By: Greg Chabot
Photos: Sasha Steadman
In 1979, Luigi Franchi S.P.A., located in Brescia Italy, unveiled a unique, dual-mode shotgun that would become one of the most iconic firearms of all time: the Special Purpose Automatic Shotgun 12 gauge, better known as the SPAS-12.
The SPAS-12, with its sinister appearance, became a fixture in popular action movies and video games. It was an overly complicated design from an era that brought many unique and innovative firearm designs to the shooting public. With only 37,000 produced during its 21-year run.
Starting in 1982, F.I.E. Corp. became the sole U.S. importer of the SPAS-12, which grabbed the attention of the American shooting community, due to its looks. After its appearance in multiple action movies, demand outpaced the supply. With Franchi unable to meet demand, F.I.E. declared bankruptcy in 1989; American Arms took over importing the SPAS until 1994.
With the signing of the import ban in 1990 by Bush 41, Franchi changed the name of the SPAS-12 to Sporting Purpose Automatic Shotgun, to keep importing them into the U.S. The final blow to the SPAS-12 came with the passing of the 1994 AWB by the Communist-controlled congress. This law outlawed the manufacturing and importation of so called “Assault Weapons.” Production continued for another six years until 2000. With the debut of the SPAS-15, the SPAS-12 passed into firearm history.
Though surpassed by better designs, the SPAS-12 has a cult following in the collecting community. With only 1,850 imported in its various configurations, it is a rare bird. The most common version is the folding stock variant with the hook. Franchi also offered a fixed stock version with the name change in 1990. The focus of this article will be on the folding stock version. At the end of the article, I will provide a link to Spas-12.com, an excellent resource for parts and the history of this weapon.
The test weapon was in excellent condition for its age. Like most Italian made weapons, the overall machine work and parts fitment was outstanding. It did need some work before going to the range. The specimen needed a good cleaning, new gas ring, a receiver buffer, and shock absorber for the stock. It is important to check these items, as the original buffers have probably degraded to dust over the years. Spas-12.com has these new production parts for sale. Taking the time to replace these essential parts will prevent damage to the weapon and keep it running reliably. Many of the original parts, such as the stock and receiver, command top dollar on the used market if you can find them. So do the preventive maintenance.
Test weapon came with the cross-bolt safety upgrade. SPAS-12s were first imported with a lever style safety. That had a design defect that could cause an unintended discharge while using it. American Arms issued a recall and upgraded them. There are many still out there without the upgrade, so please use extreme caution with them! Sample weapon is also equipped with a quick employment safety that resembles ones found on M1As. The SPAS-12 is a big weapon, due to the massive heat shield and distinct action sleeve, which gives it the intimidating look it is known for. Test specimen weighed in at 9.68 pounds with an OAL of 41,” folded length is 32.5”. Barrel length is 21.5;” that comes with a removable muzzle cap to install chokes. The front sight is a blade type with the rear being a ring type. This weapon came with the desirable magazine tube extension for 8 +1 capacity. It also came with the trademark hook, which is used for one-handed firing. The hook can also be used as a carrying handle, with the stock folded or removed by the shooter.
Manual of Arms
I’ll take the time to cover this topic, as it is different from other shotguns out there. There are two ways to load the SPAS-12:
1) With the bolt forward turn weapon upside down. Push the bolt release button in and load shells. Then cycle the bolt to chamber a round.
2) With the bolt locked to the rear load a shell, hit the bolt release, apply the safety. Push in the bolt release and finish loading the weapon.
Note: Bolt release is located on the left side of the receiver. Turning the weapon upside down is the easiest way I have found to load this weapon. The bolt release must be pushed in to load the weapon!
This was one of the main drawbacks/complaints about the SPAS-12. There is no easy way to load it on the move or one-handed. With practice, one can expedite the procedure. Compared to other models, it will still take more time.
To cycle between pump and auto:
1) On top of the heat shield, you will see “A” then “M,’’ which stands for the mode of fire. The “A” is closest to the muzzle, with the “M” behind it towards the receiver.
