What is the meaning of "number 12" in the below sentence:

You keep it up you're gonna put your number 12 down on a still some day an' git [sic] your head blowed [sic] off

EDIT: For more context, I've typed up the entire paragraph.

"Understand you're quite a dancer," he informed me after waiting to see if I was going to continue. I wondered how much of his tomato face was due to weather and how much to alcohol. Around us the little bar-room conversations had died out. He wasn't satisfied to accept my silence. "I see you peart [sic] near ev'y [sic] day out thumpin' [sic] around that bresh [sic] out yonder," he said to me. "You keep it up you're gonna put your number 12 down on a still some day an' git [sic] your head blowed [sic] off."

"I carry a spare." He didn't get it for a minute. When he did he clouded over. "You in town for long Arnold?"

Arnold is a 'tree surgeon'. So now that I looked at it, it may just refer to one of his tools (maybe an axe?). The author hadn't once mentioned a shotgun, although that does seem to make sense.

My original guess that that 'number 12' was a body part of sorts.

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    Possibly a 12 gauge shotgun, but hard to tell without context. Commented Jan 2, 2017 at 22:33
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    It's not a common idiom in the US. An allusion to a 12-gauge shotgun is a good guess, as suggested by Cascabel.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Jan 2, 2017 at 22:46
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    More context--e.g. where the sentence is from, and some information about the work that it's from--could add context that could help someone answer the question. Commented Jan 2, 2017 at 23:53
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    Cascabel’s is an excellent guess, but it is a wild shot (no pun intended) in the dark, which shouldn't have to be necessary. Please provide some more context than just a single sentence: what is the scene, who is speaking, what are they talking about in general, etc. Commented Jan 2, 2017 at 23:54
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    Aw shucks, I just perfected my answer and now you go and put it on hold... Commented Jan 3, 2017 at 1:34

1 Answer 1


Without any context I am going to take a "shot" at this...

I believe the speaker is referring to a #12 shotgun shell, containing approximately 2400 pieces of soft shot. Usually used for killing snakes, it mostly has more bark than bite when fired from a 12 gauge shotgun at long range, and is ideal for scaring a prowler off without causing too much damage.

Phil Sweet has commented that the loose shell could have been kept handy for a purity test: evidently to test if the "run" is at 100 proof or higher, the powder from an opened casing could be mixed with the output and ignited: a bit of lore I was unaware of.

Clare has also commented that the #12 could refer to the Fox #12 shotgun, a high quality piece first produced in 1909, and thus relevant to the discussion.

The umprovided context (I guess)

Back in the day, clandestine liquor producers (moonshiners) would produce in a secluded spot in the woods during "season".

There were several points during production which were more dangerous, from a legal standpoint.

Approaching the site, it was possible there were "revenooers" waiting to arrest them. During the "run", if the wind changed or died off, it was still possible to be detected. Other dangers included thieves who would wait for the run to finish to steal it.

This is why most moonshiners kept a shotgun handy, to protect the still and "run".

Now the really dangerous part here is that it is generally a bad idea to mix firarms with alcohol. For most people producing "white lightning", there is always a temptation to taste the brew when it first is running. Apart from the fact the first "foreshots" are usually high in poisonous methanol, the ethanol produced at this point will be at its highest concentration: if they are using a "thumper" it can go as high as 88%.

The better way to test purity is always with an alcoholometer, but seasoned pros use a "shake test" to estimate the purity.

IDIOTS taste-test. And if you taste too much and get blind drunk and stupid and lay your 12 gauge shotgun shell down on the hot still, there is a danger of "cooking off" a round--with disastrous results.

You keep it up you're gonna put your number 12 down on a still some day an' git [sic] your head blowed [sic] off

So I figure that this is what an oldtimer was warning another (probably younger) partner about.

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    I will edit this later but right now I gotta go out and check the mash. Commented Jan 2, 2017 at 23:36
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    The shotgun itself seemed a better answer. Commented Jan 3, 2017 at 3:17
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    I also wondered if it was a warning against cooking off a shell. Another use for the shell is to provide the powder for a proof test. 100 proof meant that if you mixed black powder with the run, it would burn. This was more practical in the muzzle-loader days when you carried the powder in a horn.
    – Phil Sweet
    Commented Jan 3, 2017 at 3:21
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    It's ambiguous. "I have a Fox number 12 shotgun; no better gun was ever made."–Theodore Roosevelt, on what is perhaps the most famous shotgun in American history. And to me, it's the gun which would more likely be referred to colloquially as "your number 12". People "forgetfully" lay/lean/put/place their shotguns in all kinds of dangerous places. Commented Jan 3, 2017 at 3:51
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    @Clare GREAT CATCH! But I dont really know what to do with this post seeing as how it is on hold (Grrr). I would like to edit your info and Phils in, but, oh well...I will follow up as I am enjoying myself with this piece. Commented Jan 3, 2017 at 3:55

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