Back in the late 1970’s I bought a really nice little Belgian Browning semi-auto pistol chambered for .380 ACP from a retired police officer who didn’t think he’d need a “back-up” gun as much in his new life as an insurance salesman. Having said that, one of the few times in my life I really thought I might have to use a firearm to defend my life was when I was (briefly) selling insurance! The Browning was a very good pistol, and made me feel a lot more comfortable a couple of times, at least, by having it with me. As far as actually shooting it, I used it to “finish off” quite a few small to medium sharks caught in the surf or out of my boats – along with one 120# alligator gar. About this time of my life I spent all hours not at work fishing, and a lot of it on various beaches at night. A few times I had reason to feel threatened by “suspicious” people, and a couple of times without a gun handy. It felt a lot safer to have that Browning with me.
Of course, the .380 was not considered a “proper” self defense caliber back then, but it did punch a .38 caliber hole, and was certainly “better than no gun at all”. In modern configuration, the .380 is taking on a new role in self defense, with better pistols chambered for it (not that there was anything wrong with my Browning!) and more powerful ammo available. Taurus even just announced a .380 revolver, which I assume uses moon clips to aid loading speed, and Hornady has a defense load for the .38 Special that approximates .380 power levels, because the little John Browning creation is seen now as a good choice for those who might not handle a larger caliber as well. Looking at .380 factory loads available in the Natchez Shooters Supplies catalog showed some interesting ammo – hollow points designed to create maximum tissue damage, and a .380 load that is supposed to have a muzzle velocity of over 1200 fps among them!
I should have kept that little Browning. It was my first center fire semi auto pistol, and would have certainly increased in value. Instead, I traded it in on the first .44 magnum Thompson Contender I ever saw!
Lately I have been giving some thought to maybe getting another .380, as a “backup” or “pocket” gun, but which one? Glock seems to be selling a lot of their new .380, but I don’t want a plastic, striker fired pistol with an imaginary safety. That lets out some other manufacturer’s models, also. The Colt and Kimber .380’s which are basically small 1911’s are what I really prefer, but they are a bit pricey for what I want – or need. While I was trying to make up my mind, a decision seems to have been made for me!
Several years back, my wife and I bought a big cab over type pickup camper, with thoughts of using it to do some traveling. What actually happened was a tropical storm blew it on its side, and then Hurricane Ike put it down again when it seemed I had just gotten it upright. It has sat in our driveway ever since while I tried to decide what to do with it, as it was damaged too badly to ever hit the road again. I should mention, though, that I still have fond memories of the old camper, as we basically “lived” in it for several months after a small, personal sized tornado wrecked our home. Recently I decided to start scrapping it out, removing anything of possible value that added weight, then trying to turn the shell that was left into a decent deer stand. While cutting the kitchen counter apart to remove the 4 burner propane range and oven unit, I noticed something strange barely showing on the edge of the underside of the oven. When I got the object out, it proved to be a small .380 pistol in a holster, with a full magazine of ammo!
My find was an AMT Backup in .380! It is a completely stainless pistol that is fired by an internal hammer and has both a manual thumb safety and a grip safety! There are six cocking serrations on the rear of the slide. It has a magazine disconnector, which will not allow the pistol to fire if a magazine is not in place. This is a good safety feature for any semi-auto pistol, as it keeps an operator from removing the magazine when a round has been chambered, forgetting about it, and accidentally firing that round. AMT named this pistol the Backup because it was actually designed to be marketed to Law Enforcement officers as a – wait for it! – “backup” pistol to be carried in addition to their main service weapon. The extra weight of the all metal construction is a help, because it is a blow-back operated gun, and if a .380 can be said to have excessive recoil, well, this one is quite “snappy”!
The AMT was also made in America!
The right side grip was missing on this pistol, and a bit of internet research revealed that the grips are important to the operation of the gun. If the left side grip does not press tightly against the safety bar, the safety will not hold in place properly. Too tight and the safety will not operate. On the right side the grip presses against the magazine disconnector in the same fashion. I elected not to try to fire the gun until it had grips on both sides, so I fashioned a temporary set from some old Dyna-wood 1911 grips I had on hand. The AMT does not have a locator pin in the grip frame to keep the grips properly oriented, instead it has the backs of the grips cut in a relief so that much of the grip fits inside the grip frame to hold them in position. In my infinite wisdom, I decided to use locator pins instead, and was happily “chasing” a lower frame pin out with a longer one when things began to fall apart. The trigger came out and landed on my desk, as did the trigger bar/disconnector and some other pieces. When I got everything back together I did not notice the trigger spring was missing.
