Firearms

S&W Model 1854 – A Modern Day Lever-Action Rifle

Smith and Wesson Model 1854 with a pair of spurs, leather work gloves, and a Bowie knife

In 1854, Horace Smith and Daniel B. Wesson formed the Volcanic Repeating Arms Company to manufacture a lever-action pistol and rifle based on a design patented by Walter Hunt. An examination of that original patent drawing reveals underlying features such as the tubular magazine and lever-action feed mechanism that can be seen today in the Model 1854 Smith & Wesson rifle.

Smith & Wesson has engineered a rifle that pays tribute to the design of the early Volcanic lever-action rifle, while featuring innovations that bring it into the modern world of hunting rifles. Smith & Wesson calls it the perfect blend of heritage and innovation.

line drawing of the Volcanic lever action pistol
The design of this early Volcanic pistol is still the heart of how the modern day lever-action rifle operates.

Having grown up watching cowboy movies and TV shows, I’ve always had an affinity for lever-action rifles. So much so that the one AR rifle I own rarely leaves the safe, while the lever-action rifles by Marlin, Winchester, Henry, and Rossi get regular use. Now, there’s a new ‘lever-action kid’ in town and all indications are it’s going to be a favorite.

Model 1854 Features

My first examination of the rifle required a bit of study. There were features I immediately recognized and appreciated. There were also some surprises.

I received the standard model. I would have loved to own the limited edition, with its blued finish and high-quality walnut stock. However, the price for that one is more than twice the standard model. Since my reason for wanting the other one was simply because I prefer wood to composite stocks, I decided to set my preference aside and concentrate on all that is good with the rifle in my hands.

The 1854 is currently available in either .357 Magnum or .44 Remington Magnum. I got the .44 knowing I would shoot .44 Special more than the magnum cartridge. The rifle is 36 inches long and weighs 6.8 pounds. The barrel is 19.5 inches long and threaded for a silencer.

It is made from forged 410 stainless steel and has 1:20-inch RH twist 8-groove rifling. The receiver is forged from 416 stainless steel. Both the barrel and receiver have a flat silver finish. The stock is black synthetic with textured grip panels and an M-Lok forend with textured grip panels.

Smith and Wesson Model 1854 lever-action rifle chambered in .44 Magnum with ammunition boxes from Underwood and Defense Dynamics
Equally comfortable with .44 Special or .44 Remington Magnum ammo, the 1854 rifle proved to be accurate and reliable.

The lever, hammer, and trigger are in a contrasting black color. The trigger is flat with a serrated face. The lever is a large, loop-style to accommodate shooting with gloves. This goes with the entire all-weather design of the gun.

Unique to this lever-action, at least as far as my experience goes, was the removable magazine tube, which makes unloading the gun simple. Simply push in and twist the tube (from the muzzle end) and remove the tube from the rifle. Then, turn the rifle muzzle-end down to unload any remaining cartridges. The S&W 1854 features a 9-round capacity.

A Picatinny rail is mounted on the receiver. The rail makes for a simple process to add a scope or red dot optic. The Model 1854 sports XS Sights, consisting of a ghost ring rear sight and a brass bead front.

Smith and Wesson Model 1854 lever-action rifle with a Smith & Wesson baseball cap
With stainless-steel barrel and receiver, and polymer stock, S&W’s Model 1854 rifle is an all-weather workhorse.

The bolt is round. A crossbolt safety is found below the hammer that had both half-cock and full-cock positions. Trigger pull is advertised at a 5-pound pull weight, but mine is coming in a little under that, typically 4.5 to 4.7 pounds on my Lyman Trigger Pull Gauge.

Operating a lever gun may seem intuitive. However, a shooter must understand how the hammer, trigger, lever, and crossbolt safety operate. The hammer, for example, can be cocked, half-cocked, resting against the crossbolt safety, or fully forward. The hammer can be moved to the cocked or full-rearward position by cycling the lever or manually cocking it.

When the hammer is cocked, the crossbolt safety can be moved to either the FIRE or NO-FIRE position. When the hammer is in the half-cock position, the sear is resting against the half-cock notch of the hammer. When the hammer is in this position, the crossbolt safety can be moved to either the FIRE or NO-FIRE position.

Test target for the Smith and Wesson Model 1854 lever-action rifle chambered in .44 Mag. with a box of Underwood ammunition
Shooting at 25 yards with open sights, the 1854 proved to be a very accurate rifle.

