by Pierangelo Tendas – pictures by Franco Palamaro
“A botched development process – focused solely on manufacturing, looks, and lighter weight – caused the SOCIMI Type 821 SMG to be forever exiled to the confines of the firearms curiosa.”
It has not been ever conclusively explained what led Società Costruzioni Industriali Milano S.p.A., best known as SOCIMI – a well-respected manufacturer of train wagons, buses and other means of mass transportation – to enter the firearms business in 1983.
Devoid of any expertise or dedicated technology for firearms manufacturing, SOCIMI joined forces in 1984 with Luigi Franchi S.p.A., best known for its SPAS-12 and, later SPAS-15 shotguns, as well as its hunting shotguns and a limited escapade in military weaponry in the 1950s with the LF-57 sub-machine gun.
By 1987, SOCIMI would be the sole owner of Franchi. And this is where our story begins.
The Italian UZI: the Type 821 SMG, manufactured by SOCIMI in close collaboration with Franchi all through the 1980s, was a botched attempt to refine the legendary Israeli UZI design (photo by Franco Palamaro)
The SOCIMI Type 821 SMG was compact and lightweight, aimed at the law enforcement market with a specific attention to special task units and close protection details (photo by Franco Palamaro)
A little bit of history
All through their coexistence, SOCIMI and Franchi would engineer a family of long-stroke piston-driven military rifles that included the 7.62x51mm caliber SOCIMI AR-832 FS battle rifle, and two 5.56x45mm assault rifles, dubbed respectively the AR-831 and the AR-871 – the latter an improved, simplified version of the earlier. The AR-871 would become one of the early entrants in the long trials for the selection of a new 5.56mm NATO assault rifle for the Italian Armed Forces… and would also be one of the first to be canned.
But that’s a story for another time.
The only firearm that SOCIMI would manufacture in any quantity would be the Type 821 SMG 9mm open-bolt, blowback-operated sub-machine gun; the reason why the company would decide to refine what was already a popular and well-established design – the Israeli UZI – is simultaneously arguable and completely lost to time.
A close-up of the muzzle: the adjustable front sight block is screwed on to the machined aluminum receiver (photo by Franco Palamaro)
The rear plate hosted a sling swivel, and could be rotated and pulled away to remove the bolt and return spring when disassembling the SOCIMI Type 821 SMG (photo by Franco Palamaro)
In the early 1980s, the decline of the sub-machine gun as the go-to weapon for numerous military and law enforcement specialties was still a long way off. Light weight, compact and effective as they were, sub-machine guns still enjoyed the favor of the guys in uniform… and somehow they still do, chiefly among special task units and close protection details, but not exclusively: the American reader must keep in mind that, to this day, in many countries the sub-machine gun remains the standard police patrol firearm, while rifles and shotguns – more popular within the law enforcement community in the US – never really caught on in that role.
It would thus make sense that SOCIMI would try and get a hold on what was, back then, a very receptive market, and that they would try and do so with a refined version of a proven design: aggressively marketed in both the civilian and military-grade variants, the UZI had, in 1981, received a somewhat unwitting publicity stunt when United States Secret Service agent Robert Wanko was photographed as he deployed his UZI in the moments immediately following John Hinckley Jr.’s attempt on U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s life on March 30, 1981.
REFINING THE BATTLEHORSE
While retaining most of the key technical features of the UZI, SOCIMI and Franchi decided to focus their improvement effort on the manufacturing and materials. While the bolt group and barrel are still made of carbon steel – as they should be – both the receiver and the grip frame were machined out of lightweight aluminum alloy.
The use of aluminum in lieu of stamped sheet metal made the SOCIMI Type 821 SMG approximately 2.2 ounces lighter than the original UZI; the SOCIMI/Franchi sub-machine gun was also somewhat shorter than the UZI, given the barrel length – 7.87 inches vs. the original’s 10.2 inches – which would make it more desirable for police officers who’d have to carry it all day, and for close protection details who could conceal it more easily.
The receiver of the SOCIMI Type 821 SMG was distinctive, more streamlined than the original UZI’s, and lacked its predecessor’s prominent pressed reinforcement slots that keep dirt out of the way of the bolt. It also does without the UZI’s removable top cover: the non-reciprocating charging handle runs on two guides machined over the receiver body, reducing the amount of components involved in the field-stripping. The front and rear sight, both adjustable, were manufactured in separate blocks and then screwed on to the receiver.
