In 1997, the original Freedom Arms revolver, the large framed Model 83 was joined by a new sixgun first known as the Mid-Frame, and now appropriately known as the Model 97. The Model of 1997 is about 90% the size of the Freedom Arms standard Model 83, and as expected, is built to the same exacting tolerances and specifications as the original. It is slightly smaller than a Colt Single Action Army, and to me the grip frame feels much like the old Colt Bisley. The first Model 97 arrived not as the traditional Freedom Arms five-shooter, but rather a true sixgun chambered for six .357 Magnum rounds. Available with both adjustable sights and fixed sights, the Model 97 is available with standard barrel lengths of 4 ¼”, 5 ½”, and 7 ½”.
The six-shot .357 Model '97 with fixed sights is aimed at the cowboy shooter and revolver fancier who wants the finest possible sixgun available but not necessarily the bulk or power that is afforded by a .454 Casull, .44 Magnum, or .475 chambering. The five-shot Freedom Arms model 83 revolver will take virtually any load assembled with the traditional magnum pistol powders such as #2400, H110, and WW296, with any weight bullet and beg for more. The Model 1997 .357 Magnum is designed to handle standard loads, however it is built to the same exact tolerances and specs as the big gun.
I had great plans for the first Model 97, a 7 1/2” adjustable sighted version. Turkeys. For two years in a row I purchased the turkey hunt at the Idaho Wild Turkey Federation Banquet. I had the number one and number two guides from the state of Idaho on both hunts. We walked all over the mountains. We hid in blinds. We called. We got nothing. As I looked back on it two things jinxed me on these hunts. First I dressed in camouflage; I do not like camouflage at all. I had the whole bit, pants, shirt, cap, even a face mask that caused me to hyperventilate. But the number one problem contributing to my non-success had to be the gun I was carrying. Idaho does not allow turkey hunting with a handgun so I had to carry a shotgun. I'm sure the gods of the hunt were not happy about this as I am first and foremost a handgun hunter and I betrayed my first love.
If I was to get a turkey it would have to be with handgun, so I would have to go where this was possible. The answer was Texas, which allows the taking of turkeys with a handgun. At SHOT Show 1997 I talked with Texas rancher Penn Baggett of Trophy Heart Outfitters about a spring hunt and the possibility of using the newly unveiled Freedom Arms .357 Magnum sixgun for a gobbler. Three months later found me sitting in a blind on Penn’s ranch in Crockett County Texas about an hour and a half before daylight. As the dawning of the new day began to arrive I was watching a group of deer about 150 yards out across a creek when I happened to look down closer in front of me. I could not believe what I was seeing. I blinked to see it if it was real. I thought I was sleeping and had lapsed into a dream. There in front of me, not more than 50 yards away was a big tom turkey! As I raised the sixgun and looked through the 4X LER Leupold scope, the gobbler looked straight at me. I lined the crosshairs up where the neck meets the body, then came down an inch or so to give myself some leeway and squeezed off a shot. The gobbler went down as if struck by the proverbial poleaxe. I could tell by the way he was twitching he was not going nowhere. The jinx was over! I had my first but not last Texas turkey!
Before heading for what proved to finally be a successful hunt, I had sighted the Freedom Arms .357 in at 50 yards and test-fired it with 14 different loads. The most accurate load tested, Black Hills 125 grain jacketed hollow points, clocked out at 1,600 fps while clustering five shots into 5/8" at 50 yards. It was chosen to break the jinx. I walked off 49 paces to the downed bird, which figures out to 44 yards the way I step. The 125 grain jacketed hollow point had entered exactly where I held the crosshairs and functioned perfectly.
By August 1998, the second Model 97 was unveiled as a five-shot .45 Colt. This gave us a .45 slightly smaller than a Colt Single Action with the strength of the Ruger Blackhawk. To add to its versatility, an extra cylinder is available chambered in .45 ACP. My Holy Grail is a search for what I dub the Perfect Packin’ Pistol. Of course, no such critter exists which keeps the quest interesting as we get closer and closer to perfection. The Freedom Arms Model 97 .45 Colt is about as close as we are going to come in a factory revolver, in fact it is the most compact single action .45 Colt ever factory produced. For 125 years the Colt Single Action Army in .45 Colt has been the best balanced sixgun ever offered to the single action sixgunners; the .45 Colt Model 97 from Freedom Arms is one ounce lighter than a 5 1/2" Colt SAA at 38 ounces, two ounces lighter than the same barrel length in the Colt New Frontier. It also has the same natural feel and pointability as the Colt. There all similarity ceases. The grip shape of the M97 is longer and straighter than the Colt SAA and could easily be argued to be an improvement over the finest grip shape ever devised, or discovered, by man.
