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Italian gun maker vies for a bigger piece of the action in the American market: Luigi Franchi.

Recently SHOOTING INDUSTRY traveled to Italy when we were offered the chance to visit, photograph, interview and question at the Franchi[Trade Mark] Arms plant in the town of Brescia. Located in northern Italy between Milan to the west and Venice to the east, Brescia has long been a stronghold of the Italian gun making industry. Beretta has been based here for hundreds of years. Other firearms firms in the area include Perazzi, Mario Beschi and Bernardelli.

Stoeger Industries originally imported Franchi [trade mark] arms, mainly shotguns, and one model in particular, the most popular Franchi on these shores so far, the 48/AL auto-loader. This is the extremely light, recoil-operated semi, 61/4 pounds in 12 gauge and 5 pounds 2 ounces in 20. Introduced in 1948, it has enjoyed steady sales, but has never been a proverbial barn burner. Perhaps this super lightweight was ahead of its time. In recent years featherweight shotguns have gained in popularity. Maybe the same can be said of the Ithaca 37 Featherweight pump - introduced in 1937 - still going strong but never a sales leader.

F.I.E. in Opa-Locka, Florida later became the importer for Franchi long guns (the 48/AL, the SPAS-12, LAW-12 and SAS-12), but that relationship ended this year leaving American Arms as the sole importer of Franchi[Trade Mark] products, including the shotguns previously brought in by F.I.E.

In January of 1989, the SHOOTING INDUSTRY staff was informed that American Arms would import a new line of Franchi shotguns, the Black Magic [Trade Mark] series. Through 1989 only a relative small number of Black Magic [Trade Mark] arrived in North America, and those which did were quickly sold to dealers.

American Arms was started by Ghassan Bader as a part-time venture in 1982. Sales quickly mushroomed, resulting in Bader giving up his full-time employment. American Arms, based in North Kansas City, Missouri, has specialized in importing side by side and over/under doubles from Italy and Spain, smoothbores mainly carrying their own label. Success has been so good that only Browning sells more imported double guns today to the American market. This track record may have been a factor in convincing Franchi Arms to make American Arms their exclusive importer - effective in 1990. The latter now has 15,000 square feet of factory and storage space in North Kansas City, including a handgun manufacturing operation.

Franchi Arms had its birth in 1868. It remained a family-owned firm until only a few years ago when it was purchased by a corporate conglomerate SOCIMI. Their main business is high-speed railroad cars and related equipment. The current International Sales Manager is Franco Franchi, one of the remaining members of the Franchi family still working there. Dr. Giuseppe Locati is from SOCIMI and the General Manager in the Brescia plant.

Even though the Franchi [Trade Mark] name has been synonymous with guns for over a century, the family had branched out into other businesses even before World War 1. They owned their own mines, special metallurgical furnaces and hydroelectric plants. No doubt WWI caused severe hardship, but Franchi rebounded with its sporting arms production, whereas it had been producing for the military. While the 48/AL is synonymous with Franchi in our country, their name is much more associated with fine side by sides and over and unders throughout Europe. Franco Franchi claimed that when the rich, the elite, the aristocracy came to Brescia, it was not the other factories they sought to buy or to order custom guns. Largely, these people came and continue to come to the Franchi works. We saw a number of highly experienced craftsman doing outstanding intricate work at the Brescia plant.

The first renowned Franchi was a side by side, the Aquilia - external hammers and lavishly engraved. In the 1930s came the Imperiale and by 1935 the Littorio. Both were side by sides with H&H type sidelocks - but, reportedly, with even more strength and cosmetic elegance than the doubles they were patterned after. During those Great Depression years came the company's first over/under, a sidelock with lateral locking lugs.

Again in 1945 Franchi had to change over from war to sporting arms manufacture. High volume production of an auto-loader would permit this changeover to be profitable, so the forerunner of the 48/AL came out in 1946, the current 48/AL in 1948. So this shotgun has enjoyed a particularly long life.

In 1946 the Arione side by side was born, but it was redone and called the Astore by 1947. Then came the first post war O/U, the Alcione - and at a very competitive price! The factory experience working with the light alloy receiver of the 48/AL provided the technology for the first super light over and under, the Falconet.

While over a million 48/AL semis have been sold, it's evident that the company has even higher-volume sales hopes for it's newest gas-operated autoloader in the Black Magic series. Black Magic refers to the metal finish on this gas gun and two over/unders in this series. Not bluing, Black Magic is a rich blue-black finish that, reportedly, has extreme corrosion resistance.

There are three models in the gas auto line, a Game, a Skeet and a Trap. The Game has 3 inch chambers and is supposed to fire all 2-3/4 and 3-inch rounds interchangeably. Barrel choices are 24, 26 and 28 inches, all with the company's screw choke system Franchokes [Trade Mark]. The Skeet comes with 26 inch ported and Tula choked barrel, the Trap with 30 inch Franchoke barrel. Weights are 7 pounds for the Game, 71/4 for the Skeet, 7-1/2 for the Trap.

The heart of these new auto-loaders is the innovative, patented Franchi gas operation system. It's a self-cleaning, non-complicated arrangement. Perhaps the system's main feature is the heavy, compensating recoil spring. When light 2-3/4 inch loads are fired this spring is little or no factor in operation. However, as heavier and heavier ammo is shot, this spring becomes compressed more and more. With the stiffest 3 inch Magnums, of course, the heavy compensating spring is compressed the most. What this spring actually does is absorb the recoil and gas of the heavier loads, thus causing the rest of the action to work as if light 2-3/4 inch ammo was being fired.

