Bowen Custom Arms Takes On A Challenge.
Freedom Arms revolvers have a well-deserved reputation as the Rolex watches of revolvers. Built of space-age 17-4 stainless steel to amazingly precise tolerances for production pieces, they are wondrously durable and accurate. The exterior finish is just as precisely rendered with polishing that is the envy of lots of custom builders.
The firm really started production in earnest in 1983 with the M83 model chambered in .454 Casull caliber. In time, the firm chambered the large-frame gun in calibers from .22 LR to the .500 Wyoming Express and most every hi-performance revolver round in between. The factory produced these in typical barrel lengths and in both fixed and adjustable sight variants. In 1997, Freedom Arms answered demand for a down-sized, handier version of the M83 chambered for kinder, gentler cartridges such as the .32-20 and the .44 Special. In the last 25 years, Freedom Arms revolvers have compiled an enviable record both in the field and on the range.
Their very perfection, however, comes at a price. And I do not mean the purchase price, which is a bargain in view of the obvious quality. While stainless steel is impervious to the elements, it is also impervious to classic bluing and color hardening. When heat treated in the 45 R(C) hardness range, it is also largely impervious to the ministrations of all but the most determined engravers who might embellish and personalize the guns. If your paw does not adapt well to the grip-frame shape offered, you have no choice but to adapt harder. The standard laminated wood grips, dishwasher-safe though they may be, are simply unnatural. In their thermo-nuclear calibers, the guns are cold, calculating, killing machines. If you suffer from a terminal case of the wheelgun warm-and-fuzzies, they may not be for you.
Freedom Arms revolvers lend themselves to all manner of retro
touches such as narrowed frame rails, scalloped gate and recoil
shield, lanyard rings and cylinder chamfering.
A custom Freedom Arms .32–20/.327 convertible model with adjustable
pre-war S&W rear sight and a pinned-blade front sight.
Removing just 3/8 of an inch of butt improves handiness and appearance.
The conversion allowed one-piece grips and the useful lanyard ring addition.
The next order of business was the top strap. The factory Freedom Arms receiver and sights are quite square in form and plenty stout but “stout” is not a term of endearment for horses, cars or members of the fair sex. In my humble opinion, the Smith &Wesson M&P (Military & Police) top strap is the most elegant and handsome ever applied to any revolver, double or single action. The round receiver ring flows nicely back from the typical round barrel, then swoops up to the top strap which is rounded in section on the top and is of uniform width and height all the way to the back rear sight. However pretty the S&W fixed rear sight is, it does not offer the greatest sight picture, especially on the white, brushed finish of the M97, even with a black front sight. A bit of high-tech bake-on coating applied helped enormously. Since all of the painted sight surfaces are below grade and well protected, the application will last almost indefinitely.
More importantly, because the S&W top strap was of uniform cross section, it lent itself to an adjustable target sight. Colt designers realized the SAA top strap, which tapered down at each end, would not support an attractive adjustable sight installation since any sort of rear sight would have looked like an add-on, hanging out in the breeze. Unless the top strap line is straightened by welding, the installation has a real homey flavor. Colt introduced their Flat Top Target model to cure this defect and increase the hardiness of the installation. The S&W M&P top strap needed no such changes.
The S&W designers simply machined a groove down the top strap and made a small cross cut at the breech-end of the strap to accommodate the blade-holder portion of the sight. The sight tang was seamlessly fitted to the groove, then contoured to follow the round top of the strap. At the muzzle end, the sight tang was contoured to blend with the swoop on the receiver ring. A more attractive and well-integrated sight is hard to imagine. Happily, inside those beefy Freedom Arms top straps lurks the svelte M&P form, of both fixed and adjustable-sight persuasion. Thanks to the assistance of David Clements of Clements Custom Guns who was kind enough to produce a dedicated sight for this project, we had a stainless pre-war S&W target sight to use on the adjustable-sight variant.
In keeping with the M&P stop straps and the quality of the Freedom Arms revolvers, we used round barrels with an integral front sight base rather than a simple dovetailed sight or soldered-on base for the adjustable sight version. For fixed-sight guns, the dovetailed blade provides a small degree of windage adjustment for precise regulation. The pre-war S&W target sights have a limited range of elevation adjustment but enough so that pinned front sight blades made a more attractive choice.
This grand old Smith & Wesson Triple Lock, arguably the finest
double-action revolver ever made, was the inspiration for the
fixed sight M1997 top strap.