With its light weight, the Model 97 definitely does exhibit some recoil with 255 grain bullets at 1,000+ fps, and although it is not an ancestor jarring nor even unpleasant recoil, it is one that takes its toll when hundreds of rounds are fired in one session. Nothing like the same amount of .454s full house style from the large framed Model 83, but enough to leave some soreness in the shooting hand.
The Model 97 is a thoroughly modern sixgun made of stainless steel, factory custom hand fitted parts, extremely close tolerances, and having a modern action with a transfer bar. Unlike the Model 83, which has a safety that must be engaged by placing the hammer in the safety notch, the Model 97 has an automatic safety that places a bar of steel between the hammer and the firing pin when it is lowered. Personally, I never put my trust in a sixgun with a safety that must be engaged but rather always carry such a sixgun with an empty chamber under the hammer. This includes the Colt Single Action, all replicas, Ruger Flat-Tops and Old Models, and the full size Freedom Arms Model 83. Out of habit, and even though it is equipped with a transfer bar safety that engages automatically, I usually carry the Ruger New Model with an empty under the hammer also. The five-shot Model 97 45 Colt will be safe to carry fully loaded with a round under the chamber but old habits are hard to break; I carry four.
The .45 Colt Mid-Frame Freedom Arms revolver with its five-shot cylinder allows more metal between chambers, almost 90% more than a Colt Single Action and, unlike the Colt with its near paper thin walls, the Freedom Arms Model 97 has the cylinder bolt slots between the chambers rather than underneath them exactly as on the Large-Frame Freedom Arms revolvers. To my sixgunning experience this says the Freedom Arms Model 97 .45 Colt Mid-Frame is stronger than a Colt Single Action or New Frontier but, nowhere near, certainly not in the bank vault strength area of the original Freedom Arms M83 .454 Casull. Its five-shot cylinder in all probability places the .45 Colt Model 97 at the same strength level as the Ruger .45 Blackhawk, however, I have no intention of using the heavy .45 Colt loads tailored for the Ruger in the Freedom Arms Model 97. My max loads for the .45 Blackhawk are 300 grain hard cast bullets at 1,100-1,200 fps; for the Model 97 I will stay with 255 grain bullets at around 1,050 fps. None of my 300 grain loads will fit the short cylinder, 93% as long as the Ruger, of the Model 97 anyway. When bullets are seated properly they protrude through the front face of the cylinder preventing cylinder rotation.
My favorite single action, my favorite sixgun in fact, is a big bore with a 7 1/2" barrel. I started with a pair of 7 1/2" Colt Single Actions in Fast Draw as a teenager and the love of this style sixgun has stayed with me and simply grown stronger and more dedicated over the years. When I was informed by Freedom Arms that the .45 Colt version of the Model 97 was to be available, I could have easily opted for the 7 1/2" length, however to maintain its easy packin' qualities, I went with a 5 1/2" barrel and to complete the picture ordered adjustable sights and black micarta grips. It is made even more versatile with the addition of the .45 ACP cylinder allowing a whole range of target and defensive loads being employed. With its interchangeable front sight system on the adjustable sighted models, if necessary, the height of the front blade can be easily changed as one goes from 185 grain jacketed hollow point .45 ACPs to 260 grain hard cast .45 Colt loads. The size of the Mid-Frame Model 97 .45 Colt with adjustable sights allows it to adapted to leather made for the Colt Single Action Army or Ruger Vaquero. As with all adjustable sighted Freedom Arms sixguns, the Model 97 is easily scoped by removing the rear sight assembly and using a special Lovell combination base and ring set from Freedom Arms. The rear sight assembly of the Model 97 removes easily by loosening two screws. It is then lifted out of its recess in the top of the frame revealing three drilled and tapped holes, the mount is put in its place and snugged down.
Favorite loads assembled for the Model 97 .45 Colt definitely include Hodgdon's H4227 and 250 grain bullets. With RCBS's 45-250FN, a deadringer for the original .45 Colt bullet of the 1870s, or Oregon Trail's 255 SWC, and 20.0 grains of H4227, muzzle velocity is 1,000 fps and group size is right at one-inch at a distance of 25 yards. If a .45 Colt sixgun doesn’t shoot well with 18.5 to 20 grains of H4227 and a 255 grain bullet, it probably will never work with anything.
