My crystal ball is often quite accurate, and I say that with all modesty, but there are times when its look into the future is off by a country mile or two. Case in point is the Thompson/Center Contender. Shortly after its introduction in 1967, I handled the gun–I even had a friend who praised the two he had purchased–but prior to my days of metallic silhouette competition, I had no interest in it whatsoever. This was mainly because I considered it to be one of the homeliest and worst handling firearms I had ever picked up. Bluntly put, I figured its future was less than bright.
Others in surprising places shared my opinion. While the company’s founder, Warren Center, was working on the design of the Contender, some of his employees thought he was wasting valuable time.
Talk about us all being wrong.
Contender sales started slowly, but its popularity among hunters and shooters grew as each new option was introduced by T/C. It went on to enjoy great success primarily because each new option increased its versatility far beyond other handgun designs. With its interchangeable-barrel capability and a hammer design that allowed both rimfire and centerfire cartridges to be used, the Contender was like nothing anyone had previously seen. On top of all that, it was affordable, and it proved to be extremely accurate. In other words, the Contender was the right idea in the right place at the right time.
The Contender has to be considered one of the all-time great firearms designs simply because it is capable of being so many different things to so many different people with so many different interests. A single Contender has the capability of serving as an entire battery of firearms at far less cost than for a battery made up of other types of guns. Caliber options in handgun, carbine, and rifle barrels range from .17 Mach II and .22 Long Rifle to .44 Magnum and .45-70 Government. The rifle can also be a .410 shotgun or a .45-caliber muzzleloader.
J.D. Jones, who owns SSK Industries, also deserves some of the credit for making the Contender successful. That’s because as far back as the 1970s he was offering custom barrels in not only factory chamberings unavailable from T/C at the time–the .45-70 being an example–but also in an extensive line of JDJ wildcats designed specifically for the Contender.
The present G2 version of the Contender is an improvement over the original in several ways. At the top of my list in importance is the fact that the hammer can be lowered and then recocked without having to break open and then close the barrel. The G2 is also easier to open, and there is a bit more clearance between the front of its grip and the rear of its trigger guard. The latter feature is especially nice when shooting a hard-kicking cartridge.
Except for the 209×45 muzzleloader barrel, which is compatible only with the G2, most barrels are interchangeable between old and new Contenders. But grips and buttstocks differ between the two.
I bought my first Contender in 1969, but I did not begin to take it seriously until I bought a 10-inch barrel in .30-30 and used it in production-class metallic-silhouette competition. I stuck with the .30-30 in that game for a couple of years before switching to the 7mm TCU.
Since those days, I have worked with Contender pistols and rifles in most of the chamberings offered by T/C as well as many of the wildcats offered by SSK. As you might expect, several chamberings have become my favorites. Here are what I consider to be the “Magnificent Seven” centerfire cartridges for T/C’s versatile Contender.
When it comes to picking off varmints at long range with a Contender, my favorite cartridges are the .17 Remington, the .204 Ruger, and the .223 Remington. The .17 and the .204 shoot a bit flatter, but barrels chambered for them have to be cleaned more often during hot-barrel critter shoots. That’s the reason the .223 Remington is the one I choose most often.
While 40- and 45-grain bullets exit the muzzle at higher velocities, I find that any good 50-grain bullet at 3,000 fps bucks wind a bit better and is more effective on coyotes. It shoots flat enough, too. When a high-ballistic-coefficient bullet of that weight–such as the Sierra BlitzKing, Nosler Ballistic Tip, or Hornady V-Max–is zeroed 2 inches high at 100 yards, it is good for a dead-on hold on prairie dogs out to about 250 yards, and with the intersection of the crosshairs plastered on the head of a groundhog standing 300 yards away, the bullet will land somewhere in its boiler room.
As a Contender cartridge, the .223 Rem. has a couple of other things going for it. It is capable of shooting inside 1/2 MOA in a good barrel, and its recoil is so light you can bump off varmints with it all day long, day after day, and never get enough.
