cock notch, and does not have any rebounding feature as has been utilized on many lever guns of recent manufacture. The Model 89 retains the simple, elegant, reliable, and rugged design that belongs on a lever gun. The barrel is rifled one turn in twenty-four inches, and adequately stabilized even the big 500 grain bullets that I tried in this carbine. The muzzle is finished with a recessed crown. I really like the way that the front sling attachment is integral with the forend cap. Classy touch. There is a stainless swivel stud near the toe of the buttstock as well. The length of pull is fourteen inches, and the overall length is only thirty-seven inches on the carbine version. The sample carbine has an excellent trigger pull, releasing at four and three-quarters pounds of pressure, with a very crisp and precise release.

I test fired the Model 89 carbine with a variety of factory-loaded ammunition, as well as one stout handload. Chronograph results are listed in the chart below, with velocity readings taken at a distance of twelve feet from the muzzle. Velocities are listed in feet-per-second (fps). Bullet weights are listed in grains. Velocity readings were taken on a calm, sunny day with an air temperature in the ninety-five degree Fahrenheit range and a relative humidity of sixty-five percent, at an elevation of approximately 541 above sea level. JHP is a jacketed hollow point bullet. DPX is an homogenous copper hollow point bullet. JSP is a jacketed soft point bullet. WFN is an LBT-style hard-cast lead bullet with a wide, flat meplat.

Ammunition Bullet Weight Velocity
Cor-Bon DPX 275 1987
Cor-Bon JHP 350 2118
Cor-Bon WFN 440 1872
Cor-Bon WFN 500 1643
Handload JSP 400 1922

The loads listed should cover just about any need that one might have for the Model 89. The 275 grain DPX load has light recoil, and should be superb on whitetails and hogs. I have used this same bullet in my 50 Beowulf AR-15, and it performs very well on game. For heavier game, the 400 and 500 grain hard cast bullets should offer excellent penetration, as would the 420 grain solid brass Punch bullet from Belt Mountain. A very good all-around load for just about anything that walks would be the handload using the 400 grain Hornady soft point. This bullet is not listed on Hornady’s website, but is made exclusively for Big Horn Armory. Loaded atop 41.6 grains of Lil’Gun powder, it produces close to 2000 feet-per-second, yet only produces 47,000 psi of pressure. All of the loads tested from the eighteen inch barrel greatly exceed the velocities obtainable from an eight inch or shorter revolver barrel. In the Model 89, none of these loads were painful to shoot, even from the bench while testing for accuracy. The angle of the comb of the buttstock keeps the rifle from pounding the cheek, and the large butt pad does its job very well, attenuating and distributing the recoil. Many large-caliber guns can get abusive while testing for accuracy, but the Big Horn lever gun caused no harm to my delicate body. While on the subject of accuracy, the Model 89 displayed excellent accuracy. My aging eyes do not work really well with aperture sights, but I was still able to get very good accuracy from the Model 89 at fifty yards, with the rifle grouping under one inch with most loads tested. Big Horn offers a scout scope mount for the Model 89, and that would be my choice for almost all hunting conditions. I just do better with a scope, and a two and one-half power Leupold would be ideal. Reliability was excellent in the test gun. It fed, fired, and ejected all loads tested handily. I also tried some 500 S&W Special ammunition in the Model 89, just to see if it would function. It would not, but that is no big deal, as this carbine is chambered for the magnum cartridge, and I would have been surprised if the shorter cartridges had cycled.

The Big Horn Model 89 is, to me, a welcome addition to our long heritage of lever guns. Being left-handed, I have always loved the ambidextrous nature of lever action rifles. The big half-inch diameter hole in the barrel of the Big Horn is impressive in such a compact carbine. Holding seven in the magazine and one in the chamber, it offers a lot of firepower for large and dangerous game. While chambered for the big Smith Magnum, it is still a handy carbine, being a bit shorter than my Puma 480 lever gun, while packing a bigger punch. I am glad to see the Model 89 finally go into full production. It packs a lot of power in a handy package, and I can’t think of another rifle that I would rather have going into thick brush after dangerous game.

Check out the rifles and options offered by Big Horn Armory online at

Big Horn Armory sells direct to individuals, with shipment to your favorite licensed gun dealer.

To order any of the high performance 500 S&W Magnum ammo shown here, go to


Jeff Quinn

Frank Ehrenford of Big Horn Armory.





Big Horn Armory Model 89 (top) compared to Puma Model 92 480 Ruger (bottom).







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Big Horn Armory Model 89 lever-action 500 S&W Magnum carbine.









Excellent fully-adjustable sights.