March 1998

Thompson/Center Encore Our Choice In A .223 Rem. Single Shot Pistol

The Encore was more accurate than the Thompson/Center Contender and more reliable than the Magnum Research Lone Eagle.

No one has carried the concept of single platform\multiple calibers farther than manufacturers of single shot handguns. Such pistols are designed to fire different calibers by changing a part or an assembly. Consequently, the shooter doesnít have to buy a whole new gun every time he or she wants to try a new cartridge.

The three entries in this shootout are prime examples of the multiple caliber concept. Magnum Researchís Lone Eagle is available in 15 centerfire calibers and has a rotating breech that field artillery veterans may find familiar. Its caliber is changed by installing a different barreled-action on the pistolís grip assembly. Thompson/Centerís Encore and Contender are both break open actions. Each of these pistols can be changed to a different caliber by replacing their barrel. Encore barrels are not interchangeable with Contender barrels. The newer Encore is available in 11 centerfire calibers.

Caliber-wise, the Thompson/Center Contender could be considered even more versatile than the Lone Eagle or Encore since its 20 barrel offerings include .22 Long Rifle and .45 Long Colt\.410 Gauge in addition to rifle chamberings. A manual selector on its hammer enables the shooter to switch from rimfire to centerfire firing pins and set the pistol on safe.

Due to the simplicity of their individual designs, we expected few, if any, operational malfunctions with these pistols. Our position going in was to see which among them delivered the best out-of-the-box accuracy. During accuracy testing, all three single shots seemed to prefer loads with lighter bullets. The largest groups were produced using heavier-bulleted match ammunition.

The results of our head-to-head evaluation follows:

Thompson/Center Arms Encore
As its name suggests, the Encore is this manufacturerís second single shot, break open pistol. This centerfire handgun is intended for varmint and big game hunting. It features a patent pending automatic safety, open sights and an interchangeable 10- or 15-inch barrel. Barrels are available in calibers from .22-250 Rem. to .444 Marlin.

Physical Description
The $495 Encore acquired for this test had a 15-inch barrel chambered for the .223 Rem. cartridge. Its workmanship was, in our opinion, above average. The barrel had a polished blue finish, while the receiver was a duller blue. Minor polishing marks were noted on the bottom of the frame. However, no sharp edges or other cosmetic imperfections were found. The barrel locked solidly to the frame. Other moving parts had almost no play.

A two-piece American walnut stock with a smooth, satin finish was provided on this model. The pistol grip, which had three finger grooves and a black plastic butt cap, was securely attached to the back of the receiver. The Schnabel-style forend was fastened to the bottom of the barrel. Wood-to-metal mating was good.

Our Judgments
We found that operating the Encore was very simple. Pulling back on the large spur at the bottom of the trigger guard with the fingers of the firing hand unlocked and allowed the barrel to pivot open. Then, loading was accomplished by inserting a round into the chamber and closing the barrel. Thumbing back the external hammer was the only action needed to cock or recock the pistol, which wasnít the case with the Contender in this test.

The Encore worked perfectly during all phases of our testing. Only a modest amount of effort was required to activate the barrel release. The barrel opened and closed smoothly. Right- and left-handed shooters could readily cock the hammer with the thumb of their firing hand. The extractor pushed spent cartridges backward about 1/4 inch, making them fairly easy to remove from the chamber by hand.

This Thompson/Center pistol was equipped with a passive hammer block safety. It provided protection against accidental discharges by preventing the hammer from contacting the firing pin unless there was continuous pressure on the trigger. A bolt interlock prevented firing when the barrel wasnít fully closed.

Of the handguns in this test, the Encore was the longest and heaviest. Its very muzzle-heavy balance made keeping this two-handed pistol level and steady a real chore when shooting unsupported, but it was the most stable on a rest. Pointing and target acquisition were the slowest, but acceptable for a pistol of this type.

Shooters with small hands didnít care for the Encoreís long trigger reach and large grip. However, the finger-grooved gripís shape worked equally well for right- and left-handed people with average to large hands. This .223ís felt recoil was the mildest of the test. Muzzle jump was easy to manage, but muzzle blast was very noticeable.

All of our testers considered the grooved 3/8-inch-wide triggerís movement to be above average. Its single action pull released smoothly with 3 1/4 pounds of rearward pressure. There was no slack or overtravel. This pistol had a trigger stop adjustment screw.

