T/C’s Venerable Single-Shot Pistol In .338 Federal
Can Handle Rifle Chores With Portability-Plus!
By Mark Hampton
For many years, shooters and hunters alike have been enjoying T/C’s unique arms. The original Contender started the ball rolling and satisfied many single-shot firearms enthusiasts. Then, in January of 1998, T/C introduced a stronger, hefty version of the Contender, dubbed Encore. It is heavier than the Contender and, most notably, capable of handling high-pressure cartridges the Contender couldn’t digest, such as .308 Win, .270 Win, .30-06, and even .300 Win Mag.
While factory offerings covered many of the popular cartridges, aftermarket, custom barrel-makers provided a plethora of additional options. Single-shot aficionados were offered another quality, break-open action with interchangeable barrel capability at an affordable price. Plus, the platform can be used in rifle or pistol configuration, with shotgun and muzzleloading options available—all incorporated on the same frame.
Since its introduction, I’ve been hunting with an Encore for all sorts of game, ranging from prairie dogs all the way up to elephant. This handgun has never let me down, and it’s had ample opportunity. My wife enjoys her Encore rifle in several calibers. When the two of us hit the shooting range, you can bet there will be an Encore in the mix. While basic in design, it’s simple to operate. Loading and unloading can be relatively quick and painless. Follow-up shots on big game, if necessary, can be accomplished expeditiously. Both the Contender and Encore can be very accurate when set-up properly. I have witnessed many bug-hole groups shot from both rifle and handgun in a wide range of calibers. Today the original Contender has been replaced by the newer G2. Both models are popular with shooters as evidenced by the multitude of frames and huge variety of custom barrels floating around.
Through the years, I’ve shot an assortment of barrels, ranging from sporter contour to bull in an array of different calibers. Depending on specific applications, there is an option to fill every niche. Recently, when surveying my Encore battery, I noticed a glaring gap. An obvious cavity existed between .308 Win, a cartridge employed to tackle medium-sized game such as whitetail, and .375 JDJ—a round used for very large, sometimes dangerous game. I decided to fill this noticeable void, and, after considerable research, I gravitated toward the .338 Federal. The bullet selection was a consideration as well as the option to purchase factory ammunition. Scrutinizing published data, I felt the .338 Federal would be a great fit, especially for hunting larger game.
A Livingstone eland is a very large African antelope tipping the scales around
1,700 pounds. The .338 Federal took this ancient bull with one shot from 100 yards.
Excellent bullet performance was demonstrated with Nosler’s AccuBond.
This bushpig was taken at 40 yards after a long stalk with Nosler’s 180-grain AccuBond.
Through the years, I have owned and enjoyed a lot of factory barrels and many custom builds from SSK Industries, MGM and the now closed T/C Custom Shop. Wanting to try something new, I decided to experiment with a Bullberry Barrel Works creation of a stainless .338 Federal barrel with a 1:10-inch twist. The 16-1/2-inch length would accommodate BB’s integral muzzlebrake and still leave 15 inches of rifling. Being fond of heavy barrels, I opted for a full-bull, 1-inch diameter tube. This heavy barrel would also help dissipate some anticipated recoil.
Bullberry incorporates a hanger bar system, eliminating the fore-end making contact with the barrel. The company states this is a contribution to accuracy. They even offer an accuracy guarantee with their barrels of sub minute-of-angle groups when used in conjunction with their forearm hanger system. A modified, T/C black synthetic factory fore-end was fitted to their hanger bar contrasting well with the stainless barrel. Bullberry also offers a full line of custom wood grips, fore-ends and stocks from semi-finished to some eye-popping exhibition grade options.
A quality Leupold VX-3, 2.5-8X scope was fitted in Warne mounts and rings. After shooting heavy recoiling handguns for many years, I have never experienced any issues with Warne products. These mounts and rings are reliable regardless of caliber, keeping the scope rock-solid. The variable Leupold is a fine choice for most hunting situations and has no problem handling recoil.
There are many after-market grip options (some downright beautiful), but I’ve always leaned toward T/C’s rubber grip. It simply handles recoil well and they are very comfortable with fingergrooves. The stainless frame I purchased came with a trigger pull of 6 pounds, 15 ounces. It is very difficult for mere mortals, such as me, to shoot a handgun with any degree of accuracy with a heavy trigger. So, I had a trigger job accomplished by a competent gunsmith (Jim Hendershot Sr.) and all is well.
Federal offers a variety of factory loads in different bullet weights. Five separate factory offerings with bullets ranging from 180 to 200 grains were tested. In addition, bullets from Nosler and Hornady were loaded using with WW748, Varget, Reloder 15 powders. Without any preconceived ideas of what to expect, I was pleasantly surprised during the first range session. First, the cartridge is fairly mild-mannered. Recoil was not an issue. The heavy barrel and muzzlebrake definitely helped in this regard. Secondly, the .338 Federal was not too picky shooting all loads well inside minute-of-critter. I was glad to see Federal’s factory load with Nosler’s 180-grain AccuBond producing consistent groups, as this will probably be a favorite choice for hunting. Some of the handloads were downright notable. It didn’t take long before I gained confidence in this combination of gun/cartridge for most any hunting situation. The 200-grain Hornady SST was very accurate, leaving some impressive groups on paper. Hornady’s 200-grain FTX bullet designed for the .338 Marlin Express was also tested.
