The gun world seems to have a love/hate relationship with the Charter Arms Bulldog. But I wanted to know, how does it serve as a personal defense firearm? Before we get into that, though, let’s cover a little background on the revolver.
Small concealable revolvers have always been popular for personal protection. Historically, the simple design, loading, unloading, and ease of operation has resulted in many shooters trusting these types of firearms over other styles of self defense handguns—for many firearms owners, this viewpoint is still held today. By the 1950s, small frame revolvers, chambered in .38 Special, were the norm and, arguably, the best one could get in a reliable, powerful package.
When former Ruger employee Doug McClenahan designed the Charter Arms Bulldog in 1973 for his new company, Charter Arms, it was a game changer. Designed with a one piece frame for a stronger and more reliable firearm, the Bulldog was also chambered for the potent .44 Special round. This easily doubled the power of the .38 Special while retaining a similar, compact, size of the popular wheelguns of the .38 Special cartridge.
While the gun and company have seen changes over the years, the basic design has essentially remained the same, and the modern Charter Arms Company is producing revolvers of high quality. The preceding companies that produced the model before the resurgence of Charter Arms was beset by quality control issues and many experienced shooters relate that the Bulldog revolver was a “bad gun.” I bought a brand new Charter Arms Bulldog .44 Special with a 2.5 inch barrel in August 2013 just to see if there was any merit to the criticism I encountered about the gun. I set out to put the gun through its paces myself.
Like many small framed revolvers, the Charter Arms Bulldog holds five rounds of ammunition in the cylinder and has a safety bar underneath the hammer that prevents the gun from firing if it is dropped. The Bulldog was designed to compete with Colt and Smith and Wesson .38 caliber revolvers of the day, and upon comparing it to my Smith and Wesson Chief’s Special I found the only noticeable difference was the Bulldog’s additional ¼ inch cylinder thickness. That difference can likely be explained by the need to accommodate a larger round, and it isn’t enough to make the gun uncomfortable for me to carry. Like any other double action revolver, it may be fired by either cocking the hammer to the rear and pulling the trigger (firing single action) or simply pulling the trigger (double action). The trigger pull breaks crisply in either DA or SA. The single action trigger weighs in at a light three pound pull. The double action trigger pull, the manner generally preferred for self defense, is a bit heavy, but still smooth at about 9 pounds.
The base model that I reviewed has an exposed hammer, fixed sights, and a 2.5 inch barrel. There are other models available that include longer barrels, concealed hammers, and target sights to suit your needs. A Neoprene rubber grip, which fills my entire hand, comes standard on the new models. The finishes on these stainless steel guns are numerous. The base model—the one I own—features a satin stainless finish. Unlike the original Bulldog, the new models have a metal cover or shroud that protects the ejector rod from being damaged. The Bulldog runs about 22 oz. in weight and is available in either .44 Special or .357 Magnum. Both cartridges are surprisingly versatile with loads available for all manner of game and defense. The .357 Magnum version can shoot .38 Special ammunition and the .44 Special can also shoot .44 Russian ammunition for the particularly recoil-sensitive shooter (although, I find the .44 Special loads sufficiently soft on the hand). What I find most appealing about the Charter Arms Bulldog is that this American-made defense package retails for about $400.
Loading and Firing
Loading and unloading the Charter Arms Bulldog is the same as most double action revolvers available today. Push the cylinder release forward (that is, toward the gun’s muzzle), and the cylinder frees from the frame. Load your ammunition and close the cylinder shut, just be sure not to utilize that Hollywood wrist flick to do it; Clint Eastwood may be able to get away with it, but in the world off the silver screen, that maneuver could damage your firearm. Unloading is just as straightforward as opening the gun again and stroking the ejector rod rearward. The cases are extracted and fall free so you can reload.
The ammunition I used in my initial testing was Double Tap defensive hollow point ammunition. The bullets are lighter, but faster than the slower moving 246 grain lead bullet used in most .44 Special loads. The copper jacketed 200 grain bullets of the Double Tap HPs fly with an advertised muzzle velocity (out a 2.5 inch barrel) at about 1000 feet per second with about 450 ft-pounds of energy (you can compute the ammo “power” using the simple ballistics calculator here). I put one hundred rounds downrange from a distance of seven and fifteen yards away. The gun’s full grip allowed me to manage the snappy recoil; fast shooting wasn’t difficult, but I found my bullets consistently landed low, although still on target.
Unsatisfied, I felt my work was not done. I grabbed the cameras and a box of PMC 190 grain jacketed hollow point ammunition in February 2014 and set out for one last showdown. After my fifty round box of rounds was gone I managed what I felt to be a good group. My best was a five shot group, consistently hitting low, but still on target (using a 12″ diameter target) at seven yards. FOr my own preferences, I find that kind of grouping acceptable from a defensive handgun.
The sub-par quality of Charter’s predecessor companies and the appearance of Charter Arms firearms in association with some violent crimes publicized by broadcast media have served to tarnish the company’s and the gun’s reputations unfairly. In the experiences I’ve had with the Charter Arms Bulldog in my range time, I’ve found the Bulldog to serve well in its niche as a basic, affordable, functional handgun chambered for excellent defense calibers. A firearm that is small enough to go places with the power for the streets and the woods. The scrappy Bulldog will do the job.