May 22, 2018
Spend a few hours navigating the crowds at the SHOT Show in Vegas and you'll have a pretty good feel for the trajectory of the firearms market. Not long ago zombies were all the rage, a response to our nationwide fascination with the undead. More recently, ARs and long-range bolt-action rifles have taken center stage. So in this era of aluminum chassis, carbon fiber barrel wraps and muzzle devices could there still be interest in a high-end, pistol-caliber lever rifle?
Greg Buchel of Big Horn Armory in Cody, Wyoming, thinks so, and his brand of dressed-up lever actions is gaining quite a following among shooters. At first glance it might seem Greg and his team had borrowed the design of John Moses Browning's Winchester Model 1886 lever action or perhaps the Winchester 1892, another of Browning's creations. And you'd be right in both cases. The Big Horn Armory Model 90 and its companion, the Model 89, have a unique action that hybridizes two of America's most famous lever rifle designs.
Buchel says the Model 90 is based on the 1886 action externally and the Model 1892 internally. Since the '92 was based on the '86, this isn't much of a stretch, and the Model 90 shares the same breech locking system design with twin locking bolts as Browning's rifles. This makes the action of the Model 90 one of the strongest available.
Internally, the Model 90 is a virtual doppelgänger of the '92, from the lifter to the top-mounted extractor to the functional elements of the inertia hammer. But the real work here—and the challenge Buchel and his team faced when designing the gun—was to adapt the '92 design to the .460 Smith & Wesson Mag. cartridge. The original '92 design, robust for its time, was developed for cartridges like the .44-40—hardly in the same class as the powerful .460.
The Model 90 is longer, for one thing, and the already robust '92 design benefits from modern manufacturing processes and materials like 17-4 PH stainless billet steel for the action. The 22-inch barrel, bore and muzzle are all nitrocarburized—a form of case-hardening—and like the receiver, all parts are CNC machined from billet stock. All rifle components are made in the USA.
The Model 90 is available in matte stainless, Hunter Black stainless or color case-hardened finishes, and you can order the stock in walnut, maple or laminate. My sample came in matte stainless with a walnut stock. There's also a Model 90A that is offered in the same configurations but chambered to .454 Casull.
The Model 90 I tested was certainly a good-looking gun: a decidedly new-age blend of precision-machined matte stainless metal and high-luster, gorgeously figured Missouri black walnut. If part of the reason you purchase a gun is a secret desire to see a look of wonder on the faces of others when you uncase it, this lever rifle will accomplish just that.
I doubt I'd have drawn more attention at the shooting range had I driven up in a Maserati with Megan Fox riding shotgun.
Model 90s aren't cheap—the basic model will cost around $3,250—but Big Horn is a small-volume company serious about attention to detail. Besides being president of Big Horn, Buchel is a serious lever gun fan who builds guns as he himself would want them. That kind of understanding and commitment enables Buchel to add features that help the Model 90 be a more modern and user-friendly gun than its ancestors.
For starters, the rifle comes with a generous recoil pad with scalloped edges that won't hang when shooting quickly. The .460 S&W is a potent cartridge in a handgun, and it's even more impressive from a rifle with a 22-inch barrel. This brings the potential for pretty unpleasant recoil, but the pad, the straight-comb stock and the rifle's eight-pound, six-ounce weight combine to make even the hottest load manageable. Plus, as with the old big-bore Nitro Express rifles, the recoil is more of a push than a stab.
The trigger is good for a lever gun, breaking at a little more than four pounds on the model I tested. It seems there's a great deal of discussion about trigger weight and less about trigger feel, and the Model 90 trigger does feel excellent. Shoot the gun a half-dozen times and you come to know just when the trigger will break without worrying about creep or grittiness.
Mechanical operation is smooth, a sign of tight machining tolerances and attention to finishing internal surfaces. The lever loop is slightly curved and wide enough to accommodate gloved hands, which is nice because a long day of working the lever on a big gun is tough on the fingers, and the rounded receiver offers a comfortable handhold.
The balance point of the rifle is right at the leading edge of the receiver, and the Model 90 swings smoothly when tracking targets without a nose-heavy feel. The wrist of the stock is wide and comfortable, as is the fore-end, which offers a good grip on the gun.
