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When Only The Best Will Do

When Only The Best Will Do
The Nighthawk Custom Falcon Commander .45 ACP.

Nighthawk Custom makes some of the finest 1911’s on the planet and there are models to suit most any needs. Nighthawk can modify packages to suit specific requirements; if you prefer, and don’t mind waiting, they can build a 1911 exactly to your order.

Since its introduction in 2011, the Falcon has been one of the most popular models. A few Commander-length models were made on special order. They proved so well liked they have been added to the regular lineup.

One of the more interesting handgun developments has been the seemingly insatiable demand for premium quality, hand-fitted 1911 pistols. Just as interesting is the fact that such high-end pistols are even available. It wasn’t always so.

When I began shooting practical pistol matches back in the late 1970’s, if you wanted features such as a beavertail grip safety, extended thumb safety, beveled mag well or better sights and trigger, custom work was the only option. It was both expensive and time-consuming. I remember the months it took to get even basic work done.

Pistolsmiths in those days didn’t start work until you shipped them a Colt, Springfield Armory or Caspian frame/slide and specified the work you wanted done.

The first US Nationals I ever competed in was in 1985. Among the guys in my squad were Richard Heinie and Les Baer. Also competing were Bill Wilson and Ed Brown and I enjoyed meeting them all. It was darn near 30 years ago.

Over the years, several 1-man shops evolved into the custom shops we know today. One objective was to increase production while maintaining quality standards. Bill Wilson was one of the first to train additional pistolsmiths and build guns on spec rather than to specific orders.

In 1986 I bought a Wilson .38 Super built on a Colt Series 70, at the time a state-of-the-art racegun. It cost $1,875, a lot of money now and a lot more then, but at least it meant no waiting!

A second goal was to have complete control. Being dependent on others for parts is a tricky business. To make up an example, if your supplier of grip safeties starts cutting corners on fit and finish, customers will blame you, not the supplier.

Even when quality stays high, parts can just disappear. No one made a better adjustable rear sight than the Bo-Mar BMCS. For decades it set the standard of excellence. Then Bob Korzeniewski died in 2006, his son Norbert was killed in an accident the following year and the supply of BMCS sights ended.

How a shop or company could make their own high-quality parts was the question, and modern CNC machine tools were the answer. The top custom shops might buy a few outside components such as grips and grip screws, but for the most part they make everything in-house, beginning with the slide and frame.

Nighthawk Custom was founded in 2003 and quickly established a reputation for high quality and superlative customer service. By 2003 supplies of quality parts were much better than it had been 20 years earlier. Still, Nighthawk wanted the certainty of supply and the quality that comes from making their own parts. Today, virtually all their components are made in-house, machined from steel billets.

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The Nighthawk Custom Falcon Commander has a long match trigger tuned to a crisp 3.25-pound pull, extended, checkered mag release button, extended manual safety; the frontstrap is checkered at 30 lpi. Grip panels are G10 with a golf-ball dimpled pattern and are available in several colors.

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The Falcon Commander uses a conventional barrel bushing and recoil
spring plug. Detailing and parts fit is exceptional—note the
smooth muzzle crown, parts fit and finish.

Machining

CNC machines are capable of incredible precision, but they aren’t magic. Actually, if you ever see these machines in action they kind of are magic. It is amazing to watch the machines turn a part just so, make a cut, put the cutting tool away and select another, turn the part and make another cut.

But just as with lathes and milling machines, they are no better than the people who operate them. When parts come from the machines they are made to very precise dimensions. But the custom work isn’t over; in fact, it hasn’t even really begun.

I sometimes hear people say a real custom 1911 must be built by one pistolsmith, not by a committee. With Nighthawk Custom that is what you get. In fact, strictly speaking, “Nighthawk” does not build each completed pistol at all. Each gun is hand built by an individual with the skill and patience of a trained pistolsmith, the esthetic taste of an artist and the uncompromising high standards of a master craftsman.

