The Old School Lightweight S&W Model 12

March 29, 2010 by  
Filed under Trail Boss Articles

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 gun pics 1 053.jpg_thumbnail1out-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

All rights reserved under international and Pan-American copyright conventions. No part of this article may be reproduced or utilized in any form or by any means without written permission from the author Steven L. Doran.



5 Comments on "The Old School Lightweight S&W Model 12"

  1. Osp on Fri, 2nd Apr 2010 3:09 PM 

    You are right, you will have no problem firing + P ammo in the Model 12. A test was done in 2008 where 1000 rounds of commercial Winchester 158 grn SWCHP was fired consecutively. The gun was checked at the end by a gunsmith. There were no ill effects to the gun and the owner continued to use and fire the gun after the test. Some questioned the test stating more +P should have been fired, if it did not break after 1000 you can shoot as much as you need to for practice and carry.

  2. Prairie Dog on Sun, 4th Apr 2010 3:23 PM 

    I am aware of that test. It’s been said that Osprey did not conduct an exhaustive scientific test under the supervision of a PhD metallurgist in laboratory conditions.

    He’s just trying to prove a point with “His Model 12″. Which is, whether or not it would hold up while shooting factory produced +P ammunition.

    Methodology = He shot currently manufactured +P ammo not hand loads.

    Results = “His Model 12″ held up just fine mechanically.

    Conclusion = To date even after the test “His Model 12″ hasn’t worn loose, cracked, broken, or blown up.

    If he shot 20,000 rounds in his test with positive results there would still be someone who would contend that to be a “scientific test” he should have fired 40,000 rounds under laboratory conditions.

    Persons have shot factory spec .357′s in their new J-frame Sc Ti .357 guns only to have them crack, break and have to be replaced. Sh*t happens with the best high pressure designs too.

  3. Ed Harris on Wed, 21st Apr 2010 12:45 PM 

    I agree that with current factory produced .38 Special +P ammo you should have no problems. Handloads are the vast unknown because there are too many uncontrolled variables. Let common sense be your guide. Practice with standard pressure loads.

    Use +P for carry, and rotate your carry loads replacing them monthly with fresh ammo. Shooting that one cylinder full of +P a month with your practice loads, spread over the servcice life of the gun isn;’t going to hurt it.

  4. Matt Groom on Fri, 23rd Apr 2010 10:00 AM 

    I’m a huge fan of S&W .38 Specials, and have purchased quite a few. I recall having seen three model 12′s in about 8 years (since I was old enough to handle the guns in a gun store) and two of them had cracked frames, the third was in immaculate, “unfired” condition. While I cannot say for certain what kind of ammo was put through the two which were damaged, it does not sit well with me that fully two-thirds of the specimens I’ve personally observed had cracked frames.

    I have also seen a five shot model 37 which had a cracked frame as well. It was in otherwise very good plus condition, but was unable to be repaired by S&W, who offered a modern 637 as a replacement at a discounted price.

    I wouldn’t hesitate to buy one if I found it at a good price, but I would shoot wadcutters through it almost exclusively.

  5. John Broekhuizen on Fri, 23rd Apr 2010 4:06 PM 

    It is odd that a gun store would put guns out for sale with cracked frames I have never seen them sell weapons that were unsafe or unserviceable. I can assure you I would never go their to purchase a firearm. The 12 was designed to shoot full power 38 loads of any bullet size or weight. I have seen a lot of cracked frames on full steel guns as well as some of the new scandium’s, in each case they were cracked by hand loads, I am not saying that it can not happen with factory ammo but more often than not it is a hand loader who makes a round inconstant with what should be used in a particular gun.

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