The grip assembly – likewise machined out of aluminum and secured to the receiver by two retaining pins – is also distinctive in shape, in that it features a slightly different trigger guard, a set of finger grooves, and a more prominent grip safety. It was otherwise identical to its counterpart on the UZI, with a completely identical trigger group, a sliding 3-position fire selector (marked A-R-S as on the UZI) and featured an UZI-style magazine catch. SOCIMI made its own magazines, the only bent steel components on the gun: they were exact (and excellent) copies of the UZI magazines, holding 32 rounds of 9mm ammunition, and bore conspicuous SOCIMI rollmarks. The Type 821 SMG was fully compatible with original UZI mags.
The SOCIMI Type 821 SMG was an open-bolt sub-machine gun; nominal rate of fire ranged at around 600 rounds per minute – essentially the same as the original UZI’s – but the lighter weight made it harder to control (photo by Franco Palamaro)
The buttpad would be folded up when the stock rested to the right side of the gun, in order to reduce the profile and allow concealed carry (photo by Franco Palamaro)
THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY
In order to make the Type 821 SMG lighter and simpler than the original, the SOCIMI/Franchi engineers replaced the complicated underfolding sheet metal stock of the UZI with a straight single-strutt tubular steel stock, featuring an upfolding buttpad, hinged underneath the receiver and secured in the open or closed position by a push-button latch.
While the design and construction of the original UZI stock was meant to make it viable as an impromptu hand-to-hand combat weapon (or entrenching tool, if need be), the SOCIMI/Franchi engineers had no such use in mind when they designed the Type 821 SMG stock, opting instead for striking an acceptable balance between stability, low encumbrance, and concealability when folded. The final design was strikingly like that of the Beretta PM-12 sub-machine gun stock.
Both the grip panels and the handguard were two-piece components manufactured out of molded plastic, in a grey-greenish color – a stark contrast with the hard-anodized matte black finish of the aluminum parts. They are also some of the overall worst aspects of the Type 821 SMG: the polymer mix chosen for their manufacture was all wrong, and they were thus very prone to breakages – as you can see from the many cracks in the pictures illustrating this article.
A close-up of the stock hinge on the SOCIMI Type 821 SMG: a wide button would lock it in place, both when folded and unfolded (photo by Franco Palamaro)
A spring-loaded catch would hold the barrel nut in place; in order to disassemble the SOCIMI Type 821 SMG, the user would need to keep the catch depressed while unscrewing the barrel nut (photo by Franco Palamaro)
Indeed, in some of the (very few) SOCIMI Type 821 SMG samples that still survive today, these parts have since all but broken away completely.
Additionally, they were held in place with Phillips-head screws – not a great idea on a firearm, even for the 1980s – and those weren’t exactly the best available, prone as they were to rusting.
Lacking a removable top cover, the disassembly of the SOCIMI Type 821 SMG was more akin to that of a Beretta PM-12 or the Czechoslovak SA Vz.26. With the magazine out and bolt closed, the sling swivel located at the rear end of the receiver would be unscrewed out. This would in turn allow the removal of the squared rear end cap; once that was done, the user could remove the return spring and guide rod assembly and slide out the bolt, which is substantially identical to that of the Israeli UZI, with a fixed firing pin, but features a deep guide milled on top.
The barrel is removed from the front by unscrewing the barrel nut, which was kept in position by a spring-loaded latch. Once it all was done, the return spring guide rod could be used as a punch to remove the pins that keep the receiver and the grip assembly/frame together.
The disassembly was not harder than the original UZI’s, and resulted in an overall similar amount of components.
Just like the UZI, the SOCIMI Type 821 SMG would host its magazine in the pistol grip; the magazine catch is identical to the UZI’s (photo by Franco Palamaro)
The plastic buttpad on the Type 821 SMG stock, fully extended (photo by Franco Palamaro)
REASONS FOR A FAILURE
The SOCIMI Type 821 SMG was originally announced in 1984, and despite some hiccups – such as the plastic components – it seemed initially like a very good product overall. A smaller version, half-way between a Mini-UZI and a Micro-UZI, dubbed the “Type 821-5 Micro SMG”, was also announced but never got past prototype stage.
It didn’t take long for the specialized press and the market to find out the Type 821 SMG was not exactly the advertised “classic UZI meets Italian sports car high-tier design and technology.” True, the Franchi engineers – largely responsible for the project – did a good job, but something went wrong.
The charging handle on the SOCIMI Type 821 SMG was identical in form and function to that of the UZI, albeit a bit smaller (photo by Franco Palamaro)
A close-up of the Type 821 SMG trigger group; notice the feeding ramp built-in on the frame (photo by Franco Palamaro)
SOCIMI’s haste in improving the original design, making it lighter and visually distinctive through the use of different materials and manufacturing techniques had a significant side effect: the bolt, machined out of carbon steel, was the single heaviest component of the Type 821 SMG; and being a telescopic bolt – whose front portion wraps around the rear end of the barrel when it closes – it moved A LOT of mass forward when the gun was fired.
