Handguns > Revolver

Freedom Arms Custom Short-Barreled Model 97

Can a single-action cowboy gun be used for concealed-carry? This high quality compact five-shot could do the job nicely.


A while back I approached my editor with the idea of testing out a single-action revolver as a concealed-carry handgun. Now, before anyone gets too upset with this proposition, let me clarify my reasoning a bit. Every defensive handgun has its weaknesses. Single-action revolvers hold fewer rounds, are slower to reload and must be manually cocked for each shot fired. However, this handgun design has over 150 years of field testing to prove its reliability. Even in the harshest conditions, well-made single-actions have fired when more complicated guns have failed.

Folks who've spent much time behind these revolvers know how naturally they point. A well-balanced model becomes an extension of the shooting arm in a way that few semi-autos do. This point-ability is important in close-range defensive situations with little or no time available to acquire the sights. Finally, single-action wheelguns can be chambered for potent defensive calibers. Large handgun cartridges like the .45 Colt and .44 Spl. used to be loaded with soft lead slugs and black powder, but several cartridge companies offer updated versions of these rounds loaded with the latest defensive bullet designs. This makes a single-action more flexible since it can be loaded for four-legged threats as well as the two-legged variety. Reliable, natural pointing and powerful are the qualities that make sense in a defensive firearm.

The main hitch in considering this idea for a review was finding the right gun for the job. These days most single-action revolvers fall into one of two categories, and neither is very conducive to concealed carry. On the one hand are full-sized replicas of the original wheeled hip-riders of the Wild West, which tend to be a little too large for easy carry. The others are hunting guns chambered for magnum cartridges. They're terrific for sacking big bucks but over-powered for self-defense. With no prospects for this test immediately forthcoming, the project was put on hold.

It was at this year's SHOT Show in Las Vegas, Nev., when this review suddenly sprang back to life. I took a few minutes to stop by the Freedom Arms booth and speak with the President of the company, Mr. Bob Baker. On display were various configurations of the company’s ground-breaking Model 83 single-action revolver and the recently released Single Shot break-action pistol. Nestled in among these shooting gems was a custom Model 97 that caught my eye.

The Model 97 is a handy five-shot single-action revolver that's ideal for use as a trail gun, or in this case, concealed carry. With the exception of the sights and grip panels the gun is made entirely of satin-finished stainless steel. It’s fitted with a transfer-bar safety system mounted in the hammer, instead of the frame, allowing the gun to be safely carried with all of the chambers loaded. The Model 97 is available in a variety of calibers, including .357 Mag., .41 Mag. and .44 Spl.

The model on the show-room table was a .45 Colt sporting several in-house custom features. The most notable was a non-standard reduced barrel length of 3.5 inches. Unlike some of the shortened single-actions that have the ejector rod and housing removed, Freedom Arms developed a cleaver ejector rod lever that swings out and around the head of the cylinder base pin. This allows the ejector to work in a practical fashion despite the shorter barrel.

The gun was topped off with Freedom Arms’ Express Sights, which consist of an adjustable V-notch rear sight and a brass front-sight blade. The strong, resin-bonded Winewood grips were fitted to a round-butt grip frame. The gun had also received an in-house trigger job to further smooth and reduce the weight of the trigger pull. With an unloaded weight of 33.76 ounces, the rounded grip and short barrel dropped this very slick revolver into the medium-size carry revolver category.

The fit and finish of the metallic and wooden components were flawless. The movements of the action were as tight and precise as a Swiss clock. I asked if it could be fitted with a .45 ACP cylinder to provide additional defensive ammunition options, ammunition compatibility with other guns and reduced cost practice. The answer was yes, it could.

All in all, this Model 97 was just what I had been looking for in a single-action carry revolver, with a few more touches I hadn't thought of. I asked Bob when a gun like this one could be made available for me to test drive. He said if I was willing to wait a bit, I could test run the gun I held in my hands with a .45 ACP cylinder and one of the Freedom Arms crossdraw, high-ride holsters thrown in as well. I waited impatiently for the revolver to arrive.

As expected, the Model 97 ran flawlessly at the range with all the rounds tested in both calibers. With such tight tolerances, I wondered if the gun might start to bind up after a while. Even when the gun was hot to the touch and dirty from the number of rounds fired, no malfunctions occurred. Removing spent cartridge cases from the cylinders was effortless, with much of the brass dropping free without the assistance of the ejector rod.

