Gun Test: Big Horn Armory’s Model 90 In .460 S&W
By Payton Miller, GUNS Magazine
Photos By Joseph R. Novelozo
If you want to put things in their simplest terms, I suppose you could describe Big Horn Armory’s Spikedriver leverguns like this: “Premium rifles and carbines chambered for magnum handgun cartridges, which equal—and often surpass—the performance of older (and longer) big-bore lever-action standbys such as the .45-70 or .444 Marlin.”
The cartridges in question are, of course, the .500 and .460 S&W Magnums. I was fortunate to be around at the time both were unveiled in S&W’s massive X-Frame revolver; the .500 first in around 2003, the .460 a couple of years later. During both rollouts, however, the reaction among the assorted gun magazine types was remarkably similar. Almost immediately after coming off the firing line, the most common thing I heard was “Jeez. What a cartridge! If only somebody would make a lever-action carbine for it…”
I can remember when guys I hunted with using the first X-Frame .500 revolvers were chattering about a .500 S&W levergun the minute they fired those mega-wheelguns. Whether or not this was due to the realization they’d exceeded their “hand-cannon” tolerance, I couldn’t say because I didn’t ask. But for me the answer would’ve been yes.
No “handgun cartridge” levergun at the time was a large enough platform to handle either one of these bruisers. So Big Horn definitely answered the call with the Model 89. Now, they’ve doubled down on things with the Model 90 in .460 S&W.
This carbine variation of Big Horn Armory’s .460 S&W Model 90 features a full-length magazine, maple stock and matte stainless finish. It’s upscale all the way.
Scoped, the Model 90 runs a bit over 9 pounds, but balances very well. With the Leupold Scout Scope mounted, it’d be tough to come up with a
better setup for quick offhand shooting. Photo: Payton Miller
Big Horn’s Model 90
Prior to Big Horn’s Spikedriver leverguns, the closest thing to a “handgun caliber” carbine in excess of the .44 Magnum was, to the best of my knowledge, Rossi’s Puma Carbine in .454 Casull, a beefed up Winchester M92 clone with an industrial strength recoil pad (which, in view of its 5-pound weight, was much appreciated).
But the Big Horn Model 90 weighs an honest 8 pounds, and is chambered for the considerably more potent .460 S&W (which pushes the same 300-grain JFN bullet more than 300 fps faster in the Buffalo Bore loads we used). Our particular specimen was the carbine version, featuring an 18-1/2-inch barrel, full-length magazine, and an eye-catching stock and fore-end of what the company refers to as “Hot Wood Treated Maple.” It’s a beautiful blonde color with a distinctive grain, making for a very attractive combination with the matte stainless barrel and receiver. Actually, “very attractive” is an understatement. This thing turns heads.
Unscoped, it weighs 8 pounds, 6 ounces. There is a 22-inch barreled rifle version with a half-magazine. But in view of the fact the carbine has a 6-round capacity over the rifle’s 4 rounds, and considering 3-1/2 inches of barrel length isn’t going to be a deal-breaker in terms of velocity loss in dealing with a monster handgun cartridge, the carbine seems to be the way to go.
For those who simply can’t abide glass on a levergun, the Model 90 has an integral adjustable receiver sight with a generous aperture (below) and a drift-adjustable front sight with a high-visibility bead (above).
Considering the fact heavy-bullet .460 S&W loads can surpass many factory .45-70 loads in terms of power, the Model 90’s industrial-strength recoil pad is by no means an affectation.
In fact, the Buffalo Bore .460 loads we used were pretty much dead-even with some of the “magnum .45-70” loadings in a similar 300- to 350-grain bullet-weight range, and they surpass standard-pressure .45-70’s in the 300- and 325-grain range. The .45-70 will pull ahead—obviously—when we’re talking about Buffalo Bore or Garrett super-heavyweight hard-cast offerings (500 grains or so). So, if you’re somewhat recoil-hardened and are seriously interested in really upping weight and frontal area past a .460, you’d probably be better off with Big Horn’s .500 S&W Model 89.
But what the .460 Model 90 also offers besides velocity is versatility, thanks to its ability to also digest .454 Casull and .45 Colt. We had only one type of .45 Colt ammo—Buffalo Bore’s 225-grain Barnes copper load. It averaged a whopping 1,752 fps, but didn’t group very well—a heavier bullet more than likely would’ve. But there are a few important caveats in regard to .45 Colt ammo (see sidebar).