Big Horn Armory hasn't tried to manipulate the original '86/'92 design to accommodate an optic, and the gun comes out of the box with iron sights in place. The aperture rear is secured to the top of the receiver. It's adjustable for windage and for elevation, via a ramp, a setup reminiscent of the old Remington 700 rear sight. The front post has a brass bead in the center and is dovetailed into the barrel itself.
An aperture sight is far better than the traditional buckhorn design for precision shooting, and it's also great for rapid both-eyes-open shooting. I'm glad that Buchel and the team at Big Horn opted for this user-friendly sight to increase the versatility and range of the rifle.
If you feel you simply cannot shoot a rifle without an optic, you can have a scout-scope mount added for $115 on the Hunter Black version or $140 on the stainless version.
Speaking of upgrades, there are several other optional additions you can check when ordering a Model 90. Aside from the scout-scope mount, you can select a fiber-optic front sight ($60), octagonal barrel ($750), Big Horn Armory logo ($99) or have the muzzle threaded ($350) or upgrade the magazine tube to hold six rounds instead of the standard four. Select every available option and the price climbs above $6,000.
Because it lacks a scope, I tested the Model 90 at 50 yards. The first rounds went over the top of the target and into the backstop, but the delineated sight ramp makes adjustments simple. A few turns of the screwdriver and I was on paper. Naturally, both loads posted velocities significantly higher than those listed in factory charts because the .460 is tested in handgun barrels and not rifle barrels. The 200-grain Hornady FTX load broke 2,800 fps.
Accuracy was consistent with both loads, and the best groups were within 0.15 inch, from 1.06 to 1.20. It's worth noting these results were from a fixed sandbag front rest and not a Lead Sled or a similar fixed device. While the accuracy results in the accompanying chart were achieved at 50 yards, I did some shooting at 100 yards and was able to keep shots in about two-inch groups at that distance.
Proper feeding required a full lever stroke, and the Hornady and Winchester ammo fed smoothly. Extraction and ejection were fine with one exception: The top-mounted extractor slid off the base of one of the Winchester cartridges and left the empty in the chamber, necessitating the use of a brass cleaning rod for removal. The gun was hot at that point, so I let it cool and then examined both the extractor and the rim of the cartridge case. Seeing nothing that would spell trouble, I went back to testing and didn't encounter another issue.
The Model 90 in .460 S&W Mag. is a substantial firearm. The 260-grain Winchester load I tested leaves the muzzle at about 2,460 fps, generating almost 3,500 ft.-lbs. of punch. That substantially eclipses the energy generated by a .35 Whelen firing 250-grain bullets at 2,400 fps.
If you're in bear country, this rifle has an impressive bruin-stopping resume (on paper, at least), and the mechanical gulp of the broad-shouldered .460 S&W cartridges being swallowed into the action offers plentiful peace of mind.
Aside from defense in bear country, this rifle will serve dutifully as a hunting rifle. It's plenty accurate for close, fast work on deer and elk in timber, and it would be a great gun to carry into a sounder of feeding hogs.
Ultimate Black Bear Rifle
It's probably the ultimate black bear over bait rifle, if you can handle the recoil. Bear guides are frequently telling me how much they like large-caliber rifles because they leave behind large-caliber holes in bears. Black bears have dense fur and a heavy layer of skin and fat, so blood trailing isn't always easy—a task made doubly difficult since most shots over bait come right before dark. I think for such pursuits I would opt for the laminate stock version simply because the walnut is too pretty to mar.
In an age when long-range shooting is all the rage, it may seem that lever guns have been left behind. But not everyone wants to drop a deer a half-mile away. In fact, some hunters shun the idea of shooting a deer that you have to look through a spotting scope to see clearly.
For that type of hunter the Model 90 may be the ultimate rifle—a blend of traditional design elements with modern manufacturing techniques, a gun with John Moses Browning's DNA that is chambered for a relatively new magnum cartridge.
Lever actions aren't trendy, so as the gun world changes around them, rifles like the Model 90 will remain available for those who shun the fads and appreciate classic firearms.