The Best AR12 Shotguns

What are the best AR12 shotguns?

A design that was unheard of just 20 years ago, the AR12 style shotgun is quickly growing in popularity. Prized for both competition and home defense use, new guns are popping up seemingly every day. With so many great options to recommend, we had to make this article a deep dive —  a Top 10 just couldn’t contain them all.

Quick List: The Best 20-Gauge Shotguns

Akdal MKA 1919

The modern originator of the breed, the Turkish firm of Akdal/Ucyildiz launched their MKA 1919 shotgun in 2003 and it was soon adopted by the country’s military for security use. First imported to the U.S. by Century in 2012, it has seen several brand names and designations over the years here in America but has remained the benchmark for AR12 style shotguns.

Today, many of its competitors are simply just 1919-style clones. With an overall length of a handy 38-inches and the ability to accept five different chokes as well as drum mags, it is easy to see why it is often imitated.

Charles Daly

Using the name of the old classic American gun company, the rebooted Charles Daly is an importer that has been around for the past couple of decades or so bringing in some rehashes of popular designs from overseas. One of the company’s newer guns is the AR-12S shotgun. Made in Turkey with an aluminum upper and polymer lower, it is light at just 7.5-pounds and uses Beretta/Benelli style Mobil chokes.

Citadel Boss

Another Turkish design, the Citadel Boss 25 is imported by Legacy Sports and comes with interchangeable gas pistons that allow it to use a wider variety of shells. Running KeyMod accessory rails on the forearm and a full-length Picatinny top rail for optics, these are offered in several finishes and come with a full range of chokes, allowing their use in the field with hunters.

Fostech

Indiana-based Fostech a few years ago introduced their Origin line of semi-auto AR-style 12 gauges with the tag line that they are the fastest-cycling such animal in the jungle. American-made and feature-rich, Fostech guns have been breaking the internet since their debut due to their low recoil and controllability. Showing up in high-octane FPS games like Call of Duty, these guns are almost too good to be true.

The only bad thing you can say about them is the cost, but hey, you have to pay to play.

Garaystar

Another Turk, the Fear-116 from Garaystar has an adjustable cheek riser and side-charging bolt that is common to the AR12s from that country. Unlike some, it has a chrome-lined barrel with a ventilated shroud. An interesting feature of the line is that it has a slotted forend rail that will hold an extra mag as a sort of an ersatz forward grip.

Genesis Arms

Using a legit DPMS-style .308 AR10 lower– how is that for American– Idaho-based Genesis Arms markets their GEN-12, which is described as the “first true AR shotgun.” They also sell complete uppers if you already have your own compatible lower. The only problem is that these guys are tough to lay hands on.

JTS M12AR

While Chinese handguns and rifles have been on the forbidden list when it comes to imports to the U.S. thanks to Presidents Bush and Clinton, sporting shotguns can still cross the Atlantic. This is good news for AR12 fans because the JTS M12AR series guns are often great for the money.

With an on-board adjustable gas regulator to help smooth out operations across cranky 12-gauge loads, these have earned a good reputation although they do tend to run very dirty. Further, it is one of the most faithful when it comes to recreating the look and feel of an AR15 including an A2 style front sight and rear charging lever.

Panzer AR12 Gen3

Panzer Arms, a Turkish shotgun company with some 50 years of history behind it, makes a dedicated AR12 model with 7075 aluminum receivers that are designed specifically to work with a wider variety of shell types. Using 1919-style mags, it has a good reputation for reliability with 2.75-inch shells, which is about the best compliment you can pay an AR12 platform.

Rock Island VR80

Building on their less than successful VR60 series of semi-auto shotguns, Philippine-based Armscor/Rock Island has done a lot better with the VR80— one of the best-selling AR12s currently on the market. With a 20-inch barrel that is threaded for three included choke tubes, the gun ships with an odd thumbhole stock that can be swapped out for something more suitable. Using a swappable side-charging action, it has an adjustable gas system to help regulate operation.