After admiring the Model 90 carbine itself for a spell, I wanted to know more about it. My first question to Greg Buchel, Big Horn Armory president, was a fairly simple one. I asked if his Spikdedrivers were simply “beefed-up” Model 92’s. Imprecise as the question was, Greg managed to amplify things a bit for me:
“We realized early on that no existing action would be suitable for the pressures required by the .500 and .460 S&W cartridges. So we designed an action purpose-built for them. Our Models 89 and 90 are based upon John Browning’s 1886 and 1892 designs. They’re “1886” in external appearance with “1892” internals. All action parts are made from 17-4PH hardened to Rc32 and then further case hardened using a nitrocarburizing process. The surface hardness is approximately Rc82.
“We augmented metal thicknesses in areas like the barrel ring, the locking bolts and receiver sides. During destruction testing, we failed to destroy our test guns. One had 24 proof loads run through it with zero change in headspace. I am not sure our guns are indestructible, but using reasonable tests, we have failed to damage them.”
At 50 yards, Buffalo Bore’s 325-grain HC .454 Casull proved usable, but not as impressive as the .460 S&W.
Outstanding 100-yard results were obtained with Buffalo Bore’s 300-grain JFN .460 load (above), and the company’s potent 360-grain HC exhibited good accuracy (below) at the same distance.
The Model 90 proved extremely shootable. Recoil with the stouter .460 Buffalo Bore loads was slightly less pronounced than .45-70 loads in a similar bullet-weight range through a Marlin Guide Gun, which has about the same overall length and weighs slightly more than a pound less. The trigger on our test rifle was uncommonly crisp for a levergun, breaking at 3-1/4 pounds.
Although Big Horn leverguns feature an excellent aperture sight, we opted to mount Leupold’s VXR 1.5-5X Scout Scope to the forward rail using Leupold QD mounts. This did add an additional pound to the rig, but the balance was still excellent. And with the scope set at 1.5X with its FireDot duplex reticle, it’ll pretty much equal or outperform any ghost ring/aperture in terms of speedy target acquisition. The fact it’s a bit kinder to older eyes is a plus as well. If we would’ve opted to go with the irons, however, we’d have probably yanked the forward-mounted rail—it doesn’t prevent the use of the receiver sights, but it is annoying to see as much of the rail as you will through the generous ghost ring aperture.
We did, of course try some of Buffalo Bore’s .454 Casull loads through the gun. Although the .454 does have a shorter OAL than the .460, feeding problems can be avoided by holding the barrel at an 30-degree upward angle while working the lever in order to avoid running afoul of the longer cartridge guides for the carrier. At 50 yards, the groups with our .454 loads—a 300-grain JFN and a 325-grain HC LFN were 2 and 2-1/2 inches respectively.
It was when we switched to the .460 stuff the Model 90 really showed what it’s made of. The corker was the 300-grain JFN. At 100 yards it stayed at an inch even, and did so at a relatively blistering 2,200 fps. That’s about .30-30 speed with roughly twice the throw weight and with more frontal area.
To be honest, for a “stopper” levergun, the .500 S&W Model 89 probably makes more sense. But the higher velocity and ranging potential of the .460 S&W Model 90—not to mention its multi-caliber versatility—is going to appeal to many.
It’s worth remembering this: Before America’s turn-of-the-century shift to “smallbore” .30-caliber rifles, big-bore leverguns were state-of-the-art hunting tools. And those Marlin 1895’s and Winchester Model 1886’s were popular well into the smokeless era. The Big Horn Model 90 is a fitting heir to that tradition, while enhancing it considerably.
Shooting Facilities provided by: Angeles Shooting Ranges, 12651 Little Tujunga Rd., Lakeview Terrace, CA 91342, (818) 899-2255 www.angelesranges.com.
Three in one. The Model 90 can chamber (left to right) .460 S&W (case length 1.80 inches), .454 Casull (1.383 inches) and .45 Colt (1.285 inches). Although this high-performance .45 Colt Buffalo Bore factory load features a Barnes 225-grain copper bullet, make sure to remove any lead buildup if you use soft-lead .45 Colt “cowboy” or factory ammo.
The .45 Colt Question
Part of the advantage of owning a .460 S&W (or .454 Casull) rifle or handgun is being able use .45 Colt ammo. However, Buffalo Bore’s Tim Sundles cautioned me concerning using soft lead “cowboy” bullets and then switching to full-house jacketed or super hard-cast .460 or .454 ammo without thoroughly removing any lead deposits. To neglect this can cause a potentially dangerous spike in pressures. Since the cartridge guides for the carrier in my particular Model 90 were tailored to the .460, I had to single-load the .45 Colt stuff.
It’s highly unlikely anyone is going to buy a Big Horn .460 primarily to shoot .45 Colt, so shorter guides really don’t make much sense. But being able to single load and pop off a round of .45 Colt is a nice—and handy—little option. Just watch the lead!
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