Gun Review: Saiga 12 Gauge Semi-Automatic Shotgun

To me, firearms fall into three categories. First come work guns, which protect your life or feed your family. Next are fun guns, which are fun to shoot or you can use for competitions. Then there are curiosities, which you own for no other reason than to say that you own one. Guns can fall into more than one category, but it’s rare. The Saiga 12, for me, falls squarely in the curiosity category, mainly because it was so godawful at doing anything else. Let’s take a couple minutes and examine my $500 mistake.

First a quick note: This rifle was reviewed in as close to “factory” condition as possible, making only the modifications necessary to make it run. I’ve gotten some criticism saying that the Saiga needs to be modified to work properly, but to me that’s like reviewing the DeLorian based off Doc Emmit Brown’s modified time-traveling version. We’ll happily review modified Saiga shotguns, but the base needs to stand on its own merit. Now on with the review…

I had just come back from the Tiger Valley Team 3-Gun match in Waco, Texas, where our team had our asses handed to us thanks to our lack of semi-auto shotguns (among other things) — a team running Saiga 12 shotguns wiped the floor with the competition. These guys, actually. Here’s a video of them running the absolute worst stage of the event. Keep in mind it was about 34 degrees, the ground was soaked, and it was extremely windy. Everyone was miserable, but it was the best misery of my life.

After we got back home and dried out we were looking around the local gun show for a nice cheap semi-auto 12 gauge when we spied a dealer with a pair of Saiga 12s sitting on his table with a $499 price tag on them. Brand new, never opened boxes. Paychecks fresh in our pockets we decided to relieve the dealer of his excess metallic gubbins and were the proud owners of new Saiga 12 shotguns.

On paper these things are ideal for 3-gun competitions. The magazine feeding system means that you don’t have to stand there and reload each round by hand into a tube — just slap a new magazine on and you’ve got 12 more tasty treats ready to go. The side accessory rail (for optics) and semi-automatic operation are just the icing on the cake.

In theory, the reliability of a Saiga 12 should be somewhere close to the AK-47 it’s modeled after. All the parts are there, and on the outside the gun looks like a standard AK. But on the inside the gun operates more like an M1 Carbine.

On an AK style rifle, the gas piston is directly pushed backwards by the expanding gases bled off from the barrel. There’s not a lot of moving parts involved, which is one of the reasons why it’s so reliable. On the Saiga 12, the expanding gases don’t push directly on the piston but rather on a “puck” near the front of the gas tube. The puck moves back rapidly, knocking the gas piston backwards and letting momentum do the rest. This system minimizes the loss of gas pressure, but it means the gas system isn’t quite as reliable as a standard AK.

We quickly realized that was going to be a problem.

The gun needed some TLC to get it running.

I was talking to SinistralRifleman (one of the badass dudes in that first video) a few months ago about the issues he was having with his Saigas, and he said that something along the lines of 3/4 of the Saiga shotguns he bought needed major work to get them to run reliably. Last I heard he was selling off some of his Saigas in favor of tube fed shotguns simply to have something that worked reliably.

Luckily all we needed to do was replace the major components of the gas system and the guns started running just fine. As an added bonus, since the new parts were Made in the USA the gun was now 922r compliant and legal to use with the larger capacity magazines.

When they run, the Saiga 12 is an okay shotgun. Like any AK pattern weapon it’s a little rough on the edges, both literally and figuratively. The trigger is square and rough to the touch, the action slides like oiled sandpaper, and the actual trigger pull feels gritty. The gun comes with iron sights (IRON SIGHTS!), but they’re so small that it’s hard to use. Adding insult to injury the sights are a good inch above the top of the bore, meaning that trying to hit anything closer than 25 yards is a bit of a challenge. The entire shooting experience in general is awful.

All of those things I could forgive if it worked as advertised, but in reality the gun was neither useful nor convenient.

Like the AK-47 the bolt doesn’t lock to the rear when the magazine is empty, meaning that the fastest way to reload is on a closed bolt, which is somewhat difficult. The tension on the spring in a loaded magazine pushes the shotgun rounds up forcefully enough to keep the magazine from seating properly. With the use of near excessive force the task can be accomplished, but in the middle of a competition and under the clock it gets very tricky.

The other option is to manually open the bolt and use the “bolt hold open” catch at the back of the receiver. This little silver protrusion works the same way the bolt hold open on an M1 Carbine works, except horrible. Normally a small spring in the receiver will move the bolt hold open catch out of the way once the forward pressure is released, thus allowing the bolt to move forward. I have fond memories of the time that that very spring slipped out in the middle of a stage, stranding me with an inoperable gun and targets still on the field. Even better was the fact that, since the bolt was stuck to the rear, there was no way to disassemble the gun and fix the spring. Three hours and some dental floss later I fixed it, but the shine was off the apple.

