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2011, Florida Tactical Conference: A combination of live-fire reality-based shooting and classroom training, the conference includes a shooting match — the famously difficult Air Marshal Course. The winner is Jon Hodaway, shooting a Nighthawk Talon 1911 in 9mm.

2012, Florida: The ProArms Invitational tournament, a competition into which only accomplished competitive shooters are allowed entry. The high female shooter is the petite Terri Strayer, shooting a Night-hawk LadyHawk 9mm 1911. In the toughest part of the match — stand at 100 yards and, on signal, draw and nail a human torso-sized steel target—Terri gets her shot off faster than anyone else, including the men, several of whom are International Defensive Pistol Association (IDPA) Masters. In about four seconds, she drew her 9mm Nighthawk, came to an isosceles stance and fired — “BANG-ting.”

2012, Arkansas: One of the students in my MAG-40 class is Haneesh Bagga, an IDPA Master. On qualification day he proved to be the top shot in class, firing a perfect 300 and winning $5 from me because his group, the tie-breaker, is more than an inch tighter than the group I’d shot in demonstration. I wished him luck at the IDPA Nationals, for which he left the next day, and where he’ll shoot the same pistol he did during the course: a Nighthawk Talon 1911.

Clearly, I’m seeing a pattern developing with the 1911 Nighthawk pistol chambered for 9mm…

Background

The 1911 has survived for more than a century in large part because it is an incredibly ergonomic firearm, one that makes it easy for a handgunner to shoot at his or her best. For most of its history, having always been known as “the .45 automatic,” it was seen as a hard-kicking pistol.

Initially, the gun was chambered for .45 ACP only. In 1929, the .38 Super cartridge was added to its repertoire. The Super was lighter than the .45, but it shot at a higher velocity and was generally perceived as delivering less kick. The 9mm cartridge predates the 1911, but because it was shorter overall than either the .45 ACP or the .38 Super, no one seems to have seriously considered chambering a 1911 for it until after World War II. The U.S. government put out the word that it was considering going to a 9mm pistol to have ammunition compatibility with its European allies. In the portion of southern New England known to the firearms industry as “gun valley,” both Colt and Smith & Wesson built lightweight aluminum-framed 9mm pistols in the hopes of winning a lucrative government contract.

It was not to be. With the world having seemingly reverted for the most part to peace and prosperity, the U.S. military lost interest in employing a 9mm pistol. (That interest was revived in the 1980s, culminating in the adoption of the Beretta 92 as the “M9 service pistol,” but that’s another story.) Meanwhile, S&W slowed its 9mm research, eventually introducing in the mid-1950s its trend-setting double-action Model 39 9mm.

Colt wanted to recoup its engineering costs sooner. Around 1950, Colt intro-duced their lightweight Commander pistol, chambered for .45 ACP, .38 Super, and yes, 9mm. It was the first 9mm 1911.

The Commander .45 caught on very quickly, and has been in the Colt catalog ever since. The .38 Super version placed a very distant second place in sales, while the 9mm lagged so pathetically in the doldrums that it was rarely produced, becoming something of a collector’s item among today’s Colt aficionados. Eventually Colt said, “To heck with it,” and for a time listed the Commander as available in .45 ACP only.

Time went on. Demand for a 9mm 1911 began to emerge, and Colt did limited production runs of their 5-inch-barrel all-steel 9mm “Government Model” to satisfy the limited demand.

More time went on. A handful of savvy handgunners figured out that the 9mm 1911 kicked even less than the 9mm Browning Hi-Power, all the while giving them awesome rapid-fire delivery of 9mm ammunition, which thanks to advances in the ammunition industry, was becoming increasingly more effec-tive. In the Carolinas, lawyer and ace instructor Tim Noe started carrying a customized all-steel Colt Combat Com-mander 9mm as his personal sidearm, and female shooting champ Bonnie Young adopted a tuned Commander 9mm as her carry piece. In gunfight-heavy Venezuela, where .45 ammunition was like gold but government-produced CAVIM 9mm available dirt cheap, the 9mm 1911 became the “in gun,” eventually replacing the Browning Hi-Power as the preferred handgun among the country’s serious competitive shooters.

Still more time went on. In the 1990s, the International Defensive Pistol Asso-ciation was formed. Among its entry fields is the Enhanced Service Pistol (ESP) category, meant for single-action autos of less than .45 caliber. Originally conceived of as something of a proving ground for the Browning Hi-Power, the competition quickly came to be domi-nated by 1911s chambered for something lighter — such as a soft-loaded .38 Super or standard 9mm. In the late 1990s, when Ken Hackathorn got me into the race to see who would be the IDPA’a first Four-Gun Master, I made my bones in the ESP division with a Colt “Government Model” 9mm customized by Al Greco (alscustom.com). The re-sulting score was still my ESP score for record when I became the IDPA’s first Five-Gun Master in 2005.

