Bobbed-Hammer .38 Specials: We Pick a Concealed Champion
The small-framed five-shot revolver remains the standard bearer of concealed weaponry. We test five products from S&W, Taurus, and Charter to see which one won’t wear you out.
[IMGCAP(1)] It used to be that buying a five-shot .38 Special revolver was much like shopping for a screwdriver. After all, both items were nothing more than simple, reliable tools. Likewise, in guns as in tools, the available choices have always been between name-brand items and the “cheapies” piled into a bin next to the cash register. But dollar-wise, the difference in price between a Stanley and a no-name screwdriver is a pittance, while the gap between today’s least expensive five-shooter and the most expensive model is huge.
What do these additional hundreds of dollars buy the revolver shooter? We didn’t know, so we gathered a range of products including Charter 2000’s Undercover ($259), the duo of Taurus’s M85CH ($305) and the new $514 M85CH ULT, and the tag team of the “hammerless” Smith & Wesson Models 442 ($501) and 342PD ($714). As you can see, the published MSRPs show a gap of more than $400 between the Charter 2000 revolver and the top-of-the-line Smith & Wesson, and we realize those prices don’t necessarily reflect street costs. But we have seen retail prices as low as $199 for the new Charter product and more than $500 for Smith’s 342 PD titanium revolver—a sizable spread of $300.
Would we find the 342PD to be worth its premium price tag, or would the Undercover or another less expensive gun fit the bill? Range work would provide the answer, so we got started.
What’s The Job?
To decide which small revolver was most capable of protecting its owner, we evaluated the guns on their reliability, concealment, power, and accuracy, in that order. All of the test guns had bobbed or concealed hammers to improve concealability, and in most cases titanium and aluminum materials created less weight and a smaller print when stowed in a purse, attaché, or pocket.
For example, two guns featured titanium and aluminum-alloy construction, the Smith & Wesson Centennial 342PD and the new Taurus M85CH ULT, and Smith’s 442 was made largely of an aluminum alloy. The M85CH from Taurus featured the more traditional steel construction with dark-blue finish. Our fifth choice was from the reincarnation of the Charter Arms company, now referred to as Charter 2000. Charter’s product was a carbon- and stainless-steel revolver.
Even with the wide range in prices and materials, we never suspected there would be so much to learn from guns with only five chambers.
Due to the short sight radius offered by these snub-nosed revolvers and the lack of adjustment in their notch and post sights, we chose to keep the maximum distance for group shooting from a sandbag rest to thirty feet. This is about the length of the average living room, and we didn’t want to put our test staff in the position of feeling they could not control the sight picture. Actually, we found our eyes were very comfortable with the relation of the sights and the 3-inch bull provided by Midway’s pistol targets, (800) 992-8312. Only the most expensive revolver in the test, the Smith and Wesson 342PD, offered a hint of adjustability since its front sight was pinned in place. Perhaps a different-height front blade could be installed to change elevation. On the other guns, you are stuck with filing down the front sight to adjust elevation. Bullet velocity and mass play a big part in elevation changes, so your best choice in the long run may be to match each gun to a specific cartridge to reconcile point of aim with point of impact.
Otherwise, we felt our test session proved which gun was the best shooter, but we considered reliability, not accuracy, to be the first-ranked criterion on which to judge the guns. As a result, our test featured a great deal of attention to function. Also, we judged how well our test guns concealed, how easy they were to operate, how easy and comfortable they were to shoot, and how long they might last. Here’s what we found:
Our recommendation: Don’t Buy. This $305 steel wheelgun proved unreliable and will be returned for warranty work. Between the short mainspring and the reduced mass of a bobbed hammer, it may not have produced enough power to drive the inertial firing pin. The standard hammered model may be a better choice.
The M85CH we purchased was a traditional blued-steel gun and the heaviest one in the test. We think Taurus should turn the clock back and return to putting the firing pin (often referred to as a nose pin) on the hammer of this gun. A number of companies, Smith & Wesson included, have begun using inertial firing pins on their revolvers for safety reasons. In this design, the hammer face is flat and strikes a firing pin that rides on a spring inside a channel. This is supposed to be safer than having a nose pin directly attached to the hammer. We attribute the misfires we had with this gun to the function of the inertial firing spring, which lacked enough energy to ignite a live primer.
We experienced misfires due to light hits on the primer with all three brands of test ammunition as well with factory reloads from 3D. We had no such problem with the higher priced Taurus Ultra-Light Titanium (ULT) model.
Though the gun’s reliability was a fatal flaw in our judgment, we also found other problems. Another strike against the 85CH is its weight. Carrying it would be more noticeable, but we have to point out that some of the titanium guns are so light you could forget you have them with you. That could lead to a Barry Switzer moment, wherein the owner would stroll into an airport metal detector with a 12-ounce gun in his pocket. With the 1.5-pound Taurus in your pocket, you or any former Cowboys football coach probably wouldn’t forget it was there.
