Franchi SPAS 12 shotgun, the legend

The Franchi SPAS 12 features a very original design and unique lines, looking much more like a M60 machine gun than what it actually is: a 12 gauge semiauto shotgun.  Its mean and menacing appearance, dominated by the vented heat shield, the massive wrap-around polymer forend, and the distinctive stamped sheet steel folding stock, were actually meant to be intimidating and a true deterrent.

Histroy of the Franchi SPAS 12

Franchi SPAS 12 professional shotgun
The Franchi SPAS 12 professional shotgun.

The SPAS 12 was introduced in 1979 by Luigi Franchi S.p.A, in Italy, designed by Piero Torosani, an evolution of the Model 11 prototype, based on the proven Sistema 500. Franchi’s Progetto 80, a platform for hunting and sporting shotguns, was heavily based on the SPAS action, as the pump action only shotguns from the PA series, including the ultracompact PA-3.

“SPAS” is an acronym meaning Special Purpose Automatic Shotgun; in the US, to allow civilian sales, the American importer changed the name: “Special” was replaced by “Sporting”. Obviously, political correctness was already in full swing at the time.

The muzzle of the Franchi SPAS 12 shotgun
The Franchi SPAS 12 muzzle with the thread protector; apart from specific military-only muzzle devices (like the grenade launcher or shot pattern shaper), it also accepts Franchi standard choke tubes.
The Franchi SPAS 12 forend in Semiauto position.
The Franchi SPAS 12 forend in Semiauto position. The knurled ring on the magazine tube is used to remove the tube beginning the field strip disassembly procedure.

The SPAS 12 is possibly the first ever semiautomatic shotgun specifically designed from the ground up for police and military use, and not an adaptation of a hunting gun. Franchi’s marketing highlighted the gun’s dual operation feature allowing it to use any type of ammunition, high powered slug and buckshot as well as low powered less lethal rounds, and Fiocchi presented a full set of SPAS optimized ammunition that included exotic loads such as a powerful armor piercing  round that could defeat rolled steel armor 10mm thick and almost all vehicle armored glass of the time. 

The SPAS 12 enjoyed a mild commercial success and was purchased by a number of agencies and military groups; it is still in use today in many countries.

The first time it was featured in a movie and TV series was in 1984, in the hands of Arnold Schwarzenegger in “Terminator”, and in Michael Mann’s Miami Vice, both in 1984. Two years later, Rutger Hauer will use this gun in “The Hitcher”. Then, Matrix, Bad Boys… But it will be its use in “Jurassic Park” to make the SPAS 12 into an icon and one of the most recognizable shotguns on the planet.  

Arnold Schwarzenegger in "The Terminator", with the Franchi SPAS 12
Arnold Schwarzenegger in "The Terminator", with the Franchi SPAS 12.
Bob Peck with the Franchi SPAS 12 in Jurassic Park
Bob Peck ("Muldoon") with the Franchi SPAS 12 in Jurassic Park.
The forend of the Franchi SPAS 12 shotgun
The charachteristic and very recognizable forend of the Franchi SPAS 12; the large button on the "belly" is used to unlock the operating mode selection, from Semiauto to pump action and vice versa.
The  forend of the Franchi SPAS 12 is is characterised by large holes
On the forend large holes are present to allow correct lubrication of the gas valve system and the operating mode selection mechanism.

Despite the gun’s reputation on the silver screen, many experts consider the Franchi SPAS 12 a firearm that’s way too complicated to use, not really ergonomic and heavy, not counting that the 12/70mm(12 gauge 2¾”) chambering limits the number of loads the gun can shoot. 

Is it true? Let’s find out!

The feeding elevator of the Franchi SPAS 12.
The feeding elevator of the Franchi SPAS 12.
Loading the shotshells in the Franchi SPAS 12 shotgun
Loading the shotshells in the tubular magazine.

The action is quite traditional; it’s a gas operated, long stroke piston semiautomatic shotgun, with the piston and main spring traveling coaxially around the magazine tube under the barrel.

Locking system is a proven tilting block that locks on a cut milled on the barrel extension. A popular locking system used in many pump actions, very similar to the original action of the Remington 870.

The ejection window of Franchi SPAS 12 shotgun
The ejection window of the SPAS 12; note the cut-off button in the lower hand corner.
The loading / hold open button of the Franchi SPAS 12 shotgun
The loading / hold open button, used to close the bolt and to unlock the feeding elevator to load the gun.
The speed safety of the Franchi SPAS 12 shotgun
The speed safety, also used to unlock the action to unload the shell in the chamber and dry-cycle the gun.
Main safety lever of the Franchi SPAS 12 shotgun
Main safety lever. it WILL fail, so do not use it. It was later replaced with a much better cross bolt safety.

The aluminum receiver is basically the same used in many Franchi hunting shotguns, less the black finish and the pistol grip. The use of a vented heat shield over the barrel is also not new, and the stamped sheet metal folding stock is very similar in concept and build to the stocks already available to many US pump action shotguns from the ‘70s.

Franchi SPAS 12 shotgun, the legend
The Franchi SPAS 12 shotgun used in pump action mode.
The Franchi SPAS 12 shotgun in pump action mode
The Franchi SPAS 12 shotgun used in pump action mode.

