The Ultimate Firearms Destination for the Gun Lifestyle

Guns of the ’80s

Illustration by Ced Nocon

Pull Up Your Hammer Pants, Pop Open a Bartles & Jaymes, and Reminisce About the Classics

What makes some guns special? Modern guns are pretty much all the same in terms of what they do as machines. Whether large or small, made of blued steel or polymer, all they do is contain an explosion in such a controlled manner that a metal projectile can be launched with some accuracy at an intended target. So why are some guns just way cooler than others? A Makarov is just a PPK made in Russia, but why would so many of us choose the latter over the former? Perhaps something to do with Commander Bond?

This shooter came of “gun age” in the 1980s. As the offspring of a man who had escaped from a Communist prison during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, I was pretty much taught to shoot as soon as I could pick up a gun — just in case the brown stuff hit the ventilating system once again. Growing up in England, it was the weapons of the ’80s that worked their way into my heart — guns I couldn’t afford and could only dream about.

Now in my 40s and with a little more disposable income than I had as a teenager, I have inexorably returned to the glory guns of my youth, not just to covet, but to own and shoot. Safe queen collectors should probably read no further, but if a smile cracks your face when you hear the opening bars of the Miami Vice theme tune, or you once thought Mel Gibson’s hairdo in Lethal Weapon was cool, then read on. This is about some of the guns that defined the ’80s and even influenced the ’90s — weapons that were rare and very often associated with the coolest dudes with the flashiest cars and biggest shoulder pads.

Time Travelers and the T-Rex
Perhaps the biggest movie star of the lot is the Franchi SPAS-12. This has to be the most recognizable shotgun in the world, thanks in part to its use in blockbuster movies — from the original Terminator movie in which Arnie wreaks utter devastation in the police station to Jurassic Park, where the excellent Bob Peck uses the smoothbore as the gamekeeper. Oh, and if you’re having unexplained flashbacks of Xenomorphs and Chestbursters, that’s completely OK. The U.S. Colonial Marines’ Pulse Rifle of Aliens fame was built using the unique fore-end of the SPAS-12 and the lower receiver of a Thompson SMG!

Having read a surprisingly positive review of the Franchi-made behemoth, I managed to convince my dad that there was a SPAS-shaped hole in our gun safe that needed filling. That specific gun has long ago disappeared, a victim of the unconstitutional disarming of the British people. But, even though the SPAS hasn’t been made in over a decade, you can still find them online in good condition. So, as soon as this correspondent moved across the pond and became a citizen, it was time for a reunion with my ole buddy. I bought a pristine version here in the United States.

The Franchi SPAS-12 was Ahnuld’s favorite and wielded by Rutger Hauer’s character in the final scenes of The Hitcher

The Franchi SPAS-12 was Ahnuld’s favorite and wielded by Rutger Hauer’s character in the final scenes of The Hitcher.

Designed primarily for law enforcement — apparently the rotating hook at the end of the stock was designed specifically for prisoner transport so you can hold the beast with one hand — the SPAS is what you might call “ugly beautiful.” No Turkish walnut or case-hardened components here. This is a gun in which function truly drives form. And function included the ingenious press-button option of semi or pump cycling. And when on semi, even with slugs, the SPAS is a pussy cat to shoot thanks to the mechanism and its almost 9-pound weight.

No, you will not be invited to many partridge shoots with your SPAS-12, but then again who cares? Every single time you go to the range, or pull it out at an impromptu blasting session at your buddy’s farm, every single person there — and I mean everyone — will have that twinkle of recognition, grin uncontrollably, and want to try it. True value for money, as far as I’m concerned.

Ultimate Sophistication and Brute Force
The next two stars represent opposite extremes of the concealed carry spectrum. Neither is as easy to find today as a good SPAS. The first is the very rare ASP.
Paris Theodore — owner of the highly specialized Seventrees Ltd. holster and AOW company of West 39th Street, New York — decided in the 1960s to make the most effective and concealable combat handgun ever, the ultimate “working gun.” It was based on the Smith & Wesson Model 39 and made initially only for intelligence agencies. Eventually, Armament Systems and Procedures (yes, it of the expanding baton fame) would market the gun commercially as the ASP.

