Not long ago I tested a Charter Arms Undercover Lite 5-shot, 12-ounce revolver capable of handling +P cartridges. Made of aircraft aluminum and stainless steel, this model has a non-reflective finish and distinctive appearance. I found that a 12-ounce gun was light enough to place into a stretchy waist pack for a few miles of trail running. At the end of the test I had a smile on my face and a pile of expended brass.
Law enforcement officers used to choose revolvers because of their simplicity and the fact that they didn’t rely on fragile magazines for their reliability. Autos got better and lighter. Then autos of similar proportions became slimmer, and professionals began adhering to the rule about using the same ammunition for backup.
A few things changed the paradigm. First, the +P cartridges of a few years ago cannot even remotely duplicate the performance of the ones available now. I can easily demonstrate this with a box of Hornady Critical Defense cartridges or with 130-grain Winchester PDX1 Defender cartridges used in this gun, and a fresh mix of Vyse gelatin. Second, the handgun manufacturing techniques and materials are simply better. For example, there are dozens of sub 15-ounce .38 Special revolvers on the market that can handle high pressure cartridges. I have one, and the Charter Arms Undercover Lite is dramatically lighter.
I have tested Charter Arms revolvers before. They have always had a good shooting “feel,” which is a product of their short hammer throw and lock time. The Undercover Lite 53870 was not exactly a custom revolver, but everything was crisp and cylinder lockup was excellent. Charter Arms uses a three-point lockup for the cylinder, and this gun had minimal pitch and yaw in the cylinder.
The stocks (grips) that came with this gun are among the best I have tested on any revolver. They were palm filling and soft enough to soak up the recoil of high performance cartridges. Even large-handed shooters can get a consistent grip without having the little finger floating around on the bottom.
Ok, so why did Lindsey shoot a few times, then swap the Charter Arms stocks out? Two words: Crimson Trace. In fact, when the green laser for this model comes out…
Charter Arms’ products are 100 percent USA made. Not only that, but all of their suppliers are within about an hour of their new Shelton, Conn. manufacturing center. I got a chance to interview Nick Ecker, Owner of Charter Arms, who told me that some of the material suppliers are so close, often their contact is face-to-face rather than over the computer or phone.
The personal business model of Charter Arms is advantageous for the consumer, especially law enforcement officers. First, the company has a production level that emphasizes quality over quantity. Ecker reiterated this point, saying they recognize the current trend in sales is just a spike and they are in business for the long haul. Second, the business model of Charter Arms includes responding to customer needs quickly and personally. Third—and this is the part that I just don’t get—they listen to their customers. Ok, I understand the “listen to customers” part. I just don’t understand how the pink and lavender frame colors are so popular. Ecker told me many customers own several models just because they like pink and lavender—I wouldn’t have seen that coming. Having said that, I shot a Charter Arms Pink Lady DAO on steel last year and, despite its color, the firearm could do some impressive things downrange.
Officers often pick a compact auto over a revolver, assuming the width of the cylinder will detract from its conceal-ability, especially if the gun is carried strong side pocket. The argument in favor of the revolver is its theoretical reliability. Auto gun failures are most often magazine based, followed by ammunition based, if all other factors are “equal.” There are secondary arguments that are statistically limited, like the fact that autos do not fire well while tangled in clothing (fired from a pocket, etc.) but many of these arguments stem from questionable techniques. Revolvers do not require magazines and ammunition failure is trumped by a follow-up shot—another pull of the trigger.
Undercover Lite models are thinner than most .45s and within 0.010 inches of most pocket-sized handguns like the new Kimber Solo. Continuing the comparison, most Charter Arms models are about half the price of similar guns.
I used 5 Star Firearms speed loaders throughout this test. They’re a favorite because of their use of 6061 aluminum and high quality parts. This is a small company in Illinois—a U.S. manufacturer that will likely make a huge impact in the firearms industry simply because the product is superior. The fact that 5 Star Firearms makes a Zombie Killer version, green with red zombie “blood” is not lost on me either. When carrying a lightweight 5 shot, the thinner, lighter 5 Star Firearms speedloaders also clear synthetic grips better than any other product.
My tests were done using HPR 125-grain TMJ cartridges, which allowed me to shoot a longer session because the cartridges are especially clean burning. For duty ammunition, this gun preferred Winchester’s 130-grain PDX1 Defender cartridges, which do well in terminal performance tests also. Both brands are made in the United States, which, by this time should not surprise the reader.
Charter Arms Undercover Lite revolvers use 8-groove button rifling, which appears to impart consistent downrange stability on the medium weight .38 caliber bullets. I managed to shoot some sub 3-inch groups, and the gun is obviously capable of better accuracy than I can shoot. While the combat fixed sight was designed for snag-free durability, my eyes had no problem putting them on target.
Ammunition failure, by the way, is statistically unlikely for law enforcement products. Regardless, every officer should look at every cartridge before putting it on duty. When in doubt, throw it out.
The best firearms designs are simple and have fewer moving parts and potential wear areas. This is where this model shines. Whenever I field test a revolver I like to “milk” the trigger to a point where the cylinder is out of battery, then see if it comes completely into battery when I give it a full stroke. This revolver couldn’t be fooled. Believe it or not, I found a popular model revolver on the market that can be milked out of battery about half the time.
I found that the hand, the metal latch that engages the bottom of the rotating cylinder, had some sharp edges. This would be completely unnoticeable to most shooters, but I stick two fingers through the frame while reloading. Despite the sharpness of the edges, I wouldn’t trade this design for any other production revolver. There was so little play in cylinder lockup because of these sharp edges, that the down range work was much easier for me.
The ejector is completely shrouded and the barrel is contoured, adding to the overall feel of a handgun designed for unconventional carry and hard use.
Charter Arms does not use the removable side plate design to house its components. Rather, the frame assembly, which is the upper receiver portion, mates with the grip frame and trigger guard, an inherently robust design. In terms of engineering, this allows for a lot of options and easily replaceable components. For Charter Arms, it also means plenty of color options, which I mentioned earlier.
I would change only one thing with this gun. I would take the spurred hammer that came with this firearm and use a spurless hammer instead. Guess what? Charter Arms has this feature covered, too. The replacement part, a spurless hammer, is available for most models, including this one. Since this gun is a keeper I will purchase and install a spurrless hammer to go with it.
Charter Arms handguns use a hammer block safety system, which will not allow the gun to fire unless the trigger is pulled fully to the rear. This design does not affect the smoothness of the trigger or cylinder rotation, but it certainly makes it a safer revolver.
The most important things about this gun, and the reason you are reading this article, are the intangible things. The Charter Arms Undercover Lite 53870 handles well. It is an all-day carry gun that can go out on a date, out for a hike or out on a call and be vigilant until needed. I liked the way it felt behind +P power and I found follow-up shots to be easy.
I believe that a shooter should be able to integrate one’s fighting style with their choice of handguns. I also believe that most shooters can get this gun on target quickly and shoot quickly enough to overcome the threat.
Lindsey Bertomen is a retired police officer and retired military small arms trainer. He teaches criminal justice at Hartnell College in Salinas, California. He has a BS in Criminal Justice and an MS in Online Teaching and Learning. Lindsey has taught shooting techniques for over a decade. He enjoys competing in shooting sports, running and cycling events. He welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.