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.
- A 7.62x39mm Saiga bolt carrier assembly, top, is compared with the Saiga-12’s. You can see the shortened and cut-out gas piston, different recoil-spring guide, shutter added to the recoil-spring assembly and large cut-out on the topcover.
The shotgun I reviewed started life as a standard Saiga-12 sporting shotgun. Krebs removed the factory firing mechanism, filled the holes and installed standard fire-control parts. A SAW-pattern pistol grip was added along with a standard fixed, military-type buttstock. To make the piece a bit handier, the heavy-wall barrel was shortened to 181/4 inches. Krebs then added one of his front sight assemblies to the barrel. This is held in place by two set screws. Robust ears on this unit protect a standard AR-type front sight. By utilizing a standard AR front sight, any of the commonly available aftermarket sights can be mounted. A very large-diameter aperture sight is mounted on the gas tube just ahead of the receiver. Diameter of the aperture is approximately 3/8 inch. Yes, it’s big and easy to pick up, either at speed or in low light. This sight is very fast on target when shooting shotshells, yet provides precision when firing slugs. The magazine release is the standard paddle type. The forearm is also the standard piece.
The result is a fairly short and handy shotgun with hardcore good looks. Overall length is just 363/4 inches. Balance point, with no magazine, is right at the bolt handle. With target loads and low-recoil LE buck and slug loads, it’s fairly pleasant to shoot. However, with full-house 00 buck or slug loads, the narrow military buttplate will not be denied its pound of flesh. A long day shooting heavy three-inch Magnums with this piece would not be at the top of my list of fun things to do. However, recoil is quite tolerable with 2¾-inch low-recoil 00 buck and slugs. Controllability is also quite good. The only problem is that those short, five-round magazines run dry way too quickly.
There are options to the standard Russian five-round magazines. AGP offers a 10-round magazine for the Saiga-12. Manufactured in the U.S., this magazine is made from a robust glass-filled nylon. Made in separate halves that are screwed together, the body is also fitted with metal feed lips. At almost 11 inches long and more than three inches wide, these are big mags. They are actually bigger than the gun’s receiver. I purchased one of the very early production magazines and have been running it for almost two years. Reliability has been very good, but I did run into some problems after I had about 500 rounds through it. The follower became a bit sluggish coming up the last couple of inches. A little sanding cured that. ProMag also offers polymer five- and 10-round box magazines. The 10-round mag in particular has become popular among 3-Gun competitors. Suggested retail for the five-round mag is $26, while the 10-round design sells for $43.
The one thing you have to be aware of with the Saiga-12 is that a fully loaded magazine can be fairly difficult to lock into place. Loading down one round cures this, so I make a habit of only loading nine rounds in AGP magazines. Another thing to be aware of is that the front of the plastic shotshells can distort due to spring pressure. This can happen to the top round in the magazine if it’s left stored in the gun for a month or more. Basically, the heavy spring pressure driving the shell against the bolt deforms the plastic. I have seen shells deformed to the point where they wouldn’t chamber. Ammunition brand may play a part in this, but I think it is just the nature of plastic shotshells. The easiest cure is to simply not leave a loaded AGP magazine locked into your Saiga-12 for extended lengths of time. If you do, I highly recommend downloading it to eight rounds and frequently checking the top round for distortion.
Another option is drum magazines. These offer higher capacity over standard box magazines. The downsides are bulk and weight. However, for pure sex appeal and fun on the range, a 20-round drum in a 12 gauge is hard to beat. MD Arms offers a 20-round drum that weighs two pounds empty. It is available with a black, clear or smoke back cover. This design has three moving parts and only 15 parts total. It retails for $120. ProMag offers a similar design in two capacities, 20 and 12 rounds. As to be expected, the 12-round drum is quite a bit handier when locked into the gun. Both models have clear backplates to easily keep track of remaining rounds. The 20-round model retails for $124. The 12-round model retails for $99. One last option is Alliance Armament, which offers not only a 20-round drum but also a 30-round design. Very different from the previously mentioned designs, the Alliance Armament drums are open on the sides. They are also very expensive. The 20-round model retails for $379, while the 30-round drum retails for a whopping $425.
Another avenue one can take with the Saiga-12 is very old-school: all-brass shotshells. Brass shotshells will not deform in the same manner as conventional plastic hulls, so they might be the ticket for a magazine that will be left loaded and locked in to the gun long term. The problem, of course, is that no one currently offers modern 00 buckshot and slug loads in all-brass cases. There is no reason to let this deter you, however. Magtech offers brand-new empty brass 12-gauge shotshells for reloading. These are intended for Cowboy Action shooters, but don’t let that put you off. RCBS offers its Cowboy Brass Shotshell Die, which is specifically made for reloading brass shotshells. Better still, it’s designed to work in a standard reloading press. If you currently load pistol or rifle ammunition, you can load brass shotshells. Smokeless powder data is a bit hard to come by, but all components are readily available. Both Magtech’s hulls and RCBS’ die set are available from MidwayUSA.
Other than the problem stated, standard plastic shotshell performance is quite acceptable. Shells load into the magazines with little effort, and once you get the hang of it, magazines lock easily into the rifle if you load down one round. Pulling back the bolt and releasing it chambers one of the big shells smoothly. That still surprises me. Squeezing the trigger five times as fast as you can puts five empty hulls in the air. Cycle time is very fast, with empties being thrown five to 15 feet to the forward right depending on the load and gas port setting. Keep in mind, you do have an adjustable gas port. For best performance, run it on the lowest setting that will reliably function.
How does the Krebs-modified Saiga-12 pattern? To find out, I posted a large piece of cardboard at 15 yards. This is a practical distance for a shotgun intended for self-protection inside the home. Most encounters are likely to take place at this distance or much closer. Ammunition utilized for patterning was Federal’s Power-Shok 2¾-inch buffered 00 buck load. Five rounds were fired with measurements taken after each round. Performance was quite acceptable from this 12-pellet load. Average spread at 15 yards was 10 inches, and the patterns were very uniform in density. Switching to Wolf Performance Ammunition’s 2¾-inch one-ounce slug load, I tried my hand at 50 yards. Four five-shot groups averaged a respectable 4.9 inches. Recoil was fairly stout, though, thanks to the narrow buttplate.
Lately, there have been a lot of rumors circulating that the BATFE was going to halt the importation of Saiga shotguns. The worry here is that they were going to declare that the Saiga-12 was not a sporting gun. This was likely stirred up by the sudden surge of high-capacity drum magazines. While this has not happened, it is a worry that has certainly stimulated current sales.
The Krebs Custom-modified Saiga-12 is a very interesting gun with some excellent features. While it won’t win any beauty contests, it is extremely robust. When fed from AGP magazines downloaded to nine rounds, there are a lot of rounds on tap. Reloading is quick and easy. Controllability depends entirely on load selection. Full-house buckshot and slug loads pound on both ends. Low-recoil LE loads, on the other hand, are very controllable. Bred from the most reliable assault rifle in the world, it is an impressive-looking shotgun. Is it perfect? No. Mags will always be the weak point of this design due to the rimmed shotshells. Plus, in my experience the Saiga-12 is less tolerant than a 7.62x39mm gun regarding lubrication. However, properly lubed with good mags and low-recoil buckshot loads, the Saiga-12 is an impressive piece. If you are in the market for a tactical shotgun, the Saiga-12 is worth a look.