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FREEDOM: The revolver, the town, the only way to do business
JACKSON HOLE, WYO – Bob Baker speaks and moves with the deliberate and slow way of country folk. He could be mistaken for a Star Valley plumber or carpenter or the guy your brother knows who can figure out why your IH combine has been sputtering on cold mornings.
But seated on a crummy foldout camping chair in his modest office off Highway 239 in Freedom, Wyo., barely a mile from the Idaho state line, Baker looks most at home surrounded by an armory of some of the planet’s most powerful and accurate handguns. His desk is cluttered with the tools of a machinist: a micrometer, a digital caliper of some kind. Boxes upon boxes of bullets are stacked everywhere.
If the zombie apocalypse were to start in Freedom, Wyo., it would end there, too. Freedom Arms, Inc., could arm the entire population (214 at 2010 Census) of the tiny Star Valley community twice over from their walk-in vault of prototypes and floor models.
Outside his office, 18,000 square feet of tool shop hums away, rolling out pistol after pistol, custom made to order with the same exacting tolerance the Swiss put into their watches or the Germans engineer into their high-performance vehicles. A Freedom Arms sidearm is known around the globe for two things: precision and power. If you want one, be prepared to wait nearly a year to have it custom built for you. These guns might be quick on the draw, but they can’t be rushed.
“We focus on quality over quantity,” Baker said. “The big companies will do more in a day than we will do in a year. They can do quantity, but it’s hard for them, if not impossible, to uphold our kind of quality assurance running that many guns.”
Baker won’t quote exact numbers that roll off the assembly line in the big green warehouse at 314 Highway 239, but he did say the wait period is at an all-time high right now: 11 months. “That’s just too long. I don’t like that,” he admitted.
Not only will most gun enthusiasts endure months of waiting on their new purchase, but most will happily part with thousands of dollars to own a Freedom Arms model. Where “Saturday Night Specials” and other cheaply made .38s can be had at a local pawn shop for less than a C-Note, a fully-loaded, top-of-the-line .454 Casull can easily run more than two grand.
Why so pricey? Quite simply, it’s the gun everyone else wants to be when they grow up.
Baker remembers the first time he attended a gun show in Europe. When attendees found out Baker was the president of Freedom Arms they swamped him with questions.
“It shocked me how much those people knew about us. They study us,” Baker said. “And quite often, in these gun articles or on these Internet forums, you will see these guys say, ‘Well, it’s pretty good, but it’s not a Freedom Arms.’ We’ve kind of become the one that people compare themselves to.”
Shep Humphries has handled hundreds of firearms in his previous duties in law enforcement and now as owner of Jackson Hole Shooting Experience. He’s a shooter’s shooter – an expert marksman who can appreciate the craftsmanship that goes into any gun.
“Freedom Arms revolvers are the best in the world. Period,” Humphries said. “Like a Porsche, they are high in quality, performance and price. And for those that can afford them, they are the best. They’re on my dream list.”
High praise from a man who washes powder burns off his hands every day. And then there’s Rep. Richard Cannady, R-Glenrock, who introduced a bill last session that would have made the Freedom Arms Model 83 revolver the official state firearm. The bill died in committee due to time constraints and some legislators nervous about anything to do with guns, according to Cannady.
“One of the rifle clubs in Wheatland wanted me to put it into the state forum,” Cannady said. “I visited the factory years ago. I’ve never owned one but always wanted to. They’re pretty pricey, but if I was out hunting and ran into a bear, I’d sure want it around.”
Cannady said he won’t introduce the bill again at the upcoming budget session but will likely try again at next year’s general.
FA history and the big-bang theory
Bob’s father, Wayne Baker, founded Freedom Arms in 1978. Together with Utah gunsmith Dick Casull, the company launched in 1979 with the release of a five-shot mini-revolver called “The Patriot.” It was chambered in a .22 caliber and looked like one of those tiny pistols Old West cardsharps would have up their sleeve to settle a dispute over five aces appearing in one deck.
More than 100,000 Patriots were produced until the model was discontinued in 1988. Enough to put the tiny factory in Freedom on the map, but it took the monstrous .454 to produce the shot heard ’round the world.
Casull had been fiddling with the notion of making the most powerful handgun in the world since the 1950s. Inspired by his work in the 1940s with noted gunsmith Elmer Keith – the man who would go on to develop the first .357 and .44 magnum revolvers – Casull was aiming for the impossible: A pistol that could fire a bullet at 2,000 feet per second.