The crisp, single-action trigger tipped the digital trigger gauge at 3 pounds, 5 ounces, but it felt lighter. The Express Sights system took a little getting used to since most of my time has been spent looking down the barrels of handguns fitted with Millet and three-dot configurations. But as I got the hang of them, the sights proved to be quick and easy to use at defensive distances.

Because this short-barreled revolver was tested as a defensive handgun, the ammunition selected for testing reflected that purpose. However, Freedom Arms revolvers are capable of handling hotter loads than those represented here. Factory loaded .45 Colt and .45 ACP ammunition with a +P rating can be safely fired in the Model 97. Increased pressure handloaded ammunition rated in popular loading manuals as safe to fire in strong modern handguns, like the Ruger and Thompson/Center offerings, are also acceptable. A key dimension to check on the .45 Colt cartridges you wish to shoot is the overall length (OAL). The rounds must be 1.6 inches or less in length in order to fit into the slightly shorter Model 97 cylinder.

Informal testing from a bench rest at 7 yards produced sub 1-inch ragged holes in the targets with a variety of ammunition. Shooting free-hand defensive drills also produced nice, tight groups at this distance. The formal accuracy testing was conducted from a bench rest at 25 yards using five consecutive, five-shot groups.

Generally speaking, most of the guns produced by Freedom Arms tend to be used for hunting and other long-range handgun shooting events because of their excellent level of accuracy. With the abbreviated barrel and iron sights it didn’t seem realistic to expect this particular Model 97 to produce the same kinds of groups as the full-size Freedom Arms models. However, the results were far from disappointing. With the .45 Colt cylinder installed, the two best single groups of 2 inches were produced using Hornady Critical Defense 185-grain FTX and Winchester Supreme Elite 225-grain PDX1 loads. Group averages included 2.3 inches for the Winchester load, 2.4 inches for the Hornady and 2.55-inch groups for DoubleTap 160-grain Barnes Tac-XP hollow points.

Switching over to the .45 ACP cylinder is a simple process of opening the loading gate and verifying the cylinder is completely unloaded, loosening the cylinder base pin retention screw, removing the base pin, removing the .45 Colt cylinder and reversing the process with the .45 ACP cylinder in place. The tight tolerances of the hand-fitted cylinder kept the accuracy of the shorter .45 ACP cartridge in line with the .45 Colt rounds. The best single five-shot group of 2 inches was produced with DoubleTap 185-grain Nosler jacketed hollow points. Group averages included 2.4 inches for the DoubleTap load, 2.45 inches produced by Hornady Custom 200-grain XTP hollow points and 2.6 inches for HPR Hyper Clean 230-grain jacketed hollow points. This level of accuracy is exceptional from a revolver, but even more so from a nearly snub-nosed 3.5 inch barrel.

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26 Responses to Freedom Arms Custom Short-Barreled Model 97

Sam wrote:
October 03, 2012

Fantastic guns. I love my 475s. Buy the best gun you can afford and suited to the purpose. If you calculate the cost of ammo over the life of that gun, it will likely be much higher in cost than the gun. Quite a few reports of over 10,000 rounds of 475 going through a FA. The single shot model 2008 is also a great gun. I hope to get a model 97 in 45 LC, round butt, short barrel. I will carry it and it will be in my drawer.

Jim W. wrote:
August 08, 2012

Owned and shot Ruger SA's for years. Got my first FA M97 a month ago. AWESOME! A Swiss watch maker would be jealous!

Dan Morgan wrote:
July 26, 2012

In the last 23 years I have owned close to 200 different handguns,the two model 97s I own now are the best of all.They are more durable than any colt or s&w revolver,more refined than any ruger.Exspensive yes,but you dont get crooked sights,poorly fitted and timed cylinders that can be common on high production revolvers.Accuracy is topnotch. I have never had dirt or grime tie up the action as has happened with some my s&w revolvers, even after several week long backpack trips in the mountians.My .45 colt model 97 with 4.25 inch barrel weighs 35 oz.s,my .45 stainless blackhawk weighs 43 oz.s,thats a big difference in weight at the end of long day when carried on your belt.I am a blue collar worker and money is tight these days but I would rather have one 97 than 3 or 4 of anything else. The only revolver of comparible quality is USFA. I can shoot these guns offhand more accuratly than anything else and never needed more than 1 or 2 shots.

