Nighthawk Custom "Thunder Ranch Combat Special" 45 ACP 1911 Pistol

by Boge Quinn

photography by Boge Quinn

January 18th, 2021

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Slide features custom front & rear cocking serrations, specially designed for the Thunder Ranch Combat Special.





Trigger pull averaged a clean and crisp 2 pounds, 12.8 ounces...PERFECT.



Sights consist of a Heinie "Black Ledge" rear (top & center) and 18K gold-bead front (bottom).





Textured Linen/Micarta grip panels with laser-engraved Nighthawk Custom logo.



Front of grip (top) and flat mainspring housing (bottom) are checkered at 25 LPI.






I was first introduced to the folks at Nighthawk Custom and their premium-grade 1911 pistols some years ago by my good friend and Brother Shootist, Sheriff Jim Wilson. The Sheriff has been a legendary Border Patrol officer, Sheriff of Crockett County, Texas, a real-life Cowboy, and is a wonderful musician and singer of Western music, as well as one of today's most celebrated gun writers. Jim has been singing the praises of Nighthawk Custom for many years, and is often present in the Nighthawk Custom booth at the various Trade Shows, signing autographs, selling CDs and DVDs of his great Cowboy music, visiting old friends, and making new ones. Nighthawk even has a beautiful 1911 pistol made to Jim's specs, their Border Special. I always look forward to dropping by the Nighthawk Custom booth, lusting over their beautifully-crafted 1911 pistols, and ruminating upon guns, guitars, and life with my friend Sheriff Jim. Over the past few years at the Trade Shows, I have thus become acquainted with some of the fine folks who run Nighthawk Custom, and we reviewed their Falcon pistol back in 2017.

The subject of this article is another of Nighthawk Custom's 1911 pistols: the Thunder Ranch Combat Special. Designed in collaboration with Clint Smith of Thunder Ranch - a man who knows his 1911s - the Thunder Ranch Combat Special is an all-business custom-made best-quality pistol with no compromises. Built in keeping with Nighthawk Custom's "One Gun, One Gunsmith" philosophy, each Nighthawk Custom pistol is built in Berryville, Arkansas, USA, by a singular Master gunsmith from the highest-quality parts available. Nighthawk Custom takes great pride in their craftsmanship, and it shows in the quality of each pistol produced; this particular pistol was built by one Brennon High, as indicated by the included test target / build sheet, and the test target showed a one-ragged-hole group measuring just 3/8" at 12 yards.

The Thunder Ranch Combat Special is available in either 9mm or 45 ACP chambering; there is nothing wrong with the 9mm, but this example is the 45 version, as God and John Browning intended. The pistol has a very businesslike appearance, and is quite beautiful. The finish is a Smoked Nitride, which imparts a very handsome gray/black hue, and the overall appearance is very appealing, somewhat "battle-worn" in nature, with a discreet amount of distressing. 

The 5" National Match barrel is finished in blue, and is perfectly fitted to the slide, frame, and bushing; the match bushing is also perfectly fitted, and the GI / Browning-type recoil spring plug contributed to the pistol's effortless operation. There is no discernible movement between any of the major components, which is a major contributing factor to the outstanding accuracy of this pistol, as previously mentioned. 

The slide features custom front & rear cocking serrations, widely spaced and angled for easy grip and pleasing appearance. Clint Smith's Thunder Ranch logo is engraved into each side of the slide, behind the rear cocking serrations. The hammer is a skeletonized rowel-type design, grooved on top for easy cocking, and nestles perfectly into the upswept beavertail grip safety. The grip safety features a pronounced "memory bump", which allows the shooter's thumb to "ride" the thumb safety for control while the palm positively engages the grip safety. The trigger is a medium-length solid-aluminum unit, adjustable for overtravel, and is vertically grooved on its face. The action of the trigger is, in my opinion, absolutely perfect for a combat-type pistol: crisp and clean-breaking, offering an average of 2 pounds, 12.8 ounce of resistance, as measured on my Lyman Electronic Digital Trigger Pull Gauge.

