"We're going to build a bolt-action rifle, Ian, and I'd like you to help us," said Gregg Ritz, president of Thompson/Center Arms. He called me shortly after the Jan. 17, 2006, announcement that Winchester was stopping production of its Model 70. "My objective is to develop a new breed of bolt-action rifles—a new platform to build from. Popular U.S. bolt-action designs are decades old, most are from the 1950s and '60s. That doesn't mean they're poorly designed, they just aren't current considering today's incredible manufacturing capabilities.
"My priorities are simple: Accuracy is first—every rifle must shoot groups measuring less than 1 inch at 100 yards, and we'll include the test target in the box. Next, I want to continue T/C's reputation for simplicity, reliability, ruggedness and state-of-the-art production. I've got the people and the technology to do it, so we'll put the best bolt-action rifle onto the market in 2007."
Gregg asked me to make some notes on what's already on the market, what design features T/C should consider, what works and what doesn't. He didn't want to re-invent anything, but if some design worked well then he intended to consider it. He wanted to start with a blank sheet of paper . . . to a point. During the last week of January 2006, I flew to the T/C factory in New Hampshire and met with Gregg and his R&D guys. I was truly honored to be included in the development of such a rifle.
Building An Icon
The demise of the Winchester Model 70 presented an opportunity for T/C to get into the bolt-action marketplace, and I wasn't surprised Gregg decided to jump in because T/C has very significant production capabilities and the ability to expand. T/C has a strong reputation for high-quality muzzleloaders, rimfire semiautos and single-shot rifles and handguns, and adding a bolt-action rifle to its successful lineup only made sense.
In addition to offering a bolt action in 2007, Gregg also wanted to upgrade T/C's barrel manufacturing to that of the best custom barrel makers in the country. Very simply, he intends to sell the highest-quality barrels, and that means rifle barrels capable of consistently producing bullet groups of less than a half-inch at 100 yards. Gregg saw the opportunity to blend the two projects—developing higher-quality barrel production would ensure top accuracy for his new bolt-action rifle. Ambitious plans to be sure, but certainly not impossible for the T/C crew.
Gregg had just the guys to take on the projects. He called on T/C's Mark Laney to develop the bolt-action rifle. He's a quiet guy with an incredibly broad knowledge of firearms and wonderful ability to create simple, unique, robust and accurate designs. In addition, he has a photographic memory and common sense—two excellent gifts for any designer.
Gregg assigned the barrel project to T/C's Karl Ricker, who immediately set about determining why the best barrels shoot so well. He obtained a group of samples and did some intense inspections and measurements. Karl also studied barrel-making techniques and began planning the new T/C production. Needless to say, a lot of shooting was done to assess improvements as new barrels were created.
During our initial meeting, I made a suggestion to Gregg that became a basis for the bolt-action development: Design an action tough and accurate enough for tactical use and you'll have a great hunting rifle. I have some tactical rifle building friends who create some of the finest sniper and long-range hunting rifles in North America, and these guys build rifles that are rugged, reliable and super accurate. Gregg agreed this was a sound idea.
I'd already introduced Gregg to George Gardner at the 2006 SHOT (Shooting, Hunting and Outdoor Trade) show. George owns GA Precision, one of the finest and busiest rifle building shops in the country. George's rifles are legendary for doing what tactical rifles have to do: drive tacks and never quit. When Gregg pushed the button on the new bolt-action design, I called George and asked him if he'd be interested in collaborating, and he jumped at the opportunity.
In mid-July I had the pleasure of moderating a brainstorming meeting between Gregg, Karl, Mark and George and his staff of six gunsmiths. Also included was Marty Bordson, owner of Badger Ordnance and a rifle designing engineer in his own right. We met in North Kansas City, Missouri, at the GA Precision building. This was one of the most enjoyable meetings I've ever attended. I suppose everyone got along so well because we all love guns.
We not only talked about every component of bolt-action design, we also looked at a variety of samples. George and Marty had a comprehensive sample of current tactical, benchrest and hunting actions displayed on a workbench, and needless to say this was an invaluable opportunity to compare and assess designs. When we broke for lunch, the prototype, un-named T/C action made continuous rounds at the table as we dined. We also shot a pair of prototype T/C barrels in a rifle George prepared. We fired one barrel in the morning and then George removed it and installed a second barrel for assessment that evening. These initial T/C barrels shot very accurately and showed that Karl was well on his way to achieving Gregg's accuracy goal.
