SSK Firearms has released a modern version of the much beloved but no longer produced Thompson/Center Contender frame. It’s called the SSK-50 and it’s backwards compatible with the last version of the Contender. You can buy it from Haus of Arms and they’re shipping them as we speak.
What I truly love about the Contender platform is that right now there are people who’ve stopped reading this review so they can order a frame. We’ll give them a minute.
Smith & Wesson purchased Thompson/Center back in 2007. After more than 50 years and half a million guns produced, Smith & Wesson discontinued production of the Contender and Encore platforms and then announced their intent to sell the brand. No one has bought the brand yet and no one is producing any more Contender or Encore frames. There has been much wailing and gnashing of teeth.
There were barrel makers, stock makers, trigger massagers and all sorts of accessory makers for the platforms, but no frames. No frames means no new guns. I was desperate to find a frame for a backpack pistol build, but refused to pay the ridiculous prices for a bare used frame on Gunbroker. I wasn’t alone.
A buddy on Instagram told me that SSK Firearms was making a new Contender called the SSK-50 and they were available through Haus of Arms, a Thompson/Center specialist shop. I headed to Haus of Arms’s website and got on their waiting list. It was not a short list.
Thousands of people had signed up, then thousands more. Then the waiting began. Despite the fact that the Contender’s patents had long since expired, Smith & Wesson didn’t want SSK to be able to use the original molds to create the frames. (Yes, the frames are cast, then machined.)
SSK had to have new molds made. The bad news is this ate up time. The good news is that manufacturing processes have come a long way in the 60-plus years since those original molds were made. They used to have around a 13 to 15% loss rate on the frames…they were that out of spec.
Today the loss is rate is less than 1%. Of course, machining processes have come even farther in that time, with the end result being what’s undoubtedly the best Contender frame ever to hit the market.
When Marty Haus of Haus of Arms called me to talk about my frame, I was giddy. I’d been planning this build for a long time. I knew exactly what I wanted and he was happy to oblige.
Every component of the build — save the optics and the silencer — came from Haus of Arms. That includes the 14-inch threaded stainless steel bull barrel. In this case, that barrel is chambered in .309 JDJ with a 1:7 twist.
The .309 JDJ round is one of many wildcat cartridges created by J.D. Jones, the original founder of SSK Industries and one of the legends of the firearms industry. Unlike most of those legends, Mr. Jones is still with us.
Jones took a 444 Marlin case, sharpened the shoulder angle and necked it down to .308″. I made my cartridges for this review the same way. The .309 JDJ allows the shooter to get ballistics very close to the .308 Winchester, but with the lower pressures necessary for the Contender/SSK-50 frame.
Out of a 14-inch barrel, the .309 JDJ is capable of pushing a 180gr Hornady InterBond bullet to 2,300 fps, according to Hornady’s published handgun loading data. That’s its heaviest load.
Of course, there’s a huge variety of chamberings for the SSK-50. Anything the last version of the Contender could handle, so can the SSK-50. That’s dozens of cartridges, and not just centerfire chamberings either. It’s been used to take everything from Fox Squirrels to Cape Buffalo.
The safety selector doubles as a firing pin selector. In the center position, it physically keeps the hammer from striking with either firing pin. In the left position, it strikes a firing pin for center-fire cartridges and when switched to the right, it hits for rimfire cartridges.
That’s one of the biggest draws for the design, the incredible modularity. Most people run these guns as rifles. An SSK-50 rifle chambered in .30-30 in the truck would be just about all most deer hunters would ever need. It’s simple, incredibly safe, inexpensive quality that will last generations.
That’s cool and all, but the single shot pistol is what gets me all atwitter. Even within that nerdy niche (single shot rifle-caliber pistols), the SSK-50 has a wide range of options.
