Military Wiki
Thompson Center Arms Inc
Type Subsidiary
Industry Firearms
Founded 1965
Founder(s) K. W. Thompson Tool & Warren Center
Headquarters Rochester, New Hampshire, U.S
Key people Gregg Ritz CEO
Products rifles, pistols
Parent Smith & Wesson

Thompson/Center Arms Company is an American firearms company based in Rochester, New Hampshire. The company is best known for its line of interchangeable barrel single-shot pistols and rifles. Thompson Center also manufactures muzzleloading rifles and is credited with creating the resurgence of their use in the 1970s.


In the 1960s, Warren Center developed an unusual break-action, single-shot pistol that later became known as the Contender in his basement workshop. Meanwhile, the K.W. Thompson Tool Company had been searching for a product to manufacture year-round. In 1965, Warren Center joined the K.W. Thompson Tool Company, and together, they announced Warren Center's Contender pistol in 1967. Although it sold for more than comparable hunting revolvers, the flexibility of being able to shoot multiple calibers by simply changing out the barrel and sights and its higher accuracy soon made it popular with handgun hunters.[1] As K.W. Thompson Tool began marketing Center's Contender pistol, the company name was changed to Thompson/Center Arms Company. Then, in 1970, Thompson/Center created the modern black powder industry, introducing Warren Center's Hawken-styled black powder muzzle-loader rifle.[2]

On January 4, 2007, Thompson/Center was purchased by Smith & Wesson Holding Corporation.[3]

Break-action pistols

Thompson/Center's success came with the emergence of long range handgun hunting, target shooting, and, especially, metallic silhouette shooting.[4] Their break-action, single-shot design brought rifle-like accuracy and power in a handgun, which was a new concept at the time. Originally designed for interchangeable barrels in .38 Special and .22 LR, only, subsequent handgun developments by Thompson/Center led to a wider range of interchangeable barrels for use with many more cartridges. Opening and closing the break-open action is accomplished by simply squeezing the outside bottom of the trigger guard toward the grip/buttstock, at which time the action opens, and an extractor manually extracts the cartridge.

The Contender


Contender in 45 Colt/.410 with ventilated rib. Note the Cougar etched on the side of the G1 receiver, just above the trigger. This configuration is illegal in California, being considered a Short Barreled Shotgun (SBSG). (See text.)

The Contender pistol, first introduced in 1967, is a break-action single-shot pistol with a number of unique features that helped it become and remain a huge success. The first unique feature is the way the barrel is attached to the frame. By removing the fore-end, a large hinge pin is exposed; by pushing this hinge pin out, the barrel can be removed. Since the sights and extractor remain attached to the barrel in the Contender design, the frame itself contains no cartridge-specific features. A barrel of another caliber can be installed and pinned in place, the fore-end replaced, and the pistol is ready to shoot with a different barrel and pre-aligned sights. This allowed easy changes of calibers, sights, and barrel lengths, with only a flat screwdriver being required for change-out. The Contender frame even has two firing pins, and a selector on the exposed hammer, to allow the shooter to choose between rimfire or centerfire firing pins, or to select a safety position from which neither firing pin can strike a primer. The initial baseline design of the Contender had no central safe position on the hammer, having only centerfire and rimfire firing pin positions, each being selectable through using a screwdriver. Three variants of the original Contender design were later developed, distinguished easily by the hammer design. The first variant has a push button selector on the hammer for choosing rimfire vs. centerfire, the second variant has a left-center-right toggle switch for selecting center fire-safe-rimfire firing pins, and the third variant has a horizontal bolt selection for choosing center fire-safe-rimfire firing pin positions. All three of these Contender variants have a cougar etched on the sides of the receiver, thereby easily distinguishing them from the later G2 Contender which has a smooth-sided receiver without an etched cougar. Some of the very earliest Contenders, those requiring a screwdriver to switch the firing pin between rimfire and centerfire, had smooth sides, without the cougar etched on the sides.

