September 23, 2010
By Wayne van Zwoll
Thompson/Center reengineers the bolt-action rifle.
By Wayne van Zwoll
For Kenneth Thompson, a New York toolmaker, the end of World War II marked the birth of his own company. From his Long Island garage, the entrepreneur began shipping molds and tooling for the investment-casting industry. His products proved as good as his business sense, and soon he was hiring. Ken Thompson must have been a good man to work for because some of his employees stayed a very long time. Two decades ago, while gathering background for my book, America's Great Gunmakers, I spoke with men who'd been with the firm 40 years.
By then the business had grown considerably. A big change occurred in 1963, when Thompson and crew moved the operation to Rochester, New Hampshire. The year previous, the company had grossed $180,000--not much by today's standards but enough to sustain a payroll of 25 in those days. The winter of '62-'63 was brutal in the Northeast, and frequent breakdowns plagued the move.
Rochester proved a fine place to reestablish. Its woolen mills and shoe factories were struggling at that time, so Thompson was able to get good workers at reasonable wages. But seasonal fluctuations in demand for investment-casting tools impeded efforts to keep the foundry humming. One solution was to design and sell a consumer product. Since Thompson's operation was already making gun parts, a firearm made sense.
|ACTION TYPE:||Bolt-action centerfire|
|CALIBER:||.22-250, .243 Win., .30 T/C/, .308 Win.|
|CAPACITY:||3+1, removeable box magazine|
|BARREL LENGTH:||24 inches|
|WEIGHT:||7 1/2 to 7 3/4 pounds|
|STOCK:||Walnut, Sims recoil pad|
|SIGHTS:||None, integral Pictainny rail|
In 1965 gun designer Warren Center joined the firm. Like Thompson, he'd worked as a machinist and die maker. He'd also built firearms for Iver Johnson and Harrington & Richardson. In his basement shop, Center had designed a single-shot pistol he called the Contender. He'd applied for patents and was looking for someone to manufacture the pistol when he met Ken Thompson. Teaming up on a pistol project meant doubling the size of Thompson's plant, to about 20,000 square feet. The two men forged ahead, and in 1967 the first Contender pistol came off the line.
The Contender could easily have failed. A single-shot, it targeted a narrow market and was by no measure the most aesthetically pleasing handgun. Nor was it cheap. But it had an ingenious barrel-switching mechanism, so one pistol could be fitted with several barrels by the owner. The Contender appealed to the sophisticated handgunner. Chamberings in rifle cartridges like the .30-30 and .35 Remington gave it the muscle for any North American game.
By 1970 Ken Thompson and Warren Center had formed Thompson/Center Arms and were hard at work on new gun designs. The Hawken muzzleloading rifle appeared first. State wildlife agencies were authorizing special seasons for "primitive weapons." Hunters eager for more time afield would ensure the Hawken's success. Other black-powder guns followed, including, in 1974, a Hawken kit. Adding 6,000, then 7,600, then 20,000 square feet of manufacturing space, T/C could barely stay abreast of orders. In 1982 the firm bought 15 acres for future plant expansion. The following year a centerfire rifle appeared, the TCR'83 single-shot. It and the subsequent TCR'87 featured interchangeable barrels like the Contender.
During the next 20 years Thompson/Center would distinguish itself as one of the most nimble and innovative American firearms companies. The Contender G2 and heavy-duty Encore, in pistol and carbine form, are hugely popular. While T/C resisted the move toward enclosed ignition on muzzleloaders (some states won't allow it for primitive weapons hunts), the company now catalogs both modern and traditional black-powder models. There's also a sleek autoloading .22 rifle and a line of muzzleloading accessories.
The author found the new rifle easy to point, steady in the hand and comfortable to shoot.
But Rochester's latest news--and in some ways a most unlikely new product--is a centerfire bolt rifle. "We know the market is crowded," agreed company president Gregg Ritz when I visited T/C's plant recently. "So we weren't about to introduce a warmed-over model from some other maker. Our goal was a truly new design, comprising the best elements of several rifles. We call it the Icon."
I reminded him that Paul Mauser developed his 1898 action 11 decades ago and that hosts of talented people have reworked, refined and augmented that design. "Is this just hubris? Do you want a bolt rifle simply because every major American gun company has one?"
Gregg smiled. "We didn't commit until this last January, just after SHOT. I'll admit the closure of Winchester's New Haven plant encouraged us. Not that we like to watch worthy competition go under. But we did see a
n opening there and knew someone would fill it. We decided it would be us."
