Big Horn Armory Model 89: A John Wayne Gun for the Modern Gunslinger In 500 S&W


As the resident tactical ninja over at Guns America, you might think it strange for me to be reviewing a lever-action rifle. Not even a little bit. In fact, I think lever guns are among the most underrated of all weapons. They are my usual recommendation for people who live in less-than-free states, for a variety of reasons. A lever-action is light, quick handling, and fast shooting with some training. It will outreach a shotgun, packs a relatively high capacity, and with the usual line-up of calibers is absolutely lethal. And this week’s loaner model has the lethality part in spades: Big Horn chambers the Model 89 in 500 Smith and Wesson, 100% guaranteed to put a hurt on anything with a heartbeat.

Now I have a little bit of a confession to make: There is only one gun I have ever picked up to shoot and not at least finished the cylinder. And that gun was a S&W .500 revolver, the carry model with the 3.5 inch barrel. After 2 rounds I was done and I would never care to try again. Some people really enjoy super powerful handguns, but it is not my cup of tea. Right around .44 Magnum I stop having fun, and after .454 Casull I don’t want to play anymore. I’m not going to dispute the effect I think a .500 S&W would have on a target, at all. I just don’t want to spark it off in a hand cannon. So it was a stroke of brilliance for Big Horn Armory to cram that into a much better platform—a rifle.

Big Horn Armory does a lot of things right with a winning attitude to boot. The model 89 isn’t a gun changed to fit a modern cartridge, it is a new lever-action platform designed in-house for the 500. The gun is entirely built in the USA, including all of its components. At first, I was unsure if I should be the one slated for this review since the rifles offered by Big Horn are stunningly beautiful. I tend to be hard on equipment, and nothing I have ever tested has returned in the same state I received it in. So I called the owner of Big Horn in case he wanted a more gentlemanly gun writer from our staff. He told me, “We don’t build safe queens son. We build guns to be used.” Nuff said. That is my kind of party.

.500 S&W with a .45 ACP

When the Model 89 came in, I was blown away by how amazing it looked in person. This gun is a work of art, no question. But it is also hard to miss the gaping hole they call a bore. All the guys at the FFL shop kept looking at the barrel to make sure it was real. If a .45 ACP looks like throwing ashtrays down the hall, this thing chucks asteroids.

Every detail of the 89 is perfect. From the Walnut stock to the aperture rear/ post front sight—not a machine mark or marred screw was to be found. The trigger was crisp and smooth—a bit of a surprise after some of the lever-actions I have shot.

While I like the traditional look of the gun, I also like a bonus feature built in. The model 89 is red dot ready from the factory. Don’t get me wrong, the iron sights work great. But I think at this point, most of us would concede we are faster with a red dot. Also, in the places we are likely to really want a lever-action, a magnified scope would be too much. The package I got in for review came with a SIG Romeo 1 and mounting plate, which takes the place of the rear sight. Two Allen keys and you are in business.

Now, this is the part of the review where I should be telling you all about how the action is brilliant. But unfortunately, I am not a cowboy gun expert. I don’t know a falling block from a Rolling Rock, and to pretend otherwise would be doing you a disservice. But I will tell you how the 89 performed.

Out of the box, the action was a little tight. I don’t think that should be unexpected, given the price tag. When we think of really well put-together guns, a perfect level of tightness between moving parts is part of that. After about 20 rounds, the 89 did really smooth out, and I would expect it to get progressively better for another 200. The recoil impulse was actually a bit higher than I expected for a pistol cartridge, but then, 440 grains at 1700 feet per second is no joke. It felt about like a 12 gauge slug from a pump action. Enough you don’t want to shoot hundreds of rounds in a day, but nothing near actually painful. And it is rather reassuring that anything on the receiving end will stop bothering you.

The 89 weighs in at 7 pounds, which does make it light and agile. When I had the motions right on the action, it ran very fast. Turns out lever gunning is a perishable skill, and it has been years since I shot one. If you already have the skills or take the time to train them, this gun will throw some lead in a hurry.