The original Contender designs also have an adjustable trigger, allowing the shooter to change both take-up and overtravel, permitting user selection of a range of trigger pulls ranging from a fairly heavy trigger pull suitable for carrying the pistol while hunting to a "hair trigger" suitable for long range target shooting (see accurize). Unlike the later G2 Contender, the original Contender may be safely dry-fired (provided the hammer is not drawn back from the second notch) to allow a shooter to become familiar with the trigger pull. The break-action only has to be cycled, while leaving the hammer in the second notch position, to practice dry-firing. G2's with switchable firing pins (centerfire or rimfire) can be safely dry-fired with the hammer only in the safety (center) position. Barrels have been made in lengths of 6, 8 3/4, 10, 12, 14, 16, and 21 inches (530 mm). Heavier recoiling cartridge barrels have also been made with integral muzzle brakes. Barrels for the original Contender may be used on the later-released G2 Contender; G2 barrels may be used on original Contender frames with a serial number greater than 195000. (Encore barrels are too large.)

The earliest barrels, from early 1967 to late 1967, were all octagonal with a flat bottom lug, and were available in only 10 and 8 3/4 inch lengths. The next group of barrels, from late 1967 to 1972, were available in only 6, 8 3/4, and 10 inch lengths. Later, round barrels were added in a wider variety of lengths, including 10", 12", and 14". Likewise, round barrels in heavier (bull) barrel configurations, known as Super 14 pistol and Super 16 pistol barrels, respectively, were also added. Carbine barrels in 16 and 21 inches were also added for the Contenders. Sights on all the pistol barrels have varied, ranging from low sights, only, in the earlier years to a choice of either low or high sights, as well as no sights, for those pistol barrels intended for scope use, only. Various barrels have sometimes included ejectors as well as extractors, or extractors, only, as well as containing either a flat bottom lug, a stepped bottom lug, or split bottom lugs. Barrels have also been made available in either blued or stainless configurations, to match the finish available on Contender receivers.

Pistol grips and fore-ends have been made available in stained walnut, or in recoil reducing composite materials. Different pistol fore-ends are required for the octagonal versus the round versus the bull barrels. The fore-ends have had an assortment of either one or two screw attachment points, used for attaching the fore-ends to the barrel with its matching one or two attachment points. Universally, the fore-ends, in addition to attaching to the barrel, have also served to cover the single hinge pin that connects the barrel to the receiver.

A major factor in the Contender's success is that, unlike most other firearm actions, the break-action design does not require the barrels to be specially fitted to an individual action. Any barrel, with the exception of a Herrett barrel, that is made for a Contender will fit onto any frame, allowing the shooter to purchase additional barrels in different calibers for a fraction of the cost of a complete firearm. Since the sights are mounted on the barrel, they also stay sighted-in and remain zeroed from barrel-change to barrel-change.

Calibers available for the Contender were initially limited, stopping just short of the .308 Winchester-class rifle cartridges. However, almost any cartridge from .22 Long Rifle up to the .30-30 Winchester is acceptable, as long as a peak pressure of 48,000 CUP is not exceeded. This flexibility prompted a boom in the development of wildcat cartridges suitable for the Contender, such as the 7-30 Waters and .357 Herrett and the various TCU cartridges, most of which were commonly based on either the widely-available .30-30 Winchester or .223 Remington cases. The largest factory caliber offered for the Contender was the .45-70, which, although a much larger case than the .308, is still feasible because of the relatively low cartridge pressures of the original black-powder round relative to the limits of the bolt face of the Contender receiver. Custom gunmakers also have added to the selection, such as the J. D. Jones line of JDJ cartridges based on the .225 Winchester and .444 Marlin. Other barrel makers pushed beyond the limits the factory set, and chambered Contender barrels in lighter .308-class cartridges like the .243 Winchester. The Contender can also fire .410 bore shotgun shells, either through the .45 Colt/.410 barrel or through a special 21-inch (530 mm) smoothbore shotgun barrel. A ported, rifled, .44 Magnum barrel was also made available for use with shotshell cartridges in a removable-choke .44 Magnum barrel, with the choke being used to unspin the shot from the barrel rifling, or, by removing the choke, for use with standard .44 Magnum cartridges. The degree of flexibility provided by the Contender design is unique for experimenting with new cartridges, handloads, barrel lengths, and shotshells.

