by Rob Kay
The Saiga is a threatened species of antelope that makes its home high in the steppes of Central Asia. It’s native to Russia and is also the name of the civilian line of AK rifles created by Mikhail Kalashnikov.
Of late, the latter species of Saiga seems to be even more threatened in this country.
So the inevitable question is with the sanctions in full force, “can I still buy a Saiga?”
Looks like the answer is yes, at least until inventory runs out.
The recent restrictions on Russian imports has put a dent in the plans of Concern Kalashnikov to bring in more of these rifles into the US. However, there are still Saigas in US warehouses.
According to a recent press release from RWC Group LLC (aka Russian Weapon Company) and the sole importer of Saiga rifles into this country, there a number of rifles (already in the country) available. These include one converted model, the IZ132Z (MSRP $1199.99) and the “base model” or (aka sporterized) 1Z132 rifle (MSRP $699).
The rifles will be available in 7.62×39, 5.45×39 and .223.
RWC will also be shipping a sporterized shotgun, the IZ109 (MSRP $899) and the converted version, the IZ109T (MSRP $1499.99).
These rifles will be going to RWC’s distributors: AcuSport, Bill Hick’s, Big Rock Sports, United Sporting Company, RSR Group and Sports South & Chattanooga Shooting Supply, beginning on or about September 1, 2014. The press release states that quantities will be “limited, so dealers should not delay in placing orders”.
But let’s take a step back.
Prior to the Treasury Department’s announcement, I acquired a Saiga IZ132SM from RWC to test out. (It’s quite similar to the rifle pictured at left).
This is essentially an upgrade of the Izhmash “sporterized” IZ–132 — a solid performer but essentially an AK dressed up (or perhaps dressed down) as a hunting rifle. I would suspect the vast majority of buyers “convert” it into a more traditional looking AK.
Problem is, for the average person, this isn’t easy to do. One needs to move the trigger group forward so as to add a pistol grip. For most people, this necessitates the help of a gunsmith and a bill for several hundred dollars.
The new Saiga models are converted by RWC, which appoints them with parts from Command Arms. “CAA” parts are designed in Israel and manufactured in the US. CAA is a “sister” company of RWC so it’s natural they would use CAA furniture on the new models.
The hardware on the IZ132SM was impeccably finished which is what you’d expect of a Saiga. It’s considered (along with the VEPR) a top of the line AK.
As alluded to above, to make the gun 922R compliant, RWC has added their own brand of furniture as well as parts from Tapco such as the trigger group and the muzzle brake. The law states that a converted rifle must have 10 or fewer foreign made parts, even when a foreign magazine is installed.
This particular rifle has kept all the most important parts Russian.
That includes the receiver, barrel, trunion, bolt, bolt carrier and gas piston. A document that comes with the rifle says that the magazine body, magazine follower, magazine floorplate and buttstock are also foreign made but they may have to revise this list. (The magazine I received is actually American-made, from US Palm ).
Instead of going with the traditional polymer or wood Warsaw style stock, RWC has added a six-position collapsible buttstock assembly.
Manufactured by CAA, the buttstock assembly includes a “Commercial Spec” polymer tube and an M4 type stock. The collapsible system is often preferred by “operators” because it’s adjustable for just about anybody. Our staff thought it was most usable when the stock was collapsed all the way. That’s when we found we were getting the best eye relief. The stock also has room for two push button swivels and, a polymer loop at the end of the stock.
The buttstock is comfortable enough but there’s some play in it. In other words, it jiggles.
The front of the tube has a special fitting that allows it to neatly bolt directly onto the tang and fits snugly at the end of the receiver. There’s a little polymer shroud that covers the tang and keeps the lines neat and clean.
I would have preferred a stock that has the capability of “locking down” on the tube which is available on the Magpul CTR or the Rogers “Superstock”. This would keep it from moving. I also would have liked a milspec tube only because there are more milspec buttstocks out there if you decide to swap out the stock one.
I did try to swap out the buttstock assembly but it proved slightly problematic. Unlike most AKs, you can’t just unscrew the bolts on the tang. This particular set up is proprietary. RWC has added a rivet under the receiver that’s meant to stabilize the trunion/buttstock assembly. That rivet has to be removed before you can change it out.
The UPG47 pistol grip from CAA is something that is described in a press release as an “ergonomic extension design, a rubberized pistol grip with interchangeable back straps and finger grooves”.
I liked it.
The interchangeable strap system is an innovation that has been on polymer handguns for quite a while and is well-suited for an AK. It’s quite comfortable and is one of the rifle’s nicer features.
One of the other good things about this gun is the G2 trigger from Tapco.
It’s a smooth, one stage affair with a slight take up and a predicable break at about 4 lbs. The G2s are ubiquitous on AKs and can be polished with a little emery cloth to make them even better. There’s lots of videos out there include this one from Jim Fuller of Rifle Dynamics. Fuller is a real whiz when it comes to modifying AKs.
There’s nothing too different about the fire control group other than the little tab that allows you to keep the bolt open. This is handy on the range. The receiver has the standard scope mount rail which is obligatory. We tried on the new Arsenal SM 13 scope mount on the rail and it fit perfectly.
The handguard comes complete with Picatinny rails that extrude from the sides. If you don’t plan to use them, it’s best to take them off or, you can cover them with the rubber rail covers furnished with the rifle.
Removing the tiny rails results in a more usable and, (more) handsome handguard.
The bottom of the handguard is solidly bolted onto the rifle.
