The use of shot cartridges in handguns has rarely served any real practical purpose. Mail to this column frequently requests information on loading effective shotshells for revolvers and automatics, and I'm sure that my replies have been disappointing to those who believe that the tiny shotshells would be useful as gamekillers.
I've owned two genuine smoothbore pistols chambered for the 410 shell. The first was a decrepit Stevens with a nickled frame, and the second was a more familiar Harrington & Richardson Handy Gun. I'm not sure I was big enough to shave when they passed through my hands, but even in those older times they were illegal as sin. I didn't know about the federal statute lumping these peashooters in the same category with tommy guns and cut-down 12 gauge automatics, and I used them well to potshoot mallards and the blue doves and bobwhites that infested the Texas Panhandle of my boyhood.
These were simply miniature shotguns, and a pistol or revolver was and is something else. One enterprising gun monkey, after the law put 410 pistols beyond the pale, began to bore out Colt New Service revolvers, making 44 Special or 45 Colt smoothbores, and fitting a choking device on the barrel. The resultant patterns were acceptable, considering the flyweight shot and powder charges involved, but the completed conversion was good for very little but close range snake killing and aerial bottle busting. It was also a bit expensive, considering the limited applications it had. Authorities who reviewed the Federal Firearms Act learned that the altered sixgun fell under the letter of their law, requiring an expensive manufacturer's license and a tax of $200 on every transfer of the gun from one enthusiast to another. It died on the vine.
Their appetities whetted by news of the revolver conversions, some six gun owners began casting around for a means of handling shot loads in their artillery. Results were, and in my opinion still are, quite poor. Rifled barrels impart a whirling motion to the mass of shot as it passes through the bore, scattering the pattern outward from the point of aim, and leaving a big hole in it right at the point where the shot should be concentrated.
Handloads in revolver cases, or even in cut and fitted rifle cases that extend to the mouth of the chamber, simply won't throw enough shot at enough velocity to be considered seriously as a hunters gun. Knowing that it sounded a bit pompous, I nonetheless have advised those who requested dope on handloading shot shells to forget it and learn to connect with a solid bullet. The learning will take more time but the results are much more satisfying.
My recent tests of the new Thompson/Center Contender in 45-410 boring has shifted my position a bit. As legal as a contribution to your favorite political party, this ingenious gun is the most practical shot-shooting pistol extant under the present government regulations.
Most serious shooters are by now familiar with the Contender pistol, a topbreak single shot gun that was introduced by Thompson/Center in 1967. Capable of handling either rimfire or centerfire cartridges, one Contender receiver will accept any of a gaggle of barrels in calibers 22LR, 22WMR, 22 Hornet, 256 Mag., 38 Spl., 357 Mag., and 45 Colt. Each barrel has a classic 19th Century look, part round and part octagon. The interchangeable tubes come with their own complete sight system, ramp front and fully adjustable rear lining up for a standard Partridge sight picture. Various lengths are available, and velocities from the closed breach Contender are higher than those reached by the same cartridge in a revolver or automatic of the same barrel length.
The 45-410 is obviously primarily a 410 which can be used in pinch as a 45 Colt. The rifling in the barrel is a concession to the law, which sanctions any gun with a barrel of less than 18" and firing a shotshell only if it is rifled. The Contender comes with either 6" or 8" tube, threaded on the inside at the muzzle to take a "choke" tube that has six straight deep lands and grooves which are designed to reverse the shot's whirling trend that was initiated by the rifling. Strangely enough, this Goldbergish arrangement works rather well.
While I shot my Contender on paper with 3" Remington shells loaded with #7½ shot, I didn't bother to do the meticulous counting necessary to be able to evaluate the pattern. The manufacturer's patterns used in promotional material were fired at 60 feet. Those I fired at that range appeared to be approximately 50 per cent, and would tend to limit the effective use of the gun to 20 yards on small game animals and birds. This is much better performance than any shotloaded handgun cartridge could deliver, and in practice I knocked over a couple of jackrabbits who were considerate enough to give me a shot at about 15 yards, which seems to be about the optimum range with the shot I was using.