The 6.5 JDJ is one of those rare cartridges that delivers a level of performance that seems all out of proportion to its size, appearance, and recoil. This mild-mannered little number has been used to take Rocky Mountain elk and even African antelope as large as sable and greater kudu, but it is seen at its best when used on deer-size game.
It delivers a deadly blow on game, yet its mild recoil makes it the kind of cartridge you cannot shoot enough. Developed by Jones, who I like to describe as the P.O. Ackley of wildcats for handguns, it is the .225 Winchester case necked up and fireformed to the improved configuration with minimum body taper and a 40-degree shoulder angle.
Why the .225 Win. case? According to Jones, its great strength and toughness enables it to survive many full-power firings. And he is correct about that; the 40 cases I started using about 15 years ago are still going. Jones has also said that the powder capacity of the improved .225 Win. case is optimum for 6.5mm caliber in a 14-inch barrel, and its rim makes it a better choice for the Contender than a rimles
There is no law against using bullets of other weights in the 6.5 JDJ, but the traditional weight when it is used on deer is 120 grains. There was a time when the Speer 120-grain spitzer was the single most popular bullet among hunters, and it is still a good one, but the Nosler Ballistic Tip of the same weight has now stolen much of its thunder.
Other excellent choices for this cartridge include Nosler’s 125-grain Partition, Swift’s 120-grain A-Frame and 130-grain Scirocco, and Hornady’s 129-grain SST. When exiting a 14-inch barrel at 2,400 to 2,500 fps and zeroed 3 inches high at 100 yards, any of those bullets is about dead-on point of aim at 200 yards and half the body depth of a deer low at 300 yards, where it is packing close to 1,000 ft-lbs of punch.
There was a time when handgun metallic-silhouette matches were quite popular in my neck of the woods, and I participated in them quite often. When competing in the unlimited class, I used a custom XP-100 chambered for a wildcat called the 7mm TNT. And at first, I used a 10-inch T/C Contender in .30-30 in production class. I switched to the 7mm TCU for production class immediately after T/C introduced that chambering.
Only a few months after getting a 10-inch barrel in 7mm TCU, I used it in the South Carolina state championship and shot it quite well there. The load I used–27.0 grains of H335 behind the Sierra 160-grain spitzer boattail–toppled targets with aplomb, including hard-set rams. I bring all of this up simply because if not for metallic silhouette competition, I might never have gotten around to becoming a fan of the Contender pistol.
Formed by necking up the .223 Rem. case and fireforming to minimum body taper and a 40-degree shoulder angle, the 7mm TCU is great fun to shoot due to its extremely mild recoil. While seen at its best as a metallic silhouette cartridge, it will work on deer at relatively close ranges when loaded with the right bullet. Best bullets for deer in this cartridge are the Nosler 120-grain Ballistic Tip, Hornady 120-grain SSP (Single Shot Pistol), and Sierra 130-grain SSP loaded to maximum velocities in a barrel no shorter than 14 inches.
There are better deer cartridges for the Contender, but as I have proven to my own satisfaction, the 7mm TCU works about as well as the 7.62x39mm Russian.
What can I say about the good old .30-30 Winchester that has not already been said many times through the years?
As standard chamberings presently offered by T/C go, I consider it to be one of if not the best choice for use on deer-size game. It is accurate, shoots flat enough for a dead-on hold out to 250 yards, and delivers enough punch to down deer-size game at that distance. Case life is also higher in the Contender than in lever-action rifles such as the Winchester 94 and Marlin 336.
I have bagged several whitetail deer with a 14-inch barrel in .30-30, and one of the best bucks I have taken to date fell victim to a Contender rifle with a 23-inch barrel. When hunting deer with the rifle version, I usually stick with any good 150-grain spitzer loaded to 2,300 fps, with the Hornady SST being one of my favorites. But due to the lower velocity of the 14-inch barrel, I drop back in bullet weight to the Sierra 135-grain SSP or the Nosler 125-grain Ballistic Tip when using that barrel length. I have also used those two on pronghorn antelope, and they both worked great.