The real innovation is the system that allows switching from semiautomatic operation to pump action manual, pushing a button on the forend and shifting it slightly back. The movement turns off the gas port on the barrel and locks the slider forend to the piston, making it reciprocating with the bolt. It’s a very reliable and safe system. This dual-action concept, reprised in the SPAS 15, will take some time to take hold, but will enjoy huge popularity with Benelli guns, such as the 1989 M3 Super90.

The SPAS 12 on the range

The folding stamped sheet metal stock of the Franchi SPAS 12 shotgun
The peculiar folding stamped sheet metal stock, opened with the arm hook turned in "carry" position.
The pistol grip of the Franchi SPAS 12 shotgun
The pistol grip of the SPAS 12 with the stock folded over the action and locked in place.

First things first. Yes, the SPAS 12 is heavy, over 4.5 kilos empty, and you have to add seven shotshell plus one in the chamber. And, some concern will arise when we think we have to place our cheek upon that stamped steel stock. Control placement is not very user friendly and loading is slow. Sights look like a ghost ring, until you shoot, and you find out they’re not. There is a small notch on the base of the ring, and that’s  where you align the front sight blade.

The folding stock locking system of the Franchi SPAS 12 shotgun
The folding stock locking system that engages the rear sight hole (that is NOT a diopter or peep sight!).
The large screw of the Franchi SPAS 12 shotgun
The large screw that secures the polymer pistol grip to the action. Note the spring loaded button that secures the stock in the open position.
Stock deployed and locked of the Franchi SPAS 12 shotgun
Stock deployed and locked. Note the carry sling mounting point on top of the grip: it's made of plastic and it becomes very brittle with age. We suggest to NOT use it.

The system with the hook on the buttstock, that allows to shoot with one hand, is very flashy and macho, but in the end not all that useful.

The lever safety is slow, and defective too: it was found that it wears quickly and it could actually set the shotgun off, with catastrophic result. It was later replaced with a more practical, and faster, cross bolt button safety.

Using the shotgun in manual pump action mode, we felt the slider is sluggish and braked by the mainspring, and is nowhere near the speed of a real pump action. It must be said, however, that Franchi always stated the SPAS 12 is a semiautomatic shotgun that can, occasionally and for specific purposes, as with less lethal ammo, be used as a pump action.

The not-a-diopter-rear sight of the Franchi SPAS 12 shotgun.
The famous not-a-diopter-rear sight of the SPAS 12. To aim, you align the small notch at the base of the hole with the front sight. Interesting enough, when aligned correctly, the impact point was meant to be at the center of the hole using the original slug ammunition.
The front sight ramp of the Franchi SPAS 12 shotgun
The massive front sight ramp, directly brazed on the barrel tube. The sight system is non adjustable.

Rate of fire in in semiauto mode is FAST.  In the hands of experienced shooters, the SPAS can shoot four-five rounds per second – that’s a theoretical 250-300 rpm. Sure, today most semiauto shotguns like the Benellis are way faster, but back in the ‘80s… Accuracy wise, with slug ammo, the SPAS 12  pays the fact that it uses unconventional sights.

Three rounds with the Franchi SPAS 12 shotgun
At the range: accuracy at 25m is good, considering the sight system and the fact that it is non-adjustable. Three rounds of Rottweil Exact slug ammo.

The trigger pull is heavy, breaking at about 4.5 kilos, but fairly clean, with little slack and almost no overtravel. Using Rottweil Extra slug ammo, recoil is sharp, a sudden shove that is not painful nor tiring, obviously thanks to the gun’s considerable weight.

Surprisingly, the stamped folding stock doesn’t annoy the shooter.  As said, accuracy may be hindered by the barely average sight system. Standard 24g clay shotshells do not reload the gun at all, and the 28g loads are constantly jamming; the manual states that at least 32-34g loads are needed to ensure semiauto operation. Obviously, considering its age, it is not advisable to use ammunition with steel shot. Chambering is only for 2-3/4” shell – remember this.

Field stripping of the Franchi SPAS 12 shotgun
Field stripping of the Franchi SPAS 12. It's undoubtedly a complex weapon, with a lot of parts, that is not easily maintained. However, it's surprisingly reliable and very robust, especially using the right ammo.

Ok, so what is our opinion. Beyond the gun’s actual performance… shooting the SPAS 12 is a blast! It’s just great, and very, very satisfying. We are shooting a true legend, and like all legends, the SPAS 12 shines with a greater than life reputation. Production of the SPAS 12 completely ceased in 2000, with very, very few guns built every year, and the later guns have mechanical simplifications and some corners cut for the sake of cheaper manufacture (such as plastic tubular mag extensions).

The barrel extension of the Franchi SPAS 12 shotgun
The barrel extension that provides the cut that is used by the tilting block locking system of the bolt.
The coaxial long stroke gas piston of the Franchi SPAS 12 shotgun 
The coaxial long stroke gas piston with main return spring. An O-ring is actually missing over the magazine tube in this picture.

What about its value? This is a vintage gun, and only available on the used and collector's markets. Quotes can be as low as 500 Euro all the way to over a couple thousand depending on the condition, specific model and length of the barrel and accessories included. It is also worth noting that the Franchi SPAS 12 has somewhat of a cult following in the US, with a few specific websites full of useful information.

For more information please visit Franchi website.

This article is also available in this language: