Wednesday, August 29, 2012

MArooned Product Review: Charter Arms Undercover 38

I've had a special place for Charter Arms ever since I interviewed the president of the company, Nick Ecker, at the 2010 NRA Annual meeting. He's a personable; knowledgeable fellow; his daughter Ashley was working the booth with him and is just as nice - it's great to see a family business right here in the USA run by people that care about the business. Couple that with Charter actually undergoing the arduous process to sell a handgun in Massachusetts, and I asked if I could get a model for review.

Well, there's only two MA-compliant Charter Arms handguns, the Undercover 38 and the Bulldog, and Nick arranged to send me one of each. I've had them for a few months now, and the .44 review will follow in a little while (.44 Special ammunition is nowhere near as ubiquitous as .38 Special, and it took a little bit of digging to find enough to shoot - and I was tempted to put it away for my kids' college tuition the way the price has gone up since I last shot .44 Special...).

I've carried a small-framed snubnosed revolver for nearly 20 years - in fact, the first gun I ever carried concealed was a Smith & Wesson model 36 Chief's Special. I've had my own snubbie - in fact, the Snubbie from Hell™ - for nearly 10 years now, and since acquiring it have added a number of other snubnosed revolvers to the armory. It's a comfortable, familiar sidearm for me, despite the low round capacity and marginal performance of .38 Special. While the wunder nines and micro 380s are superior in most ways, I've never felt undergunned with a Chief's Special in a pocket.

The Undercover 38 showed up in a Glock-like box with the dreaded trigger lock:

Since it's a revolver there's no arguing about "why'd they only send one magazine?" or "this gun came with three factory mags!" - open the box, there's the gun. It's designed to the same specifications as the Smith & Wesson model 36/60/etc. - it uses the same speedloaders and fits in all the same holsters:

Take a guess what's special about the holster that it's in... The others are, clockwise from top left, a Michael's Custom Holsters Executive II, a Dragon Leatherworks Flatjack, a Sticky Holsters snubnosed revolver holster, and a custom holster courtesy of Doubletrouble. I tried the Undercover 38 in all of those holsters, and carried it in everything except the center holster - the grip is just a little too large and bulky for pocket carry. Grips, however, are not interchangeable with Smith & Wesson revolvers (the center pin is in a different spot).

Carrying the Undercover 38.

Since it's the same dimensions and heft (well, close enough; the S&W Airweight model 637 is 15 ounces, the Undercover 38 is 16), it carries the same as the S&W revolvers I've carried for years. Tucked inside a waistband, it disappears under a large T-shirt, polo, or similar garment; if improperly positioned the butt will stick out when bending (especially with the full sized grip). With a smaller grip (many aftermarkets are available, including Crimson Trace Lasergrips!), it would be fine for pocket carry; other than that it's no different than any standard snubnosed revolver.

Shooting the Undercover 38.

Honestly, it's a snubnosed revolver. It digested everything I put into it, from reloads whose origins I had long forgotten to +P factory hollowpoints. I put somewhere between 350 and 400 rounds through the Undercover, with no glitches of any kind experienced. No light strikes, no binding, nothing - every time I pulled the trigger it went "bang". The trigger is a little on the stiff side in double action and heavier than expected in single action, although to be fair I am comparing it to a revolver that's been fired thousands of times.

Accuracy was pretty much what you would expect from a snubnosed revolver:

Decent defensive shooting; certainly nothing that'd win you bragging rights on a bullseye league. I'm certain there are others out there who could shoot a group half that size at 25 yards; but for me, I found no difference between the accuracy out of the Undercover 38 and the accuracy of a Smith J-frame or the Ruger LCR (the target above was shot double-action only to match the LCR and the S&W Bodyguard 38, which are DAO). If you can shoot a J-frame acceptably well, you can shoot the Undercover 38 acceptably well.

How's it different than the J-frame?

I've spent a good deal of this review mentioning how the Undercover 38 is similar to the Smith & Wesson J-frame .38 Special. It is different in several ways, all of them evident here:

First off, the discerning eye will notice that the Undercover rotates clockwise, like OldNFO's beloved Colts, as opposed to counterclockwise like the Smith. Secondly, the cylinder release latch is designed so that the area you push to release the cylinder is closer to the cylinder. Also note that the Undercover has a full ejector shroud and a partially covered ejector.

The biggest difference, though, is in the crane. Smith & Wesson has an exposed crane, where the part that pivots to bring the cylinder out of the frame is open from the front of the gun. The Undercover's crane is enclosed within the sideplate, a difference that Charter claims gives the Undercover an edge for durability over the revolver's lifetime. Since I won't have the Undercover for an entire lifetime, that will remain untested.


