We pitted a $2,000 Freedom Arms .44 Magnum against the $800 Smith & Wesson Model 629 Classic DX and came up with a money-saving finding.
In our experience, we’ve seen that short-range handgun hunters generally prefer three revolver brands—Freedoms Arms, Smith & Wesson, and Wesson Arms—over wheelguns from other companies. But because Wesson Arms is now defunct, only Freedom and S&W; are left to slug it out for dominance in this category, even though the companies offer very different products in terms of price and availability.
No experienced shooter would argue that Freedom Arms’ products are some of the finest revolvers on the market today—which accounts for their presence in the hands of many top field shooters. But Freedom’s revolvers are extremely expensive, generally running from $1,300 to $2,000 a copy, and at this writing, there is a seven-month wait to take possession of one. Because of the cost and scarcity of Freedom products, many shooters are wondering if the guns are worth the wait, which means they would consider buying the readily available and more affordable Smith & Wesson 629 Classic DX.
A quick look at prices for the two guns shows a big difference. A favorite Freedom gun among serious shooters is the Field Grade .44 revolver. This gun has a trigger overtravel screw, Pachmayr grips, a field-grade finish and a 10-inch barrel. The price on guns of this sort run $1,304.35. In contrast, the retail price of the 629 Classic DX is $838, plus the preferred $93 Bo-Mar sights. The price difference between it and a Field Grade Freedom Arms gun is $466, not an insubstantial amount, but not too much more to spend for a serious hunter. However, because the S&W; is sold through dealers, the guns can be found for prices that are less than suggested retail. You can reasonably expect to save at least 20 percent to 25 percent off list. This makes the price difference between the guns somewhere near $600, which is getting on toward serious money.
However, if you save money but shoot an inferior product, then the additional pocket change isn’t worth it. So Field Tests decided to see how well the S&W; 629 matched up with a pricey Freedom Arms revolver. Here’s what we found.
Freedom Arms .44 Magnum
Our test gun sported an octagonal barrel ($406.50) and black micarta grips ($145.35), cosmetics which don’t contribute to the hunting characteristics of the gun and which drive up its price. In fact, most shooters would avoid the slick micarta grips and choose less expensive Pachmayr rubber grips. This particular gun as shipped with silhouette sights and a front hood retails for $2,046.40. Our Freedom single-action test revolver weighed 33/4 pounds empty. The barrel measured 10 inches. The sight radius is 111/8 inches. This rear sight looks to be investment cast and shows good repeatability. The sight profile is sharp and clear with adequate “light” on both sides of the front sight in all shooting positions. The click stops are solid and positive for the elevation adjustments, but are a bit loose for the windage adjustment screw. The hood ensures that light remains constant on the front sight. The trigger breaks fairly cleanly at 3 pounds. There was a slight amount of creep and a lot of overtravel (indicating the need for the optional overtravel screw.) The unfluted cylinder holds five rounds in counterbored chambers. The cylinder-to-barrel gap would not pass a 0.003-inch feeler gauge, but would pass a 0.002-inch gauge with a very tight fit that remains constant throughout the cylinder rotation. There were no failures to fire during testing; however, the Winchester .44 ammo caused the cylinder to turn hard. This was late in the testing when the gun was very dirty, which likely contributed to the problem. Other ammo did not exhibit this problem during our evaluation of the handguns.
Smith & Wesson Model 629 Classic DX
In 1955 the first .44 Magnum hit dealers’ shelves. It was the Smith & Wesson Model 29. In the intervening years, it remained one of the most popular revolvers on the market, helped no doubt by some unique marketing by Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry movies. The Classic DX is the top of the line in the .44s. It comes with multiple front-sight selections and two sets of grips, one wood and a Hogue rubber grip. The gun was tested with the wooden finger-grooved grip panels. The stainless-steel gun is polished to a satin finish.
The gun we tested was a double-action revolver that weighs 3 pounds 10 ounces empty and was equipped with a Bo-Mar Silhouette sight package. It had fewer than 200 rounds through its barrel when we began the evaluation.
The cylinder holds six rounds in chambers that are not counterbored. The single-action trigger broke cleanly at 31/2 pounds and showed no creep and very little overtravel. The cylinder-to-barrel gap will pass a 0.007-inch feeler gauge, but would not pass a 0.009 inch gauge.
