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Franchi SPAS 12 Autoloading Shotgun: Clever Girl [Review]

Few firearms in the world stir up nostalgia like the SPAS 12. Its menacing appearance cemented it as the go-to Hollywood scattergun in the ’80s and ’90s. It made so many memorable silver-screen appearances that modern videogame designers still choose to include it as a weapon option even two decades later — it’s an unmistakable icon.

Produced from 1979 to 2001, the SPAS took design cues originally from the Italian Police, but it ended up enjoying a small service history in the Egyptian military and saw sporadic use in some U.S. law enforcement agencies. 

Futuristic aesthetic aside, high costs, and a relatively confusing manual of arms made it a tough pick for professional use.


One of the most fascinating aspects of the SPAS 12 is its selectable modes of operation, allowing the SPAS 12 to function as both a semi-auto or pump shotgun. In typical operation, the SPAS is a piston-operated semi-automatic. 

However, with the click of a button on the underside of the gun, you can slide the handguard slightly rearward, freeing the handguard from the heat shield and binding it to the gas piston. 

Simultaneously, the handguard rotates a valve attached to the barrel, closing the gas ports and denying any gas from reaching the piston — presto, the SPAS is now a pump shotgun.

An auto/pump quick-change system was also utilized by Benelli for their M3 model.

But why? The SPAS was originally designed to be used by police and military, in a role where less-than-lethal rounds such as beanbag or pepper-ball rounds could be mission requirements. These specialty types of ammunition didn’t provide an adequate amount of oomph to cycle the large piston in semi-auto, so instead of going back to the drawing board, a pump operation was ham-fistedly designed into the gun. 

The biggest drawback to pump operation is that the action spring is still behind the piston, so when you shuck an empty shell you’re also pumping against the force of the action spring, making for a much more forceful effort than any traditional pump action. 

Make no mistake, the SPAS 12 isn’t a “pump or auto” shotgun, it’s really a semi-automatic action by design, with a fairly hokey additional feature of being able to be pumped in a pinch. If you buy one thinking of using it primarily as a pump gun, you’ll have a bad time.

The removable tail hook has become a valuable piece, fetching hundreds of dollars from collectors.

Speaking of specialty ammunition, the SPAS 12 has heavy roots in the early 1980s CAWS project — a military program seeking a do-it-all type platform that not only revolutionized the design of a shotgun, but also came with a full array of specialty ammunition, from armor-piercing rounds to explosives and flechettes.


The folding stock is another keynote of the SPAS 12’s striking aesthetic — an industrial-looking piece of folded steel that stowed on top of the gun, which you don’t unfold until you’ve spotted the velociraptor you’re stalking, as is tradition. 

This was listed as a requirement by the Italian police when they originally tested the SPAS 11, which used a more traditional semi-auto recoil assembly built into the stock. Due to this requirement, the action of the shotgun had to be entirely changed to allow for the folding stock. 

An Italian police officer fires a prototype SPAS 11 one-handed with the tail hook acting as a brace.

This created a new problem: the breech-block now slammed directly into the rear of the receiver. Take a hardened-steel breech block and slam it into a relatively thin aluminum receiver a few hundred times and you’ll have a recipe for disaster. 

To combat this, Franchi added a small hole to the rear of the receiver where they placed a small, replaceable rubber buffer to dampen the impact. Much to collectors’ dismay, these buffers all rotted away after several years and left the guns unsafe to shoot for many years, until the aftermarket provided replacements made out of appropriate materials like polyurethane.

One of the most unique features of the folding stock was the addition of the infamous SPAS 12 removable “hook” (Franchi called it an “arm rest”). The purpose of this hook is often argued about, but the true origin of the hook was so it could be folded off to one side and shot one-handed from the inside of a moving vehicle. 

The same officer demonstrating vehicle deployment of the SPAS utilizing the tail hook.

Interestingly, many people found this accessory to be silly and threw it away, making it a very valuable piece to have with a SPAS, fetching hundreds of dollars by themselves.


That brings us to the next unique part of the design — the lever safety, which was one of three safeties on the original version of the gun (in addition to a “quick” safety slide and a grip safety that was later removed and replaced by a rubber plug). 

It was added to the SPAS 12 to make it easier for gloved operators to manipulate the safety, as opposed to a small button. Much to Franchi’s dismay, these styles of safeties were all eventually subject to recall as they would wear to a point that caused the gun to fire when the safety lever was flipped. 

Crossbolt or “push button” safeties are exceptionally valuable among collectors.

The design was recalled and modified to accept a more traditional cross bolt safety; however, in a pre-internet age, word of the recall spread slowly and not everyone had it done. As such, there are still many lever-safety SPAS 12s in circulation.

Eventually the SPAS 12 was adapted into several guns that very little is known about, including the SPAS 14, SPAS 15 (and 15A1), SPAS 16, and even a SPAS 410. The SPAS 15 did make it into the United States in small numbers, coming with a letter from Ron Vogel, president of the original importer F.I.E. 

Only 190 would ever make it into collector hands stateside. The SPAS 15 retained the auto/pump select features and was available with a folding stock, though swapping out the top folder for a more traditional side-folding design. It also lost the tube magazines for a more modern six-round box magazine.


When the Assault Weapons Ban of 1994 took aim at firearms the powers-that-be determined to serve no “sporting purpose,” the team at Franchi tried to quickly shift the acronym of the SPAS, originally denoted as “Special Purpose Autoloading Shotgun,” to the sly “Sporting Purpose Autoloading Shotgun.” 

Rumors of a SPAS 12 clone have begun to form overseas. Could we see the SPAS again?

However, it proved to be a futile attempt as ultimately, the ban listed the SPAS 12 by name, no doubt due to the threaded barrel, folding stock, pistol grip, and other arbitrary features that didn’t please the crown. 

The Luigi Franchi company was eventually sold off to Beretta, which had no interest in reviving the gun, thus dooming the SPAS 12 to go the way of the dinosaur. 

Was it clunky? Yes. 

Was it complicated to use? Sure. 

Was it the most striking, bravado-infused, futuristically inspired, intimidating brick of steel a wide-eyed child fell in love with in a movie theater? Absolutely

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