Project Road Rash: Resurrecting a Charter Arms Undercover 38 Special Revolver

Charter Arms Undercover 38 Special
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Project Road Rash: Resurrecting a Charter Arms Undercover 38 Special Revolver

In the world of firearms, every gun has a story, and sometimes, those stories begin with a less-than-glorious past. This was precisely the case when I stumbled upon an early Charter Arms Undercover 38 Special revolver in an online auction. With a bid of just $52 plus shipping, I embarked on what could best be described as a rescue mission.

The revolver presented itself in a condition that might make even seasoned gun enthusiasts hesitate. The auction photos revealed deep scratches and gouges across its surface, painting a picture of a firearm that had seen better days—much better days. It looked as though it had been thrown from a speeding car on the highway, bearing the scars of a rough and tumble life.

Described by the seller as being in rough shape with a good bore but a locked-up action, this Undercover model was crying out for someone to see its potential beyond its battered exterior. My decision to place a bid was driven by more than just the prospect of owning a piece of firearm history; it was about rescuing what I saw as the equivalent of a homeless dog at the pound. This revolver wasn't just a project—it was a snapshot of a piece of time in the firearms industry and it deserved a second chance. Better I got my hands on it and wasted even more money trying to save it instead of being purchased to part out!

The History of Charter Arms

Charter Arms, established in 1964 by Douglas McClennahan and David Ecker, is an American manufacturer of revolvers well-known for its innovation and the quality of its products. McClennahan, an engineer with a background in the aerospace industry, aimed to produce affordable yet reliable revolvers. His approach was to use modern manufacturing techniques and materials to streamline production without sacrificing performance or safety.

The company quickly made a name for itself with the introduction of the Charter Arms Undercover, a five-shot .38 Special revolver, in 1964. The Undercover was designed to be a lightweight, compact, and durable firearm that could be easily carried for personal defense. Its frame was made from aluminum, reducing its weight to a mere 16 ounces, which set it apart from other revolvers on the market that were typically heavier. This model gained popularity for its ease of use, reliability, and affordable price point, appealing to both law enforcement officers for off-duty use and civilians for personal protection.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Charter Arms expanded its product line to include other calibers and models, such as the .44 Special Bulldog, which became renowned for its stopping power in a compact frame. 

Despite facing some financial difficulties and changes in ownership over the years, Charter Arms has maintained a reputation for producing robust and innovative firearms. The company continues to operate with a strong commitment to manufacturing all of its products in the United States, ensuring control over quality and craftsmanship. Today, Charter Arms offers a wide range of revolvers that cater to the modern shooter, including variants of the original Undercover model along with newer designs that incorporate advances in firearm technology and materials.

Charter Arms has stood the test of time by adhering to a philosophy of affordable quality and practical innovation, making it a respected name in the American firearms industry.

The Charter Arms Undercover: A Legacy of Compact Defense

The Charter Arms Undercover model holds a unique place in the history of firearms as a pioneering force in the world of compact revolvers. Introduced in 1964, the same year that Charter Arms was founded, the Undercover was designed to offer an affordable, reliable option for concealed carry.

Historical Significance and Initial Features

The Undercover model quickly distinguished itself with several notable features at its inception. It was designed as a five-shot revolver, chambered in .38 Special, which made it a practical choice for self-defense. One of its most significant attributes was its lightweight design, thanks to its aluminum frame, which weighed in at only 16 ounces. This made the Undercover exceptionally easy to carry discreetly, a key selling point that resonated with private citizens and off-duty police officers alike.

Additionally, the Undercover featured a two-inch barrel, making it compact yet capable of delivering effective accuracy at the range typical of personal defense scenarios. Its simplicity of design, combined with rugged reliability, helped to establish Charter Arms as a notable name in the revolver market.

The Charter Arms Undercover revolver introduced two revolutionary design features that set it apart from its contemporaries and marked significant advancements in revolver technology.

