September 2006

Three Stainless Snubbies: We’d Pass On Charter’s Undercover

We liked Smithís M60 and Rugerís SP101 five-shooters, but Charterís Undercover bound up in double-action operation and was difficult to load quickly ó a definite Donít Buy.

The Ruger SP101 in .357 Magnum, top, may look shinier than the other two, but we didnít get much glare off it. The matte finish of the Charter .38 Special, center, was totally glare free, though its surface was resistant to cleaning. It had DA problems. Bottom, we preferred the Smith M60 in .357 Magnum to the Ruger despite its higher cost. The Smith M60 inspired the most confidence in our shooters, who said it felt the most ďrightĒ in its operations. It would be even better with a matte finish.

Despite many competing autoloading pistols, the five-shot snubnose revolver still has lots of fans. In fact, some of those fans are among our test crew. Once limited to .38 Special, the snubby may now be found chambered in .357 Magnum. A small 2-inch revolver has a lot going for it in self-defense situations. Its irregular shape is often easier to conceal than the relentless slab of an autoloader. There are no magazines to fall out. As Elmer Keith put it, if you have any part of a revolver, you have it all. They are generally reliable for five shots, and can be recharged quickly with a speed loader. Despite what you see in the movies, most gunfights are over with the firing of only a shot or two. Though snubbies had pretty bad sights in the past, recent ones have excellent sights. The guns can be extremely accurate, though you may have to work to prove it. Of course a revolver will handle any level of ammunition, from primer-propelled wax bullets to the hottest loads. And there are no failures to feed. Not ever.

Many snubbies are made with hidden hammers, and we’ve looked at some of those over the past months, but it’s been awhile since we looked at the old standby with its protruding, easily cocked hammer. These may not work all that well out of the pocket, but work fine from a holster. With fixed sights and a short sight radius, these are not among the best plinkers, but well suited for self defense. The three test guns we acquired were the Ruger SP101 ($530), the Charter Arms Undercover ($325), and the S&W Model 60 ($623). All three are stainless-steel five-shooters with fixed sights.

The Smith and the Ruger handle .357 Magnum ammo. For this test we chose the Charter Undercover, which is .38 Special only. Charter makes a .357 version called the Mag Pug, which is similar to the Smith and Ruger, but is much heavier than the Undercover and has a ported barrel which we didn’t care for. So we gave the lighter Undercover a chance, with an eye toward easier carry. Because of the limitation of the Charter to .38 Special, we did most of our testing with .38 Special ammo, but did try some .357 loads in the other two. That doesn’t mean we stuck with light loads. Far from it. Our most interesting test ammo was the heavy-bullet Buffalo Bore load designed to be similar to the old FBI round with lead bullet, but this time featuring a soft, Elmer-Keith-type, 158-grain cast hollowpoint lead SWC with a gas check to prevent leading. (See sidebar.) These loads are put together with flash-free powder, and gave little visible blast at night from these snubby revolvers. We also tested with Black Hills cowboy-level cast-bullet loads, with Winchester’s Super-X 130-grain JHP, and — in the two .357s — Federal’s Hi-Shok 130-grain JHP. Here’s what we found.

Many shooters have no idea Ruger makes a five-shot snubnose. In fact, this gun is available in .38 Special +P (KSP-821X), or in our test version in .357 Mag at the same price, both with the same specifications. This was a clean design, with a polished but not glossy finish to its stainless. The wrap-around rubber grips were wide at the back for comfort, and had hard black plastic inserts in the sides with serrations to aid tactile feel and to help the hand glide into position. We liked the Ruger’s grips.

The cylinder swung out readily with a push on the button. The cylinder needed chamfering on its chamber openings, we thought. The edges were razor-sharp, and cartridge insertion was sticky. The cylinder was secured with a clever hinged latch at the crane. Lockup was good, and stayed that way throughout our testing. The Ruger’s ejector rod had the longest throw of all three guns, at nearly one inch. Thirty-eight Special cases are about 1.125 inches long, so they weren’t pushed all the way out, but a normal kick to the ejector would fling the empties clear of the cylinder. This gun was the heaviest of the three, and had a solid feel that caused us to use it first to try out the Buffalo Bore ammo.

