Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Classic gun review: First generation Thompson Center Contender

Including a pictorial on how to change barrels

The Contender is a break action single shot. You can set up the gun as a pistol or carbine, depending on your tastes. Barrels are interchangeable and available in many calibers. The gun reviewed is an older model, made in the seventies. There is a more recent "G2" second generation model with numerous changes to the mechanism. In between the early model shown and the present G2, there were several variations in parts and design, most significantly a redesign of the barrel latch to make the gun easier to open. The review gun lacks the easy-open feature. More about that later.

The Contender figured in a Supreme Court case, which established that having a pistol and parts to convert it to a rifle did not amount to possession of an illegal short barreled rifle. Thus in a small way the Contender has a place in gun rights history. Of course, it is still illegal to assemble the pistol barrel to a receiver which is at the time fitted with a shoulder stock, but as Justice White remarked, not even the dumbest criminal would want a Contender SBR. What I take to be the most recent clarification of the court decision's regulatory consequences is found on the BATFE web site, here. If it has moved, do a web search for ATF ruling 2011-4.

The gun has a very good trigger, user adjustable and crisp. The factory sights are also nice; they are large, easy to see and screw adjustable.  Just about any cartridge the frame is strong enough to handle has at some time had a Contender chambered for it. Here is a list of the factory calibers offered at present; click the "Specifications" tab to see the choices. Aftermarket manufacturers offer barrels in a number of additional chamberings--more than a hundred different cartridges in all, including a number of wildcats.

An option that I find a lot of fun is the barrel that shoots .45 Colt and .410 shotshells, 2-1/2 or 3". Use of the shotshell is legally permissible because the barrel is rifled and less than a half inch in caliber. A clever choke with straight "rifling" stops the spin of the shot cup, imparted when you shoot shotshells down the rifled bore. Typically, shot fired from a rifled bore scatters all over the place, with shot everywhere but in the center of
The peculiar snoot is a choke for firing .410 shotshells
the pattern; the Contender's special choke stops that from happening. It's a convoluted process but it results in decent patterns. The choke is removed to shoot .45's. The chamber is overly long for the .45 Colt cartridge, of course, resulting in a long freebore jump to the rifling, which is not the best setup for accuracy. I have not tried it, but there is a
wildcat cartridge solution; fabricate extra-long .45 cases that position the .45 bullet out near the beginning of the rifling, well forward of where the bullet starts when fired from the .45 Colt cartridge. I mostly just shoot .410's out of this barrel. Of course the .410 shotshell is far superior to any of the snake shot cartridges in conventional pistol calibers, because it was designed for the purpose of launching shot and the pistol cartridges were not. (Travelers take note that the .410 pistol barrel is illegal in California.)

Another setup I enjoy shooting is the 10" barrel in .223 Remington. The cartridge's report in such a short barrel is shrill and very loud; other people at the range turn their heads to look, for it is startling even with hearing protection. As a practical matter, the Ballistics By The Inch web site, which is always entertaining, shows that the bullet has a fairly respectable velocity when launched from a ten inch barrel, about 2600 fps for the garden variety 55-grain ammo. That is stepping right along, for a gun you can carry on your belt. Accuracy is rifle-like, though limited by the open iron sights. Many people scope their Contenders.

.22 LR is of course a popular option, economical to shoot and, in the big Contender pistol, nearly recoilless. To accommodate the switch from centerfire to rimfire cartridges, the frame contains two firing pins. The hammer's nose has an ingenious moveable striking surface than can be rotated with a screwdriver, positioning it to hit the correct firing pin. I would not have made it that way, ingenious though it is. I would have offset the bore line of the rimfire barrels so that the same firing pin could be used for centerfire and rimfire. However, no one asked me, and there may be some production-related reason why it is best to have the same bore axis in all barrel assemblies.

