SSK-50 Contender

Ultimate Versatility Reborn
56
; .

The SSK-50 Contender
Gear List
Ammo: Federal 360 Buckhammer 180-grain;
JSP Nosler Varmageddon .222 Rem 50-grain FR
Pistol Rest: Ransom Muti-Cal Steady Rest
Ear Pro: Walkers Razor BT Digital

When I first saw a Thompson/Center Contender in the mid-1970s, I knew what it was but had never seen one in the flesh. The gun magazines of the time covered them regularly and it was always my impression if you were a savvy handgunner, you wanted a Contender. Designed from the ground up to be a change-barrel, break-open single shot, the concept started out sluggishly in the market. Most people of the time (the late ’60s) simply didn’t see why anyone would want a single-shot pistol. Besides, who would ever want to actually hunt with one? How wrong could they be?

;
.

The SSK-50, the “UnThompson” Contender-style frame, not only
revives the beloved multi-caliber shooter but takes it to new
heights with better material and manufacturing.

To Have And Hold

Once the novelty wore off, shooters soon embraced the accuracy, manufacturing quality and versatility of this ground-breaking design. Not only did owning a single frame offer a soon-to-be almost limitless palette of optional barrels, the Contender proved itself in the hunting and target fields. Plus, the company was a relatively small, independently owned “family”-style business offering personal customer service and genuine attention to detail in manufacturing. Thompson/Center Contender owners were more like an extended family to the company than simply owners of their products.

Early Contenders were often hard to open, though. The drill is to grasp the tang under the trigger guard and squeeze, unlocking the lug and the barrel would drop and open. But at times, it’s recalcitrant and one method shooters use is to strike the fingers holding the tang with the palm of the off-hand. The added bit of punch opens the action easily.

Taking note of this, TC introduced an improved version of the Gen-1 frame, which came to be called the “Easy Open” receiver. Shooters rejoiced and the popularity of the brand continued. Before the company eventually sold to S&W in 2007, it was offering dozens of chamberings in many barrel configurations from heavy 14″ hunting and target styles to lighter, shorter models for easier field carry. I actually have an early 6.5″ barrel in .45 ACP — great fun for accuracy-testing loads.

It was this sort of versatility that kept the Contender notion afloat, and eventually led to a Gen-2 version of the original and the Encore, a sort of beefed-up Contender frame with significant design changes. The Encore is able to handle virtually any centerfire rifle cartridge you can imagine, up to and including some of the big bore “African” rounds. My own Encore, with a .308 barrel, is easy to shoot, unfailingly accurate and as versatile as the original parent Contender model. Both the Contender and the Encore were offered as rifles, carbines, muzzle loaders and many handgun configurations.

But all was not well after the sale to S&W. Cue dark, ominous music in the background.

;
.

Since this is an “easy open” frame design, a simple pull on the lever below the trigger guard snicks the action open. An extractor manages empty brass presentation.

Perseverance

I’m pretty sure S&W bought TC for their casting and barrel-making abilities, not for the TC designs. According to Marty Ebbinghaus, owner of Haus Of Arms, the leading online source for all-things Contender — from frames and barrels, to stockwork and more — S&W just didn’t know how to deal with the TC brand.

“I think S&W bought TC because that’s what huge companies do. They didn’t understand the history or the loyalty to the brand, thus destroying a highly innovative niche company within a short 15 years. When COVID, an election year and riots in the streets came in 2020, that was their opportunity to rid themselves of the TC brand — a product line they simply didn’t understand or support well at all. The timing of these events was a pot of gold for a gun company selling ARs and carry guns. Under cover of that crisis, S&W simply ended production of anything TC in May of 2021,” related Marty.

;
.

For reloaders, the TC allows a superior platform for analyzing accuracy and performance of your favorite load. If you reload for even a semi-auto round like the 9mm or .45 ACP, a corresponding TC barrel in the same caliber allows careful testing. And reloaders can rejoice the TC barrels all love cast lead bullets!

Just like that, it was gone

Fans of the brand had been upset with S&W’s handling of the TC line and when the doors were shut with finality, they weren’t quite sure what to do. Fortunately, there was a light at the end of the tunnel.

SSK Industries was founded by JD Jones in 1977, specializing in many things, but among them were custom TC designs, barrels and related products. JD built a very successful business and eventually sold out to people eager to continue what JD has begun.

According to Art Lamontagne, the president of the very active Thompson/Center Collector’s Association, the new buyers focused on bringing back the TC design.

“The new owners, David Fricke and Peter Vogel, changed the name to SSK Firearms, and fortunately long-time employee and barrel maker Brian Alberts remained with the company.

“Marty Ebbinghaus at Haus of Arms started hearing rumors about the possible re-introduction of the Gen-1 ‘Easy Open’ frames by SSK during the summer of 2019. They couldn’t be called ‘Contenders’ so they used the name SSK-50, with the number ‘50’ signifying the 50-year anniversary of the original Contender.”

SSK planned to use Thompson/Investment Casting in Rochester, NH to manufacture the parts. They were the same company who cast the original Contenders. The anticipated delivery date was going to be December 2019.

“Conflicts arose with S&W regarding the frame casting mold being used by TC so things stalled,” explained Art. “With the final closure of the TC line by S&W, though, TC Investment Casting got reunited with SSK and production moved forward. About 46 months from the time of the first launch date, Marty at Haus of Arms received the first shipment of the new SSK-50 ‘Flatside’ (no logo) and Lynx logo frames.”
Legions of Contender fans rejoiced.

;
.