Unfortunately, the top half of the hand rail is integrated with the gas tube. It wobbles thus making it less than ideal for an optic. Because it’s part of the gas tube if you want to replace the handguard at some stage, you need to buy a whole new gas tube.
There’s a loop for a sling between the gas block and the very fore end of the handguard which comes in handy.
The muzzle brake is from Tapco and looks to be similar to the AK 74 model designed back in the Soviet days.
It does the job quite well.
One of the other accouterments is a usable, high quality, 30-round magazine from US Palm. There has been some controversy about the fact that there’s no removable floor plate (so you can’t disassemble it for cleaning) but the US Palm website says you can dunk it in water to clean it.
What I thought was really cool was the “acceptance” inspection (see at left) document that is signed from the factory. When was the last time you saw something like this from an American manufacturer? There was something very authentic and old fashioned about it that I really appreciated.
Speaking of authenticity a short language lesson would is in order. After consulting with a Russian speaker I was told the correct pronunciation of Saiga (“сайга”, is “Sigh-gah” (rhymes with “eye”) with an emphasis on the “gah”. Not “Say-gah“. (See this video).
The importer, RWC’s, main task is to take the “sporterized” rifle and turn it into something tactical and “AK-like”. That entails moving the trigger group, adding a bullet feed guide, riveting or welding trigger pin holes, adding a US made fire control group, replacing or adding a trigger guard, etc. (Suffice to say, this process also entails making the gun 922R compatible).
The conversion is in essence, a good portion of what you are paying for.
I thought RWC did a decent job in this regard. (Photos above and below illustrate the conversion work),
One “test” that I applied was recommended to me by Brian Takaba, our gunsmith and the ownder of X-Ring security in Waipahu. He suggested dipping a rag in some average gun cleaner and wiping down the area around the receiver, particularity near the trigger area which would have had to be repainted during the conversion process. A clean cloth would be a clean bill of health. That the people handing the conversion didn’t just spray on a rattle can from the local hardware store. In other words, the rifle was properly painted and “baked” to ensure a durable coating.
The results resulted in a clean bill of health. After a simulated “cleaning” with “Hoppe’s 9”there was no removal of paint. I think RWC did a good job in that department.
To compare quality–at least aesthetics, I thought it would also be helpful to show a photo of a VEPR–considered the ne plus ultra of AK variants–side by side with the Saiga. (See above).
You can judge for yourself.
Shooting the Rifle
So how does the gun shoot?
A trip out to the range confirmed what we already knew—this is an accurate, dependable rifle. No hiccups at all feeding rounds from the stock, 30-round US Palm magazine. For good measure I also tested out a Tapco 10 round magazine and a 10 round mag from SGM which has a “bolt-open” feature on the last round. Pretty cool. Both mags worked flawlessly with the Saiga.
The rifle was well balanced and very “pointable”. The muzzle brake made shooting the 7.62 rounds comfortable and much easier to control the barrel.
The handguard did not heat up, which is also a good thing.
Conclusion: This new rifle is accurate, dependable and pleasing to look at. It’s also a superior firearm compared to most other variants.
Every one of the top AK gunsmiths and builders I’ve interviewed swear that the quality of the Saiga is second to none.
This is borne from experience.
Saigas (and VEPRs) rarely come back to the shop because of a malfunction. The Russian rifles are built to a very high standard and generally do not break. In short, the hardware on this rifle is top of the line.
The collapsible stock is an excellent addition to this rifle. The only disadvantage with the CAA setup is that the angle of the adapter does not easily lend itself to viewing an optic.
Thus when you add a red dot to a side rail scope mount such as the Arsenal SM-13., you have to move your cheek to a position on the stock that is a bit awkward. Even putting a red dot on the top of the handguard’s rail necessitates some adjustment.
The good news is that there’s a simple solution. Simply add a cheekpiece. (This is what RWC did on the newly minted IZ132Z).
The IZ132SM would be appropriate someone who wants the “tacticool” look.
CAA products are certainly utilitarian but would not be the first choice of the hardcore enthusiast who will probably change out the CAA furniture for Magpul, Vltor, Krebs Custom, Fuller, etc.
Priced at an MSRP of $999 it’s not inexpensive but nowadays if you can get it at all, you’d be very lucky. (RWC says a few hundred of this particular model were shipped).
How does the newly introduced IZ132Z compare with the IZ132SM version?
They are nearly identical with the exception of the adjustable cheekpiece, a magazine release extension and the vertical grip which were added to the latter. As mentioned previously, the cheekpiece is needed if you’re planning to use an optic. So that’s a good thing to add.
I personally like a vertical grip, so that’s another plus.
However, adding another $200 to the price of for these three gewgaws is questionable.
A top of the line Tango Down vertical grip sells for $60 or you can get a decent Tapco version for $20. The CAA cheek piece is sold on Amazon for $18 and the magazine release extension is about $15.
You do the numbers.
In principle, you’re not going to go wrong with a Saiga but the question is what the real-world price point will be on the IZ132Z. For a little bit more you can get an Arsenal which has equal hardware and superior furniture.
The sporterized IZ132 (in the MSRP $700 range) is available for those who wish to convert it on their own.
As to whether Russian AKs will ever be imported once again to this country is anyone’s guess. It will depend first on healing this country’s relationship with Vladimir Putin. Even if that miraculously occurs, whether the powers that be in this country will once again allow these rifles to be brought in is anyone’s guess.
In the meantime, there are some Saigas on the shelf. Get ’em while they are hot.
Photos courtesy of On Target staff.
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