My first “range test” was interesting. I had read reviews of the AMT Backup on the inna-net, and as expected found them to be all over the place. Most on-line reviews seem required to be cruelly negative, and this was true with the AMT. According to which review one read, they jam hopelessly, the slide “bites”, and they are generally very unreliable. My example of one loaded and fed ammo well – the only jams I experienced were on the last round in the magazine, which I attributed to a weak mag spring from being under loaded tension for well over a decade! It was even fairly accurate at the reasonable “belly gun” distance of 5 yards. My only problem was that the trigger – without a trigger spring – would not reset after a shot, requiring me to reset it with my finger. Oh, and my makeshift grip on the right split soon after shooting began, probably from being over-tightened. As another aspect to this “test” of the .380, the ammo I shot the first time out was some I had on hand, and which had been in the safe since I last owned a .380 – that Browning 20 years ago! Amazingly, I experienced zero misfires or other ammo related problems!
Many times I read or hear “reviews” of various firearms, particularly handguns, and usually online – that are very negative. Sometimes it turns out the person giving this information has actually little or no experience with the gun in question, but just has a axe of some sort to grind and uses the anonymous nature of the internet to trash a product. Other times the reviewer is simply inexperienced and/or misinformed, or passing along something they heard from someone else who is inexperienced or misinformed. Jamming or other action problems with semi-auto pistols are quite often “operator error”. The “limp wrist” factor when firing with a very loose grip on the gun will cause almost any pistol to malfunction at times. Ammo problems can be very frustrating with auto-loaders, also. When I found out how critical the grips and their level of tightening was to the AMT Backup I began to understand why one former owner said the trigger fell out of his, and when he got it back from having the factory “fix it”, the same thing happened again. Having had the trigger fall out of mine when the right hand grip was off, and once again when it was simply too loose, I now understand why that could happen. I guess you could blame it on the pistol or its design, but if the shooter properly “learns” the gun and operates it as it is supposed to be operated, problems like this will not likely happen – or if they do, they can be understood and corrected.
More research on the computer located a set of factory wooden grips and a couple of new – as in never used – magazines, so I waited until these arrived before trying again. Also, I looked at a schematic on a reputable gun-smithing website, and determined that a piece of spring steel wire on the disconnector bar was the “trigger spring”, and was broken off shorter than specs wanted it to be. Unfortunately, this proved to be incorrect, as that piece was the disconnector spring and the actual trigger spring is a coil spring that fits in a “hole” in the trigger. The trigger itself fits onto a protrusion off the disconnector bar and the spring pushes it away from this, forcing the trigger to return to the proper position. Correctly surmising that the spring must have fallen out when the trigger did, I searched my desk area and DID come up with a spring, but I think maybe it was one from the open sights on a Ruger Blackhawk I had been messing with – and it did not work in the AMT. Searching for parts for discontinued pistols can be frustrating, but I finally found ONE trigger spring from Bruce Schluderman of Schluder Shots in Round Rock, Texas. I also purchased a disconnector bar, pin and spring in case I should need to replace those in the future. Bruce also had a set of wooden factory AMT grips that have never been on a pistol that are now on their way to me! He has some experience with the AMT guns, and says they are fairly popular, making parts sell fast when they are available. AMT has been out of business for some years now, of course, so the pistols are no longer supported by a factory. It turns out, though, that High Standard – now based in Houston, Texas – has purchased the rights to the AMT lineup, and has announced they intend to resurrect the Backup and Auto-mag Models.
To bring the story of the Backup to its next level, my package from Schluder Shots arrived, and I anxiously fitted the trigger spring to the trigger (this is an easy operation – the whole pistol is a pretty simple design) and headed to my “range” to give it a try. I fired four magazines of 5 rounds each, mixed old Remington ammo and the new HPR FMJ ammo, and again had no feeding or jamming problems – AND this time the trigger reset properly after each shot! I again fired from 15 feet, and my accuracy was not the best, mostly because I was rapid firing to make sure the pistol operated properly. It did “jam” on the last round a couple of times, but this time it was the spent cartridge that briefly hung in the ejection port after being fired. Success!
By now I may have spent more on the AMT than it would be worth on the open market (or maybe not?), but less than a (small) fraction of what a new .380 micro pistol would have set me back. In return I have what seems to be a reliable semi-auto of all stainless steel construction with manual and grip safeties and with a magazine disconnect. What is there not to like about this “find”? I also know more about this pistol’s construction and operation than possibly any other I own, by virtue of “breaking” and them repairing it myself, and I have a good schematic courtesy of Numrich Corp and a source of parts in Bruce Schluder.
A recent magazine article on “Pocket Pistols” defined the modern version as a gun of no more than 6.5″ in length, 1.25″ width, and less than 5″ tall. The old AMT Backup measures out at under 5″ in length, 1″ in width, and 3 1/2″ tall. By virtue of the all steel construction, however, it may weigh a bit more than the 9 ounces or so the smallest modern micro pistols weigh.
