April 12, 2022
Through the last 20 years, Nighthawk Custom of Berryville, Arkansas, became known as one of the top custom manufacturers of Model 1911s. Its designs continue to innovate, and quality control is superb. One of the more interesting areas of discussion is its collaborations with like-minded aficionados in the handgun world. Nighthawk Custom works with legendary names such as Richard Heinie, Bob Marvel and Doug Turnbull, for example. The partnerships always result in fantastic creations.
Marvel is a well-known name in competitive handgun circles for building high-performance Model 1911s, particularly in the bullseye arena. From the start, Nighthawk Custom CEO Mark Stone wanted to implement procedures to ensure that all of his company’s guns were built to the same high standards. So, he brought in Bob Marvel to help.
“When we started, we didn’t know everything we needed to know about 1911s,” Stone recalled. “You’ve got to have a process. Even back then, Bob had been a gunsmith for 40 years. He had a ton of knowledge and actually wrote it down. I sent guys out to train with him for weeks at a time, and he was here quite a bit as well. There were a lot of details that we learned from him.”
This model is not only a tribute to Marvel’s influence on Nighthawk Custom and its gunsmiths, but it is a handgun that employs some of his favorite functional and aesthetic features.
Having tested several of Nighthawk’s creations, I am confident that any Nighthawk firearm that crosses my desk will exhibit flawless function and unparalleled fit and finish. The Bob Marvel edition was no different.
Part of the magic of Nighthawk Custom is the company’s “one gun, one gunsmith” policy. Nighthawk handguns are not limited-production handguns, but true hand-built customs. This business model combines the attention to detail, care, skill and dedication of a one-man shop, with the logistical and manufacturing support of a larger operation. The gunsmiths at Nighthawk Custom can focus on making guns rather than marketing, customer service or dealing with the burden of running a business. Stone proved that this system works.
The Bob Marvel isn’t just a Model 1911 with a well-known name engraved on it; it is a unique handgun with features you’re unlikely to find elsewhere. For starters, it is a Commander-sized pistol, combining a 4 1/4-inch barrel with a full-size frame. The Commander has always been the sweet spot for me when it comes to an M1911 for carry, especially when chambered in 9mm. This gun adds yet another twist, though. Unlike ordinary Commanders, the Bob Marvel starts out with the full-size slide and frame as designed by John Browning. The slide is then cut back to Commander-length.
“You’ve got a Government model stroke on a Commander-length slide,” Stone described. “That Government stroke just makes it more forgiving. We all know that the shorter you make a 1911, the less forgiving that gun is.” Built this way, you get the best of both worlds.
Like all handguns made by Nighthawk Custom, plenty of options are available to suit individual tastes and preferences. Each handgun is built to suit a customer’s desires. Bob Marvels are available finished with a variety of treatments including Cerakote, smoked nitride, and hard chrome. Guns & Ammo’s sample had the $200 complete stainless-steel upgrade. These guns are machined from stainless steel and are offered in either a raw stainless or black appearance. The Bob Marvel is chambered for either 9mm or .45 ACP, and 10mm is offered for a $100 premium.
G&A’s test gun was a raw stainless steel example in 9mm. Unlike many makers who use cast or molded metal parts in their guns, the Bob Marvel is built from 100 percent machined components. Each part begins life as a solid piece of steel. There are no shortcuts taken to speed-up production or cost-cutting measures to maximize profits. These guns are built to be the best they can be.
The frame of the Bob Marvel shows all of the signs of a veteran craftsman. The frontstrap is cut to allow as high of a grip on the handgun as possible, and is checkered at 25 lines-per-inch (LPI). The mainspring housing and beveled magazine well are machined from a single block of steel with the backstrap checkered to match the frontstrap. The magwell on the frame is then hand-polished to provide a slick and seamless fit between the external and internal surfaces. The front of the dust cover is beveled slightly, too, eliminating a common wear point between handgun and holster.
An upswept beavertail grip safety is blended into the lines of the frame. The strong-side manual safety lever is extended slightly and rounded perfectly for use as a carry gun. If an ambidextrous safety is preferred, that’s an option.
The pad on the slide stop sits higher than normal and is somewhat rounded on top. It is without serrations. The magazine release is checkered.
From a fire-control perspective, the Bob Marvel combines a delta-style combat hammer that’s released with a solid aluminum trigger actuating the match disconnector and sear. These parts, too, are made in-house.
The G10 grip panels are textured with a combination of circular and angular cuts. They provide plenty of bite without being overly abrasive. A tasteful accent is the mosaic-style grip screws, which require the appropriate Torx bit or screwdriver to remove or tighten.
Marvel’s name is engraved in a script font, which completes the bottom half of this pistol. It is otherwise a fairly standard frame, as far as configuration.
If the bottom half of the Bob Marvel is “fairly standard” for a Nighthawk Custom, the top-end is far from it. Visually, the most striking element is the highly textured top and rear of the slide. This stippled-looking texture pays homage to a true pioneer of the custom 1911 world. Deep swirling cuts on the topstrap look like a modern rendition of the treatment that gunmaking legend Armand Swenson was famous for. Marvel was known to favor this treatment for many of his custom creations. This is well-executed. The stipple pattern, too, is done by hand and cuts some glare while looking great.
The textured top of the slide is separated from the flats of the slide with a mill-cut French border, another Swenson hallmark. Slide serrations are present at both the front and rear, and they follow a unique multi-level angular pattern. The ejection port on the Bob Marvel is lowered and flared at the rear, which helps to facilitate flawless ejection and protect spent cases.