The unique shape of the trigger guard allows easy access to the lever triggering the opening of the action.

The New SSK-50

Haus of Arms is the current distributor of this elegant new take on the Contender idea and is proud to handle it. According to their website:

“The SSK-50 is produced to the nominal geometry specifications of the last iteration of the Thompson/Center Contender, all done with extreme precision and low variation. The last iteration of the Contender had many improvements over the original and is an easy-open variation.”

Our sample gun shows remarkable workmanship and is smooth, accurate and reliable. SSK Firearms has revived this legendary platform from the dead so dust off all your old TC barrels and put them to work!

According to The Haus of Arms: “This is the best news for the single-shot community in decades. David Fricke of SSK was first introduced to the single-shot world 45 years ago, and he is the driving force behind the revival of this platform that was discontinued roughly 17 years ago.

“Here is the simplest way to describe the SSK-50 — consider it in every way as you would have ‘the original.’ The exception is it’s made of stronger materials, to more consistent specifications and with state-of-the-art CNC technology,” explained Marty.

The SSK-50 showcases a stainless steel frame with a black nitride-finished trigger guard and black oxide-finished hammer and trigger. I really like the simplified safety and firing pin selection lever on the top of the hammer itself. Flip it right or left to go from rimfire to centerfire and the middle is safe.

I’m sure the original founders of Thompson/Center would be impressed by the SSK-50.

;
.

Flutes help to lighten the barrels a tad and note
the threaded muzzle for “accessories” as they say.

Barrels & Stocks

I’ve been shooting original Contenders for more than 45 years so I know the platform well. My own collection covers about 15 barrels in calibers from .22 LR to .30-30 and about everything in between. Recently, Marty at Haus of Arms supplied me with a new SSK-50 frame, their new “Crusher” stock design and two barrels, also from SSK — a .222 Remington and the hot new .360 Buckhammer from Remington. I scoped it with a Burris 2×7 pistol scope, assembled some ammo and went to work.

The .222 Remington is one of my favorite cartridges and will usually deliver mind-boggling groups. I get sub-½” groups from my CZ 527 American rifle at 100 yards with alarmingly predictable consistency. I hoped the new SSK would sing a similar song, and it did.

Using a variety of .222 ammo I had, the new Crusher stock and a solid rest, sub-1″ groups at 100 were almost laughably easy. The 50-grain PSP Remington load showed 2,760 fps over my chrono out of the 14″ barrel (3,140 fps from a rifle). The Crusher stock really helps to anchor things and the great trigger of the SSK-50 along with the careful barrel work is simply a delight to use. Anyone who has never worked with a Contender-style handgun is missing out on one of the more inspiring joys of life.

A simple barrel swap put me into action with the .360 Buckhammer. Remington rates the 200-grain SP at 2,180 fps out of a rifle-length barrel. The 14″ Buckhammer barrel on my SSK-50 showed 2,045 fps. This honestly surprised me as that showed little velocity loss.
Targeting at 100 revealed this combination can easily deliver groups hovering in the 1″ area. I traded barrels back and forth and everything remained consistent. This is frankly remarkable to me that you can swap barrels and maintain this sort of accuracy, but it’s one reason why this platform is so appealing.

Marty offers a wide range of stock options, including wood models for the SSK-50, Encore designs, rifle barrels and more. I was particularly taken with his classic Pachmayr rubber fore end and stocks. They’re a real retro-design and look smashing on a stainless steel gun!

;
.

You start with a frame, then add the stocks you like, the barrel
you want and an appropriate scope and you’re ready to go. Time
to change up? Just add barrels as your interests or needs change.
Rifle scopes are often appropriate, especially for varmint cartridges.

Versatility

With two barrels like this, you’re covered for small game/varmints and game like deer, hogs or even bigger game if you’re careful with shot placement. Additionally, the SSK-50 frames offer 100% crossover compatibility. All original barrels, stock sets, grip sets and accessories will work on this new frame. Any chambering working well on the original will work fine on the SSK-50. And, since this frame includes the latest revisions of the original Contender designs, all Gen-1 barrels, current production Gen-2, MGM, Bullberry and SSK barrels will work on these frames.

But, keep in mind with over 55 years of Contender production, barrels and products from at least eight different makers, there are often minor variables creeping in.

“Although customers report a very high percentage of frame/barrel fit success with the SSK-50,” explained Marty, “there may be some after-market barrels so far out of Thompson/Center’s specifications they may not function with the SSK-50. If you have any frame/barrel fit issues, send an email to [email protected] to chat with them.”

I also found with my brand-new frame, Marty said to open and close the barrel hard, locking it home each time, then releasing it and repeating that about 20 times or so. This helps the locking lugs to settle in and meet up with the frame correctly. The CNC production means these things are tight and I think more predicable than the more “analog” way of hand fitting and assembling the originals in the old days.

I have to say it has pleased me to no end to get to know Marty, Art and many others during this project. I’m delighted to see the return of this iconic design and to see how well it’s supported by so many small companies. It seems S&W was wrong when it came to the passion for the TC designs so many of us have. If you’d like to fire-up your shooting fun, take a hard look at the SSK-50 and become more “versatile” yourself in the process. Prices for the frame, depending on configuration, start at about $395.

It’s a steal, if you ask me.

HausOfArms.com
Ph: (636) 359-0104

ThompsonCenterAssociation.org
Ph: (207) 252-3663

SSKFirearms.com

Subscribe To GUNS Magazine

Purchase A PDF Download Of The GUNS Magazine April 2024 Issue Now!

;
.