A saiga (say-guh) is a kind of antelope that lives in eastern Russia. Kind of a weird name for a rifle, but then again it might be appropriate. Have you seen a picture of this thing? It’s an ugly animal, and the Saiga rifle that shares its name is an ugly rifle. But a rifle doesn’t have to be a beauty queen to be effective. The Saiga rifles (there’s a line of shotguns too) comes in .223, 5.45X39mm, 7.62X39mm and .308. It comes with a crappy plastic handguard and stock, no flash suppressor or muzzle brake, and the magazines are expensive. Those are things that can be improved upon. What it has going for it is its heritage. You see, the Saiga is a direct descendent of this.
That’s right, an AK-47. The Saiga’s action and internal parts are, with a few exceptions, the same gun that you see on the news every night in the hands of armies, rebels, religious fanatics and madmen throughout the world. They’re made at the Izhmash factory in Russia, the same factory that was once run by a man named Mikhail Kalashnikov, who invented what? Right. This. So that other stuff, the stock, the handguard, etc., that stuff can be changed (and we’ll get to that). Where it counts, the Saiga is a Kalashnikov, and better, it’s not some old rebuild first put together by slaves in the old Soviet Union. It’s a new, factory-produced Kalashnikov, and if you’re looking for a dependable rifle that will eat anything and take a beating, that’s a good thing.
As I mentioned, the Saiga is, for all intents and purposes, an AK-47, and it functions the same way. To disassemble the rifle, you press a button at the rear of the receiver and remove the receiver cover. Once that’s done you take out the receiver spring, the bolt carrier and the bolt. Now you can clean it. Pretty easy.
The Saiga will reliably eat just about any ammo you want to feed it, which means that you can feed this rifle some pretty dirty ammunition. So you want to clean it. But aside from routine cleaning, there’s not much you have to do to this rifle to keep it functioning.
Safety and Reliability
Like other AK-47 patterned rifles, the Saiga has a safety lever on the right side. And I do mean a lever. When the lever is up, the safety is on, and it won’t fire. It also won’t allow you to cycle the action if the safety is on. When the lever is down, it’s ready to fire. That is the extent of the safeties attached to this rifle. It’s either on or off.
Comfort and Recoil
It’s not a very comfortable gun in the stock configuration. Also, as my wife pointed out, like the SKS it’s heavy up front and not well balanced. The recoil for the .223 version is very manageable, but it is there.
Like the SKS, the Saiga comes with a small cylinder that contains the rifle’s bore brush, front sight adjustment tool and patch holder, but there’s no secret compartment to hold it. It comes with a cleaning rod, but there’s nowhere on the rifle to hold it. So you have all the stuff that would come with an AK-47, but whereas on a regular AK-47 you could carry this stuff with you, you can’t on the Saiga. It comes with one 10 or eight-round magazine, depending on the caliber you buy.
Accessories and Upgrades
Okay, up until now I’ve made this rifle sound kind of bad. The good news about the Saiga is that it can be upgraded. Companies like Tapco sell stock and grip kits if you want a pistol grip and telescoping butt-stock. New handguards can likewise be found. If you’re feeling really ambitious and willing to spend a little money, a Saiga can be upgraded to the point where it looks and feels and operates like a modern Russian assault rifle. While shooting my basic configuration model Saiga .223 at the range for this review, a man two tables down from me had a 7.62X39mm variant that he had had modified to the hilt. It was a whole new rifle, and as long as you are 922 compliant, you can do the same. The downside is that even if you buy the 7.62X39mm version, you can’t use regular AK-47 magazines. They don’t fit.
The Saiga is a pig, but it’s a pig that carries a lot of potential. When you look up the Saiga on the internet and read what people are doing with their Saigas, it’s like an episode of Extreme Makeover. People don’t buy Saiga rifles for what they are, they buy them for what they can become. Before that point, it is still a serviceable rifle that’s modestly priced and will put a round on target. You’ll never make it a sniper rifle, but no Kalashnikov ever has been.
Personally, I think the Saiga fills the role that the SKS once did. It used to be that if you wanted a durable rifle for when shit hits the fan, the SKS was what you wanted. It was cheap, it hit hard, and it was simple to operate. The Saiga, I think, is sliding into that role. For one thing, it’s safer than an SKS. It’s basic configuration is modestly priced. It has a detachable magazine, and it comes in four different calibers. Plus, a Saiga can be scoped. In all those categories, the SKS really only beats the Saiga in price, and not by a whole lot nowadays.
The cherry on top, and I swear Izhmash must have thought of this because I have a hard time believing it’s accidental… it doesn’t look like an AK-47. This rifle comes with a 10-round or eight-round magazine, and it won’t take regular AK-47 30-round magazines. No flash suppressor, no muzzle brake, no pistol grip. This gun was designed to slip past an Assault Weapons Ban. So if you’re looking for an emergency SHTF rifle, the stock Saiga is a good choice. If you want a base platform on which to build an AK-47, you can do that too although you’ll have to balance the cost with simply buying a Romanian WASR10.
To sum up, the Saiga is a good emergency gun, a good project gun, and it’s big enough to hunt with. It won’t win any points for ergonomics or comfort, but it wins for life in reliability.