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Nighthawk Custom's Unique Bob Marvel Commander Edition 1911

Nighthawk Custom is a master of the 1911, and the new Bob Marvel Edition is the ultimate, premium commander-style 1911.

Nighthawk Custom's Unique Bob Marvel Commander Edition 1911

The Model 1911 pistol is one of John M. Browning’s most famous creations, and its record of success, adaptability, and reliability is legendary. Many firms offer versions of the gun in a dizzying array of sizes, calibers, and configurations. There is a Model 1911 for virtually everyone. One of the finest new Model 1911s is a collaboration between Nighthawk Custom and Bob Marvel. You can say it’s literally a Model 1911 Marvel. The pilot model for the pistol we know as the Model 1911 was developed by Browning in 1905 and was marketed by Colt in 1906. It remained on the market until 1911, with some modifications made in 1909 and 1910. The U.S. government’s “automatic pistol trials” in March of 1911 pitted the Browning pistol against a pistol from Savage. Testers fired 60,000 rounds through each pistol, and the Browning gun (made by Colt) broke four parts and ruptured a barrel, while the Savage gun broke 13 parts.

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On March 29, 1911, the military board recommended that the Browning pistol “… be adopted for use by foot and mounted troops in the military service....” The Model 1911 has served as a primary military sidearm almost continuously ever since, not only in the U.S. but many other countries as well. A commercial model of the Model 1911 was introduced on March 9, 1912. The rest, as they say, is history. The Model 1911 is one of the most popular semiautomatic pistols ever. Shooting Times readers are well aware that Model 1911s made by Nighthawk Custom are widely regarded as being in the top tier of such pistols, and the new Bob Marvel Commander model didn’t happen by accident. It has its own very special heritage. Renowned gunsmith Bob Marvel collaborated with Nighthawk, and he designed this model for the company.

A Marvelous Model 1911

Special features include the full-length rails, which give the Commander the full Government-length stroke, and a two-piece, hand-lapped bull barrel. By the way, Marvel instructed the Nighthawk gunsmiths on how to fit the special two-piece sleeved bull barrel. Most firms making Model 1911s have assembly-line production, with many talented hands on each gun as it goes down the line. Fine firearms can be produced by such processes, but some are of dubious lineage, and quality can vary. Nighthawk’s business model is different from that of most firms. Its motto is “One Gun, One Gunsmith.” One super-talented gunsmith makes the gun out of purposely oversized parts, and each part is hand-fitted into the final product. The pistolsmith essentially “owns” the reliability and accuracy of his product, and when the gun is finished, it goes to the buyer with a document that attests to the craftsman who made it. At last count, there were 32 gunsmiths at Nighthawk. Mr. Joey Lehr made the Commander I tested, and it’s a real gem.

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Yes, a Nighthawk Model 1911 is expensive, but as the saying goes, you get what you pay for. The Bob Marvel Commander retails for $4,899. At Nighthawk, what you’re paying for is exceptional quality and a Model 1911 that is truly handmade. So, am I done? Hardly. After the gun is “finished” at Nighthawk, it goes through a final inspection. An eagle-eyed inspector completely disassembles the gun and measures every single part, comparing those metrics to a specification chart. If there is a single part that is out of spec, no matter how small or how slightly, the gun goes back to the gunsmith, and he fixes it. After that, it then goes back to another final inspection and through the “strip search” all over again. No gun goes out unless it is as perfect as humanly possible. The inspection checklist has boxes for 37 different items that must be verified as perfect, and categories include Gunsmith/Prep, Final Assembly, Test Fire, and Final Inspection.

Last year, I had the opportunity to tour Nighthawk’s ultramodern “campus” in Berryville, Arkansas, with Nighthawk owner Mark Stone. It was an impressive and awe-inspiring trip. Every workstation was uncluttered, clean, and neat as a pin. It reminded me of a well-ordered hospital. At each station, a serious gunsmith was carefully and intently working on his gun. Beveling this, polishing that, checking and double checking. It made me nervous just watching. I was allowed to ask questions and scribble down the answers, but I felt like I was intruding on brain surgery. What if I distracted the “surgeon” at a critical point? I had always known that Nighthawk pistols were pretty expensive, but at the end of the tour and after seeing the immense amount of handwork that goes into every one, I am frankly surprised that the prices aren’t higher.

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Back to the Bob Marvel Commander I received for this report. As I said before, it was designed by famed gunsmith and instructor Bob Marvel. It’s chambered in .45 ACP, and it comes in a nice padded case along with a detailed owner’s manual, a hex wrench for sight adjustment, a takedown tool, and a 5/64-inch hex wrench. Here’s a brief rundown of the things that make Nighthawk’s Bob Marvel Commander truly a marvel. This model includes numerous unique features unlike any other pistol in the lineup. Exterior metal surfaces are finished with a lustrous black nitride. The top and back of the slide are hand-stippled. The Bull Nose slide moves back and forth on the frame like two oiled glass plates. There is no play between them, just perfect smoothness. Pressing down on the hood of the two-piece, sleeved 4.25-inch bull barrel does not produce any movement. The thumb safety clicks on and off positively, and the beavertail grip safety helps position the hand for a consistent grip and better accuracy. The pistol comes with two, eight-round magazines made in the U.S.A. I used test loads in both of them, and they worked slick as a bug’s ear.

