Gun designs come and go, especially in a niche market like single-shot handguns. Yet, Thompson/Center’s Contender break-action pistol has stood the test of time. Guns.com takes a closer look more than 50 years since the first Contender was introduced. 

Life and Times of the T/C Contender

The Contender is a single-shot, single-action handgun with an exposed hammer. That hammer shows off a unique mechanism. It contains not one but two firing pins for use with both rimfire and centerfire barrels. Shooters can easily switch between the two. The action is actuated by pressing forward on the curved trigger-guard flare. A beefy hinge pin mates the barrel to the frame, with the only other attachment being the forend bolt, allowing for simple barrel – and caliber – swaps. 

Thompson/Center’s Contender traces its roots back to Warren Center’s original design. When gun builder and designer Center joined forces with machinist Kenneth Thompson, history was set in motion. The versatile platform initially allowed users a choice of calibers and barrels, from .22 Rimfire to .357 Magnum. 

Through the years, the listing of chamberings and barrel options grew exponentially, but one thing remained constant. Hunters gravitated to Warren Center’s brainchild, giving vibrant life to the single-shot handgunning world. Though the earlier Contenders were built more for casual target shooting, the addition of longer range and heavier knockdown chamberings quickly opened up silhouette shooting, distance competitions, and the hunting market. 

Contender’s Progeny

Thompson/Center Contender Handgun
This unique handgun offers precision and a wide variety of chamberings. (Photo: Kristin Alberts/Guns.com)

While the Contender handgun sounds like a market dominator, it in fact broke ground for a number of subsequent introductions and improvements. A carbine version of the Contender rolled out in the mid-1980s. A beefier handgun and rifle platform of that same single-shot action, the T/C Encore, debuted in the late 1990s and could handle the larger cartridges, including belted magnums. An updated Contender, the second generation – G2 – came along a handful of years later. Encore barrels are not, however, interchangeable with the Contender or G2. Both the Encore and G2 are still among T/C’s latest production firearms. 

The G2 version of the Contender was still listed in the last T/C catalog, giving the gun one heckuva run. In fact, the company even produced a limited anniversary edition in 2017 for the 50th birthday of the platform. That one-of-500 engraved and gold-trimmed G2s is destined to be a collector’s piece. Standard G2 prices start at $729 for rimfires and go up from there. 

The Shape-Shifting Contender

Thompson/Center Contender Handgun
Even without optics, the Thompson/Center Contender is an accurate firearm at hunting distances. (Photo: Kristin Alberts/Guns.com)

Modularity is the driving factor behind the lasting success of T/C barrel-changing platforms, including the Contender. Name a caliber, any caliber, and odds are good that either T/C or one of the quality aftermarket companies has produced a barrel for that chambering. 

You can buy one Contender frame and add any number of barrels, both centerfire and rimfire, in varying lengths, finishes, and weights for an easily packable, do-all hunting rig. Versatility is the name of the game with not only the Contender but also the company’s Encore and Pro Hunter lines as well. How many firearm platforms can be a handgun, rifle, rimfire, centerfire, shotgun, and muzzleloader? 

Legality

Legal lines begin to blur when rifle and pistol barrels can be interchanged on pistol grip or full-length rifle stocks. Though it’s illegal to create a short-barreled rifle by adding a buttstock to a pistol-length barrel less than 16 inches, shooters can technically, and legally, own one Contender frame with multiple handgun and rifle barrels, along with the matching furniture, provided they assemble and use them in accordance with BATF regulations. 

Last we checked, those rules allow either a Contender or Encore sold as a pistol to be reconfigured as a rifle with a barrel greater than 16 inches, but not vice versa. Always clarify these rules before going full transformer with your Thompson/Center handguns, barrels, and shoulder stocks. 

Field Testing

Thompson/Center Contender Handgun
While this unique gun is more than capable of claiming game in the field, you do need to check your local hunting regulations before heading into the field. (Photo: Kristin Alberts/Guns.com)

Our test model, coming used from the Guns.com Vault, is an earlier model Contender dating to the latter half of 1985. With an engraved full-body cougar gracing both sides of the receiver, these came to be known as “cat-side” frames. Some showed a crouching cougar and others simply the snarling head detail. 

Regardless, this kitty has some bite, and our “Super 14” in .223 Remington shows off a heavyweight 14-inch blued barrel. Though many T/Cs are topped with scopes – a testament to their long-range accuracy potential – this one retains its adjustable iron sights. It’s important to note that regardless of aiming accoutrements, the sights or optics remain with the barrel and zeroed.

To allow the modular design to fire either centerfire or rimfire rounds, the Contender’s hammer contains both the safety and selector for the firing pin. Placing the dial in the center actuates the safety mechanism while shifting left or right swaps firing pins for either rimfire or centerfire depending on the barrel attached to the frame. 

We fired a mix of .223 Rem ammunition from ranges between 25, 50, and 100 yards with ease and 100-percent reliability using a variety of factory ammunition weights and bullet types. With a scope, I’d feel more comfortable shooting for groups at greater distances. Either way, our test gun in .223 Rem has proven itself a capable hunting companion for vermin, varmints, and even medium-sized game. 

Thompson/Center Contender Handgun
This unique gun can use rimfire or centerfire cartridges. (Photo: Kristin Alberts/Guns.com)

Conclusion

New or old, Thompson/Center’s Contender handguns – and long guns – are built to last. For hunters, the Contender and its offshoot Encore and Pro Hunter platforms bring an epic level of modularity to single shots. With one frame and multiple barrels, a hunter can pursue almost any game not only in North America but the world over. 

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