Saiga-style shotguns aren’t anything new. But because they offer so many potential advantages over manually operated and tube-fed semiautomatic shotguns, the design never fails to entice new manufacturers to try their hand at taming the Russian beast. The largest hurdle most manufacturers don’t anticipate is the most difficult aspect of the gun to improve: the customer’s unrealistic expectations of reliability.
SEMIAUTO SHOTGUN RELIABILITY
You read that correctly. Semiautomatic shotguns, in particular, have an undeserved reputation for unreliability. Because of this and the Saiga’s Kalashnikov heritage, new shooters unfamiliar with auto-loading shotguns expect their Saiga clone to run flawlessly out of the box. This includes both the stoutest defensive loads and meekest birdshot.
And, why not?
Most semiautomatic firearms can function flawlessly with any SAAMI-spec loading of the caliber it’s chambered in. But shotgun shells are a totally different story.
Unlike the two most prolific centerfire calibers in America—9mm parabellum and 5.56x45mm—12-gauge shot shells weren’t originally designed for autoloaders but for manually operated firearms. Hence, the reason the pressure range of shotgun shells can differ so greatly. As a result, autoloading shotgun designers are forced to either overgas their guns to work with everything or incorporate an adjustable or adaptive gas system.
The former sounds great on paper, but in reality, it leads to the action battering itself to pieces after very few rounds. Even if the designers manage to create a perfectly balanced gas system that functions with any type of in-spec ammunition, they still have to worry about constantly feeding those rounds into the chamber… something detachable shotgun magazines aren’t known for.
In essence, any company looking to capture the Saiga 12 market needs to modify an already modified version of the Kalashnikov’s action (the gold standard for reliability in military and civilian long guns) to be even more reliable.
“The only addition this affordable shotgun needs to be a real winner is a simple method of attaching optics.”
THE CHEETAH 12-GAUGE
One company thinks it can do just that with its latest product: the SDS Imports Cheetah 12. SDS Imports LLC is an importer of firearms and accessories located in Knoxville, Tennessee. It designs new firearms and has them built either stateside or overseas. The company is run by David Fillers, the founder and former CEO of Destructive Device Inc., a small company that made a name for itself in the AK world by building authentic carbines for a fair price.
“… the Cheetah 12 is a solid shotgun in its own right and is a very interesting take on the Saiga shotgun design. It might not be an exact clone of Saiga, but it’s a very functional, well-thought-out alternative.”
The Cheetah 12 is heavily influenced by the Russian Saiga 12 shotgun. It’s a gas-operated, semiautomatic shotgun chambered in 12 gauge and feeds from detachable, box-type magazines. The Cheetah ships with a single five-round, polymer body, single-column magazine, but it can accept any Saiga 12 magazine, including SGM Tactical 25-round drums. While the internals are all Saiga, SDS Imports changed many of the ergonomics and shooter comfort aspects to make the Saiga a more-palatable shotgun for Western shooters. So, instead of the Kalashnikov-style post-and-notch iron sights, the Cheetah opts for aperture-style sights. The rear one is mounted on the dust cover, while the bright, fiber-optic front sight post is dovetailed into the gas block.
I’m more accurate with post-and-notch sights, but peep sights such as this are much faster; and because the Cheetah is a shotgun, sights aren’t as great a priority. Even so, the rear sight is adjustable for both windage and elevation and resembles a simplified version of the late-war M1 Carbine rear sight.
Below these sights, the Cheetah uses a slightly oversized magazine release lever for quicker magazine changes, and the design incorporates a bolt release that really improves reloading times. This might seem odd to those who are unfamiliar with Saiga shotguns, but the bolt release/hold-open is tremendously helpful. Loading a Saiga 12 magazine on a closed bolt is tricky at best—and infuriating when done under pressure. It basically requires the shooter to apply just the right amount of pressure at the right angle to keep the top round from impeding the mag from fully inserting into the well.
Plus, because this is an AK-based firearm, the magazine must be rocked and locked into position—thereby further complicating the reloading process. With the bolt locked open, shooters can simply tilt the magazine backward and drag along the bottom of the receiver until the mag’s lip engages the well. Then, it can be rocked back into place without worrying about pressure or awkward angles.
Moreover, the AK-style safety lever of the Saiga 12 is gone. In its stead is an ambidextrous selector modeled after the AR-15’s fire controls. This is an objectively better choice for combat-style shotguns that could be used for home defense, because it allows the shooter to actuate it without removing their firing hand from the pistol grip.
