Concealed Carry

Throwback Thursday: Review — Charter Arms .38 Undercover

Charter 38 Undercover

Charter Arms was once an upstart that rocked the industry. Today, it is an established old-line maker. Charter Arms offers good-quality revolvers at a fair price. While it offers calibers from .22 LR to .45 ACP, as well as the .357 Magnum, the bread-and-butter revolver it made its reputation on was the Charter Arms Undercover, a five-shot, swing-out cylinder, double-action revolver.

The Undercover .38 Special was the first offering from this company. When good handguns are hard to come by, those purchasing the traditional big names look elsewhere. In this case, they have found a reliable and useful revolver with good features.

Charter Arms Pit Bull 9mm
This is the Pit Bull 9mm, an interesting option.

The Undercover isn’t a cheap gun and never was. However, it is affordable and a new type of handgun in the supply chain. At one time, there were either expensive guns or cheaply-made guns, but little in between. The Charter Arms Undercover is a revolver made affordable by the use of the most modern manufacturing techniques.

Features and Specifications

The Charter Arms Undercover doesn’t use a side plate. The revolver features a combination of steel and aluminum, utilizing a steel frame and a lot of aluminum to make for a light, but strong, revolver. The revolver features a floating firing pin and a transfer-bar ignition system. This makes it more modern than any revolver of the same 1960s generation. While many revolvers use this system today, that wasn’t true when the Charter Arms revolvers were introduced during the Vietnam era. The revolver was chambered in the powerful .38 Special.

The only real complaint was that the grips were small — intended for deep concealment — and the revolver kicked more than its competitors. Later versions with hand-filling wood or synthetic grips solved that problem. The Charter Arms .38 is a light, useful, and concealable revolver. I practice enough with my snub-nose revolvers to maintain a degree of proficiency. They are not fun to fire, but with proper practice loads and the occasional duty load for familiarization, they are not bears to fire either. The grips supplied with modern revolvers make a great deal of difference.

The Charter .38 Undercover revolver features broad rear sights and a front post that makes for fast shooting and good accuracy. The action is smooth and cycles quickly. The exposed-hammer models allow single-action fire for precise accuracy, such as taking out a dangerous snake at a few paces or making a hit on a man-sized target to 20 yards or so.

There are also bobbed-hammer versions and even a concealed-hammer version. The humpback concealed-hammer version is among the few affordable revolvers of the type.

Charter 38 Undercover American Flag Cerekote
This bold special edition of the Charter .38 Undercover is among the author’s favorites.

Ammunition Selection

For practice, any lead wadcutter or RNL design is a good choice. Recoil is modest and the Charter Arms revolver is reliable with all ammunition I have tested. A good personal defense load is the Speer 135-grain Gold Dot. This load features a soft lead core surrounded by a thin copper jacket. The jacket eliminates leading the barrel. The bullet is designed for optimum expansion at .38 Special velocity. This is also a particularly accurate loading. I find it controllable in double-action pairs in the Charter Arms revolver. It strikes to the point of aim at seven yards.

This loading gives the .38 Special a measure of authority. I have fired several five-shot groups with the modern Charter Arms revolver at 15 yards. It isn’t difficult to exhibit a four-inch, five-shot group at this range, good enough for any reasonable chore the snub-nose Charter .38 will be called upon to answer.

Speer Gold Dot .38 Special Expansion
The Speer 135-grain Gold Dot perfectly expanded during the author’s testing.

A Good Holster Option

A good wheel gun needs a good holster. For concealed carry, Blackhawk! offers a leather inside-the-waistband holster that works well with the Charter .38 Undercover. Using a strong belt clip, this holster makes for excellent all-around concealed carry. The leather is properly tanned and stitched, altogether a class act.

Small-frame revolvers such as this also tuck away in a pocket nicely. Sticky Holsters makes a number of generic-size fit options that work well in the pocket. They’re made of a grippy material that snags the pocket for a clean draw.

Charter 38 In Holster
Blackhawk! offers first-class leather inside-the-waistband holsters.

Conclusion: Charter .38 Undercover

The Charter Arms revolver has good features at a fair price. It is not the finest handgun on the market, but then, it does not intend to be so. It is the everyman’s gun that is meant to be used and carried daily. That’s a real buy in today’s market.

Have you shot a Charter .38 Undercover? Tell us what you thought in the comments section. 

Editor’s note: This post was originally published in September of 2020. It has been completely revamped and updated for accuracy and clarity.

