From the iconic American pump shotgun, the Winchester Model 12, comes a legacy of hunting moving into the future
My eyes squinted into the late morning sun on the first day of May as I struggled to steady my hand and scratch my name across a filled turkey tag with a ballpoint pen. I had hunted and taken spring turkeys for years, but none like this, none with the promise of the fellowship of family, and pledge of tradition that this hunt brought. This turkey, this moment, wasn’t particularly exceptional, or more fantastic than any of the other amazing hunts I have enjoyed, except for the shotgun that I carried into the woods this spring. Like a well-worn favorite hat or a broken-in pair of boots, my shotgun this season was familiar and reliable. My grandad’s Winchester 12-gauge shotgun with its fixed full choke and worn oil finish is a perfect example of pump action shotgun tradition. An American classic pump, this Winchester Model 12 is indeed that.
Grandad’s shotgun was a gift to him from his father. It was a gift of pride, and no doubt one of thankfulness, extended past a lump in the throat to his reunited son. After being drafted into the 1st Infantry Division of the U.S. Army in 1958, grandad served as a marksman on the Army’s BAR Rifle Team, with most of his time in Germany. Fulfilling his duty in 1960 at the age of 24, he took his place alongside his wife and his daughter, my mother, at home on the high plains of Kansas.
The Winchester pump shotgun was a welcome home gift, purchased at the local hardware store, to my grandad from his father. The years that followed were the years that the Model 12 became his. The partnership of an upland hunter and their shotgun often becomes one of adoration and spirit. We measure time by our seasons in the field, firsts, lasts, bountiful, and empty alike become markers of past, present, and future. Shotgun pairings develop into almost romantic relationships, trusted companions and cherished soulmates alike. Discovering your shotgun partner can be a lifelong journey.
History of the Winchester Model 12
Although founded in 1866, Winchester Repeating Arms Company founder Oliver Winchester had years of involvement in the firearms industry. In fact the first iconic firearm production he was involved with was the Henry rifle made famous during the American Civil War and the expansion West. After a falling out with Benjamin Henry (inventory of the Henry rifle), Oliver re-formed the New Haven Arms located in New Haven Connecticut to Winchester Repeating Arms.
They would go on to make a number of iconic firearms and the Winchester Model 1912 pump-action shotgun (predecessor to the Model 1897) quickly became known simply as the Winchester Model 12. An internal hammer shotgun with an external tubular magazine, Winchester produced the Model 12 from 1912 to 1964, a 51-year production life. Nearly two million shotguns were manufactured during that period in various grades, barrel lengths, and chamberings. A special production occurred in 2006 with limited numbers.
The first Winchester Model 12s were built in 20-gauge, with 12-, 16- and 28-gauge chamberings to come. The Model 12 saw military service on the battlefield in the hands of United States soldiers during WWI, WWII, Korea, and the Vietnam War.
Pricing on the Winchester Model 12
After the Winchester Model 12 was retired in 1964, it was replaced by the Model 1200. In 1983 the Model 1200 was moved to the Model 1300 and then in 2006 after bankruptcy it was resurrected as the model SXP which is still manufactured today. In 2015, the SXP had a recall for accidental discharges when closing the action.
That being said, the Winchester Model 12 can now only be bought used. For those keen on collecting this American classic you can luck out occasionally finding one on a used gun rack for as little as $200. For the most part, good working models in 12 or 20 gauge catch a price tag of around $500 to $800. You can expect to pay more for a 16-gauge because of supply and demand fetching upwards of $1500.
Historical “trench gun” models from past wars can reach into the thousands although not as practical hunting shotguns. There are also various Model 12s that were specifically produced (and altered) for skeet and waterfowl that drive up the cost significantly.
A family legacy with a Winchester Model 12
As a young man with a spirit of adventure, always yearning for the outdoors and for wilderness, I found grandad to be a wealth of stories and experiences, spoken softly from his lips across cups of cooling coffee. Hours perched on his lap, listening to the adventures of hunting days were never wasted. Epic tales of upland hunts full of rooster pheasants, jack rabbit drives, flushing quail, and tracking cottontails in the snow filled my imagination, cultivating an endless desire for hunting adventures in my lifetime.
I found a kinship in grandad’s stories and admiration for the Model 12. Several times a year I would find myself seated at a kitchen table covered in newspaper with the smell of Hoppe’s No. 9 and Old English Furniture Oil in the air. Grandad’s guns didn’t make trips to the field very often anymore, but times of cleaning and retelling stories were a perfect way to spend the long evenings of December building a bridge between grandson and grandfather.
My hunting career set roots like an acorn, running deep into fertile soil in the mid 1990s. I stomped across creeks, fields, and woodlots in pursuit of the same upland game grandad had, shouldering my used Coast to Coast pump shotgun in those days. Grandad’s ability to join me was robbed from him by arthritis, but I filled with pride when recounting my stories and adventures to him often.
Ultimately my passion for hunting the prairie lands brought the pursuit of wild turkeys. Over the years I managed some success in my pursuits, and fell in love with the rituals of gobbling, strutting, spitting, and drumming. If not all but extirpated from Kansas during grandad’s days with the Model 12, it was safe to say its bore had never taken aim at a longbeard. My retelling of turkey encounters, of wary toms, the spring woods, and filled tags always seemed to bring a sense of longing and missed opportunity for grandad, who never filled a turkey tag of his own.