Outdoor writer J. Wayne Fears of Alabama, who was also on this trip to Italy, claimed that his test Black Magic gas auto had been fired over 1,800 times with no malfunctions. Later we talked with George Woford, American Arms Vice President. George has shot one of these gas shotguns an estimated 4,000 to 5,000 times while hunting, shooting sporting clays and trap without negative incident. We asked George point blank, "What accounts for this reliability?"

Without hesitation Woford came back, "It's that heavy compensating spring. That spring makes it so simple for the gas operation to work the same way every time - with loads that seem like 2-3/4 inch light loads. This gun, though light, is also soft on recoil."

Or course, all gas semis tend to be much softer on felt recoil than pumps and double for recoil-operated semis. But what about availability? As of this writing Black Magics are both in the distributor pipeline and in inventory in the Missouri warehouse. American Arms has a large network of over 45 distributors, some of them with many distribution centers. Currently, 30 or more of their distributors handle the Black Magic line.

What about marketing? Franchi of Italy appears committed to further advancing and enhancing the Franchi name. They expect to become much more visible at skeet, trap and sporting clays competitions, all in an effort to emphasize their image.

As this was being written both Giuseppe Locati and Franco Franchi were on their way to the United States. The main purpose of their visit was in-depth discussions about advertising the Franchi[Trade Mark] line of shotguns. Since the two were coming to North Kansas City for these meetings, it is no doubt fair to assume that a significant ad campaign will be kicked off. The Black Magic series comes with a five year warranty. All servicing will be done at the modem American Arms center in North Kansas City. We've been told the American Arms factory and warehouse areas have tripled in size within the last year.

In addition to the Black Magic semi, there are also Sporting Hunter and Lightweight Hunter over/unders in this series. Maintaining the same philosophy as the fast-handling 48/AL auto, the Lightweight Hunter O/U weighs a whisper of 6 pounds in 12 gauge, the lightest O/U currently available except for a new Spanish-made over and under, the Silver Lite, which is new to the American Arms line for 1990. The Lightweight Hunter comes with 26-inch barrels and Franchokes, 2 3/4-inch chambers only. A single selective trigger and auto-ejectors are standard. We wonder if the day of the super lightweight shotgun has arrived - and that the Franchi Lightweight Hunter and American Arms Silver Lite might not be excellent sellers in coming months and years.

The Franchi Black Magic Sporting Hunter over and under weighs 7 pounds, so it will still be a fast handler. Separated barrels, like the Lightweight Hunter, but 28-inches, also with Franchokes. Of further interest, by late 1990 there will be a 20 gauge version of the gas semi Black Magic - and it will be pounds lighter than the Game 12 gauge - at 5 pounds 6 ounces! Some wonder that this 20 might have even more sales potential than the new 12 ! Of course, the 48/AL will continue to be actively marketed. With one million plus sales over the years, this one obviously continues to enjoy specialized appeal. Like the Black Magic series, the 48/AL has a special alloy receiver. As mentioned, it comes in 12 and 20 gauge, a variety of barrel lengths and in a plain blue Standard receiver, plus the Hunter model with bright game scene engraving. The 48/AL can also be supplied with 3-inch Magnum barrels.

Without question, the major thrust of Franchi firearms sales has been in Europe, while considerable arms are also exported to many countries in addition to the USA. As an example, we were told that the factory once made a run of approximately 300 28 gauge barrels - to fit the 20 gauge receiver of the 48/AL. Evidently, the barrel, its chamber and the barrel extension were the only differences. The rest of the Franchi parts were the same for the 20 as for the 28. Of the run of 300, Franco Franchi, who personally supervised the barrel run, felt that only 10 28 gauge barrels came to America. "Possibly as many as 20 came to the United States," be explained, "but I don't think so. We had so many Europeans who wanted a 28 bore 48/AL."

That's less than 5 percent of those barrels coming to our country. We would guess, however, that the USA gets more than 5 percent of the guns the Franchi factory currently produces. We were led to believe that current Franchi managers felt strongly that there was a significant market here for their gas Black Magic smoothbore. In fact, they were so convinced of this market that they had three brand new, most sophisticated Olivetti Computer Numerical Control (CNC) milling machines working, plus a fourth one in shipment. The planned use of these CNC machines is to have them almost exclusively producing actions and parts for the new gas Black Magic[Trade Mark]. Rest assured that each of these CNC machines cost BIG bucks. So there seems little question that SOCIMI is committed to shotgun sales in our hemisphere.

For 1991 Franchi is putting the final touches to a new line of shotguns. These will be called the Grand Prix series - all over and unders. There will be Trap, Skeet and Sporting Clays versions. Actually, they'll be similar to some of the over and unders we shot at the gun club in Brescia. Those guns were prototypes. Both Ghassan Bader and George Woford, and others, will be offering advice and input during coming weeks - as to what final features will be inherent in this Grand Prix series of O/Us.

SUMMARY

It appears Franchi Arms, through American Arms, will be making a major effort to slice out a significant piece of the United States shotgun sales pie. How they attempt to pull this off and whether or not they are successful will be interesting to watch.

Circle Inquiry No. 415 for more information on Franchi Arms.
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Date:Sep 1, 1990
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