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.

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.


About the Author:

Bob Campbell

Bob Campbell’s primary qualification is a lifelong love of firearms, writing, and scholarship. He holds a degree in Criminal Justice but is an autodidact in matters important to his readers. Campbell considers unarmed skills the first line of defense and the handgun the last resort. (He gets it honest- his uncle Jerry Campbell is in the Boxer’s Hall of Fame.)

Campbell has authored well over 6,000 articles columns and reviews and fourteen books for major publishers including Gun Digest, Skyhorse and Paladin Press. Campbell served as a peace officer and security professional and has made hundreds of arrests and been injured on the job more than once.

He has written curriculum on the university level, served as a lead missionary, and is desperately in love with Joyce. He is training his grandchildren not to be snowflakes. At an age when many are thinking of retirement, Bob is working a 60-hour week and awaits being taken up in a whirlwind many years in the future.

Published in
Black Belt Magazine
Combat Handguns
Rifle Magazine
Gun Digest
Gun World
Tactical World
SWAT Magazine
American Gunsmith
Gun Tests Magazine
Women and Guns
The Journal Voice of American Law Enforcement
Police Magazine
Law Enforcement Technology
The Firearms Instructor
Tactical World
Concealed Carry Magazine
Concealed Carry Handguns

Books published

Holsters for Combat and Concealed Carry
The 1911 Automatic Pistol
The Handgun in Personal Defense
The Illustrated Guide to Handgun Skills
The Hunter and the Hunted
The Gun Digest Book of Personal Defense
The Gun Digest Book of the 1911
The Gun Digest Book of the 1911 second edition
Dealing with the Great Ammunition Shortage
Commando Gunsmithing
The Ultimate Book of Gunfighting
Preppers Guide to Rifles
Preppers Guide to Shotguns
The Accurate Handgun
The Mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!'s blog, The Shooter's Log, is to provide information—not opinions—to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (21)

  1. I own 2 TC’s, an Enchore with a custom 460 S&W barrel w/brake. That my friend is a hunting machine. But to big and heavy for fun use.

    I have a Contender and now a new SSK-50 in the Lynx style. My 222 now stays on the Lynx. The old contender is a riot with a 6″ 357 barrel. Or the Super 14 22lr Match barrel. All shoot as good as out of the box factory rifles, and better Than most!

  2. Back in the 1980s the Contender came to dominate the Production Class in IHMSA handgun silhouette competition. The .30 Herret and the .357 magnum were initially very numerous, but it was the 7mm TCU that pushed up the scores to perfect 40s (or 60s or 80s at state and regional matches). The popularity of the Contender platform carried over into the .22 pistol silhouettes as well, and there were also several guys around who did very well shooting the 14 inch barrels in the Unlimited class. Many switched out the wooden factory grips and for end for the Pachmayer rubber grips, which were a little less likely to slip down your calf in the creedmoor position. They were very sturdy guns that stood up to many thousands of rounds, and T/C often had product support reps at the major matches doing free servicing and upgrades.

  3. 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.

  4. 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

  5. I have 2 frames and 3 barrels 14″ and 3 barrels 10″ in various calibers from back in the 60’s and 70’s. The most accurate is a .30 Herret/14″ with a 4 power Leopold scope, this one is accurate out to 200 yards. The most fun is a .375/JDJ in 14″, has muzzle brake and is deadly on just about anything I use it mainly for hogs. I have read that it has killed several elephant, they call it the hand canon. Shoots a full length .444 Marlin necked down to .375. Really draws a crowd at the range.

  6. It is a very interesting gun about 35 years ago or so a guy i worked with use to shoot target and was one of the top shooter’s in northern California i remember after a weekend he would come into work with metal’s pinned on his shirt .He asked me if I wanted to shoot it i said yes we went to the range he had a. 223 rifle bullet in it he told me to lay down lift and bend my leg and torest my arm against my leg and aim at the target when i fired it moved my arm up a foot it was so much fun i shot it till the barrel got real hot he said it needs to cool down i don’t remember if I hit the targets or not but it is a gun i will never forget. If you read this dave Thank you for that

  7. I used to own one of the original series Contenders. Had several different caliber barrels in different lengths. Some with scopes and some without. A friend of mine had similar ones, and I recall being able to shoot the metal band off of a Bic lighter at 100 yds with a 14″ .223 barrel, with handloads and a 3-9×40 Nikon scope. The Contenders are amazing target/hunting pistols…..but not necessarily for beginners, and not for every shooter. I regret selling all my Contender gear every time I go shooting…..????

  8. I have a TC in .22 Hornet, fun to shoot. , but I had to get an adapter to open the barrel easier. Can it be fixed to open smoother?

  9. 1.1-1.5″ @ 25 yds is lousy for a Contender or I got good ones . my 22lr tries to punch one hole grps and my 222 will shoot under 1 ” @ 100 yds

  10. Had a scoped T/C in .218 Bee plus a .22LR adapter for the chamber many years ago. Economic times necessitated selling it and several other guns in order to pay the bills. I’ve regretted it ever since. Probably the finest handgun I’ve ever owned, and I’ve owned quite a few.

    1. if you have a early frame and a later bbl contact TC they will send you the pcs to change out for it to work ,i had to do that to two of mine

  11. I remember well when they first came out in the late 60’s. I was poor then & couldn’t afford to buy one. In the early 70’s I picked up a 221 Remington XP-100 for $50.00 & decided I could afford it if I hand loaded my own ammo. The TC has many advantages for those who like to shoot many calibers by only changing barrels. I suspect it was also faster reloading the the XP-100. But since 90% of my shooting was bench-rest, I never could justify purchasing one.
    I think it’s a fascinating pistol for those who like it for shooting or collecting.
    I still have my XP-100, which by the way has a serial # 500 numbers lower than the one displayed at the NRA museum 27xx.

  12. I have been using Contenders since the late 60’s mostly for IHMSA silhouette competition, but also for hunting. I find I get close to rifle accuracy clear out to 200 meters, and that’s all I need in the woods.


  13. Just landed a .44 in an auction. What a joy! Whole new level of fun with .44 Mag. Now some big glass and let’s have some fun.

    1. Don’t worry about the recoil. I use the wood grips shown in the picture with this article. ‘You’ll get a thump in your palm, a very manageable roll upward and the grip twists to the right.

  14. I have owned a TC Contender for 31 years. I now have 2 frames & 14 of the 14″ barrels of various caliber. I also have a TC Encore Pro Hunter, I Love hunting and just shooting these guns. All together I have 5 different TC’s, they are extremely accurate and fun to shoot.

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