About the Author:

Wilburn Roberts

When Wilburn Roberts was a young peace officer, he adopted his present pen name at the suggestion of his chief, as some of the brass was leery of what he might write. This was also adopted out of respect for families of both victims and criminals. The pen name is the same and the man remains an outspoken proponent of using enough gun for the job.

He has been on the hit list of a well-known hate group, traveled in a dozen countries and written on many subjects, including investigating hate crimes and adopting the patrol carbine. He graduated second in his class with a degree in Police Science. It took him 20 years to work himself from Lieutenant to Sergeant and he calls it as he sees it.
The Mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!'s blog, The Shooter's Log, is to provide information—not opinions—to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (49)

  1. I bought an old .38 undercover 2000 from old man at a gun show in New Mexico. It’s nice, small, feels good in hand. It’s very easy to keep hidden in clothes. I mostly carry it everywhere and treat it like shit. Similar to what people see in movies with a .38, it’s for personal defense only. It’s my third back up that I keep on left side. So if my primary is out or gone; I have secondary sidearm on right, and if things really go sideways; I have it hidden on left. Just in case my right arm is hurt also. One handed operation is nice. It’s only for close-up like seeing the whites of the attackers eyes type close.

  2. I bought an old .38 undercover 2000 from old man at a gun show in New Mexico. It’s nice, small, feels good in hand. It’s very easy to keep hidden in clothes. I mostly carry it everywhere and treat it like shit. Similar to what people see in movies with a .38, it’s for personal defense only. It’s my third back up that I keep on left side. So if my primary is out or gone; I have secondary sidearm on right, and if things really go sideways; I have it hidden on left. Just in case my right arm is hurt also. One handed operation is nice. It’s only for close-up like seeing the whites of the attackers eyes type close.

  3. I have the 5 shot circa 1980 and a larger size 6 shot from 2021. Normally carry Underwood wad cutters. Reliable, accurate, easily concealed…and not over priced…..what’s not to like? For me, the Charter Arms revolvers are one of those things you ”Don’t leave home without it!”
    (My wife has the Charter Arms 2” barrel, 15 oz, 6 round 32 H&R Mag, and loves it!)

  4. I bought 2 with the 3″ bbl. They have been reliable and fun to shoot. They are our ‘go to pistols’ for years.

  5. To Jeff Edmonds, they did make a CA 327 mag patriot with 2” barrel for awhile, I have it and a 38 undercover, the 38 bites the middle finger on the trigger guard some when fired

  6. CA .38s are no problem at all, like all other CAs i’ve owned. i’ve got two .38s and a .44 at the moment, solid revolver for a good price

  7. I’ve owned 3 of CA snubbies over the past 45 years. All have served me well with never any reliability issues. Two were 44 Specials and the last was a 357. In the latter I only shot 38s. Depending on your style of carry a bobbed hammer may be wise, because in a time of need these guns are for very short range and double action duty. As such, be sure and practice thusly. (3yards, rapid fire). Controllability is everything.

  8. I have a Charter Arms Undercover that I bought five years ago. As the author has said, it is not a fun gun to shoot at the range. It’s difficult for me to hit the target at 10 yards with any consistency. After 50 rounds, I’m done shooting it for the day.

    On the plus side, people that carry it say it is light enough that you don’t even realize you are carrying it.

  9. When I got on the job in 8/74, I purchased a S&W Mod28 for duty. I was still helping my father and uncle with their painting business and we did a house in Rowaton Ct, that turned out to be the owner of CA. When he found out that I was on the job, he offered me a chance to buy one of his pistols, and sent me to a shop in Bridgeport Ct, where he had spoke to the owner in advance, and I got a .38 Undercover, a ITW and a OTW and a box of PlusPs…All for $60.oo US…I carried it as an off duty and an ankle backup till my new Department changed to semi autos, and some hairy situations pursusded me to put a 13 shot S&W 6904 on my ankle as off duty and backup. I still carry the CA when size is an issue as in at the beach or gym…Almost 50 years and not one problem…

  10. Charter Arms does something I don’t think any other gun maker does -they make a LeftHand version of their Undercover also! One of the ladies in my office wanted a weapon but had difficulty handling a common right hand .38 Chief Special we showed her. A call to my LGS determined her had a left hand Charter in stock. She was able to handle that comfortably and shot it well.

