The AMT Backup 380 Examined

If you were in the market for a .380 pocket pistol and wanted my recommendation, I wouldn't even let you finish the sente-

But if you wanted something more substantial, with some old school panache, that's an easy one too.

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Buuuuuut if you only had 200 bucks... and I couldn't talk you into a Taurus TCP…

Oh boy. I don't think this is such a good idea. The AMT Backup is tempting though; a pocket sized, Baby Browning style .380 in full stainless steel, widely available on the used market for around 200 to 250 dollars.

The sordid history of the AMT Backup begins with the OMC Backup .380 ACP produced in El Monte, California in small numbers. The molds were subsequently purchased by Arcadia Machine & Tool who produced the Backup in .22 LR and .380 ACP. AMT are better known for their "sequels" to AMC's original Auto-Mag, famously used by Clint Eastwood in Sudden Impact. AMT made the AutoMag in a range of calibers; .22 WMR, .30 Carbine, and even .50 Action Express.  Hitman series fans may know them for the Hardballer 1911 (Agent 47's "Silverballer"), but it was the cheap Backup that put them on the list of Ring of Fire companies (in)famous for making Saturday night specials. It's worth noting that even though AMT bought OMC and the Auto Mag Corporation, all three were started by the same guy: designer of the Auto-Mag and Backup, Harry Sanford. I gather that Harry Sanford's companies kept going out of business, so TDE bought AutoMag, OMC bought TDE, and AMT bought OMC. How bizarre (if you get this reference, post a comment so we can be friends).

Two other companies, IAI (Irwindale Arms Incorporated) and Galena Industries both tried their hand at making AMT pistol designs. Both companies bought AMT molds and tooling, and Galena even sold pistols under the AMT brand name for a few years in the late 1990s. With this much manufacturer incest and constant mergers and acquisitions, the AMT Backup must be cursed, or USELESS.

It's hard to believe a gun with such a nice stainless finish could be considered a Saturday night special, but that shiny finish hides a secret; the frame and slide are investment cast stainless steel. Now there's nothing intrinsically wrong with investment cast handgun frames. The Ruger P series was based on an investment cast alloy frame. That was Ruger, however, who make firearms even Bob Seger would approve of, and they were doing it in the late 1980s. As far as I can tell based on some old gun magazines, the OMC Backup was first introduced around 1976.

AMT was one of the first companies to make a stainless steel 1911 with the Hardballer, but along with their early AutoMag pistols it had problems with the metal galling (pitting caused by friction between two metal surfaces pulling bits of material from each other).

These materials issues were resolved by the time the AMT Backup was manufactured, but it's not the kind of thing that instills confidence in the brand. That reputation for poor quality and reliability is probably what led to AMT closing their doors in 2001. It didn't help that they were sued by Ruger for shamelessly ripping off the Mark II and 10/22 designs for the AMT Lightning series.

The original AMT/OMC Backup .380 is a single action only design with an internal hammer, but AMT designed a double action successor in .380 ACP, 9mm, .38 Super, .40 S&W, .45 ACP, and even .400 Corbon. For some ineffable reason, the original SAO model is called the Backup II, whereas the newer DAO model is just the plain ol' Backup. I was dead sure this was wrong; I thought the DAO model was informally called the Backup II to match the designations of the Auto-Mag series. I dug up an old AMT brochure from right before they kicked it that does in fact show the DAO Backup, and the paradoxically named SAO Backup II. Weird.

If this sounds incredibly complicated, it is. This is what happens to a company undergoing a decade long implosion.

Aside from the trigger and redesigned frame, the DAO model is mechanically very similar to the SA version, and a lot of the parts are interchangeable. The. 380 ACP pistols are built on a smaller frame than the larger calibers. High Standard purchased the AMT brand and is now making the large frame double action Backup in 9mm, .40 S&W, .45 ACP and .38 Super. Judging from the pictures, the new High Standard Backups look alright. I'd like to get my hands on the .45 ACP version to try.

I have a middle aged SA Backup .380, made by AMT in Covina, CA. I don't know if there are differences between the multiple places of manufacture. Since most of AMT’s history was before the internet boom there's not a lot of information available. I poured over decade-old forum posts before writing this, and cobbled together a history of the Backup based on anecdotes from the old timers.