Switching to the .45 ACP cylinder, and using a Leupold 4X scope showed this .45/.45ACP sixgun to be no slouch in the little brother department. With Winchester's 185 grain FMC Match, four shots cut one ragged little hole at 25 yards that measured 3/8". From a revolver; a single action revolver; without moon clips.
The .41 Magnum arrived as a five-shot Model 97 in April 2000. Friend Penn Baggett, who has hosted me on many a turkey, javelina, and whitetail hunt on his ranch outside of Ozona Texas, pronounces the .41 Magnum Model 97 as the perfect ranch revolver. I can’t argue with him. The .41 Magnum has never been received as a hunting round as readily as the .44 Magnum but I doubt there is a critter that walks in Texas that cannot be handled with the .41 Magnum. It certainly is more than adequate to handle deer and black bear sized game anywhere.
After the .41 Magnum, the Model 97 came forth in 2002 as six-shot .22 Long Rifle with extra cylinders offered in .22 long Rifle Match and .22 Magnum Rimfire. Several bricks of 22s, an assortment of semi-autos and revolvers chambered for the .22 Long Rifle, and four grandkids, were all loaded into the pick-up along with the Freedom Arms Model 97. I heard things like, “Gee Papa, you can’t miss with this one!” as my youngest grandson Brian shot a .22 mounted with a red dot scope. This was also the day Whitney, one of my granddaughters, discovered how much fun a .22 semi-automatic pistol can be. "Oh, Papa, it's an automatic and I'm afraid I will mess up!” I assured her there was nothing to worry about as long as she did exactly as instructed. When her fourth shot not only hit the bull's-eye, but the x-ring as well, we couldn't keep the magazines full fast enough for her. After shooting so many rounds so quickly through the semi-auto's, she then also learned the great relaxing pleasure a single action sixgun can be. No, the Freedom Arms revolver cannot be fired as quickly as a semi-automatic, however, it is a rare semi-auto that can shoot as well as this sixgun.
Not only did the grandkids have a great time shooting this .22 offering from Freedom Arms, so did granddad. So much so that I tested it with both iron sights and a 4X Leupold scope in place using 18 different .22 Long Rifle loadings and five versions of .22 Magnum Rimfire. To prevent shooters from getting the Long Rifle and Magnum cylinders confused, the back of the Magnum cylinder is clearly marked “22M” between two chambers. The performance of this Model 97 is nothing short of amazing. One thing that stands out to me is the fact with both cylinders using either .22 Long Rifle or .22 Magnum Rimfire ammunition in the same barrel resulted with groups of less than one-third of an inch for five shots at 25 yards. CCI’s Mini-Mag Hollow Points, Remington’s Yellow Jackets, and Winchester’s High Velocity Hollow Points all came in well under one-third of an inch with the .22 Long Rifle cylinder in place, while CCI’s Maxi-Mag Hollow Points delivered the same results with the .22 Magnum cylinder in use. This type of performance puts the Model 97 way up at the top of the list for hunting of small game or varmints as it certainly has the built-in capability of head shooting meat for the table. I’ve never been what one would call overly fond of the .22 Magnum as a revolver cartridge mainly due to the fact the convertible sixguns I have normally used worked well with .22 Long Rifle cartridges but mediocre with the .22 Magnum cylinder in place or vice versa. Freedom Arms has changed all of that with their Model 97.
The .44 Special has definitely been chambered in some great sixguns. Most double action connoisseurs hold the original .44 Special in the highest esteem even to the point of labeling the old Triple-Lock as the finest revolver ever built. It has had no equal let alone been surpassed by any other factory produced .44 Special; until now. Currently, the .44 Special Model 97 introduced in 2002 is available only with adjustable sights, personally I cannot see any reason to offer it any other way, with barrel lengths of 4 1/4”, 5 1/2”, and 7 1/2”, with the 5 1/2” version weighing in at 36 1/2 ounces on a postal scale. Standard grips furnished on the Model 97 are the same as the Model 83, the reddish colored impregnated hardwood grips with black micarta stocks available as an option. Black micarta really contrasts nicely with the stainless steel finish of any Freedom Arms sixgun.
