A little company called Charter Arms started life in 1964, producing affordable revolvers. As you might imagine, in 1964, revolvers were the hot business to get into. The founder, Doug McClenahan, had plenty of experience with six-guns after a career at Colt, Ruger, and High Standard.
Charter Arms wasn’t just copying other firearm designs, they were innovating. Doug McClenahan designed the transfer bar system that basically all modern revolver now use for safety’s sake.
Charter Arms also used one-piece investment cast frames. This created a lighter frame that was stronger. While the Undercover was a good (enough) gun, in 1971 Charter Arms introduced the gun they became famous for, the Bulldog.
The Bulldog was a .44 Special revolver with a five-shot cylinder and a three-inch barrel. The design was something different in a world dominated by .38 Special and .357 Magnum. The Bulldog name came from the British revolvers that shared similar traits. The British Bulldogs were small guns with big bore power.
These guns became big hits and fairly famous in the world of revolvers. They became one of the more popular choices with shooters concerned with personal defense. What we have here is often called a ‘first generation’ Bulldog.
The OG Bulldog
Charter Arms, as a company, has come and gone, time and time again. There seem to be at least three distinct eras of Charter Arms. The first-generation Bulldogs are typically easy to distinguish. On the side of the barrel, they will say either Charter Arms Corps, Bridgeport, Connecticut, or Charter Arms Corp, Stratford, Connecticut.
The first generation marks the era in which Doug McClenahan served as the big boss alongside his partner David Ecker. Doug eventually left due to health concerns and Ecker took over in 1978.
In 1988 the company was acquired by another owner and infelicitously renamed Charco. Charco closed its doors in 1998.
In 2000, the company was purchased by Nick Ecker and two other investors. It was known as Charter 2000, but eventually renamed Charter Arms some time later.
According to an internet legend, the original first generation guns remain the best generation. I have no experience with either the latest generation of Charter Arms or the middle generation. However, I do now have a good bit of experience with the first generation Charter Arms Bulldog.
My example is the stainless model, produced in Stratford with polymer grips. The gun features a 3-inch barrel and a fairly traditional DA/SA hammer design. It’s a big gun that’s surprisingly light for its size. The front sight is a big beefy raised blade, with a trench rear sight. The ejection rod is unshrouded.
The Bulldog has sort of an awkward look to it, but it’s distinguished, to say the least.
The .44 Special
The .44 Special cartridge is a round the casual enthusiast will likely never encounter. It suffers from a good dose of middle-child syndrome. Its older brother was the .44 Russian, a fairly popular and hot six-gun round first designed for the S&W Model 3. Its younger brother was the .44 Magnum, a round we all know and love.
The .44 Special is still a very capable round. It can push a 246-grain round at a bit over 750 feet per second. On top of that, there are much hotter loads available these days, as well as lighter, faster loads.
Much like the .41 Magnum, it’s just not popular for defensive use. It is fun to shoot. It doesn’t have the snap of a .44 Magnum, but it still lets you know you’re firing something that starts with the number four.
The Charter Arms Bulldog is a fairly conventional double-action revolver. It seems that the various models wore a number of different finishes. The blued Bulldogs wore wood grips, but it seems the stainless models got a set of oversized rubber grips. The big oversized grips aren’t great for carrying concealed, but they give you a mighty good grip on the gun.
Those grips do make rapid ejection difficult. Cases will occasionally get stuck in their cylinder, requiring you to wiggle the cylinder when case gets stuck on the side of the grip.
The big grips also make this a gun well-suited for speed strips, but not speed loaders. I imagine a respected six-gunner would file down or swap the grips, but I’m not that. Also, while not exactly historical, the gun isn’t going to be a daily driver and is more of a collector’s item for me.
At the Range
With some Magtech .44 Special, I hit the range with a bit of curiosity. I’d never fired anything in .44 Special. I wasn’t sure what to expect. What I got was a fairly enjoyable experience. The recoil isn’t painful but a bit stout. The gun bared loudly, and muzzle blast and flash followed. I can see why Bulldog is an appropriate name.
The trigger feels well-worn and moves smoothly. It reminds me why I enjoy shooting revolvers. (Of course, the price of .44 Special ammo reminds me why I don’t.)
That big front sight is stainless, easy to see and put on target. Even from a low-ready snapshot, it’s easy to put a .44 caliber-sized hole in a paper target quickly.
I didn’t measure groups, but in an unsupported position at 25 yards using the double action trigger, I could put five rounds into an 8-inch gong without breaking a sweat. I could even hit it as it swung back and forth if I timed it just right. At the same range, I could put two in the chest and one in the head of an ISPC steel target. It wasn’t as fast as me with a P365, but fast enough to end a fight.
The Charter Arms Bulldog is just a cool gun and Bulldog is the right name for it. It’s kind of small, kind of ugly, and has a big bark followed by a very mean bite. It’s a different kind of cool and was a worthy challenger to the .38 and .357 supremacy of its day.