The Kalashnikov or more popularly AK (Avtomat Kalashnikova) has been around for more than half a century and is regarded as one of the most successful semi-automatic and selective-fire combat rifles in history. First adopted by the Soviet military in 1949 as the 7.62mm Kalashnikov assault rifle (AK), it was designed by Mikhail Kalashnikov and put into production in 1947. Over the last 65 years the AK has evolved numerous times from its original blued steel (later stamped steel AKM) receiver and wood shoulder stock, pistol grip and forend to modern versions with black synthetic stocks and matte finished receivers that elevate this vintage Soviet legend into the black gun category—as do the variety of options for stocks, grips, the addition of accessory rails, and distinctive variations like the Century Arms Bullpup.

While semi-automatic civilian AK derivatives are still manufactured in Russia by Izmash, one of the world’s oldest armsmakers, as well as in other countries including the United States, the guns continue to take on a life of their own in seemingly divergent models ranging from .22 LR semi-autos versions to the Izmash Saiga shotgun offered in 12 gauge, 20 gauge and .410 gauge.

Why A Kalashnikov?

The fundamentals of the semi-automatic shotgun predate the Kalashnikov by half a century having been established in 1899 by John M. Browning. The Browning shotgun required neither a lever nor slide-action device to load the next shell, but fired as quickly as one could pull the trigger. It was truly innovative. The Browning Brothers presented two prototype designs for a self-loading shotgun to Winchester president T.G. Bennett just before the turn of the century, but he took until 1902 to reach a decision—and what might have been the beginning of a new era at Winchester turned into an irreconcilable difference between John Browning and T. G. Bennett. Browning had a new stipulation, rather than selling the design outright to Winchester, as Browning Brothers had done since 1885, they wanted a payment against royalties for the use of the design. Bennett turned them down. It was to be one of the worst decisions in Winchester’s history.

John Browning took the design for what would become the A5 semi-automatic shotgun to Fabrique Nationale (F.N.) in Belgium. The Browning semi-auto shotgun, introduced in September 1903, made Winchester’s slide-action shotguns (also designed by Browning) almost obsolete by comparison, although that really wasn’t the case; the two designs appealed to different buyers. Winchester was, nevertheless, conspicuously absent from this new segment of the firearms market. The notoriety of the Browning Auto 5, compounded by the licensing of the design to Remington (Winchester’s largest competitor), forced W.R.A. Co. into developing a competitive self-loading shotgun. With the Browning patent covering every possible design, it took Winchester eight years to come up with its own concept, and it was not overly successful. The short-lived Winchester Model 1911 semiautomatic shotgun was dubbed “the widow maker.” Browning and Remington models eventually led to the design of semiautomatic shotguns by many of the world’s leading manufacturers (including Winchester) and by the end of the 20th century the Kalashnikov 12 gauge would add another chapter to the AK’s history.

It is unrealistic to compare the Saiga 12 with other 12 gauge semi-automatic shotguns (with the exception of new AR-15 based shotguns), like Remingtons, Winchesters, Berettas, or even conventional magazine fed tactical shotguns like the Benelli M4 and Remington 870 A-TACS. The Saiga is, at its heart, an AK-47 and that sets it apart from the rest. Out of the box it is a solidly built shotgun that will perform well both in the field and in the home environment as a self-defense weapon.

The semi-automatic shotgun application for the AK is very modern yet uses the same Kalashnikov gas piston operating system as the 1947 rifle. In terms of design the AK is best described as a hybrid of previous rifle technology; the trigger, double locking lugs and unlocking raceway of the AK are based on the M1 Garand/M1 carbine; the safety mechanism is adapted from the John Browning designed Remington Model 8 rifle; and the gas system and layout are similar to the World War II German Sturmgewehr 44, regarded by military arms historians as the first assault rifle. Kalashnikov and his design engineers in Russia had all of these weapons at their disposal during WWII to deconstruct and analyze while developing the AK-47. As Kalashnikov once put it, there was no need to “reinvent the wheel,” noting that “…Each designer seems to have his own paths, his own successes and failures. But one thing is clear: before attempting to create something new, it is vital to have a good appreciation of everything that already exists in this field. I myself have had many experiences confirming this to be so.” Was the Sturmgewehr 44 the basis for the AK-47 as some historians suggest? There are certain similarities, but more than half a century later only the AK has withstood the test of time to remain a modern-day weapon still in use by more than 100 countries the world over. The Izmash Saiga shotgun is just another logical progression of the Kalashnikov design.

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