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Saiga-12 Review

by David Fortier   |  March 19th, 2013 8


Traditional pump-action and semi-automatic tactical shotguns share one serious shortcoming: They are slow to reload. Although they possess formidable short-range terminal performance, they hold a limited number of rounds. When those rounds are gone, the magazine takes a considerable amount of time to replenish. This is due to their feeding from a tube magazine.

Magazine capacity is, of course, limited by tube length. Rounds need to be loaded one at a time, and under stress this can be agonizingly slow. In reality, loading a traditional shotgun is no faster than loading a French Mle. 1886 Lebel, and that was obsolete before World War I. Luckily, a tube full of 00 buck is all that’s required in a typical self-defense scenario. However, if you’ve ever longed for a tactical shotgun that was a bit more modern, there is one to consider. It’s the Saiga-12, and it’s a 12-gauge shotgun variation of the famous AK-47.

Saiga, which means Steppe antelope, is a line of sporting firearms produced by Izhmash OJSC of Izhevsk, Russia. Izhmash OJSC is also a major producer of Russian small arms and the home of both the AK47 and the SVD. Izhevsk is also the adopted home of Mikhail Timofeevich Kalashnikov. The Saiga-12 is a semi-automatic, 12-gauge incarnation of Mikhail Kalashnikov’s legendary design. Better still, like the AK-47, the Saiga-12 feeds from detachable box magazines. Think about it. A semi-automatic, magazine-fed, 12-gauge AK. Some interesting possibilities for a fighting shotgun come to mind.

The man behind transforming the Kalashnikov into a shotgun was not Mikhail Kalashnikov, but another famous Russian designer, Gennady Nikolayevich Nikonov. Unlike Kalashnikov, Nikonov was actually born in Izhevsk, which is about 1,500 kilometers east of Moscow. Both his father and mother were employed by Izhmash, so it ran in his blood. His father worked as a mechanic at the huge facility, which employed tens of thousands. At the age of 18, Nikonov graduated from technical school. While there, he became obsessed with underwater rifles. He won his first professional recognition by designing a trigger mechanism for an underwater rifle. To further his education, he took evening classes while working at Izhmash. He graduated from the well-respected Izhevsk Mechanical Institute as a certified firearms engineer in 1975. After graduating, he went on to a post-graduate Ph.D course. He eventually married someone who could understand his work, another firearms designer named Tatiana. They had two sons, Nikolay and Yuri.

Nikonov began work at Izhmash in the Department of the Chief Arms Designer. His first position was as a technician. From 1980 to 1985 he worked on various projects for the Soviet Ministry of Defense. Not only the quality of his work, but also the amount he was able to perform helped him to advance up the work ladder. During his 30-plus-year career, Nikonov designed various rifles, air guns and sporting firearms. These ranged from a stylish, yet accurate Izjubr (Buck Deer) hunting carbine to a straight-pull, bolt-action biathlon competition rifle. Without a doubt, though, he is most famous in the West for his AN-94 assault rifle. Adopted in 1994 by the Russian army, this blowback-shifted, pulse-operated rifle is currently fielded by select Spetsnaz units. Of interest to us here, he also led the design team that created the Saiga series of AK-based shotguns. During his time at Izhmash, Nikonov received almost 50 designer’s certificates and patents. He was also awarded the titles of Best Designer of the Company and Best Designer of the Ministry.

During a trip to Izhmash in 2001, I had the opportunity to meet with a member of his design team and discuss this interesting shotgun. Although at first glance the Saiga-12 appears very similar to a standard AK, it took a great deal of work to shoehorn a 12-gauge shotshell into the action. The heart of the piece remains a stamped sheetmetal receiver. However, it has a beefier trunnion. The most significant change in the Saiga is the gas system, which has settings to allow both low brass 2¾-inch shells and three-inch Magnums to be used with equal reliability. The gas piston on the bolt carrier has also been noticeably shortened. In addition, part of it has been machined away to allow shell clearance during ejection. The bolt has also been changed with the addition of a larger face. As expected, the topcover needed to be opened up to allow ejection of the big hulls. In conjunction with this, a simple sheetmetal shutter has been added to the recoil-spring assembly. This closes the rear of the ejection port when the bolt is forward in battery.

Probably the greatest challenge facing the Russian designers was creating a reliable magazine. Reliable magazines for rimmed cartridges are notoriously difficult to design. Add the complication of feeding a flatnose shell and things become even more troublesome. Nikonov’s team solved the feeding problem by having shells go straight into the chamber. Magazine bodies are produced from a glass-fiber-reinforced polymer. Tough and sturdy with a metal reinforcement in the feed lips, the magazines fieldstrip easily for maintenance. Standard capacity is five rounds, although the Russians also produce an eight-rounder.

Although the Russians do build tactical versions of the Saiga-12 with a pistol grip and side-folding stock, they are not legal to import, so Saiga-12s are imported as sporting guns. They have a sporting-type butt with no separate pistol grip, and the trigger mechanism is moved farther to the rear of the receiver. The butt and fore-end are made from a tough black polymer and fitted with narrow, 7/8-inch European-pattern sling swivels. Barrel lengths commonly seen are 19, 22 and 24 inches. Most of these have a fixed choke, usually full, although improved cylinder has also been offered. Some models were also available with external screw-on chokes. Both fixed and adjustable sights have been presented. A scope rail is fitted to the left side of the receiver. This allows a shooter to slide on a red dot sight or low-power scope when shooting slugs.

Being that it’s an AK-based design, it is not too difficult to legally convert a Saiga-12 into something more socially oriented. Currently, there are a number of good gunsmiths doing excellent work in this regard. Tony Rumore of Tromix, for example, is one I would highly recommend. For this article, I chose to look at a Saiga-12 converted by Marc Krebs of Krebs Custom.

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