Trouble With 9mm

With an overall length (OAL) distinctly shorter than that of the .45 ACP, the cartridge for which the 1911 was originally designed, the 9mm Luger cartridge
has a long jump from magazine to chamber, and that caused feeding problems in the 1911 platform. The soft recoil that made the 9mm so desirable from the shooter’s point of view was perilously light for the purposes of run-ning the 1911’s heavy slide, and that led to cycling problems. Not surprisingly, the 9mm 1911 pistol in general developed a reputation for being very finicky in terms of functionality.

I have lost count of the number of serious shooters who have tried to compete with 9mm 1911s and gave up because malfunctions again and again kept them from entering the winner’s circle. In frustration, they tended to switch to more modern pistols designed specifically around the 9mm cartridge — the Glock, the Springfield Armory XD series and the S&W Military & Police.

The industry worked desperately to find 9mm magazines that would fit the long front-to-back cartridge dimensions around which the standard-size 1911 was built. A filler in the back of the magazine here, a dimple running down the front of the magazine there… it worked long enough to allow some world class shooters to win some championships.

At Springfield Armory, Dave Williams, head of the company’s Custom Shop, designed a scaled-down 1911 called the EMP, expressly dimensioned for 9mm length cartridges. It works very well. It didn’t suit competitive shooters, however, because it was a short-barrel carry gun that held 10 rounds, and IDPA competitors needed something that holds at least 11 rounds and preferably has a longer sight radius.

Gun Details

Founded ten years ago by Craig Gholson, Nighthawk Custom has grown to earn a reputation as one of the world’s top 1911 manufacturers. A few years ago, I started noticing that, while a lot of other makers’ 9mm 1911s jammed occasionally, the Nighthawk versions seemed to run as smoothly and reliably as sewing machines.

I toured the Nighthawk factory in second quarter 2012 and was impressed with the efficient way in which they had laid out the production line. Everything at Nighthawk is about forging and machining. They insist on forgings. The company also makes a point of not using the MIM parts that have become common on other 1911s. Skilled craftsmen are everywhere, polishing parts. It’s clear that the production emphasis is on steak, not just on sizzle.

The following September I was again in the area, teaching a MAG-40 course at the Nighthawk Training Academy, run by the aforementioned Jon Hodaway. I took the opportunity to spend time not only with Jon, but also with one of his Nighthawks, the very same 9mm Talon he had used to win the Air Marshal match at the Florida Tactical Conference.

My first impression was that the gun sat well in the hand. Nighthawk’s optional “golf ball” configuration stocks give good traction without biting the skin, and the same is true of the well-executed 25-lines-per-inch machine checkering on the frontstrap of the grip and the mainspring housing portion of the one-piece beveled magazine well. Thumb safety adjustment was perfect, turning on and off crisply with just the right amount of effort.

The trigger pull had a barely percep-tible roll to it, just enough to let the shooter know it was about to fire, and it let off with the clean, crisp break serious shooters have always preferred. I pulled my Lyman digital gauge out of the suitcase and found that the very consistent trigger pull averaged 3.98 pounds. There was no perceptible backlash.

I noticed another shooter-savvy touch on the Talon: The usual protruding stud of the slide stop lever on the right side had been ground flush with the frame. This keeps the stud — which, if it moves enough, can lock up the gun — from being pressed inadvertently to the left by the tense index finger of a right-handed shooter in a “ready” position. It’s the sort of thing that shows that a lot of hands-on shooting experience, not just building experience, went into this particular 1911.

I wore the Talon for a day as a teaching gun on the range, carrying it in a synthetic holster from Jason Christiansen at Concealment Solutions with a matching double magazine pouch. There were no sharp edges and no discomfort, just the reassuring weight of a full-size “Government Model” all-steel 1911 pistol.

Shooting Impressions

Shooting this heavy 9mm, your first thought is, “Where’s the recoil?” I ran through a couple of different +P+ carry loads, and the “kick” was still mild, with the gun reverting instantly back on target. With 147-grain subsonic competition loads, recoil and muzzle lift were even less. You could pretty much watch the slide going straight back and forth between shots.

Those dynamics are at the core of the 9mm 1911’s desirability as a competition gun. To make Master in the IDPA’s ESP division, you’ll have to shoot about two seconds faster than you would in the Custom Defense Pistol (CPD) division, where your gun would be spitting harder-kicking .45 ACP rounds. Two seconds over the course of a 90-shot Classifier round doesn’t sound like a lot, but major matches are often decided by slimmer margins, with hundreds of shots fired. It’s true that in IDPA, you’re supposed to be shooting against only those in the same gun division… but if you’re going for a special title like High Junior or High Law Enforcement, it’s everybody against everybody, 9mm versus .45 versus revolver. In that situation, the easier shooting pistol — such as the 9mm 1911 — is the logical choice.