Another problem we found was the gun’s cylinder locked up. Normally, this problem occurs because of a lack of space between the rear of the cylinder and the breech face or to interference from a dirty forcing cone shrinking the cylinder gap. In this case, the interruption in trigger pull was caused by a disorientation of the hand that rotates the cylinder via ratchets.
More often seen in bigger revolvers where the percussion from one shot causes the cylinder to unlock and rotate slightly out of time, this premature rotation causes the hand that reaches through the breechface to be out of position in relation to the next ratchet. It is ironic that this malady should strike the one gun in the test that displays any heft at all. One would think that its mass would do a better job of soaking up energy but such was not the case. The addition of a spring-loaded detent in the crane was of little or no consequence in solving the problem.
Also, we noticed there was no key-operated hammer or trigger lock on this M85CH. The gun did have some positives. Its trigger pull weight was 10.75 pounds double action only, while the 85CH ULT’s pull measured a full 2 pounds heavier.
While the blued-steel M85CH displayed only satisfactory accuracy, it did produce the most power with every brand of ammunition we chose. It delivered as much as 270 foot-pounds of muzzle energy at 10 feet firing the Fiocchi 158-grain FMJ.
Taurus M85CH ULT
Our recommendation: Buy. With this gun in our hands, we felt pretty confident at the plate rack, and we liked the black serrated front sight in contrast to the rear notch. The $514 ULT was the second most powerful gun in the group, and it responded to time-tested shooting techniques. However, using rounds loaded with slugs heavier than 130 grains will turn it into an expensive bullet puller. Stick with 125-grain JHPs and let the porting due its job.
The M85CH ULT may well be a watershed gun for Taurus. For years the company has chased Smith & Wesson as the top revolver dog, but for the most part the Brazilian firm has played second fiddle, sometimes hiding behind the rhetoric of producing a more economical gun. At $514 MSRP, the Taurus M85CH ULT is not a budget gun, but is in fact a very good revolver. In this model they do away with some chronic problems and make the best of certain features Taurus has offered all along.
First among these upgrades, this gun stayed locked and we experienced none of the mysterious jamming that has plagued other models. We recently diagnosed this malady after theorizing that there was improper headspace or too small a cylinder gap. (See our review of the Taurus Tracker, page 8 in April 2000; the Taurus M85UL, page 13 in March 1999; the Taurus 445, page 11 in July 1999; and the Taurus 445TBC, page 13 in July 1999). As stated before this is usually a problem in bigger-bore revolvers, and we experienced this same problem when testing the Ruger Super Redhawk in 454 Casull. In any case, the new M85CH ULT was a smooth operator throughout.
We thought the trigger was a little heavy, but we dared not modify the mainspring for fear of misfire. Tampering with mainsprings may be the way to a lighter trigger, but it is also a ticket to disaster. We would say that any trigger work done on these little wheelguns should focus on refining metal-to-metal contact (such as scuffing on left side of the ULT’s trigger) and leave spring rates as high as feasible.
The only hitch we found was in firing the rather powerful Fiocchi ammunition. We had a lock up with this round, but we traced it to the bullet pulling free of its crimp and bridging the gap at the forcing cone. In these very light titanium guns, sometimes the heaviest part is the payload.
When the gun rocks back suddenly, the crimp can’t hold the heavy 158-grain bullet. While some manufacturers such as Charter 2000 warn against the repeated use of the higher pressure (+P) cartridges, we find that bullet weight or the amount of mass that challenges the structure of the gun to be just as injurious as high pressure. Another result of the heavy blows was that the rearward side plate screw backed out, though it remained captured by the grip panel.
The ULT offers a nice contrast in colors. The hammer (which includes a key lock) is silver colored and matches the trigger. The frame, which is actually aluminum, has a satin stainless finish with raised lettering. The cylinder and barrel shroud are matte gray titanium and the front sight is a nicely executed serrated black ramp. The front sight is bordered with three round ports on each side. There is no expansion chamber below these 0.10-inch ports because the short stainless-steel barrel needs all the rifling it can get. Accuracy was at its best with the 125-grain PMC ammunition. We have the sense that this little gun was built specifically around the 125-grain +P cartridge.
We had more fun with this revolver than any of the others. Whereas the coil spring action can be shot quickly, we achieved our most consistent results when staging the trigger. The technique is to pull the trigger until the finger contacts the frame then execute a controlled press until the shot breaks. Staging while simultaneously aligning the sights makes for short work of an 8-inch plate rack at 10 yards, we found.
