The Thompson/Center Encore Pro Hunter 209x50
I've previously reviewed the Thompson Encore, and called it the "Most Influential Rifle of the Year" in 2004, naming the Thompson Contender G2 .45 caliber the "Gun of the Year" the very same year. The current notion of break-action muzzleloading rifle popularity is directly attributable to Thompson's Encore. Yet, though many companies have done their best to ride on the coat tails of the Encore success, they have all fallen a long way short of the mark.
The basis is simple: the Encore was manufactured and introduced as a "real gun," a form 4473 center fire rifle from the beginning, as was Warren Center's Contender that originally propelled Thompson into the firearm business. The beauty of the Encore is not that it is just a break-action at all; it is that is an extremely durable, well made rifle from a reputable company. It is the robustness of the gun and overall build quality that makes the Encore a standout compared to the other break-actions, which all too often just break.
Whenever a phone call, letter, or e-mail asks me if an "XYC" break action muzzleloader is comparable to the Encore (hey, the sweater behind the counter said so) I could just hurl. No, they absolutely are not, by any reasonable standard.
For 2006, in the form of the Pro Hunter, Thompson has listened to their customers and given the Encore a significant face lift, employing innovations not seen on any other muzzleloader. T/C has hardly kept it a secret, with an advertising campaign as lavish as I've ever seen for a muzzleloader. I'll go through the new additions and offer my opinion of them. Opinions need to be backed with basis, of course; otherwise they are more noise than substance.
In my last review of the Encore, I loudly lamented only one thing, that being the T/C Tupperware stock that just didn't fit the rest of the gun. In my case, I ditched the old synthetic stock set for a T/C walnut set and bingo, it became a whole different and better rifle. The balance improved, the recoil was reduced, it looked better, and so forth.
The Encore Pro Hunter's black synthetic stock features a Limbsaver recoil pad, tactile grip panels on the forearm, pistol grip, and soft layer in the comb area. In addition, there are four layers of the Limbsaver "Navcom" material nested into the buttstock in front of the butt.
This is a vast improvement over the old synthetic stock, both comparatively attractive and far softer shooting. Thompson deserves accolades for their successful efforts in this area.
On the cosmetic side, the T/C button logo embedded in the stock is tasteful, as is the new style receiver's light engraving. Both are welcome additions to my eyes.
The Pro Hunter's barrel is fluted, and billed as a 28 inch barrel. My friends at T/C have never been afraid of a little creative advertising, inclusive of cooking an African buffalo at 200 yards. The claim is also made that its fluting "strengthens the barrel." Ahem.
Dropping a tape measure down the muzzle, my Pro-Hunter's usable barrel length is right at 26 inch muzzle to breechplug. Subtract the T/C QLA, it is far closer to 25-1/4 inches usable rather than the stated 28 inches. My Knight Disc Elite has a 26 inch barrel that has a longer usable length than the Pro-Hunter's "28 inch" barrel. As for fluting strengthening an Encore barrel (which needs no strengthening in the first place), that doesn't wash. Fluting a barrel with same OD, of course, weakens it.
T/C also makes mention of the Pro-Hunter's "target crown." Well, apparently somebody stole mine. The muzzle is flat, no crown exists, target or otherwise. T/C's Pro Hunter would be just as good without this ridiculous hyperbole, but I guess old habits are hard to break.
If they wanted more barrel, all they need do is lose the QLA, which serves no purpose as far as I'm concerned. I can't say it hurts anything, either, except adding weight to barrel that equals or exceeds the minimal lightening from the flutes. A properly profiled barrel is the approach I'd prefer to see.
The Pro Hunter has a "Swing Hammer," the normal method of operating a hand held mallet or hammer. I've had no issues with the old hammer, a hammer spur would make more sense to me, but in any case it allows the hammer to be positioned to the left or to the right of center, which some may find of value. It is the weakest of the new additions, but it in my case it was quickly moved back to center, no harm no foul.
Reviewed elsewhere, I've long thought that the XS Sights Power Rod was the best after market ramrod out there. Thompson includes it on their Pro Hunter. They not just use it; Thompson now owns it, having bought the patent from XS Sights. It is a welcome addition to most any muzzleloader.