There are many other caliber choices, but you get the idea. One frame, many barrels, and a gun endlessly adaptable to different tasks. Contenders are used in small game hunting, big game hunting, silhouette competition and are fine guns for just messing around, plinking at tin cans and so on. Barrels supposedly interchange across all Contender frames old and new, but in practice there are a few exceptions.

While it is broadly true that barrels are interchangeable, some barrels may require refitting of the locking bolt, or replacement of that part--or both replacement and fitting. There are two types of locking bolt trouble. Either the gun  does not lock up solidly, or it locks up too solidly. If the locking bolt does not engage the frame adequately the gun will not fire; there is a safety interlock. At least, that is how it is supposed to work. If the bolt engages too tightly the gun is hard to get open.

A barrel that works fine on one frame may not work well on another. Some hobbyists have become adept at replacing and hand fitting the bolt. Many people, though, will be more comfortable referring such problems to a gunsmith, or to the Thompson Center factory. While this is interchangeability in some sense of the word, switching to a different barrel is not always a drop-in replacement.  A rule of thumb is that barrels and frames made at close to the same time are more likely to work without adjustment than those made many years apart.

There are Internet reports of Contenders that fly open when fired. I have not seen that happen but there are enough reports to persuade me that the problem exists. Perhaps the bolt spring is weak; perhaps the safety interlock is malfunctioning. Perhaps the frame or the bolt is worn out of spec. As this is a safety issue I suggest referring it to the manufacturer.

To provide a bit of background on barrel/frame compatibility, I need to digress for a bit and tell about a couple of significant design changes that took place in the early eighties. Sometimes, with some barrels but not all, the earlier guns would stick shut and be very difficult to open. The factory's response was twofold. The barrel latch pivot was moved rearward in the "easy open" redesign. In earlier guns the pivot was at the front of the frame. The gun illustrated is of the old "hard open" type. You can see the latch pivot at the frame's front, beneath the barrel pivot pin. The redesigned latch has the pivot above the trigger. This gives you an easy way to tell which you are looking at.

The other change was to redesign the barrel locking bolt from a solid, single piece design to a two piece bolt that was split lengthways, to allow it to break contact with the frame more easily. Here is where things get interesting. My old style gun, without the easy open feature, is always easy to open, smooth as butter, if it is used with the old solid-bolt barrel of its same vintage. Put on a new barrel with the split bolt and it may well decide not to open.

I notice from closely examining an old locking bolt and a new one side by side that there were some slight shape changes, and dimensional changes, not just the change from one piece bolt to two piece. This, I think, accounts for at least some of the problems encountered.

The factory will convert your old hard-open frame to easy-open. That should help. Only. . .sometimes I have heard of easy open frames sticking shut too, especially with older barrels with one piece bolts. The "maybe, maybe not" interchangeability of the Contender's barrels makes it something of a hobbyist's and aficionado's gun; a bit of a puzzle sometimes but satisfying when you solve your problems. Then it's a terrific shooter.

Hint: When my Contender jams shut, I find that a light but very fast tap on the trigger guard with a rubber handled screwdriver, or some other light and non-marring instrument, will give the jammed mechanism the right idea, start it a bit, and allow me press up the latch to open the gun. Don't try to beat it open, just give it a smart light rap. Then see if you can open the latch. It's not magic but so far it has worked for me. (All gun safety rules apply.)

Other than that, the gun is largely trouble free. Springs and small parts can break or wear out, but that is true of any gun. Of course, there is not so very much to go wrong in a single shot action. The gun is pleasant to handle, well made, smooth working if properly fitted up. The only real negative is the addiction problem. You are always thinking of new uses for the gun, and each time you do, you need another barrel.

How to change barrels

With the action closed, remove the screw in the bottom of the forearm

Remove the forearm and open the action

Tap out the barrel pivot pin and remove the barrel

Line up the new barrel's pivot hole with the holes in the frame

Replace the pivot pin

Close the action and replace the forearm


  1. Are barrels interchangeable from Gen.1 to Gen.2? Do you still have in stock Gen.1 barrels? Thanks Richard Petty

  2. barrels are interchangeable