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By Steve Collins

I picked up my Smith & Wesson Model 12 .38 Special in 1999 after reading an article on a customized one that looked really cool. I knew I wanted to have one made up for me. Like most such plans, it fell by the wayside in the face of family, work and finances. I kept it around though, because I liked the way it handled and I shot it a lot. I qualified for my Kentucky CCW license with it and even attended an Advanced Defensive Handgun course with John Farnam of Defense Training International. I was the only revolver shooter in the class. The 2” medium frame guns seem to have fallen from favor in the tidal wave of small, featherweight revolvers and compact semi-autos that are the flavor of the month for concealed carry these days. But the model 12, and other guns like it, offer some advantages over the lightweight pocket guns . . .

Model 12 and GLOCK 19

The S&W model 12 was made from 1952 to 1986, with the first models offered made completely of aluminum alloy. It didn’t take too long before it was found that the alloy cylinders wouldn’t hold up to firing even standard pressure .38 Special loads, and the guns were changed to steel in 1954. The all-alloy guns, commonly called the ‘Aircrewman’ model, are highly collectable nowadays.

The Model 12 was offered with either 2” or 4” barrels, in blue or nickel finish, and with a square or round butt like the old mainstay of the Smith & Wesson line, the Model 10 service revolver.  Mine is the blue 2” model.  With the round butt and 2” barrel, it weighs 19 ounces unloaded. In contrast, my J-frame Model 642 Airweight .38 Special with its Barami Hip Grip weighs 15 ounces, but comes with a smaller grip, sights that are harder to see and one less round. The Model 12 came with the original skinny grips. I’ve tried several different grip options, finally settling on just adding a Tyler T-Grip adaptor to it. Gee, can we say ‘simple?’


The trigger is narrow and serrated, which goes against the current thought that revolver triggers ‘must be smooth and rounded for shooting comfort.’  Nope, I like the serrations. I like knowing my finger isn’t going to move or slide around and the serrations naturally fall into the first joint of my trigger finger. Coincidentally, I have the same kind of trigger on my Model 19 .357 Magnum, too. The fixed rear sight notch and serrated front sight ramp are the same ones used on the full size Model 10 heavy barrel service revolver, so there’s no surprise there.

642 Airweight sights


Model 12 sights


Since they aren’t made anymore – and I don’t think I can replace the frame anytime soon – I don’t shoot any +P loads through it.  I have in the past, but with the re-introduction in of the Federal 125gr Nyclad Hollowpoint, which was designed expressly for the short barreled .38s, I have no reason to beat up the gun with high pressure rounds.In my part of the country I can also find the Hornady Critical Defense 110gr Flextip jacketed hollowpoint round pretty easily. My reloads for practice and training are a standard pressure 158gr lead bullet and 4 grains of Winchester 231. Both loads were easy to shoot out of the short barreled K-frame, and were more than accurate enough for what it’s going to be used for.


In shooting for this article, I stretched things out to 15 yards just to see what the full-framed gun would do. Yes, that short barrel is made more for bad breath range, but getting on target with the Model 12 was a lot easier than shooting a J-frame at that distance. And the K-frame-sized grip gave me more leverage for double action, something lacking in the smaller guns. Besides, not all self defense situations are ‘up close and personal,’ and knowing my gun is going to be accurate farther downrange is a comfort.



My Model 12 served as my concealed carry gun for a while and I toted it around in an old Bianchi 3S Pistol Pocket IWB holster.  Even in the heat of a hot Alabama summer, the finish held up fine. I shot it every week and the only sign of all that use is telltale ring around the cylinder. If the hammer were bobbed, it might make a pretty good pocket gun.



It may sound crazy, but no less an authority than Elmer Keith thought enough of the snubby K-frame to talk about it as a pocket gun in his book ‘Sixguns’ back in 1955. In those days though, men’s fashions were a little different, pants were roomier and coats were almost always worn. Elmer figured that if you were going to use a holster, you could just as easily carry a bigger gun and use a K-frame as backup.

If you are a fan of the K-frame guns, such as the Model 10, Model 15, Model 19, Model 66, etc., and use one on a regular basis, having one of these as a concealed carry gun makes a lot of sense. Most folks are more apt to carry the shorter, lighter gun anyway. Along those same lines, the speedloader for the six shot K-frames will also work with the Colt D-frame revolvers, such as the Detective Special, Cobra and Agent. This was a hot setup back when police officers still mainly carried revolvers, as they could use the same loader and ammo in both their primary or backup guns. It is still a viable technique today.


The concept of a medium frame, short barreled, lightweight revolver has been revitalized by Smith & Wesson with their Night Guard series, but the Model 12 is still an outstanding pistol in its own right. They’re still available out there on the used market, too. Check one out. I think you’ll find it useful.


