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The Origin of the Winchester Model 12 – #012 of the Gun Room Podcast
Notable features, John Browning’s hand in the design, and more about the famous Winchester shotguns
A fitting subject for our 12th podcast and a follow-up to our previous report on the Remington 870, today we will be talking about Winchester’s slide action or pump-action shotgun the Winchester Model 1912 or Model 12 as it has come to be known. If you caught our briefing on the Remington 870, you will no doubt remember that we mentioned the Winchester Model 12 in that discussion several times. Winchester’s pump was the gun to look up to, the popular kid at school, the girl everyone wanted to dance with at the prom.
The Model 12 reigned supreme until that oh so pivotal year in gun making – 1964 – when it was discontinued because of the increasing cost of manufacturing and increased competition from the less expensive Remington 870 and others.
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Much like previously discussed subjects on this podcast, the story of the Model 12 originates with its predecessors and with the legendary John Browning. John Browning’s original patents for the Model 1893 and 1897 slide-action shotguns would serve as the basis for the Model 12.
Notable features of the Model 1893, 1897, and Model 12
The 93 and 97 were both exposed hammer guns, meaning the hammer that struck the firing pin was exposed at the tang. This was a carryover from earlier hammer-fired shotguns and rifles and gives these pumps a distinctive look. The rearward travel of the bolt out of the action would depress and cock the external hammer much like many, very successful Winchester lever-action rifles.
The 1893 was designed for the 2 5/8-inch black powder shells of the time. It was offered only in 12 gauge with a 30- or 32-inch barrel, and though it found some success its action was too weak to deal with the new smokeless powder shells being developed at the time. The 1897 took this into account and closed off the top portion of the action, allowing the bolt to ride inside and make it into a full side ejection gun. The added material provided the necessary strength to fire smokeless powder shells, as well as 2 3/4-inch shells.
Another improvement was the slide lock, which was absent on the Model 1893. The purpose of a slide lock is much as it sounds; a device to lock the slide in the forward and closed position. It would seem inherent that this was necessary, but it was absent until developed for the 1897. The slide lock was engaged when the slide or pump was pushed forward into battery and disengaged by a slight forward motion of the pump, something that came naturally during firing the gun, which would unlock the slide and allow the gun to be cycled. Essentially, the slide lock kept the shooter from bringing the slide back during the firing process. Without this lock, the action could be partially opened during the firing process by a shooter not applying forward pressure on the slide.
As far as features go, the Model 1897 had two other distinguishing features that would carry through into the Model 1912. Initially, the 1893 and 97 were both made with barrels that were not removable- the idea of a “take down” version of the 97 was introduced a few years after its release and served to be quite useful for folks who wished to travel with a gun. The ability to break the gun down allowed it to be packed into manageable size luggage for train or bus transportation that was so common at the time. This concept is now so widespread that we as modern shooters take it for granted that all of our pump and semi-auto shotguns can easily be broken down, but at the turn of the century that was not the case. In particular, many early pump guns had barrels that were fitted per each action – that means you couldn’t swap out to different barrels.
The second notable feature of this family of guns was the lack of trigger disconnectors. In the simplest terms, this means that when the gun is cycled, if the trigger is held down, as soon as the slide is rammed forward bringing the gun back into battery, the shotgun will fire. The result is that each time one pumps the gun, it fires. Slam firing in combination with a magazine tube that held six 2 3/4-inch shells, made the 1897 and Model 12 popular military weapons and many were used as trench guns starting in World War 1.
So where does that leave us then? Well, with the Winchester Model 1912 of course. The Model 12 was the first internal-hammer, pump shotgun produced by the company. Designed by Thomas Crossley Johnson it followed in the success of the Model 1897 of which nearly 1 million were produced. The Model 12 borrowed from John Browning’s designs by pulling the aforementioned features from its predecessor and by exhibiting several new notable features.
A photo of an 1897 with the pump in the “open position’” shows the bolt out of the rear of the action(cocking back the hammer), and the lifter dropped below and outside the action to the bottom. The gun looks like quite the contraption in the number of moving parts that extend beyond the action. All of this changed with the Model 12, beginning with bringing the hammer inside the action.
