FREEDOM, Wyo. Western Wyoming remains a raw, sparsely settled place where guns are a way of life. Wildlife is thick, and people hunt to eat.
Gaunt peaks rise sharply on both sides of the Salt River as it coils through silent fields that surround the town of Freedom (pop. 100). A sign along a two-lane road makes a bold statement: "Freedom Arms, World's Finest Firearms."
Inside a plain metal building, a dozen workers at the Freedom Arms factory carve revolvers from blocks of stainless steel. They say they're proud to make what many experts regard as the world's best revolvers. And they're proud to do it here in a place where not so long ago, frontiersmen relied on guns to survive.
Freedom Arms is one of just a handful of companies in the world where workers meticulously fit and finish guns by hand, the old-fashioned way. Larger revolver manufacturers use modern manufacturing techniques that reduce the need for costly handwork.
The joints between the fitted metal parts on a Freedom Arms revolver are all but invisible. The metal surfaces immaculately polished. Working the action of a Freedom Arms' revolver reveals the feeling of tight, hand-honed precision that can only be imparted by master craftspeople.
"They are absolutely the finest factory-produced revolvers made at any time, anywhere," said John Taffin, one of the country's pre-eminent gunwriters and author of several books on handguns. "Their accuracy is unbelievable."
Freedom Arms revolvers carry price tags that start at roughly $2,000 each, about two to three times more than mass-produced guns. The people willing to pay the price for these specialty handguns range from devoted gun-fanciers of modest means to jet-setting big-game hunters who use them to kill animals such as cape buffalo in distant corners of the world.
Freedom Arms doesn't offer public tours, opting instead to keep details of its production techniques secret. Behind those closed doors, however, its manufacturing and assembly rooms reveal a combination of state-of-the-art computer technology and old-time, handcraftsmanship.
The rooms are organized for work, not show. Shelves and work surfaces are packed with drill bits, cutting tools and gun parts. Proprietary blueprints depicting gun dimensions line the walls. No matter how the raw parts are produced, the guns are all finished by hand.
Tool-room machinist Mark Weeks, a 20-year Freedom Arms employee, handles much of the company's research and development.
"I think it's a pride thing in what we do. A certain amount. Pride in quality and workmanship," said Weeks, sitting at his desk in the machine shop, the floor littered with spiral metal shavings. "I think most of us around here were raised around or on a ranch or a farm, or that kind of stuff. So we don't take anything for granted."
Freedom Arms makes single-action revolvers, meaning the hammer must be cocked before each shot. They're chambered for cartridges ranging from tiny rimfire rounds, used mainly for target shooting, up to the company's own recent creation, the .500 Wyoming Express a huge cartridge designed for killing big game.
Although Freedom Arms declined to release production figures, a report by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives says the company made just 509 revolvers in 2006. Industry giant Smith & Wesson, the nation's largest producer of revolvers that year, made more than 185,000.
Most Freedom Arms customers specify exactly what options such as caliber, barrel-length and grip material they want. Then they wait a few months for the company to build their individual gun. The company lists just a few dozen guns available for immediate purchase on its Web site.
The Freedom Arms employees who produce these extraordinary revolvers are fiercely proud of their work.
On a recent day, John Carey, a 14-year Freedom Arms employee, sat at a scarred workbench stoning the internal parts of a revolver. Expertly screwing the pieces together again, he repeatedly pulled the trigger with a special gauge to meet a customer's specifications.
When Carey's done, it will take three pounds of pressure on the trigger to fire the gun less than the company's usual four- to 4 1/4-pound trigger-pull.
"They let us take our time and make sure it's right, rather than rush through it," Carey said. "That's the best thing about this place."
Nancy Berry will mark 10 years at Freedom Arms this summer. She was at her bench fitting wooden grips to a pistol frame. The company's standards demand the grips be fitted so tightly that a 0.002-inch feeler gauge less than the thickness of a human hair can't be forced between the grips and metal grip frame. "That's what I'm trying to do, is to make it as best as I can for a customer to shoot a gun, and feel comfortable shooting it," Berry said. "And so that's my satisfaction."
Freedom Arms President Bob Baker himself has killed a grizzly bear and other game with his company's revolvers. He said his workers are keenly aware that some customers rely on the company's revolvers to kill dangerous game at close range a sport in which any gun failure could have fatal consequences for the hunter.
"They're very, very dedicated to making sure the product is right," Baker said of his workers. Baker's father, Wayne, grew up in Wyoming's Star Valley and founded the company in 1978.
"We don't really look at it like we're competing against anybody else," Baker said. "We're trying to provide, on a small scale, what they can't provide. We're kind of in a league of our own." Hunting with a handgun appeals to those who say they want more of a challenge than hunting with a rifle. They say using a handgun generally requires them to get closer to their prey, and they say using the smaller gun requires more skill.
Lynn C. Thompson, president of Cold Steel Knives in Ventura, Calif., said he owns more than 20 Freedom Arms revolvers.
"I don't think anybody has used them more extensively around the world than I have, or taken more stuff with them," Thompson said. He said he's killed what he called the "dangerous seven" of African game with a handgun: elephant, rhino, hippo, crocodile, lion, leopard and cape buffalo.
"Most of the stuff I've shot, probably 95 percent of it is with the Freedom Arms revolver," Thompson said. "The Freedom Arms revolver, in my opinion, is the best revolver in the world. In every way, it's absolutely the best. There's nothing else that can even compare."
The guns are not for the inexperienced.
Thompson said he commonly hunts with a revolver chambered for a powerful cartridge called the .454 Casull.The recoil from the .454 is so intense, he said, that you can see it send a shock wave through the body of a large man who fires one. He said he studies martial arts and spends hours every week in the gym to keep in form.
"You have to train yourself," Thompson said. "You have to get used to it. It's like taking a good stiff right cross and still staying in the game. God didn't make us to have explosions going off in our hands." Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal also owns a Freedom Arms .454 revolver a Christmas gift from his wife and children. He said he often spares himself the revolver's bone-jarring recoil by shooting it with more mild loads.
"Clearly they're consistent with the fabric and who we are," Freudenthal said of Freedom Arms' place in Wyoming.
"When you take it apart to clean it, you're really reminded how incredibly close the tolerances are and the way they're put together," Freudenthal said. "They are a nice firearm. They're really a quality piece."