July 15, 2020
By Leroy Thompson
I first encountered the Franchi dual-action shotgun during a visit to one of the Continental (Europe) Police Counterterrorist Police units, which was using the Franchi SPAS-12. The members of the unit found me quite entertaining as I tried to figure out its manual of arms. I did figure out how to operate it, and when I returned home I found one and purchased it so that I could stay familiar with it in case I encountered it again. I did multiple times. A lot of the European units used it, as did a few US SWAT teams.
The “dual-action” aspect of the SPAS-12 allows it to be used in semi-auto mode or switched to pump mode. I’ve seen early comments that this system was designed because the self-loading action was so unreliable that it was necessary to have a backup pump action. This was not the case. Intended specifically for tactical law enforcement and military use, the SPAS-12 was designed so that less lethal ammunition such as rubber bullets or bean bags could be fired using the pump action, while for buckshot or other combat loads the self-loading action could be used.
I’ve always found the SPAS-12 rather heavy and unwieldy. Its folding stock with the hook for one-handed use — in the case of some of the European police units while hanging outside of a vehicle during a pursuit — is interesting, though in my view not particularly practical. The SPAS-12 is beloved in films and on TV because of its exotic look. When my book Dead Clients Don’t Pay was optioned as the basis for a TV series, the lead writer wanted to equip the main character with a Desert Eagle and a SPAS-12. I advised that a working bodyguard would be much more likely to use a SIG P226 and a Remington 870 with a top folding stock. The series wasn’t picked up because it would have been on the same network as The Equalizer, which the programming VP thought was too similar. But, I did come away with a realization of just how out-of-touch with reality the folks in Hollywood are.
The SPAS-12 is not all that uncommon in the USA. A local gun shop had one a few months ago. However, its successor, the SPAS-15, is virtually unknown in the USA. I’ve seen numbers for the total imported before the ban on “assault shotguns” as low as 50 and as high as 180. They are rarely seen. I remember being told that the Italian Folgore Parachute Brigade was one of the prime movers behind the bid spec for the SPAS-15, as the unit was being deployed on “peacekeeping” missions where the ability to fire less lethal as well as standard buckshot was desirable. However, the SPAS-12 used a typical tubular magazine. The paratroopers wanted the ability to quickly change loads; hence, they wanted a dual-action shotgun with a detachable box magazine.
There was also a NATO requirement for a shotgun with the same features, and the Folgore bid spec may have resulted from that requirement. Franchi was not the only company to develop a shotgun to meet the demand. Bernardelli offered the B4 dual-action with a detachable box magazine. There were also designs from Beretta and Benelli. The Benelli M3 dual-action shotgun has been widely marketed in the USA, but with a tubular magazine rather than with the detachable box magazine. It is my favorite Benelli shotgun due to the versatility granted by the dual action, yet it is retaining the handiness of other Benelli shotguns.
The basic concept of the dual-action SPAS-15 is relatively simple. When it is in semi-auto mode, the gas piston drives the bolt carrier and rotating bolt. When shifted to pump action, operating the forearm pushes the bolt carrier and rotating bolt rearwards. Switching modes is carried out by pressing a button atop the forearm, then sliding it slightly forward or rearwards. In addition to a manual sliding safety, there is also a pistol grip safety. Versions were available with a fixed or a folding stock; the folding stock version, based on the examples I’ve encountered, was more common, which is logical because it is a long shotgun. The SPAS-15 has a chrome-lined barrel and interchangeable screw-in choke tubes. Befitting a shotgun that might be used to deal with civil unrest, the SPAS-15 may be fitted with a grenade launcher, presumably for the use of gas grenades! By far the largest customer for the SPAS-15 was the Italian armed forces and the Carabinieri, with 2,000 being ordered in 1999.
The manual of arms for the SPAS-15 is relatively complicated:
A loaded magazine is pressed directly upward into the magazine well.
The manual safety must be “on” to operate the cocking handle or the forearm; however, the user must be aware that the safety will automatically shift to the FIRE position when a round is chambered so it is necessary to push the lever back to the SAFE position manually if engagement is not imminent.
To shift from semi-auto to pump or back, the bolt must be forward; if it is locked back on an empty magazine, the forearm will slide freely without engaging either mode.
The trigger is locked unless the grip safety is depressed.
