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Thompson Center Arms

Thompson Center Arms

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Thompson/Center Arms Company is an American firearms company based in Rochester, New Hampshire
Rochester, New Hampshire
Rochester is a city in Strafford County, New Hampshire, United States. As of the 2010 census, the city population was 29,752. The city includes the villages of East Rochester and Gonic. Rochester is home to Skyhaven Airport and the annual Rochester Fair....

. The company is best known for its line of interchangeable barrel single-shot pistols and rifles. Thompson Center manufactures muzzleloading rifles and is credited with creating the resurgence of their use in the 1970's.


Thompson/Center Arms was founded in 1965 by Mr. Warren Center and K.W. Thompson Tool Company. Thompson Tool had been searching for a product to market, and Warren Center was looking for someone to manufacture his Contender pistol design. As K.W. Thompson Tool began marketing Center's Contender pistol, the company name changed to Thompson/Center Arms Company. In 1970, Thompson/Center created the modern black powder industry.

On January 4, 2007, Thompson/Center was purchased by Smith & Wesson
Smith & Wesson
Smith & Wesson is the largest manufacturer of handguns in the United States. The corporate headquarters is in Springfield, Massachusetts. Founded in 1852, Smith & Wesson's pistols and revolvers have become standard issue to police and armed forces throughout the world...

 Holding Corporation

Break-open pistols

Thompson/Center's success came with the emergence of long range handgun hunting
Handgun hunting
Handgun hunting is primarily done with specialized handguns that have long barrels and are often set up with scopes .Even the largest animals, such as elephants, can be killed with modern hunting handguns, although most handgun hunters only use handguns when hunting medium-sized game like deer and...

 and target shooting. Their break-open, single-shot
Single-shot firearms are firearms that hold only a single round of ammunition, and must be reloaded after each shot. The history of firearms began with single-shot designs, and many centuries passed before multi-shot designs became commonplace...

 design brought rifle
A rifle is a firearm designed to be fired from the shoulder, with a barrel that has a helical groove or pattern of grooves cut into the barrel walls. The raised areas of the rifling are called "lands," which make contact with the projectile , imparting spin around an axis corresponding to the...

-like accuracy and power in a handgun, which was a new concept at the time. Originally designed for interchangeable barrels in .38 Special
.38 Special
The .38 Smith & Wesson Special is a rimmed, centerfire cartridge designed by Smith & Wesson. It is most commonly used in revolvers, although some semi-automatic pistols and carbines also use this round...

 and .22 LR, only, subsequent handgun developments by Thompson/Center led to a wider range of interchangeable barrels for use with many more cartridges.

The Contender

The Contender pistol is a break-open single-shot pistol with a number of unique features that helped it become and remain a huge success. The first unique feature was the way the barrel was attached to the frame. By removing the fore-end stock, a large hinge pin was exposed; by pushing this hinge pin out, the barrel could be removed. Since the sights and extractor remained attached to the barrel in the Contender design, the frame itself contained no cartridge-specific features to it. A barrel of another caliber could be installed and pinned in place, the fore-end replaced, and the pistol would be 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 Contender also has an adjustable trigger, which allowed the shooter to change both the take-up and overtravel, permitting the 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), to allow a shooter to become progressively familiar with the trigger pull. G2 with switchable firing pin (center fire and rim fire) can be safely dry-fired with the hammer in the safety position. It is even possible to fit a shoulder stock on the frame, and, when combined with a 16" or longer barrel (see Thompson Center Arms and the Supreme Court below), configure the Contender from a pistol to a rifle, or the reverse. Barrels are available in lengths of 8, 10, 14, 16, and 21 inches (533.4 mm). 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.

Another factor to the Contender's success was that, unlike most other firearm action
Firearm action
In firearms terminology, an action is the physical mechanism that manipulates cartridges and/or seals the breech. The term is also used to describe the method in which cartridges are loaded, locked, and extracted from the mechanism. Actions are generally categorized by the type of mechanism used...

s, the break-open design did not require the barrels to be specially fitted to the individual action. Any barrel made for the Contender could fit onto any frame, allowing the shooter to purchase additional calibers for a fraction of the cost of a complete firearm. Since the sights were mounted on the barrel, they stayed sighted in and would remain zeroed from barrel change to barrel change.

