Review: Thompson Contender — The Specialist’s Handgun

Thompson Center Contender handgun left on groundhog paper target

Among the most interesting of hobbies is the pursuit of accuracy. Some handguns have it and some do not—the level of accuracy varies widely. I have often mentioned that I do not own a machine rest as I prefer to keep in touch with reality. I do own a couple of devices that help me shoot well such as the Bull Shooters pistol rest.

Thompson Center Contender handgun right on groundhog paper target
This is a credible tack driver and among the finest fitted and finished handguns ever manufactured.
However, the single handgun I have found to be most like a machine rest or laboratory fixture is the Thompson Center Contender. This top break single-shot, single-action handgun is like no other. While other single-shot handguns have been introduced, none have the staying power and popularity of the Thompson Center Contender.

Introduced in 1967, the Contender is a popular hunting and silhouette competition handgun. The use of multiple barrels allows a single firearm to be used in taking a wide variety of game animals. The Contender is simple enough. It is a break-action handgun, and the action is much more modern and rugged than earlier single shot rolling blocks and other types of handguns.

You simply tug the rear of the trigger guard spur to open the action. This sets the hammer so that it may be cocked for firing. Once the Contender is loaded by placing a cartridge in the chamber, the action is closed.

There is a selector on the hammer for safe, centerfire, or rimfire. There are two firing pins—one for centerfire and one for rimfire cartridges. There is a hammer block for safety. If the barrel isn’t fully locked down in place the pistol will not fire. The trigger is a comfortable .42-inch wide. The hammer spur is also .42-inch wide. Each is easily handled.

Thompson Contender with action open left side
The Contender breaks open easily for loading.
There is a setscrew in the trigger guard that adjusts over travel. The trigger action in this example breaks at a very clean 2 pounds. This is the lightest trigger of any handgun I own. I would never attempt such a light trigger action on any other type of handgun but with the Thompson Center it is perfect.

Changing barrels is simple. Remove the forend; press out the hinge pin; change barrels and you are back in business. Occasionally, the right hand locking lug may need a bit of fitting to fully lock when changing barrels, but that is the only problem I have encountered with a contender. There are quite a few variations seen on the fore end and grip. Pachmayr offers the best option for the heavy recoiling calibers in my opinion.

By the way, one reason the pistol is so steady in the hand is that it weighs a solid 50 ounces. When firing a heavy rifle caliber you will appreciate this weight—even in .223 Remington it a welcome weight. My .22 Long Rifle (MATCH) barrel is quite docile. This handgun has great appeal as a handgun that is wringing the greatest accuracy out of a shooter and a cartridge.

Long eye relief Thompson Center scope
This old, long eye relief Thompson Center scope is collectable but also works well.
Personal defense, most bulls-eye matches, and other contests have no place for the Contender. It is a superbly accurate handgun for hunting. I came to the Contender handgun rather late in my shooting career, and I am glad I did. I wasn’t ready before! I have room for handguns with no clear purpose save enjoyable shooting, and there have been times when I was too busy or funds too limited to allow such a purchase. Today, the Thompson Center Contender with its long barrel and crisp trigger is a joy to fire and use.

How accurate is the Contender? My .22 Long Rifle Match version has been fired with quite a few loads and demonstrated excellent accuracy. The CCI Velocitor is a hunting load that often demonstrates good accuracy. A three shot 25-yard group yielded a 1.5-inch group. Moving to the unplated CCI SGB (Small Game Bullet) the Contender exhibited a 1.25-inch group. The CCI Mini Mag, a great hunting load with good all around performance, was good for 1.1 inches. I have tried a few target-grade loads, and while accuracy was good, seldom was accuracy much better than the CCI hunting-grade loads. The Contender is quite a pistol and a joy to use and fire.

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Do you have room for “luxury guns?” Do you own a T/C Contender or other switch-barrel pistol? Which one is your favorite? Share your answers in the comment section.


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Comments (18)

  1. I have a contender in .357 Herret, in fact it was the 1st gun i ever shot when i was 6. My dad thought it would scare me to death, but to his surprise i loved it. The gun was my dad’s – his mom gave it to him and it continues to be enjoyed by the family. I can’t speak to true accuracy – i don’t shoot it much as I choose to respect the times my dad and i had together with it, and as the ammo is custom made (I don’t reload yet) and pricey – i shoot it on special occasions.

    Funny story, my dad and i went to an outdoor range one day, and there was a guy with thousands of dollars of gear – shooting .22lr next to us. I remember being 10 and pulling out the contender and hitting a steel target at 200 yards – 1st shot. The guy packed up and left right then and there. Funniest of all – I could’nt hit it again the rest of the day, it was a total fluke. Clearly the guy next to us didnt know that. I love this gun, will never sell it.

  2. Sort of a nice article, but very miss leading about the accuracy. If your gun is only shooting 1.25″ groups at 25 yards I would either try another barrel or put more time on the range. Offhand I can shoot under 1″ at 50 yards with 357 max or 44mag with 14″ barrel. Off a rest the 357max will hold under 1″ @ 100 yards. These are far more accurate than you realize. Talk to some other Contender shooters and you’ll soon understand just how great these guns truely are

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