Shooting the S&W Model 12

Essentially an aluminum frame Model 10, the S&W Model 12 was manufactured from 1953 to 1958, with model numbers running from 12-1 to 12-4. Before the 12-4, these revolvers had a frame that was 0.08” thinner than their steel counterparts and hammers measuring 0.240” wide compared to the usual 0.265” wide hammers on the Model 10 revolvers. On my own example, I noted that a standard hand, which had been removed from a Model 10, would not fit through the appropriate slot in the frame. There are probably other slight dimensional differences that I’ve not mentioned.

My 4” Model 12-3 weighs in at approximately 19 oz. compared to the 4” Model 10 “pencil barrel” at about 34 oz.

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My Model 12-3 was purchased almost LNIB and appears not much different than the all-steel Model 10. It had not been shot much at all and the revolver looked mint other than for a very small nick on the rear grip strap. This is the gun used in the shooting tests for this report. Changing grips on this revolver is problematic in that the narrow frame will leave a visible gap at the top. Also, standard S&W parts that would work fine in a steel K-frame probably may very well not work in pre-Model 12-4 guns.

In my early years as a police officer, I saw a few of these in police holsters but always supervisors who usually were no longer on the street and their guns were the 2” versions. I never saw a 4” version, either round or square butt in a “street officer’s” holster. I do not recall seeing any detectives using them.

In my neck of the woods, these revolvers were not particularly rare, but neither were they seen every day at the local gun shops.  My current Model 12 was made circa 1980-1981 and during that same time-frame, I recall looking at one NIB at a local shop. It was the same 4” RB version and was NIB. While I thought it was sort of “neat”, I didn’t buy it but rectified that a quarter century later.

Shooting:  Today’s shooting was done at ranges from 5 to 15 yards, though afterward I see that I should have included at least 25 yard groups. The truth of the matter is that I started out on a range having a maximum shooting distance of 15 yards and simply forgot to move over to the 25 yard range. (It was getting close to lunchtime.)

5 Yards: Groups shot at this short distance were fired to see how well this revolver handled at speed while conforming to the “Higginbotham Handgun Controllability Test”. To pass, 5 shots must be fired into an area about the size of a folded piece of typing paper in less than 2 seconds and starting from a ready position. In other words, all five shots must be quickly fired into an area roughly 5 ½ x 8 ½”. My own version of this was to fire on my own hand drawn silhouette target on which a dotted circle of roughly the same dimensions are present.


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Five 5-shot groups were fired from 5 yards using handloaded 158-gr. LRN ammo averaging 860 ft/sec from this revolver. Average time was 1.92 seconds. I passed 4 out of 5 tries, with the failure being 2.03 seconds, according to the timer.

7 Yards: This was the old “Failure to Stop” or “Mozambique Drill.” Starting from a low ready, I fired two to the chest area of the same “Gort Target” used for the controllability test and then one to the head.

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Headshots were not difficult at this distance, but the point of impact was slightly higher than expected. This was repeated 8 times. Average time was 2.37 seconds.  I attribute this to “taking my time in a hurry” for the shot to the “noggin”.

15 Yards: All shooting at this distance was done from a seated position while using a two-hand hold with my wrists braced. Unless otherwise noted, shooting was double-action.

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These groups were fired using Georgia Arms’ “Canned Heat” bulk ammunition. The load was their 158-gr. CSWC at a listed velocity of approximately 775 ft/sec. This ammunition appears to be plenty accurate enough for my needs and the Model 12 seems to have no problems with this easy-shooting load. Felt recoil is subjective but to me, shooting this standard pressure load was about the same as shooting the same bullet roughly 100 ft/sec faster from my Model 10 4” guns. To me, the groups are equivalent in the practical sense of the word, but the slightly smaller group was fired single-action. For me, this is frequently not the case. Sometimes, my better groups are fired in double-action mode. POA was the center of the dark gray bull’s eye.

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Winchester USA 130-gr. FMJ grouped satisfactorily though just a little below and left of the POA. This ammunition produced the least felt-recoil of the limited types of ammunition fired today.

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Remington’s 158-gr. LSWCHP +P hit POA almost exactly at 15 yards. Recoil was sharper than any of the other loads, but at just under 900 ft/sec from this 4”, such would be expected.

Observations & Conclusion: In my opinion, S&W did an admirable job of making a lightweight version of their old police mainstay, the Model 10 with the “skinny” barrel. At the same time, this can cause problems with parts replacement or easily changing stocks on the gun.

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Though reportedly changed on the 12-4, the hammer as well as some other parts is thinner than normal. This one is 0.240” wide.  It does not have a spring-loaded firing pin as do some of Smith & Wesson’s revolvers.

Though “tougher” to handle at speed than the all-steel Model 10’s, particularly those with the 4” “heavy barrel”,  but not as much as might be expected. It is certainly a step…or three nicer the lightweight J-frames I frequently practice with. Part of this might not only be from the slightly heavier K-frame but also the width of the rear grip strap and stocks; it allows for the recoil to be absorbed over a greater area while at the same time providing more to hang on to.

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As can be seen, primer strikes were plenty well-centered and adequate in force and depth. Note the cartridge head reflections in the polished black anodized frame visible at the right of the cylinder. Though the cartridges are marked “S&B”, these six were from the “canned heat” from Georgia Arms.  Several other makers’ head stamps were noted as well.