Tucking the hammer inside the action, allowed the back of the receiver to be solid, improving both the looks and the overall strength of the gun. The 97’s lifter mechanism, used for bringing shells from the magazine tube up into the action and locking the bolt, was foregone for a newer carrier style mechanism that remained inside the confines of the action during a normal cycle of the gun. Most will recognize this carrier as the hinged flap that covers the opening in the bottom of the action. Additionally, the bolt locks forward into the receiver itself when in battery, not requiring the lifter to do so. The Model 12 still requires a forward push of the hand to actuate the pump when the trigger is pulled, and there is also a push-button located beside the back of the trigger guard to release the slide lock. The safety is located at the forward end of the trigger guard.
All of these improvements resulted in a wonderfully functional, sleek handling pump shotgun. The Model 12 was touted as the perfect repeater and gained a reputation for its smooth action. Most of this can be attributed to the fact that parts were primarily forged and then required significant machining and fitting to be assembled. Unfortunately, time is money, and the costs of making the Model 12 would eventually catch up to production after World War 2. The release of the 870 by Remington would take its toll as the Remington gun was a fraction of the price to produce.
Though many stalwart Model 12 fans were loyal to the end, the gun would eventually end production in 1964. During production years, the Model 12 saw a variety of models and features. You can find Model 12s in gauges 12, 16, 20, and even 28, though very few 28s were made. There was never a .410 because rather than using the Model 12, Winchester opted to create the Model 42, which was a dedicated .410 sized gun. Winchester’s standard shotgun grades skeet, trap, tournament, and pigeon found their way onto Model 12s, with a variety of upgrade options, namely wood, engraving, and rib styles. There was a 12 gauge version designed to shoot 3-inch shells labeled “Super Speed and Super X”.
Some other interesting facts about the 12: It was only available in 20 gauge in its first year of production, with 12 gauge and 16 coming out in 1913.
From the trenches to competition
Model 1897s and Model 12s were used as trench guns and riot guns for the military up through Korea and Vietnam. It is of note that the Germans issued a diplomatic protest to the use of these tranch guns in 1918, stating that they were a violation of the 1907 Hague and that Americans caught with them would face punishment. America retaliated with its threats to captured Germans soldiers, but the most interesting result of this contentious moment was that there are no photos of trench guns in use because the U.S. did not want word of their use getting out.
For those folks who own, or wish to own a 12, keep in mind that they were chambered for 2 5/8-inch shells up to 1927, after which they were chambered for 2 3/4-inch shells.
The 12 takedown guns have a pin at the end of the magazine tube. The threads on the magazine tube and barrel are what are called interrupted threads. Essentially the threads are only on half of the barrel and mag tube shank.
If you divided the end into quarters, the threads are on opposing quarters. The receiving threads in the action are also interrupted the same way. This allows the barrel and mag tube to be turned a quarter turn to disengage the threads. On a Model 12, two arrows align on the magazine. To take the gun apart one moves the pin on the end of the mag tube and turns it a quarter turn. This disengages the mag tube which along with the slide can be slide forward and out of the action. Then, you can twist both the mag tube, slide, and barrel all at once, and they will rotate a quarter turn and can be removed from the action. The same steps in revers will put this takedown gun back together, and render it ready for shooting again.
And finally, exhibition shooter Herb Parsons “The Showman Shooter” used a Model 12 in his shows, famously breaking seven clays with the gun. Do yourself a favor and look that one up on youtube to see some great old exhibition shooting.
I have to admit that the thing I like most about doing these reports is that it makes me pick up the guns in my collection and check them out, through and through. My old 16-gauge Model 12 has seen a ton of use. It was purchased at a gun show for a song. It’s a field grade in the 800,000s with a plain Modified choke barrel chambered for 2 3/4-inch shells. Almost all of the blue is worn and the stock has its share of dings and scratches. It still operates super smooth and has taken some game for me over the years. I took it apart and wiped it down, cycled the action a few times remind this old gun what it’s like to function. Like so many old guns, it has come to my rest farm for old, weathered, and tired guns where it will live out the remainder of my days, well-loved and looked at often, occasionally taken for walks in the woods during October.
Thanks for stopping by the Gun Room. See you soon.
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The Gun Room Podcast is presented by Upland Gun Company
Joel Penkala is an Upland Bird Hunter and outdoors enthusiast from New Jersey. His love of all things upland has led him to travel and hunt around the United States and fostered his affinity for double guns and bird dogs. He runs English Setters in his home covers chasing Woodcock, Grouse, and Pheasants.
I enjoyed what you wrote. Just bought a model 12. Saw it, had to have it. Grew up admiring one in my dad’s hand. Both true classics.