The Winchester Model 12: A Look Back

posted on January 12, 2017

Today the pump shotgun is a pretty utilitarian tool. Most have next to no frills; any accessorizing is usually limited to lights, lasers, magazine extensions or loading ports. There’s nothing wrong with this. One does not need or even want figured wood with hand-cut checkering for defending one’s home, breaching a door or bringing down a duck in a marsh. But a century ago elegance was as much a part of gun design as practicality.

Pump- or slide-action long guns have been around for a long time. Alexander Bain of Britain received the first patent for a pump action in 1854. During the latter part of the 19th century Winchester, which was the recognized leader in lever-action repeating rifles, tasked John Browning with providing the company with its first repeating shotgun, and because Winchester was all about lever actions it wanted its repeater to be a lever-gun as well. Browning responded with what would be known as the Model 1887 shotgun. The Model 1887 enjoyed some success, but it did have some handling and reliability issues.

Winchester eventually ceded to Browning the notion that a pump-action shotgun would be a better, more reliable repeater. In 1893 the company introduced a slide-action shotgun designed by Browning. There were immediate issues with the Model 1893, one of which was the 1893 was designed for black powder shells. Ammo companies were rapidly changing to smokeless powder in their shotshells, and Winchester’s brass were terrified that they would be vulnerable to lawsuits from people injured from shooting smokeless loads in the black-powder Model ’93. Within four years Winchester redesigned the Model ’93 into the Model 1897, replete with a solid-top receiver and 2 3/4" chambers. Another safety feature was incorporated so that the fore-end had to be pushed forward slightly to unlock the bolt before the action could be operated. It may have been the first instance of a product recall in America; Winchester offered to buy back or exchange a Model ’97 for a Model ’93. The Model ’97 was a solid shotgun with more than a million copies made during its 60-year production run.

Thomas Crossley (TC) Johnson came to work at Winchester as a 23-year-old engineer in 1885. Johnson would eventually be responsible for no less than eight of Winchester’s most iconic firearms. Soon after the turn of the 20th century Johnson began to work on a more modern design than that of the Model ’97. Competition for marketplace share was intense between gunmakers, and all of them invested heavily into keeping themselves ahead of the technological and design curve. The most objectionable feature of the Model ’97 was that damnable exposed hammer. It just seemed offensible to the sensibilities of a refined shooter. The fix that Johnson came up with was to simply hide the hammer inside an enclosed and streamlined receiver.

Johnson also redesigned the internals. Whereas the Model ’97 used a carrier or shell lifter that does double duty to lock the bolt, the Model 1912 locks the bolt directly into the receiver and has a separate bolt release activated by pulling the trigger or pushing a button at the rear of the trigger guard. The carrier is hinged at its rear and under spring tension so that when the bolt is in battery it is more or less flush with the bottom of the receiver. This arrangement is stronger than that of the 1897, though the older shotgun has never been criticized for a lack of strength. Like the Model ’97, the Model 1912 was not originally produced with a disconnector, meaning that a shooter can hold the trigger down and fire the gun by simply operating the slide. This feature seems to mostly impress people who know little about guns or how to use them, as well as the movie going public.

The Model 12—as it became known after 1919—was made from the finest steel alloys of the time. Parts were forged and required extensive, and often complicated, machining to produce them. Winchester’s marketing guys immediately christened it the “Perfect Repeater,” and like a lot of those old Winchester nicknames, it struck a chord with the shooting public and became common in usage. All of this came at a price, of course. The Model 12 was about 40 percent more expensive than the ’97, yet it consistently outsold its older brother during the 45-year-span they shared in the Winchester catalog.

When it was introduced, the Model 12 was only available in 20 gauge, 12- and 16-gauge Model 12s became available in late 1913. A 28-gauge Model 12 was brought out in 1934. Sadly, this is the rarest of Model 12s, probably as a result of The Depression and the fact that the 28 gauge—as wonderful as it is—was the prerogative of those with a fair amount of discretionary cash, something sorely lacking during The Depression and World War II. In 1933 a completely scaled down version of the Model 12—the Model 42—came out in .410 bore.

Like most of the great Winchesters, the Model 12 had its ups and downs. During its heyday it was made in Field, Skeet, Trap, Tournament and Super Pigeon grades, the differences primarily being in grades of walnut and engraving. The Heavy Duck Gun was never marked as such. Rather, it was roll marked with “Super Speed and Super X.” These guns were chambered for 3" magnum shells and debuted in 1935. Some were made with a solid rib; others had a vent rib, but most were plain barreled. A Featherweight model came out in 1961. Beginning in 1928 some Model 12s came from the factory with a Cutts Compensator, this feature was discontinued in 1954. Some were also equipped with the competing Polychoke.

While the majority of Model 12s were field guns, quite a few saw service in the military and law enforcement. Model 12 Trench Guns were produced on special order to the military in 1919. Riot gun versions—again on special order—came about in 1918 and were produced for the subsequent 45 years. All of these marshal shotguns were available in 12 gauge only.

For much of its production run the Model 12 was the repeating shotgun that all others were judged by. Its smooth operation and reliability remains legendary among knowledgeable shotgunners. The fact that it was more expensive than its competitors meant virtually nothing, but eventually it became the shotgun’s undoing. When Remington brought out its Model 870 in 1950, the Model 12 would start feeling its age. The Remington looked almost as good as the Model 12—aficionados can tell them apart in their sleep—and the upstart was as reliable and fast handling as the older Model 12. Post-war production costs were headed into the stratosphere. The increasing costs combined with market share loss put the Model 12 on the chopping block during the infamous 1964 reorganization of the Winchester product line. Customers and gun writers screamed like a calf being branded, but as a stock broker friend of mine once said, “Never underestimate the power of money.” The Model 12 as a production gun was finished.

A few Model 12s leaked out of the Custom Shop until 1980. Another limited run—more like a trickle—was done from 1993 until 2006 by Miroku for USRAC. But the notion that function is everything and form must conform to function, aesthetics be dammed has shoved aside the notion of elegance being a critical part of a sporting tool. Too, it has become more widely accepted that tools are consumable, and replacement is simply a part of doing business.

More than 2 million Model 12s were made, and that legend of smooth operation and durability has fueled some collector interest. Model 12s can be abused, left out in the elements, dropped, kicked or worse and still keep shooting. Given even minimal care, however, a Model 12 will outlast virtually any other pump-gun. If you can find one, a Model 12 is well worth the investment. I inherited mine from an old family friend who went to his reward about 25 years ago. With it I have shot some geese on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, the Mecca of waterfowling. I may not be doing as much waterfowling as I once did, but I can’t imagine being without a Model 12.


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