The barrel measures 83/8 inches (the longest currently available) and has a heavy under-rib lug. The sight radius with the Bo-Mar sights is 101/8 inches. The front sight is spring loaded and can be quickly changed by pushing back and pulling up on the sight blade. The Bo-Mar rear sight is a massive affair that screws to the gun’s top strap. The adjustments are solid and showed good repeatability. The click stops are positive for both adjustment screws. The sight profile is sharp and clear with adequate “light” on both sides of the front sight in all shooting positions. The front sight is unhooded and can be subject to variances in light.
There were no failures during testing, however the Winchester ammo caused the cylinder to turn hard. This could be attributed to the same factors as with the Freedom Arms and is not a reflection on the gun itself.
One shooter liked the S&W; better for the simple reason that it was easier to load. Another shooter favored the Freedom Arms product. Both guns would take down the targets we used to comparison test the guns, with good center hits the norm when the shooter did his part. There were no complaints about the sights even when they were used under the changing light conditions.
The cylinder gap blast was more noticeable with the Smith & Wesson, as would be expected because of its larger cylinder-to-frame gap. This was particularly noticeable with the short Hornady 200-grain bullet. However when using a blast shield in any position that called for one, this was certainly not a problem. All empties ejected easily and the guns never balked with new loads as dirty cylinders under close tolerances are often prone to do.
When the guns were cleaned, we used Outers Foul-Out Electronic cleaner in conjunction with solvents to ensure that all copper fouling was removed from the barrels. The Freedom Arms product showed very little fouling.
We tested the two guns extensively in range and bench conditions. Shooting at the second stage of the test was done from a bench rest using the Lohman Sight-Vise for handguns. This device is designed to clamp the barrel in the foam vise jaws and hold it firmly. This proved to be unsatisfactory for this test because the gun would creep in the jaws and required frequent adjustment. The Sight-Vise comes with a plastic V-block that is designed to be gripped in the vise for use with semi-autos with moving slides. This worked very well for testing the handguns and was used for the duration of the test.
Ammo was all fresh factory loads. We used Federal Gold Medal 250-grain Metal Case Profile Match, Black Hills Ammunition 240-grain HP, Black Hills Ammunition 300-grain HP, Hornady Custom 200-grain, Winchester Super-X 240-grain HP, Speer Gold Dot 270-grain GDSP, and Remington Core-Lokt 275-grain HP.
With each brand of ammo, we shot five-round groups, measuring their size center to center of the widest shots to the nearest eighth inch. We also calculated the average of the best three shots from each five-shot group to account for shooting error. All shooting was done at fifty yards with the silhouette sights. The S&W; was loaded at random to account for its six-shot capability and to be certain that any misaligned chamber wasn’t ignored. Velocities were measured with an Oehler 35P Chronograph at 15 feet from the muzzle and are averaged from twenty shots for each gun/ammo combination. The shooting was conducted from inside a shooting house at a target that was outdoors and uncovered. Temperatures were in the high eighties with bright sunshine and high humidity. The guns were not cleaned after starting the accuracy testing, but we did adjust the sights to correct for different impact points of various bullet weights.
The most striking conclusion our testers made was that they could live with either gun, which gives the DX a sizable edge for any shooter who must watch his money. In range shooting, our testers noted no apparent difference in perceived accuracy or shootability. However, for the shooter who is willing to spend more money for more performance, the Freedom handgun does have an edge in the critical factor of downrange accuracy.
Freedom beat Smith & Wesson in each accuracy category when averages were considered. Freedom also had the best single results in each group, as shown in the accompanying tables. A look at the average group sizes shows that the S&W;’s overall five-shot group was 0.618 inch larger than the Freedom gun’s groups, while the S&W;’s three-shot group average was 0.27 inch larger. Also, the DX’s best group average was 0.34 inches larger, and the Freedom gun shot more accurately with every ammo brand. This conclusively shows that the Freedom Arms is a consistently more accurate revolver than the Smith & Wesson. However, the difference is very small.
Field Tests Recommends
The differences between the Freedom Arms handgun and the Smith & Wesson 629 Classic DX aren’t much in the real world. In our view, most hunters would be well served with the Smith & Wesson 629 Classic DX. Unquestionably, the Freedom Arms handgun is a fine field gun, but we wonder if most hunters can use its superior fit to down deer more effectively.