 This was 007’s new gun — at least in the James Bond books of 1980s. In real life, the ASP 9mm was carried by the head of the security detail at the U.S. embassy in Saigon.

This was 007’s new gun — at least in the James Bond books of 1980s. In real life, the ASP 9mm was carried by the head of the security detail at the U.S. embassy in Saigon.

Though David Patrick Kelly used it against Ahnuld in 1985’s Commando, the 9mm handgun never saw skyrocketing sales. Fewer than 2,000 were ever made, probably as a function of its cost, as more than 250 custom procedures were needed to convert the standard Model 39 into what would become the first-ever real “pocket nine.” Those operations included chopping down the frame, then both shortening and lightening the slide, making a silver-soldered bushingless fit between barrel and slide, reshaping the trigger guard with a very aggressive hook and “Fitz Special” style thinning on its right-hand side, fitting custom see-through Lexan grips, and finally refinishing with a self-lubricating Teflon-S coating.

The ASP’s “Guttersnipe” sighting system.

The ASP’s “Guttersnipe” sighting system.

The idea behind the trigger guard design was to make reaching the trigger faster — as it protrudes beyond the side of the guard — and allow the left index finger to really pull the gun isometrically, and thus manage recoil (the hook is much more deeply curved than all the pistols that today have copied the look). Most unusual of all was the ASP’s sighting system. Instead of a typical front and rear sight combo, Theodore added his “Guttersnipe” system. It was reminiscent of the trench Luke flies down in his X-Wing at the end of Star Wars. The logic was to look down the three-sided “gutter” and when you see three triangles of the same size, you were locked on. The sighting system was one part of Theodore’s revolutionary “Quell” shooting system that had agents concentrate fire on the nervous system of the assailant — so as to “quell” the threat ASAP — and also fire their pistol with their head resting completely on the right shoulder while aiming with the left eye to minimize exposure of their nervous system to the enemy. Funky, I know. Try it.

Many years later, Smith & Wesson would make their own version of the ASP: the 469/669. According to Paris Theodore, when he first showed S&W management his finished ASP in hopes of making a deal for commercial production, their response was, “Who in their right mind would want a 9mm pocket pistol?”

Many years later, Smith & Wesson would make their own version of the ASP: the 469/669. According to Paris Theodore, when he first showed S&W management his finished ASP in hopes of making a deal for commercial production, their response was, “Who in their right mind would want a 9mm pocket pistol?”

The company moved on to concentrate on batons and rubber training guns, so the ASP is as rare as hens’ teeth today. However, the ASP did not die immediately. In 1984, when author John Gardner was asked to resurrect Ian Fleming’s super agent, the new book Role of Honour had Commander Bond choose the ASP, which 007 considers “one of the most satisfying handguns he had ever used.” Today, a group of ardent fans are attempting to resurrect the ASP based on S&W’s 39-13. (Google “ASP 2000” for details.)

A Cannon that “Works for Me”
If, however, you are a rather large chap and don’t need to have the slickest, smallest gun, then how about a pocket cannon that goes by the name of the “Terminator?”
Another New Yorker, John Jovino, once boasted in his ads that he ran the largest handgun distributor in the world. He was a man always looking for something different for his customers. Over the years, most of these special runs were built on S&W revolvers. Then in 1985 Jovinos tried something else, and thus the “Terminator” was born. His pistolsmiths took a standard 6-inch barreled Astra .44 Magnum, imported by Interarms at the time, and turned it into a formidable belly gun. The result was truly marvelous. The barrel was chopped to 2.75 inches, the trigger polished smooth, the rear sights melted, and the frame recontoured to the size of a K-Frame.

The Astra Terminator in all its compact, robust glory.

The Astra Terminator in all its compact, robust glory.

Note: While the standard Astra was closely related to the S&W Model 29, it was not a cheap knock-off. Build quality was excellent in the mid ’80s, and the mechanism was in fact better than Dirty Harry’s roscoe. With just the turn of an adjustment wheel in the grip you could choose from one of four settings for the mainspring and, thus, the trigger pull. Ingenious.