"We" includes Gregg and designer Mark Laney, with engineering manager Carl Ricker and design-shop craftsmen who apply vision as well as tools to CAD drawings. "Our prototype is still up for revision," Mark assured me. "We've put a lot of thought into it, but we want it perfect, down to the smallest detail."
(Left) The handsome walnut stock has clean, classic lines; a relatively open grip; and 20-lpi borderless checkering. (Right) The Icon's eye-catching spoon-type bolt handle is not integral with the bolt and can be removed in seconds. An optional round-knob version will be offered.
A perfect rifle would be expensive, I allowed. "We're planning to keep this one under $800," Gregg declared. "With high-quality checkered walnut." He told me that Thompson/Center has some 600 blanks in stock from its old days in the wood trade.
The rifle he handed me wore a well-figured piece of walnut, with a red hue and smooth oil finish. Generous panels on grip and fore-end featured borderless 20-lpi checkering, neatly cut. A black rubber pad capped the butt. No fore-end tip, grip cap or Wundhammer swell. The comb was straight, sans cheekpiece. Length of pull: 14 inches. Overall, the stock had clean, classic lines, a conservative look. A relatively open grip and a fore-end that felt like a pre-war 70's welcomed my hands. The rifle shouldered and pointed easily.
With each Icon, T/C supplies this polymer "donut" for disassembling the bolt. It's a quick process. The spoon-style bolt handle, one of the bolt assembly's primary parts, is easily removed.
During the next hour, Gregg and Mark explained the Icon to me in detail. The full-diameter bolt has three front-locking lugs and a sleek, sloping rear shroud that reminds me of a Sauer. The bolt comes apart easily with a plastic "donut" tool provided with each rifle. The beefy, spoon-style bolt handle is not integral. "Our plan is to offer a traditional round knob and an oversize tactical knob as alternatives. You can switch handles in seconds. But once the bolt is assembled, there's no way a handle can fail."
Like the bolt, the forged receiver shows muscle. It's a single piece
of 4140, pre-heat-treated then machined to tight tolerances in a single trip through a seven-axis CNC machine. "We can complete one in just 40 minutes," Gregg told me. The long tang is deliberate--"to minimize bolt wiggle at full extension."
It does. The flat receiver bottom has a wide stance and three lugs that mate with a quarter-inch alloy plate glass-bedded into the stock. The plate is double-pinned at the web between trigger and magazine well, a clever precaution against stock splits in this normally weak area. The plate's scalloped edges ensure that it will not shift. Mark conceded that the center and rear lugs are probably unnecessary--action bedding is indexed from the thick and broad but relatively shallow front lug. There's more than enough steel to arrest even the most violent setback during recoil. The stock is secured to the action by three stout guard screws, one into each lug. They're given 65 inch-pounds of torque at the factory.
The author fired these three shots prone at 200 yards, a better group than he got from the bench.
The action is heavy. "We wanted this rifle to shoot very well, so we made the receiver stiff," said Mark. The removable box magazine tapers at the top to feed cartridges in a straight stack. "Besides keeping the slot small, straight-up feed is smooth and reliable," he explained. Gregg acknowledged that the Tikka's excellent magazine influenced their thinking. The Icon's sheet-steel magazine has a polymer follower and holds three short-action rounds. The front-mounted magazine catch is designed with one-hand manipulation in mind. Even empty magazines fell readily into my hand. I'm told an assist spring is in the offing, to pop the magazine free with the rifle held vertically.
The Sako-style extractor, Gregg told me, is temporary. "We're aiming for controlled-round feed." He laughed when I questioned that option on a three-lug bolt. "It'll be a challenge, but Mark has an idea. We'll use a mechanical ejector, like the M70's."
The receiver top wears an integral Picatinny rail on front ring and bridge. The rail will, of course, accept Weaver scope rings as well as those with beefier bases. Its only disadvantage is that scopes must sit a trifle higher than with some other mount designs. That's not a concern for most hunters these days, who use scopes with objectives big enough to require medium or high mounts, but I like sights close to the bore. Incidentally, the stock comb of the Icon is just the right height for instant aim through a scope mounted in low or medium T/C rings on the rail.
T/C developed its own trigger for this rifle--a sturdy, consistent, easily adjustable trigger at that.