The steel frame is finished in the same Smoked Nitride as the slide, and is checkered at 25 lines per inch (LPI) on the front of the grip, while the flat mainspring housing is similarly checkered at 25 LPI. This checkering, along with the textured Linen/Micarta standard-thickness grip panels, gives a very firm grip on the pistol, and the pistol remains positively positioned in the hand under recoil. Each grip panel also sports a Nighthawk Custom logo, and the left grip panel is dished-out for easier access to the extended and checkered magazine release button. The thumb safety is right-hand only, of the GI-style "Nub" (non-extended) design, and is grooved on top for positive operation; as with many design details on a custom-made pistol such as this, an ambidextrous safety is available as an option. The slide release lever is contoured for easy operation, with the right side counter-sunk into the frame: a detail that is quite pleasing to the eye. Attention to such minute details make the pistol more ergonomic and functional in operation, as well as more aesthetically pleasing, and is indicative of the custom-made nature of the pistol.

The sights are very precise, quick and easy to pick-up in various lighting conditions. The rear sight is a Heinie "Black Ledge" unit, dovetail-adjustable for windage correction, and is designed so that the slide can be racked against a wall or table with one hand, should one arm become disabled in a gunfight; the rear face of the rear sight is finely-grooved to very effectively reduce glare. The front sight is a precisely-machined square blade, with an almost-vertical rear face bearing a round bead of 18-carat gold, which is far superior to brass for its tarnish-resistant qualities. Like the rear sight, the front sight is drift-adjustable for windage correction. The sight picture offered by this combination is nothing short of marvelous, with the front sight fairly leaping into the rear sight notch; my nearly-60-year-old eyes found the sight picture quick and easy to acquire. Both initial and follow-up shots were almost effortless.

Two high-quality eight-round Nighthawk-branded bumper-equipped magazines are included with each pistol, along with a zippered Nighthawk-branded case, manual, and assorted paperwork, including the aforementioned test target / build sheet.

Shooting the Nighthawk Custom Thunder Ranch Combat Special was easy, smooth, and just plain FUN. Every aspect of the pistol exudes quality, and I was almost giggling as I ran the pistol through its paces. Although the pistol is extremely tight in its tolerances, with no discernible play between any of its components, reliability was absolutely 100 percent; there were zero malfunctions of any kind, using a variety of ammunition styles and power levels. The inherent accuracy of the pistol, along with its solid weight, perfect balance, and ergonomics, made this one of the easiest pistols to shoot accurately that I have ever encountered. This pistol is a joy to shoot, and easy to shoot well.

Specifications - Nighthawk Custom "Thunder Ranch Combat Special"

Caliber 9mm / 45 ACP (45 ACP tested)
Slide Treatment Custom Front and Rear Cocking Serrations, Thunder Ranch Logo Behind Rear Cocking Serrations
Frame Treatment 25 LPI Checkering on Front Strap of Frame, 25 LPI Checkered Mainspring Housing
Finish Smoked Nitride
Overall Height 5.80 Inches
Overall Length 8.60 Inches
Overall Width 1.30 Inches
Slide Width 0.92 Inch
Weight, Empty 41.3 Ounces
Sight Radius 6.49 Inches
Barrel National Match, 5 inches, Blued
Thumb Safety Right-Hand Only, GI “Nub-Style”
Grips Textured Linen/Micarta with Laser-Engraved Nighthawk Custom logo
Grip Thickness Regular
Trigger Medium Solid, Overtravel Adjustable
Trigger Pull 2 pounds, 12.8 ounces Average
Rear Sight Heinie Black Ledge, Drift-adjustable
Front Sight 18k Gold Bead, Drift-adjustable
Firing Pin Size 38 Super
Firing Pin Material Stainless Steel
Light Rail No
Magazine Capacity 8
Magazines Supplied 2
Price as of January 2021 $3,499.00 US

