The Saiga-12: From “Sporter” to 12-gauge Monster

Tromix Saiga SBSthumb
Legion Saiga-12
The Saiga-12 looking all innocent, as imported from Izhmash.

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.

Saiga-12 Open Class thumbnail
This heavily modified Saiga-12 was built for competition.

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.

Tromix Saiga SBSthumb
This short-barreled NFA Saiga with HK sights was custom-built by Tromix.

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!

The Mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!'s blog, The Shooter's Log, is to provide information—not opinions—to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (7)

  1. I purchased the Saiga 12 and modified it courtesy of a talented gunsmith to my specs. ‘The Machine’ , as we now refer to it, looks very much like the one pictured separately in your article. It has a collapsible stock, tritium nite sights, 8′ barrel with a well designed muzzle break that allows the gases to dissipate to the sides and rear, etc. One of the cool modifications is the reconfiguration of the grip to rack the action. It is relocated vertically making it accessible to rack with my left hand so that I can maintain my grip on the pistol grip. This allows a right hand shooter to maintain control and switch out magazines with the left hand. This allows for a smooth transition to quickly remain in the readiness mode if need be.
    When I first saw the modified Saiga, it gave me second thoughts on what I just purchased. It is a very intimidating looking ‘Machine’, that is what I refer to it now. ‘The Machine’ got it’s name from a Navy Seal who asked if he could see it when I was at a large gun show. Wanting to be discreet, we went outside for him to check out the Saiga. His impression was similar to everyone’s first observation of more than simply raising an eyebrow, saying that this gun was a well thought out, impressive ‘Machine’. He was well versed in the power that could be had with unleashing a 20 round drum of the loads of your choice. He asked if I would sell it, offering a premium price. Of course, I couldn’t part with it, especially since going through a little over a two year period to acquire it.
    A few tips that you may consider: the gunsmith told me to avoid Winchester shells, I don’t know why but I wasn’t about to doubt his advice. Prior to firing it the first time, I dismantled the action and heavily lubed all the metal on metal moving mechanisms, slides, ejector, etc. with a high grade synthetic oil. I routinely wipe down all of the above mentioned areas and repeat the process whenever the next time I shoot it again. I have had no failures to fire outside of the first couple 12 round magazines. I think this was due to a natural breaking in period that such an amazing mechanism must endure in functioning properly under a steady flow of extreme force and power. When set and well stabilized, we are able to blow thru 12 round mags in less than 8 seconds without a hitch; the same goes for twenty round drums in 15-18 seconds. I hope this has been helpful. The modified Saiga is an amazing shooting ‘Machine’!

  2. I have fired target loads, heavy game loads to high base slugs and 00 shot. I have never touched the setting on the gas plug and my Saiga 12 has only malfunctioned a few times. It has a Phoenix recoil reduction pistol grip butt stock. I am thinking it was limp-wristed causing the ejection problems. Prior to installing the butt stock, I had no malfunctions with any ammo.

  3. The following are results of the third field of my Saiga 12. I installed the TAC 47 Auto Plug according to the Manufacturer’s instructions which states that the Auto Plug is pre-set to the nominal setting for most Saiga 12’s. The factory setting shows that the top surface of the center screw is approximately two full threads above the top face of the body of the plug. After firing several test rounds, the final setting of the center screw was one full thread below the top face of the body of the plug. At this setting, during rapid fire testing, my Saiga 12 performed flawlessly with low brass game loads, high brass buckshot and slugs. The Auto Plug may not be a “miracle cure” for all of Saiga’s “failure to eject” problems that I have read about on various forums, but it certainly cured mine.

  4. I chose the Saiga 12 because of it’s versatility (hunting, sport shooting, home defense). I have only field tested it twice since I purchased it about 2 weeks ago. During the first test, I found that, the more expensive, high brass (higher velocity) 2 3/4 inch ammo operates very efficiently at the #1 setting on the factory plug. However, to save money, I tested some low brass (lower velocity) 2 3/4 inch ammo at the #2 setting on the factory plug. The results were very dissapointing with over 50% failure rate. I then ordered a MD Arms V-Plug. During the second field test using the new V-Plug the results were better but far less than I would consider satisfactory. I have now ordered a TAC 47 Auto Plug after viewing videos on the Internet of tests using low brass (Wal-Mart)ammo in the “select fire” version of the Saiga 12. The results showed zero failures after final adjustments of the Auto Plug. I am planning another field test after my Auto Plug comes in next week. I am planning to use Winchester Super Speed Xtra Game Loads (1 oz. of #8 shot at 1350 fps).

  5. looks like a science fantasy futuristic updated elite nano technological micro dynamic designer to this already insane. weapon of mass destruction, image it customized to the owners liking.

  6. Great weapon. I’ve had mine for about five years now (converted by Red Jacket) and it’s perhaps the funnest gun I have to shoot (I’m a scatter-gun fanatic). Something about the rock-solid nature of the AK that demands respect and exudes confidence.Hats off to Mr. Kalashnikov!

    -Happy Holidays

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