In discussions concerning the Model 10 with the standard “pencil” barrel vs. the heavier one, I have noted that some folks do prefer the former over the later due to their advising that when obtaining a “flash sight picture” for quick-and-dirty defensive type shooting, the higher one on the slender barrel is quicker to see. I had never considered this. Recall that in slow-fire, the 158-gr. ammunitions’ POI was very close to POA but on the Mozambique Drill, my head shots were just a little high. I am wondering if this was at least partially due to the Model 12’s higher front sight being more readily visible at speed.  I’ll have to try this again and see as one outing should not be taken as definitive due to the very real interference of human error.  We’ll see.


The front sight on my Model 12-3 is typical of those found on the slender barrel Model 10’s. The heavy barreled guns don’t require as high of a sight due to the increased outer diameter of the barrel. Some folks report preferring the slender barrel revolvers, claiming that they can find the front sight more easily at speed. I continue to prefer the heavy barrel. The reason is that it seems to reduce muzzle rise when shooting quickly and I’ve not had a problem finding its lower front sight. (I do admit that putting a heavy barrel on what is intended to be a lightweight version doesn’t make a lot of sense and agree that the standard barrel is probably best for this particular model.)

Not surprisingly, there were zero malfunctions of any description. The extractor rod on the 4” gun made extraction a breeze and the revolver’s timing was both satisfactory as was its action. In short, I have absolutely no complaints with this revolver’s performance.

The only advantages that I see for the Model 12 vs. the Model 10 is its obvious weight reduction as well as its anodized aluminum frame being rust proof.  Felt recoil is greater than with the heavier steel-framed revolver but not at all unmanageable, at least in my opinion.

Besides the different part dimensions for the pre-12-4 versions, the primary disadvantage of the gun to me is that it cannot be so easily refinished as a blue gun. I know from long experiences with them, that anodized aluminum will show holster wear on guns that are frequently carried or used from the holster.

There is also the question of longevity as well as whether or not to use +P ammunition in these revolvers. Were we to back up two dump trucks full of .38 Special ammunition to two shooters, one using the Model 10 and one the Model 12, I believe that the Model 10 shooter would get through more of the ammunition than would the Model 12’s user. Does that mean that the Model 12 is “weak” or overly fragile? I think not, but at the same time it was never intended to be a match gun or revolver expected to send thousands of rounds downrange per month. I do not believe that the “average handgun shooter” will wear one out without doing lots of shooting and I base that on shooting more than a few rounds through AirWeight aluminum frame J-frames over the decades. If I owned a Model 12 and wanted to shoot it, I would. In fact, I do and I will!

But what about using +P ammunition? It is a fact that S&W says not to do it. Speaking only for myself, were I going to use this revolver for self-protection, I would shoot enough +P through it to check POA vs. POI and reliability and then shoot a few rounds now and again as I changed out its carry ammo, but most of my shooting would be with standard pressure loads. I strongly suspect that this what many shooters of the lightweight J-frame snubs do.

As this is written, a shooter on one of the gun boards is testing a Model 12 by attempting to shoot a thousand rounds of +P ammunition through it. At present, I believe that he has several hundred +P rounds downrange through is Model 12. Having said this, I have seen two Model 12’s that had cracked frames. The cracks were immediately beneath the guns’ barrels and both had been fired with but a few of the now discontinued Winchester 150-gr. Metal Piercing ammunition. Was this particular lot of ammunition hotter than usual? Were these two guns, which were bought at the same time, somehow defective? Was the old Winchester load just too darned hot for them from any lot number? Would each and every Model 12 out there do the same?  I don’t know the answer but felt that this observation is at least somewhat relevant when considering using +P ammunition.  I suspect that the Winchester Metal Piercing load was simply a hot one, possibly generating higher pressures than today’s +P ammunition.

Unless I’m very wrong, I believe that the Model 12 will do nicely with the bulk of its shooting being done with standard pressure ammunition and an occasional feeding of one’s +P carry load. This is the route I intend to follow and if I am wrong and failure occurs, I’ll be quick to report it here.  Though not a steady diet, I have fed my non-+P-rated AirWeight J-frames more +P rounds that most shooters probably do and have had no problems and think that the same regimen with this AirWeight K-frame should provide similar results.

At the same time, I do not recommend this revolver as a general purpose shooter with the same enthusiasm as I do the Model 10 or 64’s. I see it as a specialty weapon, a niche gun if you will. If one is wedded to the service size DA revolver and but wants limited weight, the Model 12 might well be worth looking for, particularly if one detests the integral locks on current S&W revolvers or simply prefers the traditional styling of the older guns.

I will probably not carry this one for anything serious. It is simply a revolver I wanted to own and the price was right for such a pristine example.

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Carried in this relatively inexpensive paddle holster, the 4” Model 12-3 was both easy to conceal under a light jacket certainly not heavy. It almost seems as though it could just “float” out of the holster!

As much as I enjoy this revolver, were I going to be limited to but one, this would not be it. Though it definitely offers some advantages over all-steel service size revolvers, it also brings a few negatives; such is usually the way of things and since these are no longer made or common, I would opt for something else as my only revolver.  This is admittedly subjective and a decision that must be made by the individual, not only if considering a Model 12, but any firearm.

I like them quite a bit, but again I see them as specialty guns.



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