Firstly, the Undercover utilized a unique frame construction that was quite different from other revolvers of the time, which typically featured a one-piece frame with a removable side cover plate for internal access. Designer Douglas McClennahan opted for a more innovative approach by employing a one-piece steel frame that eliminated the need for a side cover plate. Instead, an aluminum grip frame and trigger guard were used, which were lighter yet durable. This assembly allowed all internal components to be inserted from the bottom, with the grip frame then attached to secure everything in place. This design not only simplified assembly but also contributed to a lighter, more robust revolver frame.

Secondly, the introduction of the transfer bar safety mechanism was a groundbreaking improvement in firearm safety. Prior to this innovation, carrying a fully loaded revolver posed a risk; if the revolver was dropped and landed on its hammer, it could inadvertently fire a chambered round. Traditional safety advice was to carry a revolver with the hammer resting on an empty chamber to prevent accidental discharge. McClennahan's transfer bar safety changed this. The mechanism involves a bar that sits between the hammer and the firing pin, which prevents the hammer from making contact with the firing pin unless the trigger is fully pulled. This allowed individuals to safely carry the revolver fully loaded, significantly enhancing both the safety and readiness of the firearm.

These innovations not only enhanced the functionality and safety of the Undercover but also influenced revolver design standards industry-wide, with the transfer bar safety mechanism becoming a common feature in modern revolvers.

The Modern Undercover

Today, the Charter Arms Undercover continues to be revered in the firearms community, though it has seen various updates and improvements reflective of modern manufacturing techniques and materials. The contemporary versions of the Undercover still maintain the essence of its original design but with enhanced features such as:

  • Stainless steel construction: Modern Undercovers often feature stainless steel frames for increased durability and corrosion resistance.

  • Ergonomic grips: Updated models come with ergonomic grips that provide better handling and comfort, which is particularly beneficial during extended shooting sessions.

  • Safety mechanisms: Current models include safety features like transfer bar mechanisms, which prevent accidental discharges if the firearm is dropped.

The modern Undercover models also come in various finishes and may include options like concealed or bobbed hammers, catering to a broad audience looking for specific personal defense needs.

Not a lot has changed from the mid-1960s! The overall design of the Charter Arms Undercover hasn't significantly changed. The only significant updates include a shrouded barrel, stainless steel frame and barrel, grip options (including a laser grip!), and the option of a bobbed hammer. 

Why It's Called "Project Road Rash"

The decision to bid on the battered Charter Arms Undercover revolver stemmed more from intrigue and the potential value rather than its outward appearance. Captured by its remarkably low price and the opportunity to restore a classic, I decided to monitor the auction closely. Ultimately, my persistence paid off, and I won the revolver for just $52 plus shipping costs.

Upon its arrival at my office, the revolver's condition was almost comical, prompting jokes with coworkers about its rough past, joking that it "looked like it had been tossed from a moving car during a police chase." True to the auction's description, the revolver bore the marks of severe misuse with numerous scratches, nicks, and gouges—each seemingly likely from multiple encounters with concrete and force. The cylinder was troublesome to open and wouldn't latch properly, and the action was definitively locked up, confirming that my new project would indeed be a challenging yet rewarding endeavor.

Hmmmmm. Evidence of road rash?

Once I began the restoration process on the Charter Arms Undercover, my initial jest about its rough past quickly turned into a plausible reality. The more I delved into the revolver's condition, the more it seemed likely that it had not only been thrown from a vehicle but possibly even run over by one!

The cylinder was challenging to open and failed to latch properly when closed. More concerning was the significant amount of play in the cylinder when opened—it was so loose that I could completely slide it off the crane, bypassing the cylinder stop without needing any tools. This was unusual and indicative of severe mechanical trauma.