Now, in an open-bolt sub-machine gun like the UZI, the SA Vz.26 or the Beretta PM-12 – all manufactured largely out of steel and thus fairly heavy – this helps to keep recoil and muzzle climb under control. In a featherweight like the Type 821 SMG, not so much. While the UZI is known to be controllable in full-auto and fairly accurate, even in off-hand shooting, the SOCIMI/Franchi design was everything but.
The bolt of the SOCIMI Type 821 SMG: a pretty straightforward copy of the UZI bolt, albeit with a deep guide milled on the top due to the different engagement system of the charging handle (photo by Franco Palamaro)
SOCIMI made their own magazines for the Type 821 SMG: excellent copies of the original UZI magazine. The Type 821 remained fully compatible with the original Israeli mags (photo by Franco Palamaro)
At 32 feet (10-meters), in full-auto, it was almost impossible not to totally saturate a standard B-27 target, with no accuracy of sorts – and that’s at 550/600 rounds per minute, essentially the same as the UZI. Acceptable if you’re looking for a room sweeper type of gun, much less if you need precision. Things weren’t any better in semi-auto, for the same reasons.
Add the inherently higher cost of a product made in an advanced western European Country like Italy, and you’ll quickly realize why even those customers who desperately wanted UZIs but couldn’t (or wouldn’t) procure them from Israel – chiefly for political reasons – would still steer clear away from the SOCIMI/Franchi design.
SOCIMI Type 821 SMG seen from the right side, with stock unfolded (photo by Franco Palamaro)
SOCIMI Type 821 SMG, field-stripped (photo by Franco Palamaro)
Despite being popularized today as the so-called “Milano 821” sub-machine gun from Call of Duty: Black Ops – Cold War, the SOCIMI Type 821 SMG was manufactured only in very small quantities – 500 samples at least, but certainly not more than 1000 – with Italian government entities being the only recorded customers.
None would ever be fielded and very few still exist: the sample portrayed in the pictures that illustrate this article was photographed in 2008 in a Guardia di Finanza (Italian revenue service) depot in Rome and has likely since been sent to the smelter. Only a handful of samples that were transferred to the reference collections of Italian firearms and ammunition developers survive to this day.
Drawings from the original patent of the Type 821 SMG: applied for in 1983 under the name of Alessandro Marzocco – quoted as the “inventor”, actually the owner of the SOCIMI group – it would be accepted by Italian authorities in 1986 with number IT19655A/86, and in published in the US with number US4895064A in 1990. It expired in 2007 (source: United States Patent and Trademark Office)
An experimental development of the Type 821 SMG chambered for the 9mm AUPO caseless self-propelled cartridge (generally associated with the prototype Benelli CB-M2 design) was carried on in collaboration with Italy’s prime ammunition manufacturer, Fiocchi; too little too late, one may say, because the Type 821 SMG was discontinued the in 1989, and SOCIMI went bankrupt in 1992 following the Mani Pulite kickbacks scandal.
Franchi tried to market it for a couple more years as the SOCIMI-Franchi LF-821, but not one single sample appears to have ever been made or sold under that name. By 1995, Franchi had been absorbed by the Beretta Holding and dropped the tactical firearms line, focusing exclusively on hunting shotguns and, more recently, rifles.
The history of the SOCIMI Type 821 SMG is an example of how capricious the firearms market can be. A good design cannot always be improved, and trying to do so isn’t always a success. A botched development process – focused solely on manufacturing, looks, and lighter weight – caused the SOCIMI Type 821 SMG to be forever exiled to the confines of the firearms curiosa.
|SOCIMI – Società Costruzioni Industriali Milano S.p.A., Italy Luigi Franchi S.p.A., Italy
|Type 821 SMG
|Calibers and twist rates
|9mm Luger (1:10”)
|Select-fire, blowback-operated, open-bolt
|Manual safety position on selector, grip safety
|32 rounds in double-stack magazine
|Elevation adjustable front sight, rear sight adjustable for range (100 to 200 meters)
|Rate of fire
|15.74” (stock folded), 23.6” (stock extended)
|Machined aluminum grip frame and receiver; steel barrel, stock, and bolt; plastic handguard and grips
|Hard-anodized black finish on aluminum components, matte black finish on steel surfaces, light grey/green plastic assemblies
|This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V25N10 (December 2021)