Interrupted thread breech plugs have not been used before in muzzleloaders that I'm aware of. I'm familiar with them from industrial applications. Thompson calls it their "Speed Breech," and while in no way is it new in concept, it is an innovation as applied to muzzleloaders. It allows you to loosen your breechplug in 90 degrees of rotation. That's all it does; I found to get it out required a poke from the range rod from the muzzle, as it does not back out enough to get a grip on it.
The supplied T/C breech plug wrench has a grabbing spring that addresses this. I've always used a standard socket set to remove the breech plug. I suspect others do as well, hence its mention here.
The notion of the "three compression rings" at the front that eliminates "95% of the harmful blowback" seems to be just more marketing hyperbole. The Encore has always been a sealed action, I've certainly never had any external blowback nor have I seen any significant internal blowback to the threads on an Encore. Whatever residue makes it back into the action comes primarily from primer compound, and still will, as for from the powder charge there remains a hole in the breechplug as the only migration path, so little has changed in that department.
With a slab sided breechplug like this, no threads exist on two sides. It is reasonable that the compression rings reduce blowback past this specific breechplug far more than there might be any tangible difference compared to the standard Encore breechplug.
Naturally, interrupted threads mean threads don't exist; necessarily you need a much longer breechplug to maintain the same amount of thread engagement, which the T/C "Speed Breech" has. A more expensive, longer breech plug array necessarily steals away usable barrel length. While I applaud the T/C innovation, there was never anything wrong or difficult about the previous Encore breech plug. The net result appears to be a small amount of convenience, added expense, and some performance loss.
The attractive part of the new breechplug is not the interrupted threads, but the ability to keep the new pivoting 209 primer extractor in situ while removing the breechplug. That is only real time-saver. T/C breechplug removal has always taken just a few moments with a common socket set. It is a push, as far as I'm concerned, adding expense, weight, and stealing away useable barrel length all for the dubious benefit of "quick releasing" a breechplug that was always easy to service in the first place. Is it innovative? Yes. Is there any tangible benefit? There is none, as far as I can see.
The Pro-Hunter's trigger broke at an initial 5-3/4 pounds, then eventually lightened a tad to about 5 pounds after a few range sessions. It is a bit heavier than I would like, but there is no take-up, sand, or grit. The crispness of the trigger offsets its relatively heavy pull. While on the subject of weight, the Pro Hunter weighs about 8-1/4 pounds on my Lyman gauge. It pushes 10 pounds with steel bases, steel rings, and scope.
I sum up my feelings about the new additions as best I can. Thumbs down to the "Speed Breech," which fixes what is not broken and robs usable barrel length.
A sideways apathetic thumb to the three position hammer. I prefer it in the same place as always.
A thumbs up goes to the addition of the Power Rod, even though it lacks the built-in witness marks of the original XS Sights product and also lacks a good brass bullet seating tip. Thumbs up to the tasteful engraving accents, and from a cosmetic point of view thumbs up to the fluting as well. A huge thumbs up (with a couple of wiggling golden sabots) to the new synthetic stock.
The new "Flex-Tech" stock looks trendy, perhaps distinguished in a techno-art way, but more importantly, it works. This stock is supremely comfortable to shoot. Typically I'm not a pellet guy, much less a three pellet guy, but I purposely loaded the Pro Hunter up with three "50 grain equivalent" Triple Se7en pellets and 300 grain sabots to see if it would bark.
Well, it is not the sweet caress of a loving woman, to be sure, but it is manageable and a vast improvement. With a pair of Triple Se7en pellets and a Barnes 250 TMZ, it was a delight to shoot. Shoot it does, giving me 1 MOA groups @ 100 yards right out of the box.
What would improve this muzzleloader, in my opinion, is to lose a pound. Loose the QLA, profile the barrel with no iron sights, and go back to the shorter breechplug. That not only would shed the weight, it would give us more barrel that can actually be used. For stand hunting, it is fine; for walking across the tundra or bushveldt, less weight would be a blessing.
So there you have it: the Mercedes of the break action muzzleloaders and the most copied muzzleloader of the day remains King of the Hill, by a larger margin than ever. The only other break action I've found to be remotely comparable is T/C's own Contender G2.
Copyright 2006 by Randy Wakeman. All rights reserved.