Boeing developed the aircraft as a private venture to replace the Boeing F3B and Boeing F2B with the United States Navy, the first flight of the P-12 took place on 25 June 1928. The new aircraft was smaller, lighter and more agile than the ones it replaced but still used the Wasp engine of the F3B. This resulted in a higher top speed and overall better performance. As result of Navy evaluation 27 were ordered as the F4B-1, later evaluation by the United States Army Air Corps resulted in orders with the designation P-12. Boeing supplied the USAAC with 366 P-12s between 1929 and 1932. Production of all variants totalled 586.
P-12s were flown by the 17th Pursuit Group (34th, 73rd, and 95th Pursuit Squadrons) at March Field, California, and the 20th Pursuit Group (55th, 77th and 79th Pursuit Squadrons) at Barksdale Field, Louisiana. Older P-12s were used by groups overseas: the 4th Composite Group (3rd Pursuit Squadron) in the Philippines, the 16th Pursuit Group (24th, 29th, 74th, and 79th Pursuit Squadrons) in the Canal Zone, and the 18th Pursuit Group (6th and 19th Pursuit Squadrons) in Hawaii.
The P-12 remained in service with first-line pursuit groups until replaced by Boeing P-26s in 1934–1935. Survivors were relegated to training duties until 1941, when most were grounded and assigned to mechanic's schools.
One F4B-1 converted to unarmed executive transport for the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, fuel tank moved to upper wing centre section.
Boeing Model 223, spreader bar landing gear, frise ailerons, tailwheel replacing skid, 46 built.
Boeing Model 235, as F4B-2 but with semi-monocoque metal fuselage and equipment changes, 21 built.
Boeing Model 235, as F4B-3 but with redesigned vertical tail surfaces, 550 hp R-1340-16 engine, underwing racks for two 116 lb bombs, last 45 built had an enlarged headrest housing a life raft, 92 built and one built from spares.
23 assorted P-12 aircraft transferred from USAAC for use as a radio-controlled target aircraft.
A P-12E (s/n 32-17; registered as N3360G), marked as an F4B-1, is on display at the Planes of Fame Air Museum in Chino, California. The aircraft is in flyable condition, although it hasn't been flown for a number of years.