The top-break single-shot Thompson/Center Contender pistol was manufactured from 1967 through 2000. It was a favorite among handgun hunters and silhouette shooters, and in the gun press it was often referred to as multiple guns in one because of its interchangeable barrel system.
According to some sources, more than 60 regular-production chamberings have been offered in the Thompson/Center Contender pistol, and there have been numerous additional custom-order versions. I own barrels in .22 LR, .218 Bee, .223 Remington, .44 Magnum, .30-30 Winchester, and .35 Remington, but my favorite is the .45 Colt/.410 Bore barrel.
Over the years, the number of different configurations—barrel lengths, fore-end styles, etc.—grew to the point where I couldn’t possibly cover everything in this space. So I’ll touch on just the main points here.
The action breaks open by pulling rearward on the back of the trigger guard spur. When the action opens, an automatic extractor pops the cartridge up where it can be manually removed. The action must be opened to cock the Thompson/Center Contender.
The firing mechanism has dual, frame-mounted firing pins—one for rimfire cartridges and one for centerfire rounds. A hammer-mounted firing pin selector allows either type of cartridge to be fired. My selector is mounted on top of the hammer, and it moves with just a flick of my thumb and forefinger. It points to the left for centerfire and to the right for rimfire. The letters “C” and “R” are pressed into the hammer so there’s no confusion. There’s also a center position that puts the hammer in a nonfiring “Safe” position. Earlier versions had a rotating hammerface that was turned with a screwdriver or small coin.
An internal mechanism automatically moves a hammerblock into position whenever the action is opened, and it remains “Safe” until the trigger is squeezed. Also, an independent interlock prevents the pistol from firing if the barrel is not completely closed and locked.
The target-type trigger is 0.42 inch wide, and it’s adjustable for letoff and overtravel. My pistol’s trigger pull is a consistent 4 pounds, 12 ounces. The hammerspur is also 0.42 inch wide.
Barrel lengths ranged from 8.38 to 16 inches in tapered and bull styles, round and octagon, and with adjustable sights or without sights. Some barrels had integral muzzle brakes.
Switching barrels on the Thompson/Center Contender is fast and easy. Simply remove the fore-end, push out the hinge pin, switch barrels, and reassemble.
Barrels and actions were originally blued. Later a silver finish called Armor Alloy was offered, but it was eventually dropped and replaced by satin stainless steel.
There were a variety of fore-end lengths and styles. Fore-ends and grips were offered in walnut and a composite material called Rynite. There was even a shoulder stock offered for models with 16-inch barrels.
I bought my Thompson/Center Contender pistol soon after joining the staff of Shooting Times in the fall of 1992. It’s what T/C called the Hunter Package, and it came with a 14-inch barrel chambered for .35 Rem. complete with muzzle brake, a T/C 2.5X rail-system scope and base, and a 7.25-inch-long walnut fore-end.
I didn’t shoot the gun too often until after I found a set of used Herrett Controller stocks in a local gunshop. While the original Thompson/Center Contender grips were well designed and made of walnut with a rubber recoil-absorbing insert on the backstrap, they just didn’t fit my medium-sized hand very well. The Herrett stocks feel much better, and they have the thumbrest “shelf” that I prefer.
As I said earlier, my favorite barrel is the Super 14 .45 Colt/.410 vent rib barrel that’s shown in the photograph. I’ve included a chart that lists the results of shooting some of my favorite .45 Colt factory loads. Keep in mind that this shooting was done with the “shotgun-style” sights.
A warning came with my .45/.410 barrel, and it reads as follows: “When using .410 shotshells, the internal choke tube remains in place. Remove the choke tube when using .45 Colt ammunition.” I’ve read gun reviews wherein the authors fired .45 Colt ammunition with the .410 choke tube in place with no trouble, but I always adhere to a manufacturer’s warnings, so I have always removed it for shooting my .45 Colt ammo.
As for shooting .410 shotshells in the handgun, well, until you try it you might not realize just how much fun it is. One reason I bought this Thompson/Center Contender is that when I started with ST, one of the first industry people I met was Eric Brooker, who worked for T/C at the time. He was a real gentleman to me, and I remember him telling me on several occasions how much he enjoyed hunting upland birds with his .410 Contender. I had never tried such a thing until he talked about it.
A former Shooting Times Handgun Editor called the Thompson/Center Contender “a purist’s handgun.” He wrote, “It’s not for self-defense, combat matches, or competition paper-shooting. It is for the shooter who wants to explore the maximum limits of accuracy, range, and ballistic performance in a handheld firearm.”
Those words sum up the long run of the Thompson/Center Contender very well. But I’ll add that it’s for fun shooting as well, especially with .410 shotshells.
The Contender was replaced by T/C’s improved G2 Contender in 2002, which has a stronger frame and can be cocked without having to break open the action. It’s an even better “purist’s handgun,” and I own a G2, too. But even though my old Contender barrels will fit on the G2, I’ll never get rid of my old original Thompson/Center Contender.