The lightest weight, least expensive, and smallest format readily available would be to simply mount a set of Pachymar grips to the frame, put a red-dot/reflex optic on top of the supplied SSK TSOB aluminum Pic rail (made from 2024-T4 bar stock) and get to shooting. This is a 3½ pound gun. (It would be even lighter if you filed dovetail slots for irons.)
With a 3 MOA red-dot style optic mounted to the supplied rail I was able to shoot just under 3MOA groups from 50 to 200 yards. That makes this pistol a 3½ pound gun that fits in a day pack and, in the hands of a competent marksman, can cleanly take elk broadside at 200 yards, maybe farther.
The gun is easy to carry, has plenty of power, but is zero fun to shoot in .309 JDJ. Swapping the rubber Pachymar grips for a nice walnut set from Haus of Arms has helped a lot. Not only does it feel better in the hand during recoil, but the stock includes a sling stud that’s strong enough to mount a bipod to, something you can’t do with the rubber fore end. It also looks classy. Still, recoil is very stout. A 20-round practice session will have your wrist aching.
Although I was pretty set on the traditional pistol grip, Mr. Haus convinced me to try his “Crusher” grip. I’m never going back to a traditional grip after that. Yes, it looks different, but it dramatically increases the control and precision capability, off-hand and at the bench, and it also helps with recoil. It’s very well made and fits both the frame and the hand.
With the Crusher grip, the bipod, a magnified optic in sturdy rings, a round in the chamber and a silencer attached, you get the gun about as heavy as it’s going to get, a few ounces over 6 lbs. At that weight it’s still portable, still very packable, and now much more enjoyable to shoot.
And shockingly accurate.
Using a 152gr Controlled Chaos bullet pushed by 49 grains of BLC-2, this pistol printed extremely consistent five-round groups averaging .6″ at 100 yards. Three-round groups were even better.
That round leaves the muzzle at a chronographed 2,491fps. A 165gr Hornady Interlok bullet in front of 51 grains of IMR 4350 chronoed at 2,405fps and printed .8″ average 5-shot groups. Bumping that round just one more grain of powder pushed groups to just over 1 MOA.
Those groups were shot without a suppressor and with a Burris handgun optic at 12X using a bipod. There was no load that I couldn’t get somewhere near max pressure that wouldn’t print sub-MOA, as long as the bullet was 130gr or heavier. 110-125gr soft point loads opened up to just over 1 MOA.
The SSK-50 action and lock-up are better than anything T/C ever produced. SSK’s barrels have long been a hallmark of quality. The trigger breaks at an average of 4lbs 7oz with no squishiness or discernable creep prior to the break. Put all that together, along with a great stock set, and it’s no surprise at all how precise these guns can be.
One of the nice things about pistol hunting is that you can keep them in-hand or packed away. For every other rifle-caliber pistol, packed away really means packed away. But not this one. Haus of Arms has available a gorgeous and extremely well made holster designed for the SSK-50 and Contender platform. It’s not cheap, but good Lord it is worth every penny.
About a week after I got it together, I took my first pig with this pistol, dropping it in its tracks at 176 yards. It’s “rifle” season with deer here in about a week, and I don’t think this SSK-50 pistol is going to leave my side until season’s over, and then it’s headed to Africa.
After they fulfill the backorders of the SSK-50, I’m sure SSK Firearms will get on making the Encore type frame as well. After seeing the quality of the SSK-50, I’ll be on that waiting list too. SSK and Haus of Arms have pumped new life into one of America’s iconic firearms. They’ve done justice to a platform and produced a frame, furniture and accessories better than anything that’s existed before them.
SSK-50 Stainless Flatside Frame – $395 (Other frame designs available.)
Ambidextrous Walnut Stock Set – $110
Walnut Crusher Grip Set – $170
14″ Stainless Steel Bull Barrel in .309 JDJ – $395
Rating (out of five stars):
Overall * * * * *
SSK Firearms and Haus of Arms come out like absolute American heroes on this one. The SSK-50 frame is exactly what Contender shooters and hopefuls were begging for, and they delivered. Hallelujah.