FREEDOM ARMS’ MODEL 97 .44 SPECIAL

BY JOHN TAFFIN

In my first book, Big Bore Sixguns, I offered the thought the .44 Special could easily be considered The Cartridge of the 20th Century. There are several reasons for this.  It was the first big bore cartridge introduced in the last century, surfacing in late 1907 in the beautifully crafted and designed Smith & Wesson 1st Model Hand Ejector, the New Century, or as it is better known, the Triple-Lock. By this time the .45 Colt was 30 years old and it would be more than 60 years before we would see a sixgun built strong enough to handle its true potential. That revolver, of course, was Ruger’s Old Model Blackhawk. However, the first .44 Special was able to handle heavy-duty .44 handloads, as was the like chambered Colt Single Action and New Service. As we have already seen several experimental reloaders took the .44 Special from its 750 fps factory load with a round-nosed bullet to an extremely potent 1100+ fps with a flat-nosed bullet that tremendously increased the shocking power of the .44.

It is hard to determine whether the .44 Special made Elmer Keith or vice versa. Whatever may be the case, for more than 30 years the two were inseparable and the Keith Load for the .44 Special became a household word at least in houses wherein resided a dedicated sixgunner. Heavily loaded .44 Specials opened the door for what was to follow, namely the .357 Magnum, the .44 Magnum, the .41 Magnum, the Heavy .45 Colt, and the .454 Casull. All of these cartridges overshadowed the .44 Special, although this could be questioned with the .357 Magnum, however the .44 Special was there first. Finally, short of taking our biggest dangerous game the .44 Special, properly loaded, still remains a viable option. With a 250 gr. Keith bullet at 1,200 fps it is certainly potent enough for deer-sized game and even larger. Personally the largest game taken with the .44 Special Keith load has been a 650 pound feral boar.  

             We have also seen in its century of service the .44 Special has been chambered in some of the finest revolvers ever produced. From Smith & Wesson we have the Triple-Lock, the Model 1926, the 1950 Target, and in more recent times, the Model 24 and Model 624. Colt's contribution has been threefold, the New Service, the Single Action Army, and the New Frontier. For a short period of time Great Western offered their Frontier Model in the .44 Special, as did Texas Longhorn Arms in their West Texas Flat-Top Target and the South Texas Army. Ruger would have offered the  .44 Special in their original .357 Magnum Blackhawk platform that arrived in 1955; however, the .44 Magnum arrived at the end of 1955 so Ruger jumped directly to the .44 Magnum with a slightly larger frame and cylinder than the .357 Blackhawk.

            Ruger never did chamber for the .44 Special, however, several of us writers beginning with Skeeter Skelton in the 1970s and 1980s have diligently searched for Flat-Top and Three Screw Blackhawks to convert to .44 Special. As we shall see in a later chapter this Colt Single Action-sized sixgun converts into an easy packin’ and easy shootin’ .44 Special. Before the arrival of the 2nd Generation .44 Special Single Action Army in 1957, many shooters converted both the SAA and the Bisley Model to the .44 Special in many cases simply by replacing the .44-40 cylinder with a new one chambered in .44 Special. Quite often unknowing shooters will ask  “Why bother? After all we already have the .44 Magnum” No doubt the .44 Magnum is more powerful, however sixguns made for this excellent Magnum are normally at least 1/2 pound heavier than a comparable sixgun chambered in The Special. Also, most .44 Magnum shooters, if they are honest, will admit their most used .44 Magnum loads are really in the .44 Special class and they would be just as well served with a .44 Special. My .44 Magnums from the 1950s, pre-29s and Ruger Flat-Tops rarely ever see a .44 Magnum load over heavy the .44 Special category. With 10.0 grains of Unique in Mangum brass and a 250-260 grain Keith bullet muzzle velocities are right at 1150 fps providing a pleasant shooting and powerful combination.     

There is also something almost supernatural or spiritual about the .44 Special. Those of you that understand this, need no explanation; those of you that do not probably would not accept or understand any explanation, but I will say shooting the .44 Special connects me with both Elmer Keith and Skeeter Skelton and I like that. I was excited to receive my first .44 Special, a 6 ½” 1950 Target 48 years ago from my teenage bride on the occasion of our first Christmas together. Since then dozens of .44 Specials have come my way and that high-level excitement has never waned. In fact I think I am more excited by .44 Specials today than I even was way back when. My first .44 Special was the above-mentioned 1950 Target while my latest acquisition is a Triple-Lock shooter and someone should be thoroughly whipped for messing with it. By the time this book is finished I hope there will be more. Always remember, there are many things we can have too much of but a man can never have too many .44 Specials.