This Encore has been fitted with a custom Bullberry bull barrel in
.338 Federal with an integral muzzlebrake and Leupold scope.
Complementing the Leupold VX-3, 2.5-8X scope were Leupold’s BX-3
Mojave 8×42 Pro Guide HD binos used throughout Mark’s hunt.
So, what type of game will the .338 Federal handle? Looking at ballistic tables and bullet selection, I believe this medium-bore cartridge is capable of downing elk-sized game reliably within sane ranges. But I wanted to find out first-hand instead of drawing a conclusion from charts and personal assumptions. There are many hunting destinations you can experiment with calibers and firearms but I can’t think of any better than Africa. Factory Federal Premium Vital-Shok ammo with Nosler’s 180-grain AccuBond was chosen for the adventure.
My wife, Karen, and I headed to northern Mozambique to hunt in Jumbo Moore’s huge concession in the Niassa Reserve. This is truly wild Africa. I was hoping to see what the .338 Federal was made of, but the first few days we spent tracking buffalo for Karen. On our fifth morning, while checking for tracks, we bumped in to a sounder of bushpigs. These hogs are mainly nocturnal so it was quite a treat to see them in broad daylight. The trackers did an excellent job as usual, following their tracks in terrain most of us couldn’t otherwise. Eventually, we came upon several bushpigs in the thick forest. When we finally spotted the big male, I set the Encore up on shooting sticks and found a small opening through the gauntlet of bush. The shot was not long, perhaps 35 yards, and the Nosler punched through the vitals cleanly. The bushpig didn’t make it very far (perhaps 40 yards), and we had our first prize. As luck would have it, later in the morning, Karen experienced the highlight of her hunting adventures when she downed a monster Cape buffalo, so we were all smiles heading back to the skinning shed.
Before our 7-day hunt ended, we were fortunate to follow eland tracks until we stumbled on a herd with one very old bull in the mix. Often referred to as “blue bulls,” these old ancient warriors turn dark in color when older. This bull was so dark he was easy to spot in the herd. Unfortunately, all the cows in the group were always watching for danger. With the area home to lion and leopard, plains game are constantly on the lookout.
A variety of factory loads were assembled along with a few handloads for testing.
The .338 Federal (above) showed promise at the range delivering 100-yard groups
such as these. Handloads (below) were worked up using Redding dies, WW748, Varget,
and Rl 15 powders, Hornady and Nosler bullets, all ignited by Federal 210 Match primers.
After an hour or so of sneaking, we found ourselves within 100 yards of the bull. The brush, or thick jess, as the locals refer to it, was so dense it was impossible to shoot. When an opening big enough for a bullet to pass was finally found, the shooting sticks were set in place. The crosshairs of the Leupold found a clearing to the bull’s shoulder as I tugged the trigger. You could clearly hear the bullet impact as the bull flinched and took off. He didn’t run 50 yards. The Nosler 180-grain AB struck the bull slightly behind the shoulder, one-third up on his body. The bullet punched through the ribcage, went through the heart, out the opposite ribcage and was in the offside shoulder. That was a lot of penetration on a very large antelope. If the cartridge can cleanly handle game the size of eland, it will definitely work on North American game, including elk and moose.
Our last few days were spent in South Africa on a 212,000-acre concession. The .338 Federal continued to perform, making five more 1-shot kills on oryx, hartebeest, impala, and others. Nosler’s 180 was only recovered from the oryx and hartebeest with perfect mushroom performance. Shots here in the Kalahari Desert ranged from 100 to 220 yards. I’m confident the .338 Federal has filled the void in my hunting battery. This medium-bore round has not gained the acceptance or appreciation it deserves, and I am guilty of not trying it before. But after my experiences with the Savage rifle (February 2016 issue) and this memorable hunt, I’m a believer!
Through the years, I have developed a ton of assurance and regard T/C’s Encore as a dependable, most reliable firearm. During this safari, we were exposed to an extreme amount of dust and sand. This can be definite problems for some guns, but the Encore continued to function without any malfunction. It is a platform for a variety of interchangeable barrels in an array of factory offerings. The sheer number of after-market barrels available is mind-boggling. Whether you’re in the middle of an over-populated prairie dog town or in the middle of nowhere Africa, the Encore is a good friend to have by your side.
Bullberry Barrel Works
2430 West, 350 North
Hurricane, UT 84737
Federal Cartridge Co.
900 Ehlen Drive
Anoka, MN 55303
Jim L. Hendershot Sr.
Jumbo Moore, RSA:
+27 (0) 73 489 4019
+258 (0) 82 098 1880