Casull first tried modifying a Colt .45, but the absurd load required to achieve the muzzle velocity he was shooting for simply blew the pistols apart. Casull hit upon the cartridge necessary to provide his ballistic horsepower, a .454 named for him, in the late-50s, but couldn’t find a gun maker who could build a reliable revolver around it. Until he met Baker.
In 1983, the Model 83 .454 Casull went into production. At the time, the freakishly powerful handgun was unrivalled. It made an immediate impact and, suddenly, Freedom Arms become the biggest gun in the West.
“At that time it was the most powerful handgun cartridge out there. It got a lot of attention,” Baker said.
The 83 chambered in .454 has a muzzle velocity of 1,900 feet per second with an energy of 1,923 foot-pounds, according to Precise Shooter, a Seattle-based research facility. The stats are more like those associated with hunting rifles. By comparison, a .45 ACP round has energy of 412 foot-pounds at a velocity of 1,060 feet per second.
The .454 Casull achieves a max-average pressure of 65,000 pounds per square inch. That kind of pressure would disintegrate ordinary handguns. Only increased tensile strength and rigorous measurements allow the arms manufacturer to produce a gun that can fire a bullet that size reliably, accurately and safely.
“Our chambers, our barrels, all our dimensions are very precise. We want to utilize all that pressure to get performance out of the bullet,” Baker said of the meticulous care given to fitting parts together, including the miniscule .002-inch gap between the barrel and cylinder. “What a lot of companies do is they will run oversized chambers and things like that to bleed off pressure because then they will have less problems with the gun. But you’re just not getting the same power with the same load. We also line-bore each chamber in the cylinder to match the receiver. No other gun manufacturer does that.”
FA’s small batch approach to manufacturing shows in the final product. Most everyone who has ever fired a Freedom Arms gun marvels at the quality. Collectors often refer to FA handguns as “bank vault” built. Painstakingly crafted by hand, revolvers out of Freedom, Wyo., are the go-to gun for outdoorsmen facing a charging rhino or serious competitive shooters aiming to plink a hole in a metallic silhouette a quarter-mile away.
Guns and ammo
From pilots in the Alaskan Bush to African Safari guides, hunters prefer to carry an 83 or its smaller cousin, the Model 97, because of its stopping power and portability.
“The problem you get with a shotgun or a long gun is if you are out there working in the bush, you often need both hands,” Baker explained. “So what are you gonna do? You are going to set it down somewhere. Well, that handgun can be tucked right in there, and you’ll have it with you at all times. I’ve gotten numerous phones calls from people that have had run-ins with bears and what not, and they said it was a good thing they had that handgun.”
FA-provided video shows the Model 83 obliterating paint cans while simultaneously blasting apart the cinderblock they’re perched on. But is it accurate? FA product is as good as the hand that holds it. Baker says the first elk he ever took on a FA gun was at 200 yards. He and others have also harvested deer, moose, bison, hippos, and lions, even elephants with a Freedom Arms handgun. Big game hunters report bagging their animal with 300- and 400-yard shots – distances considered a stretch for rifles.
One online blogger wrote recently, “My Ruger is pretty darn accurate at 200 meters, and is pretty consistent on 10-inch circles at that distance. But my Freedom Arms .44 is consistent on 2- to 4-inch circles at that distance. In the hands of a skilled revolver shooter it’ll way outshoot any other revolver.”
Baker fills countless orders from competitive target shooters who’ve ran up against a Freedom Arms handgun and lost.
“One silhouette shooter told me the biggest problem with a Freedom Arms gun is if you don’t have one you are going to be shooting against one, so you better go buy one or you don’t stand a chance,” Baker said. “In silhouette shooting that gun dominates the revolver category, worldwide. I did a 10-year survey of the IMSSU [International Metallic Silhouette Shooting Union] and 80 percent of the winners in the revolver category were Freedom Arms guns.”
The king of the hill has to take on a few comers now and then. For Freedom Arms, the first shot across the bow came in the form of a claim by one hunter that the .454 was unsafe and had injured or killed fellow hunters in Alaska. “Since the Bake-Over [elder Baker passing on to the son], quality crashed,” the blogger wrote.
“That dates back quite a while . Part of that [is] there was an individual in Alaska that,” Baker trailed off. “Look, I tend to be outspoken, especially if somebody’s saying something wrong, or somebody is saying something that’s going to get somebody hurt. I don’t have a problem with speaking up and saying so. That individual was talking about loads that were extreme, that were gonna get somebody hurt. So I came out on the Internet and talked about it. He decided he didn’t like me, and he started this campaign. That’s one thing about the Internet you don’t have to back anything up. You can sit out there and be anonymous and all this kind of stuff.”
