Caliber - 12 Gauge
Capacity - 5- or 8-Round Detachable Box Magazine
Action - Gas-operated semi-automatic
Barrel - 19 inches
Weight - 7.40 lbs.
The Saiga-12 is a semi-automatic 12-gauge shotgun based on the Kalashnikov rifle design and produced in the Izhmash factory in Izhevsk, Russia. The Saiga-12 is in use with Russian Special Forces units (Spetznaz and OMON), and commercial versions have found international popularity with hunters, sportsmen, police and armed citizens. Saiga shotguns were previously imported by European American Armory, but EAA gave up their import rights in early 2005. As a result, supplies of both guns and magazines have dwindled and prices have gone up dramatically. As of mid-2005, a new company has secured import rights to the Saiga line and is awaiting approval from BATF.
I own two Saiga-12s. #1 is a 2002-vintage gun bought new that year, with a 19" cylinder-bore barrel, fixed notch-and-post sights and no bolt hold-open; #2 is a 2000-vintage gun bought used in 2005, with a 19" barrel with screw-on choke, adjustable rib-style sights and a manual bolt hold-open. Following the demise of the 1994 "Assault Weapons Ban," both guns have been converted from the "sporter" configuration to an AK-style configuration resembling the Saiga-12S model (see below).
Fit and Finish
For an AK enthusiast, the neatest thing about this weapon is that it's of TRUE Russian manufacture, unlike most of the AK "clones" currently available. On the left side of the receiver are numerous Russian proof marks, most notably the Izhmash arrow-in-triangle stamp (pictured at left). The Saigas come off the same production lines as the AK-74M and AK-100 series rifles, and exhibit the same quality and durability as their military cousins. The Saiga-12 can be thought of as "an AK on steroids"; its design and function are generally similar, but key elements have been scaled up and reworked to accommodate the 12-gauge round.
Standard finish on the Saiga-12 appears to be a matte black powder coat with a slightly rough texture. It does not provide the durability or rust resistance of military parkerizing, but it is much thicker and more evenly applied than the enamel finish found on the ubiquitous Romanian AKs. The forearm is made of
black polymer and feature molded-in checkering. There is no top handguard as on an AK rifle. Instead, the bottom handguard wraps up high enough to prevent the operator's hand from contacting the (hot) gas tube. Fit of the furniture to the receiver was impeccable, with no detectable gaps or looseness. Fit of the
removable top cover was also tight, aided by an extra button designed to help keep the top cover secured under heavy recoil forces. This button, found on all Saiga shotguns, must be depressed before the release latch can be pushed in and the top cover removed. The action spring and bolt carrier assembly remove in the standard
AK manner. Because a longer ejection port is required for the 12-gauge round, an inner dust cover is attached to the recoil rod. This cover, positioned just behind the bolt carrier, and seals off the rear portion of the ejection port when the bolt group is in battery.
Saiga #1 was converted locally by a machinist friend of mine with whom I have done several other gun-tinkering projects. I purchased a US-made trigger group from RPB, a US-made Galil-style pistol grip from ACE Ltd., and used the RPB Krink-style stock that used to be on my AK-74. That gave me 5 US parts - more than enough to render the converted Saiga legally compliant. The instructions we found on the internet were for converting a Saiga rifle, and so had to be altered somewhat for the shotgun, which is different inside. Basically, the conversion process involves drilling out several rivets and removing the "sporter" trigger group and the receiver plate that covers the AK trigger hole, cutting a hole in the receiver to mount the pistol grip, reversing and reattaching the trigger guard, modifying and installing the standard AK fire control group, and plugging the leftover rivet holes. Work was performed over the course of a couple evenings, and I am quite happy with the end result! For those without a do-it-yourself spirit or friends in the right places, several gunsmiths around the country will convert your Saiga-12 sporter for a fee; I went just that route with Saiga #2.
Saiga #2 was converted by Josh Newton of Newton Firearms in Oklahoma. I chose Josh because I was impressed by the pictures and testimonials posted on AK47.net (the "dark side" of AR15.com), and by his competitive prices. I sent Josh the gun,
an ACE internal stock adapter block and Galil pistol grip, a set of Russian press-on AK-style sights, and $200. He supplied the TAPCO G2 trigger pack, modified AKM trigger guard, and a Red Star Arms pin retaining plate. The conversion took about 10 weeks – partially because Josh was
(at the time) doing gunsmithing on the side and was still catching up from a deluge of work following the AWB Sunset late last year. That situation has pretty much been remedied; Josh has taken his 'smithing business full-time and has said he hopes to greatly reduce lead times in the future. He was very apologetic about the wait (which
I didn't think was a big deal, since this was a "backup" gun) and offered a discount on the next job I send him. Can't beat that! And the wait was totally worth it; the quality of the conversion
is outstanding! Josh expertly removed the original sight rib and installed the Russian front & rear sights, welded up and ground flush the holes left by the removal of the "sporter" parts (I had just plugged them with
button-head screws), ground off the receiver tang and installed the ACE stock block, and fitted an AKM triggerguard modified to be an exact clone of the Saiga-12S part. Finally, he beadblasted the whole gun and
refinished it with KG Gunkote in semi-gloss black.