Grandad’s Model 12 recently took its place in the gun safe at my home on the Flint Hills of the Kansas prairie. After years of resting in the spare bedroom at grandad and grandma’s house, he decided it was time for me to take it home to stay. I was fortunate to spend a sun-filled afternoon with grandad that day going through his guns, hearing their stories, stories I cherished. With a wobbly hand, skin stained by decades in the sun and hard work in the oil fields, he passed on to me much more than the utility of a tool in his shotgun. Grandad granted me the honor of his heirloom more akin to reverence and pride than anything of monetary value. With this particular Model 12 came his hunter’s memories, times with his dad, times of happiness, and the salt of his seasons spent roaming the golden grasses and stubble fields of the plains.
When grandad’s shotgun found its way to me, it took little deliberation for my hunter’s heart to be filled with a desire to take the heirloom into the field. I longed to grip its warm wood, to feel its weight, and to shoulder it the way grandad did. I could think of no hunt or adventure more fitting to share with grandad’s shotgun than the pursuit of a spring gobbler. The ritual of the spring breeding season in the life of a Eastern wild turkey is one of exaggeration, outlandish display, and brutal fighting. The thrill of a gobbling tom on the roost overhead, or the sight of a fanning turkey in the springtime sun in a field of green is unforgettable. And so it went, I purchased my spring 2020 Kansas turkey permit with the hopes of filling my tag with grandad’s Winchester.
A turkey hunt for grandad
On a Friday morning, the first day of May, I woke well before daybreak. Fueled by black coffee and the promise of gobbling tom turkeys, I hiked into a roosting area concealed by darkness with grandad’s Model 12 resting across my shoulder.
The first rays of the sun’s orange glow began to peak over the eastern horizon and the sound of multiple toms on the limb gobbling for attention echoed through the creek bottom. The golden hour of sunrise in the turkey woods was all around me. I could feel it like a thick fog, or smoke from a smoldering fire and grandad’s shotgun was right there with me. I could hear turkeys pitch down near me, but out of sight. Gobbles, clucks, yelps, spitting, and drumming could be heard in the morning air, but none of these birds investigated my calls. The minutes of anticipation turned into hours, and gobbles grew more and more distant. I felt defeated, lost, and wondered if this hunt wasn’t meant to be. A quick glance at my wristwatch showed that it wasn’t even nine o’clock yet, lifting my spirits. That’s how hunting goes–highs, lows, defeat, and optimism competing for the same moment.
Hunters learn to be adaptable, and are unrealistically confident. My sit at the roost was anything but unsuccessful, but unfortunately it did not provide an opportunity at taking a turkey. Having hunted this area for a number of years I knew of a hilltop nearby, scattered with scrubbed out trees and fallen rock walls of a bygone homestead where tom turkeys like to strut and display. With the sun at my back and the cherished shotgun of my grandfather’s across my shoulder, I headed off to try and locate a gobbler. Covering the distance of one-half mile, hidden along a fence row in the shadows of overgrown eastern red cedars, I slipped quietly into the area where I had seen toms strutting many springs over. I approached the corner of a fallen limestone rock wall when I heard a turkey gobble, the gobbling was close, and with that distinct fire of a tom looking for a hen.
Without delay, I quickly found a suitable hackberry tree on the edge of a clearing nestled among buckbrush where I could sit and try to call the bird into range. With grandad’s Model 12 carefully resting from my lap to the edge of my right knee, I cupped a slate stone pot in my left hand and a carbon striker in my right. Gently, using the friction between striker and stone, I began with a few soft purrs, a cluck, and a steady cadence of three hen yelps. The answer was not one I expected–a tom gobbled back, but from across the pasture and across the road. The answer to the first tom’s gobble however was a gobble from the bird I was after, a gobble that sounded like it could have come from my back pocket.
Carefully I put the peg to the slate for a second time, and before I could scratch out the second yelp the thunder of a gobbling tom covered up my call from directly behind me. I sat in silence, straining to remain absolutely still, and to take in every sound. Then, I felt it, the unmistakable rhythm of a tom spitting and drumming at close distance. The bird was behind me, and close, within five feet. Although I could not see him, I knew without a doubt that he was in full strut putting on a show for the hen he had heard calling.
Seconds felt like minutes, and minutes felt like hours. I could feel the turkeys drumming in my chest, it was all I could do to keep from shaking. After what must have been somewhere between five and ten minutes the tom slinked stealthily to my left searching the clearing for the promise of a hen. In an instant the tom became visible moving from left to right, twenty feet away. Smoothly I eased grandad’s shotgun into aim on the bird, and sent the number four copper plated pellets to do their work.
With a mature eastern tom turkey slung across one shoulder, grandad’s shotgun resting across the other, and a smile plainly across my face I couldn’t help but think about tradition. I thought about shotguns that someday I hope to pass down with my legacy intact, about hunts and adventures that are still on the horizon. The smooth walnut stock and the clean steel barrel of grandad’s Winchester Model 12 felt warm in the sun on my walk back to the truck. This turkey, this shotgun, this season, it is knit into a legacy, and I am hopeful for many more chapters to come.
Raised on the prairie lands of Kansas, Rob McDonald is an outdoor writer, blogger, and photographer who finds his home on the tallgrass prairie of the Flint Hills. November and December sunrises often find Rob, shotgun in hand, wearing leather off of a pair of hunting boots behind a hunting Labrador in pursuit of bobwhite quail, cackling rooster pheasants, and prairie chickens.