By the way, I am going slower in the wrecking job on the old camper, and keeping a sharp eye out for any more “surprises”!
The new trigger spring seems to have solved my trigger resetting problem, and allows the AMT to operate as a true semi-auto pistol. When the new grips arrived, they were so tight I thought I might have to do some fitting, but they finally “popped” into place after some time and effort. To illustrate how important the grips are to the function of this pistol, when I first tried them I had them snugged down very tight, as this needed to be the case with the other grips I had used. Trigger pull was extremely heavy, although the trigger did still reset after each shot. Guessing the better fitting grips were pressing too hard on the trigger/disconnect bar, I tried backing off on the crews a bit – and this did the trick! Of course, for a small pocket pistol, a slightly heavy trigger is safer than a “hair trigger” – I just don’t want to have to ask my wife to help me pull it when I shoot! A good tip from Bruce Schluder is to find the “sweet spot” for them, then Locktite them in place so they don’t move. Again, I fired 20 rounds testing the operation with these grips, and function was perfect. In fact, the small problem I had seen before of the last round in the magazine jamming disappeared – with both magazines.
The old warrior operates like a new pistol!
With the pistol all cleaned up and wearing proper – as well as attractive – new grips and shooting every time the trigger is pulled, it seemed a good time to find an effective way to carry it.
There are many “pocket holsters” on the market that mostly do the same thing, so my task was finding one that “fit” a pistol out of production. Barsony Holsters and Belts made just such a holster that will handle several brands of small pistols – including the AMT. Pocket holsters are designed to hold a small pistol in a pocket, of course. As such they must break up the outline of the gun, so that it is not too obvious, and allow for an easy draw. Most have a bottom rear protrusion that “catches” in the pocket – along with a patch of some material that also clings to the pocket cloth – so that the holster stays in the pocket when the gun is drawn. The Barsony offering does just that – very well. For my uses, it will be perfect to keep the AMT in and handy, so if I need to go to the door at night to meet a marauding ‘coon, possum, or armadillo I can quickly slip the gun and holster in a front pocket, for “just in case”. It also fits in a back pocket, although it might not be comfortable to sit on the gun very long. I would not really recommend carrying this pistol in a pocket with a round in the chamber, even though it does have the dual safeties and still a fairly stiff trigger pull.
The above picture offers a visual comparison between several of the most popular self defense cartridges. The .380 is probably the smallest most experts would recommend as a serious carry gun, but newer offerings from several ammo companies bring the .380 to a power level at or near 9mm and .38 Special. Of course, a .380 achieving over 1200 fps, like at least one of these rounds is advertised at, might be a bit “sporty” to shoot, but it will provide a lot of defensive power for those willing to practice enough to be competent with their handgun.
For comparison, 9mm rounds average from 115gr with a muzzle velocity of around 1155 fps to 147gr at around 950fps. “+P” loads will top 1250 fps. Popular .38 Special loads with 125gr – 158gr bullets will run 700 to 900 fps, while +P loads go up to and over 1000 fps. .45ACP ammo is normally under 900 fps, but with 230gr bullet. .357 magnum bullets are similar to (or the same) as .38 loads, but with a big increase in velocity (and recoil!).
When reviewing published ballistics for the .380, it did not rate as badly as I would have thought when compared to it’s “bigger” competitors. The “slowest” velocity I found was from PMC, with a 95gr JHP at 925 fps. most HP loads ran between 950 and 1025 fps, with a few Grizzly and Buffalo Bore loads sending a 90gr JHP out at 1175 and 1200 fps! There were also a few loads listed with bullets as light as 45 gr – and velocities as high as 1400 fps! For long range varmint hunting, I guess? While there is often debate on the advisability of using hand-loads in a defensive pistol, for those who would like to “roll their own” for the .380, the Lee handbook lists loads for the 90 gr XTP hollow point using Unique and Power Pistol powders starting at velocities a little over 900 fps and going up to a maximum of 1020 fps. Doesn’t take much powder to get there, either! Even with a lighter average bullet weight, the .380 really doesn’t lag far behind other defensive rounds in “power”! It is not what I’d choose for a combination hunting/self defense round, but for personal protection it is well worth consideration!
If a reader agrees that the AMT Backup is a viable candidate for a .380 defense pistol, used ones are regularly offered for sale on the internet, OR you could send an email to High Standard, asking them if and when they might bring this gun to the marketplace once again. Be sure to let them know where you heard about the “Backup” when you do!
NOTE: Today I saw an AMT Backup .380 for sale in Dallas, listed on TexasGunTrader. This one is a newer model than mine, and is Double Action Only in operation. It does not have the grip safety, heck it doesn’t have a thumb safety, either. It relies on the strong double action trigger pull as a “safety”. Otherwise, very similar gun – except it in un-fired, and in the original box!