The Encoreís open sights consisted of a ramped 3/16-inch-wide front post and a fully micro-adjustable rear sight with a 1/16-inch-wide notch. Both were mounted on the barrel. We thought this arrangement provided a good sighting reference at 75 yards or less.

For those who prefer an optical sight, the top of the barrel was drilled and tapped for Thompson/Center scope mounts. Using the manufacturerís Duo-Ring Mounting System (not included), a Redfield 2.5-7X EER pistol scope was installed on the Encore for accuracy testing.

In our opinion, the Encoreís accuracy was pretty good for this kind of firearm. At 100 yards, three-shot groups averaged from 1.68 inches with Remington 55-grain pointed soft points to 2.63 inches with Federal Gold Medal 69-grain boat-tail hollow points.

Due to its 1-inch longer barrel, the Encore generated the fastest muzzle velocities of the test. Average velocities ranged from 2,661 feet per second with the Federal load to 2,788 feet per second with the Remington load.

Thompson/Center Contender
The Contender, this manu-facturerís first single shot pistol, has been around for over 25 years. It is intended for long range sport shooting as well as small and big game hunting. This break open modelís dual firing pin system, which allows the use of rimfire and centerfire ammunition, and an interchangeable 10-, 14- or 16-inch barrel makes it very versatile. Barrels are offered in calibers from .22 Long Rifle to .45/70 Government.

Physical Description
For this test, we acquired a $474 Contender with a 14-inch barrel. Its fit and finish was, in our opinion, average. All steel surfaces had a blued finish with a medium polish. Both sides of the receiver were decorated with a Cougar head and scrolling. Minor polishing marks were visible on the bottom of the frame, along the barrel and under the trigger guard. The barrel had no play, but its locking system could have used some smoothing.

The wood portions of the stock were made primarily of American walnut, with a uniform satin finish. The grip, which the manufacturer refers to as the Competitor Grip, featured a non-removable rubber insert on the back. It and the long, slim forend were securely fastened in place. Some small gaps were noted between the frame and the grip.

Our Judgments
The Contenderís operation wasnít as straightforward as the Encore pistol. The external hammer worked in conjunction with the internal sears. So, the hammer could only be cocked when the sears were set, which was accomplished by opening and closing the barrel. Our testers felt the inability to recock the hammer without breaking open the barrel was a disadvantage. Pulling back on the spur at the bottom of the trigger guard unlocked the barrel, allowing it to be pivoted open.

A three-position switch, called the firing pin selector, was located on top of the hammer. It governed the positioning of the two rotating hammer noses, which strike either of the firing pins in the frame to fire the chambered round. Moving the back of the selector to the left brought the rimfire hammer nose into the firing position. When turned to the right, the centerfire hammer nose was moved into position. In the center, or safe, position, both hammer noses were out of alignment with the firing pins. The passive safety, called the interlock safety, prevented firing if the barrel was open or the trigger wasnít pulled.

No malfunctions were encountered while firing the Contender. However, its barrel was very hard to unlock, regardless of whether there was a round in the chamber or not. Most of the time, our shooters had to use both hands to pull the trigger guardís spur back far enough to release the barrel. The hammer and other controls were ambidextrous and worked positively. The extractor pushed spent cases backward about 1/4 inch, permitting them to be manually removed from the chamber.

Although this Thompson/Center was the lightest single shot tested, two hands had to be used to keep the gun level when firing unsupported. It wasnít as muzzle heavy as the Encore, so pointing and target acquisition were a little faster. The large wooden grip afforded a very good hold for all but the smallest hands, and its rubber insert effectively lessened the recoil generated by the .223 cartridge. Controlling muzzle jump wasnít difficult.

Movement of the grooved 3/8-inch-wide trigger was, in our opinion, satisfactory. Its pull had no slack and released crisply at 3 1/2 pounds. Thanks to the well-adjusted trigger stop screw, there was no overtravel.

We thought the Contenderís open sights provided a good sighting reference out to 75 yards. The front sight was a ramped 3/16-inch-wide post on the front of the barrel. The rear sight had a fully screw-adjustable blade with a 1/16-inch-wide notch. It was mounted on the rear of the barrel.

The threaded holes in the top rear of the barrel used to attach the rear sight also accommodated Thompson/Center scope mounts. To evaluate this pistolís accuracy potential, we equipped it with a Redfield 2.5-7X EER pistol scope using a T/C Duo-Ring Mounting System (not included).

