The Old School Lightweight S&W Model 12
The S&W Model 12 was manufactured from 1953 until 1986. The gun was originally designed to compete with Colt for Air Force and other military contracts, with model numbers running from 12-1 to 12-4. These revolvers had a frame that was 0.08” thinner than their steel counterparts. The 4” Model 12 weighs in at just 19 oz.
I never knew any police officer who carried a model 12 on duty and the men I ran into in the Marine Corps who carried revolvers, regardless of their rank or branch of the service, all carried full steel revolvers. There were a few who owned the model 12 and other lightweight versions of the time like the Colt Cobra, which was probably the most popular lightweight. These guns were typically jammed in their waist band or a pocket when was off duty.
I was given my model 12 as a gift. I have an appreciation for semi-autos, however more often than not you will find a revolver on my hip. I never feel out-gunned with a revolver, and I know that equipment never replaces training. Even in combat for close quarter operations I would pull out my full steel Detective Special before my 1911.
A friend of mine, Mike Stamm, said “I have the perfect gun for you”. He produced a pristine model 12 with Bianchi’s “Lightning” grips. The dull brown, finger-grooved grips enclosed the revolver’s hammer and did not do much to make the gun attractive. In fact, he said his family members told him it was the ugliest gun they had ever seen.
I took the model 12 in hand, it felt good and pointed very well. As long as it performed I could not care less how the gun looked but I have to disagree with Mike’s family– it was not that ugly. And “ugly” never stopped me from owning, or using a gun.
I own and have owned my share of lightweight guns starting with a lightweight Colt Commander 1911-variant .45 ACP back in the 80’s. I carried it religiously off duty until I shot it to the point the frame cracked around 1999. But that is what guns are for– shooting– and we live and learn. I shoot my guns way more than the average person. Back when I purchased it, it was one of three handguns I owned, the others being a snubby and my 681 .357 Duty Weapon. The Commander got more than its fair share of use. I fed it any ammo I could get my hands on cheaply, and I know some of the hand loads I was given were too hot. I am not the average or even above-average shooter. I put a lot of rounds down range. I did, however, quit shooting reloads.( I do not want any hate mail on this. I do not hand load myself and have friends I would trust to load anything but none close enough to get ammo from. But in those days if it was a bullet and it was offered for free or was cheap I would shoot it.)
We took the Model 12 out to the range and I loaded it up with 158 grain LRN ammo. The weather was foul and we stepped back into a roofed enclosure. My target was at 15 yards. I put the gun through its paces and it performed flawlessly.
I was shooting at defensive speeds with combat reloads and with no exaggeration you could almost cover the 6 shot groups with a quarter. The recoil was nominal and it was not a chore to get the barrel down and back on target. Remember this gun is a full size K frame with a 4 inch steel barrel and a steel cylinder. It is not a lightweight or titanium snub nose, so it is very pleasant to shoot.
I then loaded it up with 158 grain semi-wadcutter flat nose + P ammo. Again the gun performed flawlessly, the felt recoil was a little stiffer but not significant and firing it was not the least bit unpleasant.
During this round of fire Mike said, “See if you can hit the staple in the corner of the target.” I put three quick shots in the area of the staple as fast as I could pull the trigger; the gun was completely controllable and by no means a chore to get back on target with the hotter ammo. The grouping was just as tight as the groups I shot with the low pressure practice ammo. In fact I commented to Mike ” I like shooting the carry ammo better”.
The advantage of the model 12 is the same as any lightweight gun. It is easy to carry and would be a good gun for the trail or for anyone where weight is an issue. Felt recoil is greater than with the heavier steel-framed revolver but as I said not at all unmanageable, and their is no pain or sting as with some of the lightweights.
The only real disadvantage of the gun is if you purchase or own an early version it is thinner and off the shelf grips that go up on to the frame will have a small gap between the gun and the grip.
There is also the question of whether or not to use +P ammunition in these revolvers. This is only my opinion– I have no data to back it up. Most shooters regardless of the type of gun practice with the cheaper FMJ or wadcutter type ammo with standard .38 Special powder charges. They then carry the + P ammo in the gun as defensive loads, shooting an occasional cylinder or two through the gun.
I do not believe the Model 12 is fragile, as it was built to be used by the military and to give many years of useful service to the men and woman who carried them. Even in combat, handguns do not send thousands of rounds downrange on a daily or monthly basis. I do not believe that an average or an above average handgun shooter will wear one out in their life time.
Michigan State Police were issued off-duty 5-shot alloy-framed S&W Airweight model 38s, chambered in .38 Special and made with non-standard stainless steel cylinders. These were issued starting back in the late 1950’s, and were eventually replaced with the hammerless stainless steel models 640 and 640-1. However, the last of the Airweight J-frames were not replaced until well into the early 1990’s. Most of the troopers who were issued the Airweights are now retired, and were given the opportunity to purchase one of their issue handguns. Many of those retired troopers are still carrying and shooting those Airweight aluminum J-frames today, despite having been the second or third trooper to have been issued that gun. Not to date my friend Mike but he still has his.
If you talk to Troopers who use and own Airweight S&Ws, they will tell you that if one failed or its frame cracked it was typically because its user relentlessly fed it extremely hot ammo, some new whiz bang or hand loaded hot cartridge. Still, with rare exception it took decades and a tremendous amount of ammo to wear the Airweight 5-shot revolvers out. To be fair I have personally seen guys load their full steel gun with some really hot or hand loaded cartridge and break the gun or crack the frame of the gun. Abuse or using the gun in a manner for which it is not designed is typically always going to result in equipment failure.
The Model 12 is a 6-shot K-frame, not a 5-shot J-frame, and I feel it is much sturdier then the J. I intend to shoot mine as often as I like. I am not afraid to use or carry it. I will do as stated above and shoot the lower pressure practice ammo to train with and load it up with a respectable +P for carry. I will shoot the +P through it when I decide to purchase new ammunition.
The Model 12 performs just like its heavier counterparts. There were no malfunctions of any description with either practice or carry ammo. It is a solid, well-made, accurate handgun.
Copyright © 2010 by Steven L. Doran
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