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AAR: Saiga at a Shotgun Match – Observations and Lessons

I attended my first Action Shotgun match Sunday with a gun, my DIY Saiga 12, that I had only shot once before only two days prior. Being a noob to this discipline of competition, my goals were straightforward: (1) Be safe, (2) Have fun, (3) Learn more about my shotgun, (4) Not embarrass myself too badly (5) Have fun.

About half a dozen shooters were present sporting mostly tube magazine fed semi-autos of Benelli-type inertial action (Benelli, Mossberg 930 SPX, and a Stoeger 2000; all with extended magazines). I was the only Saiga shooter there that day. Some of the competitors were obviously practiced and experienced in this game and had the skill and equipment to make a very good showing. It seemed everyone else had a belt rig with half a dozen shell caddies on it.

My rig on the other hand, was a leather gunbelt with an old $12 shotgun shell bag hanging on it.  I kept three magazines loaded with shot in the largest pouch closest to me with the crimps facing up and out and a mag loaded with slugs in the second closest pouch nose down facing to the rear.

My shotgun belt rig – expensive, rare and highly specialized.

The rules for the match stipulated that everything except the cardboard IPSC targets had to be shot with #8 shot or smaller (club rule) and slugs were for cardboard only. We were warned that putting a slug on steel was a match DQ. The club also has a rule due to the angle of the berms to the other shooting areas that the gun must stay mostly horizontal for each course of fire.

The course of fire was varied with barricades, forward falling poppers, plates on stands, clays on stands, swingers (both cardboard IPSC targets and plates with clays in the center) and a Texas Star. All targets were set at about 10-12 yds away. From my experiences playing with the SASS crowd, I was comfortable with the 170 safety arc, shooting in turn, making ready, showing clear, shooting on the clock, etc. but I also knew that I might be hindered by other learned patterns of behavior that differed from this game. Namely, shooting from behind cover and reloading on the move. The horizontal-gun-at-all-times was something that was unfamiliar too. Not having those skills ingrained and combined with my lack of familiarity with the Saiga led me to try and slow down and focus on safety and the front sight. That paid off fairly well for the first two stages…

I understand that shotgun matches are almost as much about reloading as they are shooting. This match followed that paradigm. It was structured to force reloading at certain points by stating a certain number of rounds loaded at the start, slug target placement, etc. Going in I knew that the tube mag fed guns benefit from ‘last in, first out’ feeding. For those to load a slug, just load into the tube and cycle the action to bring it into the chamber. While the Saiga 12 does benefit from the ability to replenish ammo a full mag at a time, that ability has to be balanced with the facts that the gun does not have a last round bolt-hold-open, mags have to be rocked in, and there really isn’t a way to interrupt the mag feeding to load a slug when needed.

So with a lot to remember and manage I shot the match:

Stage 1: [shooters with guns of greater than 5 capacity can load 8+1] From left side of barricade, engage four 5” plates from behind cover in ‘barricade order’ (slicing the pie, outside to inside). Shooter then moves to right side of barricade and engages 3 more plates in barricade order. Load two slugs, step on platform to start IPSC cardboard swinger and engage twice. Reloading on the move, move right 10′ to next barricade and from the right side shoot activation plate and then the two swinging plates (breaking the clays in the center of each). Move right again about 10′ to the third barricade, loading as needed, and engage a single forward falling plate and then the Texas Star.

Considering it was my first time shooting the Saiga against the clock I think I shot this one fairly well. Slugs had to be loaded from the body but there was no penalty for dropping live rounds my stage went like this: I shot the first seven targets, dumped the mag with a live round, pulled the bolt to the rear, clearing the action and locked it back, loaded a mag with slugs, released the action, shot two, dumped the mag, cleared the action, held the bolt to the rear while loading a third mag loaded with shot and finished the stage.

Lessons learned: Don’t crowd the barricade; step back. For my first shots, I must have looked like I was trying to brace on the barricade a la Bianchi Cup-style which only served to hang the bolt handle against the frame preventing it from cycling after the first shot. This also caused me to raise the barrel as I moved to the right side, earning me a warning [“Muzzle!”] because I didn’t keep the gun horizontal. In all my prior encounters with stage props (barricades, windows, doors, buckboards, stagecoaches, bars, jails, horses, etc.) I don’t ever recall having to always keep the gun level. That is definitely something I need to work on for that range. From there, my mag changes were not smooth and probably looked more like a wrestling match than a shooting match. I left a trail of half full mags and loose live rounds behind me but at least I hit everything I shot at and didn’t have to make up any rounds due to plates not falling or clays not breaking. And I didn’t earn any procedurals.