The original OMC Backup had smooth wood grip panels, but the AMT version switched to textured black plastic. AMT's brochure lists them as carbon fiber. I swear by John Moses Browning that can not possibly be true. AMT also offered clear Lexan grip panels at some point, which would turn the BackUp into the best/worst ASP 9 clone of all time. All versions of the Backup are stainless steel slides on stainless steel frames, which is a unique selling point. Ironically, almost all Backups I've seen for sale online had light to medium rust and pitting; stainless steel is actually stain-able, it just stains less.

One thing you have to look out for if buying a used AMT Backup is the feed ramp. It seems a lot of Backup owners couldn't reconcile the fact that their handsome micro-pistol was a hideous mongrel once you pull the trigger. As a result you have to watch out for amateur throat polish jobs (like I gave your mom last night... too much?).

This model of Backup has a Colt 1908 Vest Pocket style grip safety, and a Baby Browning style thumb safety where the magazine release would be on a 1911. The Backup has a heel magazine release, and no slide lock or release lever, which means no last shot hold open. Instead of protruding sights, the Backup has a guttersnipe sight like a snub nose revolver (or an ASP 9). The controls all contribute to making the SA Backup a slim, snag free design, perfectly shaped for pocket carry.

The SA backups feed 9mm Kurz (a fancy European way of saying 9x17mm or .380 ACP) from five round magazines. The magazines are one source of complaints about the Backup; I've read about feed lips needing to be routinely bent back into place, and about the follower and baseplate breaking easily.

Some magazines have a cast aluminum finger extension, some plastic, some have a plastic follower, and some have a metal follower. As far as I can tell, the magazines with a metal follower and cast finger extension were the original magazines shipped with the guns. They’re rumored to work, and are therefore somewhat rare.

Mine came with a plastic extension and black plastic follower, and some very crummy looking weld marks on the back. In a mad quest to get this goblin to just fucking feed, I purchased a few spare magazines.

The first is by Triple K, and has a black plastic finger extension baseplate, orange follower, and several witness holes. This one has a very weak spring that decompresses to almost double the length of the others. The baseplate on this magazine is a thicker plastic than the original one, with a cutout to accommodate the heel magazine catch. The notch doesn't seem to work, which leaves a small gap between the bottom of the frame and the baseplate. It sets off my OCD, and makes it easy to knock the magazine out of line when racking the slide. The issue here is that the cutout goes too far down, so the magazine catch doesn't latch onto anything when the magazine is fully inserted. This lets it drop down a millimeter or two, which hinders feeding. If I'm honest, it prevents feeding entirely. It seems strange that Triple K still sells this magazine, seeing as it is of such a poor design.

I also bought a two pack of mystery magazines on eBay with a folded metal finger extension baseplate, black follower, and just one witness hole. Aside from the base plate, these appear identical to the one that came with the gun, and have a very stiff spring. These might be new production magazines from High Standard. One of these magazines is a perfect fit, the other didn’t allow the magazine catch to close fully, so it can be wiggled right on out of the magwell. A bit of work with a file and it locks positively enough.

Lastly, I bought one magazine with no finger extension, to evaluate the Backup as a carry option. This is another of the (presumably) High Standard manufactured magazines.

The finger extensions on all the magazines allow a comfortable 2 finger grip, but forces that third finger to stick out or sit unnaturally low. Magazines without the extension are hard to find, but definitely worth it if you intend to shoot or carry the backup. The finger extensions are a liability if trying to draw the damn thing smoothly, and they print like a Hawaiian shirt.

AMT cautioned against using hollow point ammo in their firearms because of feeding issues. This is, allegedly, the same reason they named their 1911 clone the Hardballer. The manual suggests you can widen the feed lips of the magazine with a pair of pliers to allow hollow points to feed better. I'm not sure I have to say anything about that, but... come on. Taking pliers to your brand new gun just so it'll work?! Nobody should be surprised AMT went out of business.

I've read that certain Backups will nonetheless like some random brands of JHP ammo. You have an expensive range project ahead of you to find which will work. You might also get lucky with a feed ramp and throat polish, or you could use FMJ ammo as recommended by AMT. If you're not a hardballa’ a compromise like Lehigh Defense Xtreme Penetrator might feed better than hollow point and perform better than ball. I haven't seen much of this for sale, but I have a few alternate flavors of gun food that aren't as in vogue right now.

