Thompson/Center Encore 209x50 Magnum Muzzleloader
The Thompson-Center Encore muzzleloader has an interesting background and it was almost never built. In discussions with Thompson's Eric Brooker, now retired, Eric mentioned that after the muzzleloader barrel was introduced for the Encore platform, they were making bets in the office as to whether they would ever sell fifty of them. There was some basis for their skepticism. The Encore was considered an overbuilt platform for a muzzleloader, as the Encore rifle has long been available in 7mm Rem. Mag., .300 Win. Mag., and .375 H&H Mag. It would never be the cheapest frontstuffer on the block. The Encore frame is a firearm frame, meaning it is a Form 4473 controlled item and you will need to get your Encore from your favorite dealer. The complete Encore muzzleloader is considered a regular firearm and cannot be sold through many of the normal muzzleloading channels. That leaves out many archery, fishing and specialty muzzleloading shops that have long sold T/C sidelocks and dedicated muzzleloaders, but are not (FFL) firearms emporiums.
Apparently, far more people wanted “rea"l rifles than Thompson expected. Unlike some muzzleloaders, the T/C Encore was never the object of any build quality shortcuts. It uses the same frame, regardless of the barrel added to it. The 209x50 Magnum has always been sold with an American made 4140 Chrome Moly barrel in its standard configuration. The blued steel and walnut model, T/C No. 3842, is still offered today. It is a more attractive choice than ever before, as the latest blackpowder replacement propellants (Blackhorn 209) are not nearly as caustic, do not freeze breechplugs and are very easy to clean up after shooting, using a couple of patches soaked with Hoppe's No. 9 solvent. It was this model that became a preferred muzzleloader for many, with the appeal of excellent build quality, polished blue, and the look and feel of real walnut, all made in the United States. Ian McMurchy referred to it as “arguably the greatest value in inline muzzleloaders as the 1990's ended.” Ian further reported average group sizes at 100 yards of one inch with 250 grain T/C PTX sabots and .90 inches with 250 grain Barnes sabots in his “Muzzleloading for Today's Whitetails,” published in the year 2000.
The Encore has been the most copied muzzleloader in memory. So much so, that I referred to it as the “most influential rifle” in several articles and had this to say about it six years ago:
“Thompson wins again this year with its Encore .50 caliber muzzleloader, for a different reason. While the Encore is by no means a new model, it has remained as one of the most sought after front loaders, and one of the very best. It selection as the most influential muzzleloader is uniquely easy, as the gush of new break-action rifles introduced in 2004 is directly attributable to the Encore's lasting success. Though the clear intent has been to capitalize on the Encore's lasting desirability, no break action muzzleloader has come close to the overall strength and quality of the Encore.”
It was true in 2004 and, if anything, it is even more true today. The world of "wannabe" Encores is a populous one, indeed.
Tested and evaluated in this article is the T/C “Pro Hunter” / Endeavor 209x50. There are several changes in the Pro Hunter, many of them best called “modernistic treatments.” I'll run through the basics, starting with the breechplug and extractor. The Encore previously had no less than three breechplug designs, the changes attributable to Triple Se7en and pellet issues. The T/C “Stage III” breechplug is essentially the deeply coned version of their original Stage I plug with a shoulder added at the perimeter of the breechplug of sufficient width to give reasonable pellet support. The fouling from Triple Se7en was still there, but greatly reduced from the solid plug. It was the best compromise available and was the predominant breechplug used in the Encore for many years, interchangeable with the Omega breechplug as well.
The Pro Hunter added several features, as noted in our review from 2006. It was still the most copied of the break-actions. This model was, as originally reported, an MOA muzzleloader right out of the box.
That brings up to the present, where the Endeavor model has apparently morphed into the “Pro Hunter XT.” It is the No. 5722 Pro Hunter XT, billed as new for 2010. The primary difference is in the XT is the addition of the latest XT speed breech, the same "ninety degrees and out breechplug" introduced on the Pro Hunter, but now with tool-free removal, thanks to a generous knurled section on the breech side of the plug. It is called the “Speed Breech XT.” A hand-removable version is also found on the T/C Triumph rifle.
The Pro Hunter XT is .50 caliber with a 1:28 rate of twist (the standard in inlines today), 14 inch length of pull and an overall length of 42.5 inches. Though listed as weighing 8.25 pounds, the tested model is actually substantially lighter at 7.5 pounds, unloaded. It has a 28 inch fluted barrel, while the standard Encore 209x50 remains at 26 inches. A 20 inch “Katahdin” barrel remains available for those seeking a more compact, slightly lighter, faster handling model.
This Encore's trigger breaks right at 4-1/4 pounds. Encores generally are not known for having hair triggers. In this case, a slightly lighter than anticipated trigger combined with the wide trigger face of the Encore resulted in a decent hunting trigger, right out of the box.