Smith & Wesson Centennial 442
Our recommendation: Buy. For the intended job of carrying concealed, this is probably the best choice in the test. At real-world prices that range from $340 to $380, we believe the 442 offers a lot of quality for the dollar.
Should all concealment guns be flat black and have a low profile with virtually no protrusions besides a snag-free cylinder latch? Makes sense to us, and that describes our test 442. Also, the firing mechanisms of the Centennials are completely enclosed, which makes the gun slick and keeps dirt out of the gun’s internals as well. This is especially important in a firearm destined to be carried in a pocket or purse where contact with lint and other debris is likely.
While not as trim as the titanium models, the 442’s 16-ounce weight is plenty light. The advantage an aluminum-alloy gun has over the prima donna titanium guns is a wider choice of suitable ammunition. Titanium guns are not recommended for use with lead bullets because of the necessity for a tight crimp against a firm surface. Even when a jacketed bullet is used, malfunctions such as the one that occurred with the 158-grain FMJs in the Taurus ULT can repeat. The 442 is good to go with any .38 Special cartridges you can find.
The most accurate round in both of the Smith & Wesson products was the Fiocchi 158-grain FMJ cartridge. While the higher priced 342PD did break the 1-inch barrier for five shots, the 442 was not far behind. Basically, for an extra $100 we were able to tighten up our groups by one-quarter inch.
However, we’d like to point out that the 342PD was more sensitive to matching point of impact with point of aim. While the 442 was pretty much dead on in the elevation department, points of impact firing the 342PD with the 130-grain standard pressure bullet printed 3 inches low. The lighter but faster PMC 125 JHP +P rounds hit 2 inches low, and the 158-grain slugs printed only 1-inch low at 10 yards from a sandbag rest.
Perhaps the difference between the two guns was a result of their respective weights. We’d also point out that the Taurus Titanium revolver was dead-on in elevation. This could be strictly a product of the height of the front blade, or perhaps the porting had something to do with it as well.
The trigger of the Centennial models are DAO, but they exhibit a long pull that favors the staging technique described earlier. It is almost as if this gun offers the option of single action. Of course you can pull straight through, but we judge the Centennial models as a whole to have the slowest triggers of not only the guns in this test but within the entire Smith & Wesson line.
We doubt guns such as these snubbies will ever be called upon to accept a speed reload, but with their short ejectors, such a task is even more chancy. The ejector on the Taurus revolvers pushes the shells out about 0.655 inch, while the Smith guns push them out only 0.535 inch. The Charter revolver pushes spent cartridges a mere 0.465 inch, but still manages to eject with the most efficiency.
Smith & Wesson Centennial 342PD
Our recommendation: Conditional Buy. At $704 MSRP, this is the most expensive gun in the test, but it is also the lightest, most accurate, and snazziest looking of the bunch. Our sole reservation about recommending it is its cost.
The Centennial 342PD is top of the line. Titanium is used to fashion the cylinder and support pins. All titanium parts show as flat gray against the flat black finish of the aluminum-alloy frame and barrel shroud. The working part of the barrel is a stainless-steel sleeve. The PD designation refers to the more expansive barrel fluting and dark color scheme.
Further upgrades from the less expensive 442 and 342Ti models include an interchangeable front sight blade that features a red plastic insert. The barrel shroud is sculpted to support the wider front sight stanchion and includes an underlug that covers the ejector rod as well. The trigger is blackened rather than left with a case-hardened look, and the one-piece grips are pebble finished with deep finger grooves.
While the 442’s grips appear to be the two-piece boot grip from Michael’s of Oregon, the grips on this gun are actually the new Bantam grip from Hogue. This is a snap-on grip that does away with the need for a screw, which is sometimes a detriment to a comfortable grip. The Bantam comes with special tool for removal, but in a pinch a credit card will help pry it away from the frame, allowing it to slide off from the bottom. The flip side of not having a screw to get in the way is not having one to take up any slack in the grip. When we took off and then re-installed the grip, we weren’t able to achieve the same close tolerances of the original fit. We mentioned earlier that extremely light guns seem to need more powerful mainsprings, and this often shows up as a heavier trigger pull. The light 342PD came with a 14-pound DAO pull, which we measured as 2 pounds heavier than the trigger on the 442. Both Smith models carry a 28-coil mainspring. The 342PD may carry a heavier trigger-return spring plus there are other lockup points that contribute resistance as well.
This gun weighs about 11.8 ounces with the rubber grips, which means it is lighter than the 342Ti we tested last year in gray with lighter wooden grips. Smith & Wesson shaved off even more weight by cutting the cylinder flutes wider and deeper. Our 342PD shot exceptionally well. This revolver actually liked the larger bullet better, and there was no disruption in service due to unseating a bullet in recoil. Sub 1-inch groups are always welcome no matter what the distance. Accuracy is always a product of a clear sight picture and controllable trigger, and obviously this gun provided both. We feel the color scheme, which takes glare out of the equation is also very helpful.