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. Some say it has had no equal let alone been surpassed by any other factory produced .44 Special sixgun. The Colt New Service Target, the 1950 Target, the pre-29 S&W .44 Magnums, all come close and in fact may very well be the equal of those first .44 Specials. We have one now definitely in the Triple-Lock quality class. From the time Freedom Arms introduced their mid-frame sixgun, the Model 97 in 1997, I quietly campaigned for a Freedom Arms .44 Special. The first Model 97 was a six-shot .357 Magnum; then came a five-shot .45 Colt followed by another five-shooter, the .41 Magnum; and a six-shot .22 LR/.22 Magnum Rimfire combination. If Freedom Arms was to continue offering new chamberings in the Model 97, my time would surely come.

            The Freedom Arms Model 97 is only slightly smaller than a Colt Single Action Army, which limits it as to chamberings. Actually, there were only two real options left. One would be a .32-20/.32 Magnum combination and the other a .44 Special. Both are now reality. The .44 Special was the easier choice as the .32-20 is not the easiest cartridge to find the right combination of bullet-powder-bore diameter-barrel twist to have it measure up to Freedom Arms standards. They solved the problem by offering a .32 Magnum with an extra .32-20 cylinder. Unlike the cranky .32-20, the .44 Special works and works well with almost any powder, any properly cast bullet, and any bore diameter from .426” to .431.” Freedom Arms certainly discovered this and the result is the Model 97 is now offered in .44 Special. With the Model 97 only slightly smaller than a Colt Single Action, we have the option of using any holster for the Colt with this Freedom Arms revolver.  Freedom Arms also offers a line of excellent leather for all of their revolvers whether one desires a cross draw, strong side, or shoulder holster. Since it has been in production only a relatively few years, some readers may not be familiar with the Model 97.

Freedom Arms started 25 years ago with the Model 83 chambered in .454 Casull. This is simply the finest single action revolver ever produced by any manufacturer. Tolerances are held tightly and the finest materials available are combined with the best possible craftsmanship. Freedom Arms revolvers have always been expensive and owners will proudly attest they are well worth it. The Model 97 is built exactly the same way as the larger Model 83 using the same materials and the same strict attention to tight tolerances and precision fitting. Price wise, the Model 97 is about 12% less expensive than a comparable Model 83. However this is due to less material being used for the smaller gun rather than any shortcuts or any difference in manufacturing. The cylinders on the little gun are still line-bored as they are on the big gun. Any revolver builder will admit to the difficulty of getting all five or six holes in the cylinder to line up with the barrel. In reality, they are actually building five or six different guns and trying to get them to all shoot the same.

The Model 97 .44 Special is a five-shot sixgun and has a transfer bar safety, however, both Freedom Arms and I recommend that any Model 97, whatever the chambering, be carried with an empty chamber under the hammer. Currently, the .44 Special Model 97 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”. My personal Model 97 has a 5 1/2” barrel, weighs in at 36 1/2 ounces on my postal scale, and according to the RCBS Trigger Pull Gauge has a single action trigger pull of five pounds. I would prefer a trigger pull more in the neighborhood of three pounds, however since this was one of the first two Model 97 .44 Specials built it does not have an action or trigger job; yet. Standard grips furnished on the Model 97 are the reddish colored impregnated hardwood grips with black micarta stocks available as an option.

As with all adjustable sighted Freedom Arms revolvers, the Model 97 .44 Special version is scope ready by simply removing the rear sight assembly and fitting it with a scope mount base. I used this option for shooting the test groups to remove as much human error as possible, with the Lovell Precision scope mount used in combination with Leupold’s 2X LER scope. To scope the Model 97 the rear sight assembly is removed from its channel, and the Lovell base takes its place. This means the scope mount base is in the top of the frame not on it. The Lovell base also forms the bottom half of the rings that are used to hold the scope. This adds to the rigidity and strength of the mounting system.

It is truly a great pleasure to go to my stock of .44 Special reloads and factory ammunition and select as complete a cross-section as I could for testing the Model 97 .44 Special. My loads are categorized into standard loads for everyday use, heavy-duty loads for hunting deer-sized game, and the defensive loads should one choose to make this a revolver that does everything. For defensive loads I recommend only factory ammunition as I do believe it is wise to have factory ammunition utilized if one ever finds himself in the position of actually having to use a gun for self defense. Not because handloads are not reliable but there is no reason to give an attorney “ammunition”. 