Radikal MKX/NKX-3

Imported from Turkey by SDS, this AR12 uses standard 1919-style mags while including a quad rail forend and a carry handle rear sight. Side charging with an adjustable cheek riser on the buttstock, the gun has a full-length flattop Pic rail and an ambi mag release. On the more budget side of the game, these typically deliver for less than $450. The company also makes a bullpup version with the same action, the NK-1.

Typhoon Defense F12

Probably the best Turkish AR12– which is saying something– is Typhoon’s F12. This gas-fed shotty is more geared to 3-gun competitions than anything else. Loaded with oversized surface controls, Typhoon uses a twin gas piston setup for these guns for reliability and they have a reputation of being super smooth both in operation and in trigger break, making it not only reliable but great for competitions.

Using separate aluminum uppers and Benelli choke threaded, it is tough to find an AR-style shotgun with more features right out of the box.

What is an AR12?

Fundamentally an AR12 is an AR15-style semi-automatic shotgun in 12 gauge, the most common shotgun bore. We say “style” because their internals are vastly different from an AR15 rifle or pistol with few, if any, interchangeable parts.

A classic AR12 design, these MKA 1919 clones look a lot like an AR.

What they do have in common is the general layout and placement of most surface controls as well as the visual aesthetic of the famed modern sporting rifle. 

In short, if the user knows how to work an AR15 or even an AR10/SR25, they can figure out an AR12 shotgun in a few minutes. 

Where did they come from?

Semi-auto shotguns have been around for over 120 years, with John Browning’s iconic “humpback” Auto 5 being designed in 1898 during the administration of President William McKinley– the latter a decorated Civil War vet. However, most of those in circulation have been– and continue to be– fed in the traditional manner of multi-purpose repeating shotguns, via an underbarrel tube magazine that pushed shells back into the action’s lifter. 

Fast forward to the 1970s and 80s, and a wave of experimental scatterguns that used a detachable box magazine were trialed but never reached market success. These included Maxwell Atchisson’s AA-12, John Trevor’s follow-on Daewoo USAS-12, the Franchi SPAS-16, and the infamous guns pitched by AAI, Heckler & Koch, and Smith & Wesson for the Army’s ill-fated Close Assault Weapon System.

The AAI CAWS designed in the 1980s for a U.S. Army combat shotgun program, was one of the first AR12 style 12 gauges, although it never made it into production. It used a standard M16 stock and pistol grip component.

The first workable semi-auto shotguns with detachable box mags hailed from Russia, with the production by Izhmash– Mikhail Kalashnikov’s home for decades– of the AK-47 styled Saiga 12 in the 1990s followed by the very similar Molot Vepr 12 a few years later. 

Close on the heels of these were the first commercially available AR12 style guns, the Akdal MKA 1919 and Safir T-series shotguns, hailing from Turkey in the early 2000s. Since then, the market has exploded and today over 20 manufacturers are cranking out AR12s. 

Why an AR12?

Without a doubt, there has never been a better selection of autoloading shotguns in circulation at any time in history than there is today. While tens of thousands of pump and break-action shotguns are still manufactured and sold every year, semi-autos are increasingly the go-to for sportsmen, competitors, and those looking for a home defense tool.

Modern gas-operated semi-autos with a traditional horizontally oriented under-barrel tube-magazine layout, such as the excellent Beretta 1301 and Benelli M4, can have their capacity stretched with extended tubes but these add length and weight to the frontend of the gun. 

Meanwhile, AR12 style shotguns, with their vertical-oriented box or drum mags keep the package shorter, which is ideal for use in home defense or transitioning around targets in a competition. In fact, with barrel lengths typically under 20 inches, these guns are about the size of a standard AR carbine, although often a little heavier. 

Further, in a hat tip to the old CAWS program, AR12s offers a quick and natural training curve for those familiar with other AR platforms. Having 10 or more rounds of 12 gauge on tap, with a reload only taking a couple of seconds if there is a fresh mag available, is both big medicine if needed and a heck of a lot of fun on the range. 

As a value-add, most come with a variety of screw-in choke tubes, typically of common Win-Brn-Moss pattern threads, that allows the guns to be used in a range of hunting scenarios should hunting and sporting customers want to clock in with an AR12 in the field. Note: they make absolutely great slug guns for deer and hog. 

