Gun Review: Cobra CA380 – The Cheapest Handgun in America!

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The natural human right of self-defense has no minimum income requirement. Nor does the natural, civil, and Constitutionally protected right to keep and bear arms. Few things bother me on such a deep level as laws and measures intended at doing nothing more than making gun ownership more expensive and, therefore, pricing it out of the grasp of certain classes of citizens. It’s racist, classist disenfranchisement, pure and simple. Worse, the very same politicians telling us that requiring ID to vote is somehow a “poll tax” and an infringement on peoples’ rights are the same people who then turn right around and push for new transfer fees, annual registration renewals, mandatory safety classes, special taxes, insurance and safe storage requirements for firearms. Laws and regulations banning firearms based on their (low) price – so-called “Saturday Night Specials” – are nothing new. It is due to my intense disgust at these sorts of regulations that I spent an hour browsing all of the firearms retailers and auction sites I could think of to find the cheapest handgun you can buy new in the U.S. today…the Cobra Firearms .380 . . .

The result of my search was that Cobra’s CA380 and FS380 were the least expensive handguns available from any retailer. And yes, I looked at derringers and revolvers, also. The absolute lowest price on the Cobra was found at Lanbo’s Armory, where the full-sized and compact versions were the same price — $103.95. I chose the compact.

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In The Box

Your Cobra will come in a cardboard box, nestled in a nicely-cut piece of foam. In that box you will find an owner’s manual, warranty card and one magazine (and probably a cable-style gun lock). The warranty is for life, regardless of whether you are the original owner or not. Typically I like to have a few magazines for each gun and it looks like these 5-rounders are available on Cobra’s site for just $16 each. Taking the surprisingly-heavy-for-its-size pistol out of the package for initial inspection and to snap the first photos you see in this post, I get the first hints of what I’m in for:

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From what I can tell, the barrel is press-fit into the frame. After it’s in, the feed ramp is milled. This makes great sense because it will mean perfect continuity of the ramp up the frame and into the barrel every time. But…is it too much to ask for a hit of compressed air afterwards to get rid of the metal shavings? For a little more than a Benjamin, it apparently is.

I’m not sure my example would have cycled well had I not noticed this and cleaned the gun before shooting it. Also note the little dents in the frame to the left and right of the extractor notch (top of chamber). These were caused by the slide contacting the frame there, despite the fact that this gun had not yet been fired. My final gripe on fit and finish is also visible in the same photo above — what’s up with the left side of the barrel being flush with the frame and the right side having a lip? Not really confidence-inspiring.

Look, I didn’t have high expectations for fit and finish. No love lost on the dents and the tolerance on barrel/frame fitment there. I really didn’t care. But leaving the swarf behind is just lazy. My second point of concern came when I looked at the slide:

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Are those hairline cracks? I have no idea. I just decided to operate on the assumption that those are “features.” Well…relics of an inexpensive casting or machining process at least. You see what I’m talking about. I added a red arrow in the video above in case the YouTube audience doesn’t have the same eye as members of the AI do here. [EDIT: it struck me later that the slide is made by casting the zinc alloy around a steel breech block, and the ‘cracks’ are actually just where the two meet. If you look closely enough at the photo above, you can see the rear of the insert as well. See torture test video #1 for more details on this and the “magnet test.”]

As much as I didn’t want to start this review off on a negative foot — because it’s not exactly a negative review — the above were my first impressions of the pistol when it came out of the box. With that out of the way…

A manual thumb safety graces the left side of the CA380 at the top of the grip panel. Up for “safe,” down for “fire.” No surprises here, and from the feel of it the safety lever physically blocks the trigger mechanism somewhere and also locks the slide.

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The Cobra uses a heel magazine release lever which is something we aren’t really accustomed to here in the U.S. of A. While a lot of folks would immediately complain, I actually don’t mind a heel release and I have become fairly used to them and proficient with them thanks to my Kel-Tec PMR-30 and H&K P7.