Accuracy was well within the acceptable realm, and probably better in reality than my test results. I was getting a little recoil shy by the time I shot groups and it still turned in 3 nearly touching with the red dot. I have no doubt we would see some improvement with that on a fresh day or taking the time and expense to find the load the 89 likes best.


Now one thing figures and stopwatches can’t calculate is also part of the Model 89 experience. That missing thing is fun. I haven’t had as much fun with a gun as the 89 provided in a very long time. As a fan of lever-actions, it has given me a renewed interest in learning to use one well. The raw power of the .500 S&W finds a happy home in this rifle. Should you find yourself walking through the valley of the shadow of death, you shall fear no evil if this is rifle is on your shoulder. Once the Model 89 cranks off, you’ll be lucky to find any.

Visit Big Horn Armory to learn more about Big Horn’s Model 89 by clicking HERE.

***Shop GunsAmerica for your next lever-action rifle***

About the author: Clay Martin is a former Marine and Green Beret, retiring out of 3rd Special Forces Group. He is a multi-decade and -service sniper, as well as 3-Gun competitor and Master ranked shooter in USPSA Production. In addition to writing about guns, he is the author of “Last Son of The War God,” a novel about shooting people that deserve it. You can also follow him on twitter, @offthe_res or his website,

{ 41 comments… add one }
  • Robin Hall October 15, 2018, 8:28 am

    The 460 is a flat shooting long range kill anything in the world revolver round that NOTHING else compares to!
    My S&W 460 XVR with 8 3/8” barrel has about “1/2” the recoil of my 44 mag T/C Contender!
    It’s so accurate it has replaced my 30.06 rifle.
    I’m 64 and find it much easier to carry my 460 in a shoulder holster than a rifle or shotgun. Especially when carrying in my climbing stand on my back.
    I am amazed the 460 has not been awarded the greatest caliber ever made. Super accurate, mild recoil, flat long range 200+ yard in a hand gun!!!
    This (in my opinion) is the best cartridge ever made for big game. What more does anyone want from a cartridge?
    I would like to hear from other 460 owners.
    The only complaint I have would be the noise and concussion this round produces. I wear plugs and muffs when at the range and hunting.

  • Brian Hoyle September 23, 2018, 5:15 am

    Finally, someone has made a weapon that makes the 500 S&W a viable cartridge for penetration. The original 500 handguns only could use the lighter weight bulllets due to the limited length of the cylinder. The 500 JRH which is a slightly shorter .500 was able to take the heavier and proprietary shaped bullets which in all the tests we have conducted on large bovine would out penetrate the .500 Smith, but now the same bullet can be put into a rifle hopefully (if they accounted for the longer length during feeding ) to make the .500 S&W perform at the limits and ballistics I believe it was originally designed for. I learned to gunsmith over many years under one of the greatest pistol smiths around (Jack Huntington)and still have my first .500 Linebaugh that I received and although I can no longer shoot it any more do to a severe accident I still love all the big bore handguns from the .475 and .500 Linebaugh to the .500 JRH and .500 S&W. We have experimented with putting the .500 Linebaugh in lever guns but they don’t do well they cause severe action wear and springing in the action and the metal because of the pressure in the traditional lever guns(with the exception of the round bolt marlin .444 and such). Hopefully this could be a good a candidate for the big bore handgun cartridges to perform in a traditional Winchester style lever rifle. Thank you for the story and the looking forward to hearing more about and from Big Horn Armory.

    • Tim Sundles November 18, 2019, 4:14 pm

      As to cartridge length and rifles/revolvers. Both the S&W X Frame and the newer BFR chambered for 500 S&W have very long cylinders and will take a cartridge much longer than the model 89. We load two factory versions (per cartridge OAL) of the 500 S&W cartridge in our new mono-metal Dangerous Game load. The short version is specifically loaded for the model 89, although you can fire it in both revolvers. The longer version will NOT cycle in the 89’s shortish action, but is only for revolvers and we seat the bullet WAY OUT to lower pressures and give the revolvers a max. load with lower pressures.

