Nowadays, ‘Marvel’ conjures up images of super heroes in skin-tight outfits.
To a Bullseye shooter, Marvel Precision invokes visions of a finely tuned .22 rimfire semi-auto, capable of super-human accuracy. There are a host of conversion kits out there, but Marvel has popularized the genre.
The conversion kits, which fit atop a 1911 frame like a conventional 1911 slide assembly, transform a .45, .38 Super or 9mm into a tack driving .22.
Founded in the 1990’s Marvel has been in business under three different owners. It was most recently acquired in February of 2018 by Frerking Custom Works. The company has continued to engineer improvements in the product.
Essentially Marvel sells two versions of its upper–a highly accurate model (Unit 1) which is suitable for competition and a less expensive item (Unit 2) for plinking. (Despite the lower pricing, the ‘Unit 2’ is quite accurate).
Will it be Unit 1 or Unit 2?
Unit 1 is the premium target model used by Bullseye and Steel Challenge competitors. It’s designed for standard velocity ammo (but can be tuned for high velocity ammo by adding a 10 lb spring). It offers shooters an interchangeable sight rib (in either steel or aluminum) that bolts into barrel. You can expect sub MOA accuracy at 50 yards and it comes with a 5-shot test target to prove it. Both Unit 1 and Unit models offer a threaded barrel option for a suppressor.
Unit 2 is the working man’s Marvel. It’s less expensive to purchase but you can still run it in IDPA and Stock pistol-limited class. These models are popular with hunters or plinkers. You can get it in two barrel lengths (4.8″ or 5.3″). It comes with a an adjustable rear sight and a standard front sight. The Unit 2 is no slouch at shredding the X-ring at 25 yards, and will outshoot the vast majority of weekend warriors.
So what are the differences between the two units mechanically?
The big distinction is that the Unit 1 sight system bolts directly onto the barrel whereas the Unit 2 has the sights cycling on the slide like a conventional 1911. The barrel still gets locked down on both models. (Unit 1 also has multiple sight systems to change between).
The Unit 2 slide is heavier and was designed to function with hi-velocity ammo but can be tuned for some standard velocity ammo.
Shooting at 50
Even if you’re not a competitive bullseye shooter, everyone needs to reach for the gold. If you’re going to stretch your capabilities you’ll need the gear that will enable you to hit the X-Ring at 50 yards.
With this in mind the Unit 1 is a perfect place to begin. This is especially the case if you’re already a 1911 fan.
Building (your own frame) vs. buying a complete 1911
Of course, you’re going to have to come up with a 1911 frame to mate with the Marvel. If you have a 1911 in the safe collecting dust, that’s a great place to begin. Assuming it has a decent trigger (and it’s a .45) it’s a prime candidate for the conversion kit. (You can also use a 9mm or a 1911 chambered in another caliber but you may have to remove the ejector to get the slide to fit).
You can also purchase frame assemblies in various stages of completion ranging from $500 to $1000 or more from Brownells, Caspian or other quality vendors. (Keep in mind that the frame is considered a firearm so you’ll have to go through an FFL to order it).
FCW, the company that owns Marvel, sells a dedicated lower for its conversion kit for about $1000. Acquiring a dedicated lower is a good idea. You could conceivably can ‘share’ a lower with a 45 if you don’t mind having the same trigger pull. However, for a serious shooter, that’s not an option.
Another alternative is to buy a used, inexpensive 1911 such as a Rock Island Arms or just about anything else of reasonable quality.
FCW fabricates their own dedicated lower in billet steel and very light 7075 billet aluminum that are solely for Marvel conversions which sell for around $1000. They will also build lowers from frames supplied by customers. (This includes a trigger job tuned specifically for the conversion). “Ultimately”, says company owner Travis Frerking, “most of the customers go to a dedicated lower because they don’t want to switch slides all the time especially if it’s a fitted frame/slide and they don’t/can’t shoot a 2lb trigger in centerfire/45 classification”.
One of the best features about the Marvel system is that you can endlessly customize it according to your own needs and budget. For example, if you wish to keep the weight and price down, you can acquire an aluminum slide/rail package. You can also get a rib that offers an adjustable rear sight or a flat top unit to place your optic. Or…there’s a third ‘combo’ option that has both the iron sights and a pic rail so that you can add an optic if you need it.
My friend Richard Arakaki, a competitive Bullseye Shooter here in Hawaii, uses the steel slide and the aluminum rib. (The unit I tested is this article is the aluminum slide with the steel rib). We shot each other’s version at the range one afternoon and both of us couldn’t really tell much of a difference between the two variants.
On the hand, Mike Mallon, another Hawaii competitive shooter (and former President’s Cup winner at Camp Perry) likens the “soft shooting” feel that the steel slide confers to a ‘push’ of a .45 as opposed to the snap that you’d get from 9 mm. (He also prefers the aluminum slide).