In early November 2006, I returned to New Hampshire to see and shoot the first T/C bolt-action rifle ever built—the Icon. Because hunting seasons were in full-swing across the country and everyone had other commitments, we had time for only 1 day of field-testing. Gregg, Mark, Neil Sanders (T/C's director of marketing) and I planned an extensive shoot at a nearby outdoor gun range.
The day before we shot, Gregg and Mark introduced me to T/C's new Icon, and I can honestly say the longer I held it the more I didn't want to put it down—the Icon is that nice! The guys showed me a completed rifle as well as a rifle action so I could understand the complete picture.
Innovative Design And Superior Components
In my opinion, the Icon is a blend of European and classic North American design. The action is simple and rugged. The receiver has a unique sculpted profile with the bolt shroud angling upward to the top of the receiver, and the action is initially designed for the .308 Win. family of cartridges.
Overall, the rifle handles and balances beautifully. Icon number one was built with an incredible piece of walnut for the stock. It has purely classic lines—the pistol grip angle is correct for large hands, the fore-end is nicely shaped, and the comb height allows for a perfect cheek-weld. T/C commissioned a wonderful checkering pattern that's reminiscent of days long past. This checkering is located on the pistol grip and fore-end, and it's very functional as well as decorative.
The action is based on the proven push-feed design. The bolt is massive, large enough for three locking lugs to be machined in its front section. This also enables a fast bolt lift of 60 degrees. The extractor is also a proven design, the "T-Slot" that's reliable and strong. Ejection is handled by a spring-loaded plunger. The rifle is fed from a single stack magazine that will hold three rounds, and the magazine release functioned perfectly on Icon number one.
A large bolt-release situated on the off-side of the action near the tang also serves as a bolt-stop and an anti-bind device. Mark incorporated the bolt-stop and release into the strongest unit I've seen in a receiver. A massive stud protrudes into the receiver and slides in a matching groove cut into the side of the bolt, which makes the bolt slide as smooth as silk.
As for innovations, the flat-bottomed receiver has three recoil lugs and three stock bolts. This flat bottom allows a unique bedding design that's so simple it has to work. Mark designed a matching aluminum bedding plate that exactly mates to the bottom of the receiver—flat on flat. The bedding plate is epoxied into the stock and the barreled action dropped into place. With the precision of CNC manufacturing, the action and bedding plate fit with virtually zero tolerance. The receiver, which starts out as a block of 4140 steel, is completed in about a half-hour by a CNC milling machine. This ensures absolute accuracy since the receiver doesn't have to be moved through a variety of machining processes.
Taking the bolt apart involves removing the bolt handle, then pulling the firing pin assembly from the bolt body. This only takes about 7 seconds! The design of the bolt enables replacing the bolt-handle so you can have a flat Euro design, a traditional round knob or an oversized tactical handle. The receiver has integral scope bases in true Picatinny specs, which means any Weaver-style ring will fit onto the base, including lightweight tactical rings. It also means no screws to loosen and cause inaccuracy.
Another great innovation is the fire-control system. Very simply, the Icon offers owners a completely adjustable trigger that has safety parameters that ensure reliable operation. Adjustments for trigger creep (movement before let-off) and over-travel require removing the barreled action from the stock. Weight-of-pull is user-adjusted by simply removing the Icon' bolt and inserting an Allen wrench into a screw. The screw has integral stops that limit trigger let-off weight from
21 2-6 pounds.
The safety also has a unique design. Pushing the safety to the "ON" position arrests the sear and locks the firing-pin. The bolt can be cycled in this position. If the shooter wants to prevent the bolt from opening he simply slides back a small bolt-lock button located just ahead of the safety. When the shooter wishes to fire, pushing the safety to the "OFF" position also releases the bolt lock.
