Two of my all-time favorite firearms to plink with or simply shoot for enjoyment, are AKM carbines and 12-gauge shotguns. For the latter, I’m fond of the semi-automatic variety, but as anyone who’s ever ran one under pressure can attest, they are a pain in the ass to reload.
One solution is to extend the magazine tube so it holds more rounds, but a more space-efficient solution is to run one with removable magazines. Except most mag-fed shotguns are very ammunition sensitive – some even require full-powered defensive ammo to run reliably. Which is fine for shooters who only employ their shotguns in defensive or hunting scenarios, but a tremendous financial concern for casual plinkers. After all, defensive shotgun rounds often cost a dollar or more per round – making that plinking trip to the range awfully pricey.
In response, several companies began making lightweight gas pucks and other modifications for popular mag-fed shotguns – increasing their reliability with underpowered ammo, but consequently increasing felt recoil on the most potent rounds. It’s too bad no one thought to make a semi-automatic, magazine-fed shotgun like the Saiga-12, but with an adjustable gas system.
Clearly, Destructive Devices Industries felt the same way – because they did just that.
Enter, the DDI-12.
The DDI-12 is a gas-operated, rotating bolt, long-stroke piston driven semi-automatic 12-gauge shotgun. It feeds from detachable box-type magazines and ships with two five-rounders. If these magazines look familiar, they should — they’re Saiga-12 pattern, which is one the best features on the DDI-12.
Other companies have released functional magazine-fed shotguns in recent years, but all use proprietary magazines. Even Molot’s Vepr-12 (the gold standard for magazine-fed shotguns as far as I’m concerned) fails to use Saiga magazines despite originating from the same country. Why should consumers care?
Well, it’s not that the magazines themselves are particularly amazing, it’s just that they’re more available and thus more affordable. Also, since domestic manufacturers like SGM Tactical began making their own, the design future-proofs itself since a sudden shift in foreign policy can’t cut off the supply of accessories.
Which in many ways is the guiding principle behind the DDI-12: adaptivity.
The DDI-12 isn’t simply a Saiga clone, but rather an evolution of the design. Like most AK-pattern firearms, the DDI-12 utilizes the ultra-robust long-stroke, piston-driven operating method to capture escaping gas from the detonated round to cycle the action.
This is one of the oldest and most reliable methods of semi-automatic operation. One of the reasons it’s so dependable has to do with the relationship between the piston and the bolt carrier. The two most prolific long-stroke designs in history are the AK-47 and the M1 Garand. On both of these rifles (and all true long-stroke systems) the piston and bolt carrier are one interconnected unit, so there’s no delay between the tapped portion of the recoil impulse and movement of the piston and bolt carrier. This, coupled with the fact that the additional weight of the combined two requires more pressure to be syphoned from the fired round’s escaping gasses, equates to a more violent, more positive action cycling.
While less pleasant to the shooter, the action is less affected by fouling or weak rounds, since the gun cycles under a wider range of pressures. This is also why the AK-47 gas tube has ventilation holes cut into its gas tube. The system is designed to function over-gassed and to bleed off any excess pressure.
This is a great system since shotgun shells are available in a dizzying array of loadings, ranging from anemic, ‘popper’ rounds to hard-hitting 3.5-inch magnum slugs. Utilizing a gas system designed to function even with reduced gas pressure makes it a great fit for most varieties of shot shells. But if that’s the case, why is the Saiga 12 notorious for being unreliable out of the box?
The Saiga shotgun originated as a combat weapon. As such, it was designed to function with full-powered, defensive ammunition — namely 00 buckshot and slugs. Both of these rounds are prohibitively expensive for casual shooting, so most American shooters instead opted for cheaper birdshot and shooting clay rounds.
The problem with these loads is that they produce vastly less recoil and excess hot gas. Consequently, they didn’t have enough power to reliable cycle the Saiga 12’s action. Shooters at the time came up with two solutions for this. They either enlarged the gas port to increase the pressure in the gas tube, or they installed a reduced-mass gas puck.