Unfortunately, the CA380’s version isn’t quite as user-friendly, requiring significantly more effort to release. It also tends to get in the way of new mag insertion. You have to come at it from an angle and use the back of the magazine to push the release out of the way and then rock the mag up and into the frame. Mags do not drop free, so removing one means pushing back on the mag release while simultaneously stripping out the magazine by the small baseplate lip that sticks out the front. I can do these things somewhat quickly in practice, but under stress? Oy.

There are no other external controls. There’s no slide lock, either manual or on empty.

Field stripping is accomplished by pushing the “thingie” in on the back of the slide. This striker spring retention cup, which feels like aluminum, is also what keeps the slide down on the frame, and you’ll want the striker to be forward (fired) to take it down. If you have a narrow enough finger you can do it by hand, but I found it easier to use a pen or something similar (.303 Brit bullet in the video). Anyway, push that in a few millimeters and then you can lift the back of the slide up and pull the slide forwards off of the frame.

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From this angle it looks a bit similar to a lot of fixed-barrel, straight-blowback designs with the barrel doing double duty as the guide rod for the recoil spring.

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When the slide comes back, the “thingie” stays behind, of course, and the striker spring is compressed against it. The post-like striker catch (sear) in the frame clicks over the rear ring on the striker and keeps it cocked until a trigger pull drops that catch and the striker shoots forwards. It seems simple enough to be reliable.

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Also worth noting, there are no slide rails. The tall skirts on either side of the slide keep it centered, the barrel keeps the front of the slide in check and the “thingie” keeps the back attached to the frame. Overall, it’s an efficient and simple design. I felt confident enough that the slide wouldn’t leave the frame and embed itself into my face.

Overall machining and finish quality are pretty much what I expected. Seems fair for my $104 outlay. In my professional estimation, the gun is painted black.

On the Range

This may be the first gun I have ever handled where I wished the beaver tail area was lower. Those slide skirts go so low that if you take a proper grip, you’re going to get some nasty slide bite. I had to consciously hold my hand a bit farther down on the frame than I wanted to.

I’m sure this also contributed to more felt recoil than I was expecting. Maybe the 23.5 oz weight (unloaded) had me thinking it was going to shoot softly compared to my 10.2 oz Taurus TCP, which is perfectly comfortable to shoot all day. This wasn’t the case, though – the little Cobra bucks hard.

It’s a blowback design, which will almost always have more felt recoil than a locked breech arrangement, but what actually bothered me a bit was the trigger rather than the recoil of the frame. You see, it’s a rather simple, thin piece of metal with only slightly rounded edges. With the required ~10.5 lbs. of pull followed up immediately by a solid buck of the gun upon firing, the trigger applies some mild abuse to my finger. I still shot 100 rounds in one sitting so I don’t mean to imply that it’s all that bad, I just found it surprising so it stuck in my head.

Also surprising, the little Cobra shot pretty straight:

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That’s a 5-shot group on the top two chickens from about seven yards (between 21 and 23 feet). I was pretty happy with that considering the heavy trigger – which does have a bit of creep – and the sharp recoil plus my general fear of the slide escaping the frame and ruining my male model good looks. Also, while the sights are actually kind of large, they aren’t especially easy to see.

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Both the front and the rear sights are black — the same black as the frame — and have no dots. This makes it awfully hard to focus on the front sight and just to pick up in general. The front sight is also fairly wide, so you don’t see light on either side of it inside of the rear notch. Which, by the way, is oddly shallow considering how tall the sights are. They’re like little towers sticking up on top of the slide. I really can’t explain why that is, since they could be much sleeker and flusher without reducing their visibility at all.

Anyway, this isn’t a bullseye pistol and I was fully happy with its accuracy.

Getting back to that trigger, it really isn’t bad. There’s almost no slack (pretravel/takeup) at all. Pull on it and it’s rock solid until you get up to the 10.5 lbs of pressure range. Then it creeps for, I’d say, a 2-3 millimeters and breaks cleanly. Short travel and short reset. If the creep were reduced or the weight was lower, which would make the creep smoother in this case, I’d go so far as to say I definitely like the trigger. As-is, no complaints other than the physical feel of it (thin with somewhat abrupt edges).

