A .40 S&W bite to back up its bark
By Steve Tracy
Charter Arms is best known for their five-shot .44 Special Bulldog revolver. Gun-savvy police officers have carried this big-bore .44-caliber revolver as a backup gun or off-duty for the last few decades. The Shelton, Conn. manufacturer has been producing American-made firearms since 1964. Their focus has been on snub-nosed guns in .32 Special, .38 Special, .357 Magnum, and .44 Special revolver calibers, priced favorably compared to their competition.
The new Pitbull “charters” fresh waters—it chambers the .40 S&W auto-pistol cartridge. Since its introduction in 1990, the .40 S&W has gained wide popularity with American law enforcement and has become the clear caliber of choice for duty carry. Now you can interchange the same ammo between the pistol on your belt and the revolver on your ankle (or elsewhere).
The .40 S&W cartridge was a joint venture between Smith & Wesson (the handgun) and Winchester (the ammunition). The goal for the cartridge was to match the “medium velocity” version of the 10mm cartridge, which kicked like a .41 Magnum. Using faster burning powder, the reduced recoil version of the 10mm cartridge didn’t need as much space for gunpowder as the full power version, which used slower burning powder. Winchester simply shortened the 10mm case to make the .40 S&W. As a bonus, the new, shortened 10mm cartridge (now .40 S&W) would fit handguns already chambered for the 9mm cartridge.
Revolvers have been able to fire semi-automatic cartridges since the Colt and S&W .45 ACP models of 1917. These two double-action revolvers were created to supplement the shortage of military 1911 auto pistols. Flat metal stampings, called moon clips, were invented to hold two, three or six rounds of .45 ACP ammo. The moon clips prevented rimless semi-auto cartridges from falling through the cylinder chambers.
This interchangeability of pistol and revolver ammo via the use of moon clips also allowed easy extraction of the empty cases. The moon clips also acted like a speed loader. Since the Model 1917s, various revolvers have since been able to fire 9mm, .40 S&W, .45 ACP, and even 10mm rounds, but they all still required the use of moon clips.
The new Pitbull eliminates the need for moon clips. The new auto-pistol caliber revolver loads just like any other revolver. The Pitbull’s innovative design incorporates a dual-coil, spring-loaded assembly in the extractor, which retains each round. A slight push is required to load each round and overcome the minimal spring pressure from the extractors. Once all five chambers are loaded, the little clips keep the cartridges from falling back out again, even if the gun happens to become inverted with its cylinder open.
Small, Light, Stainless
The Pitbull is made from stainless steel and weighs 20 ounces unloaded. Its 2.3-inch barrel includes a shroud to shield the ejector rod. Unlike some previous Charter Arms revolvers, the barrel is not covered with a sleeve. It screws into the frame and the button rifled bore has eight grooves to seal gasses better, which in turn provides more bullet velocity.
The front sight is machined as part of the barrel and is smooth without serrations. Against a dark background, it was easy to see and lined up well with the wide and deep rear notch sight cut into the revolver’s frame. But, against lighter colored backgrounds, the front sight all but disappeared from view. Serrations would help make the front sight more visible, as would orange or black paint applied by the shooter.
The gun’s outer finish is a subtle matte silver color that is very pleasing to the eye. The left side of the barrel carries the Pitbull name, caliber designation, and a vicious-looking version of the handgun’s namesake dog head. Some of the concealed inner surfaces showed rough casting areas that did not affect the mechanical workings of the firearm.
The black rubber handles encompass the entire grip and the rear area is generously thick to absorb recoil. The grip’s checkering pattern provides a non-slip surface and felt outstanding. It was almost as if I formed it myself by squeezing modeling clay until it conformed to my fingers. The three front finger grooves fit several officers well, despite their various hand sizes.
The cylinder latch pushes forward on the left side of the frame and opens the five-shot cylinder to the left on its crane. The crane is retained by a screw at the front of the frame for stability. The small ejector rod spins freely and does not have a knob at its end. Ejecting spent cases works easy enough with the novel extractor system, but occasionally an empty shell will still catch on the thick rubber of the grips.
