Classic Guns: Thompson-Center Contender

Classic Guns: Thompson-Center Contender
Ayoob’s first Contender, a 1970s model with T/C scope and elegant octagonal barrel.
Ayoob’s first Contender, a 1970s model with T/C scope and elegant octagonal barrel.
Ayoob’s first Contender, a 1970s model with T/C scope and elegant octagonal barrel.

In his just-released book, Greatest Handguns of the World, Volume 2, author Massad Ayoob includes the Thompson-Center Contender as one of the great firearms that made a difference in the handgunning world. At the end of the chapter, he makes a strong case for collecting Contenders and identifies “four eminently collectible variations of the Contender.”

Summarized as follows from the book:

 1. The flat-side

“The original Contender was made with no photoengraving or etching on it, and many of us thought it more visually appealing than the guns that quickly followed it. There’s damn few of them around, and if you can find one, for heaven’s sake, rathole it away somewhere.”

 2. The Eagle Contender

“Somewhere around serial 1638, a handful of Contender pistols were made with an experimental engraving pattern that replaced the second puma on the right side of the frame with a defiant-looking eagle. Up until then, the only critter on the Contender was the puma, the same animal they named their first scope after. According to Warren Center, only four to six eagle-sided Contenders were produced. A collector, however, assures us it’s closer to twenty-five.”

3. The NRA Contender

“In 1971, when the National Rifle Association hit its century mark, gunmakers across the country vied for the honor of producing the official NRA Centennial Commemorative Handguns. Thompson-Center got into the race, and ran a small series of specially engraved and gold-inlaid NRA Commemorative guns. There was a production holdup, however, and Warren Center told me sadly that by the time he got one ready for NRA to look at, they had already given the honor to Colt. Four or five NRA Commemorative Contenders were completed.”

4. The .45/.410

“The innocent folks at T/C brought this out for sportsmen in a classically sportsman-only gun, only to find that maybe-just- maybe it was in violation of the Federal Firearms Act and could be theoretically considered a sawed off shotgun. There has been no official ruling on the .45/.410, again because ATF is a pragmatic group with a lot of experts in it, and they know it’s not a threat, especially because the things are becoming collector’s items, are totally unsuited to criminal use, and are much more likely to repose in a safe deposit box where nobody’s gonna get at ‘em. If worse came to worse and some martinet got into ATF and made a negative ruling on it, the collector value would probably go up to the point where it would be worth the special $200 license to keep it anyway.”

Ayoob concludes, “Contenders are just starting to bloom as collectors’ pieces. Start now, catch ‘em in the bud, and you might just have the full blossom centerpiece of a fine collection in the next few years.”


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  1. My T-C Contender is one of my favorite handguns. I have only one barrel, a 30-30 chambered 14″ bull barrel. I bought it in 1988 and enjoy long range iron-sights target shooting. At a range I have shot other folk’s TC’s in different calibers, and had fun with them all. Not a lot of moving parts and quality construction. I have a lot of handguns for personal protection and collection purposes, but nothing I own beats the Thompson-Center Contender for just plain fun on a long outside range.


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