The sights were pretty good, with an excellent sight picture. The front sight was a pinned-in, blued blade of adequate width with a serrated, ramp-shaped rear surface. The rear sight was integral with the frame, a square-bottom notch of adequate width and depth to give a fast, clean sight picture. The DA pull was smooth and controllable, with a pull of just under 12 pounds. The SA pull was clean and consistent, but heavy at 5.6 pounds. Workmanship was very good, we thought. The Ruger SP101 gave us a feeling of confidence and security. It felt like we could feed it a diet of hot .357 ammunition for many years to come, and it would hardly complain.

At the range, we found the gun shot to its sights, the only one of the three to do so, though the Smith was not far off. The Ruger gave the best [PDFCAP(2)] of the trio. We had a bit of trouble with fast pairs shot DA, but that was our own limitation, and we felt it would go away with practice. The DA pull was a touch longer than the Smith, but workable, we thought. The Ruger weighed half a pound more than the Charter, and 3 ounces more than the Smith, an issue for all-day carry.

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The Charter Undercover has been around a long time. It was the lightest of the three test guns, and we liked its overall feel. The stainless was matte finished, which we much preferred to that on the other two guns. It was, in that respect, the most businesslike, and produced no glare to blind the shooter. The grip panels were of a relatively firm black rubber, which, as on the other two guns, enclosed the back strap and helped distribute recoil. The sights were very good, showing a clean picture to the shooter, but with a gray, unserrated, integral front blade that could disappear in some lighting conditions. If we owned it we’d matte the front sight and paint it red. Oddly, the rear sight could not be seen with the hammer down. This didn’t slow us during our rapid-fire pairs. We simply elevated the front sight so we could see it and then shot. The gun tended to hit low, so this worked well. The gun also shot to the left, but we could do nothing about that.

The latch of the Charter didn’t feel solid. The crane could be seen to flex quite a bit right from the start, with attendant misalignment of the cylinder to the barrel. All three guns showed some slight motion of the cylinder, but the Charter was the loosest. All three guns locked their cylinders much better with the hammers fully cycled into the just-fired state, hammer down and trigger back, though the Charter was still the loosest. The slight looseness was a problem with the heavy Buffalo Bore loads, which spit back at the shooter severely, a common occurrence with misalignment. The barrel-to-cylinder gap was noticeably wider on the Charter than on the other two. We also noted the Charter’s chambers showed rough machining compared with the others, which were mirror-smooth.

On the range we got decent accuracy out of the Undercover, but hits at 15 yards were about six inches low and left. One of the smallest groups of this test series came from the Charter with Black Hills’ 158-grain cowboy-action ammo. It went 1.4 inches for five shots. But we had problems with this gun. First was the fact that two of the empties bumped into the grip panels and would not eject. This could be fixed by cutting away the rubber, but surely the factory ought to have tested this and fixed it before the gun ever left the factory. A speed loader bound against the grips and was impossible to use, a no-no for self-defensive use. We liked the Charter’s pointing very much. It hit close to center during our rapid-fire five-yard double taps and was fast and easy to shoot, but in the DA work we found a problem.

As often as not the Undercover would not cycle DA at all. It would bind up completely, so the trigger could not be moved rearward, making the gun useless. The bolt did not release the cylinder, locking it despite all pressure on the trigger, so it was impossible to fire the gun. Yet it could always be cocked manually. When it worked, the Charter’s DA pull felt pretty good, we thought, with a final pull weight of 12 pounds. The single-action pull had a distinct "click " at just under 4 pounds, and broke at 4.5. It was workable, but not entirely to our liking.

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Smith began producing a small, five-shot revolver designed around the .38 Special cartridge in 1950, and in the process, designed a new frame size that was to be known as the J frame. The new .38 revolver was named, at the request of S&W, by the suggestions from a gathering of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, at which the gun was first presented in late 1950. The most-suggested name was Chiefs Special (no apostrophe). The gun was a huge success, and within a couple of months was also offered with a 3-inch barrel. A few years later, the Chiefs Special was the gun responsible for S&W’s entry into the world of stainless-steel revolvers, with the introduction of the stainless Chiefs Special, in 1965. Its success was overwhelming, and this led the way for the entire firearms industry to look to stainless steel as a viable material for guns.

