July 13, 2022

Winchester Scatterguns: The 1897 vs. Model 12

When it comes to classic American shotguns, you have several choices. America loves shotguns, more so than any of our European brethren, and it shows that we ruled that market for a long time. In the hall of fame, you’ll find two shotguns that have ruled for quite some time, both bearing the Winchester repeating arms logo. The Winchester 1897 and the Winchester Model 12 are both legends, and today we are taking a look at which one is better.

Off the bat, both guns have a rich history with American hunters, sports shooters, police, and military personnel. Both served as riot guns and trench guns in the first world war. The M1897 trench gun is the most widely remembered, but the Model 12 fought beside it in smaller numbers.

(Courtesy Invaluable)

Up until the end of the 1800s, Winchester was the number 1 lever gun company in North America, heck, and they were really only known for their lever guns. In the late 1890s, John Browning got his way and was able to produce a slide-action shotgun. This slide-action shotgun became known as the Winchester 1893. The 1893 was solid, but a few improvements later, we had the Model 1897.

In 1912 T.C. Johnson took some cues from the Model 1897 and produced the Model 1912, commonly known as the Model 12. The Model 12 became known as the ‘perfect repeater’ and benefited from 15 or so years of firearm advances and the genius mind of T.C. Johnson. Browning and Johnson never officially teamed up, but this represented what the two minds could have produced.

Winchester Hears the Sounds of War

In 1917 the United States entered World War 1. They went to the trenches with rifles, revolvers, pistols, and shotguns. The U.S. had fielded the M1897 since 1899 at least, and it had seen action in the Philippine-American War. It was the combat shotgun of choice, but the Army needed more, more than they had, and Winchester was happy to sell them Model 12s to fight the Hun.

(Courtesy Rock Island Auctions)

From there, both guns fought in multiple wars and were used long past their due date. With both guns being so well made and having a rich history, is it possible to call one better than the other? Well, we certainly try.


There are some considerable jumps from the Winchester 1897 to the Model 12. The most obvious is the lack of an external hammer. The 1897 took some cues from classic double barrels, and that involved an exposed hammer that could be manually cocked or decocked. The gun lacked a manual safety, and users relied on the hammer for safety purposes.

The exposed hammer required the slide action of the gun to shoot out the back and manually cock the hammer. This was a great way to get your thumb bit if you didn’t pay attention and cycled the action. However, the hammer could be an instant means to take your weapon off safe and ready it to fire.

Winchester’s Model 12’s action operates much smoother than the 1897. The action slides rearward with ease, and it’s known for its slick action.

(Courtesy Invaluable)

The Winchester Model 12 featured a manual safety behind the trigger guard that wasn’t as quick to access, but you had no chance of getting your thumb bit. Another difference was the stock swap. The 1897 used a straight stock reminiscent of classic upland bird guns.

With the Model 12, they went to a more modern pistol-grip style stock. The pistol grip style offers more rearward control of the weapon and doesn’t leave everything for the support hand to deal with.


The older school Winchester Model 1897 ejected its guts every time the weapon was pumped. This wasn’t a big issue, but the guts hanging out made it easy to get dirty and jammed up with foreign materials. The Model 12 enclosed the entire system, and this helped keep debris out of the inside of the gun.

(Courtesy Rock Island Auctions)

Additionally, the enclosed receiver provides more strength, and more strength means a longer-lasting firearm. The manual action of the pump or slide action of these shotguns made them inherently reliable, but the Model 12 limped ahead just a bit due to the enclosed receiver.

Accuracy and Firepower

The accuracy of both guns is fairly high, even with the presence of bead sights. They are simple, mounted directly to the barrel of the shotgun, and this can often appear to make the gun shoot high. Soldiers were often trained to aim at the belt buckle to hit someone in the chest.

The Model 12 came equipped with a six-round tube versus the 1897’s five-round tube. One extra round might not seem like much, but with a shotgun, every round counts, and the Model 12’s slightly higher capacity is an advantage.

So Which Was Better?

The Model 12 undoubtedly benefitted from the original design of the Model 1897. It built on Browning’s creation and perfected it, according to some. The Model 12 is the superior shotgun. Although the, 1897 stuck around for decades after due to the lower price. The Model 12 proved itself and lasted in service with the military and hunters for decades after production ended.

(Courtesy Rock Island Auctions)

Once the Remington 870 and its modern design came to be with its dual-action bars and modern affordable manufacturing methods. Older hand-fitted guns were destined for the history books.

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