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.

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