Let’s segue now to the purely self-defense side of things. Not every person who carries a gun is a physically strong athlete like Bob Vogel or Julie Golob. There are people out there who, through heredity, injury, illness or age, just don’t have a lot of physical strength. The particularly light recoil of a 9mm 1911 gives them better control, and they can practice building their skills without fatiguing themselves or causing themselves pain. The 9mm 1911’s exceedingly light recoil spring makes the slide much easier to manipulate. Yes, the strong mainspring in the back of the grip-frame will be holding the hammer down against the slide when the gun is “cold,” but the physically challenged shooter can simply ear the hammer back with the heel of the support hand, a slow version of the movement you see cowboy actors do when they “fan” a single action Peacemaker. That alleviates the mainspring pressure and allows the shooter to take advantage of the easier slide operation afforded by the 9mm 1911’s light recoil spring. From there, 10 or 11 rounds of hot 9mm await on tap, easy to serve with speed and accuracy in a self-defense situation.

Accuracy

The day after the class ended, we took Hodaway’s 9mm Talon to the range and set up sandbags on a sturdy table, with the target 25 yards away. Jon told me he’s gotten five-shot groups as tight as one inch at this distance with 147-grain target handloads traveling at 900 feet per second (fps). I believe him. Using some inexpensive 147-grain Remington-UMC full metal jacket that I had in the car, I was able to achieve a group under two inches — 1.9 inches for all five shots — with the best three spanning a half-inch exactly. The “best three” measurement allows for unnoticed human error, and in my experience it pretty much duplicates what the same gun will do from a machine rest with the same ammo, for all five shots.

In the 9mm I’m partial to faster bullets for self-defense. Back in the day, Federal’s 9BPLE developed a fabulous reputation for “stopping power,” earning the loyalty of such customers as the Illinois State Police, U.S. Border Patrol, and the DeKalb County, Georgia Sheriff’s Department. Its 115-grain jacketed hollow point bullets at a +P+ velocity of 1,300 fps gave from 25 yards a 2.60-inch five-shot group, with the best three ranging 1.25 inches. My favorite 9mm self-defense load is Winchester’s Ranger Talon 127-grain +P+, which travels at about 1,250 feet per second. The Talon put five of these into 3.3-inch group, with the best three falling within 1.95 inches. The fixed sights were set for Jon, whose eyes must be different from mine, because I found myself grouping slightly right of point of aim. I was not unhappy with the accuracy.

Final Notes

If soft recoil and great “shootability” are the reasons for buying a 9mm 1911, reliability is the reason for buying a 9mm 1911 specifically from Nighthawk. Hodaway tells me that over the course of some 10,000 rounds of 9mm, the Talon’s malfunctions numbered fewer than 20, with most of those traceable to the different magazines with which he was experimenting. The magazine is one of the curses of the full-size 9mm 1911: You’re trying to get off the follower and into the chamber cartridges shorter than what the 1911 mag was designed to contain. Various makers have tried everything, from creasing the front of the magazine to putting spacers in the back to putting little ramps on the front of the mags.

According to Hodaway, the best-working 9mm 1911 magazines are Metalform’s 10-rounders, designed with input from world champion Rob Leatham, and the latest Wilson EDM 10-round magazine. The latter is my choice for this type of pistol, too. Ten-round mags allow the shooter to load up to the 11 rounds allowed in IDPA competition, and for self-defense, 10 rounds in the same package as nine makes obvious sense, too. The one malfunction in the test occurred with a nine-round magazine, which tripped the slide stop prematurely and locked the Talon open before the end of a string of fire. A simple touch of the thumb to the slide release lever instantly cured the malfunction.

I spoke with Shawn Armstrong,Director of Operations at Nighthawk. Shawn and the great Bob Marvel worked out the design tweaks that makes the Nighthawk 9mm, in a world of finicky 9mm 1911s, stand out for reliability. Shawn told me, “We build it with a feed ramp angle that has become proprietary to Nighthawk. Instead of using a .45 ramp cut as most makers do with 1911s in 9mm, we use a ramp cut especially determined for the 9mm barrel. We order match-grade 9mm barrels from one
of the top makers, in a proprietary design that Bob Marvel and I came up with. I’d rather not let the competition know exactly how we do it, but the barrel’s interface with both the bushing and the slide stop axle are unique to Nighthawk.”

Shawn continued, “Ejector interference with the magazine is a major cause of malfunctions in 9mm 1911s. Bob Marvel and I redesigned the shape of the ejector for the 9mm Nighthawks to keep that problem from occurring.”

At $3,095 suggested retail, the two-tone Nighthawk Talon 9mm with night sights is worth every serious shooter’s money. You’re paying for reliability — something awfully hard to find in a 9mm 1911 — but you’re also getting an exquisitely honed shooting machine that delivers adequate power with astonishingly light recoil and superior controllability all the way around. Naturally, the pride of ownership and the gun’s magnificent build quality come into the value equation, too.

All I can say is, I’ve ordered one for myself. For more information, visit nighthawkcustom.com, or call 877-268-4867.

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2011, Florida Tactical Conference: A combination of live-fire reality-based shooting and classroom training, the conference…