My most used standard load for the .44 Special for nearly 50 years has been the 250 grain Keith hard cast bullet over 7.5 grain of Unique. BRP’s 245KT and Dry Creek’s 245KT, (the commercially cast bullets to be found that are closest to the original Keith design) clock out at 1,016 fps and 951 fps respectively when shot over Doc Oehler’s Model 35P chronograph. They put their four shots into 1 1/8” and 7/8” respectively at 25 yards. Switching to my home cast Keith bullets from the molds marked NEI 260.429KT and RCBS #44-250KT, result in muzzle velocities of 1,002 fps and 961 fps, again respectively, with groups of 7/8” and 1 1/8” also. This .44 Special will definitely shoot. A load that falls into the same category as these is the RCBS Keith bullet over 17.0 grains of H4227 for 1,002 fps and equally tight groups.
For whitetail deer and similar size animals if I were forced to choose only one load for the .44 Special it would be Speer’s 225 grain jacketed hollow point over 16.0 grains of #2400 for 1,240 fps and the exceptional accuracy of four shots into 5/8 of an inch. This bullet is not the normally encountered jacketed hollow point but rather a copper cup with a lead core. This is just about the perfect jacketed bullet, along with the 240 grain flat-nosed version from Speer, for the .44 Special.
Two other favorite bullets, this time in the hard cast persuasion, are also included. The standard Keith load using RCBS’s version clocks out at sizzling .44 Special velocity of 1,270 fps from the short barrel Model 97. Switching over to Ray Thompson’s design, Lyman’s #431244GC, and using 17.5 grains of #2400 results in well over 1,200 fps and shoots equally well. The Model 97 has a relatively short cylinder, however all these loads with the Keith bullet chamber with room to spare.
In 2003, the 6th chambering for the Model 97 arrived in a .32 Magnum version with an extra .32-20 cylinder, and as expected from Freedom Arms, this little gun is also superbly accurate. Shooting with the 2X Leupold in place to remove as much human error as possible resulted in exceptionally small five-shot groups with either the .32 Magnum or .32-20 cylinder in place. Groups of well under one-inch at 25 yards are commonplace.
The most accurate load in .32 Magnum proved to be Sierra’s 90 grain JHC over 10 grains of H110 for five shots in one-half inch and a muzzle velocity of 1,260 fps, while the .32-20 shot best with Speer’s 100 grain JHP over 10.0 grains of #2400 for slightly under 1,200 fps and five shots in five-eighths of an inch. There is no practical difference between one-half inch and five-eighths of an inch, nor between all the other groups that came in at three-quarters and seven-eighths of the inch. When groups of one-inch are considered "large", one gets some idea of what an excellent shooting sixgun this .32 sixgun from Freedom Arms really is.
The latest offering from Freedom Arms in the Model 97 is the newest Rimfire Magnum, the .17 HMR (Hornady Magnum Rimfire). It is the same basic sixgun as the .22 Rimfire version with a slightly smaller hole in the barrel, and the 10 ½” Model 97 .17 HMR with a Redfield LER 4X scope in place has proven to be exceptionally accurate.
CCI’s .17 HMR TNT HP clocks out at 2,164 fps and places five shots into .595” at 25 yards, while Federal’s .17 HMR TNT HP does 2,304 fps and .307”, and Remington’s .17 HMR V Max comes in at 2,276 fps and a group of .466”. No matter what the label on the box, all .17 HMR ammunition comes out of the same CCI plant in Lewiston Idaho and it is all top quality.
At Shot Show 2004, Freedom Arms unveiled The Round Butt. The first round-butted, short-barreled Model 97 was a 3 1/2” barreled, fixed-sighted Model 97 in .45 Colt weighing exactly 32 ounces or two pounds. That adds up to a heavy-duty .45 Colt that is about as easy to pack as one is going to be able to find. To come up with the Round Butt version, Freedom Arms rounds the heel of the butt only leaving the toe intact. For my personal use I will put a very slight radius on the front toe.
Also for my use in the 3 1/2” M97 .45 Colt I have settled on standard weight bullets in the 900-1,000 fps range. These same loads will average 150 to 200 fps more in 7 1/2” sixguns, so they are not lightweight loads by any means. My #1 load of choice is a hard cast 265 grain WFNGC (wide flat nosed gas check) from Cast Performance Bullet Company over 18.5 grains of #2400 for 975 fps. Using the same charge of #2400 for jacketed bullets finds Speer’s 250 grain Gold Dot at 935 fps and Barnes’ 225 XPB at 980 fps. One of these three loads will handle anything likely to be encountered when I am packing the little .45 Colt.
Freedom Arms’ philosophy has been the same since they opened their doors in 1983. Instead of building to a price, they build the best possible sixgun and price it accordingly. A whole lot of satisfied sixgunners appreciate it.