I noticed another shooter, when loading slugs, mostly topped off his Benelli with shot before adding his two slugs. This reduced the amount of loading he had to do to finish the stage. I didn’t think to ask if it was kosher to have mags with mixed ammo already preloaded. At a slug changeover having a mag fully loaded with the top rounds being slugs would save me an additional mag change afterward. However, I don’t want to engage in gamesmanship either. Loading the slugs into an already loaded mag on the clock would accomplish the same thing but unlike with the tube autos, doing so would require two hands.

Stage 2: Stand and hose. No cover, no movement. Start at low ready. Five forward-falling poppers (full size, three half size, full size – about a yard apart from each other). Score. Reset. Repeat.

This one felt good.  I hammered them left to right with five, centered, high hits and did it in somewhere around three and a half seconds 2.88 seconds. My second run was faster and came in at bit under three seconds 2.46 seconds. I think I actually won that stage, primarily because most of the other guys each had to fire extra shots to get all the poppers down. I think it was at this point somebody asked me what choke I was using to which I replied, “None.” It was also at this point that I remembered that I was running the gun pretty much without lube. I had cleaned it after the initial function test and hadn’t lubed it.

Stage 3: Starting out in the open, engage 4 ‘clays on sticks’ then while reloading on the move, cover the 10 yds laterally to the right to the next 4 clays on sticks shooting them while still moving. Shooter then turns to the right, loads a slug and while behind cover shot between two no-shoot silhouettes to an IPSC target behind them. Moving again to the right to a barricade shooter then engages four plates on stands in barricade order from behind cover.

This is where I lost some mojo. Still happy from my last run, I ‘blazed’ through this stage in 33 seconds (again leaving a trail of half empty mags and loaded rounds behind me). I was still ‘less than smooth’ in the way doing 40 mph on a washboard road in a go cart is ‘less than smooth’ at but to this point each target had only required one round to ‘neutralize’ so I was feeling pretty good. Until they told me I had five procedurals on that stage.  The years of CAS programming came back and I had run that stage pretty much on auto-pilot.  Not reloading on the move (x2). Not shooting on the move. Not shooting from behind cover (x2). Ugh.  At five seconds per procedural, that stings.  The shooter that won that stage did so in under 25 seconds and did it with an extra ‘o’ in smooth. (He shoots off the left shoulder and so actually he did it walking backwards – not in heels though.)

Stage 4: Pretty much the same as Stage 1 but shot in reverse order with a minor change for the slug target.

I got two procedurals on this one; probably because I let my performance on Stage 3 rattle me and I wound up shooting from the wrong sides of a couple of the barricades and got another warning for raising my muzzle. I also forgot that my gun had a front sight and I had to expend way too many rounds getting hits on the suddenly stubborn Texas Star.

So after all that, how would I rate the day? Awesome! I got to play with my new toy, ring steel, break clays, punch holes and meet some new friends. My gun cycled every time and aside from some issues with the trigger nut, it ran flawlessly. Everyone there was friendly, made me feel welcome and tolerated my noob questions and errors. The small match turnout due to the holiday was a good thing for me because it let me try this discipline without too much additional stress.  Many hands make for light work and everyone pitched in for target pasting, resetting, scoring (not me so much there) and taking it all down after the match. I learned a lot from the match, not just on my own but from watching and talking with others. I have a better working knowledge of problem solving with a Saiga 12 and what I might need to change to improve my skill with it. It was a great day.

More lessons learned:

  • I wouldn’t say that the match was any harder than any of the Cowboy Action Matches I’ve attended (after all this match only required me to manage one gun, not four, and all the shotguns at this match auto-reloaded themselves after every shot).  It just required a different skill set.  Thankfully I am somewhat trainable and with more practice and familiarity I’ll have an easier time with it.
  • I will investigate other belt rigs.
  • I need to remember to take pictures for the blog…
  • Despite all my previous competition experience, I forgot to bring sunblock and enough water. Being a fair sort of fellow, putting me in the sun is like putting a fork in a microwave. I need to replace the Bullfrog that normally resides in my range bag. Thankfully with a small turnout and everyone helping we were not out in the sun for too long.
  • I now know where just about every sharp edge is on my Saiga 12. Gloves will be something I add to my kit.
  • The stock sights can definitely need improvement. I’m not sure how I’ll go about that just yet.
  • Even though my equipment functioned well Sunday (when I did my part) I need to number my mags so I can track them.
  • Whereas my last post stated that my DIY project was complete, I am also now considering adding some user friendly ergonomic enhancements: possibly an extended mag release lever, a safety with tab that can be reached with the trigger finger, and a charging handle that is easier on my fingers. An extended recoil pad would still be nice but in competition, the adrenaline kept me from feeling the recoil.
  • I want to do this again. Soon.

Update: Scores were emailed yesterday and I came in third [out of five], no points down, with one stage win (!).  I did not have any FTN’s and my aggregate raw time was actually faster than that of the winner by .47 secs – it was the 35 seconds of penalties that pushed me down the ranks, proving that shooting clean and moving smooth and steady wins every time.