The Saiga-12's operating system is similar to the AK family, in that gas is bled from the barrel and used to drive a piston linked to the bolt carrier. The retracting bolt group ejects the spent case and recocks the hammer, then is pushed back into battery by the recoil spring, loading the next round out of the magazine as it moves forward. The Saiga-12 has a two-position gas regulator at the front of the gas tube. Position 1 restricts the gas flow to minimize recoil when using full power or "magnum" ammunition; position 2 is "wide open" and should be used with light target or reduced-recoil tactical loads. Using full-power ammunition on position 2 is not recommended; it will result in heavier perceived recoil and may lead to excessive wear on the receiver and internal parts. Once a Saiga-12 has been well broken in, it may function reliably with all types of ammunition when set on position 1; if this is the case, it should be left there for maximum recoil reduction and longevity.
In both the original sporter and current AK configurations, my Saiga-12s have been 100% reliable with all loads tried, assuming the gas system is set properly. Accuracy out of Saiga #1's 19" cylinder-bore barrel varies widely with different buckshot and slug loads, but is generally in keeping with other shotguns of similar barrel length and style. Its short pistol-type sight radius is not conducive to accurate slug shooting beyond about 25 yards, but Saigas also feature a Russian-pattern optics mount on the left side of the receiver for easy attachment of optics. Saiga-12 #2 throws much tighter patterns with most loads, even though its screw-on choke is marked "C" for Cylinder bore. The longer sight radius provided by the clamp-on front tower allows for more precise slug shooting at longer ranges, but the front blade is finer than #1's and is hard to pick up quickly.
Finally, the issues of recoil and cyclic rate - two things for which the Saiga-12 is renowned. The Saiga-12 is quite comfortable to shoot, as 12-gauge shotguns go. With lighter loads, recoil is no problem at all, despite the fact that the Saiga is a fairly lightweight weapon. With a proper shooting stance, game loads and reduced-recoil "tactical" ammo are truly pain-free. Firing full-power 2-3/4" buck and slugs, recoil is fairly stout – about on par with a Remington 11-87 shooting the same load. As to cycling... the Saiga-12 is fast. It's been said that the Saiga action is the fastest in the world, topping even the vaunted Benelli family. This may well be true, but the Saiga's lousy sporterized trigger group makes it challenging to realize the gun's potential in this regard. Converting the gun to a standard AK format helps immensely, and a quality trigger group will improve the gun's shootability even more (the TAPCO trigger in #2 offers a much cleaner pull and crisper break than the FSE trigger group in #1; an adjustable Red Star Arms group would be totally kickass!) Even with the FSE trigger group, it's possible to get 5 empties in the air before the first one hits the ground, and I've even heard of folks "bump-firing" the Saiga-12 for pseudo full-auto rates of fire. :-o
The Saiga-12 carries over a couple character flaws from its AK heritage, namely crappy iron sights and the lack of a last-round bolt hold-open device. The latter is problematic because it makes reloading more difficult, as the shell stack must be compressed against the bottom of the bolt as the new mag is inserted. The manual bolt hold-open found on some Saigas (including my #2 gun) is nice for administrative purposes but is small and difficult to activate under stress. Additionally, even a small bump when the bolt is locked back will disengage the hold-open. One solution might be the "SWIFT" safety lever from Blackjack, which can be had with a notch that holds the bolt open when the lever is raised, and can be engaged or disengaged with the trigger finger.
Additionally, extra magazines can be hard to find and are startlingly expensive now that the Saigas are "between importers". Hopefully this situation will change once the new import company gets its ducks in a row and product starts coming into the country again. Finally, the Saiga-12 has a different manual of arms than every other shotgun out there. This is not necessarily a bad thing, though, especially if you already own and are familiar with an AK rifle. The trick is to think of the Saiga like a semi-auto rifle and not try to run it like a conventional tube-fed shotgun. One big plus is that the Saiga's rifle-like manual of arms eliminates the need for the complicated loading drills associated with tube-fed shotgun designs. With the Saiga, the techniques for select slug, tactical load and speed load are all the same – change magazines!
The Bottom Line
The Saiga shotguns are a unique evolution of the Kalashnikov design, and are as rugged, reliable, and effective as their rifle-caliber cousins. With a few modifications (improved iron sights and a mount for a Surefire or other tac light), it could serve wonderfully as a home defense gun. Topped with a red-dot sight and with several additional magazines on hand, it would be an ideal setup for 3-gun matches and other types of competition.
Additional updates will be made as events warrant... stay tuned!