Given that Saiga rifles are built in Russia, and are based on Kalashnikov actions, there should be no surprise that folks like to ask how Saigas stack up with AK-47's.
Pros and Cons
Unfortunately, this area is too vague to be covered by a solid table because the answers aren't nearly clear-cut enough. A large number of the advantages of the AK family can be compensated for by turning the Saiga into an AK. However, doing so isn't exactly cheap.
Magazines: The AK rifles win, hands down, in the magazine arena. Saiga magazines are imported, expensive, and plastic. However, Saigas can be converted to use AK magazines, provided that there's a magazine out there for the caliber in question. For example, a 7.62x39mm Saiga can easily be modified to accept 7.62x39mm AK magazines. Owners of 308 or 30'06 Saigas are more or less out of luck, at least until domestically produced Saiga magazines become readily available.
Accessories: Again, the AK family wins in this area. Furniture is readily available for the AK's; for Saigas, it is typically ordered directly from Russia.
Reliability: I've heard raves about uber-reliability from the owners of both weapons. However, the 223 and 7.62x39mm Saigas lose points automatically due to the trigger linkage employed, transferring the trigger pull from the relocated trigger over to the hammer retention assembly. More moving parts translates to more places for things to get stuck, and this is no exception. That having been said, this is a trivial quibble. It should be noted that the 308 Saiga does not use the same system, and should probably be considered as reliable as an AK, magazine issues notwithstanding.
Price: Saigas, for a few months after a shipment of them has recently arrived, are the cheapest AK variants in the US. However, once the big distributors run out, the prices climb rapidly until they cost around the same price as Romanian WASR's which are being imported.
Bolt hold open: Some, but not all, Saigas have a bolt hold open mechanism. AK's do not have one, unless they happened to have started off as Saigas or someone has notched their safety selector to act as a bolt hold open.
For starters, Saiga rifles are apparently designed with the western world in mind. They are available chambered in 223, 7.62x39mm, and 308 Winchester. There's some kind of special edition Saiga floating around in 30'06 too, but those aren't widely available. In contrast, AK's are primarily chambered in Eastern Bloc calibers. The most commonly encountered calibers are 7.62x39mm, 5.45x39mm, and 223 Remington / 5.56mm NATO, in that order. 223-based AKs are rare, compared to the other two. Part of the reason for this is the wide proliferation of the standard 30rd AK magazine in 7.62x39mm.
Saigas are also available as 12ga, 20ga, and 410 gauge shotguns. I am unaware of any domestically available AK counterparts which didn't start their lives as Saigas.
While the AK-47 is available in pistol gripped and thumbhole stocked formats, the Saiga rifles are only available with Monte Carlo style stocks. Numerous after-market kits exist to alter Saiga rifles, but they're only imported in one configuration that I'm aware of. The most notable change with the Saiga, is that the trigger has been relocated from the normal location on the receiver, all the way back to the location where the pistol grip used to be attached. The trigger guard is relocated as well, and the magazine tower stands on its own. There is a large subculture of folks who convert Saigas from their imported configuration into a normal AK-47 configuration.
With the recent influx of Saiga rifles into California, a lot of folks are left asking one question: what is the difference between a Saiga and a 'true' AK? The differences are numerous, but subtle. I finally wrote this article after having had some time to digest the inner workings of a friend's Saiga. Throughout this article, please bear in mind that this article was written using a 7.62x39mm Saiga as reference. There are a few differences between this model and the 308 Saiga, most notably in the fire control group.
For starters, here are some commonalities: they're both based off of stamped Kalashnikov receivers. There isn't a huge amount of difference between the AKM (AK Modernized) and Saiga receivers, but there are some.
The left side of a Saiga trunion has an extra post slightly behind the barrel and a little behind the rearmost of the two top rivets. It is easy to confuse the post with another rivet, but it's not made of the same soft metal as rivets. The function of this post, is to force the bolt to start turning when it's going into battery.
Lack of a bullet guide
This is the best-known difference between a Saiga and AK. On an AK, the bullet guide is rivetted into the bottom of the front trunion. On a Saiga, the bullet guide is a part of the magazine. There are commercially available drop-in bullet guides you can install into a Saiga, to allow AK-47 magazines to feed more or less reliably. As you can see in the Starter Post picture above, the Saiga I photographed for this article was actually modified with a dremel tool. The owner of this Saiga cut his own feed ramp into the chamber area.
Fire Control Group
Although the fire control group on a Saiga is based on an AK FCG, the only directly interchangeable part in the Saiga FCG is the hammer. The trigger and disconnector are quite different, and as you can see in the picture to the left, there's a semi-triangular piece of metal which acts as a transfer assembly, moving the pull of the trigger forward. Because of the Saiga's relocated trigger, it is necessary to somehow relay the force of the triger pull from where the triger is located, to where the action would normally reside. In the section below, the picture depicts the receiver from the bottom. It is worth noticing that the Saiga has not one, but two additional pivot pin holes drilled out on the sides of the receiver, in addition to the hammer and trigger hole commonly encountered on the AK. On a side note, the 308 Saiga doesn't use a seperate transfer bar - it has a really long trigger, extended out of the trigger housing as one solid piece.
Underside Reinforcement Plate
Given that the Saiga is based off of an AK receiver, it was necessary to attach a reinforcement plate to the bottom of the rifle in order to seal off the pistol grip hole and provide a location for the attachment of the triger guard. The astute will also notice a more pronounced trigger pin bump than on a normal AKM receiver. Note also the screw on the underside, which is used as an additional point of reinforcement for the stock.
Trigger guard differences
In the image above, it is apparent that the trigger guard doesn't start at the magazine latch tower as it does on an AK. The Saiga uses a free-standing magazine tower, and the trigger guard attaches to the reinforcement plate mentioned above. From a simple physics sense, the AK trigger guard is more durable, as it's anchored on the one side by the magazine post, which has four rivets holding it in. In the AK design, it also provides a little rear reinforcement to the magazine latch post itself.
The forward handguard of a Saiga is very different from that of an AK-47. Firstly, the handguard is spring-loaded, and the spring extends back underneath the barrel, all the way to the bottom of the front trunion. As can be seen in this image, the trunion is shaped differently in a Saiga, and it actually comes down and firmly meets up with the bottom of the receiver. There is also a screw hole located halfway between the magazine well and the front edge of the receiver, on the underside, that is used to further secure the handguard. Another point of difference is that, instead of the parallel grooves and locking collar system used on the AK-47 lower handguard, the Saiga lower handguard actually has a small post protruding on either side of the gas block. There's a slot inside the handguard which this locks into, and the spring in the rear handguard exerts more or less constant pressure here.
-- SeanNewton - 19 Jun 2007