I enjoyed shooting the Icon at 100 and 200 yards with Mark, and the rifle performed beautifully with three-shot groups measuring well inside 1 inch at 100 yards. Our groups at 200 yards held right at 1 inch, so Mark and I played "Shooter-Spotter," assigning each other small rocks on the far backstop. Many of the rocks that disintegrated were no larger than silver dollars.
The Icon is a hunter's rifle, and Gregg assures me T/C intends to pay attention to the smallest detail. These rifles are ready to shoot when they're taken out of the box.
As I visited T/C's R&D office in November to shoot the Icon, I spotted a very interesting looking muzzleloader in a gun rack. As I picked up the new in-line I wondered, "What have they got here? Nothing is going to exceed T/C's Omega or Pro Hunter." Turns out I was wrong—big time!
As I handled the new Triumph, I noticed a blend of Omega and Pro Hunter technologies, with a few interesting twists thrown in. Very simply, this new in-line is the slickest muzzleloader I've ever shot. At one point I had more than 30 in-lines in my home because I was writing a book on them, so I believe I've had my share of experience with a wide variety of makes, models and designs. Thompson/
Center's R&D specialist Matt Zglobicki has come up with a unique appearance package that clearly differentiates this new rifle from the pack.
As I said, this gun borrows some of the best design features of its brothers, the Encore 209/Pro Hunter and the Omega. From the Omega came a proven fire-control system and the "keep it simple but robust and accurate" design principal. The Pro Hunter's Speed Breech that enables near instant removal of the breech plug was given a tweak or two, and T/C's designers also managed to give the Triumph a unique appearance with a side-lock appliqué, a wider fore-end and state-of-the-art metal finishes. There are two models, the blued Triumph and the ceramic coated Weather Shield, which offers total protection to its stainless steel parts. Weather Shield is a new coating that's virtually bullet-proof to abrasion, bumps, corrosion and adverse weather conditions.
Breaking open the new in-line is accomplished by pushing a composite-wrapped handle that protrudes below the trigger guard. The trigger guard rocks forward and the barrel swings open. This exposes a large, shiny knurled ring at the breech. This knurled ring has a concave face with a .209-inch-diameter hole in its center. In fact, this knurled ring is the breech plug. The breech plug doesn't screw flush into the barrel like all other in-lines; instead, the breech plug employs the large knurled end to stop its entrance into the breech. This is accomplished with finger pressure—no tools!
To remove the breech plug, you simply break open the barrel assembly, grab the knurled ring between your thumb and first finger and twist 90 degrees. Then, you pull it straight out. We all know that muzzleloader residue has a nasty ability to gall threads, and if that happens there are two opposing cutouts in the face of the breech plug. These cutouts are located at the three and nine o'clock positions, and a simple steel bar fits into the cutouts and provides additional leverage to turn the plug. If the plug still sticks, a tap or two with the ramrod pops it straight out.
Another small cutout at the six o'clock position in the breech plug face mates to a stud in the frame. This ensures the plug has been tightened into position. If the plug isn't correctly tightened you cannot close the barrel.
One twist and out—that describes breech plug removal. The Pro Hunter also provided the innovation of three gas control rings that stop gas and combustion residue from entering the threads. Located at the front of the plug these rings work very effectively. Simply stated, blow-by isn't an issue with the Triumph. After 30 shots the face of the plug was still shiny and clean, and I grabbed the plug with my fingers and removed it with an easy twist and pull.
The prototype rifle I shot had an excellent trigger, and I was assured that production triggers would be as crisp and free of over-travel with a breaking weight of approximately 4 pounds.
Barrel length is 28 inches including T/C's proprietary QLA recessed muzzle. The Quick Load Accurizer does two things: it starts the bullet into the bore and centers each projectile precisely. I believe the QLA is one of the most overlooked features on T/C muzzleloaders; it makes loading fast and accurate because you can seat the bullet perfectly with a downward push of the thumb.
How well does the Triumph shoot? My first three shots at 100 yards measured just a hair more than 1 inch. The load was three Triple Seven pellets and a 250-grain T/C ShockWave saboted bullet. The following three shots piled into a cluster measuring just under a half-inch—amazing! After retrieving the target I simply handed the rifle off to the next shooter and said, "I'll quit now guys—that's the best group I've shot in a long time!"