The bottom edge of the slide is beveled to remove the 90-degree edge, even across the slide serrations. Slide-to-frame fit is probably over-emphasized when it comes to accuracy potential, but it is a great barometer of a gunsmith’s skill and attention to detail. The fit on G&A’s Bob Marvel pistol made the slide feel as if it were riding on greased ball bearings.
The standard Bob Marvel is fit with a tritium front sight that’s dovetailed and blended into the slide, in front of a Bomar-style adjustable rear sight having flanking tritium dots.
Our pistol was a bit different. At the editor’s request, it sported Nighthawk Custom’s newest up-grade: the Interchangeable Optic System (IOS). This patented design allows end-users to swap sights from irons to electronic with ease and consistent repeatability. Thanks to Nighthawk’s innovative, longitudinal, and tapered dovetail, there was no shift in zero when changing sights! The seam between the slide and IOS plate is virtually invisible, too, impressive given the stippled slide. The cocking serrations on the slide were even cut with the IOS plate in place to ensure that everything lined up perfectly.
The IOS accepts a red-dot sight, and in our case we used a Trijicon RMR. It’s low on the slide. The dot in the RMR co- witnessed with the front sight, meaning that the dot sat directly on top of the sight blade like a lollipop when zeroed on the target. Because the IOS is milled so deeply into the slide, the co-witness does not require an extra-tall front sight. Stone told us that 60 percent of the guns that Nighthawk Custom builds now include the IOS. They even retrofit the system on handguns built by competitor brands!
The Bob Marvel disposes of the barrel and bushing arrangement. Instead, it employs a two-piece bull barrel assembly. In order for a bushing-equipped barrel to function, there has to be a very slight amount of play or clearance between the barrel and bushing. Not so with this hand-lapped bull barrel. The bull barrel allows for a 100 percent fit between the barrel and slide. One of Nighthawk Custom’s gunsmiths has a standing bet with visitors to the shop: If they can fit a .0005-inch feeler gauge between the slide and barrel, he’ll give them whatever is in his wallet. Despite that measurement being approximately 1/8th the thickness of a human hair, no one has collected on the bet.
The Bob Marvel is fit with a unique Everlast recoil system. A full-length guiderod and reverse plug are used along with a coil spring capable of handling a minimum of 5,000 rounds without need for replacement. This arrangement allows for one of the more interesting visual elements: the front of the slide is not only beveled, but scalloped at a downward slope. The front surface of the recoil spring guide is cut to match this contour seamlessly. Due to the bull barrel and recoil spring configuration, disassembling the Bob Marvel is a little different than a standard M1911. To take down the pistol, the slide is locked to the rear. A small tool is then placed into a hole on the upper left side of the guiderod. (If the tool was misplaced, I’m pretty confident that a paperclip would work in a pinch.) The slide is then removed in the traditional manner by aligning the half-moon take-down notch on the slide with the rounded top edge of the slide stop lever. With the slide removed, The entire recoil spring assembly can be removed in one piece. (The takedown tool holds the plug and spring captive.) There is no bushing to remove, so the barrel slides easily out of the front of the slide. To reassemble, reverse the process.
What always stands out to me about Nighthawk’s handguns is the fit and finish. I have a critical eye, and I’ve yet to encounter a visible flaw on their pistols or revolvers. Any sharp edges on the Bob Mar-vel have been dehorned by hand for carry. This is an important feature on a defensive handgun, but some makers take things too far and the results often resemble melted ice cream. To remove the edges while maintaining the lines is a special skill.
Shooting the Bob Marvel was a joy. The trigger was crisp and repeatable at 3 1/2 pounds in the way that only a finely tuned and hand-built M1911 can be. There was no creep. With its all-steel construction, recoil spring arrangement, bull barrel and 9mm chambering, recoil was incredibly mild. I had to resist the urge to blaze through most of my coveted supply of 9mm with this handgun. I could have shot it non-stop.
Accuracy was outstanding. I was the weak link in the chain but the combination of the gun’s mechanical accuracy potential, excellent trigger and use of the RMR made my job easy. The tight barrel fit on the Bob Marvel isn’t marketing hype; it produces tangible results. Out of three ammunition brands tested from the bench at 25 yards, only a single load’s five-shot groups measured larger than 1 inch. The best group of the day came from the Norma’s 108-grain MHP ammunition; it measured a scant .54 inch. Amazingly, reliability was 100 percent despite the close tolerances.
Bob Marvel is in his 70s, and, other than teaching classes, he’s retired from the gunmaking trade. You cannot call and order a new handgun but, thanks to his collaboration with Nighthawk Custom, you can buy one built to his style and specifications. Quality of these is on- par with anything out Nighthawk makes, and this creation is a special handgun that’s befitting of Bob Marvel’s name and reputation. For a lover of the M1911, this might be the perfect carry gun, or just another unique and well-executed pistol to add to the collection.
Nighthawk Custom Bob Marvel M1911 Specifications
- Type: Recoil operated, semiautomatic
- Cartridge: 9mm (tested) or .45 ACP
- Capacity: 10+1 rds.
- Overall Length: 7.9 in.
- Height: 5.6 in.
- Weight: 2 lbs., 7 oz.
- Material: Stainless steel
- Grip: Nighthawk Custom, textured G-10
- Trigger: 3 lbs., 8 oz. (tested)
- Safety: Manual thumb safety; grip safety
- Finish: Brushed stainless steel (tested)
- Sights: Steel, tritium post (front) and notch (rear); Integrated Optic System
- MSRP: $5,000 (tested)
- Manufacturer: Nighthawk Custom, 870-423-4867, nighthawkcustom.com
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