The Encore

The Encore was released in the late 1990s. The Encore uses a different trigger mechanism, designed to be stronger than the original Contender's and to make the break-action easier to open. The Encore also uses a considerably larger and stronger frame than the Contender, and accordingly, is found in over 86 cartridges - ranging from .22 Hornet to the huge .416 Rigby.There has even been one pistol length stainless barrel made in .600 Nitro Express. The Encore barrel list also includes shotgun barrels in 28, 20, and 12 gauge, and muzzleloading barrels in .45, .50 caliber, and 12 gauge using #209 shotgun primers. In 2007, Encore rimfire barrels became available in 22 LR and 17 HMR, featuring a unique monoblock design that required no alteration to the frame assembly.

The Contender G2

The original Contender, now known as the generation one (G1) Contender, was replaced by the G2 Contender soon after the Encore came out. The G2 Contender is essentially dimensionally the same as the original Contender, but uses an Encore style trigger group. Due to the changes in the trigger mechanism, and to differences in the angle of the grip relative to the boreline of the gun, the buttstocks and pistol grips are different between the G1 and G2 Contenders and will not interchange. The G2, though, uses essentially the same barrels and fore-ends as the original Contender[5] and barrels will interchange, with the only two exceptions being the G2 muzzleloading barrels, which will only fit the G2 frame, and the Herrett barrels/fore-ends, which are specific for use only on a G1 frame.[6]

Unlike the original Contender, dry-firing of the G2 Contender is possible only in the center (safe) hammer position, located on the hammer between the centerfire and rimfire positions. Also, unlike the original Contender, the break-action does not need to be opened/closed (cycled) to practice dry-firing, provided the hammer is lowered between dry firing "shots". The adjustability of G2 Contender triggers is also slightly different from the original G1 Contender.

General legalities

The receiver on a Contender, whether G1 or G2, is the portion of the combined grip/buttstock assembly containing the trigger mechanism, and this is legally considered the serial-numbered gun. Hence, barrels with iron sights, barrels with telescopic sights, and even the hinge pin, are all simply gun parts, with no serial numbers, making the choice of changing cartridges from a multitude of rimfire, centerfire rifle and pistol cartridges, and even shotgun shells, very simple.

It is possible to fit a shoulder stock on a pistol frame in place of a pistol grip, and, when combined with a 16" or longer barrel (see "Thompson Center Arms and the Supreme Court" below), a Contender may be legally converted from a pistol to a rifle or reversed. Although it is technically possible to fit a pistol grip on an original Contender rifle frame, and use a pistol barrel to convert it from being a rifle to a pistol, this is not legal, being an illegal creation of a pistol from a rifle. In order to be able to go back and forth, the receiver must have been originally sold as a pistol, per ATF rules.

California Legalities

See Gun laws in California

  • Possession of a Thompson Center Arms .45/.410 pistol barrel is illegal in California, for both dealers and individuals, and such a barrel may not legally be shipped into the state, or even taken into California for a hunting trip, by reason of it being classified as a short barreled shotgun (SBSG) when used with a Contender receiver.[7]

Muzzleloading rifles and pistols

TC Hawken percussion rifle

Thompson Center manufactures a variety of muzzleloading rifles of both Traditional and Inline designs, and sells percussion and flintlock rifles in a wide variety of bore diameters. Some of the better-known models are the Renegade, the Hawken, the Big Boar, and the White Mountain.