Although one person builds it, the whole crew at Nighthawk Custom stands behind it. Even if the craftsman who built your pistol retires or moves on, as long as the company exists you’ll be able to get service. It kind of reminds me of the great British gunmakers of the 19th century. James Purdey has been gone a long time, but the company still provides service for the guns he made.

The gunsmith fits the match barrel, fits slide to frame, adjusts and hones the trigger and fits sights, grip and thumb safety, mag release and the mag chute. He bevels sharp edges, tunes, fits, polishes, hones, checkers and serrates.

At the range, he tests for accuracy and function. When he is certain the pistol meets his high standards and those of Nighthawk Custom, he stamps his initials and the date in the frame, beneath the grip panels. The test target provided with each pistol shows the name of the one who built it.

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A close-up of the rear of the slide shows some of the detailing. The rear of the slide is serrated at 40 lpi to match the rear sight. Note how the serrations on the head of extractor match the slide serrations. Note also the superb slide-to-frame fit.

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The rear sight is the Heinie Ledge model with a single Trijicon tritium dot beneath the sight notch. The rear cocking serrations consist of eight ball-end cuts matching the three cuts on top of the slide. The shelf of the ambi safety is big enough for sure functioning, but not so oversized that it might be pushed off by the holster or clothes.

Distinctive

The Falcon is a strikingly handsome pistol. A distinctive feature is cuts at the front of the slide, similar to the Browning Hi-Power and the CZ-75. On top of the slide are three ball-radius cuts, making a nice match for the eight ball-radius cuts used for cocking serrations.

This Falcon earns its “Commander” designation by having a 4.25-inch barrel and corresponding slide (as with the original Colt Commander of the 1950’s) instead of the 4-inch barrel used on some other Nighthawk models. A side benefit is to make it legal for importation to Canada, which requires a minimum barrel length of 4.14 inches.

I noticed the Canadian distributor of Nighthawk (www.wanstallsonline.com) shows several Nighthawk Customs available. Just an observation, it seems in countries with restrictive laws (like much of Europe), high-end guns are in demand. Shooters seem to think if they can’t have a lot of guns, those they have may as well be good ones.

The mainspring housing and magazine chute are in one piece, beautifully machined from a single block of steel. The base of the housing is smoothly rounded so as not to irritate the hand or wear holes in your clothes if it’s carried concealed. Both handsome and practical, the magazine chute makes for fast and consistent reloads.

Trigger pull is excellent, with a short, smooth take-up followed by a crisp release and with just enough overtravel to assure functioning even when the gun gets dirty. There are absolutely no “steps” in the trigger break, while reset is short and fast. Twenty trials with the Lyman gauge averaged 3.25 pounds with about 2 ounces of total variation.

Sights on the Falcon are especially nice. The front sight is a post mounted in a dovetail cut, ramped just enough to prevent snagging. It is fitted with a large Trijicon tritium insert.

The rear sight is called the “ledge” because it was designed by a legend, Richard Heinie (or more likely, because its front surface is a vertical ledge). Should the need arise to retract the slide with one hand, the sight ledge can be hooked over whatever is available (e.g. desk, doorframe, boot heel). Beneath the notch is another Trijicon tritium insert.

I find most handgun sights have too tight a fit of the front sight in the rear sight notch. I like to see plenty of light on both sides of the front sight. When I first took a sight picture with the Falcon Commander I thought, “Mama, I’m home!” On the test pistol the front sight measures 0.120 inch, the rear sight notch 0.130 inch. Nighthawk Custom people are shooters as well as gunmakers—they understand what shooters need.

The test pistol has an ambidextrous thumb safety, though a left-side-only safety can also be specified. The safety shelf is smaller and more discreet than the large safeties often seen on match pistols. For an all-around pistol it is just right, big enough for sure manipulation and to provide a shelf for the shooting hand thumb, but unlikely to be pushed off unintentionally when the pistol is worn concealed. The slide stop pin is recessed on the right side to prevent it being pushed inadvertently and to avoid nasty grooves cut in leather holsters.