Weight:  19 oz. empty
Barrel: 2″
Action: Double
Caliber: .38 special
Capacity: six rounds
Price: around five bills

Steve Collins is the Director of Training for S and L Training in southwestMissouri, teaching concealed carry and defensive firearms and tactics.  For more information on training opportunities, contact him at [email protected]  or on Facebook


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  1. I feel snubbies in general aren’t getting the love they deserve these days. I just got a Ruger LCR 3 weeks ago, and I’m really pleased with the accuracy I can achieve with it and its ease to carry.

    • Me too! LCR 38 spcl +P. With the green fiber optic front site. On sale from Turner’s. Can’t do the +P. I’m doing reduced 38 loads using a jacketed soft point 158 gr projectile. Using +P kicked as much my 44 mag Super Blackhawk with the Pachmayr grip replacement. Had those to work my daughter and wife up to using the full 357 mag on a GP100 6″.

      • They keep trying like heck to write the “revolver obituary” but try as they might it can’t be done. For CCW they are IMO just fine (provided one has a proficiency with speed loaders as six (arguably) may not cut it)…Moreover, I cannot imagine even a novice gun collector being absent at least one beautiful American revolver as they are historically/culturally part of our story–I would challenge anyone to find a gun more beautiful than say a Colt Python. Heck, now I have an urge to go shopping for a snubbie…;)

  2. I like snub-nosed revolvers for concealed-carry. Small form factor, easy to train with, accurate to typical bad-guy distances and almost unbreakable. True, the ammo count is low, but if you need to fire more than 6 rounds on the street you’re probably screwed anyway.

    (Before anyone jumps on my sack, I’m NOT saying that nobody needs X rounds or that it should be illegal. It is my personal opinion and nothing more. Carry whatever you prefer that you can control and conceal.)

  3. K frames rock. K frame snubbies and the Colt Dick Special are as accurate as any self defense weapon needs to be.

    I had a S&W 242. An aluminum framed L frame snubbie with a 7 shot titanium cylinder and k frame round butt. Light(19 ounces) accurate and ugly as home made sin. Too bulky to be a decent concealed carry piece I gave it to my daughter when she moved out of the house. I feel better knowing she has a gun she’s proficient with in addition to her pepper spray.

  4. I have an old Model 36 2″ Chief’s Special from the 50s that is my hot weather / light clothing carry gun. How does this compare against the Model 12 from a design/size standpoint? They look startlingly similar, and are from the same general era it seems.

    • The S&W model 36 is a J-frame revolver, with a 5-shot cylinder. Model 12 is the next frame size up the scale, slightly larger, with a 6-shot cylinder. It is the same basic size as the popular S&W models 10, 13, 14, 15, 19, 64, 65, and 66 (last three are stainless-steel, others are blue-steel), although the magnum-chambered models will have a slightly longer hole in the frame to accommodate the longer magnum cylinder.

      Internally, the J-frames have a coil mainspring and the K-frames have a flat leaf mainspring, but otherwise, very close in design and identical in operation.

      • I love the 2 model 66’s that I have. 4 inch and a 2.5 inch barrel. You ain’t kiddin about the short barrel and bad breath distance. Wonderful triggers on both. Not really concealed carry pistols tho.

  5. Great article, great revolver. I’ve owned many steel-framed K-frames, but never an alloy one. Handled and lusted after a few, though.

    And if I owned ANY fixed-sight revolver that shot exactly to point-of-aim with several loads, including my preferred defensive load, I would hold it close and protect it as I protect life itself.

  6. I like it.

    I also love my Ruger LCR .357, which is my EDC in an Uncle Mike’s pocket holster.

    Can’t be beat, IMO, and it’s way better than lugging around a heater IWB all day long.

  7. I have a 2″ S&W Model 10-5… Makes me feel like John Book in “Witness” when I wear it to pick up my dry cleaning in abandoned parking garages… My Amish girlfriend makes me store it in a can of flour.

  8. One thing to note, the 1st model 12’s have a thinner grip frame than the later models, so most aftermarket grip wont work on them.
    I buy every one I see come up for sale in my neck of the woods.
    Great old revolvers, they reside in many cubbyholes thought my house as “oh crap” guns.

    And please change the “leave a reply” verbiage, “instead of you company” drives me nuts!

    Great review

  9. But the model 12, and other guns like it, offer some (dis)advantages over the lightweight pocket guns . . .

    First, it’s the math. 6 in the gun +6 = ? 15 in the gun +15 = ?
    Violation of the first rule of ammo. More is always better. At no time, is less ammo a positive thing, no matter how cold-rolled steel like Harry Callahan you think you are. People don’t fall down and die like they do in the movies because you shot them once. It may take 4-5 shots just to stop one person, provided you only have one person that needs stopping. Bested by only a 2 shot derringer, the 6-shooter is the minimum you can do to defend yourself. If you set a goal for yourself, do you only do the minimum that you can to achieve that goal? We’re talking about preventing premature mortal coil shuffling! Are the lives of you and your family worth only a minimum of 12 shots, including a 4 move reload? Really?

