August 10, 2023
The development of the modern revolver was due in great part to the century long competition between those two Taipans of the American handgun industry — Colt and S&W. While S&W dominated the small/concealable revolver market for second half of the 19th century, Colt revolvers were the preferred sidearm of western lawman, the legendary cowboy and nefarious outlaws. While S&W’s large caliber, hinged frame revolvers were adopted by armies around the world, the U.S. Army remained committed to the .45 caliber Colt SAA. Colt was first off-the-mark with a swing out cylinder revolver in 1889, but within a decade S&W had competing designs available for sale. By the second decade of the 20th century, the American police market was dominated by double action .38 Special caliber revolvers such as the Colt Official Police and S&W M&P. Both firms engaged in a continual R&D process to improve their products in a never-ending attempt to gain an edge over the competition. By1960, it could be fairly said that these efforts had resulted in the perfection of the modern double action revolver as we know it.
After World War II, manufacturers began producing handgun parts from aluminum alloys that had been developed during the conflict. To obtain the most performance from the new jet fighters, it was necessary to reduce their weight, as well as that of their crews and equipment, as much as possible. Attempts were made to slice every ounce of weight from huge bombers like the Convair B-36 “Peacemaker” to allow them to carry atomic weapons deep into the Soviet Union. Another consideration was that if a pilot had to eject from a fighter at supersonic speeds, any heavy equipment he was wearing might be torn away injuring the pilot and/or his parachute.
First off the mark was Colt in 1950 with their Cobra revolver whose alloy frame reduced its weight to fifteen ounces. In 1951, the U.S. Air Force purchased approximately 1,200 Cobra revolvers fitted with aluminum cylinders that reduced their unloaded weight to only eleven ounces. Known as the Aircrewman Special, they were intended for issue to pilots and other personnel for whom weight and compactness were prime considerations. S&W did not take this lying down, and the following year offered their J-frame .38 AirWeight and K-frame .38 Military & Police AirWeight revolvers, both of which utilized aluminum frames that were 0.08 of an inch narrower than the steel J- and K-frame revolvers with correspondingly thinner grips. Fitted with a two-inch barrel and round butt grips, the six round M&P AirWeight tipped the scales at 14.5 ounces.
In 1953, the Air Force purchased a quantity of both alloy frame Smiths for trials and in April of that year the Air Force adopted the M&P version as the Revolver, Lightweight, Caliber .38, M-13 and a contract for 40,000 guns placed with S&W. Issue revolvers were marked Revolver, Lightweight, M-13 on the topstrap and “Property of U.S. Air Force” on the grip backstrap. Besides aircrews, M-13 and Aircrewman revolvers were also used by personnel manning Strategic Air Command (SAC) missile silos, by agents in the Air Force’s Office of Special Investigations (OSI), the Army’s Counter Intelligence Corps (CIC) and by the Corps of Military Police. Both the Colt and S&W experienced cylinder cracking problems that led the Air Force to adopt the low-pressure Ball, Caliber .38 Special M41 cartridge. The M41 cartridge was first issued in 1956. It had a round-nosed, FMJ 130-grain bullet with a pressure limit of only 13,000 psi for a bullet velocity of 725 fps.
But cylinder cracking problems continued, and both the Colt and S&W were withdrawn from service in 1959 and most were destroyed by having the cylinder and barrel crushed. After the M-13 and Cobra alloy frame revolvers were withdrawn from service, a higher-pressure cartridge was developed, Caliber .38 Special, Ball, PGU-12/B High Velocity cartridge, which had an increased pressure rating of 20,000 psi, sufficient to propel its 130-grain FMJ bullet to 950–980 fps from a four-inch revolver barrel. S&W substituted steel cylinders for the aluminum on commercial guns and increased the weight to 18 ounces. In 1957, S&W began using a numerical model designation system and the M&P AirWeight became the Model 12.2
The Model 12 proved popular, and sales were encouraging, so much so that in 1959, the Massachusetts manufacturer decided to expand the line with options of four-, five-, or six-inch barrels, round or square butt grips with blue or nickel finishes. While the two- and four-inch models were instant successes, the longer barreled guns were dropped from the catalog the following year.
For decades, the Model 12 maintained a loyal following among American police agencies, especially plain clothes officers and — it has been reported —female officers. As did their counterparts in law enforcement, civilians were also fond of the Model 12 primarily because of its light weight, higher cartridge capacity, superior ergonomics and recoil control when compared to the small frame snubbie revolvers. In 1958, the Swedish Air Force purchased a quantity of Model 12s for issue to pilots. Known as the Revolver m/58, they were fitted with two-inch barrels and round butt grips.3
In Swedish service, the .38 Special was known as the 9mm sk ptr m/58 which was loaded with 130-grain FMJ bullets at velocities similar to the U.S. M41 cartridge. The Model 12 family includes one of the rarest of all S&W K-frame revolvers. In 1966, the French police purchased Model 12s with three-inch barrels, round butt grips and a safety catch for trials. The latter device consisted of what appeared to be a second cylinder release latch on the right hand sideplate which, when pushed forward, locked the hammer and trigger. Eventually, the French police adopted a Manuhrin revolver.4
During its production life the Model 12 was upgraded several times:
1962 - Model 12-1: change extractor rod to LH thread, eliminate screw in front of trigger guard.
1962 - Model 12 -2: front sight changed from 1/10 in. width to 1/8 in.
1977 - Model 112-3: gas ring on yoke to cylinder.
1984 - Model 12-4: increase hammer width from 0.240 in. to 0.265 in. and frame thickness to same as all K-frame revolvers.
The only serious complaints leveled against the Model 12 were that the frame’s anodized finish tended to wear badly around the edges of the frame and that S&W discouraged the use of +P ammunition in them. In the mid-1980s, with the burgeoning popularity of semiauto pistols with both police and civilian shooters a fact of life, the Model 12 was discontinued in 1986.
Several years ago, I picked up a moderately worn, round butt Model 12 in a trade. I was impressed with its superior ergonomics over a J-frame revolver I had been using for CCW but decided that several “improvements” were in order. Accordingly, I turned it over to my local gunsmith who replaced the four-inch barrel with a two-inch tube, modified the lock work to double action only, removed the hammer spur, narrowed and polished the trigger, installed a trigger overtravel stop, while a set of high tech grips completed the package.
It proved a light weight, easy shooting and accurate snubbie and served as one of my regular carry guns...that is until I let my wife try it out! She became enamored to it, and it replaced the J-frame snubbie she had been carrying in her purse and glove box of her car. Oh well, as the Tralfamadorians in Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse Five said, “So it goes.” For test firing purposes I choose a four-inch, square-butt Model 12-3 from my personal collection. Obtaining the assistance of my shooting buddy Lin Webb, we headed out to the gun club to see if the lightweight Smith could still perform.
After performing the, all but mandatory, accuracy testing and chronographing we set up a pair of D-1 target at seven yards and Rusty ran the Model 12 through a series of offhand, rapid-fire drills, firing it both supported and unsupported. Despite its lightweight and rather “primitive” wooden grips, recoil control was quite good, and all of the rounds we sent down range found their way into the higher scoring zones of the target. But then, being both of us have a fair amount of experience with Smith & Wesson’s medium frame revolvers, we were not surprised in the least. Thanks to modern metallurgy, S&W is once again producing revolvers with lightweight frames and cylinders made from titanium and Scandium that are strong enough to handle Magnum cartridges with aplomb. I like to think of them as the modern reincarnations of the Model 12.