Baker has also had to deal with Grady Chandler. The Dallas, Texas, personal injury lawyer was interviewed in an “Insider Exclusive” piece that purported to expose the Model 83 Casull as unsafe. He is actively pursuing cases against FA.
“Unlike Dirty Harry’s .44 magnum revolver, the FA Model 83 revolver is not equipped with any type of automatic safety feature to protect owners and bystanders from the revolver firing if it is dropped or the hammer impacted without the hammer being cocked and the trigger being pulled,” Chandler states in the video.
When asked about safety claims, Baker said, “Yeah, that’s Chandler out of Texas. Sometimes people don’t bother learning how to use a gun. Or if they do, and they make mistakes, they can’t accept that. That’s what that’s about. Did you watch the video? As a journalist, you probably know if it’s done under the guise of investigative journalism they don’t have to back anything up, and anything goes, and there isn’t shit you can do about it.”
Baker acknowledges his Model 83 is no starter gun. Even the 97, which is a more manageable gun at 90 percent the frame size of the 83, will kick like a mule in the bigger bores.
“The big thing is learning how to use the gun. You go out and practice and keep using it. You start out with lighter ammunition,” Baker suggested. “Usually what I tell people is, it’s like driving a car. If you start out at 100 miles-an-hour the first time you drive a car you aren’t going to have a good experience. So start out with lighter loads – Federal and Winchester both have 250-, 260-grain bullets running at about 1,300 feet-per-second. That’s equivalent to about a .44 mag load. It’s not necessarily something a beginner would start out with, but then again this gun isn’t something a beginner would start out with. It’s a good way to learn how to use the gun and learn how it rolls and recoils, and then work your way up into the heavy loads.”
A dozen employees are on the FA payroll. Most are cross-trained to perform a variety of tasks from buffing out trigger guards to drilling out receivers. Cast iron parts arrive from back East. They are bored, broached, chiseled and sanded by several different types of CNC (Computer Numeric Controlled) machines.
The finished parts are then hand-assembled at work benches, by far the most time-consuming part of the process and what drives the price of FA guns higher than most, Baker says. Most everything is done in-house to ensure quality control, including grips, sights and barrels.
“We buy our own bar stock so we control the quality. We thread and taper our own barrels,” Baker said. “A lot of our grips we make here. Only the rubber grips we don’t make here. Pachmayr makes those for us. A lot of companies will job that out. For us, because of the precision we are looking for, we want to fit the grips on the gun so there is no mismatch.”
The wood grips are cut out by tracing a template with a machine from Italy that dates back to the 1950s. “It was originally set up to build women’s high heel shoes,” Baker said.
Many of the FA factory machines were tweaked to perform a custom task.
“A little thing like that belt sander right there,” Baker says, pointing to a scrawny-looking contraption in the back nicknamed the “Screamer” for the vacuum-like squeal it creates, “is used for the barrel where it fits into the receiver. I started talking to belt sander manufacturers telling them what I wanted to do and they said, ‘It can’t be done; forget it.’ I talked with bearing companies to see if they could recommend a bearing for what I wanted to do and they said, ‘It can’t be done; forget it.’
“Finally, I talked to the last bearing company on my list and I said, ‘I don’t care what your opinion is, this is what I’m going to do. What bearing can you recommend that will work in it?’ The guy laughed and said, ‘Let me guess, you talked to all the other companies and they said forget it, right?’ Well, he got me these bearings and brought grease in from Germany – it’s the only grease in the world that can handle a spindle going 50,000 rpm. I designed that spindle and the thing’s worked for 30-something years now.”
Once a gun is through assembly, it’s test-fired in the shooting range in the basement. If techs don’t like the grouping, it goes back for adjustments until it shoots “lights out” and tight.
Freedom Arms has never done much advertising and probably never will. Baker said word-of-mouth generates plenty of work for his plant and overhead like marketing would just drive the price of the spendy firearm even higher. “We don’t run high margins. We probably run less margins than any gun company out there,” Baker said.
Some customers have asked for different models, including guns outside the revolver realm like a 1911 model semi-automatic.
“That’s one we’ve had a lot of requests to do but I look at it and I ask myself, ‘What could we possibly do that could make it any better?’ I hate to be a ‘me too’ just to make it,” Baker said. “We’ve always got some new things we are working on but we don’t believe in talking about something until you are ready to produce it. When it’s ready then we’ll talk about it.”