The Thompson/Center Hawken is largely responsible for the resurgence of black powder hunting that began in the U.S. in 1970 when Warren Center designed the firm's Hawken-styled rifle. Thompson Center's reintroduced Hawken-styled rifle with solid brass hardware and an American walnut stock, styled in large part on "plains rifles" made by Hawken in the 1800s, has become one of the most-copied firearms designs in history.[8] The Encore 209x.50 Magnum muzzleloader is a modern-design muzzleloader, and can interchange with centerfire barrels. Based on a single-shot, break-action, the 209x.50 is capable of "minute of angle" accuracy. The 209x.50 can handle charges of up to 150 grains (9.7 g) of black powder or Pyrodex equivalent. Using a 26" barrel and a 250-grain (16 g) bullet with 3 Pyrodex Pellets, it produces a muzzle velocity of 2203 ft./second. The G2 Contender muzzleloader accepts magnum charges for long range shooting. Charges of up to 150 grains (9.7 g) of FFG Black Powder or three (3) 50-grain Pyrodex Pellets produce velocities of approximately 2,400 ft/s (730 m/s) at the muzzle. The Omega can handle 150 grains (9.7 g) of Black Powder or Pyrodex equivalent, or three 50-grain (3.2 g) Pyrodex pellets. With its 28" barrel it burns magnum charges very efficiently. The Triumph muzzleloader comes in .50 cal. with a 28" barrel and composite stock.

From 1972 to 1997, Thompson/Center also offered a very elegantly made single-shot muzzleloading target pistol of traditional design called the Patriot. Highly accurate, and featuring adjustable double set triggers, it was available in .36 and .45 calibers though the latter was much more common. Its small lock design also was used in a light, delicate rifle called the Seneca. Unfortunately a major factory fire in 1996 destroyed all tooling and parts for these weapons. As a result, they were discontinued, and surviving examples appear for sale only rarely.

Thompson/Center Arms and the Supreme Court

In the case of United States v. Thompson/Center Arms Co. (1992), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the company's favor by deciding that the rifle conversion kit that Thompson sold for their pistols did not constitute a short-barreled rifle under the National Firearms Act of 1934.[9]

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms contended that the mere possession of a pistol having a barrel less than sixteen inches (406 mm) long, a shoulder stock, and a rifle-length (more than sixteen inches) barrel constituted constructive intent to "make" an illegal short-barreled rifle (SBR) (by combining the pistol's frame, the pistol-length barrel, and the shoulder stock) even if the shoulder stock was intended to be used only with the rifle-length barrel.

The Supreme Court disagreed and its decision clarified the meaning of the term "make" in the National Firearms Act by stating that the mere possession of components that theoretically could be assembled in an illegal configuration was not in itself a violation as long as the components could also be assembled into a legal configuration.[10]

One argument raised was the example of ammonium-nitrate fertilizer and Diesel oil, which can very often be found together in a farmer's possession (fertilizer for the crops, fuel for the tractor.) Both are lawful, and while they can easily be assembled into the high explosive known as ANFO, possession of both has never been held to imply (without other evidence) that a farmer was "making" explosives.


  1. Van Zwoll, Wayne (2006). Hunter's Guide to Long-Range Shooting. Stackpole Books. p. 332. 
  2. Stephens, Charles (1996). Thompson/Center Contender Pistol: How To Tune, Time, Load, And Shoot For Accuracy. Boulder, CO: Paladin Press. pp. 64. ISBN 978-0-87364-885-1. 
  3. 13009 - Smith&Wesson: Press Releases
  4. Simpson, Layne (02/01/2009). "The Contender's Magnificent 7". 
  6. Potts, Bruce (10/01/2008). "Thompson Center G2 Contender Rifle Review". 
  7. "California Dangerous Weapons Control Law ARTICLE 2. UNLAWFUL CARRYING AND POSSESSION OF WEAPONS 12020.". State of California. 2008. Retrieved 01/29/2013. "As used in this section, a "short-barreled shotgun" means any of the following: (A) A firearm which is designed or redesigned to fire a fixed shotgun shell and having a barrel or barrels of less than 18 inches in length. (B) A firearm which has an overall length of less than 26 inches and which is designed or redesigned to fire a fixed shotgun shell." 
  8. Towsley, Bryce (2003). "The Mighty Hawken". Petersen. 
  9. 504 United States Reports 505 (1992)
  10. "Case syllabus from Cornell Law School". Cornell University. 1992. Retrieved 10/21/2009. 

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