Charter 2000 Undercover .38 Special
Our recommendation: Best Buy. There used to be more guns sold at retail for under $200. All of them were substandard in quality and usually in pitifully weak calibers. The new Charter has been sold at retail for as little as $199. The difference is this gun will shoot with power and accuracy. However, it needs a little fine-tuning.
The Charter Undercover comes with a two-piece boot-style grip that exposes the butt and the backstrap to reduce overall profile. The gun is made of carbon steel and stainless steel, but we feel its 18-ounce weight is not excessive. The finish is a satin stainless color, and the ejector rod is fully shrouded.
Elsewhere, this gun differs from the others in a number of ways. The ejector rod is not a lockup point, but does telescope into the cylinder, creating two levels of resistance. Spent rounds eject easily because the first stage of pressure is low, building momentum to the plunger into the second stage, forcing the cases to burst out of the gun’s chambers.
Looking at the performance chart, we see the Charter produced the least velocity per test ammo of all the guns in the test. It could be argued that the eagerness to eject is a sign that the individual chambers are not as tight as they could be. However, we would not diminish the effectiveness of the ejector rod’s unique design, since a comparison of cylinder gaps shows the 2000 more than likely leaks power at that point.
Wide cylinder gaps are easily the point at which most of the propellant’s power is wasted, and the Charter’s relatively wide 0.011-inch gap gives us an insight into why it developed fewer foot-pounds downrange. Compare that measurement to the Taurus ULT’s 0.006 inch cylinder gap, 0.009 inch on the 442, 0.008 inch on the 342PD, and a .0025 inch gap on the 85CH.
Still, we think that’s okay because the Charter revolver shot its best groups with the most powerful ammo in the test, Fiocchi’s 158-grain FMJ. Overall, this cartridge proved to be the most accurate round as well, averaging just over 1.4 inches for all groups fired from all guns.
In fact, the Charter 2000 finished only 0.1 inch in average group size behind the most accurate snubbie we found, the $704 342PD. Unlike some of the other guns, the Charter can handle a diet of powerful rounds, which offsets any power bleeding it might exhibit.
However, we paid a price for this accuracy. The trigger on the Charter was characteristically heavy; this we do not mind. However, when placing the index finger through the trigger guard so that the first joint is at the edge of the trigger, a portion of the finger would be pinched between the square edge of the trigger and the frame. Ouch! Our test shooter lost several layers of skin as a result, and the experience yielded a strong comment that any shooter who considers buying this gun should have that problem fixed immediately.
Other characteristics of this revolver worth mentioning are its pinned barrel and the lack of a side plate. Breakdown is from underneath and in the view of some gunsmiths, it’s a little tricky. The hammer intersects the frame just below the rear sight notch and can be distracting, but this is not any different than in the case of the Ruger SP101.
The trigger can be shot quickly or easily staged and controlled, hence the accuracy. The front sight, which is machined into the barrel shroud, seems crude and is the same color as the rest of the gun but it proved quite usable nonetheless. Because of the gun’s low cost, we examined it carefully for signs of undue wear, but at this point, it seems to be holding together as well as any of the other guns.
Gun Tests Recommends
Taurus M85CH, $305. Don’t Buy. We were surprised to find an unreliable sample in a model that has been around for years. Misfires and premature cylinder rotation crossed this revolver off our shopping list pronto.
Taurus M85CH ULT, $514. Buy. Not to be confused with previous models with the suffix ULT, this is an all-new gun that really has something going for it. It is handsome, functions admirably, and is a lot of fun to shoot. However, stick with jacketed ammunition of 130 grains or less for reliable operation.
Smith & Wesson Centennial 442, $459. Buy. Often available for under $400, this gun is becoming a classic. It is not as fancy as the latest titanium guns, but it is still an outstanding design for concealed carry. Considering the amount of use a snubbie typically will get, this is probably the gun we would buy first.
Smith & Wesson Centennial 342PD, $704. Conditional Buy. If you want the best at any price, this is it. It is super lightweight, and had we felt the need to test accuracy at greater distances, we’re sure this gun would have broken away from the pack. But for close-in work, its price is a hefty raise for a little improvement over similar models.
Charter 2000 Undercover, $259. A Best Buy. This gun has not been on the market very long, so the jury is still out regarding its durability and quality piece to piece. But, in our tests, it showed itself to be head and shoulders above other handguns in its price range. Making the gun more comfortable to shoot is all it should need to make it a choice you can depend on.