  11. Years ago I decided I absolutely had to have a nice shiny .44 Special 5-shot. So I go to my friendly neighborhood dealer. He has a nice Bulldog on display, I says I’ll take that, he says ” Well, that one’s mine, I’m all out and I just put it in there for reference but I got this Rossi 720 that’s an ok piece….”. Took it home, had some fun with it. 6 months later somebody up in Springfield decides that I didn’t spend enough and comes out with the 696. Traded the 720 and a little more cash than I expected and I was happy. Put some tritium and few different grips onto it and it’s still the toy I play with the most. Never mind that today it’s worth almost 3 times what I paid for it. But Bulldogs are nice solid pieces too.

  12. Bought a CA undercover new in 1972. Could not afford the Smiths back then. Through the years I have used it for main carry, then later as a back up with an ankle holster or just throwing it in my pocket while running to the store or taking a short hike. I have shot hundreds of rounds through it and became quite proficient hitting anything I was shooting at. It has never skipped a beat or misfired because of a mechanical issue. Today I still pull it out of the safe once in a while and throw some rounds down range for old times sake. Don’t know what their current production guns are like, but that old snubby served me well.

  13. The Undercover is a good selling gun. One hand operation a big plus. Very good trigger action vs plastic striker fired guns often sells the gun.

  14. I’ve got a problem with my brand new polished undercover 2in 38. I purchased it brand new unfired from a well known big time gun dealer. At first look it was oily and wrapped in a plastic bag. After wiping it down I discovered that the polished finish was far from acceptable. The barrel,top and bottom, cylinder and grip strap were all just fine but the largest visible area from the hammer all the way don to the trigger on both sides is horrible. Looks like polishing over poor machineing. It is so noticeable that it’s all I can see when I look at it. It gets comments from anyone that looks at it. So the next day I called the factory to complain and they said don’t worry send in and we’ll take a look. They told me for the first month to wait longer so I called every week until the owner of the company called me and said this is a cheap gun not a colt. You get what you pay for. The owner told me that.
    This is an unfired new gun after lots of begging he finally said just for me he’ll try to make it better. It’s been gone now for about 2 months with no updates or emails. Meanwhile I’ve seen a couple more new ones that had perfectly fine finishing. Have you got any suggestions for me.

  15. I like older, 6-shot, .38 Special revolvers. Any opinions on whether:

    1. Charter Arms made-in-Stratford Police Bulldog is preferable to their Stratford-made Police Undercover, or

    2. The Police Undercover is more desirable, or

    3. Neither is better than the other. ?

  16. I would like to know what the writer meant by “not fun to shoot” ? Why?

    Heavy recoil or some other reason.

  17. I have an old Undercover that I picked up cheap years ago. It was pretty rough when I bought it and over the years became inoperable. I kept it around and dismantled it and worked on it a few times, but could never get it to function right. I thought about getting rid of it but never did. Finally, it hit me – contact Charter Arms and see if they can put it back in working order. I had no idea if they would even accept the gun to work on it, considering the state it was in. Anyway, I emailed them and they said “no problem”. Just package it up and send it in and we’ll take a look at it. I sent the revolver along with my spare parts to them. They said they would charge $49 to check it out – it would have been free if I had the original bill of sale. After a couple of weeks, I received the gun back and couldn’t believe it. It was in perfect working order and is as tight and smooth as any revolver I own. They even returned the unused spare parts. For that type of customer service, I’ll be a Charter Arms customer for life.

  18. My wife got the first CA 38, spur-less hammer and shoots it pretty dang good. I then purchased 3 more for the family. My normal bed side gun has been a 1911, however after discussions with the wife this weekend, we now stage her 38 with a crimson trace grip and several reloads as the bedside firearm. Giving her something to shoot as I move for the larger weaponry.

  19. When buying my wife a bigger handgun, she wanted a “roundgun”. Had an AMT 380 Backup, too heavy trigger pull and heavy. Traded for an unfired Charter Arms Undercover. I load 110 grain Sierra JHP bullets, Longshot powder and get 1,000 fps with low recoil and less pressure. My wife LOVES it!! She has small hands, so the small grips are perfect. Fine little handgy!

    1. For anti-human defense,stick with factory ammo.Otherwise the prosecutor,district attorney,perps lawyer[and jury] will try to crucify you.

