I don’t know the truth about how the Saiga-12 was invented, but I like to think it involved some bored Izhmash employees, a whole lot of vodka, and a crazy bet about who could chamber a Kalashnikov in the biggest caliber possible. Yuri’s 12-gauge was the winner of the impromptu competition, so he won a big furry hat and his design got put into production to sell to those silly Americans who will buy anything Kalashnikov.
Of course it didn’t really happen that way. The Russians simply wanted to make a semi-automatic hunting shotgun that would work no matter what, in all environments with a minimum of maintenance. They took the proven Kalashnikov pattern and beefed it up until it was shotgun sized, put a hunting stock and hunting style forend on it, included a 5 round magazine, and named it after a rare Russian antelope. They probably didn’t mean to take the shotgun world by storm. Magazine-fed shotguns had been done a few times before, but none had caught on. The Saiga was somehow the right gun at the right time. Priced competitively and readily available in great numbers, it comes in .410, 20-gauge, and 12-gauge flavors. Sales are steadily increasing as the Saiga builds a reputation for itself.
Tactical-minded shooters knew that underneath the import-legal sheep’s clothing beat the heart of a 12-gauge AK-47 monster. Somebody wrote a letter to the BATFE asking for a ruling on the Saiga’s total parts count, so gunsmiths would know how many parts to replace to make the gun 922(r) compliant. The answer? If the Saiga has a threaded choke, it has 14 parts total, and if it has a cylinder bore barrel with no choke, 13 parts. By replacing 4 (no choke) or 5 (choke) parts with parts made in the USA, the Saiga no longer counts as an imported firearm, and you can modify it in ways that would make an imported gun illegal. With this information in hand, wood stocks and long forends were thrown into the trash, rivets drilled out, trigger groups relocated to the original position, and pistol grips installed. Some gunsmiths and collectors wanted to make Saigas that resembled the classic AK-47 styling as much as possible. Others went hog-wild with grinders, welders, and parts from other guns. Their Frankenstein creations featured HK G3 sights, Barrett 50 cal muzzle brakes, and cobbled-together high-capacity magazines. Many of these custom guns had sawn-off barrels so short that they required registration with the BATFE as short-barreled shotguns.
Fast forward to the present day and the Saiga is more popular than ever. The toughest thing about building your custom Saiga may be finding a dealer with one in stock (we do our best here at Cheaper Than Dirt! to get as many as we can). Once you have a Saiga, many options for customization are available and easily installed without gunsmithing. Ten round stick magazines and 20 round drums give the Saiga owner semi-automatic firepower that is hard to match. Tapco makes matching railed forends and AR-15 style collapsible pistol grip type stocks that go right on the Saiga with no gunsmithing at all. Its easier than ever to trick out a Saiga-12! Those of us with some gunsmithing skills have access to amazing modifications that were just prototypes a couple of years ago. One of my favorite modifications is an AR-15 style magazine well that rivets to the bottom of the Saiga’s receiver. Modified stick magazines can be inserted straight into the Saiga-12 and drop free just like an AR-15’s magazines, but the gun loses its ability to accept drums. If installing all the extended magazine catches, muzzle brakes, and Galil-style charging handles you want is beyond your skill level, there are more than a few custom gunsmithing shops selling a variety of “turn key” custom Saigas from mild to wild. For some configurations, all that’s needed is a regular FFL transfer and a fat wallet. For the short-barreled variants, a $200 tax stamp followed by a long wait for NFA paperwork approval by the BATFE comes first.
All this stuff costs money. A base model Saiga-12 will run you a couple hundred dollars more than a standard Kalashnikov pattern rifle in 7.62×39 just to begin with. But compare the price to traditional semi-automatic shotguns offering similar capacity, such as the FN SLP, and suddenly the Saiga costs hundreds less. You can spend the saved money on the drum mags, railed forearms, and red dot sights you want, and customize your Saiga for roughly the same money as buying a box-stock semi-auto from another maker. It’s not very often that we can make a cool custom tactical gun cost less than a plain factory gun. If those Russian engineers at Izhmash knew about the modifications we are making to their hunting shotguns, what would they think? I’m betting they do know, and I’m betting they are happily raising a toast to us as they receive orders for more Saigas!