Mike B. wrote:
July 12, 2012

I've used my USFA Sheriff's Model 3.5" with the ejector button filed out to bypass the cylinder pin for carry. The Gold Dot 250 gr 45 Colt load is formidable. Only 5 rounds? What does one's J frame hold?

RL wrote:
July 08, 2012

Sure are a lot of comments on the price. You get what you pay for. I am not sure how many of you that posted are union workers,or in the trades that demand a premium wage. My point being that these are premium American made firearms. Made by skilled American machinists. Also they are not a high volume manufacturer that makes their product on a production line. Sure there are lower priced revolvers out there. But I would bet that if you had the opportunity to shoot several of them in a comparison test I would bet that your hard earned greenbacks would be better spent on one of these fine revolvers. I'm not saying that the others are not well made or subpar,just that you would most certainly appreciate the attention to detail. Anyway it is as the author noted just an option of CC. Based on that I thought it was a nice article. And any gun you may choose to carry is only as good as the shooter that is going to put the time and effort at the range. Practicing their draw,testing what ammo works best with their weapon,and putting many rounds down range. If you do not do those things it does not matter what you carry. Practice makes habit,and if you don't practice you shouldn't carry.

Richard wrote:
July 06, 2012

I suppose that I was lucky enough to purchase a 'old style' Ruger Vaquero, birds head black onyx grips, high polished stainless steel frame. Piece has 3.75 barrel that with the birds head grip makes it as easy for CC as any 4' D/A i.e 686 or similar, but thats were the similar ends, the. 45 LC 250 grain loads from. Cor Bon are devestators. The old heavy frame Vaqureos will handle these all day long, incidently, don't try these loads in your Taurus Judge more than 20 times, frame will be damaged. Mernickle makes custom fit holster for the Vaquero that is perfect for CC, just put in on a double layered belt. RAX

Jimmyjet wrote:
July 06, 2012

I can appreciate that you mentioned FA's holster as a courtesy to the folks that supplied you with the hardware however, when drawing a defensive gun in an emergency, I doubt if the strap that secures the SA in the holster is going to contribute much to the speed of the draw.

Mack Missiletoe wrote:
July 05, 2012

ds48, to be honest i wouldn't mind a Ruger medium frame to replace my Smith Model 60 3". I shot my friend's Ruger Security Six. If the new Ruger GP100's are anything like that I'd trade in a jiffy. The Security Six felt like heaven. Smooth light hammer pull & just enough weight to enjoy .357. I may need to send my Model 60 back to Smith & Wesson if I cannot tighten the rod with a vice. The reason I got the Smith was that it was supposedly more reliable than an auto... yeah right!

Thudflyer wrote:
July 05, 2012

I love SA's and would not hesitate to use one in a combat situation but I won't carry one due to the size. And I'm not gonna buy one of these. Way too expensive!

Jess wrote:
July 03, 2012

Thanks for the review. Appreciate all the levels of guns that you cover. Many people own special firearms that aren't cheap. Just like I won't shoot dirty ammo either. Will have to check out HPR ammo as I've heard good things twice now this week.

ds48 wrote:
July 03, 2012

Mack Missiletoe: Every time I referenced a double action I SPECIFICALLY qualified this as applying to RUGER double actions not SMITH AND WESSON which you are discussing. While I have never owned a Smith, it is very true that their construction is much more complex and, probably, more complex than RUGER single actions. That said, Smiths have advantages all their own. However, Ruger double actions have none of the problems that you have mentioned whatsoever...the only thing you have to watch out for is getting something lodged under the ejection star which has never affected my SP anyways. Last of all, I would rather have a Smith which has a small chance of being difficult or impossible to reload in a fight than a single action which is absolutely guaranteed to be next to impossible to reload in a fight...food for thought isn't it?

emkay wrote:
July 03, 2012

duuhh..Colt started it all

Mack Missiletoe wrote:
July 03, 2012

ds48--after watching the Ruger videos it seems the single actions are LESS complex than DA's. You'll hear a lot of DA Smiths' cylinders locking up b/c the cylinder rod unscrews loose--even with Loctite. Then you have to try and screw it back to open it. Worse than DA after that! With an aftermarket base pin you can fix your problem on the SA but the DA... let's say I don't always trust a DA to open. Make sure to test your guns before you rely on them. If it is a .357 and you only shoot .38 Special than I think it's be wise to run a box of .357 through it to make sure it does not lock up or come loose.

