The Saiga-12 is a Kalashnikov-pattern 12 gauge combat shotgun available in a wide range of configurations. Like the Kalashnikov rifle variants, it is a rotating bolt, gas-operated gun that feeds from a box magazine. All Saiga-12 configurations are recognizable as Kalashnikov-pattern guns by the large lever-safety on the right side of the receiver, the optic mounting rail on the left side of the receiver and the large top-mounted dust cover held in place by the rear of the recoil spring assembly.
The looser clearances offered in an AK style design result in high reliability, an enormous asset on a semi-automatic shotgun, as this type of weapon had previously tended towards unreliability.
The Saiga-12 is manufactured by the arms division of Izhmash, in Russia. It was previously imported into the US by European American Armories, although their agreement expired in 2005 and Izhmash is now exporting through the Russian-American Armory Company.
Modifications to the basic Kalashnikov platform
The Saiga-12 incorporates several features absent on the AK-47 and similar firearms.
Since shotgun shells are nearly twice as wide as 7.62x39mm rifle cartridges, the extraction port in the side of the dust cover had to be increased in size. However, since the bolt had to remain the same length to fit inside the AK-47 sized receiver, the rear section of the bolt is covered by a sliding metal flap that rides on the recoil spring. This allows the gun to be sealed against dirt when the bolt is forward, but the compression of the recoil spring during firing moves the flap rearward to clear the extracted shells.
For the likely reason of simplifying production of Izhmash's other Kalashnikov-pattern guns, the Saiga-12 extractor does not rotate, but instead delegates the bolt-locking function to a caliber-neutral lug directly behind the bolt-face.
The Saiga-12 incorporates an adjustable two-position gas system, for the reason that firing high power loads such as slugs and buckshot generates so much force that the receiver will be damaged if the full power of the gas system is employed without some sort of recoil buffer. The problem is that making the gun durable with the higher power loads would make it useless with low-power loads such as bean-bags and flares since the gun would fail to cycle - becoming in essence a manual straight-pull action or producing a "stovepipe" malfunction.
Common Saiga 12 configurations
The Saiga-12 is manufactured in several different configurations ranging from more traditionally looking hunting models to military-style models utilizing furniture of AK or even SVD. All these versions are available for purchase by civilians in Russia. Civilian barrel lengths are 17 and 23 inches. The 23" version comes with a traditional rifle stock or with an AK-style separate pistol grip and folding stock (version S for "skladnaya", "folding"). The 17" version (K for "korotkaya", "short") has an AK-style pistol grip and folding stock and a specially-designed safety, preventing operation with stock folded (due to Russian gun laws, itis illegal to own a weapon able to fire while being less than 800 mm long). "Taktika" versions with 23" or 17" barrels feature various AK, SVD or original "Legion" furniture (handguards, folding and non-folding stocks) and AK-style open sights with high post and tangent rear. Optional screw-in chokes are available. Standard AK rail for optics may be mounted on the left side of the receiver. Two, five, eight and twelve round box magazines are available, as well as ten, twelve, and twenty round aftermarket drums. All magazines may be interchanged with all 12 gauge models (sometimes minor fitting may be necessary), although factory-original magazines from Russia only exist in 5- and 8-round box configurations. Prior to importation to the US, all Saiga shotguns are configured with a traditional fixed "hunting-style" rifle stock and 5-round magazine. Factory 8-round box magazines are not imported in the US (though they are legal for import in other countries), making them quite rare on the civilian market.
Recently there has been made a newly configured version of the Saiga 12. Called the Saiga Taktika mod 040, it features an extended magazine well, last round bolt hold open (recently produced very rarely and replaced with manual bolt hold), hinged dust cover with Picatinny rail for mounting optics, picatinny rail gas block, and a newly designed 8-round magazine (not interchangeable with other Saiga-12 models).
This new design seems to address every deficency the Saiga 12 had in function and flexible configuration. Gone is the traditional AK "rock and lock" mag system and with it the difficulties associated with mag insertion using 12 gauge shells. Now mag insertion is straight up into the magazine well and can be done with only one hand. The hinged dustcover with Picatinny rail makes mounting optics simpler, and is also closer to the bore axis, making sighting of optics far easier. The gas-block rail system allows for the addition of combat lights and vertical foregrips. The last round bolt hold open gives the user instant feedback that the weapon is empty and allows for a quicker magazine change.
In Russia this shotgun can be relatively simply obtained, requiring only a "smoothbore-gun license" (which is relatively easy to obtain, compared to a "rifle license" that requires a five-year period of owning a smoothbore gun and/or a hunting permit).
In the US state of California, as configured from the factory, it can be classified as an "assault weapon", as it is a semiautomatic shotgun with the ability to accept a detachable magazine and has a pistol grip installed. However, if a magazine lock that only allows the magazine to be removed by use of a tool is installed, it is no longer classified as such, as its previously detachable magazine is then rendered a fixed magazine.