Protip: Saiga 12-Gauge Shotguns Suck

There’s a puff piece post at Ammoland dubbed “The Superiority of the Saiga Autoloading Shotgun” that sings the high praises of the Saiga 12-gauge autoloader. The gun is one of the more popular “alternate” designs for shotguns out there and the article touts the accuracy and reliability of the gun. But as someone who has owned a Saiga and has just seen the best competition shooters in the world try to run them in a competition, I call bullshit . . .

The Saiga shotgun is built roughly on the same design as an AK-47 – very roughly. Like, “I saw it on the internet and I think it works like this” rough. Some of the features are pretty close to the original design, but the gun had to be drastically modified to operate with shotgun shells.

The gas system, for example, uses a “gas puck” that functions much like the short stroke recoil design used in the M1 carbine from WWII instead of the direct gas operated piston system in the original design. And the bolt design uses a rotating shaft (keep your dirty comments to yourselves, gentlemen) but a stationary bolt face in order to properly chamber a round.

Other additions like a bolt hold-open feature are unique to the Saiga design entirely. These modifications have introduced a number of areas where serious malfunctions can occur. And more often than not, they happen at the most inopportune moments.

In addition to the…interesting…design, the build quality on Saigas is generally piss poor compared to other shotguns in the same or even lower price ranges (not even the Norinco 870 ripoff is as rough around the edges). I like to rip on Hi Point for being the benchmark of awfulness, but sometimes I think Izhmash could take a few pointers from HP QC. Besides the finish being incredibly rough (and therefore rather abrasive to the moving components of the gun) the original parts themselves seem flimsy. It just feels like they cranked these guns out without the polish that their line of rifles gets.

When I did my original review of the Saiga-12, a number of Saiga fanboys claimed the gun was fantastic – so long as you modified it. Personally, I’ve never considered a firearm that requires drastic modification of the basic components in order to function to be acceptable. But as the Crimson Trace Midnight 3-Gun match proved, even when the shooter has spent countless hours tuning and modding the thing to get it to run right, it doesn’t.

I asked around, and every single person I saw who was running a Saiga shotgun at the recent CT match had a major malfunction (“major” defined as taking 10 seconds or more to clear). One shooter’s shotgun even decided to disassemble itself in the middle of a stage, something that happened the day before at the practice range and was captured on film by yours truly (notice anything about that dust cover?).

Whatever speed bonus competitors gained by having detachable magazines was more than outweighed by the extra time needed to actually make the thing work. And before you say it was only the “bad” competitors that had malfs, I watched Jerry Miculek’s legendary Saiga shotgun have a meltdown in the middle of a stage that probably cost him a few positions on the leaderboard.

That’s the reason I ditched the Saiga shotgun when I did. I could see the writing on the wall — getting it “up to spec” was going to cost thousands of dollars and even then, the design was so inherently shitty that it probably was still going to malfunction on me. So instead of wasting money on the “upgrades” I bought a Mossberg 930 and haven’t looked back.

The lesson: caveat emptor. If you buy a Saiga shotgun, be aware that you’re buying a project gun that even the best shooters of our day have tried — and failed — to make work in a competition setting. One of my friends who’s a gunsmith has run through 10 different Saiga shotguns so far. Out of that bunch, he’s only been able to salvage one into a working firearm and even then it was with much sweat and tears on his part. Oh, and if it doesn’t run when the guns have been carefully maintained and fired in a controlled setting like a 3-gun competition, imagine how terrible they’d be in a life-or-death situation.

Yep, I’m totally sticking with the tube fed Mossberg 930. And I’ll sleep soundly.