  • D.J. September 19, 2018, 1:07 pm

    Sounds like a good game plan to me . I always wondered when some
    of these ” hotter ” pistol loads would be put into a lever rifle . The big
    stuff is harder for me to shoot in a handgun , at my age . Yet some of
    those rounds may be useful , and may be merited . ‘ Good show , that !

  • MojoMitch September 18, 2018, 6:11 pm

    For a big bore lever, it’s hard for me to get away from a lever action 45-70 w/the ammo their making now days!
    I love lever action rifles w/a smooth action and don’t mind a buck horn sight, I prefer iron sights, no scopes on a lever for me.
    I think the real action to watch is what these bullet builders are doing with the AR’s in these “knock down/hamm’r” builds.
    Holy Moly! Pumping 20-30 rounds out with a 458 or 50 cal? Pretty much stopping everything, but a tank at under two hundred yards. I think this is going to get more interesting, as time goes by.
    Just my .02 cents.

  • PatrioTom September 18, 2018, 4:01 pm

    For less than a grand you can buy a .50 Beowulf upper for your AR.

  • mtman2 September 18, 2018, 12:45 pm

    Shot placement is everything…
    and a miss is still miss and “the bear tolled on” = right on top of you-!!!
    Don’t recomend it but Eskimose hunted Polar bears with .22’s – which to them waaay back then was a super weapon= in their knowing hands…

  • Al September 18, 2018, 10:04 am

    So much for a working man’s gun. NOT!
    And Clay, Buckhorn sights are garbage, to get real accuracy from a lever gun (or most rifles with iron sights for that matter) a rear aperture is the only way to go.
    I hate Buckhorns with a passion, I know the purists are havin’ a cow, but for real world use the aperture is king. (in IRON sights)
    My Marlin and Henry both drive tacks in handloaded 45L.C., and with my hot huntin’ loads can take anything up to a Brownie.
    And I have 2 guns for well under that price!

  • Benjamin Batman September 17, 2018, 9:23 pm

    It’s a shame that 500s+w is my favorite deer hunting rifle and I can not afford it. You can get a tc pro hunter for about $850 and a 500s+w barrel for it for another $310.

  • bbbs53 September 17, 2018, 6:45 pm

    At the price for a matte finished rifle, I do believe I would rather have an original. Last time I sent a receiver out for color case, it was less than 250. Their prices are really high, nice work if you can get it.

  • MagicRooster September 17, 2018, 4:06 pm

    I’ll stick to my Big Boy Henrys…..44 mag and 357 mag.

  • LG September 17, 2018, 1:49 pm

    Thanks for the nice article. A magnificent weapon but it ought to be if the FOUR THOUSAND DOLLAR price mentioned is correct. In view of the VALUE, I would rather go for Pre Remington Marlin 444 or a 45-70. This makes me wonder, why the 375 XTR Winchester never made it as a popular gun. I do own one, that I received as a gift as I would not have bought it. It’s beautiful. It kicks pretty hard on both ends of the weapon. Why was it a commercial failure ?

  • Fissel September 17, 2018, 1:26 pm

    I just wished they’d designed an action that could accept a proper scope. Those of us in straight wall cartridge hunting caliber states are desperate for a 460 or 500 S&W caliber rifle with proper hunting optics.

  • Gary September 17, 2018, 12:39 pm

    For such a reportedly expensive weapon it would be informative to know magazine capacity, omitted frombthe review. Not a huge deal, but it would be truly interesting to know how a Winchester 1886 based action with rear locking bolts holds up to the operating pressure of the 500 S&W. The author says it’s made in the USA, so it’s not a Miroku modern copy. Winchester had to beef up the 1894 action for cartridges more intense than .30-30. These are not high volume cowboy action fun guns, so maybe durability takes a back seat to power.