A wrench is provided to remove the choke tube when you want to switch to 45 Colt shells. Firing a 45 Colt cartridge through this constrictor probably wouldn't blow up the pistol because of the eight-hole muzzle brake drilled into the barrel top just under the front sight ramp, but both gun and shooter would doubtlessly be shaken up.
The 45 Colt is a good cartridge, and gives an adequate performance in this barrel even while handicapped by having to jump almost two inches through the long 410 chamber before engaging the rifling of the barrel.
The trigger pull of my Contender, which is adjustable for travel, but not for weight, is approximately 5 lb. This is heavier than I prefer for close pistol shooting, but about right and safe for shotgun work. My gun would stay on soft drink cans at 20 yards with 45 ammo, and with 410 shells I was able to hit about 1 out of 3 clay pigeons thrown by my partner's bare hand. With practice I could have done a bit better on the shotgun work.
The 45-410 Contender was shot and fondled by a group of Canadian River cowhands who ride every day. In spite of TV programs to the contrary, not many of the hired hands on horseback of this era carry a handgun or could shoot if they did. Like most Americans, the average cowboy learned to shoot a 22 rifle, a shotgun, and then perhaps a deer rifle. All of these are a damned nuisance on the horse of a working man who rides each day checking fence and roping and doctoring cattle.
The George Lawrence Company makes a holster for the Contender which is sold by Thompson/Center. Fashioned from oiled, basket-stamped saddle skirting, this flap top model protects the pistol quite well, and is as trim as an effective sheath can be for such a relative bulky gun. We tied the holstered pistol onto the left front saddle strings of a cowpony, and it hung close to the saddle behind the horse's shoulder, out of the way but readily accessible for an opportunity at a covey of blue quail or a coiled rattler. The waddies considered this as excellent arrangement, and three orders were placed right there in the horse corral.
My criticisms of the Contender are few. I would prefer a trigger pull of 2½-3 lb. for precision shooting with handgun cartridges. This can easily be attained by any good gunsmith. A bit more serious is the discomfort that the sawhandle-shaped grip gave to the web of the hand during firing heavy loads. The deep depression in the back of the one-piece stock forces the tender web of the hand to accept more than its share of the recoil. It also is positioned so that it lowers the knuckles of my fingers somewhat below the point they would occupy if the depression were not there, allowing the spur on the back of the trigger guard to give a painful lick to the second joint of my middle finger. Since this spur is necessary to the pistol's operation, being used as the lever which open the action, the solution would seem to lie in a better shaped stock.
Straightening the line along the back of this grip, and perhaps rounding and narrowing its rather square cornered front, would greatly improve the Contender's handling qualities. No changes of the form of the metal receiver would be necessary, and the bit of woodworking required would well reward the effort.
Bob Gustafson of the Thompson/Contender told me that new calibers are on the way. The 30 Carbine and 9mm guns are a reality, and will soon be in the hands of retailers. Barrels for the 222 Remington rifle cartridge have been made up, and a reported velocity of more than 2500 fps has been clocked with them. Gustafson says that work with the 17 calibers is going ahead. When you buy the basic Contender at $135 ($144 for the 45-410), new barrels in your choice of calibers come at $36 each, with the 45-410 combination being tagged at $45.
The venom-wiped spearhead of any anti-gun campaign is always aimed at the man who shoots a pistol. It is fortunate that the sport of handgun hunting is at least being widely recognized and accepted at the very time when ownership of a handgun would be associated only with anarchy and murder by narrow minds.
No thinking legislator has been able to find much fault with the hunting of wild game with whatever type of firearm, deeply entrenched as this sport is in our country's history. Thompson/Center's Contender is a handgun that could not conceivably be chosen for anything but sporting purposes, and is rapidly finding a wide following.
The H&R Handy Gun was well named, and the regulations that took it from the hands of hunters probably did not reflect the intent of the lawmakers who outlawed it while trying to make things difficult for thugs. The 45-410 Contender is a good replacement, and is sure to be a success.
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