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Smith & Wesson's Model 12 Airweight

Smith & Wesson's Model 12 Airweight

The S&W Model 12 Airweight revolver could be had in several configurations, including (clockwise from top left) 4-inch barrel, round butt; 2-inch barrel, square butt; 4-inch barrel, square butt; and 2-inch barrel, round butt.

The development of the modern revolver was due in great part to the century-long competition between two giants of the American handgun industry, Colt and Smith & Wesson. While S&W dominated the small/concealable revolver market for the second half of the 19th century, Colt revolvers were the preferred sidearms of the U.S. Army, western lawmen, cowboys, and outlaws. 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 revolvers, such as the Colt Official Police and S&W Military & Police. Both firms engaged in continual R&D processes to improve their products in a never-ending attempt to gain an edge over the competition, and by 1960 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. First was Colt in 1950 with the Cobra, featuring an alloy frame that reduced its weight to 15 ounces. In 1951 the U.S. Air Force purchased Colt Cobra revolvers fitted with aluminum cylinders that reduced their unloaded weight to only 11 ounces. Known as the Aircrewman Special, the revolver was intended for issue to pilots and other personnel for whom weight was a prime concern. S&W did not take this lying down and the following year offered the .38 M&P Airweight that utilized an aluminum frame and cylinder identical in height and length but 0.08 inch narrower than the steel K-Frame. And the grips were correspondingly thinner as well. Fitted with a 2-inch barrel and round-butt grips, the M&P Airweight tipped the scales at 14.5 ounces.

In 1953 the Air Force purchased a quantity of the alloy-frame Airweights that were designated the "Revolver, Lightweight, Caliber .38 Special, M13." Cylinder cracking problems led to the adoption of the low-pressure .38-caliber M41 Ball Cartridge, but the problems continued and led the Air Force to retire both Colt and S&W alloy-cylinder revolvers.

S&W substituted steel cylinders for the aluminum on commercial guns, increasing 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.

The Model 12 proved popular, and sales were encouraging, so much so that in 1959 S&W expanded the line with options of 4-, 5-, or 6-inch barrels; round- or square-butt grips; and blue or nickel finishes. While the 2- and 4-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 plainclothes officers and 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.

S&W's recently introduced scandium-frame Model 315 Night Guard weighs only 24 ounces and is rated for +P ammo. The author likes to think of it as the modern reincarnation of his beloved Model 12.
During the shooting session, the 4-inch-barreled Model 12 proved to be a fine-handling and accurate revolver.

In 1958 the Swedish Air Force purchased a quantity of Model 12s for issue to pilots. Known as the Revolver m/58, Type A, they were fitted with 2-inch barrels and round-butt grips. In Swedish service the .38 Special was known as the 9mm sk ptr m/58.

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 3-inch barrels, round butts, and safety catches. The safety catch consisted of what appeared to be a second cylinder release latch on the right-hand sideplate that, when pushed forward, locked the hammer and trigger. Eventually, the French police adopted a Manuhrin revolver.

During its production life, the Model 12 was upgraded with redesigned frames (12-1), larger sights and grips (12-2), and cylinders (12-3). In the mid-1980s, with the burgeoning popularity of semiauto pistols with both police and civilian shooters, the Model 12 was dropped from the company's line.

The only serious complaints leveled against the Model 12 were that the frame's anodized finish tended to wear badly around the edges and that S&W discouraged the use of +P ammunition in it.

Shooting A Model 12
For test-firing purposes, I chose a well-used, 4-inch, square-butt Model 12-3 from my personal collection. Along with shooting buddy Rusty Rawsen, I headed out to the gun club to see if the lightweight Model 12 could still perform.

After performing a brief accuracy and velocity-gathering session, we set up a pair of D-1 targets at 7 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 somewhat "primitive" wooden grips, recoil control was quite good, and all of the rounds we sent downrange found their way into the higher scoring zones of the target. But then, both of us have a fair amount of experience with S&W medium-frame revolvers, so 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. The recent line of scandium-frame Night Guard revolvers include the K-Frame, .38-caliber Model 315NG, which weighs just 24 ounces and is rated for +P ammo. I like to think of it as the modern reincarnation of my beloved Model 12.

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