After mounting a Sightron Big Sky 3-12x42mm scope with Warne Maxima quick detachable steel rings, it was off to the range. I began by using 100 grains by volume of Blackhorn 209 with a Barnes T-EZ 290 grain flat based, polymer tipped bullet and the supplied Barnes sabot. Coni Brooks of Barnes has always believed “accessories make the ensemble” and all that, so Barnes bullets look good and are well-packaged. I'm of more pedestrian tastes, I just care how they shoot. Anyway, the Barnes T-EZ 290 loaded perfectly in the Encore, and the first three shots at 100 yards were all touching for a center to center group of about 7/8 inch. As I already had a good group, it was a simple matter to move it to one inch directly over the bull at 100 yards. Sighting-in of this rifle took all of 15 minutes, thanks to the accurate adjustments in the Sightron scope.
There are hunts coming up in deep timber, so I was done. However, the Encore is easy and fun to shoot, so I fired another 40 or so rounds. There was no noticeable change in group size from 100 to 105, to 110 grains by volume of Blackhorn 209. I found 105 grains by volume to be just right in terms of repetitive shooting from bag and cradle, so that's what I finally settled on. The 105 grains by volume on a T/C U-View blackpowder powder measure equates to an average of about 1900 fps MV and 71 grains of actual weight by RCBS Chargemaster 1500. One of the advantages of using weighed charges is that weight actually means something. Volumetric measures of different brands don't always agree, an understatement! Weight is at least verifiable.
When the opportunity for longer ranges is anticipated, the plus or minus three inch maximum point blank range is 180 yards with no holdover. However, a 10 mph crosswind blows the projectile over fifteen inches at 250 yards; make the crosswind 20 mph and it is an unmanageable amount of wind drift, nearly 31 inches.
Clean up after shooting with Blackhorn 209 takes but a few moments. All that is required is two wet patches of Hoppe's No. 9 with a 28 gauge bore brush followed by a dry patch and you are done. If you are planning on storing your Encore for a while, you might want to clean and relube your breechplug and give the bore one patch of Montana Xtreme Gun Oil or Breakfree CLP. The only other thing to check periodically is carbon build up inside the breechplug. Soaking it in Slip 2000 followed by a light reaming with the appropriate drill bit keeps the flame path through the breechplug unobstructed for positive ignition.
The Encore, while not completely silent when you cock the hammer, is quieter than several exposed hammer guns, including the now-obsolete Knight Rolling Block and the Knight KP-1 break action. The Encore is also a half pound lighter than either. You might notice is that T/C remains the only real innovator in break-action muzzleloaders. Just as soon as Thompson offered a quick release breechplug, for example, the copyists tripped all over themselves trying to offer a version of their own. More to the point, a quick look shows all the important areas they have missed.
The dual spring loaded lugs on the Encore action are two-piece as a one-piece spring loaded lug locks up so tight the barrel is nearly impossible to open. With double spring loaded lugs, one lug or the other will free itself first, making the action easy to open while still retaining the vault like strength of the full lug lock-up area, strong enough for the .375 H & H.
The Encore, regardless of configuration, has an extractor for the 209 primer. After the shot, the idea is to make the spent 209 primer "go away" without conscious effort, removing the possibility of a stuck primer or having to fish, dig, or fight to get a used primer out of a hole. Other break actions don't bother with an extractor. The same is true with the T/C QLA false muzzle, long enough to align a saboted projectile without canting. The smaller QLA copies found on cheap, imported guns are worse than no false muzzle at all, having insufficient length to quickly align a saboted projectile properly. Too often, they are machined eccentric to the bore, which degrades accuracy. No break-action muzzleloader comes close to the Encore.
Limbsaver recoil pads have long been among my favorites. The Limbsaver works well on the Pro Hunter XT and the generous trigger guard makes the Encore easy and intuitive to use, even with cold, gloved hands. It is these same cold, gloved, or wet hands that appreciate an extractor, rather than playing tiddly-wink with a primer. The Swing Hammer, or three position hammer is retained on the Pro Hunter XT. There was plenty of clearance between the Sightron Big Sky 3-12x42 scope and the hammer in the center position. In this case, the swing hammer was unnecessary. Contingent on specific scope, you might find this feature to be of value, but so far I have not.
With Blackhorn 209, the new Encore is easier and more fun to use than ever. Made in the USA, as always, with barrel quality monitored by Thompson's proprietary continuous Magnafluxing process, the Encore is better than ever and, if anything, farther ahead of the pack. My earliest Encores shot inside an inch, the example reviewed in 2006 did the same and this model happily shot 7/8 inch groups (and a couple of groups right at 1/2 inch) with almost no load development. Thompson still offers a lifetime warranty to the original purchaser. Thus, the Encore remains the Mercedes of Break Action Muzzleloaders today and the best conventional inline muzzleloader that can be had in 2010.
Copyright 2010 by Randy Wakeman. All rights reserved.