If the half-cock position is bypassed while uncocking the hammer, the hammer will come to rest against the crossbolt safety, preventing the safety’s movement. When the crossbolt safety has been placed in the FIRE position, and the trigger is pulled with a cocked hammer, the hammer will move to the full forward position.

To shoot the rifle, the trigger is pulled fully to the rear with the lever fully closed, hammer cocked, and the crossbolt safety to the left in the FIRE position. To load each round, the lever should be operated briskly through its motion, all the way down and back — until it is completely closed.

I’ve analyzed how I would carry this gun on a hunt for deer or hogs. I would carry it with the chamber loaded and hammer down. To do that, you need to practice lowering the hammer with an empty chamber until you have a feel for it. When you lower the hammer with a round in the chamber, ensure the safety is on. When you’re ready to fire, cock the hammer with your thumb.

I’m not sure of the type of optic I’ll put on my rifle, but the Picatinny rail will make it easy. I suspect I’ll mount a red dot sight, but I may add a Riton 3–9×40 scope that’s reasonably priced. Serious hunters may opt to spend a lot more than I likely will.

Range Testing

My shooting buddies and I put the rifle through its paces. It was a drizzly afternoon at our favorite outdoor 25-yard range, using the XS sights. We shot from standing or sitting positions, five-shot groups, shooting both .44 Magnum and .44 Special cartridges. We had another .44 Magnum lever-action rifle with us to compare—a Rossi R-92 El Jefe.

David Freeman shooting the Smith and Wesson Model 1854 lever-action rifle in .44 Mag.
At 36 inches in length and weighing only 6.8 pounds, the author found the S&W Model 1854 rifle easy to handle and quick on target.

Since I was the boss of our little outfit, I shot first. And since I don’t particularly like getting beat up by recoil, I loaded the rifle with Underwood 245-grain .44 Special cartridges. As I progressed through my five rounds, I couldn’t see where my rounds were landing. I could just see the front sight through the back peep sight and keep the bead on the black spot that represented the target.

It seemed easier to do than I expected because there was so little recoil. I went closer to look at the target and was pleased to find what we call ‘one ragged hole.’ Throughout those first five shots, a question lingered: “Where was the recoil?” It is my understanding that S&W attached the word “smooth” to the gun for marketing reasons. However, the smooth they’re talking about is how the lever and the trigger operate.

The lever and trigger are smooth, but the overall firing experience was much smoother than I expected. After firing the gun with .44 Specials, I loaded it with Fiocchi 200-grain .44 Magnum JHP cartridges and fired again. The not quite one-inch rubber buttstock pad does an incredible job of mitigating recoil. I suspect there’s some flexibility in the polymer stock that contributes to the manageable recoil this gun exhibits. I even tried some Black Talon .44 Magnum cartridges. The recoil was still more than manageable.

Smith and Wesson Model 1854 with a pair of spurs, leather work gloves, and a Bowie knife
A nice mix of old and new, Smith & Wesson’s 1854 rifle is a welcome addition to the lever-action world.

I did some chrono measurements and found .44 Magnum readings that were almost 200 fps faster than what was advertised on the box. The .44 Special rounds were traveling at least 300 fps faster than advertised. Maybe the ammo manufacturers were using 4-inch test barrels to get handgun ballistic numbers for their advertisements. At any rate, the Model 1854 has a fast and accurate barrel.

I have no need for more than one .44 Magnum rifle. I found a buyer for my Rossi and decided to assign the .44 Magnum role to the S&W 1854. It’s not only fully capable, the S&W 1854 has historical significance as the first ‘modern day’ lever-action rifle Smith & Wesson has produced.

What’s your take on lever-action rifles? Do you prefer the classic designs or modern versions? Which caliber would you choose for the Smith and Wesson Model 1854 (.44 Mag. or .357 Mag.)? Share your answers in the Comment section.