In more food for thought, AR12s often ship with decent AR-style front and rear flip-up sights and are ready to right out of the box for accessories and optics, slathered with standard Picatinny rails and M-LOKish slots across the barrel and upper receiver.

Compare this to something like a Mossberg 500, which usually just comes with a corncob front pump handle, sling swivel posts, barrel with a manual safety, and a simple bead for a sight. 

In another comparison to pump or break-action guns, semi-auto shotguns as a rule have a lighter recoil impulse because some of the pressure from the shell is used to cycle the action. This translates to faster follow-up shots. 

Pitfalls

One of the funny things about shotguns of all stripes is that they use a big, chunky shell that generally has a crimped hull made of plastic and capped on one end by a head made of brass or steel. 

Running the gamut from light “dust” trap loads to copper solid slugs, the resulting pressure curve that shotgun shells run is dramatic. These shells can vary considerably in loads and length, ranging from 1.5-inch mini shells to 3.5-inch super magnums. When it comes to feeding and cycling issues with an AR 12 shotgun, a lot of the problem is ammo-based, something that will even out with trial and error as the user finds out what works reliability and what to avoid. 

In most cases, AR12s will only feed standard 2.75- and 3-inch shells and historically have issues running “the cheap stuff” such as bulk-pack low-brass birdshot, loads which often suffer from an inconsistent performance that isn’t an issue in manually operated shotguns like your typical pump-action. This stems from the fact that a lot of light loads don’t have the available gas pressure to cycle the action.

This can be a deal-breaker if you intend to use one for pest control, such as for starlings in Kansas or crows in Arkansas with a case-o-cheap-shells from the local big box.

However, for home defense purposes, buck and slug loads generating over 1325fps and up tend to run all day. A break-in period of at least 100 assorted shells is recommended to get a feel for the gun. 

In another tip, beware of guns that are brand new to the market as these will often have teething problems that will only be addressed in later runs due to feedback and warranty returns by users who are, in effect, beta testers. 

To illustrate this, Panzer is now on their third generation of AR12 in less than a decade and Armscor/Rock Island is on their second. 

Standards?

Kalashnikov-pattern Saiga and Vepr series shotguns, manufactured in Russia by Izhmash and Molot, introduced something of a standard to the box-magazine-fed semi-automatic 12 gauge. 

While the Saiga/Vepr magazines, along with those for their American-made KS-12 and KOMRAD half-brothers, run in these Eastern European style guns, generally the standard AR12 mag is the original Turkish-pattern MKA 1919 mag. 

In most cases, the Garaysar Fear series; Silver Eagle SE122TAC, TAC PRO, TAC-LC; Iver Johnson Stryker; Rock Island Armory VR60 and VR80; Panzer Arms AR-12, AR-12 PRO, BP-12, BR-99, and FR-98/99 pattern shotguns can all accommodate the same magazine, usually in 5- and 10-round formats, although larger 20- and 28-round drums are increasingly available. 

Likewise, the furniture on most of the guns hailing from Anatolia is mostly the same, with a molded rubber grip and a fixed stock with an adjustable cheek riser and buttpad. 

Other than that, internals and cosmetic features between AR12 models are a crapshoot to swap around, even among other Turkish guns. Keep in mind there are over a dozen large shotgun makers in the country, with most exporting their wares overseas under a variety of names often through multiple distributors, so do not take it for granted that all are made by the same company. 

Check the reputation of a particular model before you roll the dice as quality control, especially on the imported guns, can vary widely.

Sources:

  1. War is Boring, In the 1980s, U.S. Troops Almost Got a Killer New Shotgun
  2. Small Arms Review, Small Arms Archive Detail Page for 281   
  3. Pro Mag Industries, Akdal® MKA® 1919® 12 Gauge 2-3/4″ (20) Rd – Black Polymer Drum
  4. IMFDB, Fostech Origin-12

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MICHAEL CRITES is el jefe around here. He writes about guns and gear.

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