While both of these solutions are effective, they have one major downfall: increased recoil. By venting more of the gas into the action to increase both its operating pressure and carrier velocity, the shooter feels more of the recoil impulse. With lower pressure rounds, this isn’t a concern, as the recoil is already fairly minimal. However, should a shooter switch back to full-powered defensive ammo, felt recoil becomes unmanageable for all but the burliest or most sadistic shooters.
DDI’s solution is a simple, adjustable gas system. Located at the end of the gas tube, the DDI-12’s gas system is adjusted via a small dial. The dial is adorned with four different-sized dimples each representing a different volume of syphoned gas. The smallest setting is ideal for full-powered slugs and buckshot, while the largest, most open setting is for birdshot or bargain ammo.
The dial is held in place with a small spring-loaded plunger similar to the brake retainer on AKM carbines, or the front sight post on M16 rifles. Just like both, the DDI-12 gas system is most easily manipulated with the tip of a bullet or screwdriver tip. Though given its size, the plunger can just as easily be depressed with a fingertip.
Further forward, the DDI-12’s muzzle is topped with an over-sized thread protector. Once removed, a shooter can install any external choke designed for use with a Saiga-12 shotgun. After experimenting with a few, my favorite is the SGM Tactical externally-threaded competition choke, topped with a Saber Boss brake. This combination is ideal for competitive shooters looking to extend the effective range of their Saiga-pattern scattergun while reducing felt recoil by diverting muzzle blast skyward and countering muzzle rise.
On the other end of the DDI-12, the engineers at Destructive Devices Industries opted for an aperture-type, adjustable rear sight. While this level of precision may seem superfluous, shooters looking to employ slugs at distance will certainly appreciate it.
A closer look at the sight assembly shows that is closely resembles the late-war M1 Carbine’s rear sight. Just like the M1’s sight, the DDI-12 provides shooters with an increased sight radius. This has two benefits, better precision for shooters as well as a larger, less-obstructed field of view.
Beneath the rear sight is one of the most unique aspects of the DDI-12, its safety lever. Unlike traditional AKM-pattern firearms, the DDI-12 does away with the over-sized partisan-proof lever. In its place, the DDI-12 employs an ambidextrous minimalist lever not unlike those found on AR15 carbines.
This is great for shooters like myself who don’t like having to shift their firing grip to toggle a safety. Which in my opinion goes a long way to improve its ergonomics over the Saiga-12 it emulates. Another ergonomic-driven point of divergence is the left-sided charging handle.
Like the easily-accessible safety switch, the left-sided charger makes chambering a round easier for right-handed shooters who wish to keep their primary hand on the pistol grip during a reload. While both of these improvements are a welcome addition to the platform, they also present the only real flaw with the system: optics.
Due to the position of the safety selector, installation of a traditional AK scope rail on the side of the receiver is impractical bordering on impossible. Consequently, it’s difficult to mount optics of any sort. Though, in all fairness few shooters actually employ optics with shotguns, I’m a firm believer in giving shooters more options.
Despite this, I still found the DDI-12 plenty accurate with the included aperture sights, and its adjustable gas system worked as advertised. Though the included magazines needed to be run a few times before functioning without issue.
In fact, the DDI-12 overall ran great with the vast majority of shotgun shells tested. The only notable exception were 7.5 dram Winchester bargain box rounds. Not because they weren’t powerful enough to cycle the action, but because their hulls were simply too malleable to feed reliably.
Hand cycling these softer-hulled shells didn’t produce any malfunctions, but when the action was violently cycled while firing live rounds, the increased velocity of the bolt carrier tended to pinch the shells as they attempted to fully enter the chamber.
Thankfully, utilizing stiffer or even just ribbed hulls completely remedied this issue.
At a price point lower than current Vepr shotguns, and arguably better ergonomics, the DDI-12 makes a solid choice for shooters looking to test the waters of the magazine-fed shotgun world. It may not be as polished or robust as pricier Russian options, but still runs better than most big brand autoloading shotguns, while having access to a tremendously vast aftermarket parts selection.
Firearm Type: Semi-automatic shotgun