Ken wrote:
July 03, 2012

It's nice to be able to dream. But, in reality, there are a lot of us who can't afford something like this. How about writing about something more realistic for us "poor" people to defend ourselves with...

Dlyn wrote:
July 03, 2012

As I see it, the point of the article is not that you have to have a FA, anymore than all those articles on custom 1911s mean you have to spend thousands of dollars on a 1911. But just saying there are other directions than autos. Sam, Dittos on the Mernickle holster. Its great. ds48: Replace that base pin with one from Belt Mountain. It will improve cyl alignment and eliminate your problem. That is the style of pins used on Freedom Arms guns to keep them in place even under the heaviest recoil. I have them on my Super Blackhawk and my Birdshead and my daughters Bearcat. Don't need it for recoil on the .22 of course, but it makes a better fit. I got her a .22 Magnum Cyl on the Bearcat and that makes a good gun great.

Brett wrote:
July 03, 2012

I am a fan of SAA shooting but...why handicap yourself in a self defense situation. Be practical.

John wrote:
July 03, 2012

With the right holster(I use a Guides Choice)single action revolvers are perfect carry weapons when in remote areas and can be loaded to handle 2 or 4 legged animals and those that slither. Single action revolvers fun to carry and shoot.

Rudy wrote:
July 03, 2012

Sounds like a great gun but priced beyond the reach of mortal men

Mike wrote:
July 02, 2012

Glad someone finally realised that a SAA with a short barrel is an effective defense weapon and may be carried concealed, Ruger Vaquero with a 4-5/8 Barrel is also a good sertvicable choice and carries 6 peas in the pod.

ds48 wrote:
July 02, 2012

$1750? For half that price, I could buy a 6 shot Ruger in .357, pay the gunsmithing fee to shorten the barrel, and probably have the same size frame with cheaper ammunition and one more shot. What's more, if any single action is more reliable than my double action SP-101 and GP-100 (both cost less than $600 off the shelf) then you'll never prove the difference. In fact, the only single action I have, a Single Six, has constant issues with the base pin latch coming unscrewed so I lose the base pin in the woods. Right now, Midway is out of base pin latches so my Single Six is out of commission. In fact, the base pin latch of this gun is supposed to be held on with lock-tite!!! So much for reliability...all of these single action revolvers (the Rugers being the best) still have more complex parts with more complex disassembly and assembly and more room for error when you assemble them than the Ruger double actions. Futhermore, while feel and pointability are highly subjective, I find my Ruger SP101 with 3 inch barrel to be the most pointable and easiest to draw firearm I've felt. Oh, plus you can shoot it in single action if you really want to with the 'option' to shoot it double now that I mention it. Don't get me wrong, I love the "romance" of single actions and they are effective. But, in light of the above, I have a hard time justifying the 1750 expenditure in this gun and I feel almost everyone will agree.

Sam wrote:
July 02, 2012

I have carried a Ruger Bisley Vaquero, in both .45 Colt and in .44 Mag, as a CCW weapon for years. I use Bob Mernickle's PS6-SA CCW leather, and my hand loads. My accuracy equals that of the Freedom Arms revolver, at a 4th of the price.

Dlyn wrote:
July 02, 2012

I use a Model 83 .454 for hunting. A Ruger .45 Birdshead for a carry gun. I've taken Pronghorn and Mule deer with an iron sighted single action revolver. Is it ideal for a paramilitary drug gang of zombies ? No. But I don't worry much.

rich wrote:
July 02, 2012

jees, i read the whole article just to find out it is a custom job, and one i'll never see. bummer

Sunaj wrote:
July 02, 2012

Nice gun, but a big price tag too $$$

broknaxl wrote:
July 02, 2012

Nice report I'd carry a single action. Colt also makes a short barreled SAA that would fit the bill.

Craig wrote:
June 28, 2012

Great revolver, good job on the review. Nice to see you using HPR ammo as well. All I shoot now that my local dealer carries it.