It was shortly before that, when racking the action, that my Saiga 12 took a nice chunk of flesh out of my hand.

Ignoring the mechanical issues, the gun wasn’t even good for the original purpose I purchased it. I wanted a nice, slick semi-auto for 3-gun shooting, but what I got was something that dumped me in the same division as all the other people who spent way too much money on their guns. “Outlaw Open” they called it, where every kind of speedloader and gimmick you can think of is allowed. I’m pretty sure even machine guns are cool. For someone who was just starting out it wasn’t the right place — the learning curve was way too steep. I needed to step back into Tac Optics and I’ve been happily in that division ever since.

I tried it in one “real” competition before giving up. Here’s a little gem from that day. Note how I’m having trouble with the elevation thanks to the raised iron sights (and ignore the bit where my half blind teammate runs smack into a table and DQs himself).

Here’s another video from that match showing the elevation issues a little more clearly. Note how I keep shooting above that last plate on the right — I was holding my irons center of mass instead of compensating for the high sight radius and short distance. I knew better, but the second that buzzer goes off sometimes your training goes right out the window. The important bits start at 1:42.

That reminds me of another complaint I had about this gun. Magazine retention was a bit of an issue, as the magazines were approximately six miles long. They didn’t fit in any of my magazine pouches and dropped out if I tried to use a pants pocket. I tried using some plastic belt clips a couple times, but even then moving around with those things was very uncomfortable. Very. Uncomfortable.

There was precisely one day where I was happy I bought this gun, and that was the day I sold it. I paid $500 for it brand new, and sold it for $1,000 at the height of the Saiga 12 scare (when the ATF was allegedly about to make them illegal). Other than that, in my experience Saiga 12 shotguns are about as useful as a solar powered flashlight; good in theory, but sucky in practice. It’s a design with promise, but in its factory configuration it wasn’t the gun for me.

Man, I really did lose a lot of weight since last year… I’m sorry, what were we talking about?

Saiga 12 Gauge Semi-Automatic Shotgun

Caliber: 12 Gauge
Barrel: 23″ threaded for a choke
Size: 45.1″ overall length
Weight: 7 lbs. 5 oz.
Operation: Semi-automatic short stroke recoil
Finish: Manganese Phosphate
Capacity: Ships with 1×4 round magazine
Price: $700 MSRP

Ratings (Out of Five Stars)
Ratings are relative to other similar firearms. Final score does not reflect the “average” of the categories but instead the overall feelings of the reviewer.

Accuracy: * * * *
The sights take some getting used to, but once you’re dialed in it’s not that bad in terms of accuracy. Then again, it is a shotgun.

Ergonomics: *
The magazine release is awkward, the trigger position is a bit awkward as well, the safety is actively looking for ways to cut you, the stock feels flimsy, and loading in general takes some major adjustment to the normal manual of arms. Terrible. Just terrible.

Ergonomics Firing: * * *
The trigger sucks, the stock is uncomfortable, and the checkering is too aggressive to fire this for extended periods without some sort of gloves.

Reliability: * 
Heh. Hah! HAHA! That’s a good one. Yeah, no. If the failures were predictable (high round counts, crappy ammo, etc.) I would understand, but it seems to jam for no reason whatsoever and often at the most inopportune moments. That’s not just me saying it either, there’s a good number of people who have experienced the exact same issues. Plus that whole thing with the bolt hold open catch was annoying.

Customization: * *
There’s plenty of places that will turn your “sporting” Saiga 12 into whatever tactical monstrosity you can imagine (Red Jacket and Tromix immediately come to mind), but there’s not a lot you can do without some metal working tools. A Mossberg 930, for comparison, will let the shooter swap out just about everything on the gun with a punch and a screwdriver. Two star rating for any significant alteration needing a machine shop.

Overall Rating: * *
Avoid this like the plague. Even with the cash I got out of it as an investment I still wish someone had told me that before I bought mine. In terms of being a useful firearm it’s awful. But if you like it because it’s an interesting curiosity then more power to ya.

But if there’s one anecdote that sums up this gun perfectly it’s this: My buddy and I bought ours at the exact same time. We ran them for a while, then didn’t talk for a few months. The next time we saw each other we had sold our Saigas and bought “normal” semi-auto shotguns. We both came to the exact same conclusion about the same time with no input from each other. In my business that’s pretty close to something we call “independent verification.”