Now for the pressing question… does a $100 gun work? Is it reliable? Can you actually defend yourself or your home with it? In 106 rounds I had about 6 stoppages (and zero breakages). They’re all shown in the shooting review video above. The extractor and ejection port on the top led to some brass to the head, as it tends to eject more or less straight up and back. I mention this because I think all of my stoppages were failures to eject. These jams are also harder to clear since the ejection port is on top, as it requires more than just a slight tilt to one side to put gravity in your favor.

It appears as though the striker also acts as the ejector when it’s forced back through the breech face when the slide moves fully rearward. I think my failures were due to the striker popping the case out of the extractor’s grasp too early, and I now see a common “mod” is to grind off the rear point of the striker since it’s believed to catch on the spring and cause premature ejection. I do believe that modification and some feed ramp and chamber polishing could turn this into a more reliable gat. Speaking of gats, it was 100% reliable when held sideways gansta style. Just FYI.

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Conclusions

I think my opening paragraphs should make it fairly obvious that I wanted to like this gun. The truth is, I don’t hate it. It isn’t my cup of tea but I actually enjoyed shooting it more than I thought I would. If I had to attribute that to something, it would be that I was actually hitting what I was aiming at with no special effort, and I didn’t come into this expecting the thing to shoot straight. I’m very happy to report that it is a viable option for someone on a tight budget who specifically wants a pistol to protect home and family. It does work. I would trust it to scare off most ne’er-do-wells. I would trust it to fire the first shot every time. I would trust it to run through all 5+1 rounds most of the time. Most.

Yes, in conclusion I’m very happy to be able to say that the cheapest handgun in America does function, does shoot straight, and didn’t explode in my hand. When I asked one of the employees at my local shooting range if he would buy this, the cheapest gun in America, I think he summed it up perfectly when he said, “if I had to.”

But…

The Taurus PT 738 TCP (<<< click for review) can be had for $199. I actually think it’s the best .380 mouse gun on the market at any price. It’s less than half the weight of the Cobra and it’s 2/3 the thickness. Yet it holds one more round. It has an amazing trigger, has a slide lock and a standard mag release. It’s a great shooter and is as reliable as it gets — both in terms of cycling just about any ammo there is and in long-term durability. Watch the tabletop review video above for my full thoughts on the comparison, but the bottom line is that I think it’s ten times the gun for less than twice the price. If you can scrape up the extra dough to make up the difference, it’s money very well spent. If not, the Cobra works, too.

Specifications:

Length:  5.4”
Barrel Length:  2.8″
Height:  4.0”
Width:  1.05”
Weight:  22 oz. 23.5 oz with empty magazine
Capacity: 5 rounds of .380 ACP
Trigger Pull Weight: 10.5 lbs
MSRP: $129 to $139.

Ratings (out of 5 stars):

Accuracy: * * * 
Totally acceptable, but not above average. With easier-to-see sights I’m sure I would have fared better.

Ergonomics: * * 
Nothing is particularly ergonomic about this gun. The shape and thickness of the grip is pleasant enough. Otherwise, the low slide skirts and poor trigger design knock it down a couple notches. The mag release knocks it down still more.

Reliability: * * *
I was afraid it would be a total mess. Six stoppages in 106 rounds ain’t so horrible, all things considered. I’ll try a couple other brands of ammo eventually just to be totally fair.

Customize This: * 
As far as I can tell, there’s no aftermarket support for the gun at all and there are no factory options. Just replacement parts.

Fun Factor: * * 1/2
It’s a gun and I like shooting guns, so it’s fun almost no matter what. Compared to other guns, though, I have to dock the Cobra due to somewhat hard-to-clear jams and for it being just a bit unpleasant to shoot in terms of comfort/recoil and ergos. But this thing is for close-up personal defense, not fun at the range.

Overall: * * 1/2
I have my doubts about long-term reliability. But the lifetime warranty could make up for that. Loss of stars here due to jams, overall quality, magazine release, sights, ergos, shooting experience. Brownie points for extremely low price point and the fact that you do actually get a functional gun for your $105.