As many long-time Gunblast readers are already aware, I wear bib overalls most of the time for their comfort and their utility; as I often say, "Nothing fits a fat guy better than overalls". Because of this, I pocket-carry every day, and on those occasions where I am wearing a vest or a jacket with overalls (for example, when I go into town), I also carry a 1911 pistol in a shoulder holster. When I am wearing regular pants (or "Half-Pants", as my Bride calls them), I usually carry a 1911 in a belt holster, along with my ever-present pocket pistol. My preferred shoulder rig for concealed carry has for many years been Galco's "Miami Classic", which was designed after Galco's original "Jackass" rig and made famous by some Miami TV Cops back in the 1980s; the Miami Classic carries the pistol horizontally under one's armpit, is easy to access, easy to hide, and very comfortable. Lately I have been trying out an entirely different design from Galco: the Vertical Holster System (VHS) 4.0. The VHS utilizes one's belt to anchor the system, so it doesn't play well with my Bibs like the Miami Classic, but for shooters who wear a belt and prefer shoulder carry, the VHS is hard to beat. Both sides of the rig (pistol side and extra-magazine side) anchor to the belt, which makes for a very stable system; the weight is evenly distributed, the balance is great, and the pistol is quick and easy to access once one gets accustomed to it. I found the system even more comfortable and solid-feeling than my beloved Miami Classic, and was able to wear the rig all day with zero carry fatigue. The VHS is also completely ambidextrous; all one has to do in order to configure the rig for left-hand use is switch sides between the components. The VHS is a quality-made, well-designed, solid, comfortable, versatile shoulder carry system that I would highly recommend for those looking for a vertical shoulder rig. It is available in black or tan color, for a wide variety of handguns, and retails for $264.00 US as of this writing.

During the years of the Second World War, the Gibson Guitar Company adopted the slogan (emblazoned on the headstock of many of their legendary guitars), "Only a Gibson is Good Enough", only to drop the slogan after the War, when an ad campaign by rival Epiphone Guitar Company stated "When 'Good Enough' Isn't Good Enough". For the vast majority of shooters, the various 1911 factory offerings are indeed "Good Enough", representing good reliability and good quality at a reasonable price. The many options on today's market will indeed get the job done, just as a budget-priced Kia automobile will get one from Point A to Point B; but, as in all walks of life, there will always be those who appreciate the journey as much as the destination. There are a very few companies who make 1911 pistols for just this market niche: the man (or woman) who appreciates the very best, and has the wherewithal, foresight, and good taste to recognize that the very best possesses its own value. For these individuals, Nighthawk Custom offers that value in the very best 1911 pistols, custom-crafted from the finest materials by individual Master gun makers.

To put it another way, as my good friend and brother Shootist John Taffin, Dean of current gun writers and heir to the mantle of such greats as Elmer Keith and Skeeter Skelton, often says, "For those who understand, no explanation is necessary; for those who do not understand, no explanation is possible."

Check out the full Nighthawk Custom line of custom-built 1911 pistols at:

Clint Smith's Thunder Ranch:

Buy Ammo Online at Lucky Gunner:

Federal Premium Ammo:

Double Tap Ammo:

Galco Holsters:

Lyman Products:

Sheriff Jim Wilson:

Boge Quinn

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Click pictures for a larger version.


Old Friends (L-R): Jeff Quinn, Sheriff Jim Wilson, Boge Quinn (photo by Mike Detty).



Nighthawk Custom Thunder Ranch Combat Special comes with  a custom-embroidered soft zippered case, manual, build sheet, test target, and two eight-round magazines.





Build sheet indicates which of Nighthawk Custom's gunsmiths assembled this particular pistol.



factory test target is indicative of the pistol's outstanding accuracy.





Galco's Vertical Holster System (VHS) 4.0.