While the Benelli M4 was dominating the international combat shotgun market, others found a better, cheaper solution in the 12-gauge AK shotgun.
Advantages Of AK Shotguns:
- Higher Potential Ammo Capacity
- Reliable Semi-Auto Function
- Select-Fire Capability For Police/Military
- Simple Operation And Controls
- Modular Design
Russians are famous, or maybe infamous, for viewing the Kalashnikov as the solution to all their armament needs. Need a submachinegun? Vityaz—9mm AK. Need general-purpose machinegun? PKM—big, upside-down AK. Need a shotgun? You already know the answer.
Since their advent in the 1990’s, AK shotguns have grown in popularity amongst sport-shooters and law enforcement alike around the world. While other weapons in the Kalashnikov family have seldom seen use by Western armed forces, AK shotguns have been a notable exception. When even NATO forces are willing to be seen using Soviet-derived technology, you know it must be pretty damn good.
Design And History
There isn’t much that can be said about AK shotguns’ design; they are truly just AKs chambered for shotgun shells. Things like the receiver and bolt group have been scaled up to accommodate the larger ammunition, and the gas block is typically adjustable, but besides that, there isn’t much difference between an AK shotgun and a traditional AK rifle.
The first AK shotgun designed and produced was the Saiga. Made in the famous IZHMASH factory in Russia, they entered production in 1997 and were available in 12-gauge, 20-gauge, and .410 bore. Early designs were intended more for sport and hunting, as evidenced by the fixed-stock and 5-round magazines.
It didn’t take long for these Saigas to be modified and adopted by Russian police and military units as well. They were given folding stocks, larger magazines, and rail segments for accessories.
AK shotguns are also popular home defense options in Russia because smoothbore weapons are easier to legally own than rifles or pistols.
After a few years of the Saiga gaining popularity, the Russian Molot factory decided to make their own AK shotgun in 2003. Their version is called the Vepr-12 and is based on the RPK that Molot is famous for producing. This means that Veprs have a thicker receiver and bulged front trunnion while Saigas do not, making Veprs the more robust and desirable of the two. Since then, there have also been American, Chinese and Turkish-made AK shotgun copies as well, though none are as good as the original Russian variants.
The use of AK shotguns by police and military units began in Russia and quickly spread to ex-Soviet satellite states that also traditionally used Russian gear like Belarus and Kazakhstan. While this is very typical, the adoption of AK shotguns in Western Europe and America is very unusual.
When nations select weapons for procurement, it is not a true meritocracy. Politics have sway over these decisions, and that typically means that NATO-aligned countries are opposed to using Soviet or Russian-designed weapons, and Russia typically prefers to use its domestic designs over Western guns. It is certainly a testament to the quality of Russian AK shotguns that they have been bought and used by French anti-terror units as well as the U.S. Coast Guard’s Deployable Specialized Forces. Some have also supposedly been sold to German and Italian police, as well.
What Makes AK Shotguns Great?
Nobody denies the Benelli M4 is a world-class shotgun. Despite not being a member of the AK family, it is also an extremely reliable and durable machine. Its reliability is the key factor in its popularity with military and police users, but how does it compare to AK shotguns?
While there are a few different makes and models of AK shotgun, the nicest one is arguably the Molot Vepr-12 so we will use it for the sake of comparison.
Benelli M4s have several features designed specifically for combat. These include a larger-than-average ammunition capacity, a telescoping stock, and a large loading port. These are certainly advantages when compared to more traditional shotguns, but they are less impressive when compared to the Vepr-12.
While the M4 has a maximum tube capacity of 7 shells, VEPRs are typically used with factory 10-round magazines and have aftermarket options for 12-round stick mags or even 25-round drums.
Besides having a higher ammunition capacity, Veprs also have potentially faster reloads. While the M4’s tube magazine gives the option for quickly topping-off or for emergency-reloading a single round, it also takes longer to fully load. Even in the hands of an experienced user, it simply takes longer to stuff seven shells into an M4’s loading port than it does to shove a new mag into a Vepr and drop the bolt. Vepr magazines aren’t rock-and-lock like traditional AKs, they are inserted straight into a magwell like on an AR, which makes the process even quicker.
The M4’s telescopic stock is pretty iconic, but it is not as compact as the folding stocks found on Veprs. Many of the models deployed by military and police units around the world are select-fire as well. When paired with a folding stock and a short barrel, these AK shotguns are certainly in the running for guns with the most firepower in the smallest package.
Assuming that the M4 and Vepr-12 have equal reliability, to me it seems that the only real advantage of the Benelli is that it is marginally lighter weight. The Vepr-12 has an average larger magazine capacity, quicker reloads, and the option of select-fire, all in a smaller package that costs less than a Benelli. I may have a pro-AK bias, but I truly believe that AK shotguns are the best designed modern combat shotgun on the market. If you are in the market for a semi-auto 12-gauge, try looking a little further East than Italy and you may be pleasantly surprised at what you find.