About the Author:

David Freeman

David is an NRA Instructor in pistol, rifle and shotgun, a Chief Range Safety Officer and is certified by the State of Texas to teach the Texas License to Carry Course and the Hunter Education Course. He has also owned and operated a gun store. David's passion is to pass along knowledge and information to help shooters of all ages and experience levels enjoy shooting sports and have the confidence to protect their homes and persons. He flew medevac helicopters in Vietnam and worked for many years as a corporate pilot before becoming actively involved in the firearm industry.
The Mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!'s blog, The Shooter's Log, is to provide information—not opinions—to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (12)

  1. @Jonny-T: Also, speaking of .40 S&W lever action, about 7-8 years ago a company called Ranger Point Prescision was offering a lever gun called the 10/40SS. What it entails is YOU supply a donor rifle. It has to be a Marlin Model 1894 chambered in .357 Mag. They do a custom conversion with a new barrel, mag tube, and a specially made super heavy duty extractor. Since the .40 headspaces on the case mouth, no big deal IF all you wanted to do is fire the .40… BUT, this conversion is chambered for the 10 Auto, where it headspaces normall. HOWEVER, with their specially made extremely strong extractor, it allows the lever action to ALSO use the .40 S&W! It uses the extractor itself to properly headspace on the bolt face. You can get the barrel in any length from 17.5″ to 24″ and mag tube to match. The shorter barrel/tube will hold 17 rounds of .40 and goes up from there as length increases. The only possible issue I could see would be in the accuracy department, because the bullet has to jump the gap before engaging the rifling due to being shorter than the 10 Auto. The other MAJOR issue I take with this conversion is that the Marlin 1894 is no longer being produced so you’re in the used market for that and looking at what, $1000 easily for a decent example… and THEN the price of the conversion itself. Which is/was $1800!!! So it’s gonna drain your pocketbook of pert near $3000+ for a lever gun that’s dual cartridge capable of .40 S&W and 10 Auto. Balistically the .357 Mag out of a carbine length is more or less on par with the .40 S&W and the 10 Auto doesn’t exactly gain anything over a hot .40 from carbine length. It’s a cool idea but seems more of a solution in search of a question that not many folks were asking and the ones who were/are asking can’t afford it. $3k is an awful lot of money for something you can get in .357 Mag for $1k or less that is balistically equal and have a lot left over for plenty of ammo to feed it with.

  2. @Jonny-T: It’s not a “bait and switch”. If you notice, every one of the synopsis’ for all of this week’s articles have the same description as the articles from the previous week. Something got screwed up along the way when they were being put up for this edition of the Log. This particular entry happened to be about Smith’s 1854 lever gun, but the synopsis was for last week’s “The failure of the .40 S&W.” As far as a .40 S&W in a lever action… I’d be down for one… I love my levers and the .40 is my prefered pistol cartridge. Like you, I assume one reason no one has made a lever chambered in it is the rimless case. Plus I’m not sure how much of a market it would have, sadly.

  3. Did nobody else catch the “bait and switch”? In the synopsis under the articles heading it mentions .40 S&W three times. I opened/read the article because the idea of using .40 S&W in a lever gun was intriguing. Pistol caliber carbines being all the rage now, right? I got to the end of the article and realize that at no point did he even mention the .40 S&W. I’ve always figured that it won’t work because it’s a rimless case, but the thought still remains.
    Just sayin’.
    Good read otherwise, but like others stated, it’s outside my price range right now.
    On a different note, I have a Rossi 92 in .357 Mag and it’s a great shooter but doesn’t cycle .38 Spl very well. Also, it carries easy if I’m in those woods where longer shots aren’t possible.

  4. I have this gun, shoots amazing. Would love to buy it in 357, but I don’t see anywhere where it’s made only in 44.

  5. I’m a Smith guy… and I love leverguns. My prefered is the Winchester Model 94. Mine is the first year it was made by USRAC and last year of true top eject. It and the .30-30 cartridge has served me well for years. It was also less than 1/4th of what this new S&W is costing. I want to like the new 1854… I do. I’m relatively okay with the stainless barrel/receiver and poly furniture. Gives it a nice modern look but I still prefer blued/wood. Picatinny doesn’t matter to me as leverguns really shouldn’t have optics. Just looks “wrong”. As far as which cartridge… I have nothing chambered in .44 so it’s not really germain to my situation so I guess I’d take the .357 ASSUMING it will cycle .38 Spl reliably. That’s because I have a 6 shot .38 Spl snub that could be a companion. But honestly… the price just absolutely kills any hope of ownership of the 1854 is that frickin’ price tag. $1200 for stainless/poly or near TWICE that for blued/wood. I like it and Smith… but not *THAT* much.

  6. I agree with Robert above. But mostly, For me, this is overpriced and overweight. 6.8 POUNDS !? A .357 carbine should NOT weigh that much. Even if it were cheaper , the weight turns me off.