The Icon's bolt stop is a slender lever at the traditional spot on the left receiver wall. It pivots from the front "so you can hold the rifle and operate it conveniently with one hand," said Gregg. The stop is undercut 15 degrees and designed so the force of a bolt flung rearward bears on the radiused rear of the stop in the receiver wall, not on the pivot pin.
A solid receiver top with integral Picatinny rail adds to the stiffness of the Icon's breech.
The trigger, designed by T/C expressly for this rifle, is adjustable from 21?2 to six pounds in weight--without disassembling the rifle. Just reach through the tang with the supplied Allen wrench. The trigger's vertical coil spring also loads the sear. Reducing weight to the minimum pulls the adjustment screw free of the spring, letting it bottom on the sear body. Access to sear engagement and overtravel screws requires stock removal. Both have lock nuts. "We'll set triggers for near-zero creep and
minimal overtravel," said Gregg. Dry firing, I found the trigger wonderfully manageable, a crisp, consistent 2 3/4 pounds.
A two-position thumb safety works smoothly, crisply and quietly. It disengages sear from trigger. You can manipulate the bolt with the safety on--an option some woods hunters won't like, as it can allow brush to flip the bolt open. Consensus seems to be that a hunter should be able to run cartridges through his chamber with the trigger disengaged.
The forged receiver is machined from one piece of 4140 steel. A two-position thumb safety disengages the sear from the trigger, meaning you can work the bolt with the safety on.
T/C's own 24-inch, medium-contour barrel is button rifled. First chamberings will be in .308 and .30 T/C, with other rounds to follow. A long action begs attention, but Gregg is visibly excited about short rounds, especially the .30 T/C. "We're clocking 3,000 fps with a 150-grain bullet," he enthused. "That's all you'll get from a .30-06."
The new .30, developed in Hornady's lab, is similar to the recent .308 Marlin Express, except the T/C round is rimless and operates at much higher pressures. Cutting-edge ball powders give it high-octane performance. The case is a trimmed .308; like the Express, it measures 1.920 inches, compared to 2.015 for the .308 Winchester. Gregg conceives a new line of cartridges on this hull.
After only a few seconds on my knees begging for live-fire with the Icon, I was driven 20 miles to a quaint, wooded range with enclosed benches. The first volleys of 155-grain Hornady TAP loads delivered a three-shot 1 1/4-inch group. At 200 yards I kept clusters under two minutes of angle in stiff, gusty winds.
The Icon's striker includes a rakishly swept shroud, among few parts of thoroughly modern form.
But the Icon is a hunting rifle; bench shooting won't test field accuracy--the inherent consistency of the hardware in combination with balance, stock fit and trigger release. I attached my Latigo sling, then went prone in front of the line, steadying the crosswire on a 200-yard target. After three rounds, I fired into a 100-yard bull from sitting. To my delight, the prone group was tighter than any I'd shot from a bench. It measured less than 2 1/2 inches across, just over a minute of angle. The 100-yard sitting group fell easily inside two. Luck? I'll credit intelligent stock design and one of the best trigger pulls I've felt on a factory rifle (and the sharp image courtesy of Nikon's variable scope).
"What do you think?" asked Mark when I returned the rifle. I told him that the rifle was a real pleasure to shoot. It balanced well, pointed itself and functioned with a smooth, solid surety any rifleman would appreciate. Fit and finish were first-class. The trigger was truly a joy. In fact, there was little not to like.
The Icon will chamber the .308 Winchester (left) and .30 T/C, a short but potent variation.
Mark, unencumbered by ego, told me to take off the gloves. "Tell me what you'd change."
"OK. That benchrest-stiff action is heavy; I'd machine it to keep rifle weight under 71?4 pounds. Also, the midsection is thick. I'd accept a two-round box for a slimmer feel. You don't need 24 inches of barrel for a .308; 22 is enough. I'd broaden and deepen the comb flutes slightly. You might consider a blind magazine and a thinner bolt handle tighter to the stock, a cylindrical safety button."
They hurried me out the door then, mumbling something about late flights. I didn't get a chance to tell them that the Icon, as is, delivers terrific features in a package that should seduce even those who don't appreciate the indulgence of figured walnut.
In truth, this rifle is brilliantly conceived. The important things have been attended to; functionally and cosmetically, the Icon rates very high marks. Add the surprisingly modest price, and it's clear that Thompson/Center has indeed improved upon a century-old design.