.30-30 Winchester Thompson/Center Contender Pistol and Varmint Handloads
Date: Jun 11 2020
The 100-year-old (plus) .30-30 Winchester needs no introductions. The cartridge has been getting the job done since 1895, mostly in handy, fast-handling carbine lever rifles. In this series, we will investigate .30-30 handloads for a Thompson/Center Contender G1 handgun; one of the first rounds offered by Thompson/Center (T/C) in its revolutionary single-shot pistol that was introduced in 1965. Noting that previous .30-30 T/C data on this website covers big-game bullets from 130 to 200 grains, I thought that filling the light bullet gap would prove appropriate. This also happens to mesh with my varmint shooting proclivities.
A .30-30 Winchester handgun may seem like an odd choice as varmint iron, but given deep thought, it makes perfect sense. My .30-30 tubed Contender has accounted for two cow elk during special late seasons (at 143 and 156 laser-measured yards), loading 30.5 grains of IMR-3031 beneath Hornady’s 150-grain InterLock. Both of those cows were one-shot kills that did not get out-of-sight after impact. More recently, I attached a SIG Sauer ECHO1 Thermal Reflex Sight to this pistol, a combination that proved both a hoot and deadly-effective on nighttime Texas hogs, seating Barnes’ 110-grain TAC-TX FB bullets over 35 grains of Ramshot TAC.
Yet small-varmint shooting is my most burning firearms obsession. While I own true varmint-cartridge Contender barrels, using them effectively on ground squirrels and prairie dogs out to 175 yards, I’m forever tinkering in the interests of keeping life interesting. It’s also difficult to dismiss the wide array of true varmint bullets offered in .308 caliber, most designed to help single-rifle owners expand the utility of their favorite deer rifle chambered in .308 Winchester or .30-06 Springfield – or .30-30 Winchester. And unlike popular T/C rounds like the 7mm TCU, the .30-30 Winchester generates ample velocity from a 14-inch barrel (used here) to assure bullet expansion on burrowing rodents. Another advantage introduced by the T/C single-shot design is an ability to utilize pointed bullets, off limits in a lever rifle’s tubular magazine. The improved ballistic coefficients help narrow the performance gap between carbine rifles and pistols.
Pistols chambered in .30-30 T/C are commonly disparaged for lackluster accuracy with detractors pointing to the essentially-defunct .30 Herrett as more efficient and inherently accurate (no doubt true). There is no doubt .30-30 pistols are maddening temperamental, yet I’ve found that 100-yard MOA accuracy is within reach – even with light-for-caliber bullets – through patient load development. This fussiness isn’t too surprising, considering case capacity in relation to barrel length, though the 14-inch barrel used for testing here (verses the common 10-inch) helps considerably. Selecting optimum powders for .30-30 pistol loads proved to be a juggling act of minimizing unburned powder and ear-splitting muzzle blast and creating decent load density to smooth out extreme velocity spreads and promote more consistent ignition. In general, powders that perform well in cartridges in the .221 Fireball to .223 Remington class proved optimal, better filling cases and burning fast enough to assure sufficient velocity to ensure bullet expansion and decisive anchoring of small varmints. Like other T/C cartridges, neck sizing only allows
headspacing off the shoulder, prolonging case life and improving accuracy (a full-length die backed off ¼-inch will suffice).
Once-fired Hornady cases were selected for all loads, lightly trimmed to square and uniform necks (trim-to-length specifications 2.029 inches), followed by generous chamfering. CCI 200 Large Rifle primers were used throughout, a spark plug that has proven consistently reliable in past load trials. As mentioned, all selected bullets are designated varmint designs, weighing 100- to 130-grains and manufactured with thinner jackets and softer core material. Every load was precisely measured on an RCBS beam scale and brass sized with Oroville, California, era RCBS Precisioneered full-length dies. An overall loaded length (OAL) of 2.550 inches is generally recommended for the .30-30 Winchester, though the break-action Contender typically allows longer OALs, up to 2.780 inches with sharp-pointed bullets. OAL compatibility is easily checked by dropping a loaded round into the chamber. If it drops into the battery under its own weight, it is within acceptable parameters – though care should be taken to seat bullets deep enough to assure adequate neck tension to promote accuracy.
T/C’s Contender G1 with a 14-inch, 1:14 rifling twist barrel was used to test all loads. Shooting was conducted at 100 yards from a portable bench, using an attached bipod and folded leather gloves beneath the pistol butt as a “squeeze bag.” Wind was highly variable, still one moment, gusting to 12 mph another. Targets were changed after every 5-shot string, during which time the barrel was allowed to cool.