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The Franchi SPAS-12: Pick Your Poison 

The Franchi SPAS-12: Pick Your Poison 
Photo: Rock Island Auction Company.

A deep dive into the Italian Franchi SPAS-12, a classic combat shotgun that left a big impression.

The SPAS-12 has that it factor, a mix of menacing good looks, high-tech functionality and firepower. It’s not like any pump-action or semi-automatic shotgun you’ve ever seen—it’s actually both.

A ridiculous number of action movies made since the 1980s have featured the SPAS-12, pitting it against formidable foes from cyborgs to velociraptors. Today, video games still frequently include the SPAS-12 as a choice weapon offering plenty of firepower even though the design is more than 40 years old and better options are widely available.

It’s not that the SPAS-12 is just a make-believe Hollywood prop, it was designed for real-world use for law enforcement and the military. That said, it wasn’t the real-world use that made the SPAS-12 so famous, Hollywood did.

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A SPAS-12 with a fixed stock. Photo: Rock Island Auction Company.

Action

SPAS originally stood for “Special Purpose Automatic Shotgun”, but that changed in the late 1990s, which I’ll get into later. The SPAS-12 has a high-tech, modern look to it due to the folding metal stock with a strange hook at the end of it, complemented by a rectangular metal heat shield over the barrel, a pistol grip and a polymer forend. Simply put, it looks badass.  

The most unique feature of the SPAS-12 is that it is capable of shooting in either semi-automatic mode or in manual pump-action mode with a simple press of a large button under the forend. Press the button and retract the forend slightly to lock it into manual mode. Press the button again and slide the forend fully forward until it locks to put it into semi-auto mode. It’s that easy to switch and can be quickly done on the fly.

SPAS-forendSPAS-forend
The forend of a SPAS-12 with a laser device attached. Photo: Rock Island Auction Company.

In semi-auto mode, the SPAS-12 uses a short-stroke gas piston system similar to many gas-operated shotguns. Gas is diverted from ports in the barrel to operate two recoil rods that push on the bolt. Also like similar gas-operated shotguns, the SPAS-12 features a tubular magazine under the barrel. It easily functions in semi-auto when feeding off high-power shells, but like many semi-auto guns, it can be finicky about cycling low-velocity loads.

Switching to manual mode allows the user to manually pump the forend to cycle low-power loads. It also gives the SPAS-12 the ability to run non-lethal rounds like beanbags, plastic pellets, rubber slugs and tear gas which do not cycle in semi-auto guns. The ability to change from semi-auto to manual pump-action makes the SPAS-12 very versatile. Some may call the feature a gimmick, but for law enforcement groups who use a variety of ammo types, it could potentially make a lot of sense.

There is also a magazine cut-off feature that allows the user to close off the magazine and feed single shells in the chamber. This is helpful in the event the user wants to quickly shoot non-lethal rounds when the magazine is loaded with buckshot.

Specs

Since the SPAS-12 was designed for military and law enforcement use, it was available in a variety of barrel lengths including 18, 19.875, 21.5, and 24 inches, as well as magazine capacities of 5+1, 6+1, 7+1 and 8+1. The weapon is heavy as well, weighing in at over 9.5 pounds. With the stock folded, the SPAS-12 is a fairly compact package at 32.5 inches with the short barrel, but the most common version in the U.S. was the 21.5-inch barrel model. 

SPAS-12-folded-stockSPAS-12-folded-stock
The SPAS-12 with its stock folded and the hook attached. The hook can also be removed to make a more streamlined, compact package. Photo: Rock Island Auction Company.

The heat shield is a rectangular box of stamped steel with oblong cooling slots covering both the barrel and magazine tube. Dual push rods attached to the forend are located inside the heat shield and manipulate the bolt when the SPAS-12 is in pump-action mode. The polymer forend also slides in shallow channels on the outside of the heat shield. Combined, these features make for one boxy-looking gun.

Sights

As for its irons, the SPAS-12 features something similar to today’s ghost ring sights. It consists of a large rear aperture and a front blade, neither of which are adjustable. Seemingly simple, the system has a trick up its sleeve, as well. The rear aperture has a notch in the bottom that’s meant to be aligned with the front sight when shooting slugs for increased precision. For all other loads, one aims normally with the front sight centered in the ring.

