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In general, submachine guns are dirty, noisy, inaccurate and ugly contraptions. Especially those made around the middle of the century. I mean, just look at the M3 “grease gun.” But every once in a while, a truly inspired design comes along and just takes your breath away. Beretta’s Model 12S SMG is one of those designs, something so perfectly functional and asthetically beautiful that to many people, it’s the gold standard to which all other SMGs should be compared. And I can definitely see why . . .

At the end of World War II, the Italians were still cranking out their old Beretta Model 38 submachine guns to supply the troops. The gun looked remarkably similar to the Finnish KP/31 Suomi (which had been introduced about four years prior). But the Model 38 had better fit and finish, and while it worked fine it was labor intensive to make.

The Italians wanted something to keep up with the bigger kids in the sandbox, specifically the German MP-40 and the American M3, which could be stamped out of sheet metal and mass produced without any woodwork required. In 1959, Beretta finally released the 9mm Model 12 (and later the updated Model 12S) and to this day it remains the standard-issue SMG of many developed nations, Italy included.

The Model 12S is indeed stamped out of sheet metal like its competitors, but only in the same way that a Ford Focus and a Lamborghini Super-Gallardo are both welded together. Having handled other SMGs from the era, the gun feels exceptionally smooth and polished. Where you could tell that an M3 is slapped together and parkerized in large batches, the Model 12S feels like there was an individual craftsman whose sole job was to build and finish each gun. The bolt moves like it was sitting in a vat of olive oil (extra virgin, of course) and even the texture of the finish is satin smooth.

Life with the Beretta isn’t all butterflies and unicorn farts, though. There is a rough patch to this gun, namely its stock. It might be too much to ask that a stock made out of a single piece of bent wire be comfortable and usable, but on this gun it’s about a “meh” on the comfort scale. It works great at controlling what recoil remains after the silencer has done its job, but it feels a little strange and uncomfortable.

Beretta M12S, c Nick Leghorn

The controls for the 12S are perfectly thought out — for right-handed people. All of the controls are designed for righties only with no reciprocal controls on the other side. Those controls, though, are pretty darn good. The magazine release is the same style as the AK-style mag release, which means it makes sense for the time period but is a little slow compared to the button release of today. As for the mode selector, while the paddle on the switch may seem comically large it actually makes it very easy to use. Moving from safe to semi-automatic is a snap and the detent for the semi-auto mode is nice and crisp. Moving to full auto or “raffica” (R) is similarly simple.

One of the more interesting things about the gun is that it has a “proper” safety as well as an additional grip safety. On something like an SMG, a grip safety isn’t a bad idea — especially one with a smooth and light trigger like the Model 12S.

Wapping up the effusive praise of the design, the integrated foregrip fits perfectly in my hand, the sling swivel on the tail cap is a great idea for hiding this thing under trench coats, the charging handle falls easily to hand and the chrome bolt is positively pimp.

Speaking of the bolt, this was one of the most enjoyable firearms I’ve ever shot. While the gun is an open bolt design (meaning that the bolt needs to move forward before it goes off for every shot, which takes time and can lead to inaccuracy) the action is so incredibly smooth that you can hold the gun steady and keep your rounds on target. Recoil is negligible and the trigger moves freely and smoothly. In fact, there’s no break at all — you just keep squeezing the trigger and eventually the gun goes off.

Despite that break-free trigger, accuracy isn’t an issue. We were nailing a standard BC-zone target from 50 yards with ease, and thanks to the light recoil the gun usually stayed within “minute of bad guy” even under full auto. Although that could probably be somewhat attributed to the MASSIVE silencer attached to the front of the gun. And thanks to that silencer, the gun is whisper quiet — especially with subsonic ammo. The only thing you hear is the bolt slamming against the breech face…that’s it.

Despite the size of the can, the gun was still very light. Light enough for kids, even. With some assistance, that is.

Beretta Model 12 S, c Nick Leghorn

Kevin Brittingham believes that the 12S is the standard by which all other pistol caliber SMGs should be judged, and I agree completely. This gun is a masterpiece of engineering and manufacturing, showcasing the best of what Beretta can produce. And the instant I see one of these for sale at a price I can afford, even if I need to sell all my other guns, I’m buying it.

Beretta Model 12S

Caliber: 9mm
Barrel: 200mm
Size: 660mm
Weight: 3.2 kg empty
Capacity: 20, 30, 40 round magazine
MSRP: $25,000

Ratings (Out of Five Stars):
All ratings are relative compared to the other weapons in the gun’s category.

Accuracy: * * * *
Open bolt guns inherently have some inaccuracy due to their nature, but this one is simply awesome.

Ergonomics: * * * *
The lack of ambidextrous controls and the wire stock keep the 12S out of five star range, but otherwise it’s damned good.

Ergonomics Firing: * * * * *

Customization: N/A
Uh…no. Absolutely not.

Overall Rating: * * * * *
Kevin was right when he calls this the gold standard of SMGs.

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  1. Spot on Nick. It is a very nice piece of hardware.
    Once again. I’m jealous. Haven’t seen one since about 1988.

