There is a certain elegance to single shot firearms. They do not involve complicated and noisy actions to cycle cartridges in and out; in fact they do not really have an “action” at all, and this allows for fewer design compromises. It can be focused a certain competitive shooting discipline or a certain kind of hunting. In the case of the Thompson/Center Contender pistol, it was designed by Warren Center to be an ideal handgun for Competitive Handgun Metallic Silhouette Shooting (hence its name), but it was found by the budding handgun hunting crowd to offer numerous advantages over large-framed revolvers for hunting medium (Deer) and even large game (Elk).
I have a somewhat complicated relationship with Contenders, and my observation of them is that people either really like them or they dislike them. There are few people that seem ambivalent about them and plenty who have strong opinions about them. I was never really interested in them as their appearance never really attracted me, probably because I imprinted on certain forms of firearms when I was a child that I have never shaken. They are idiosycratic, though when you study them for a while you see that they have everything that is essential, and possess a subtle ingenuity, but you don’t really notice this until you’ve owned and used one for a while. It is also the only firearm that I know of which can be configured as a rifle or a pistol.
Since Contenders never really attracted me, and nobody I knew had one, I only came to own one in a rather circuitous way. I once owned a Thompson/Center BuckMark 22LR semi-auto rifle. These were billed by T/C as better than the ubiquitous Ruger 10/22 for a number of reasons, mainly that they had all steel receivers, threaded barrels, and were equipped with a better trigger, sights, and stock right out of the box. All of that was true, but mine had a very serious flaw in the trigger mechanism, so I sent it back, and it sat at the T/C factory in New Hampshire for nearly a year. I would periodically call them up and ask them what’s going on and was usually given some dismissive reply. Eventually, after pointing out that it was coming up on one year that they had it in their possession, and they admitted that they cannot fix it because a subcontractor that made parts for the rifle no longer was able to supply the particular part needed, the customer service person made me an offer: a brand new G2 Contender 22LR Rifle in exchange for destroying the unfixable BuckMark (which was discontinued from their catalog that year). At the time the G2 cost about double what I paid for the BuckMark so I agreed to it, basically knowing little about the Contender other than its MSRP. Despite not buying the Contender, it ironically became the only firearm I regretted later selling.
Thus began my curious relationship with a Contender RIFLE. I found the thing exceedingly heavy for a 22 Rifle, and I found annoying how the barrel tilted downwards, which makes it hard to reload at the range on a bench or on the ground hunting squirrels. I basically never shot it despite it being quite accurate. I eventually sold it after realizing I didn’t use it much. I never gave it a chance to really demonstrate itself as a pistol, which is what the Contender was originally meant to be.
I recently saw that T/C, now under the ownership of Smith & Wesson, started making G2 Contenders again, and they were running a nice $75 mail-in-rebate, and the price was very reasonable. I also now appreciate more fully the chief virtues of the Contender: simple barrel inter-changeability, accuracy, and easy maneuverability. Since I’ve started to hunt on public lands in Indiana, my firearm needs to conform to the old cartridge restrictions of Indiana. So 30-30, which is legal for hunting on private lands in Indiana, is out along with nearly all cartridges rifles are normally chambered in. Even large, powerful handguns do not have the practical range or accuracy ideal for Whitetails, and in my opinion, are a major disability in the field. Interestingly, 357 Herrett, which is a wildcat cartridge originally intended for silhouette competition in Contenders, falls within the Indiana restrictions (between 1.29″ and 1.8″ case length, between .357 and .50 caliber) and it is an ideal deer cartridge, even out of a shorter barrel (even a 10″ handgun barrel, which is long by handgun standards, is half the length of a typical rifle).
As a pistol the tilting barrel isn’t annoying. In fact, it is quite fast. While not as fast as a revolver, I can reload a Contender handgun rapidly and easily. Best of all, the spent case doesn’t end up on the ground. One at a time out of the chamber and into a box, bag, or pocket. This is the reloaders’ dream! And Contenders are one of the few pistols that mounting a scope on makes sense. They have the range, power, and accuracy that makes good use of a scope. Unlike most handguns, which are held only from the grip, a Contender, particularly with a long barrel (over 10″), is held by the grip and forend. Typically most people find this to be a more stable hold. Also, there are many ways to hold a Contender using other parts of your body. You can rest them on your knee, or on a walking staff, or hold them on crossed shooting sticks.
They are nice in a blind, too. While I usually stalk hunt, and they are fine for that, even a pistol of very great barrel length (mine is 14″) is very maneuverable compared to a rifle. They are easier to climb up trees with, and if you purchase a sling for them, they are very portable. In my opinion they are far too heavy for a holster, unless it is a holster suspended from a shoulder, and if you are going to do that, might as well just get a sling. Long-barreled Contenders sort of fill a middle ground between a carbine length rifle (small, short-barreled rifle, typically 16-20″) and a typical handgun with a barrel length typically around 4-6 inches. The Contender maintains much of a handgun’s portability and convenience, while it approaches a rifle’s accuracy and power. They even are half way between a typical handgun with its single point of body contact (grip, by one or both hands) and a rifle with its three points of body contact (grip, forend, and buttstock). Contenders are typically held by the grip and forend and so have two points of body contact.