Now called the Model 60 and chambered in .357 Magnum, the stainless Chief is a close copy of the earliest Chiefs Special, including the glossy finish. The early Chiefs were, like our test sample, brightly polished. This was objectionable back then, and we found it to be objectionable today. During our chronographing in bright sunlight, the glint off the rear face of the frame was so bright we could hardly look at the gun, much less see the sights. The gun needs to have a matte finish overall, we thought. The Ruger’s beveled rear frame edge and less-glossy finish gave much less glare, and the Charter gave exactly none.

That notwithstanding, we liked this gun a lot. It was a good-looking handgun that felt better to most of our shooters than the other two. They had the most confidence in it, though it didn’t have the finest overall accuracy. The workmanship on the S&W was outstanding. The fit and finish were very well done, and the cylinder locked up almost — but not quite — as tightly as the Ruger’s. The ejector stroke was a touch shorter, though not as short as the Charter’s. The sights were very similar to Ruger’s with a blued, ramped, serrated, pinned-in front blade, and with a squared rear notch in the frame.

The black rubber grip was comfortable, though neither the Smith nor the Charter could match the Ruger for recoil reduction. The Ruger’s weight and wide, flat, soft grip was unbeatable for shooter comfort. But we very much liked the feel of the Smith’s grip and the control it gave. The grip was relieved so we could get all five empties out of the gun easily, and a speed loader worked well with it. The same speed loader also worked well with the Ruger but, as noted, jammed on the Charter’s grips. The Smith had slightly beveled chamber mouths, a nice touch. It also had an action lock built in, absent on the other two guns.

Gun Tests Recommends

Ruger SP101 .357 Magnum No. KSP-321X, $530. Buy It. There were no problems with the Ruger. The only thing anyone noticed was a tendency for the ejector rod to wobble because of the crane-latch design, but ejection was always flawless with no binding or other problems. Recoil was not a problem with even the hottest load tested, Buffalo Bore’s fine 158-grain SWC HP. We found the Ruger easy to shoot with its comfortable grips and hefty weight (26 ounces), but we would not want to pack it all day if there were any lighter choices. We found the Ruger to be a well-made, solid revolver that would handle even the hottest .357 loads with good comfort and good accuracy, and we suspect it’ll keep doing so for many years to come. We’d like it more if it were lighter.

Charter Arms Undercover .38 Special No. 73820, $325. Don’t Buy. The DA pull was clearly faulty here. The Charter never failed us during single-action firing. We could not make it lock up that way, so the problem was confined to its double-action mechanism. It may be an easy fix. We’ll have the factory look at it, and hope to report on it soon. Some of our shooters liked the feel of the Charter more than the other two, and its light weight. It did give decent accuracy. It was also controllable — not painful — with the stout Buffalo Bore ammo. But for now, we must give the little gun a Don’t Buy rating.

Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum Model 60 No. 162420, $623. Buy It. On the range the Smith performed well enough. It got its best accuracy with the Black Hills cowboy ammo, but did fairly well with almost everything. Unfortunately, it got its worst accuracy with the Buffalo Bore 158-grain SWC HP, which some of us now believe is the best defensive .38 Special ammo available. In looking for a reason, we found the Smith has unusual rifling, with no sharp corners between the lands. The corners of the grooves were radiused. We suspect this easily cleaned design did a poor job of grabbing the soft-cast, lead-alloy bullets, leading to questionable accuracy. The single-action trigger pull was outstanding, breaking cleanly at 3.0 pounds. The DA pull was crisp, the best of all three guns, and the fastest of the three for most of our shooters. The gun hit a bit high with all loads, but windage was okay. We had no other trouble with the Smith except for its glaring finish. We would be quite happy with the Smith Model 60, and would choose it over the chunky Ruger despite its C-note greater cost, even if we had to etch the glaring surfaces.

Also With This Article
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-Written and photographed by Ray Ordorica, using evaluations from Gun Tests team testers.

Ruger SP101 .357 Magnum Model KSP-321X, $530

overall accuracy

Charter Arms Undercover .38 Special No. 73820, $325

Smith & Wesson Model 60 .357 Magnum No. 162420, $623

"Buffalo Bore's Potent 158-Grain .38 Special"