Caliber - 5.56mm NATO (.223 Rem.)
Capacity - 30 rounds (standard; can accept magazines from 5 to 35 rounds)
Action - Gas-operated semi-automatic
Barrel - 16 inches
Weight - ~8 lbs.
The Saiga family of sporting arms made its US debut in the mid-1990s. Manufactured by renowned Russian arms-maker Izhmash and imported initially by European American Armory and most recently by Russian-American Armory Company, the Saigas are essentially AKM/AK-74 actions modified to accept various calibers and to comply with US import regulations and other legislation (such as the now-defunct 1994 "Assault Weapons Ban"). All Saigas (available as of this writing in .223, 7.62x39 and .308 rifle calibers, as well as .410, 20 and 12ga shotgun calibers) feature a stamped sheet-metal receiver, chrome-lined hammer-forged barrel, synthetic shotgun-style stock and forearm, and a low-capacity magazine.
Almost as soon as the Saiga sporters started coming into the country, a cottage industry began to spring up around converting them back into more traditional AK-type configurations. As long as the gun contains 10 or fewer of the imported parts listed by the BATFE), it is considered a "domestic" firearm and can be modified to accept military-style magazines and can have a pistol grip, flash hider, folding stock and other "evil" features that are prohibited on imported semi-automatic rifles. During the "Assault Weapons Ban" years (1994-2004), Arsenal USA (now known as Armory USA/Global Trades) converted a small number of Saiga rifles and sold them as a production item alongside their other AK variants.
I had been interested in a 5.56-caliber AK for some time, but did not want to pay through the nose for a pre-94 Chinese gun or one of Arsenal Inc's milled receiver SAM-5s (the SLR-106 was not yet in production), nor did I want to go through the time and expense of buying a stock Saiga and having it converted. This Armory USA Saiga conversion came up for sale on one of the Internet gun boards in late 2006, looking very clean and priced at $650 with a dozen modified Galil magazines. I couldn't pass it up!
Fit and finish
Converting a .223 Saiga into a standard AK configuration can be quite an undertaking, especially when it comes to the magwell area and forward. The overall quality of this conversion was quite good, with Armory USA welding up the leftover holes in the receiver, properly installing a feed ramp and double-hook trigger group, modifying the magazine catch to accept military type magazines, and refinishing the entire gun in a nice gray parkerizing. It appears, however, that they took the "easy" route when it came to the front end. Instead of removing the barrel and turning it down to a smaller diameter in order to accept standard AK front hardware (gas block, front sight tower and handguard retainer), they simply cut the handguard retainer, slipped it over the barrel, and re-welded it. They also left the original Saiga gas block and front sight base/sleeve in place, and welded on an AK-74 style compensator. This sort of thing was par for the course during the AWB years, however, since a threaded front sight base with bayonet lug and detachable flash hider wouldn't have been legal to install anyway. The rifle came equipped with an OD Green polymer furniture set from K-VAR and the afforementioned magazines, and was packed in the original "Arsenal USA" marked box.
I took the rifle out and fired approximately 200 rounds for function, with no issues. I didn't bother sighting it in, because I knew I wanted to get it "un-banned" as soon as possible, and install a threaded front sight base with bayonet lug and flash hider. I also wanted to change out the skinny AK pistol grip and too-long "NATO-length" stock for something more comfortable and functional. Besides, the OD Green color of the furniture just didn't "work" with the gray parked finish and the black mags. I'm just a slave to fashion, I guess. ;-)
Makeover & Accessories
First thing I did was swap the OD furniture for a black polymer set with the original-length stock, and a SAW pistol grip from TAPCO. A lot of people complain that the standard AK stock is too short, but I (even at 6'3" and 200 lbs) find it just about perfect for the squared-up, aggressively forward-leaning fighting stance taught by most top-tier instructors (including all the ones I've trained with). Then I took the gun to a local 'smith to have the front sight base and welded-on compensator removed. They were really on there! Even after the comp had been cut off, the FSB had to be heated with a torch and beaten off the barrel with a hammer, and was destroyed in the process. After that ordeal, imagine our frustration when we found that the Saiga barrel diameter was too large for the Bulgarian threaded FSB to fit! Had I done some research beforehand, I would've known this to be the case and might have pursued a different course of action or just left well enough alone. Live and learn, I guess! Fortunately, my machinist buddy, who has helped me with countless projects in the past, had a lathe in his garage and said it wouldn't be a problem to open up the inside diameter of the Bulgarian FSB so it would fit over the now-naked Saiga barrel. He took some measurements, chucked the FSB up in his lathe, and went to town. In short order, he was able to press-fit the FSB onto the barrel, but had built in enough "slop" that its position could still be adjusted manually. We made sure it was straight, then he put it on the milling machine and used a titanium carbide bit to drill the holes for the pins to secure the FSB to the barrel. The pins tapped in just fine, I installed a US-made copy of the Bulgarian AR-M7F flash hider, and we were done. The only remaining problem was that the rifle now sported three different finishes - parkerized for the most part, with a raw-steel FSB and a blued flash hider. I refinished the whole gun in matte black Alumahyde II from Brownells to give it a uniform appearance. The finishing touch was a SWIFT selector lever from Blackjack, which allows easy operation with the shooting hand, and enables the bolt to be locked to the rear.
About this time, I acquired an Arsenal SLR-106F, which gave me two 5.56-caliber AKs in the stable. While the SLR was designed to use only the Bulgarian waffle-pattern polymer magazines, the Saiga conversion was capable of using several different types, including the Bulgarian waffles, lightly modified Galil Orlites, AK-74 mags with a Robarms conversion follower installed or East German "Weiger" steel mags. Not wanting to stock two different types of 5.56 AK magazines, I got rid of all the Galil Orlites that came with the Saiga conversion, and standardized on the Bulgarian magazines for both rifles – then I ended up selling the -106F about a year later (d'oh!).
Getting the AK-101 Saiga conversion out and shooting it side-by-side with the SLR-106 proved interesting. The -106 proved marginally more accurate, but the Saiga had slightly less perceived recoil, better sights (the U-notch on the Saiga's rear sight is wider and deeper than the SLR's, allowing faster acquisition of the front post), and generally felt more "solid". I attribute the latter to the Saiga's fixed stock being ever so slightly shorter and angled a bit differently than the SLR's AK-100 pattern folder, allowing me to really "get over the gun" and pull it in tight. The only malfunctions that occurred during this range session were a handful of failures to feed, which I traced back to one individual magazine that also caused problems in the SLR-106.
The Bottom Line
Saiga conversions are practical, economical alternatives to the more expensive 5.56 AK variants available. This particular example from Armory USA is functional, shows good attention to detail, and has the advantage of being able to accept several different types of magazines. In its "un-banned" form, it is every bit as good as the SLR-106, and perhaps even better in some regards! The AK-101 is still somewhat of a work in progress; I am currently debating whether to leave it as-is or go the full "practical/tactical" route and add optics, a VLTOR adjustable stock, and a railed forearm with vertical grip. Stay tuned!