Frerking stated that competitors, who might put as many as 50,000 round a year through a gun, will opt for the steel slide whereas those who don’t have that kind of round count will be perfectly happy with the accuracy and durability of the aluminum version (such as the one displayed below).
The lighter weight aluminum slide has the advantage of being less expensive but still quite solid.
Frerking said that the new aluminum lock-back slide has been improved with a hardened steel locking mechanism (instead of the previous machined aluminum part) which makes it more robust. Another upgrade–the internal steel parts are now coated with black nitride a, hardened protective finish which should add to the longevity of the product.
The upshot is that one can customize the gun in a manner that will suit the owner. Says Travis Frerking, “We can make ours the same weight as a .45 or lighter or, heavier. ”
What about Nelson?
The elephant-in-the-room is a company called Nelson Custom Guns, which produces a conversion kit that, at first glance seems nearly identical to the Marvel product. They are similar looking because they are both based on the original Marvel upper developed by Bob Marvel, an innovative gunsmith who created the first version of the kit in his basement back in the 90s.
Both Nelson and Marvel Precision started with the same product but after 10 years (when Nelson first got into business) the companies took the kit in different directions. Despite the visual similarities none of the parts are interchangeable. There are subtle differences.
Nelson says his conversion kit is a “more refined” version of the original. He has worked closely with the inventor, Bob Marvel in the development of the product. “Think of it as Marvel 2.0”, he told me.
Marvel Precision hasn’t exactly stood still in the innovation department. Perhaps the most significant are improvements in the metallurgy. FCW hired Dennis Rosene, a metallurgy expert whose work has resulted in a longer lasting, more accurate product. Travel Ferking said that the company has a “full suite of CNC machines.” He says this allows him to “make prototypes and any necessary changes in production ‘quite easily”.
The bottom line: Marvel has a considerable following among competitive shooters. Former Camp Perry winner, Mike Mallon, mentioned above, owns both Marvel and Nelson kits. He prefers Marvel.
One of the key differences between Marvel and Nelson is that Marvel will sell upgraded barrels that can muster smaller groups on a ransom rest, whereas Nelson offers only one barrel. Nelson guarantees his barrels are ‘sub MOA’ but didn’t provide a specific number.
Marvel specified that their off-the-shelf Unit 1 in aluminum comes standard with a .7-.95″ @ 50 yard group target. Buying their (more expensive) steel slide option means a free upgrade to a barrel that will shoot .6″ @ 50 yards.
Unlike Marvel, Nelson does not produce a less expensive, Unit 2-type ‘plinking’ model. They only produce competition models, similar to Marvel’s Unit 1.
I think it’s safe to say there are many more similarities than differences between the two brands.
The few differences I discovered was that Nelson utilizes chrome silicon springs and buffers between barrel and slide. Nelson also stresses that their product has a “true 1911 profile”. In other words, it will fit in a holster for steel challenge competition purposes or simply for carry it in the field.
Freking said that the Marvel Unit 1 when configured with their interchangeable sight rib “is slightly taller than a 45acp slide”. He stated that this is an issue with the injection molded and kydex holsters but some of the leather holsters work fine. He told me he’s “working on a fitted holster as a future product”.
Nelson said that their upper approximates the weight of a Government slide within a few grams so that the .22 will provide similar ergonomics/feel to a standard 1911.
Marvel’s product can also be configured to match a Government model in terms of weight and ergonomics.
Dry firing is a big deal to Bullseye enthusiasts and the Nelson model is completely dry-fire ‘safe’.
Marvel’s newer models can be dry-fired as well but Frerking suggests that his customers who practice dry fire frequently purchase an $8 device he sells that snaps on the back end of the breech block to protect the firing pin and cushioning the hammer impact.
Freking said that he has an array of CNC machines which allows him to produce all his products in house and easily develop prototypes. Nelson does not have the same resources.
Product prices for both companies are similar.
To say the Marvel upper is easy to install is an understatement.
Open up the nifty box with the big Marvel Precision logo on the front and remove you existing slide assembly (as well as slide stop and magazine from the frame). Replace the stock slide with the Marvel slide assembly (along with the Marvel slide stop). In about 60 seconds, you’re done.
Note that after you’ve added the Marvel slide stop, you’ll want to move the slide out of battery just enough to expose the the recoil rod which has a hex-head tip. The next step is to tighten the recoil rod with the take-down tool that has a tiny hex-head driver. Don’t over tighten (you don’t want to strip the threads). A dab of blue loctite will ensure that the rod stays put. Without a bit of loctite the rod will loosen up and you’ll start to see your groups go south.
The kit comes with a polymer magazine that works quite well. At first I found it a bit difficult to load (compared to the earlier, metal mags that came with my older Unit 2) but after a while I got used to it and it wasn’t an issue. The kit does come with a neat little reloader that makes it easy and fast to use.
