The famous Buffalo Bill Cody established a town in the beautiful Big Horn Mountains of Wyoming, close to Yellowstone National Park, and named it after himself — Cody. Cody is home to one of the world’s greatest firearms museums as well as innovative arms maker Big Horn Armory.
Haven’t heard of them? Neither had I until friends from the US told of how these guys were seriously upping the game for lovers of quality big-bore lever-action rifles. I contacted company president Greg Buchel, who invited me to visit their HQ and test fire some rifles. That was the only excuse I needed for a trip to Cody, Wyoming.
Big Horn Armory has found a great solution to squeezing high-energy big-bore rounds like the .500 S&W Magnum, among others, into surprisingly compact lever-action carbines. Those carbines are now available in Australia.
Big Horn has created a whole new lever-action design dubbed the Model 89. Even though I’m a bit of a lever gun fan I’d never heard of a Model 89; Models 86 or 92 of course, but never an 89. So I asked Big Horn how and why they came up with the new name.
As many readers will know, the Model 1886 was Winchester’s first ‘high powered’ big-bore rifle. It was, and remains, highly successful and hugely popular in large, powerful calibres like .45/70 etc, but its action is very large. Six years later Winchester released its Model 1892 carbine, essentially a scaled-down 1886 giving a far more compact design able to handle pistol cartridges. It went on to become one of the most famous and best-selling firearms of all time.
The Model 1892 is still manufactured by at least a half dozen companies around the world and is quite happy digesting rounds up to and including full-powered .44 Magnums without a problem, making it a great gun for feral pigs, among other things.
But what if you were able to develop a whole new action not much larger than the Model 92, yet capable of handling rounds so powerful that something as large as the Model 86 was normally needed?
Buchel and his team have achieved it. They essentially created a slightly larger and much stronger Model 92. It’s called the Model 89 because that’s the number halfway between 86 and 92.
I was astonished when I first held one of the new creations, as it balanced and felt just like a very solid Model 92 but was still seeming so compact I was curious as to just how strong the action could be. Greg explained that using the best modern steel and manufacturing techniques had allowed Big Horn to develop an action which, even after literally thousands of full power .500 S&W Magnum rounds fired through test actions, had not stretched or loosened at all.
Examining the stripped-down action I could see one reason. The receiver ring is seriously beefed up compared to any other lever gun I’ve seen.
The other reason is these are not a mass produced commodity built to the lowest price. Big Horn guns are precisely manufactured then hand-fitted to standards you’d expect in custom guns and finished in the latest Black Hunter Nitrite (other finishes available) that seems like it won the trifecta: virtually indestructible, looks fantastic and makes the action incredibly slick from brand new.
To emphasise the toughness of this nitrite finish I was handed a pocket knife and told to scrape away at the finish on the action. I blunted the knife and didn’t mark the finish at all. Do not try that in your local gun shop!
As for the timber, at first I thought they were showing me their custom stocked guns as they looked so much better than anything I’ve seen come out of the major brands in decades. But after inspecting racks of rifles ready to ship I was convinced this quality of wood and fine fitting was simply run of the mill for the Model 89.
One of the clearest examples I can share regarding the stunning fit and finish of these rifles is where they place the rear sight. Big Horn fits Skinner sights which to my mind are the best receiver sights for lever guns. However, they’re usually reserved for Marlin-type designs as the top of a Winchester/Browning-design lever gun is open, and if you fit the sight on top of the moving bolt it will be inaccurate.
The exception to this is if it’s fitted to a Big Horn Model 89. The fit is so precise the 89 has a Skinner sight fitted on top of the moving bolt and, after shooting several of these guns over the past 18 months, I can attest they’re super accurate hunting rifles both in the USA and here with Aussie importer Cleaver Firearms.
How they get that precise a fit combined with total reliability is truly impressive.
For my first exposure in the USA, Big Horn staff drove us out into the country on a damp afternoon and I was able to happily shoot all the .500 S&W Magnums I wanted out of a couple of Model 89s. The .500 S&W Magnum is a serious powerhouse with 300gr projectiles leaving the barrel at more than 2000fps and even 500gr projectiles topping 1500fps out of the 18” barrel.
I thought I might only shoot a couple of groups to see how the guns performed before my shoulder gave out but I was pleasantly surprised. Some 70-80 rounds later my shoulder was fine and I was keen to own one of these guns myself. Sure, the recoil was there, it just wasn’t punishing.
As for accuracy these would rank as some of the most inherently accurate lever guns around.
We weren’t shooting from a bench, yet at 50-100 metres no rock or stick was safe. The combination of great receiver sights and whatever Big Horn puts into these guns meant even offhand groups were spot on, with bullets seeming to follow each other to the same spot over and over.
But what’s the .500 S&W Magnum good for? Out to a couple of hundred metres it will stop almost anything you wish to point it at with great efficiency, from large pigs to buffalo or scrub bulls.
To put things in context, I arrived at Big Horn a skeptic and left a total convert as they truly do build a great gun and I have placed an order with Cleavers for my very own Big Horn Armory model, which I will do a full review on when it arrives.
Cleaver Firearms typically has several in stock locally so you should be able get one now, but I wanted some special features so I put in a custom order which will take a few months.
Of course, nothing this good comes cheap and Australian importer Cleaver Firearms has the Model 89 in .500 S&W Magnum starting from around $A3800 or the Model 90 in .460 S&W from about $A4500.
For those after something different and extremely well made that will literally take down any game on the planet in a compact, easy to carry package, the Model 89 is well worth your consideration.
Barrel Length: 46cm (18”)
Calibre: .500 S&W
Rate of twist: 1 in 24
Buttstock and fore-end: American black walnut or laminate
Checkering: 20 lines per inch
Barrelled action: 17-4 stainless steel
Metal finish: Matte SS; Hunter Black SS; Colour case hardened
Stock finish: Synthetic satin
Recoil pad: 1
Sling swivel mounts: Integral front, stud rear
Sights: Aperture rear, blade front
Magazine capacity: 7
Length of pull: 345mm (13⅝”)
Overall length: 94cm (37”)
Weight: 3.45kg (7lb 10oz)
Price: From about $A3800 (2022)
Distributor: Cleaver Firearms