To set on semi-auto, the button atop the forearm is depressed and the forearm is pushed forwards until it clicks into the locked position; “AUTO” in red letters will show on the receiver.
To set to pump, the button atop the forearm is depressed and the forearm is pulled rearward until it locks; “PUMP” will show in red letters.
After the last round in the magazine is fired, the bolt will lock open; inserting a fresh magazine will cause it to automatically run forward.
NOTE: The instruction manual for the SPAS-15 states in “Operating Instructions” that to load the weapon, the manual safety should be set on “S,” then the bolt retracted, after which the magazine is inserted and the bolt either run forward with the pump action or by releasing the bolt when set on semi-auto.
The cocking handle for semi-auto operation is located above the receiver and below the carry handle, it is tubular and located in a rather tight space. I found that it was easiest to operate by grasping the receiver behind the forearm with my left hand and operating the cocking handle with my right hand to get maximum leverage.
The carry handle incorporates the rear sight, which is a fairly rudimentary notch, but combined with the front post it offers a better sight picture than just a bead and works well at typical combat shotgun distances.
One feature of the SPAS-15 I like is the mounting points for the sling. The front swivel rotates across the top of the barrel, allowing carry across the shoulder or back or slung muzzle down in an assault carry position.
Prior to working on this article I’d estimate I’d put somewhere between 100–125 rounds through the SPAS-15. In the process, I have learned that if I have not handled it recently, I must sit down with the SPAS-15 and re-familiarize myself with its operating features. Once I had done that I was ready to shoot it. In total, I fired 42-rounds of four different types of 2¾-inch shells. That included firing patterns on silhouette targets at varying distances and shooting rounds on multiple hanging plates using both pump and semi-auto modes. Reliability was 100%.
At 10 and 15 yards, full loads of 00 buck were staying on the silhouette targets with relatively tight patterns. When I fired patterns at 20 yards, Federal Classic 00 Buck stayed on the silhouette — barely; Winchester Low Recoil 00 Buck also stayed on the silhouette and remained a little tighter than the Federal Classic; Federal #1 Buckshot kept 13 of 16 pellets on the silhouette.
Though almost as long as an FN FAL and almost as heavy, the SPAS-15 actually felt lively in the hands and allowed me to move among hanging plates quickly. The pump action was smooth, and I had no problem with short stroking. Admittedly, I was firing 2¾-inch shells in a relatively heavy shotgun, but recoil felt much less than with most combat shotguns I use, especially in semi-auto mode. I did not fire slugs at 50 yards, which I sometimes do when testing combat shotguns, but the sights were good enough that they helped me place my buckshot loads on plates to 35 yards.
The SPAS-15 proved reliable and accurate within basic parameters for a combat shotgun intended for multiple roles. I have a Scattergun Technologies 870 choked to allow headshots with buckshot (though, I aim at the edge of the head on hostage taker targets to give me a little bit of room for error). I wouldn’t try that with the SPAS-15!
Because of its rarity in the USA, the SPAS-15 appeals mostly to collectors of exotic military-type weapons. It is so scarce it is hard to place a value on a SPAS-15, though I wouldn’t be surprised if one brought $7,500–$10,000. Spare magazines are available at $135 each from Sarco (SarcoInc.com), but prior to Sarco finding these rare magazines in their warehouse, a SPAS-15 magazine at $500 would be a bargain.
It is an interesting weapon that has seen some specialized military and law enforcement usage. However, I don’t see it as a practical weapon for the average or not-so-average American shooter. I do see some use for a dual-action shotgun for someone who wants the ability to use either lethal or less-lethal ammunition. For that mission I would recommend the Benelli M3 Tactical. It’s available and it’s an excellent shotgun.
This article appeared in Issue #13 of Firearms News, which is out on newsstands now! Pick up a copy or subscribe to read more reviews and articles like this one.
Franchi SPAS-15 Shotgun Specs
- Action: Dual: Gas, self-loading with rotating bolt; or manual slide/pump action
- Caliber: 12-Gauge 2¾ in.
- Overall Length: With fixed stock, 40 in.
- Barrel Length: 18.5 in.
- Weight: 8.5 lbs., empty
- Magazine Capacity: 3 or 6-rounds (detachable box magazine)
- Sights: Rear-Notch, Front-Post
- Value: $7,500+
Franchi SPAS-15 Shotgun Patterns (10-yds)