2) Under the action sleeve, there is a button. Depress that button and slide the forearm to the rear. This puts the weapon in Manual (Pump). Do the opposite to put it in Auto – the action sleeve has a notch on it to tell with a glance at the heat shield what mode you are in. Default mode is auto on this weapon. Manual mode was added during the design phase to facilitate use of less lethal ammo for Law Enforcement.
The SPAS-12 also comes with a magazine cutoff located on the right side of the receiver. This feature gave the operator the ability to swap out ammo types manually without chambering ammo from the magazine. Field stripping the SPAS-12 is a simple affair. There are some great videos online, so I won’t bore you with details.
The SPAS-12 is a gas-operated, piston-driven weapon. Being originally designed as a military shotgun, the SPAS-12 runs reliably if using full powered 2 ¾” ammo. To shoot on the cheap, one will have to run it manually. I ran a mix of S&B 00 Buck and Fiocchi 1-ounce slugs, as I had plenty on hand. I also used some lo-brass birdshot and some very old Remington 00 Buck. For lubrication, I used SEAL-1 CLP; being fall in NH, weather varied from mild to below freezing. Coming from the factory, the barrel comes in the cylinder configuration. Chokes that screwed on the muzzle were available during production. They are a very rare item and command top dollar today.
I started out with some 00 buck on paper with a cardboard backing to measure the shot pattern. The average pattern size measured between 8-9” wide 12.5” high at 25 yards. I really liked the sights on this weapon. They were quick to acquire and easy to see. With full-powered loads, the weapon ran flawlessly in semi-auto. I then switched over to steel targets, placing them at various distances. The sights made transitioning between targets an easy task.
What this weapon really exceled at was throwing slugs. I scored consistent hits at 50-75 yards, which I credit to the sights. Pushing out to 100 yards, I had no issue hitting the target if I did my part. Switching to Lo-brass birdshot, the SPAS functioned flawlessly in pump mode. While in pump, you are moving the entire operating system. There is no “slide and glide,” like an 870 or 590. You will get an arm workout shooting this weapon on the cheap.
The purpose of the hook on the stock is to facilitate one-handed shooting of the SPAS-12. The hook is pushed down and rotated to the right until it locks. Do the opposite if you are a southpaw. Then place the hook just forward of your elbow and shoot. Surprisingly, I didn’t experience a malfunction while firing one-handed. Unlike in Hollywood, my accuracy was atrocious. Though it works, I’d leave the one-handed shooting to the Tactifools on social media.
Recoil on the SPAS-12 was very manageable. It is front heavy, which helps to mitigate the recoil. Due to the design of the folding stock, it would climb slightly to the right. I found this weapon easy to control during rapid fire, even with magnum 2 ¾” loads, if I leaned into it. If you plan on a long shooting session, bring foam and some tape, your cheek will thank you. The SPAS-12 gets a bad rap in the reliability department. I experienced no issues in semi-auto if I used full-powered ammo. In pump, it ate both Hi and Lo brass with no issues.
I enjoyed my time both restoring and shooting this iconic weapon. Would I recommend the SPAS-12? If it was 1982 yes, I would recommend one. Today, probably not, as there are simpler and better systems out there, such as the Benelli M3 for dual mode. Or other offerings from reputable manufacturers (Beretta, Benelli etc.).
Would I trust my life to the SPAS-12 I tested? Yes, I would have no issue using the test weapon to defend myself. I did all the restoration work on it. And after multiple range sessions, I have full confidence in that weapon only. If you plan to purchase one for serious use, put in the time with dummy rounds to learn the manual of arms. Spend the money and run various brands of defensive ammo through it to ensure its reliability.
If you own a SPAS-12 and need parts, or want to add one to your collection or learn more about them, I highly recommend going to https://www.spas-12.com/ . They are an excellent source for parts and all things related to this weapon and its variants.
Dedicated to the memory of Akira S, see you on the other side, my friend.
Big Thanks to NorArm Tactical.