Compromise Part 8:
Freedom Arms M97

Lighter but stronger

Power in an extremely portable package is personified by the
five-shot Model 97 in .45 Colt and .44 Special.

Like so many sixgunners before him, and especially those from his generation, sixgunsmith Dick Casull had looked upon the Colt Single Action as the best vehicle not just for practical shooting but also for experimenting. During the 1950s, many old, used, but repairable Colt Single Actions were available for $50, a very reasonable price and a week’s pay for me in 1956. The economics of the situation combined with the passion for the old Colt led the young gunsmith to begin experimenting with the Single Action. These same things had been the driving factor for Elmer Keith two decades earlier when he used the Colt Single Action for his custom .44 Specials.

Buffalo Bore makes a special heavy-duty .45 Colt load that will
fit the relatively short cylinder of the Model 97.


Casull knew a five-shot cylinder would be necessary to realize the full potential of the .45 Colt cartridge. Five-shot cylinders were made up using 4140 steel, made as large as possible and still be able to fit the Colt frame cylinder window. Using the first five-shot cylinders, loads utilizing the 250-grain cast bullet attained muzzle velocities of 1,300 fps. This is real close to the performance of the .44 Magnum, which would arrive a few years later. Heat-treating and metallurgy were studied until a way was figured to heat treat Colt Single Action frames to 40 Rockwell without warping. Using specially built P.O. Ackley .45 caliber 1:24 twist barrels, the five-shot Colts were now capable of 1,550 fps with 250-grain bullets. This was in 1954 and still before the advent of the .44 Magnum.

The Colt Single Action had been taken as far as possible. Starting from scratch, Casull built frames from 4140 steel and five-shot cylinders from 4150 steel. Parts were engineered as needed and the .454 Casull, by then labeled the .454 Magnum, became a reality. During the 1960s, a number of .454s were built. Ruger Super Blackhawks were also converted to five-shot .454 Magnums. A number of promoters tried to start production of the .454 but Wayne Baker was the only one to stick with it.

Plans for a factory in Freedom, Wyo. came together in 1979 and in 1983, the first factory-produced .454 was sold. The Premier Grade .454 Casull was offered by Freedom Arms chambered in .454, plus for fanciers of the .45 Colt, a very small number were made in this great old cartridge. It was also during this period the .44 Magnum was added.

Fourteen years after the beginning of the premium single-action sixgun of all time — the Model 83 .454 Casull revolver — Freedom Arms introduced their “90% gun,” the smaller, and thus easier packin’, easier-shooting Model 97.

John’s Compromise Single Action 5 ½" Model 97 .357 Magnums have
been fitted with front sights in a dovetail for easy correction of windage
and are two different heights for different elevation.

Next up

The next chambering was a five-shot .45 Colt — the most compact single-action .45 Colt ever factory produced. For nearly 150 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 1 oz. lighter than a 5 ½” Colt SAA at 38 oz. That’s 2 oz. 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 by man.

The Model 97 is a thoroughly modern sixgun made of stainless steel, factory custom hand-fitted parts, with extremely close tolerances and having a modern action with a transfer bar. The Mid-Frame Model 97 revolver adheres to the same high quality with the same painstaking attention to detail and the same precision found in the Freedom Arms full size five-shot sixguns. Model 97 .45 Colt barrels are exactly the same stock as used on the full-sized Model 83. Each gun is made of stainless steel. Cylinders and barrels are line-bored, that is, the cylinder is locked in the frame and chambered while it is in what will ultimately be the firing position.

A small sixgun as big bores go, the cylinder diameter of the Model 97 is smaller than a Colt Single Action Army by 0.075″. I look at this sixgun as one to carry easily and the Mid-Frame Model 97 with adjustable sights allows it to adapt to leather made for the Colt New Frontier. In the bygone days when I spent a lot of time outdoors, I often used a Tom Threepersons/Keith #120-style leather for carrying the Model 97. On a weekend camping or fishing excursion, as well as on a hiking trip, it is light enough to be welcome.

From the time Freedom Arms introduced the Model 97 in 1997, I quietly campaigned for a Freedom Arms .44 Special. Short of taking our biggest game, the .44 Special, properly loaded, still remains a viable option. With a 250-grain Keith bullet at 1,200 fps, it is certainly potent enough for deer-sized game.

Takin’ it to the street

This is a sixgun for enjoyable times. For plinking with the kids and grandkids, hiking in the Idaho mountains and forests, close-range varminting and if the chance presented itself, felling a deer at close range. Very close range. An awful lot of game, such as coyotes, deer and black bear, have been taken with the .44 Special and .45 Colt loads including the old original blackpowder loading. The Freedom Arms Model 97 is right at home with this type of load, namely a 255-grain bullet at 800 to 1,000 fps.

From the very beginning of my sixgunning time with the Model 97, I chose to maintain its easy packin’ qualities. I settled on the 5 ½” barrel with adjustable sights and black Micarta grips on the .44 Special and .45 Colt versions. The Model 97 .44 Special cylinder can also handle .44 Russian and .44 Colt loads. The .45 Colt version is made even more versatile with the addition of a .45 ACP cylinder allowing a whole range of target and defensive loads to be 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 a 185-grain jacketed hollow point .45 ACP to 260-grain hard cast .45 Colt loads.

I am not one who prefers a light trigger pull on any sixgun or rifle. The trigger pull on the Model 97 came from the factory with a trigger job measuring out at 3.5 lbs. on my RCBS Premium Trigger Pull Scale. This is just about perfect for a single-action workin’ sixgun. The action is smooth and the cylinder locks up tightly with almost no perceptible movement of the cylinder either fore and aft or side-to-side. The barrel/cylinder gap is almost imperceptible and the entire sixgun is closely fitted. Just what we have come to expect from Freedom Arms.

I have been on a quest for the Perfect Packin’ Pistol most of my shooting life. For me, at least, it is the quest and not the achieving of the goal that gives the most pleasure. As I have gotten older, I especially look to lighter sixguns. When traveling desert, sagebrush, foothills, forest or mountains, the Model 97 is a most comforting insurance policy. It is certainly very easy to call it a Perfect Packin’ Pistol.

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