Being restricted to hardball is a problem in a .380; it's heavy and fast enough that FMJ rounds seriously overpenetrate like they would in a larger caliber, but small and light enough that hollow points expand too fast and penetrate too shallow like in a smaller caliber. But don’t take my word for it, check out ShootingTheBull410 on YouTube.

The AMT Backup is, as the name implies, a backup gun. It's small enough to be ankle or pocket carried as a backup to a duty pistol (like perhaps the AMT On Duty, of which only about a thousand were produced). The Backup is best employed as a belly gun; it only carries 5 rounds in the magazine, and you would be hard pressed to make 'em count with the lack of sites. Lining up the gutter site is doable, but unnecessary; close range reflex shooting is what the Backup is for. Besides, if it's good enough for the Colt New Agent XSE, it's good enough for the Backup.

When I got my Backup it was, in a word, broken. Luckily it was an easy fix. The grip panels on the Backup have to be put on in a certain way; notched into a groove on the front of the frame, and then cantilevered into place. It's a tight fit, and if you don't put them on right, one side bulges up. Usually this just leaves the safety lever VERY loose. In this case, it left the safety lever completely jammed. Eight seconds with a hex driver and it was working again.

After I fixed the safety, I set about cleaning it thoroughly. It was already fairly clean on the inside, but had some grime and a tiny bit of rust and pitting here and there. Here I should mention that the take down process for the Backup is very frustrating and involves a paperclip, a punch, a ball point pen, four hands, and a truckload of saintly patience.

Once I had it sparkling, oiled up, and with grease on every last square micron of the rails, I took it to the range with a 50 round box of Fiocchi 90gr FMJ for a function test. After fifty rounds the Backup was filthy. There was a crust of grime under the extractor and all over the bolt face, and the feed ramp looked like it had been lit up by a cadre of Stormtroopers based on the heavy carbon scoring.

And it jammed constantly. The aftermarket Triple K magazine with the noticeably weaker spring would jam 2 or 3 times in a 5 round magazine. I had rounds bind up in the chamber, and fail to seat fully. I also had rounds sticking on the feed ramp. This is while the gun was spanking clean. I suspect part of the issue was the weaker spring, and part was the poor fit with the magazine catch.

The factory magazine seemed reliable in mag dumps, but would start throwing jams when I took slower aimed shots. You GLOCK owners out there know where this is going. It turns out the AMT Backup is prone to limp wristing. When I was totally locked in for a (pathetically brief) five round mag dump, it ran like a Deere. When I softened up to try to get that gutter sight on target, it ran like a three legged Dachshund. I'd guess that I probably induced most of the jams with the factory mag on my own. The Triple K mag was still totally useless though.

I have yet to experience or induce a jam with the High Standard magazines, though the shooting I’ve done with them is far from exhaustive. The robust spring seems to do the trick, and I’d wager the old magazines could be revived with new Wolff springs.

When it comes to shooting ergonomics, the name of the game is "contrast." The Backup's smallness is nicely counterbalanced by its heaviness; despite being the same size as a Ruger LCP, it's twice as heavy and anything but snappy. The sharp edges on the grip safety will bite into a bare palm, but for a concealed carry or holdout gun I don't hold that against it. The same is true for the nub of a sight and the heavy trigger. It's not fun, but you could still conceivably shoot a guy with it.

Once I had reliability worked out with hardball, I tried to find a reliable hollow point load. I selected Corbon/Glaser Pow'R'Ball and Polycase Inceptor ARX (now Ruger ARX), based on the similarity of the ogive to ball ammo. Just for the sake of comparison I also got some Hornady American Gunner XTP. These are identical to the Hornady Custom XTP, a round which tested well in STB410's excellent Ammo Quest series, but a lot cheaper.

The Pow'R'Ball round is outwardly identical to the Glaser Safety Slug, with a hollow point cavity filled by a polymer ball. Instead of being comprised of lead shot clad in a copper jacket, the Pow'R'Ball is a standard jacketed hollow point. The polymer ball at the tip is to enhance feeding in finicky pistols, and theoretically to make the round barrier blind. In .380 ACP, the Pow'R'Ball is a light for caliber 70gr projectile, versus 90 for the XTP, and 95gr for most ball ammo.