  20. I first became acquainted with the CA 38 undercover on CHRISTMAS DAY 1968 (?) when my Father gave my Mother a gift under the Christmas tree. Talk about “Turning the other cheek” ! We lived in a very high crime Baltimore ghetto.
    My Mother wrote to Charter Arms about using +P loads and we have not had any problems with them for over 50 years. If you install “Crimson Trace” they will hold in your hands like glue and give you accuracy MUCH better than regular sub-nose revolvers. I only say this for my Mom’s stainless Charter Arms 38 special undercover that fires flawlessly. I think they have one of the best warranties in the business.
    Sincerely, JS

  21. Good Review, BUT the author forgot to say that Charter Arms makes a mirror image of the uUndercover called the Southpaw. Its designed for Lefties and works great. I have one, and yes, it kicks but I have gotten much faster at reactions, reloading and draws because I don’t have to figure out the right hand reload sequence.Thats the best for me!

  22. I have a Charter Arms .38 special police bulldog that I purchased new back in the mid to late 1970’s that is a 6 shot icon. It shoots straight, never fails, and is easily concealable. I will never part with it. Great gun is the least thing I can say about it.

  23. I have to differ with some of Wilburn Roberts’ conclusions when he states: “When good handguns are hard to come by, those purchasing the traditional big names look elsewhere.” This implies that a ChA handgun is not a good handgun and not a traditional big name in the industry. Neither implication is true. ChA has been making quality handguns since 1964 and has long been considered a big name in the industry. I have carried a blue steel ChA Undercover for 48 years and it has served me admirably well. He further states it is “a new type of hand gun in the supply chain”, but they have been in the business since 1964, 56 years, not a new discovery to most, but perhaps to Mr. Roberts it is. Those who have been around a long time, the ‘seasoned citizen’ crowd long ago learned the value and worth of a Charter Arms handgun……

  24. I have the .40 cal 2 1/4″ barrel Bulldog version. It truly barks when shot, and isn’t particularly smooth. But I don’t care. This weapon is not for target practice; its exclusively a bedroom-located option for when the SHTF. I shot about 50 rounds out of it when I first got it, and since then I only fire it occasionally to remind me of its virtues and vices.

    I considered a stubby S&W, Colt or Charter Arms in .357, but chose the Charter Arms 2 1/4 .40 cal for purely logical reasons: (1) Initial purchase price of the CA .40 cal (which was virtually identical to the CA .357 version) was less than half the price of the S&W or Colt options, (2) .40 cal ammunition isn’t as expensive as .357 and i alreadh have other .40 cal pistols, so I didn’t have to buy ammo to be used exclusively for this piece, (3) This weapon isn’t an investment piece. I don’t expect to sell any new hand gun and expect to recoup my initial purchase price, or even the lion’s share of it. That said, if I did sell the CA .40 cal, my loss would be less than the loss upon sale of the comparable Colt or S&W weapon. So: less expensive initial cash outlay, less expesive operating cost, and less of a hit when I finally dispose of it.

    It is a good looking weapon but, like all other polished wheel guns, its finish is difficult to clean after firing, aprticularly the nooks and crannies in and around the cylinder.

    Overall, it does exactly what I want it to, at a price I thought acceptible.

  25. I carried a Charter Arms .44 Special for years as a backup to my S&W 29. Over the years, I developed a lot of respect for it and other Charter Arms revolvers. It never let me down!

  26. I’ve owned and carried the .38 Special Undercover since the late 1970s as a off duty gun, a back-up and a concealed vehicle weapon. As such I’ve qualified with it many times. You have to mind your snubbie fundamentals but it is generally trouble free, as accurate as any snub nose and solid. Because of its light weight it’s easy to conceal with appropriate leather.

  27. Do what I did and buy the Charter Arms Mag Pug. As a 357 it can fire both that and 38 Special. Man that thing a hand cannon with hot 357 rounds!

  28. Enjoyed the article. I liked the 5 shot 44 special model. I let my best friends wife shoot it, and she fell in love with it. My friend married out of his species, and snagged an angel. I had to give her the .44 Pug.
    Not the end of the story, though.
    I discovered Charter Arms now added another model:
    Mag Pug XL .41 Rem Magnum 5 shot. I fell in love, and we are now inseparable! (I called customer support, and they still use a Berrylium Copper firing pin.)

  29. I grew up firing my late father’s Undercover in .38, alongside his Dan Wesson .357. Sadly, he sold them to pay bills before he passed away, but the memory is a fond one.

  30. I carry a Charter Arms Southpaw in .38 Special around the house and while doing yard work. It does everything I want it to do, and Charter Arms is the only company that seems to want the business of the 10% of the population who are left-handed. Just wish they made their .32 H&R Magnum version in a lefty configuration.