    • Rexford L October 12, 2018, 12:35 am

      There are 3 versions of the Model 89, Trapper, Carbine and Rifle.
      Rifle with 22″ bbl holds 7 cartridges in the magazine.
      Carbine with 18″ bbl holds 7 cartridges in the magazine.
      Trapper with 16″ bbl holds 6 cartridges in the magazine.
      I went to Cody Wyoming and bought mine in person (18″ bbl carbine) and after talking with Greg Buchel about how they were designed and built not only are they a true work of art but they are in incredibly durable and strong rifle. Figure that the maximum pressure SAAMI specs for the 500 S&W Magnum is 60,000 PSI and BHA tests their rifles to 20% greater than that without harming them in any way or form. They are made from 17-4 Stainless (on the matte finish models) that are then enhanced using a salt bath nitride making the steel extremely hard and durable. If you have any questions, there are plenty of reviews of their rifles and they have a great website too.

  • John Tittle September 17, 2018, 12:17 pm

    I wish they would chamber this in 460 S&W. I believe you can shoot 454 Casull and 45 Long Colt in a gun chambered for 460.
    Cheaper ammo and the 460 is higher velocity than the 500.

    • The Bearded Pretender September 17, 2018, 1:36 pm

      They do make it in .460, it’s called the model 90
      In the video you can see how the action hangs up and it is not very smooth at all for a $4500 gun.
      Mine came and it still had glue residue on the feed ramp and hangs up quit easily when running the action.
      The $600 wood upgrade is a waste of money, you will never get wood that looks as good as the ones they picture..EVER!
      I have both the .500 S&W model 89 and a .460 S&W Model 90
      I bought the .500 used and had the 90 made. Needless to say I was not impressed when the .460 arrived and found the action so rough and full of glue.
      The wood was nice, but not an extra $600 nice.
      Kind of made my whole buying experience go from “Can Hardly Wait” to “What Ever”
      I just threw the gun into a case and it’s laying around here somewhere.

      To answer the question about the receiver, it is not a Model 94 or and 86 copy.
      They built the receiver around those models, it is a bit larger than both using the best of each one.
      Over all, neat rifles but not what I expect from a $4,500.00 Custom Gun.

    • The Bearded Pretender September 17, 2018, 1:49 pm

      They do make it in .460, it\’s called the model 90
      In the video you can see how the action hangs up and it is not very smooth at all for a $4500 gun.
      Mine came and it still had glue residue on the feed ramp and hangs up quit easily when running the action.
      The $600 wood upgrade is a waste of money, you will never get wood that looks as good as the ones they picture..EVER!
      I have both the .500 S&W model 89 and a .460 S&W Model 90
      I bought the .500 used and had the 90 made. Needless to say I was not impressed when the .460 arrived and found the action so rough and full of glue.
      The wood was nice, but not an extra $600 nice.
      Kind of made my whole buying experience go from \”Can Hardly Wait\” to \”What Ever\”
      I just threw the gun into a case and it\’s laying around here somewhere.To answer the question about the receiver, it is not a Model 94 or and 86 copy.
      They built the receiver around those models, it is a bit larger than both using the best of each one.
      Over all, neat rifles but not what I expect from a $4,500.00 Custom Gun.

  • Tail Gunner September 17, 2018, 11:59 am

    Cudos to Clay for showing us a rifle where he is not an expert shooter. There are more cost effective lever options. But, for the bigger, most expensive, and closet queen set, it has a market. I’ll stick with my Marlin.

  • Scott Riggs September 17, 2018, 11:26 am

    I have been following Big Horn Armory for several years and I greatly admire the 500 mag rifle, Although it is beyond the reach of the average American It has a following and I hope to have the funds one day to purchase one, The more of them that are out there the more obtainable they will be price wise…
    My Thanks to Clay Martin for his presentation of this magnificent firearm.. Note* I am also an old war vet who served in a special ops unit back in the late 70s thru the 80s and am in the last few years getting set up for cowboy action shooting 🙂 Lots of fun…. God Bless Guys and Clay I look forward to reading your book…

    Scott Riggs

  • Norm Fishler September 17, 2018, 10:41 am

    Nice rifle with a reasonable review, but it never fails to aggravate me when something like this is reviewed that the price is omitted. Oversight? Not hardly.