  7. Drew, glad to see you’re keeping up and holding me accountable. Yes, my beloved El Jefe is going to a close friend and is only going because family members are concerned that at my age I should be thinking about the disposition of my collection rather than adding more to it. It’s not a sentiment I share, but sometimes you just have to put the needs and wants of others ahead of your own desires

    Several mentions of the Marlin 336 here. That’s a fine rifle, but it’s not a pistol caliber carbine. I personally feel the S&W should be celebrated at a piece of modern history. Kind of like the day S&W and Ruger joined the ranks of 1911 producers.

  8. The author not too long ago wrote an article about how great the Rossi lever action rifles were using his El Jefe as a sample. Now he tells us he’s sold his Rossi but he has failed to explain the reasons why. Whether or not he found a buyer or someone who loves the El Jefe, I sincerely hope it went to family.

  9. S&W got their start with the Volcanic rifle, designed by B Tyler Henry. S&W ended up selling to a short maker named Oliver Winchester. After the Volcanic Rocket Ball was discarded for a .44 Rimfire, the original Henry rifle was made. That begat the 1866 Winchester and the toggle lock design finally dies with the 1873 (pistol caliber) and 1876 (rifle caliber) rifles.

    Meanwhile Marlin blazed a different trail, becoming first in many ways (solid top, side eject, round bolt) with their lever guns.

    So what is unsaid in this sales piece, sorry, article, is that Smith and Wesson either paid Henry to make this rifle, or flat out cloned Henry, which in turn is a clone of the successful Marlin 336 design.

    The removable magazine tube AND side gate has been a Henry staple for most of a decade, but Henry started out using a twist and pull magazine tube which goes back to their first rifles from Bayonne, NJ, and now Rice Lake Wisconsin.

    I have used a Henry Big Boy for about a decade for Cowboy Action Shooting. It is essentially a short action Marlin 336, as opposed to the square bolt Marlin 1894. You can buy a Big Boy, made in America, for under a Grand any day of the week with a polished Brass or steel receiver, and fantastic grain walnut stock. Or you can apparently pay 50% more for the S&W clone with Tupperware stocks and nondescript finish. You have to pay 3x for anything from S&W that matches a Henry and is not “limited in any way.

    Mad props to S&W for going back to their roots as a lever gun company, but it would impress me more if they made their own design rather than copy a copy of the gun that beat their successor

  10. @wzrd1 Wut? Did you read your post? I’m sure you had good point to make, but maybe proofread first.

    As to the piece. Very interested in the action itself. Strong enough for hot loads? But my goodness, for $1200 the thing should do the hunting for me.

  11. Everything comes full cycle. The modern Pistol caliber lever action rifles and carbines are a rebirth of the once popular 1880’s rifles and carbines. Difference being that the 1880’s rifles and carbines were useful against outlaws and hostile Indians. Now adays, we don’t have hostile Indians. While the AR-15/Modern Sporting Rifle is considered by many as the ideal self-defense weapon, too many DAs and Judges have a special hate towards them and anyone using them. However, an old time Cowboy gun is hard to paint as an “Evil Assault Rifle”. Better yet, modern 357 or 44 magnum ammo is superior to any of the 1880’s chamberings. And please, don’t underestimate to fun of shooting a “Cowboy Gun”.

  12. Never, ever fired a .44 special, fired all manner of magnums, not that specific special. That said, the additional powder provides more punishment on both ends of a handgun, not as much for a few grains of powder with a rifle.
    That all said, I fire what I hold, not go weaning rounds for general firing and war shots for game, fire what you use, not what you wish. So, if I’m going to use in real life howitzer mass rounds, I fire in practice and evaluation howitzer round mass. Not a .22 short light round.
    Yeah, I know what a .22 anything would turn into with that kind of powder load – lead “sand”.
    Still, what brought me to speak now is one critical thing within this article. Know the mechanics of your firearm. Had an old Marlin Model 36, fed great, save if you had the rifle out of vertical. Then, it wouldn’t function, a mechanical issue in that model that was fixed in the 336 series.
    Firearms are dangerous, so know your weapon. Just as jackhammers are dangerous and most users are well acquainted with those issues and avoid them studiously. Because, every tool has risks and benefits, knowing those makes one a superior craftsman.
    Not so fond of the poop bucket lever, although it’ll accommodate gloves well enough to give it a whirl, but if in the market for a new lever gun, which I am, it’ll go on my short list. Still don’t trust the modern Marlin after that shotgun company fouled them up… And yeah, now the company history well, old tooling was still destroyed and well, don’t especially trust Corporate *anyone* to right wrongs these days.
    And being an information security professional, I don’t even trust myself, which is why I prefer a half-cock.

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