The Marvel Unit 1 was a pleasure to shoot. Right out of the box I was able to get excellent groups–even at 50 yards. Of course this is not surprise. A .22 is much easier to shoot accurately than a centerfire pistol.
As alluded to above for some the aluminum slide is slightly snappier than the steel model. With both slides, you’re not going to get the kind of muzzle flip than a larger caliber gun will have. Thus it will be easy for you to remain on target.
The slide cycled like clock work and (usually) locked back after the last round. With the .22 round it really can depend on the ammo you use.
There a number of reasons (aside from affordability) to like a Marvel Conversion Kit (be it Unit 1 or Unit 2).
First and foremost, given that they work with a 1911 frame, the ergonomics will be familiar to the vast majority of shooters. While I’m sure I could get used to an exotic Swiss or Italian thoroughbred, I like shooting a 1911. If you’re already used to the geometry, you’ll be hitting the X-Ring at 50 yards in no time.
One of the great advantages, is the ease of adding the conversion kit. The only caveat (as alluded to above) is that some 1911 variants might have an ejector that will get in the way.
These uppers have been around for a while they are dependable. Even if they break (which is rare) you can easily get parts and it’s not going to cost you a mortgage payment to get it fixed. (Try getting parts for that expensive European model and get ready for sticker shock).
Just about any GI style 1911 will accept a Marvel upper and you don’t need a gunsmith to fit the barrel or slide—it doesn’t have to fit tightly on to frame rails.
The modification possibilities are endless–you can build exactly what you want. Being able to use a adjustable Bo-mar type rear sight or add an optic at the drop of a hat comes in handy.
The Unit 1 is clearly a competiton model that is meant to be shot at 50 yards. If you’re not competing and are not going to shoot it past 25 yards, save your money and buy the lesser-priced Unit 2.
The Marvel Unit 1 is so accurate that you’ll never again blame a bad day at the range on the gun.
On the Range
I tried several brands of ammo including CCI, Federal, Winchester Wildcat, Winchester Super X, Lapua Pistol King and Lapua Pistol OSP. (Eley Ammo is also highly rated but I didn’t have the opportunity to test it).
Although the less expensive brands such as CCI, Federal and Wildcat were not as good at ‘match’ quality they still were quite accurate. (All test targets featured in this article were off the bench, a ransom rest was not employed).
Because the Unit 1 is designed for standard velocity ammo, you need to be careful what you feed it. Using high velocity ammo in the Unit 1 can damage the spring and possibly the slide. If you have high velocity ammo on hand be sure and order the 10 lbs spring from Marvel and all will be well. With the heavier spring, you’ll be able to shoot the high velocity stuff with equal accuracy, as illustrated by the Wildcat ammo target below.
Sometimes getting the Marvel to cycle correctly, that is locking up on the last round, may take some work.
According to Travis Ferking, different frame configurations require specific recoil spring weights. In addition, the size of the hammer and mainspring will also change how the conversion cycles.
Even the type of ammunition you’re using can be a factor.
If you’re trying to tune the Marvel observe how far out the brass is flung from the ejection port. This can be an indicator of how the recoil spring is working. The rule of thumb is that if it spits cases 4 feet from the gun then one should increase the recoil spring pressure. If it dribbles out of the ejection port, then decrease 1 pound on the recoil spring.
If one has the luxury, you can try swapping different 1911 frames and see what happens.
In my case the last round lock up didn’t always occur using the stock spring with standard velocity ammo. Then mysteriously, after several hundreds rounds, it started cycling consistently.
The lesson, as with any high end target gun (which is what the Marvel essentially is) may involve some tweaking. Be prepared to experiment.
What about the accuracy run of the mill ammo?
If you’re a halfway decent shot you’ll be able to shred the X-ring offhand at 25 yards even with cheap ammo.
However, at 50 yards, the Match ammo can shine. In particular both Winchester products (Super X ) I tested and Lapua Pistol King were really impressive in the accuracy department. (Unfortunately Winchester Super X had problems cycling in the Marvel).
That said, it would be a mistake to diss the inexpensive ammo. For example, Winchester Wildcat (see above target) was very impressive.
What about shooting offhand, at the range?
Here’s where shooting an accurate conversion kit like the Marvel Unit 1 can be good for your ego. The target below was offhand at 50 yards with Standard Velocity CCI. It was the only 50 yard target I shot on this particular day and it’s indicative of what you can expect. Of the 15 rounds, ten were within the 10 ring.
Pricing: Depending on the configuration, cost for the basic Unit 1 starts at $525 (for the aluminum slide) and can go as high as $720 (for the steel slide). For more accurate increments of the barrel you’ll pay $50 for each extra .100″. Price for the Unit 2 begins at $280 (for a non lock-back slide) and $400 for a lock back model. Visit Marvel Precision for more details.