Our shooters considered the accuracy of the Contender to be mediocre. Three-shot average groups at 100 yards measured from 2.05 inches with Remington 55-grain pointed soft points to 3.00 inches with Federal Gold Medal 69-grain boat-tail hollow points.

With the commercial .223 ammunition we used, this pistol yielded muzzle velocities that averaged from 2,611 feet per second with the Federal load to 2,728 feet per second with the Remington load. This was 50 to 60 feet per second slower than the Encore in this test.

Magnum Research Lone Eagle
One of the more unusual single shot pistols on the market is this companyís Lone Eagle. This centerfire handgun features a grip assembly and an interchangeable barreled-action. The action consists of a rotary breech assembly mated to a 14-inch barrel. It is available in calibers from .22 Hornet to .444 Marlin. The barrel is drilled and tapped for either open sights or a scope mount, which arenít standard equipment, and accepts an optional muzzle brake.

Physical Description
Retailing for $354, we thought the workmanship of the .223 Rem. Lone Eagle was average. Its barrel had an even low-glare black finish and some machining marks at the front. The muzzle end of the barrel was fitted with a screw-off cap that protected the threads used to attach a muzzle brake. The breech assembly was dark blue and had shallow tool marks in various locations. Most moving parts had a small amount of play.

The grip assembly consisted of a one-piece synthetic stock that housed the trigger mechanism. Finished in a no-glare dark gray, it had an integral trigger guard and pistol grip. There was a finger groove on the front and a thumbrest on each side of the grip. The action was solidly attached to the stock, but several gaps were noted along the barrel.

Our Judgments
Readying the Lone Eagle for firing was easy. Loading was accomplished by turning the breech cap clockwise, inserting a round through the breechís loading port and into the chamber, then turning the breech cap counter-clockwise to close the action. Pulling out and back on the cocking lever, located in the left front portion of the stock, cocked the action. When cocked, a red indicator could be seen in a small hole underneath the cocking lever. The crossbolt safety, located above the trigger, engaged when pushed from left to right.

Unloading wasnít as simple as it should have been. According to the instruction manual provided with the Lone Eagle, the empty case was suppose to partially eject when the breech cap was rotated clockwise to the open position. This never happened with our test gun. Shooters had to use their fingers or a small screwdriver to remove spent cartridges.

Ignition was reliable when using Winchester and Federal ammunition. However, the Lone Eagle failed to fire about 15 percent of the time with the Remington load, even after repeated attempts to fire the rounds. The primers on the misfired rounds had shallow firing pin strikes, indicating the firing pin wasnít hitting the primers hard enough to ignite them. Cleaning the breech assembly and verifying everything was tight didnít cure the problem. Inspecting the spent cases of all three brands of ammunition revealed that their firing pin strikes were off-center.

Due to the more forward positioning of the Lone Eagleís grip, we found it to be significantly less muzzle-heavy than the other handguns in this test. Consequently, it balanced much more evenly in the shooterís hands or on a rest. Pointing was the most natural. Target acquisition was the fastest. The ambidextrous pistol grip comfortably accommodated all hand sizes and afforded a secure grasp. This handgun seemed to kick a little less than the Contender during recoil, but its muzzle jump was more noticeable.

Shooters felt the ungrooved 5/16-inch-wide triggerís movement should have been about a pound lighter. After a minor amount of creep, its pull released at 4 1/2 pounds according to our self-recording gauge. There was little overtravel.

Our Lone Eagle didnít come with open sights, though hunting sights were available for an additional $35. Silhouette sights sold for $130. Instead, we equipped it with a Redfield 2.5-7x EER pistol scope using a one-piece base and a set of Weaver-style rings, which also cost extra.

In the accuracy department, we thought the Lone Eagle was superior to the Thompson/Center pistols. This handgun not only produced the smallest groups of the test, its overall average spread of 0.52 inch between the three brands of ammunition used was also the best. Three-shot groups averaged from 1.48 to 2.00 inches at 100 yards. Some out-of-the-box .223 rifles donít deliver this level of accuracy with commercial loads.

Although it had the same length barrel, the Lone Eagleís average velocities were 67 to 87 feet per second slower than the those of the Contender in this evaluation. We didnít consider this difference to be a major disadvantage, since its muzzle velocities of 2,544 to 2,661 feet per second should be sufficient for this pistolís intended use.