    Second, this attraction to antique revolver technology is positively stupefying. If Colt had thought up the .45 cal 1911 in 1865, would any of us even think about choosing a revolver for self defense purposes? Hell no. So why are we still making these things. In the modern world, the only guns that currently excel at incorporating a revolver design are the high cyclical rate of fire weapons like the mini gun and the 20mm attitude adjuster sticking out of the nose on an A-10 Warthog. In these cases, a revolving ammo delivery system facilitates adherence to the first rule of ammo, more is better. Hell, the semi-auto back-up, to my 1st semi-auto back-up holds more than 6 shots.

    Collect them, show them to your friends, take them out to the range once a year and ruminate about the good ol’ days, you know, before gangsta’s would bust their fo-ties and laugh at the cops with the 6-packs on their hips. Nostalgia is a poor reason to opt for the least you could do. Yes, even if it’s only back-up.

    • Revolvers have a place. Many people like them, just because something new has come along doesn’t mean revolvers are worthless. You can have your opinion, but just because you feel 5-6 rounds is inadequate for your safety doesn’t mean others feel the same. Carry what you shoot comfortably. As said many times on this site, it’s not a dgu unless you have a gun to use.

      • One size does not fit all. I have a lifetime of shooting revolvers. If there’s any truth to muscle memory my best guns for a dgu are the pump shotgun and the revolver.

    • Fang, Many are comforted by the fact that if you pull the trigger, a revolver is more likely to go bang than a semi. Revolvers are easier to use, with less that can go wrong due to their simplicity, and if you have a dud round, you just pull the trigger again. Is my 8 shot S&W 357/38 revolver (cut for full moon clips and quick reload)really so underpowered?

    • 73 year old ret lt col of Marines competitive shooter with the 1911 and m14 years ago
      my carry gun tends to be a lt weight commander. some times a lt weight j,k or l frame 2 inch.
      out fang thief your i phone keeps better time then the Rolexs” Ive worn since I was 19.
      but your I phone would not have survived Vietnam or the gulf like my antique gmt and submariner and the workmanship of them and my 1911s and s&w j frames compared to your 15 rd plastic fantastic if you cant finish the fight in 5 rds you should not have gotten in to the fight to begin with and you should be able toget to your rifle by many moter cycle clubs do you run in to????

    • S&W’s have a defect shooting right handed, as your thumb can break open the cylinder. Colt solved this as their latch pulls backwards to open. I am left handed, so my thumb rests on the other side of the frame, shooting strong sided. C T makes laser grips which are ambi. Show me an auto pistol for C C other than Glocksters for us southpaws?? The new low flash 38’s do even the playing field, at least for us! I can come close to the Feds’ loads with hand loads in my M-10-5 snubbie, but keep the Speer low flash rounds in my bedroom Gun safe. L H holsters are a pain too!

  10. I have both the Model 15 and Model 12 snubbies and both are decent shooters-I like the Hornady 110 gr for the 12 and the “FBI :Load” 158 gr +P LSWCHP -the 15 is OK with +P loads given the steel frame.I carried a Model 15 4″in Vietnam.

  11. People forget that there is always a list for everything you consider in life. Round count is just one item on the list for this topic. Some shoot one type better than the other. Some can’t handle the manual of arms for an auto etc. I was strictly a revolver guy for years. Later came to appreciate an automatic for certain virtues as well. Carry both depending on the situation. I also have lived in extremely cold climates where the auto can be sluggish at times. K frames are sweet though. Thanks

  12. I have a pair of 12’s, often carried together. Might be thee finest defensive revolver ever. Reliability is almost a moot point with a quality, duty-size auto. Less so with the more compact pistols becoming all the rage. Thus, 6 hot .38s is relatively equal to 7 hot 9s in a Kahr, Shield, Nano, etc. In IWB carry, I can access the revolver faster. It points more instinctively than all BUT a 1911A1 in my hands. I can carry two or 3 loaders, stacked, in the same space as a single-column staggered stick mag. They take but about ONE-second longer than the mag reload, albeit having to do more of them, LOL. I could go on, but you get the point…….

  13. I just acquired a M12-2, 2″bbl., nickel plated, SQUARE butt! I love this gun. I’m going to get a nice leather holster for it and wear it in the open (legal in my state.)
    Oh, bye the way, I almost forgot, it is NIB.
    Sometimes the Universe smiles on you!.

  14. I have a 2-inch Model 12-1 and a steel frame 2-inch Model 10-5, both from same era. Shoot the heck out of the steel frame and shoot the Model 12 enough to confirm that it goes bang and shoots to the sights. Usually carry the pair in pocket holsters by Robert Mika. The K-frame is more controllable than the smaller J and gives you an extra shot.
    Full-charge wadcutters from Buffalo Bore are carry ammo in both guns.

    And they don’t scatter empty brass around, either!


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