Another of my trio of favorite Jones creations is the .309 JDJ, or .30-30 Super as it could just as well have been called. Despite its name, it uses the same .308-inch bullets as the .30-06, .308 Winchester, and other cartridges of the same caliber. All things being equal–barrel length and the chamber pressures to which the two are loaded–it is, depending on bullet weight, 400 to 700 fps faster than the .30-30 Win.
Even though the .309 JDJ is customarily loaded to lower chamber pressure than the .308 Win., its 13 percent greater case capacity enables it to tread closely on the heels of that cartridge in performance. I have a custom XP-100 with a 15-inch barrel in .308 Win., and when both are loaded to maximum with a 165-grain bullet, the .309 is only about 100 fps slower in my 14-inch Contender.
The .309 JDJ case is formed by necking down .444 Marlin brass and giving it a 40-degree shoulder angle.
Like other JDJ cartridges, the case of the .375 JDJ is formed by necking down the .444 Marlin case. My guess is it has been used to take more African game up to elephant, hippo, and Cape buffalo in size than any other cartridge designed for use in a handgun. But it is also an excellent choice for hunters who go after North American game such as elk and moose.
There was a time when the Hornady 270-grain Spirepoint was the hands-down favorite of most who hunted with this cartridge, and while it is still an excellent choice, it now has a bit of competition from a couple of bullets from Nosler: the 260-grain AccuBond and the Partition of the same weight. When either bullet exits the muzzle of a 14-inch barrel at 2,000 fps and is zeroed 3 inches high at 100 yards, it lands about 2 inches below line of sight at 200 yards. At that distance, it delivers around 1,600 ft-lbs of energy. If that’s not 200-yard elk medicine from a handgun, I don’t know what is.
If I had to choose between the .375 and the 6.5 JDJs for my next deer hunt, I would head to the woods with the 6.5 JDJ. But for both deer and larger game, the .375 JDJ is the logical choice.
Three options in deer loads stand out in this cartridge. For woods hunting where shots are usually inside 100 yards, the Sierra 200-grain FN and the Hornady 220-grain FN–both made for use in the .375 Winchester cartridge–are excellent choices. For hunting deer-size game in open country where shots can be farther out, the Hornady 220-grain Spirepoint is tough to beat. It is also the bullet I would choose for all-around use when hunting deer or black bear in both wooded and open country.
The .45-70 Government has been a favorite of mine since the 1950s. That was when I horse-traded for a Trapdoor Springfield in that chambering.
Some years later, when the popular thing to do was to build a rifle in that caliber around the Siamese Mauser action and handload it to velocities that were not far behind those possible with the .458 Win. Mag., I again fell in love with the .45-70. Two more custom rifles in that caliber–a Marlin 1895 and a Ruger No. 1–came later. Later still was a 14-inch barrel for my Contender. I’ve shot the .45-70 a lot through the years and doubt if I will ever tire of hearing its fat bullet smack a target or seeing it kick up lots of dust at long range.
I now have two Contender barrels in .45-70: the 14-incher I got many years ago and a 10-incher from the T/C Custom Shop. The 14-inch barrel is more comfortable to shoot due to its added weight plus the fact that it wears an Arrestor muzzle brake. I actually find the .45-70 to be more comfortable to shoot in a 14-inch Contender wearing a Pachmayr rubber
grip than in either my Marlin or Ruger rifles. This holds especially true when 300-grain bullets are loaded in the neighborhood of 1,600 fps. My picks for use on deer are the 300-grain bullets from Sierra, Nosler, and Hornady.
There you have them, my picks for the all-time best cartridges for T/C’s Contender. Others might be as good, but I haven’t found any to be better. That’s why in my book they will always be the “Magnificent Seven.”