Additional features are the Everlast Recoil System and a fully adjustable Bo-Mar-style rear sight. The slide has cocking serrations front and back. The throated barrel and its feedramp are highly polished. The frontstrap and mainspring housing are checkered 25 lines per inch, and the magwell is hand-blended (I’d say slightly flared) for easier reloading. The solid aluminum trigger is adjustable. The grip panels are G10 with what are called olive spiral cuts, and their screws are tastefully engraved. The notch in the fully adjustable two-tritium-dot rear sight measures 0.130 inch wide, and the front sight is 0.120 inch thick. It has a single tritium dot. Together, they make for an excellent sight picture. The sight radius is 5.75 inches. Since the Bob Marvel Commander has a bull barrel upper, it has a full-length guide rod and a reverse plug, and it does not require a traditional barrel bushing. This makes disassembly somewhat different. It goes like this.

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First, lock the slide back and ensure the pistol is unloaded. The recoil spring must be captured in order to remove the guide rod. A takedown pin with a 90-degree bend in it is supplied for takedown. This pin is inserted in a hole in the guide rod. (If you lose the pin, a properly bent paper clip will work.) Release the slide and slowly move it forward until it touches the pin. The recoil spring will then be “captured.” Then pull the slide back until the slide stop is aligned with the slide stop notch. (Do this carefully.) Remove the slide stop. Then push the slide forward off the frame. Turn the slide over and remove the guide rod and plug. Move the barrel link out of the way, and the barrel can then be removed from the front of the slide.

Premium Performance from a Premium Pistol

Okay, so the Bob Marvel Commander is indeed marvelous, but how does it shoot? Nighthawk says its proprietary barrel system enhances accuracy, and as you can see from the accompanying chart, that proved to be true. I had eight .45 ACP factory loads on hand, plus one of my favorite handloads. All loads had jacketed bullets, but some of the ammunition was a bit old and possibly discontinued (i.e., Speer Lawman and PMC Target), but I shot them anyway. I chronographed all the loads with my Oehler Model 35P chronograph with the Model III skyscreens placed four feet apart and the midpoint eight feet from the gun’s muzzle. I fired from a padded rest at bullseye targets placed 20 yards away. I fired three, five-shot groups with the handload and each factory load, and  I should note that such “results” are more a test of the shooter than of the gun. Overall, the gun shot like a champ and never missed a lick. I should also mention that the person who sighted-in this pistol did a bang-up job of it, as all loads hit right at point of aim.

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All loads shot very well. The average of the 27 total groups was 1.44 inches. The smallest group was with the handload, which, by the way, has proved to be quite accurate in many other Model 1911s. The load consists of the Hornady 230-grain XTP bullet over 9.0 grains of Blue Dot powder assembled in Federal cases and with Federal 150 primers. The average velocity was 800 fps, for a muzzle energy of 341 ft-lbs. The group average for this load was 1.02 inches, and it was perfectly centered. The average group size for the factory ammunition was 1.49 inches. The smallest groups came with the Hornady Critical Duty ammo loaded with the 220-grain FlexLock bullet. It averaged 1.06 inches at an average velocity of 942 fps. Muzzle energy of this load was an eye-opening 434 ft-lbs, the highest of any load tested. A close second was the Federal Premium Punch ammo with the 230-grain JHP at 868 fps, for 385 ft-lbs at the muzzle and a group average of 1.22 inches. And we shouldn’t overlook the Federal Premium Law Enforcement load with the 230-grain HST +P that clocked 881 fps and produced 396 ft-lbs. As expected, there were no malfunctions of any kind over the course of testing. For those who extol the virtues of the grand old .45 ACP, the Bob Marvel Commander from Nighthawk is a premium choice. It is powerful and superbly made, and it shoots a variety of .45 ACP ammo very well. Its weight (36.9 ounces), crisp trigger (pull weight of 3.12 pounds, as tested), and comfortable grip make it a delight to shoot. This pistol is a perfect example of just about all that can be achieved with a Model 1911. The fit, the finish, and the performance are above reproach.

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Nighthawk Custom Bob Marvel Commander Specs

  • Type: recoil-operated, autoloader
  • Caliber: .45 ACP
  • Capacity: 8 rds. 
  • Barrel: 4.25 in. 
  • Overall Length: 7.9 in. 
  • Width: 1.41 in. 
  • Height: 5.62 in. 
  • Weight: 39.6 oz. 
  • Grips: Spiral-cut G10
  • Sights: Fully adjustable rear, with two tritium dots, Trijicon tritium dot front 
  • Trigger: 3.12-lbs. Pull (tested)
  • Safety: Grip safety, manual thumb safety
  • MSRP: $4,899
  • Manufacturer: Nighthawk Custom



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