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Phoenix Arms Redback: From the Ashes

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The Swiss Brand of Sphinx Has a Checkered Past, But is Now Back in the Original Hands and Better Than Ever

Photos by Kenda Lenseigne

We liked the Sphinx line of handguns from Phoenix Arms. With their European take on an STI-like frame, they brought a certain sense of old-world style to 9mm carry and duty pistols, and we were looking forward to seeing what they could do with a full-house competition gun. Then, the wheels fell off.

After selling to Kriss and seeing that brand’s Swiss parent company hit the skids, the U.S. subsidiary continues to make the SDP compact and duty version of the handguns we reviewed all the way back in CONCEALMENT Issue 1 and RECOIL Issue 7. The original owner has now revived the design with a new company based in Switzerland, and if the example we’ve shot is anything to go by, you’ll like the results.

Based on CZ75 architecture, the Phoenix Arms Redback uses the Czech pistol’s familiar slide-rails-inside-frame layout, with a Browning/Petter-designed, kidney-shaped under-barrel cam handling lockup duties. It departs from the original, however, in the way the frame is constructed, with an upper section housing lockwork and rails, while a lower piece takes care of magazine retention and grip surface. The two come together by means of mating surfaces above the grip panels and a screw which secures the front of the trigger guard. The system allows an end user to choose how much weight they want in their hand, as steel, aluminum, and polymer versions of the lower half are offered, while uppers in the two metals are available — our test gun was the most massive of the bunch, with a heavyweight steel slide, chunky steel upper, and steel lower grip section that seemed like it was carved from a section of railroad track, for a combined weight of 2.9 pounds, sans magazine.

phoenix arms redback

Unlike other CZ75 clones, the Redback hides its hammer spring in a detachable, 1911-style mainspring housing.

Unless your bench and squat regimen involves eight plates, this pistol probably won’t make it into your carry rotation; there are other variants in the lineup with traditional DA/SA lockwork and either adjustable irons or a red-dot of your choice. Which begs the question of what, in its current configuration, this particular model is actually for. As a competition gun, USPSA Carry Optics division is out, due to its titanic mass and single-action-only trigger, while Limited division is a non-starter due to the MRDS. You could always replace it with iron sights, but then it’s kinda chambered in the wrong caliber to be truly competitive, as 40 S&W continues to soldier on as the only practical means to take advantage of major power factor scoring. In the end, we gave up in trying to fit it into a box and just enjoyed it for what it is — a very accurate, soft-shooting work of art.

With a liberated mind, we set about dissecting the Redback and discovered it’s a gun worth examining closely, as the maker has improved a lot of areas in comparison to previous versions, and to its Czech progenitor.

Starting with that modular frame, the upper part is carved out of a substantial steel billet, featuring an integrated Pic rail, not so much to hang weapon lights from, but to add mass to the front end of the gun. Its dust cover is similarly massive and thicker than that on a CZ SP01 by 47 percent. The area above the trigger where you’d typically index your support thumb is aggressively checkered, while the master thumb (for righties) is supported by a safety boasting a huge shelf. There’s a comfortably sculpted, high-grip beavertail with a long tang at the rear of the grip, complementing an undercut trigger guard and flared magwell. Frontstrap checkering consisting of small, sharp-edged squares contrasts with conventionally cut diamonds on the 1911-esque mainspring housing, and that on the thin, G10 grip panels. If you need extra Parmesan on your pasta and can’t find a waiter, then simply whip out this puppy — just about every surface will grind a block into dust.

phoenix arms redback

The cut line above the Redback’s grips denotes the boundary between grip and frame modules. Note the absence of CZ-type barrel-locking lugs.

This combination locks both hands into the gun like it’s coated in Krazy Glue. Thankfully, the manufacturer hasn’t applied any surface treatment to the upper part of the backstrap, so sliding your hand up and into position on the draw stroke isn’t a problem, but once it’s there, removing it is like peeling your kids’ stickers off your car windows.

There’s a series of grooves cut into the mag release, which is tapped for an extension. We had no use for it, as the editorial breast-cuppers are sized to accommodate Cs and above, but those with smaller mitts will no doubt appreciate not needing to scrap a perfectly good part in order to swap in a larger one.