The ejector rod assembly added further proof to my theory. It was visibly bent, and the ejector itself was jamming within the cylinder, preventing smooth operation. On closer inspection, I found that the ejector rod bushing, which plays a crucial role in locking the cylinder against the breech face, had been pushed through the frame. This violent force had torn the metal frame, extending into the cavity where the hand interfaces with the cylinder. This significant damage was the culprit behind the revolver's locked-up condition, confirming that the firearm had indeed endured extreme abuse.

This revelation highlighted the extent of damage and abuse the revolver had suffered, underscoring the challenges ahead in its restoration.

Deeps scratches and gouges are evident. Function was non-existent! 

The Repairs Begin!

Upon disassembling what I've affectionately termed "Project Road Rash," my first task was to address the damage around the breech face, where the hand protrudes through the frame to engage the cylinder. Utilizing a collection of sturdy, hardened flat-head screwdriver tips and a metal punch, I managed to reshape the cavity back to a semblance of its original form. Although some material was inevitably lost around the area where the cylinder latch protrudes through the frame to engage with the cylinder, the essential structural integrity was restored. The cavity for the hand is now roughly back to the functional shape it needs to be, setting the stage for further restoration efforts.

This damage appears to have been caused by some kind of heavy force having forced the cylinder open without the cylinder latch having been used, leading me to believe this may have actually been run over by a car! This was causing the hand to bind, resulting in a frozen action for the revolver.

Here is the area of the cylinder latch and hand cleaned up. It still needs a little work, but it's getting there!

Moving forward with the restoration of Project Road Rash, I turned my attention to addressing the issues with the cylinder and crane. Fortunately, I managed to find a parts kit from a disassembled Charter Arms Undercover for only $32. This was a great find as it included a complete crane/cylinder assembly.

I eagerly began the process of test fitting the new components to the frame. The fitment was noticeably tighter than the original unit that came with the revolver, which had a bent ejector rod assembly. However, despite the improved fit, the new crane/cylinder combination still exhibited a bit of sloppiness. It was prone to slipping off the gun past the cylinder stop. This indicated that while the replacement parts were an improvement, further adjustments would be necessary to ensure a secure and proper fit to fully restore the revolver's functionality.

To address the persistent issue of sloppiness in the crane's interface with the frame, I resorted to a rather unconventional but effective adjustment tool: a hammer. By delivering a solid, well-aimed strike to the front of the frame where the crane secures into the frame with a brass hammer, I began the process of refining the fit. After each hit, I carefully assessed how the crane and the cylinder interacted with the frame and cylinder stop. This process was repeated four or five times, each strike bringing the mechanism closer to the desired tightness. With each adjustment, the movement of the crane improved significantly, and the cylinder was reliably halted by the cylinder stop on the frame. This method, while crude, proved effective in achieving a satisfactory and secure fit, vital for the proper function of the revolver.

With a little fitting aided by a brass hammer, the crane and cylinder assembly from the parts kit I scored fit nicely and have restored some of the function of this trashed little revolver!

What's In Store For Project Road Rash Next?

As we wrap up part one of restoring Project Road Rash, it's time to briefly pause to handle other duties around the home (chores assigned by the wife, ha!). Yet, before setting the revolver aside, curiosity got the better of me, and I couldn't resist trying on a new set of grips and a grip extension. Seeing the potential transformation ignited a wave of excitement about the revolver's future.

I couldn't resist the urge to mock up Project Road Rash with some new grips and a grip extension. This trashed revolver has the potential to turn out nice!

The next steps in the restoration of Project Road Rash will focus on addressing the scratches and gouges on the metal. This phase is critical, as the outcome will influence my decision on whether to keep the current barrel or replace it with the cleaner one from my parts kit. After smoothing out the metal surfaces, I'll prepare them for a rust bluing process, setting the stage for the final reassembly. Stay tuned for part two of this restoration journey, where we'll dive into the detailed refinishing process and reassembly of this classic Charter Arms Undercover!

Project Preview: Vintage Charter Arms .38 Rescue
Project Road Rash: Resurrecting a Charter Arms Undercover 38 Special Revolver Part 1
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