December 12, 2019
Years ago, with a borrowed 20-gauge Winchester Model 12 in my hands, an Oklahoma pheasant flushed wildly 40 yards away through the briars. I’d never fired the lively little shotgun, but it leapt to my shoulder and turned that distant rooster into a burst of drifting feathers. I resolved then and there that I’d someday own one.
Introduced in 1912, Winchester’s internal-hammer, pump-action shotgun quickly rose to stardom. Balance was superb, ergonomics were the best yet built into a pump-action field gun, action smoothness was excellent, and reliability was unquestioned.
Partially based on the genius inherent to John Browning’s Model 1897 exposed-hammer pump-action shotgun, the Model 12 has a more modern and practical internal hammer and several other improvements by designer T.C. Johnson.
Loaded through the action’s bottom and fed from a tubular magazine, Model 12s hold six rounds and can be fired quickly. Lacking a trigger disconnector, it can be shot rapid-fire by simply holding down the trigger and working the pump as fast as possible. This fact—and all its other virtues—endeared the Model 12 to fighting men. The U.S. Army put some 20,000 M12 Trench Guns to work in World War I. An additional 80,000 were issued during World War II among the Marines, the Air Force, and the Navy. Short-barreled and fitted with heat shields, they served nobly on through the Korean conflict and into the Vietnam War.
Interestingly, the original Model 12 was introduced in 20 gauge. A year later, 12- and 16-gauge versions were added. About 22 years later 28-gauge versions came out.
Most common Model 12s by a significant margin are those with Full chokes, and most of those have 28-inch barrels. Aside from a few dubbed the Heavy Duck Gun Model 12 and bored to chamber 3-inch magnum shotshells, most Model 12s have 2¾-inch chambers.
All Model 12s are takedowns. To disassemble, press the detent-secured pin at the forward end of the magazine, shifting it from the position in which it locks and prevents the magazine from turning, through to protrude out away from the barrel. Use the protruding portion of the pin as a mini lever and rotate the magazine about a quarter turn, then draw it forward out of the action. Push the fore-end forward until the action bar clears its slot in the action.
Now the barrel/forearm assembly is free to rotate a quarter turn until the interrupted barrel threads disengage. Pull the barrel forward out of the action and you’re done. Reassemble in reverse order.
To load, turn the shotgun so the bottom of the action is up and thumb cartridges into the magazine. Unless the gun has been fired or dry-fired, it will be cocked, which means the pump will be locked forward. Press the small steel tab at the left rear of the trigger guard to release it and work the forearm smartly rearward and then forward to chamber a round.
Pump-action shotguns in general like to be worked briskly, and the Model 12 is no exception. Don’t feel like you need to finesse the pump gently out of respect for a vintage gun’s age; work it like you mean it, and reliability will result.
Pulling the forearm rearward causes the bolt to retract, its sturdy extractor drawing the empty hull from the chamber. As the mouth of the empty clears the front of the ejection port, a spring-loaded ejector engages the base of the case and heaves the hull out. At this point a fresh shotshell has been released to slide rearward out of the magazine and onto the lifter. Pushing the pump forward causes the lifter to pop up, positioning the fresh round to the chamber. The bottom edge of the bolt catches the top edge of the shotshell’s rim and pushes it forward into the chamber.
My multi-year search finally turned up a 20-gauge Model 12 at Gunnies in Orem, Utah, in heavily used condition. It was caked with a half-century’s worth of grime and was non-functional, but I got it for the right price. Plus, its sleek 28-inch barrel had the Modified choke I coveted. It was manufactured in late 1963, the last year of production aside from a couple of special commemorative-type runs made by Winchester around 40 years later.
After a day and a half of heavy cleaning, as clean steel and fresh oil replaced rust freckling and caked-on grime, function returned. I had to hone a burr off the trigger reset mechanism to fully restore 100 percent reliable function. Then, I was in business.
Dove season was fast approaching, so I patterned the 55-year-old scattergun with light target loads and then high brass hunting loads at 30 yards, then at 40 yards. To my delight, it patterned perfectly for upland game, perhaps 40 percent below and 60 percent above the bead, and consistently and evenly enough for doves at 40 yards.
Opening morning arrived, and with my oldest kids in tow, we posted along a canal overarched with towering cottonwood trees. Doves aren’t pushovers in Utah, and the ones that gave me a crack raced through like little fighter jets. Still, I averaged more than 50 percent one-shot kills with the svelte 20-gauge Model 12.
Another day on a kindly farmer’s stockyard, doves proved elusive—but I made a clean triple on three high-flying pigeons on their way to steal corn from the cattle’s grain bins.
Even though it’s old and worn from use, my 20-gauge Model 12 shoulders beautifully, swings as if it’s part of me, and shoots exactly where I look. It’s become my favorite vintage working gun for upland game.
Winchester Model 12 20 Gauge Shotgun Specs
- Manufacturer: Winchester Repeating Arms
- Type: Pump-action repeater
- Gauge: 20 Magazine
- Capacity: 6 rounds
- Barrel: 28 in.
- Overall Length: 47 in.
- Weight, Empty: 6.5 lbs.
- Stock: Walnut
- Length of Pull: 14 in.
- Finish: Blued barrel and action, oil-finished wood
- Sights: Bead front
- Trigger: 7-lb. pull (as tested)
- Safety: Crossbolt