The Magnificent Steyr M1912

A design coup for Austria-Hungary
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With over 300,000 made, surplus M1912s are not uncommon and make a desirable collectible.

When I think of the Steyr M1912, I think of comedian Rodney Dangerfield’s immortal line: “I don’t get no respect at all.” Here was a magnificent pistol developed at the beginning of the 20th Century, a period of arms ferment when nations of all stripes were competing to develop or adopt a semi-auto replacement for their aging revolvers. Yet the Steyr rarely gets a footnote in the references to the small arms of WWI and WWII.

Officially adopted by Austria-Hungary, Romania and Chile, the M1912 soldiered on through two world wars. When Austria was absorbed into the Third Reich in 1938, Germany thought so much of the design they had Mauser re-barrel the available M1912s from 9mm Steyr to 9mm Luger and marked the slide “08.”

Its design was evolutionary at Steyr, beginning with one of the first successful military auto-pistols, the M1900/M1901 Mannlicher, progressing to the Roth-Steyr M1907 (issued to the Austria-Hungarian cavalry), and finally emerging as the M1912 Steyr.

The design of the M1912 is credited to the Czech engineer, Karel Krnka, who also designed the Roth-Steyr M1907. Both feature a rotating barrel with intricately machined cams and locking lugs to secure the barrel to slide. In fact, both military pistols exhibit a high degree of complex machining, hand-fitting and finishing which was the norm in an era. We will not see it again.

Despite age and early technology, Holt’s M1912 proved to be very accurate. The 9mm Steyr ammo is produced — occasionally — by Fiocchi.

Stripper Clippin’

One of the distinguishing characteristics of all three designs is the use of stripper clips to load — a feature we see also in the Mauser M96. It was an era in which the concept of a detachable box magazine was not universally shared, and ammunition for the Steyr-manufactured pistols was actually issued in stripper clips.

While loading with a stripper clip can be almost as fast as changing magazines, I can’t imagine fumbling about with strippers to recharge your pistol while bouncing around on a horse. The design certainly defeats the concept of a magazine-switching, tactical reload to top off your pistol although depressing the cartridge release button above the left grip will send all the remaining cartridges in the integral magazine flying skyward. You could then thumb in a fresh stripper clip.

The only solid advantage I see with the integral magazine system is there are no dirty magazines or magazines with deformed lips to cause function problems during a fight. As a personal aside, God bless Browning for giving us detachable magazines in his pistols despite our ultra-conservative American military sticking with limited-round charging clips rather than detachable box mags to feed our Springfield ’03s and M1s through the Korean War!

Reloading with an 8-round stripper clip would seem to be a challenge to a cavalryman bouncing around on a horse.

The pistol can be broken down in seconds into its three primary assemblies. The rotating barrel features intricately machined cams and locking lugs.

Proprietary Nine

The M1912 was chambered for the proprietary 9mm Steyr cartridge, which featured a 23mm case rather than the 19mm case of the Luger. The cartridge was never loaded in the U.S. and today the only remaining source of fresh 9mm Steyr ammo is Fiocchi.

Their catalog lists the Steyr as loaded with a 115-gr. FMJ at a velocity of 1,030 fps. Even with its larger case capacity, the Steyr round is not being loaded up to 115-gr. Luger speeds (which Fiocchi lists at 1,200 fps). The lot of Fiocchi 9mm Steyr I used clocked 998 fps.

The cartridge release button (left) and what Holt calls a “wart of a safety” (right) are handy and easily manipulated.

The M1912 is held together by a wedge that’s easily removed to fieldstrip the pistol.

Handling, Loading, Stripping

The M1912 handles quite well. The grip angle is excellent making it a natural pointer but the sights leave a lot to be desired. The rear is a shallow “V” while the front is a typical barleycorn design of the era — tiny and difficult to pick up for target work. From a combat viewpoint, there’s a saving grace to the design. The rear sight block of the slide is huge and squared off so at close quarters, the silhouette of the big block serves as a “subliminal” sighting plane — which, together with the pointing qualities of the pistol, puts you on a man-sized or horse-sized target every time.

Even with its minimalist sighting arrangement, the M1912 did well at the range, producing a 5-shot group of 1.5" at 10 yards and placing 4 out of 5 shots into 2.6" at 25.

Loading the Steyr is straightforward. You fully retract the slide until it can engage with the little wart of a safety, thumb eight rounds down into the magazine via a stripper clip and disengage the safety. The slide then runs forward loading the first round. The safety, incidentally, is merely a rotating lock blocking the hammer from moving and also locks the slide to the fame.

Fieldstripping is a snap — the gun is held together by a wedge you push out from left to right. Once you’ve done this, retract and remove the slide then simply remove the barrel from its frame cradle. After this maneuver, the gun literally falls apart.

With over 300,000 made, there are numerous variations such as Romanian and Chilean contract models, non-military commercial models and police-issue models. There’s even a select-fire model with an extended magazine and shoulder stock.

It might not get the attention and respect it deserves but the Steyr M1912 is a superb example of early 20th Century gunmaking, while claiming a proud heritage of having served faithfully in two world wars.

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