The Charter Arms Undercover 38 is a basic, no-frills snub-nosed revolver with a lifetime guarantee. It's made in the USA with an MSRP of $331 and has, due to sharing dimensions with the S&W J-frame, a wide variety of holster options available. The finish is plain yet durable, with little fouling noted after multiple range sessions. The stainless model received for review would be right at home as a concealed carry piece, a truck gun, or even something to stick in your backpack or tackle box as an inexpensive bit of insurance.

Solid gun, no frills, good American company - what's not to like?

That is all.


Chris said...

Thanks for the review I've been looking at the hammerless off duty version since I love my bulldog so much. I also had a similar experience talking to the owner and his daughter. Very nice people. I have found the same problem with the bulldog and ammo cost although the PMC is the cheapest I've found. FYI the bulldog with it's larger frame may or may not fit in j frame holsters but will fit in almost every holster i've seen made for the ruger sp-101. That is if you don't go the custom route.

Jay G said...


I have no idea what the "off-the-shelf" price is for the Undercover/hammerless (OffDuty?), but if it's a similar markdown from MSRP as just about every other MFG out there, you should be able to pick one up for about $100 less than a comparable S&W.

As for the Bulldog, I have a couple holsters that it sorta fits in - it's a hair smaller than a S&W K-frame, but I haven't carried it more than a handful of times. for the size, weight, and capacity, I'd rather carry the Snubbie from Hell... :)

Richard said...

Great review, Jay.

Although a dedicated S&W guy, I have really liked a lot of Charter Arms revolvers. I reviewed the hammerless one, and thought it offered some very real advantages over my S&W 642. In fact, I still kick myself for sending it back - I should have bought the darn thing.

BTW - Only two of their revolvers meet MA standards?? Argh!


Jeff the Baptist said...

They also have the police undercover, a six shot .38s built on the bulldog frame. I like the idea of a cheap 6-shot .38 snubby. And now they're going to make the 9mm pitbull which essentially the same gun as the police undercover but in 9mm with no need for moonclips.

Rivrdog said...

Charter owner here. I have the Fillet and the Pitbull. The Pitbull is in .40 S&W, & shooting it is more of a handful than the .44 Special, due to the cartridge pressure being almost double.

Both of those revolvers are stoppers, and I've qualified for LEOSA-04 carry with both. If I carry a .38 at all, I load it with Federal Nyclad +P+ 125-gr, or the Jim Cirilo rounds I make with copper-plated 148-gr wadcutters and 5.0-gr of Unique. I have just enough of the Federal "Treasury" loads to load the gun and 4 speed loaders.

I intend to buy a 9mm version when it comes out. I heard it will be a six-shooter. I will carry either 9mm 124-gr ball in it, or maybe Hydrashok 147s, if they chrono out to 900 fps or better.

FYI, the only knock on the ancient 44 Special is lack of ammo commonality. Unless your gunfight is at a SASS shoot, you will NOT find that ammo around. My huge local gun store never has more than a few boxes, and almost all of them are cowboy loads, unsuited to defensive use.

Rivrdog said...

How the "H" did that come out "fillet". It should be Bulldog.

Jay G said...

Update: Weerd reminded me of something I missed. The front sight on the Undercover was just a tiny degree off plumb. It didn't affect accuracy (at least not in my meager hands; perhaps it would make a difference to someone who can shoot the snubbie better), nor did it appear to change over time.

Their lifetime warrantee means that it could be sent in to be fixed if needed; to me it appeared to me little more than a cosmetic issue - I even tried to get a picture of it, but it's off by so little that the blur of the camera obscured it.

Victor Earl said...

VEA here..I'm new to gun ownership and was shown the Charter Arms under cover police .38spl. I put a down payment on the gun. I liked the fact that is a 6 shooter and felt good in my hand. My question is should I look for something different/better in a CC like S&W or Ruger or colt. I've never heard of Charter Arms and I'm concerned with long term quality/build/usefulness. Please advise as any info or experience would be helpful. Thanks.

Jay G said...


I only had the Undercover a few months, and put a few hundred rounds through it, so I can't attest to its longevity like I can the Ruger LCR or the Smith & Wesson model 360.

For the amount of shooting that most snubnosed revolvers see, there's no reason not to get the Charter - especially with that six shot small frame version. Charter stands behind their firearms, too, so in the off-chance that something does go wrong, they'll make it right for you.


Victor Earl said...

Thanks Jay