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Notice the rear sight, not as big as a modern ghost ring but still closer to it in concept than typical shotgun sights. Photo: Rock Island Auction Company.

Stock

The hook on the end of the folding stock is another unique feature of the SPAS-12. The hook can be rotated 90 degrees to make it easier for the user to fire the SPAS-12 one-handed. At nearly 10 pounds, the SPAS-12 is difficult to wield with a single arm, but the hook helps to support the weight and allows the user to aim it at least somewhat effectively for close-range engagements. In this way, it’s somewhat similar to the braces used on modern AR pistols and the like. However, the hook can easily be attached and reattached without tools to make the package more compact.

SPAS-12 Variants  

In the years between the importation restrictions enacted in 1989 and the 1994 Federal Assault Weapons Ban, Franchi imported the SPAS-12 configured in different ways to circumvent the new rules. This is why the fixed-stock models are more common in the U.S. compared to the more iconic folding stock models. In addition to the SPAS-12, Franchi produced the LAW-12, a semi-auto-only version aimed at the American law enforcement market as well as the SAS-12, a pump-action-only variant. 

Franchi-LAW-12Franchi-LAW-12
Franchi’s semi-auto-only LAW-12 variant. Photo: Rock Island Auction Company.

Franchi even changed what SPAS stood for by repurposing the acronym as “Sporting Purpose Automatic Shotgun” instead of the original “Special Purpose Automatic Shotgun” with the hope that the ATF would allow the gun to be sold on the U.S. commercial market as a sporting gun. The SPAS-12 was produced from 1979 to 2000 and imported into the U.S. until 1994 when the Federal Assault Weapons Ban went into effect and ended the importation of all variants for good. Of course, the ban expired in 2004, but by that time the shotgun was out of production.

Was the SPAS-12 a Good Combat Shotgun? 

Even when compared to other semi-automatics of its time like the Benelli Super 90, the SPAS-12 was heavy and awkward. Sure, it looked menacing, but it was a clunky chunk of steel to handle and it weighed about 2 pounds more than a Benelli with the same barrel length. There’s a reason the Super 90 eventually evolved into the Benelli M4 and the SPAS-12 went extinct. Franchi tried to keep the SPAS name alive with the magazine-fed SPAS-15 in the mid-1980s, but it proved to be even less successful than its predecessor.

Some U.S. SWAT teams armed themselves with the SPAS-12 back in the day, but its use in the States was limited. Other tactical law enforcement teams like EKO Cobra in Austria and GIGN in France equipped themselves with the tactical Franchi, as well as many smaller military and police groups around the world.

GIGN-SPAS-12GIGN-SPAS-12
French GIGN operators training with a SPAS-12 in the 1990s. Notice the laser device mounted on its top.

The SPAS-12 Legacy 

The real legacy of the SPAS-12 comes from movies, television shows, and video games. We all know the “clever girl” scene in the original Jurassic Park movie when the big game hunter slowly unfolds the metal stock of his SPAS-12 before he is quickly outwitted by a pair of velociraptors. Or the very first time that the shotgun graced the silver screen in The Terminator in 1984. Name an action movie or show that came out since the 1980s and there is a good chance the SPAS-12 is used by either a hero or villain, and the same goes for video games as well. While the other fads of its era have long gone out of style, the SPAS-12 remains a fashionable choice even today. Whether it still is or ever was a practical weapon is different question.

Owning A SPAS-12 Today 

While there are better, more modern combat shotguns available, you can still buy an original SPAS-12 if its retro style is too much for you to resist. There are, however, a handful of states where the SPAS-12 is still banned by name. It’s the usual suspects: California, Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York and the District of Columbia. 

Depending on the importer and the year it was brought in, both pre- and post-ban SPAS-12s are available on the used market. Regardless of the exact model in question, it’s going to be very expensive. At the time of this writing, buy-now prices on online auction sites start at about $4,000 and go up from there.

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A SPAS-12 with its stock extended and the hook removed. Photo: Rock Island Auction Company.

Frankly, the Franchi isn’t worth dropping that kind of cash on if all you want is a tactical 12-gauge shotgun. But if there’s a SPAS-12-shaped hole in your heart left behind by your love for a certain piece of media, nobody would blame you for adding one of these iconic beasts to your collection.

Even if it wasn’t the greatest gun ever made from a practical point of view, the SPAS-12 will live on in the collective conscience for a very long time, and that’s worth something too.


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