Contender Concepts


Roy’s early G1 ThompsonCenter Contender can handle dozens of barrel/caliber options. Here’s just a
few he’s collected over the years — and all shoot like rifles! He keeps rifle scopes on most, but that very early
.22 LR barrel (wood forend) carries an original Bushnell 1.3x Phantom!

I’ve become enamored with the .32-20 cartridge of late and after some scrounging found a barrel in that caliber on eBay for my early first generation Contender. After sorting things out and getting it dialed in, I found it a delight to shoot. Which got me to digging out other barrels I have. Which got me to thinking what fun this gun “system” really is and I figured I’d remind you about it too. If you’re not familiar with the Thompson Center Contenders and Encore models they are essentially an action and “frame” handling a wide variety of barrel designs and calibers. The ejector, sights and such are all on the barrels so the same frame assembly can be used to shoot anything from .22 LR to .45-70 — including cartridges like the .308, .30-30 and more exotic ones developed by J.D. Jones.

I clearly recall reading articles about those first generation Contenders in the late 1960s. Warren Center invented the design and partnered with the K.W. Thompson Tool Company to actually build it. The name was later changed to Thompson/Center Arms Company when they started selling guns. The design and the “look” was pretty radical for the time. But, since it was accurate and simple, allowing shooters to buy one “gun” and simply add different calibers by buying barrels, it caught on fast. That one frame could handle rimfire and centerfire due to a clever firing pin set-up easily changed by the shooter.

I’ve had my original one for decades and have collected about 10 barrel/caliber sets. I tend to shoot the .22 Magnum, .221 Fireball, .32-20 and .30-30 the most, but my .44 Mag., .45 Colt, .223 and .357 get to see light now and again too. The .357 usually gets .38 Wadcutters run through it much to its surprise, I think. I have a few other calibers but can’t remember them at the moment! Barrel overload? All the calibers are tack-drivers, which is the main reason these guns are so fun.

Today’s TC Encore “Pro-Hunter” carries the design into today’s market. It’s stronger,
has a better trigger and offers more powerful chamberings than earlier models.


The first generation (G1) was followed in about 1983 by the Encore, a bigger, brawnier design working essentially the same way, but it had a much better trigger. The design also allowed the action to be opened more easily. It can also handle cartridges like the .416 Rigby too! The G1 was made along with the Encore and shooters could have their choice. In 1998 the G2 came out using the “Encore” trigger. The majority of barrels for the G1 can fit the G2, but I think the muzzle loading barrels for the G2 won’t work on the G1. Use caution if you have a G1 action as they can stretch if you push them too hard. I keep my .30-30 shooting to a minimum and only use standard loads.

I’ve tended to get barrels fitting either model and it does take some shifting of forends and stocks to get a set-up to work at times. No big deal as I don’t care about the looks, just if I can get a stock set-up to work. Consequently for some barrels I might have a wood grip with a rubber forend. It doesn’t seem to affect accuracy one way or another.

TC also used this action (and still does) to make rifles, shotguns and muzzle loaders. Interestingly enough, according to our friends at the BATFE, you can take a “pistol” and install a rifle buttstock and a rifle barrel (over 16″) to “create” a rifle out of your pistol. You can then change it back to a pistol if you like. However, you can’t “convert” a rifle manufactured as a rifle to a pistol since you are then “converting” a rifle to an “illegal” pistol. Even if you bought the TC rifle legally and have the various factory made parts to “convert” it to a pistol, you can’t. So, from a pistol to a rifle is fine — but from a rifle to a pistol is a big no-no. Silly, I know

The Bullseye Camera System allows you to see the target on your iPad using a camera at the target (red arrow).
At 100 yards, the .221 Fireball barrel shot a neat 1" centered group (Nosler Armageddon ammo) while
the .22 Mag. barrel averaged well under 2" with most loads.

Roy couldn’t resist snapping this pic of wife Suzi’s hand as she took a few practice “aims” with his Contender —
.223 barrel installed — while on a doe hunt from a blind. The red nails prove this is a civilized way to hunt!

Versatile is Right

From TC a new Encore is about $775 with a barrel, and you can go from there. Or, buy a used TC Contender or Encore frame — I see them from around $250 to about $500 depending on model and condition, and at times you can even get a barrel for the deal — then build your collection. Just pay attention to ensure the barrel you’re buying fits the frame you have. Barrels on eBay and other on-line sites tend to run from a low of $150 — say, a well-used 10″ .357 — with most in the $250 to $400 range. Some rare calibers will be more. There are also after-market companies specializing in the TC guns so you can customize your gun as far as your heart desires. SSK Industries is the star there, and companies like Bullberry Barrel Works can help too.

They’re easy to work on, fun to shoot and so far, every single one I’ve shot delivers amazing accuracy, more like a rifle. My 14″ .30-30 barrel shoots 1″ or better at 100 yards. Oh, you can also use rifle scopes — and I even recommend it most of the time. Resting your hand over the top when you shoot can hold down the recoil on all but the heavy stuff. Just ask our own Mark Hampton how fun these guns can be! For more info: <a href=”” rel=”noopener” target=”_blank”></a>