  2. 1959 and right handed controls. In those days if you were a lefty it got beat out of you in school and the military. My older brother was a lefty. Got knuckle rapped with a ruler more than once in class for going southpaw.

    I like the m3 grease gun myself. .45 is the wrong round for a subgun but the rate of fire on the m3 is so low that it’s very controllable.

  3. Another candidate for the “iconic” list.

    Also a favorite choice for nameless 007 super villain henchmen world wide.

    Nice review sir. Thoroughly enjoying the retro road trip.

    • Just to add to your gloom, even a semi-auto 12-2S would be an NFA item. This because it fires from an open bolt. That is the reason the commercial Thompson subgun replicas do not have the internals of a real Thompson M1928 or M2. The ‘replica’ items have different bolts, locks, and fire from a closed bolt.

      The reason for the NFA bit is obvious. Any semi that fires from an open bolt can be converted to auto with ease by the average housewife.

  4. I’ve lusted after this gun ever since watching Brazilian army units on parade carry their domestically produced version. I haven’t found one for sale, not that I could afford it if it were. One day…

  5. I enjoy these reviews like I enjoy the reviews of supercars on Top Gear. I could never afford one without a statistically unlikely stoke of financial luck, but it’s fun to watch regardless.

  6. I’m bemused by a review of a weapon that, because of its $25,000 MSRP, most of us could probably not own even if the ownership of fully automatic guns by ordinary citizens were legal in the U. S. of A. At the same time, like Pulatso, I kind of enjoyed the review, even though it pissed me off that I will probably never even hold one of these Berettas in my hot little hands.

    • The ownership of fully automatic guns by ordinary citizens is legal in the U.S. The $25,000 price tag is set by the machine gun registry being closed, not by the fact that it takes a tax stamp to own one. Open the registry, and they’d be 10% of that price within a few years.

      • Yup, simple supply and demand. in 1984, fully auto ARs were pretty much the same price as the semi ARs, minus the tax stamp.

        • The last FA I saw for sale in a gun store before the registry was closed was an UZI in a gun store in WV. It was about 350 bucks plus stamp. I bought a 94 winchester that same day for less than a hundred bucks. Should have bought the Uzi. Better long term investment.

  7. I am astonished at how quiet that gun is. The silencer is massive, but good lord, I can snap my fingers louder than that.

  8. I had one of these for a few months in Iraq. Great gun and great review. They wouldn’t let me take it out on patrols, though. Sometimes I wonder where that thing went in the end.

  9. I Have a pre-sample 12S coming in (If the NFA branch ever comes back from their “vacation”). So glad you came up with this article and gave it a great review. Thanks Nick!

  10. Keep bringing more of these reviews. I can read about the next polymer compact pistol or 12ga shotgun in any mag or blog. A review of hard to find iconic sub-machine guns is much more appealing. Also, that gun is beautiful and quite an NFA bargain at only 25k. Didn’t see any for sale on gunbroker thought.

  11. The reason for the so-smooth finish of the M12S has nothing to do with craftsmanship, but results from the fact that the finish is plastic, er, polyepoxide. As it wears off in use the gun gets rough and rust-prone like any other. You can put an epoxy finish on an M3a1 if you prefer the feel. The 12-S2 isn’t light, except by comparison to a Thompson or MP40. A recent production Mk18 M4-style short carbine is noticably lighter, even with a suppressor attached. A sound-suppressor on a 12S is generally an after-market device.

    The M12S isn’t the standard subgun of “many developed nations.” Italy is the only developed nation using the gun. The rest are Latin American, African, and other developing or less developed nations. Consider Bahrain developed, if you wish. I suppose the MP5, which entered service in 1966, quickly took over the “developed nation” market because the roller-delayed locking-bolt blowback mechanism is safer under heavy use. It doesn’t have the problem straight blowback subguns have of occasionally (once the gun is dirty in the field) firing when the bolt is not fully forward. A mint M16, MP5, or M12S can all be had for about the same price, which depends on the scarecity of pre-ban automatic weapons, not on the original MSRP of the gun.

    I’ve never owned any of these except the Thompson in the M1 form, which I sold. As for the M3 v. M12S, I find the M3’s aesthetics more like the Ferrari 250 California Spider, if the M12S is considered the Lambo. You decide:

    Nice review. The shooting certainly looked like fun, but don’t sell your SBR if a 12S shows up in the market!

    • Beretta M12 was also adopted by the French Gendarmerie Nationale and by some American SWAT teams, like Barlet, TN SWAT.

  12. I am lucky enough to fire an M12 every now and then because I am a reserve military in an unundisclosed European country.

    Despite being lefthanded I have no rpoblem whatsoever in handling the M12, just handle the selesctor/safety with my LH index and the opnly awkward thing is that I have to wrap my RH over the weapon to operate che charging handle while squeezing the grip safety with the LH. Infact you cannot cock the bolt with the grip safety left alone.

    Even unsuppressed shoots (semiauto) like a dream, however I must admit I neve mastered it full auto.

  13. Is it me or is firing this thing full auto with a speed metal riff playing in the background an AWESOME idea?


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