The Phoenix Arms Redback’s flat trigger has a groove milled in its face, serving as an index point for finger placement, at the cost of decreasing surface area. Two set screws can be used to adjust the amount of take-up and overtravel, though weight is set at the factory and is a function of sear engagement angle and area, along with spring tension. Which is to say, it breaks at a very crisp 3.5 pounds, with about 1/8 inch of travel to reset it. By fiddling with the screws, we brought the reset down a hair and shaved a little from the initial movement, but it comes pretty close to the limit from the factory.

As this is a competition pistol, it foregoes the simplicity of a captive recoil spring in favor of being able to quickly trade out replacements to adapt to different loads. We shot it with ammo designed to just make minor power factor and were rewarded with cases landing about 3 feet away, with the slide consistently locking back on the last round. Usually, the slide stop on pistols set up for duty ammo won’t be activated by the magazine follower with this stuff, but the Phoenix Arms Redback seems ready to race right out of the box.

Another clue that it’s all about A zones and hit factors, rather than stacking bodies, is the use of a polymer buffer inlet into the frame, about where the impact face would be on a CZ. Designed to take some of the sting out of the slide’s abrupt stop at the rear of its stroke, it’s considerably tougher and thicker than the buffers typically found in 1911s and that we all got used to replacing on a regular basis, after they disintegrated and tied up the gun.

Up top, the Redback’s slide is cut to accept a mounting plate that’ll accommodate MRDS of various flavors. Ours came set up for the ubiquitous Trijicon RMR, which overhangs each side by a hair, but the company offers the Shield/J Point/Deltapoint as an alternative footprint. There’s a dovetail cut for a front sight (filled with a blank plate on our test gun), and although the company’s website doesn’t show it, we suspect the corresponding rear can be added via a mounting system, à la SIG. Fans of tri-top profiles and forward cocking serrations are in luck, as the Redback is endowed with both.

One of the most striking features of the Swiss pistol is its machining tolerances, or rather lack of them. Slide to frame fit is probably the tightest we’ve ever encountered, including some handbuilt race guns — there’s simply no detectable play whatsoever in any axis other than directly parallel to the bore, which no doubt contributes to the accuracy it exhibits. How accurate? Well, at a recent carbine class taught by Dan Brokos, a few of us were goofing around at the end of the day, just BSing and talking kit like normal adult males. The inevitable show and tell then followed, and guys started pulling out handguns for an informal plinking session. For sh*ts and grins, we launched a round at a Post-it Note-sized piece of paper that had been left on the berm and hit it two times out of three before passing the Phoenix Arms Redback to Brokos, who did the same thing. At 140 yards.

phoenix arms redback

Grip texture is extremely aggressive, and the trigger features two set screws to adjust take-up and overtravel.

Other accuracy enhancements include larger locking surfaces at the barrel’s interface with the forward edge of the ejection port and a tightly fitted barrel hood. The Redback makes a little detour from its Czech lineage with regards to its method of locking barrel to slide, but as the Swiss invented the ejection port lockup in the 1975 P220, we’ll forgive them this one time.

Despite its tight clearances between moving parts, the Phoenix Arms Redback proved to be immune from any racegun prima donna tendencies when it came to ammo preferences. We shot it with a full spectrum of bullet weights, but the only flavor that gave it indigestion was a Hevi Shot 100-grain frangible load, usually some of the most accurate ammo in the grab bag of sundry types we keep on hand for tests such as this. To be fair, the blunt nose profile can tie up Glocks as well, so it’s not necessarily a ding on the gun, but one to be aware of.

If we were shopping for a dedicated competition pistol, then the Phoenix Arms Redback as configured would absolutely not be it. If, on the other hand, we could get our paws on one of the aluminum lower, DA/SA versions, with their promise of an 8-pound DA trigger pull, then rocking one of these in Carry Optics division would be a very attractive prospect. Swap the dot for irons and dabbling in Limited minor would be an interesting side project. There’s little doubt that the resurrected Phoenix Arms company is capable of turning out guns of exceptional quality. As it stands, however, the all-steel SAO Redback is left out in the cold as a match gun, too heavy as a carry gun, and blisteringly expensive as a plinker. It’s a cool pistol, but not 4,500 bucks worth of cool.

phoenix arms redback

Although blocky, the pistol is attractive in a neo-brutalist way, and shoots flatter than Kansas. We look forward to trying other models in the resurrected lineup — look for updates in Concealment.

Phoenix AG
Redback SAO

Caliber: 9mm
Barrel Length: 4.5 inches
Overall Length: 8.2 inches
Weight: 2.9 pounds
Capacity: 17 rounds



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