As Versatile As It Gets
By John Russo
Published In The GUNS Magazine 2011 Special Edition
In the realm of gun history Thomson/Center isn’t an old company, merely dating back to 1965. Back then, Warren Center had designed the Contender pistol, and the K. W. Thompson Tool Company was looking for something to build. Some say the gun gods orchestrated their union when they formed Thompson/Center Arms.
In 1967, the first Contenders shot their way into the hearts of American hunters and shooters, beginning a five-decade love affair with high-performance single-shot guns continuing to this day. The success of the Contender led to the creation of a bigger and stronger version that would accept even larger cartridges. In the late 1990s the Encore was born.
The Thompson/Center Encore is one of the most widely recognizable rifles in America. The design has been around for decades and has garnered an almost cult-like following. T/C continues the tradition with the Encore Pro Hunter. Being no stranger to single-shot, break-open type rifles, I jumped at the chance to evaluate this one. A long-time fan of T/C products and a T/C Contender owner, I had yet to shoot the Encore. I would not be disappointed.
Epitome Of Versatility
The success of the Encore is due to several factors, not the least of which is the quality and strength built into the gun. Another is the ability it gives the owner to be a one-gun hunter. With the interchangeable barrel system, the owner can simply remove two screws and one pin to create a new rifle! It says something to be able to go on a deer hunt with your .308, tag out early, then slap on your .223-barrel and go shoot prairie dogs. This is especially nice if you can afford to leave a scope on each barrel so it is a true quick swap.
The Pro Hunter is available in a dizzying array of stock and barrel configurations including muzzleloader, shotgun, centerfire and even rimfire. In fact, T/C claims there are 95 calibers available, and I counted no less than 33 different stock options in T/C’s current catalog! This particular gun came in .223 with a stainless steel receiver and a medium-weight barrel. It also sported T/C’s Flex Tech stock system. T/C partnered with Limbsaver and created a stock they claim absorbs up to 43 percent of the felt recoil. It has tactile grip panels in the forearm and pistol grip areas as well as a soft pad in the cheek area and the buttstock has four recoil absorbing arches. The .223 isn’t a hard-kicking round to begin with, but I did notice a pleasant difference while shooting with this stock.
Like all Encores, this was a single-shot, break-open design using an exposed hammer. The action release lever is the traditional spurred triggerguard, which is squeezed to the rear to open. There is no manual safety but there are several internal safeties that ensure the gun will not go off even if the hammer is struck.
The hammer has a safety notch when pulled slightly to the rear, which keeps it out of contact with the firing pin. The hammer also has a unique rotating feature called the Swing Hammer, which allows it to rotate to either side to allow easier cocking when an optic is mounted above it. I have heard it said this is just a gimmick, but I think it is an excellent idea.
I have owned hammer guns that needed an add-on spur to help you clear the scope. These work but some gunsmiths claim it changes the timing in the hammer and causes malfunctions and breakages later on. By having the Swing Hammer built into the gun, these worries are non-existent.
The Pro Hunter currently comes with a manual ejector, which is very handy for reloaders who don’t want to have to chase their brass after each shot. The chamber is cut perfectly; so expended brass is easily removed. As for those who prefer an auto ejector, stand by. There are rumors afoot of a potential offering in the future.
The gun comes standard with a Weaver-style scope base. This worked perfectly for the Leupold scope and QRW rings I installed for the test. The scope I chose was my own VXIII 6-20×50 with the Varmint Hunter’s Reticle. This is one of the best all-around varmint/target scopes I have ever used and is always more scope than most rifles can stack up to. The optic has the exceptional clarity Leupold is known for and the Varmint Hunter’s Reticle is an amazing piece of gear, especially since this one is calibrated for the .223. Once the scope was mounted and bore sighted I headed off to the range.
My initial range session was a study in frustration. I couldn’t figure out why the gun wouldn’t group. I tried 55, 62, 69 and even 75-grain ammo and nothing would shoot well. I discussed the issue with my brother-in-law Vince, who is an accomplished reloader and rifle shooter. He asked me what the twist rate was for the barrel. I told him that the test gun didn’t come with any paperwork but I had been informed it was a 1 in 9. He recommended we double-check it. We put a .22 bronze brush on a cleaning rod and ran it down the barrel. We then marked it with tape and pulled it back out. Low and behold we found that this barrel had a 1 in 13 twist!
