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 rumored inaccuracy of Kalashnikov type guns is not an important shortcoming in a shotgun, a weapon rarely used beyond 50 yards. However, the loose and reliable design is an enormous boon on a semi-automatic shotgun, as this class of weapon had previously tended towards unreliability. The gun is also readily affordable and easy to maintain, made almost entirely from sheet-metal stampings.
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.
The Saiga-12 incorporates several interesting features absent on the AK-47 and similar guns.
Since shotgun shells are nearly twice as long as 7.62x39 rifle cartridges, the extraction hole 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 part 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 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.
The Saiga-12 has a slightly lesser recoil compared to that of other full-power 12 gauge shotguns, due to the shock-absorbing effects of the compressing recoil spring and rearward action of the bolt carrier, and is one of the fastest-cycling shotguns commercially available. However, due to this rapid cycle time (which nonetheless varies due to differences in pressure and recoil from type of ammunition fired), the sensation of recoil can often be more severe in rapid firing, as multiple shots are not perceived individually, and then only after firing are the cumulative impacts consciously felt.
The top round of ammunition left in loaded magazines will acquire an oval shape caused by the magazine spring squeezing the shells against a closed bolt. This will cause a failure to feed if shotgun shells are left in a loaded magazine inserted into a closed bolt shotgun for more than a few days.
Recently there has been made a newly configured combat version of the Saiga 12. Called the Saiga SWAT, it features an extended magwell, last round bolt hold open, hinged dust cover with Picatinny rail for mounting optics, Picatinny rail gas block, rubber recoil pad on the buttstock, traditional AK style forend, traditional AK style rifle sights, and a newly designed magazine.
This new design seems to address every issue the Saiga 12 has when it comes to 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 just straight up into the magwell (similar to an AR-15) and can be done with only one hand. The hinged dustcover with Picattiny rail makes mounting optics simpler, and also closer to the bore axis. The gas-block rail system allows for the addition of combat lights and vertical foregrips. A new rubber recoil pad reduces recoil so that the user can get back on target quicker. Last round bolt hold open gives the user instant feedback that their weapon is empty and allows for a quicker mag change. All these features along with the already great reliability of the AK system seem to make for the ultimate combat shotgun.