Review: Thompson/Center Encore Pro Hunter

Review: Thompson/Center Encore Pro Hunter
If you haven't discovered Thompson/Center's great switch-barrel gun, now might be the time.

In an age where we're wowed by exquisitely crafted European switch-barrel rifles costing thousands of bucks, it's easy to forget that here in the States we have enjoyed the switch-barrel concept for half a century. And you don't have to take out a second mortgage to buy one.

In the 1960s, Warren Center developed the switch-barrel Contender handgun, later teaming up with the K.W. Thompson Tool company in a collaboration that would eventually become Thompson/Center Arms.

Center's design was a relatively simple break-open. Removing the fore-end reveals a large hinge pin. Simply drive out the pin, remove one barrel, install another and reattach the fore-end. That's pretty much it.

The Contender made its debut in 1967, at a time when writing greats like Skeeter Skelton and especially Bob Milek were at the forefront of the handgun hunting movement, and the Contender was embraced by hunters and silhouette shooters alike. 

Fifteen years later, Thompson/Center increased the strength of both the trigger mechanism and the frame, and the Encore was born. Now rifle shooters could enjoy the same switch-barrel capability, in calibers ranging from .22 rimfire to .416 Rigby. At one time or another, Thompson/Center chambered a couple dozen centerfire calibers—in addition to well over 100 from the company's now-defunct custom shop.

As a kid I used to drool over the Contender, but it wasn't until I was in my 40s that I actually started to work with the design. At the time I was editing Petersen's Hunting magazine and helping out on the inaugural season of "Petersen's Hunting Adventures" television show. Thompson/Center was one of the sponsors, and I had the opportunity to travel to Wyoming to try to pull off a two-fer on antelope and mule deer, hunting in the Casper area with SNS Outfitters (HuntWyo.com). 

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The Encore is a break-action single-shot that makes switching calibers a breeze. The Pro Hunter has a hammer that can be swung 90 degrees for easier manipulation with a scope installed, and synthetic panels in the grip and inserts in the stock make it soft shooting.

The Encore Pro Hunter had recently come out, and it was being chambered in one of my favorite cartridges, the .280 Rem. I jumped at the chance to use that barrel, and the hunt was a success—my antelope dropping at about 250 yards and a big mulie falling at last light at about 75.

The hunt convinced me how capable the platform is. And with the Pro Hunter, Thompson/Center had really studied the Encore platform to figure out ways to improve it as a hunting rifle.

Starting with the barrel, the company went with a 28-inch fluted stainless tube. Twenty-eight inches is going to wring out the best velocities you're going to get from a given rifle cartridge, and with the Encore single-shot design a longer barrel doesn't come at the cost of added overall length.

The stock was changed as well, with the addition of a better recoil pad and also shock-absorbing chevrons of synthetic material into the stock itself to make the gun shoot even softer.

One of the most ingenious changes to the platform involved the hammer. By simply loosening a small screw at the center, the spur rotates 90 degrees to allow scope users to be able to cock the hammer easily.

These features make this a great hunting rifle, and with the ability to shoot different calibers based on game and terrain, it's the one-gun-man theory personified. 

In addition to the .280 Rem. barrel, I also have a .338 Federal barrel once made by the custom shop. By keeping a scope on each one—currently a pair of Burris Fullfield IIs in magnifications that match up well with their respective chamberings—I can swap out barrels based on what I want to hunt and head to the range knowing I'll be close to zeroed if not right on.

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Notes: Accuracy results are averages of three five-shot groups at 100 yards from a Fire Control rest. Velocities are averages of 10 shots measured 12 feet from the muzzle with a Pro Chrono. Temperature: 45 degrees; elevation, 4,900 feet.

Recently, I acquired a .50 caliber muzzleloader barrel, which comes with fiber-optic open sights and ramrod. When I draw a muzzleloader elk tag here in Colorado, you can bet I'll be taking the Encore. Note you do have to change fore-ends to go the muzzleloader route—as you do with the Encore's 12- and 20-gauge rifled slug barrels.

I also have a custom-shop 6.5 Creedmoor pistol barrel, and it's way cool. But I learned the hard way the stock bolts for the long gun and handgun are different lengths. If, say, you install the pistol bolt in the rifle stock, the hammer won't cock. Be sure to keep the bolts with their respective stocks.

As you can see from the chart, the rifle is capable of great accuracy with loads it likes. The trigger is quite good, breaking at about 2.5 pounds on my gun. The only downside is the long lock time, which comes with the territory on a hammer-fired gun. It doesn't matter to me one bit in the field, just makes it a little tougher to get itty-bitty groups at the bench.

Right now I'm satisfied with my complement of barrels, but I admit I'm considering a .35 Whelen. I've wanted a gun in this caliber for a long time, and that's the great thing about the Encore: For less than $400 for a barrel, I can play with a whole new cartridge.

In addition to the stainless fluted barrels listed in the table, there are other barrels and barrel lengths available in blued and Weathershield finishes. Today, Thompson/Center is selling complete Encore rifles in .223 Rem., .243 Win., .308 Win. and .30-06—practical hunting calibers all. Get one of those, then build your arsenal as you go. What's not to like?

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