The final package was not an air-weight — the Astra weighs in at 41 ounces (more than 2.5 pounds), but it is portable and truly formidable. In fact, my blued Terminator is such an accurate weapon (turning in one-hole groups with full-house loads at 20 feet) that when I saw another one in stainless, I had to have that, too.
With such looks and performance, it’s no surprise then that the Astra Terminator made two prominent guest appearances in pop culture: It’s used against then taken away by Mel Gibson in 1987’s Lethal Weapon, and it’s wielded by Fred Dryer in two seasons of the Hunter TV series.

The Colonel’s Doomed Replacement for Ole Slabsides
Combat handgunning really came of age in the ’70s and ’80s, and its champion was of course the legendary Colonel Jeff Cooper of Gunsite fame. A former U.S. Marine and famously outspoken, the colonel was devoted to the 1911. Although he was disdainful of any handgun caliber that didn’t start with the number 4, when he made positive noises publicly in 1977 about the merits of the CZ-75, two entrepreneurs based in California pricked up their ears. Messrs. Dornaus and Dixon were working on the design of a new combat sidearm that would be a world-beater, an heir to the 1911, and essentially a beefed up CZ-75. That gun would come to be known to the world as the Bren Ten, the vehicle for a wholly new cartridge, the 10mm Auto.

The star of TV’s Miami Vice, the Bren Ten with Sonny Crocket’s shoulder rig.

The star of TV’s Miami Vice, the Bren Ten with Sonny Crocket’s shoulder rig.

bren-ten-pistol

This is the gun I dreamed of the most over the years. From the moment I heard that the colonel had endorsed it — after all, it wears the Gunsite logo — and then saw it on the tube in the hands of Sonny Crocket, that was it. I was sold. However, it would take more than 20 years for me to find an example of the biggest star of Miami Vice.

Though reportedly designed from scratch, the Bren Ten shares a striking resemblance to its predecessor, the CZ-75.

Though reportedly designed from scratch, the Bren Ten shares a striking resemblance to its predecessor, the CZ-75.

If you are old enough to have used a beeper, you will recall that the gun culture of the ’80s was obsessed with the 9mm-versus-.45 debate. The age of wonder nines had begun, but many were still enamored with the slow-moving .45 slug. Of the nines, the CZ was one of the best — right up there with John Moses’ Hi-Power — and it allowed the user to select double-action/single-action or cocked-and-locked carry. Nevertheless, it was still “just a nine” and difficult to get a hold of due to the ban on imports from the ComBloc. Thus was born the idea of a U.S.-made, beefed-up CZ-75 firing a new supersonic .40-caliber round.

Unfortunately, both the company and the venture would go belly-up after fewer than 2,000 units were shipped, mostly due to cash-flow issues and poor relations with the magazine manufacturer. Since then the idea has been refloated twice, without success. (If you want chapter and verse, read the definitive book Bren Ten: The Heir Apparent by Ronald Carrillo.)

Sonny’s gun and his stainless backup, the Detonics Pocket Nine.

Sonny’s gun and his stainless backup, the Detonics Pocket Nine.

Although the Bren Ten failed as a replacement for the 1911, it had an enormous impact on the gun world. Consider that the popular .40 S&W was actually a “10mm lite” cartridge created by Smith & Wesson, and you realize how historically significant the Bren Ten was. Anyway, I’ve got mine, and all I need now is the Lambo.

Parting Shots
Whether you have no idea what parachute pants are or are just feigning ignorance as a cover-up for your past fashion regrets, you have to, like, totally acknowledge that the 1980s was a tubular time for firearm enthusiasts, dude. From the Astra Terminator to Arnie’s SPAS-12 in Terminator, guns from this decade didn’t just look kickass, they kicked ass.

But some of you might be asking, “Where is Martin Riggs’ Beretta 92F? Or Jack Burton’s TEC-9?” The list goes on — as we said, this was a pretty gnarly decade for guns. The sad truth is that we have room for only so much in these pages. So, don’t be afraid to sound off at www.facebook.com/Recoil.gun.lifestyle. Let us know what your favorite guns of the ’80s were, and if you own any of them.

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