The range of calibers available for the Contender were limited, stopping just short of the .308 Winchester
.308 Winchester
The .308 Winchester is a rifle cartridge and is the commercial cartridge upon which the military 7.62x51mm NATO centerfire cartridge is based. The .308 Winchester was introduced in 1952, two years prior to the NATO adoption of the 7.62x51mm NATO T65...

 class cartridges. However, most any cartridge from .22 Long Rifle
.22 Long Rifle
The .22 Long Rifle rimfire cartridge is a long established variety of ammunition, and in terms of units sold is still by far the most common in the world today. The cartridge is often referred to simply as .22 LR and various rifles, pistols, revolvers, and even some smoothbore shotguns have...

 up to the .30-30 Winchester
.30-30 Winchester
The .30-30 Winchester/.30 Winchester Center Fire/7.62×51mmR cartridge was first marketed in early 1895 for the Winchester Model 1894 lever-action rifle. The .30-30 , as it is most commonly known, was the USA's first small-bore, sporting rifle cartridge designed for smokeless powder. The .30-30 is...

 was acceptable, as long as the peak pressure of 48,000 CUP, or less, was placed upon the receiver. This flexibility prompted a boom in the development of wildcat cartridge
Wildcat cartridge
A wildcat cartridge, or wildcat, is a custom cartridge for which ammunition and firearms are not mass produced. These cartridges are often created in order to optimize a certain performance characteristic of an existing commercial cartridge.Developing and using wildcat cartridges does not...

s suitable for the Contender, such as the 7-30 Waters
7-30 Waters
The 7-30 Waters cartridge is a wildcat cartridge developed by author Ken Waters in 1976 to give better performance to lever action rifle shooters than the parent .30-30 Winchester cartridge, by providing a higher velocity and flatter trajectory with a smaller, lighter bullet...

 and .357 Herrett and the various TCU cartridges
Thompson/Center Ugalde
The Thompson/Center Ugalde, or TCU family of wildcat cartridges was developed by Wes Ugalde of Fallon, Nevada, by necking up .223 Remington brass to accept larger bullets...

, most of which were commonly derived on either the widely available .30-30 Winchester
.30-30 Winchester
The .30-30 Winchester/.30 Winchester Center Fire/7.62×51mmR cartridge was first marketed in early 1895 for the Winchester Model 1894 lever-action rifle. The .30-30 , as it is most commonly known, was the USA's first small-bore, sporting rifle cartridge designed for smokeless powder. The .30-30 is...

 or .223 Remington
.223 Remington
The .223 Remington is a sporting cartridge with almost the same external dimensions as the 5.56×45mm NATO military cartridge. The name is commonly pronounced either two-two-three or two-twenty-three. It is loaded with a diameter, jacketed bullet, with weights ranging from , though the most common...

 cases. The largest factory caliber offered for the Contender was the .45-70
The .45-70 rifle cartridge, also known as .45-70 Government, was developed at the U.S. Army's Springfield Armory for use in the Springfield Model 1873...

, which although being a much larger case than the .308, was still feasible because of the relatively low cartridge pressure of the original black powder round relative to the bolt face of the Contender receiver. Custom gun makers also added to the selection, such as the J. D. Jones line of JDJ cartridges, based on the .225 Winchester
.225 Winchester
The .225 Winchester cartridge was created in 1964 by the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. Based upon the .219 Donaldson Wasp cartridge, it is a semi-rimmed cartridge, which was an oddity for a cartridge introduced at the time...

 and .444 Marlin
.444 Marlin
The .444 Marlin is a rifle cartridge designed in 1964 by Marlin Firearms and Remington Arms. It was designed to fill in a gap for the older .45-70 at a time when that cartridge was not currently available in any lever action, making it the largest at the time available lever-action cartridge...

. Other barrel makers pushed beyond the limits the factory set, and did chamber Contender barrels in lighter .308 class cartridges like the .243 Winchester
.243 Winchester
The .243 Winchester is a popular sporting rifle cartridge. Initially designed as a varmint round, it is now more frequently used on medium to large game such as whitetail deer, mule deer, pronghorn, wild hogs, and even black bear and caribou...

. The Contender could also fire .410 bore
.410 bore
.410 bore, commonly misnamed the .410 gauge, is the smallest gauge of shotgun shell commonly available. It has similar base dimensions to the .45 Colt revolver cartridge, though the .410 is significantly longer, up to , allowing many single-shot firearms and some revolvers chambered in that...

 shotgun shell
Shotgun shell
A shotgun shell is a self-contained cartridge loaded with lead shot or shotgun slug designed to be fired from a shotgun....

s, either through the .45 Colt
.45 Colt
The .45 Colt cartridge is a handgun cartridge dating to 1872. It began as a black powder revolver round developed for the Colt Single Action Army revolver, but is offered as a magnum level handgun hunting round in modern usage. This cartridge was adopted by the U.S. Army in 1873 and served as the...

/.410 barrel or through a special 21 inches (533.4 mm) smoothbore
A smoothbore weapon is one which has a barrel without rifling. Smoothbores range from handheld firearms to powerful tank guns and large artillery mortars.-History of firearms and rifling:...

A shotgun is a firearm that is usually designed to be fired from the shoulder, which uses the energy of a fixed shell to fire a number of small spherical pellets called shot, or a solid projectile called a slug...

 barrel. A ported, rifled, .44 Magnum
.44 Magnum
The .44 Remington Magnum, or simply .44 Magnum, is a large-bore cartridge originally designed for revolvers. After introduction, it was quickly adopted for carbines and rifles...

 barrel was also made available for use with shot shell 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, barrel lengths, and shot shells.

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-open action easier. The Encore uses a considerably larger and stronger frame than the Contender, and accordingly is found in over 86 cartridges - from .22 Hornet
.22 Hornet
The .22 Hornet is a low-end vermin, small-game and predator centerfire rifle cartridge. It is considerably more powerful than the .22 WMR and the .17 HMR, achieving higher velocity with a bullet twice the weight. The Hornet also differs very significantly from these in that it is not a rimfire...

 to .416 Rigby
.416 Rigby
The .416 Rigby or 10.6x74mm was designed in 1911 by John Rigby & Company of London, England as a dangerous game cartridge and is the first one to use a bullet with a diameter of .416"...

. The Encore barrel list also includes shotgun barrels in 28, 20 and 12 gauge, and muzzleloading barrels in .45 and .50 caliber and 12 gauge, using 209 shotgun primers. New for 2007, The Encore Rimfire Barrels feature a unique mono block design, which requires no alteration to the frame assembly. Available in 22 LR and 17 HMR.

The Contender G2

The Contender was replaced by the Contender G2 soon after the Encore came out. The G2 is dimensionally the same as the Contender, but uses an Encore style trigger group. Due to the change in trigger mechanism, the buttstocks and pistol grips are different and will not interchange between the original Contender and the G2. The G2 uses the same barrels and forends as the Contender and so barrels will interchange, with the one exception to this being the G2 muzzleloading barrels, which will only fit the G2 frame.

Muzzleloading rifles

Thompson Center manufactures a variety of muzzleloading
A muzzleloader is any firearm into which the projectile and usually the propellant charge is loaded from the muzzle of the gun . This is distinct from the more popular modern designs of breech-loading firearms...

 rifles, both in Traditional and In-Line arenas. They sell a great number of percussion and flintlock rifles in a wide variety of bore diameters. Some of the better known models are the Renegade, the Hawken
Hawken rifle
The Hawken rifle was a brand of black powder long rifle used on the prairies and in the Rocky Mountains of the United States during the early frontier days. It has become synonymous with the "plains rifle", the buffalo gun, and the fur trapper's gun...

, 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 rifle. Thompson Center's reintroduction of the Hawken rifle with solid brass hardware and an American Walnut stock has become one of the most copied firearms designs in history.

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
The moa were eleven species of flightless birds endemic to New Zealand. The two largest species, Dinornis robustus and Dinornis novaezelandiae, reached about in height with neck outstretched, and weighed about ....

” accuracy. The 209x.50 can handle charges of up to 150 gr of black powder or Pyrodex equivalent. Using a 26" barrel and a 250 gr 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 gr of FFG Black Powder or three (3) 50 grain Pyrodex Pellets produce velocities of approximately 2400 ft/s (731.5 m/s) at the muzzle. The Omega can handle 150 gr of Black Powder or Pyrodex equivalent, or three 50 gr 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.

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 with their pistols did not constitute a short-barreled rifle under the National Firearms Act
National Firearms Act
The National Firearms Act , 73rd Congress, Sess. 2, ch. 757, , enacted on June 26, 1934, currently codified as amended as , is an Act of Congress that, in general, imposes a statutory excise tax on the manufacture and transfer of certain firearms and mandates the registration of those firearms. The...

of 1934.

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, with a shoulder stock and rifle-length (more than sixteen inches) barrel constituted constructive intent to "make" an illegal short-barreled rifle (by combining the pistol's frame, the pistol-length barrel, and the shoulder stock).

This decision clarified the meaning of the term "make" in the National Firearms Act by stating that the pistol had to be assembled with a barrel less than 16 inches (406.4 mm) long with a stock directly attached to it to constitute a short-barrelled rifle under the National Firearms Act, and 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 legal configurations.

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