The Saiga 12 shotgun promises everything an anti-zombie warrior could hope for. It is made in Russia by actual Russians. It’s black. It accepts detachable drum magazines. There is no two hand pump or lever action cycling required. It is semi auto and delivers multi-shot 12 gauge devastation down range.The Saiga 12 is made in the same Russian factory that makes the ubiquitous AK47 rifle. It is for all practical purposes a semi-automatic AK47 over engineered and chambered for 12 gauge shells.
Given the famous Kalashnikov reputation for reliability does that sound like a serious competitor for the most effective combat shotgun ever made? You bet it does. But does it actually work?
There is a down side. Factory fresh Saiga 12s straight out of the box may or may not function one hundred percent of the time. The finish on internal parts is best described as “rough.” They are famous for failing to eject lower powered shells loaded for “target” use until they work through a break in period. Fortunately the solution is less complicated than sending them back to Russia or hiring an expensive gunsmith for smoothing and polishing. 99% of the time the answer is just go shoot them until the rough spots wear smooth. After a half dozen boxes of the cheapest ammo you can find, and a good cleaning to ensure that the gas ports are free of debris you are likely to find that your Saiga 12 feeds, fires, and ejects whatever you give it.
If you don’t want to hand cycle the action every time you fire the first few hundred shells you can invest $30 in the Carolina Shooter Supply “Low brass reliability kit.” This kit is an improved gas puck and weaker spring that imparts less resistance thereby allowing the weapon to use more energy working over the rough spots instead of fighting the spring tension. The end result is a weapon that just plain works – at least until you try to get fancy with it.
I found one design flaw that has the potential to turn your high power anti-zombie home defense tool into an awkward club with the action locked tight. The bolt hold open device is a small silver colored tab that can be manually pushed up to hold the bolt back and action open. The small spring which returns it to the disengaged position is held in place simply by friction against the bolt hold open lever. An anecdotal story told to me by the importer was that the pension aged former soviet employees did not want to give the new factory management quite ALL of their secrets when the Saiga 12 was designed. A few flaws – like neglecting to cut a groove in the bolt hold open lever to hold the spring in place, ensured a few call backs for the designers. In my experience every couple hundred times that the bolt hold open device is engaged and disengaged, that spring slips the friction hold and leaves the bolt hold open device firmly in place with no spring to disengage it. Since the lever is unreachable and out of sight without the spring to return it, it makes your Saiga a useless club. The solution when this happens is to carefully but with a significant amount of force, disassemble the action (I was able to do this using 2 flat headed screw drivers as levers). Once disassembled first cut or file a groove in the bolt hold open lever so that the spring has a notch to ride in. I did this with a hacksaw. Then return the bolt hold open lever to a useful location, use a bent paper clip and a pair of needle nosed pliers to put the spring in your new groove and bend it to keep it anchored tightly in place. There is of course a much easier solution. That is to never use the bolt hold open device. You could opt to either completely remove it, or just plain don’t use it. If you don’t engage it to lock your bolt back, you have almost no risk that it will lock the weapon open. But since I use the bolt hold open between every shot while shooting trap to expedite single feeding, I opted to add the groove.
Once I cut a groove for the spring to ride in and worked my way through the initial break in period, my two shotguns have remained completely functional – even reliable given infrequent cleaning every few thousand shells through several months of weekly trap shooting, range fun, and yes even hunting. Why did I buy TWO S12s? I bought the first one with the commonly found 19 inch barrel. This relatively short barrel makes it easy to handle when things go bump in the night in case I want to investigate with something that can speak to varmints in the hen yard with authority. With the addition of a barrel mounted LED flashlight it serves admirably in that role.
But when I took the S12 to the trap range I found that my trap scores sunk from my usually poor score to abysmal. The short barrel just didn’t let me deliver a tight pattern of pellets on target much beyond 30 yards. I have had some guys tell me that they have no trouble breaking clay birds out at 75 yards every time with their 19 inch barreled Saigas. I'm not calling anyone a liar, but it didn’t work that way for me. I wasn’t content with breaking 50% of the targets I shot at. So I started searching for a 24 inch barreled Saiga and found one. The added six inches of barrel did show an improvement in my scores, but they were still lower than normal. I contemplated giving up on the Saiga as a trap shooting or hunting tool altogether, but dang it now I had two of them and I am just stubborn enough to try one more thing. I found a 3 choke system by SGM offering modified, full, and extra full chokes for the Saiga using the existing threads. ( http://www.saiga-12.com/proddetail.asp?prod=SGMT12TP ) The full choke delivered a pleasant improvement in my scores. But the “extra full” choke returned scores that rivaled those from when I use my beloved Browning. I had no trouble breaking birds at 75 yards and beyond even using tiny #9 sized shot. As a side note the “full” choke seems to handle 12 gauge slugs just fine. Delivering 25 yard accuracy from offhand unsupported shooting that lets me cover the group of thumb sized holes with the palm of my hand. You really can’t ask for much better than that from a smoothbore gun! I looked forward to carrying the Saiga in the field for turkeys, partridge, and waterfowl (with a modified magazine). I did walk it around for a few days without getting a shot at any birds, and that is as close as I am ever likely to come to seeing the effectiveness of the S-12 on game.
Thanks to misguided New York politicians the S-12 and every shotgun that accepts a detachable magazine is now classified as an “assault weapon” in New York State. That means that they have to be registered by January 2014. I don’t think that is a good idea, so I have sold my Saigas. I’ll take the money from those sales and set it aside for buying real estate outside of New York. Until then, I cannot give a definitive answer as to whether they are suitable as a hunting tool. But I am glad that I had the opportunity to at least use them on the trap range before politics took them from the list of potentially effective turkey, goose, and partridge taking tools for New Yorkers. It is a sad day in this state. For those of you who still have some freedom to enjoy the Saigas I recommend them. Get them and enjoy them while you still can.