The frontstrap on Nighthawk pistols is cut high under the triggerguard to help get the hand high on the gun. Put it all together—checkered mainspring housing, frontstrap checkered at 30 lpi, beavertail grip safety and golf-ball dimple G10 grips—and the Falcon is just a joy to hold.

As I write this, suggested retail on the Falcon Commander is $3,295. Obviously no one “needs” such a pistol for personal-defense. A .38 Special police trade-in revolver and $3,000 worth of practice ammunition would likely better prepare you for self-defense. And with production divisions, an off-the-shelf semi-auto for $700 or so will get you in the game.

Why then are high-end 1911’s in such demand? It’s rewarding to own something made as well as it can be made. Throughout history, in both fiction and in reality, a finely made personal weapon has had a special appeal—from fictional swords like Excalibur and Sting to real-life handguns such as Patton’s revolvers or Frank Hamer’s “Old Lucky” Colt single action.

A comparison often used is with watches. A $30 watch, or your cell phone, can give you the time, yet people go on buying Breitlings and Omegas. There is a difference. If what you need is the time, a cheap GPS unit or cell phone gets it off very accurate atomic clocks. Your $10,000 chronometer movement is likely less accurate.

A top-grade handgun must perform as well as look good. It darn well better work, and in my world it better be accurate. Whether you need the accuracy is irrelevant; accuracy is an indicator of quality. If parts are good and workmanship is good, the pistol is accurate. Conversely, if it isn’t accurate, something wasn’t done right.

The Falcon Commander averaged 1.5-inch groups (five shots, 25 yards, handheld over a rest) with none over 2 inches. Ammunition included FMJ and JHP loads from Black Hills, Buffalo Bore, Federal and Winchester, about 225 to 250 rounds in all.

Poking around the ammunition shelves, I found a tub of reloads with my old favorite recipe, 200-grain SWC and 5.8 grains of WW231. Generally I don’t use reloads for handgun tests; if a problem occurs, is it the gun or a bad reload? But circumstances alter cases, and with ammo hard to come by I burned through more than 300 rounds of these old loads.

Accuracy was as good as with factory loads. The Falcon was 100 percent reliable with all loads. I sure make good reloads or, rather, my old Dillon 1050 does! I added a bit of oil at around the halfway mark, but didn’t fieldstrip and clean until shooting was completed.

The Falcon is one of the best-looking Nighthawks made, and that is saying something. Torn between the full-size Falcon and the Commander? It depends on your primary goal. For competition I prefer the full-size gun, for carry/personal-defense the Commander length. Aesthetically I like the look of Commander-length 1911’s. For all-around use it’s a matter of preference—or maybe just what your dealer has available!

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The top of the slide on the Nighthawk Custom Falcon has three ball-end cuts with the center cut aligned with the front sight. The front sight fits in a dovetail cut. It is a slightly ramped post, 0.120-inch wide with a Trijicon night sight insert.

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The Nighthawk Custom Falcon Commander delivered these five shots at 25 yards
handheld from a rest using Black Hills 200-grain lead SWC blue-box ammunition.

Falcon Commander
Maker: Nighthawk Custom
1306 W. Trimble Rd.
Berryville, AR 72616
(877) 268-4867
http://gunsmagazine.com/company/nighthawk-custom/

Action: Locked breech, semi-auto
Caliber: .45 ACP
Capacity: 8
Barrel Length: 4.25 inches
Height: 5.60 inches
Length Overall: 7.82 inches
Weight: 39 ounces
Safety: Ambidextrous (optional)
Sights: Heinie Ledge, Trijicon tritium rear, ramped post, Trijicon insert front
Material: Steel frame & slide
Finish: Black nitride, Grips: G10
Retail: $3,295

By Dave Anderson

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