    • Rexford L October 12, 2018, 12:45 am

      Easy enough to look up the price on Big Horn Armory’s website. I received 10% off for buying mine on their 10th Anniversary and another 10% for being military, with the total price being 1999.00. When you look at a “custom” rifle from say Marlin or Winchester that’s the same price, I don’t think that what your getting is anywhere out of the price range. Sure if your comparing it to a mass produced Marlin 1895 or Winchester 1886 they will be cheaper, but your also buying a mass produced firearm.

  • Keith Rockefeller September 17, 2018, 10:38 am

    This seems like one of those rich man’s gun stories, again. If the price were a third of the list price of $2,499, it would be one thing, but not at that price. It doesn’t fit in the working man’s budget. Such a shame.

  • Phil Hosier September 17, 2018, 10:29 am

    I have an H&R Handi in .500 S&W w/ a Nikon 3X9X, have to carry it w/ sling barrel down. Not a well balanced gun, but it has been a slammer for 12 years. Longest shot on deer 327 yards, deer down ! The recoil can be compared to a 10 ga, but it is not a summer afternoon fun gun. With hunting clothes on, and the excitement of the game you are pursuing, not problem at all. I shoot a 275 gr. Barnes for deer, the heavier bullets will punish the shooter more than necessary. Dependsable gun in a great cartridge. An Indiana hunter !

  • Gregory Greenwood September 17, 2018, 9:45 am

    I can’t disagree that they are beautiful rifles and I would love to own one. If somebody would gift me one! But once you factor in the price… Go pick up a Marlin Guide Gun in 45/70.

    • Jake September 17, 2018, 12:21 pm

      Get the Marlin in .450 Marlin and you can shoot the .45-70 Government and the .450 Marlin magnum level cartridge.

    • Chuck green September 17, 2018, 4:12 pm

      Here…here….Love my 1895 SG 45-70 guide…

    • LJ September 17, 2018, 9:34 pm

      I agree, I’ve had a Guide Gun since they first came out. If you hand load you can go from mild to wild and anywhere in between. The 45-70 is a very versatile round and even if you don’t hand load there are some very impressive factory rounds available from Buffalo Bore and others that can kill anything in North America – at half the cost.

    • Rexford L October 12, 2018, 12:54 am

      If you factor in the price there are reasons why you can buy a 30 grand 2WD F150 pickup or one that’s 90 grand for a 4×4 F350 Platinum. Sure they both do the same job of hauling firewood or towing a boat, but one’s just much nicer to own and drive.

  • Stevie September 17, 2018, 9:35 am

    Looks like a little more than I want, my Winchester lever 45 long Colt does a pretty job on hogs and home defense.

  • OutdoorsGuy September 17, 2018, 9:35 am

    My first long gun after my baptismal .22 Marlin Model 56 was a Marlin Model 336, short barrel carbine, prior to microgroove rifling, in a .35 Remington caliber. It was given to me by my dad when he “moved up” to a Savage Model 99 lever action in a .303 Win. caliber in 1957, if memory serves. He always regretted that “move up” ……. We hunted in dense “buck laurel” and scrub oak of the South Central PA Appalachians and you rarely got a kill shot further than 30 or 40 yds. at best if you favored a deer’s bed down area. I never saw a tree stand until I was in my late 20’s and lived in SoIL. We stalked our deer for a month or more prior to the opening day and we didn’t mind hiking into Robert’s valley for a couple of miles to get clear of the “city folk” who came up into our area to get a “feel” of hunting and shot at most anything that moved! I actually have witnessed game wardens at check in stations arresting city hunters with farm billy goats TIED TO THE FENDER OF THEIR VEHICLES and openly bragging about their “hunt” in the mountains!! But, I digress, I favored a 210gr. Remington Silver Tip FMJ for hunting that brush country. It was a slow bullet but it could cut through wild rhodos., aka, “buck laurel” and rangy scrub oak better than the .303 in any form that my dad had tried out prior to our annual hunts. We hunted together and we most always brought back at least one of our “picks” for the buck we had spotted in the Oct – early Nov. stalking of game trails and bedding places back in those valleys [we also frequented Clark’s valley and Stony valley to the north of “our valley”. Some of my dearest memories of my hunting days were not of the game I KILLED with my dad, they are of the stalking mornings when my dad and I would venture out and he would enlighten me to the ways of the deer and what to watch for and how to read “sign” and literally how to become one with the woods.