It wasn’t much of a stretch for S&W to convert their fixed-sight
guns to the tidiest adjustable-sight gun imaginable as evidenced
by this .38 Special M&P Target model (right).
The S&W-style top strap (bottom) is a racy blend of curves
by comparison to the factory rendering.
Simply blacking the rear sight on a stainless fixed-sight revolver
dramatically improves sight picture, especially used in conjunction
with a black front sight blade.
Beauty and the Beast: Factory Freedom Arms sight (top)
and a pre-war S&W style sight installation.
Once the major components were in place, there were numerous details to contemplate. The M1997 is amenable to a variety of retro styling touches, many found on vintage custom and production revolvers alike. Small things, to be sure, but often what adds character and personality to a gun.
Before the advent of hot salt bluing, there weren’t many handy ways to color small parts. Often too small to hold conveniently for rust bluing or browning or even charcoal bluing, screws, pins, stalking locks, triggers and such were often nitre blued which gives the bright peacock-blue color. Early Colt revolvers had nitred screws, trigger and base pins. Even some nickel-plated guns sported this small elegance. Since stainless parts do not lend themselves to this process, we made a set of screws and pins which we could treat. Speaking of screws, it is a simple matter to produce an extra tall ejector housing screw that can be regulated as to slot alignment and then filed to blend with the contours of the ejector housing.
Custom revolver work started in earnest in the 1920s and 1930s, thanks to pioneers such as Elmer Keith, Sedgley, Croft and others. Modifications to reduce weight were much favored, usually in the form of narrowed receiver rails and scalloped recoil shield and loading gate. The return on investment with respect to weight savings is charitably described as minimal but the modifications do bring a distinctive, business-like look to a single-action revolver.
Freedom Arms guns are no exception. There is one caveat, however. Both Freedom Arms M1997 and Ruger revolvers have serial numbers applied to the forward sides of the receiver and cannot be removed. Bob Baker, president of Freedom Arms, graciously agreed to apply the number on the bottom of the receiver at the time of manufacture, just forward of the trigger guard on the .44 Special gun shown which enabled us to narrow the receiver rails.
Lowered hammer spurs were also popular among early custom builders since it enabled shooters to run the guns a lot faster with one or both hands. The hammer slot on the M97 runs out well below the rear sight so it is tough to apply any sort of wide, low spur that doesn’t resemble an afterthought. After considerable head-scratching, it was clear a narrow, hammer-width spur was the only way to execute an attractive low spur. After more head-scratching, the notion of a Commander-style autoloader hammer presented itself. Few are indifferent to this bit of handgun cross-dressing, either loving or hating it, but there is no escaping the fact that it makes for a far more accessible spur.
The graceful Colt black-powder cylinder chamfer has come back into vogue and is an obvious addition to a fluted cylinder. Happily, Freedom Arms now offers fluted cylinders as an option when ordering guns, or will flute your unfluted part after the fact.
Lanyard rings may be viewed as a silly affectation by many who have never dropped a gun at an inauspicious time. Like when you are on a horse, around water or clambering around in the bush. It does happen and never to anybody’s benefit. There are circumstances where roping a gun to yourself with a lanyard and lanyard ring just makes good sense.
While Freedom Arms isn’t necessarily the first name mentioned when the topic of custom revolvers arises, these fabulous guns offer a lot of possibilities in the style department. Sported in some Thad Rybka leather, a racy rendering of these first-drawer revolvers would make a large splash on the bar-b-que gun circuit. For builders, there simply isn’t a lot of remedial blacksmithing necessary to get the canvas prepared. All you have to do is get out the brushes, let loose your inner artiste and start troweling on the paint.
By Hamilton S. Bowen
For more info: www.americanhandgunner.com/product-index and click on the company name. Also: Freedom Arms: (307) 883-246; Clements Custom Guns: (276) 238-8761; Thad Rybka Custom Leather Equipment: 2050 Canoe Creek Road, Springville, AL 35146
The dovetail sight blade on an integral base is adjustable for
windage and a useful feature on fixed-sight guns.
Since stainless doesn’t nitre blue, the pivot pins and screws
on this gun are made from chromoly steel, which does.
A blended and regulated ejector housing screw is a small thing but worth the effort.
The commander-style hammer is low enough for fast cycling.
Thad Rybka’s striking rough-out holster is a handsome home
for the little .44 Special. A perfect bar-b-que outfit.