When using the very reliable High Standard magazines, I had no jams with any of the loads I tested. I only shot 2-3 magazines worth of each, so it’s not a conclusive test. It does indicate that the Backup doesn’t necessarily have trouble with hollow point ammunition as even the traditional hollow point cavity of the Hornady XTP didn’t cause any hang ups.

Of course, feeding properly is only half the battle; the other is knowing if the stubby barrel could drive these rounds to expand. When shot into water at close range, the AMT Backup was able to push the Pow’R’Ball and Hornady XTP fast enough to expand. On all other metrics of effectiveness, I defer to ShootingTheBull410.

The Polycase Inceptor ARX (now branded by Ruger) is a solid bullet made of a copper/polymer alloy with flutes cut into the nose that are supposed to enlarge the wound cavity and keep the bullet from over penetrating. The alloy bullet is extremely light for caliber at 56gr, and according to STB410 it tumbles like James Bond's bartender making a martini.

When I’ve carried the AMT Backup (which I have), it has been with two magazines of Inceptor ARX, and I felt pretty good about it.

In 2016 there aren't a lot of aftermarket options for the Backup. You can find some cheapo holsters, but my searching mostly turned up holsters for the .45 ACP DAO Backup, which is quite Hefty Hefty Hefty to the .380's wimpy wimpy wimpy. You can buy some homemade aftermarket grips in different colors, and there's even a seller on eBay who makes a replica of the clear plastic grips. I bought a set (surprise), and they make me feel tingly inside even though they're not clear enough to let you see your cartridges.

So can you carry it? Sure, if you've got a major, full-on Bronson.

First problem, reliability with hollow point ammo is questionable. Assuming you can find a load that works with your gun you can probably get it running for a solid 50 rounds before the jamming happens. To hear The Forums tell it, the Backup gets dirty quick, and stops working quickly after that. I know mine always looks like a black powder revolver after a day at the range.

The second problem is the safety. I’ve read complaints that the safety is disengaged as soon as the lever leaves its detent. I don't think it's likely to be an issue either way. Even if the safety does come off, you still have to depress the grip safety in order to fire. Not to mention your finger has to be on the trigger, and pulling rearwards, which it shouldn't be until you're ready to give a violent bad guy a lead transfusion. The safety clicks between safe and fire very positively, and at least on my pistol the safety is not disengaged until it is firmly in the "fire" position. I'm not calling any of the forumites liars though; this is just the sad reality of a company that can't get its quality control act together.

Yes this could be a problem if you carried the Backup loose in a pocket, but you know better. You can get wallet holsters for the Backup with a hole cut out for the trigger guard allowing it to be fired while holstered, but you know better than that, too.

I've read that the Backup isn't drop safe, but I can't wrap my head around why. I've also heard that the Colt Series 70 1911s are not drop safe, but most level headed gun guys seem to think that's bunk. Even without a drop safety the sear would have to straight up disintegrate to allow the hammer to fall.

The OMC/AMT/TDE/IAI/Galena Backup is a cool gun to look at, play with, and read about. In some ways it was ahead of its time; pocket sized .380 carry guns are massively popular right now, but in the Backup’s heyday the .380 ACP pocket pistol was just cute. The Backup could have made serious rotation as, what else: a backup gun (and I'm sure it did, for some) if it weren't for AMT's eternal losing battle with quality control.

If you need an AMT backup for fondling or deep carry purposes, which one should you get? All reports indicate the DAO version is a gremlin, so try for the original model. For maximum reliability and workmanship, you should try to get an earlier production. The original OMC Backup comes with some sick wood grips, and should be about as good as the AMT versions, for whatever that’s worth. The 80s and early 90s Backups produced by AMT are your least worst option. The IAI and Galena produced pistols look to be of overall lower quality, so I wouldn't recommend them. The late 90s produced Backups are identified by the Irwindale, CA stamp and the awful RTFM warning stamped on the slide. Such is the price of doing business in the New California Republic.

In 2016, there are way too many good .380 ACP pocket pistols at the Backup's approximate price point to make it a viable option. For me, my one concession to modernity and practicality is the GLOCK 19, and none of my other guns have to make sense.