    I guess I wandered far off of my desire to mention my 1st thoughts of this new lever gun that Clay has gotten to “play with” but one get bitten by a nostalgia “bug” occasionally and now I simply want some fried eggs and bacon and itty bitty “cottage fries with sauteed onion and peppers and a nice hot cup of mud aka, coffee. My dad used to call his coffee “mud” because he drank it with cream/milk and that’s what it reminded him of. ……… If it sounds like I miss my dad, that is such a truth in my life, and I still, after 35 years since I lost both my mom and my dad, I still miss their sounds but I still feel their presence around me at times like this …..

  • Bob September 17, 2018, 8:49 am

    I shoot a 450 Marlin. 430 grain Leverevolution round at1900 ft per sec, 10 gr Difference Hmmm

  • Dewey Rodney Perkins September 17, 2018, 8:45 am

    I have a Marlin lever action special edition rifle in .444. It is ported from the factory which really reduced recoil. However,
    increases noise level. Great woods rifle- -short (18 1/2 inch barrel), light, fast handling. I have never had a deer or hog, walk away from this one. It is also fun to relearn to shot a lever action rifle without taking it down from the shoulder. I, personally, like the 265 grain flex tip leverevolution cartridge. I bet the .460 S & W magnum would also be dinosaur stopper right up there with the 500 S&W magnum.

  • will boyd September 17, 2018, 7:57 am

    At nearly $4000 (color case option), it’s a handful for sure.

  • jack September 17, 2018, 7:52 am

    Thinking of a 500 Linebaugh,… would be interesting.

  • Tommy September 17, 2018, 7:52 am

    I have a H&R Handi-Rifle in .500 S&W. Shooting the 500 grain Hornadys through the H&R is a pain-literally. Worst recoiling weapon I have ever fired, and I am not recoil shy. No way I would put a scope on the thing, I would eat it on the first round.
    I switched to the .325 grain Leverevolution round and it is much more manageable. Big medicine on hogs.

  • Altoids September 17, 2018, 6:34 am

    Ever since I fired a friend’s revolver in .460 S&W mag about 10 years ago, I’ve always thought that round should be chambered in a lever action.

    I suppose if this rifle takes off in .50 S&W, the .460 chambering would be next.

    • Dr Motown September 17, 2018, 8:35 am

      Check out the Big Horn website….they make a Model 90 in 460 S&W

  • Joe September 17, 2018, 5:24 am

    I am so glad that I never progressed beyond .44 magnum in revolver and .30 .30 in lever action. At 66 years of age my shoulder has enough problems. That being said I am sure there is a place and time for this cannon. That is if you don’t already have a .45-70 in your saddle bag.

  • Joe September 17, 2018, 5:22 am

    You know it is a good gun when you shot it and it makes you laugh.

  • ZackaryW September 17, 2018, 3:09 am

    I have a Marlin GBL set up just like that, full length magazine and micro pistol redot. My 6 +1 of .45 isn’t quite 7+1 of .5, but it is quite a bit cheaper at the same size and weight, almost the same power potential.
    I think a shorter, .50GI sized cartridge that doubled capacity while halving lever throw is a better idea for general use, still a lot of lead but with less recoil = faster shooting. Other note, One of these Big Horn .50’s in a mares leg would be a ton on fun.

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