A supplement to the instruction manual emphasizes special unloading instructions for the Pitbull. The recommendation is the revolver be pointed straight up to ensure proper ejection, stressing that gravity should be used to your advantage. This maneuver prevents empty cases from jamming the mechanism.
The Pitbull employs Charter Arms’ transfer-bar safety system in its action. The face of the hammer is comprised of stepped flat surfaces. The firing pin is fully retained within the rear face of the frame. When cocked manually or when pulling the double-action trigger, the transfer bar rises up between the hammer and the firing pin. This bar allows the kinetic energy of the falling hammer to transfer to the firing pin, which then strikes the cartridge’s primer.
Transfer bars have been around for over 100 years. The Charter Arms transfer bar allows the gun’s hammer to rest on a loaded chamber with no fear of the revolver firing if it’s dropped or the hammer is inadvertently struck. It also allows the hammer to be safely lowered from a cocked position when the shooter’s finger is off the trigger.
The double-action trigger is designed with a radical curvature to prevent the tip of the smooth-faced trigger from pinching your finger against the inside of the trigger guard. The hammer spur is easy to reach with your right thumb for single-action manual cocking.
The double-action trigger pull on the Pitbull averaged just less than 12 pounds of pressure. There was some grittiness that smoothed out as the gun was dry-fired and then shot. When manually thumb cocked, the single-action trigger pull broke at just less than 4 pounds with no creep or take-up and just a bit of over-travel.
Lots of Recoil
The felt recoil from the powerful .40 S&W from the light Pitbull is significant. This is not a gun made for recreational plinking at the range. This five-shot snubnose is made to save your life in a backup or off-duty situation. Under this type of circumstance, it probably would not matter if your palm was throbbing from punishing recoil.
Firing the Pitbull is similar to firing a .357 Magnum from a 2-inch barreled snubnose. The .40 S&W delivers a mighty kick. Shooting this gun accurately is not for amateurs. There are officers who believe there’s not much point in carrying any caliber unless it starts with the number four. The .44 Special Bulldog’s popularity with knowledgeable police officers followed this credo.
The .40 S&W also starts with the number four and is obviously permitted to join the number four club. Ammo in 44 Special caliber can be hard to locate for qualification and carry, but .40-caliber cartridges are usually right in your department’s armory.
The Pitbull fired to point of aim at 7 yards. Hits on a silhouette target at 15 yards were easy when utilizing the revolver’s excellent single-action trigger pull. They were more difficult with the longer and heavier double-action pull. The short sight radius does not easily lend itself to 25-yard shooting. Of course, lots of practice with the Pitbull could lead to more hits at that distance. The Pitbull is not uncontrollable and exhibited very good accuracy for its intended purpose.
Some Velocity Loss
Several types of ammunition were fired from the Pitbull, including factory solid and hollowpoint loads in 165-grain, 185-grain and 200-grain bullet weights. The heavier the bullet, the more the little snubby will painfully thump your palm. Stick to the light bullet weights. These also retain more of the intended velocity from the short barrel than heavier loads…that means more reliable bullet expansion.
There is some loss of velocity and energy when firing the .40 S&W round out of a short-barreled revolver. The bullet must jump the gap between the cylinder and the barrel and some gas will always escape through that sliver of distance. The gunpowder used in the .40 S&W is designed around a 3.5- to 5-inch barrel, like those used in duty pistols. Using a chronograph, I found an 18–28 percent drop in velocity when firing .40 S&W rounds first in an S&W M&P Pro with a 5-inch barrel and then in the short-barreled Pitbull.
Charter Arms also offers the Pitbull chambered for the 9mm semi-auto cartridge. It can share ammo with its 9mm pistol counterparts. With more controllable recoil for the average officer, conceivably the 9mm version would probably be more of a Puppy Dog. The .40 S&W certainly measures up to its Pitbull namesake. PM
SIDEBAR: Charter Arms Bulldog
A retired police officer misplaced the .44 Special cylinder from his 1966 Charter Arms Bulldog. His son, a co-worker of this author, called Charter Arms in March 2013 to see if they could help in any way. He explained that the revolver was his dad’s first gun when he began his long law enforcement career. Charter Arms said to send it in. They fitted a brand-new cylinder to the 47-year-old revolver for a nominal charge and a turnaround time under two weeks. Now THAT’S customer service!