That said, there is a downside to this addition: The safety resides directly above the pistol grip, so it precludes the inclusion of an AK sight rail … meaning there is no practical method to attach optics to the Cheetah. Given that this is a shotgun, that is not a deal-breaker; it’s only a minor annoyance, to be sure. Moving further rearward: The Cheetah ships with an AR-15 buffer extension and polymer buttstock. This is a pretty radical departure from standard Saiga shotguns that use Warsaw-length, AK-type buttstocks or cumbersome, ban-friendly Monte Carlo furniture.
While the included tube is for fixed stocks, such as those found on an M16A2, the rear trunnion is threaded to accept any AR buffer extension. Consequently, shooters who want either a shorter or longer length of pull can install any AR-15-compatible stock assembly they wish. This is a huge improvement to the ergonomics of the original Saiga shotgun. Small-framed and female shooters (such as my wife) often find full-length stocks uncomfortable and awkward. Any shooter with experience behind an ill-fitting shotgun understands too well how dramatically ruined ergonomics can increase felt recoil.
“While the internals are all Saiga, SDS Imports changed many of the ergonomics and shooter comfort aspects to make the Saiga a more-palatable shotgun for Western shooters.”
The included stock was reasonably comfortable, but the use of a Magpul MOE M4 adjustable stock improved both the ergonomics and portability of the shotgun as a whole. It also helped shift the center of balance closer to the shooter’s arms and core, making the Cheetah 12 feel lighter and more responsive. But shotgun ergonomics, iron sights and safeties are all secondary to the most crucial aspect of any autoloading shotgun: reliability. The engineers at SDS Imports chose to incorporate an adjustable gas system in an effort to make the Cheetah 12 totally reliable out of the box.
But does it go far enough?
In testing, the Cheetah predictably chugged through all 150 rounds of defensive 00 buck ammo it was fed without issue. This includes ammunition provided by Hornady, Federal and Winchester. High-powered slugs also did a great job, and the gun encountered no issues feeding 25 rounds from each manufacturer. But this makes sense: If the gun is mechanically sound, the highest-pressure ammo normally functions flawlessly.
TARGET, LOW BRASS AND PLINKING LOADS
I fired 150 rounds of 2¾ #8 lead, 2.75 dram-equivalent XTRALITE from Winchester Ammunition, feeding from factory five-round magazines. In this configuration, with the gas setting on high, the Cheetah encountered 18 failures to eject—not great, but this is the cheapest, softest-recoiling ammo available at big box stores. When I later fed the gun a similar loading, but with a dram equivalent of 3, the Cheetah ran nearly flawlessly, with only one gun-related malfunction. The other issue involved the clip at the top of the magazine that retains rounds slipping off the magazine body and causing a double feed.
This was quickly, permanently remedied by bending the clip back into place with a pair of needle-nose pliers.
When testing with aftermarket magazines, those from SGM Tactical encountered a few more malfunctions than factory mags; and steel magazines from CSSpecs.com suffered the fewest. With any brand of magazine, one aspect of the design became increasingly clear: More is better.
Blasting away at clay pigeons, old soda cans or steel plates is tremendously enjoyable with a magazine-fed shotgun. When clearing a berm of “dangerous” orange discs, having more ammunition at a shooter’s disposal makes the experience that much more fun. This is also a big reason reliability is paramount. Whether a shooter is plinking at a range or defending their loved ones, a malfunction puts a huge damper on the situation. Thankfully, the Cheetah runs demonstrably better with underpowered ammo than many Saiga clones. So, shooters won’t have to cram $15 worth of pricey 00 buck or 1-ounce slugs into a magazine to achieve reliable operation.
“In testing, the Cheetah predictably chugged through all 150 rounds of defensive 00 Buck ammo it was fed without issue.”
IT’S NOT A PERFECT CLONE … BUT
Overall, the Cheetah 12 is a solid shotgun in its own right and is a very interesting take on the Saiga shotgun design. It might not be an exact clone of a Saiga, but it’s a very functional, well-thought-out alternative. It offers solid reliability and excellent ergonomics. The only addition this affordable shotgun needs to be a real winner is a simple method of attaching optics.
BARREL: 19-inch, chrome-lined cylinder bore,three in chamber
OA LENGTH: 39½ inches
WEIGHT: 8.4 pounds (empty)
SIGHTS: Plastic aperture, rear; green fiber-optic post, front
STOCK: Black polymer
ACTION: Piston-operated semiauto
FINISH: Matte black
CAPACITY: 5+1, 8+1, 10+1 and 25+1
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the July 2018 issue of Gun World Magazine.