Vince was kind enough to load up a couple of hundred rounds of 36-grain TNT Varmint Grenades and back to the range I went. This time I started to see clover leafs! The gun shot very well and very consistently, easily keeping groups less than an inch. Many shooters, who haven’t shot an Encore, falsely believe it will have a sloppy trigger or a delay in firing due to the exposed hammer system. Nothing could be further from the truth. This gun had a crisp 4-lbs trigger and the travel of the hammer was so quick it wasn’t noticeable. Now that the gun was sighted in, it was time to see what it could do in the field.
Can It Hunt?
In November 2009 I took it on a hunt at the Tejon Ranch in California with Dick Williams of Surefire. This ranch is known for its abundance of game including an unlimited supply of fat ground squirrels. Dick is a renowned handgun shooter and hunter with extensive experience using T/C guns, especially contenders. While discussing the Encore, he commented to me how far T/C has come in the last 20 years. While other companies were trying to figure out how to make a revolver more accurate, T/C went a whole new direction in the single-shot arena. He felt the accuracy they have achieved with their handgun barrels is astonishing and set the bar for all single-shot competitors.
My friend and editor, Sammy Reese, and I spent three days shooting coyotes and ground squirrels with this rifle. It almost became a test of our friendship. After shooting one after another without missing, I felt a little guilty and offered to let Sammy shoot the Encore for a bit. Hours later my guilt was gone, but Sammy still had the rifle!
In all seriousness, the rifle performed remarkably well. If you aren’t familiar with the Encore, it is a running gun. It’s a simple design that allows it to work flawlessly shot after shot for years and years. By putting the Leupold scope on the gun, we were able to see how good it could really shoot. It almost became routine how easily we could hit squirrels out to 300 yards and further. This was one of those guns where we started to call out the location of the hit before we made the shot. It was a lot of fun on those tough shots, when the squirrel would only poke his head out of the hole. The Pro Hunter would be a lot of fun at the range doing a little fun competitive shooting such as poker-hand targets or little green army men! I used a bipod with the gun anytime I could rest it and found this made it very enjoyable, especially for younger or inexperienced shooters.
One thing that doesn’t always get mentioned when talking about the Encore is its fast handling abilities. Having a short overall length, it is easier to shoulder and track running game. This was demonstrated on several occasions while still-hunting. I had two separate instances where I surprised a coyote at close range and was able to quickly shoulder, track and hit the dog on the run. I know this kind of goes against the intent of a single-shot, which is to wait for the one perfect well-placed shot, but in real world hunting conditions you may only get one quick shot. It’s nice to have a single-shot that can point quickly.
While doing some research for this article, I called world-renowned guide and big-game hunter Jim Shockey. Jim has used T/C Encores and Leupold scopes for years, and swears by both of them. He has taken more than 190 big game animals in 25+ years of hunting and guiding, almost all of which were with a T/C. Jim is known for his incredible hunts using the T/C Endeavor muzzleloader. He routinely makes perfect shots out to 200 yards. However, he told me he often uses a T/C Encore Pro Hunter with a .338 Win. Mag. barrel when hunting spring bears on Vancouver Island or moose and grizzly in the Yukon.
How accurate are these barrels? Jim relayed a story to me of one of his recent hunts for bezoar ibex goats in Turkey. After a long hunt and careful stalk, he found the goat he wanted but could not risk getting any closer than 410 yards. He was able to make the single, well-placed shot and dropped the animal in its tracks. As he told me other success stories, I began to see shots like this were more the rule than the exception! You can see many of these hunts on his TV show, Jim Shockey’s Hunting Adventures, or check out his Web site at www.jimshockey.com.
Can It Do Everything?
I’m not saying this is the only gun you will ever need. Obviously, there are guns better suited for specific purposes. But how many guns out there let you take your muzzleloader out in the morning after that trophy whitetail, come home and plink tin cans with the kids using your rimfire barrel, go after coyotes in the afternoon with your heavy centerfire varmint barrel, then finish the day with a relaxing pheasant hunt using your shotgun barrel? If you’ve got the energy, the Encore has the versatility to keep up!
Trigger Guard/Action Release
Side view of tank tough extractor
Recoil pad designed for the biggest caliber rifles
Comfortable non-slip fore end
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