  31. I’ve carried an ’80’s vintage Off-Duty .38 on quite a few mountain biking trips over the years, most recently in a Sneaky Pete holster with an extra speed loader. Solution to the undersized wood grips was a Pachmayer fingergroove with the bottom 3/4″ bobbed off. Piece is still plenty accurate should there be a run-in with a cougar or wolf.

  32. As a southpaw I really enjoy shooting my Charter Arms “Southpaw.” This is a true left handed version of the “Undercover” with everything reversed for us lefties. Lightweight, 15oz empty, easy to carry, decent sights, accurate at the ranges intended. Excellent carry pistol.

  33. I own a 1968 blued Undercover .38 special. When I got it, used, I also had a Taurus Model 80, a S&W Model 28 .357 mag and an Astra .44 mag. I expected the little Charter Arms to kick like the Taurus, which is to say, not much. First time at the range, with a firm hand, I grasped the short, fat, rounded grip, aimed and pulled the trigger. It almost jumped out of my hand! It was much harder to hold than the massive model 28 firing .357 factory! I ended up not shooting it much that day, and understood why I got it cheap. Since then, I have learned to improved my grip on the weapon, holding it high and hard. It still shoot crisp, but is reliable, accurate and highly concealable. The action is smooth and satisfying. I’ve kept it for 22 years!

  34. First pistol I ever bought was Charter Arms .357 Mag. 40 years later, I am keeping my eye out for a good used Charter Arms .44 Special snubbie. They may not be the most expensive pistols around, but they’ve never failed me, either.

  35. I have owned a charter arms SOUTH PAW for many years. the cylinder swings out to the right pretty novel idea there.Its the same as any other one except for that.Great to carry when I feel like carrying a lighter weapon.It is pretty accurate at short ranges,7-8 yards or so as it was intended to be.I wouldnt hesitate to recommend one if someone was looking for a snubby especially in todays environment.

  36. My then boyfriend bought one for me in the mid 70s, but recoil was way too much for my small hands so I gave it back to him. I now carry a Bersa Thunder 380 which is so much easier for me to shoot. He still carries the Charter Arms 38 from time to time.

  37. I have owned three Charter Arms revolvers. My first is one from the early days of their “start-up.” It is an excellent weapon. The other two are relatively new. They are both excellent weapons. I have chosen never to use +P ammo in my Charters. With standard ammo, they work well in my opinion.

    Thank you for this article on Charter Arms revolvers. It was informative and well written.

  38. To Lefty: both of your wishes are available from Charter.
    I have owned a couple dozen Charter Arms revolvers since my first one in 1978 or 79. They are good reliable revolvers. My advice is to leave them alone and just shot them, as opposed to trying to do “action jobs” on them as many folks want to do. They are difficult to disassemble and even harder to put back together. Sturdy, reliable, and accurate is enough. Great little guns. All use the same grips which makes it nice. The 45acp version kicks.

  39. The Charter Arms undercover was the first snubnose 38 I owned back in the mid 70’s I traded it for a Smith and Wesson snubnose 357 when I joined the police department but eventually got another undercover because it was my preferred off duty carry. I’ve owned several snubnose revolvers over the years but that actually is my favorite. This nostalgic moment now has me thinking I should own another one.

  40. We own 2 of these in 38 and 32 HR Magnum. They are both in pink for my wife. I added CT to Mag for her to use in the house. She is deadly with them within the 25 yd range with or without the CT. She carries one always and loves the grips.
    We had an early issue with the anodization, Charter took it back and redid it with no charge. A really good gun from a great company.
    If they made a 327 Magnum I would own that as well, but I have a Taurus for that.

  41. I carried and shot what I thought was Charter Arms Bulldog “first offering” in 44 special for years until the top strap fractured and became history. I loved that gun and the caliber and have always been somewhat surprised that 44 Specials are not more popular because of their far more controllable characteristics than the 357 Magnum in the similar weight guns.

  42. I carried a Charter Arms .38 Special on my ankle as my backup piece. It has served me admirably for the past decade or so. At 5 to 7 yards it is dead on! I am very fond of it. I have a set of very nice rosewood secret service grips on it that contrast poorly with the black finish of the weapon. A Don Hume custom leather holster places it nicely under my belt when an ankle holster would clash with my Bermuda Shorts and sandles.

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