My most used standard load for the .44 Special for more than forty years has been the 250 grain Keith hard cast bullet over 7.5 grains of Unique. BRP’s 245KT clocks out at 1,016 fps when shot over Doc Oehler’s Model 35P chronograph, and puts four shots into 1 1/8”; 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 gr. H4227 for 1,002 fps and equally tight groups.

Loads for heavy-duty hunting use are loaded in Starline .44 Special brass with CCI’s #350 Magnum Pistol Primer. For whitetail deer and similar size animals if I were forced to choose only one load it would be Speer’s 225 gr. jacketed hollow point over 16.0 gr. 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 the copper cup with a lead core and 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 and loads, this time in the hard cast persuasion, are the standard Keith load using RCBS’s version, #44-250KT, clocking out at sizzling .44 Special velocity of 1,270 fps from the short barrel Model 97; and Ray Thompson’s design, Lyman’s #431244GC, with 17.5 grains of #2400 also travels well over 1,200 fps and shoots equally well. This same Thompson bullet over 18.5 grains of H4227 also does over 1200 fps and groups under one-inch at 25 yards. The Model 97 has a relatively short cylinder, however all loads with the Keith bullet chamber with room to spare.

There aren’t a whole lot of factory loads available for the .44 Special but those that exist are good ones. Buffalo Bore’s 180 JHP does 1265 fps and a 3/4” groups while their 255 KT is even tighter at 5/8” and clocks out at just under 1100 fps. Cor-Bon’s 165 JHP does 3/4” and 1250 fps, while CCI’s Blazer 200 JHP with the excellent Gold Dot bullet is an easy shooting 925 fps and groups at 5/8” and would be my choice if carrying the Model 97 defensively CCW style.

With any of these heavy-duty hunting loads in the relatively lightweight Model 97, the properly designed grip frame is very important. The original Colt Single Action Army grip frame is a study in perfection-- for standard loads. Move up to these heavy-duty loads and it will start to bite, at least it bites me now that I am out of my invincible time of life. The Model 97 grip frame feels to me to be more like the old Colt Bisley shape with plenty of room for all my fingers and a lot less felt recoil with the loads.

Finally if I do not need standard or heavy-duty loads but I instead simply want to relax with the .44 Special I use the load that comes very close to duplicating the original factory loading. Oregon Trail’s 240 SWC is loaded over 6.0 gr. of Unique resulting in an easy shooting 850 fps and stays under an inch for four shots at 25 yards. Actually this load could handle more than 95% of my shooting chores as it punches tin cans and makes very satisfactory little groups in paper. It is truly a load that can be fired all day in total comfort.    

            For most of my shooting life I have been on the trail of the sixgunner’s Holy Grail, that elusive entity known as the Perfect Packin’ Pistol. The truth be known I never want to find it as the joy is in the quest and that keeps me from naming the .44 Special Model 97 as #1, however it is right up there at the top of the list.

 

 

17-1) This .44 Special Model 97 has been customized by sixgunsmith Jim Stroh

with the installation of one of his front sights and the fluting of the cylinder.

 

 

17-2) Freedom Arms offers the Model 97 in two big bore chamberings,

.44 Special, top, and the .45 Colt, bottom.

 

 

17-3) Success at last! A Freedom Arms marked .44 Special.

 

 

17-4) The Freedom Arms .44 Special Model 97 is slightly smaller than the

Colt New Frontier .44 Special.

 

 

17-5) Both the .45 Colt and .44 Special Model 97s have five-shot cylinders.

 

 

17-6) The .44 Special Model 97 is high on the list of Perfect Packin’ Pistols.

 

 

17-7) The Freedom Arms Model 97 fits holsters made for the Colt Single Action

as this El Paso Salary Austin.

 

 

17-8) Of course it shoots!  It is a Freedom Arms and it is a .44 Special.

 

 

17-9) One could easily argue the Freedom Arms Model 97 is the finest .44 Special

offered since the Smith & Wesson Triple-Lock.

 

 

17-10) Old habits are hard to break; Taffin normally carries the Model 97 as

a four-shooter with the hammer down on an empty chamber.

 

Chapter 16     Chapter 18