When I look at development of firearms, one thing stands out. Designers spent lots of time working to cartridges powerful and capable of precisely hitting targets at great distances.
The .50 BMG cartridge seems to be the culmination of those aspirations. It was designed for the Browning M-2 Machine Gun in the first decade of the 20th century. It first saw service in 1921. Also called the 12.7×99 NATO, it was based on an upscaled version of the .30-06 case. It has always been known for accuracy. In fact, I found a picture of World War II soldiers scoping a machine gun. It’s a great long-range and sniper round, and the only round capable of consistent shot placement at more than 1,000 yards.
The .50 caliber is not listed as a destructive device, so it’s popular with long-range shooters. To illustrate the power of this cartridge, let’s compare it with the .30-06 Springfield. The .30-06 produces 2,000 to 3,000 foot pounds of energy. The .50 can produce 10,000 to 13,000 foot pounds. More recently, the .50 has served our troops well in Afghanistan, as evidenced in clips showing its performance on small targets at incredible distances.
There’s also much controversy about the .50. Some folks claim it will be used by criminals and terrorists. But in truth, the .50 is too massive and heavy to conceal for criminal use. Further, we should focus more on catching terrorists and keeping them out of the country rather than worrying about what weapon they might use.
One Big Gun
Armalite chambers the .50 caliber in a 34-pound rifle that really impressed me with its comfort, accuracy and ease of operation. I wouldn’t want to pack the gun around much, but I could shoot it all day.
The gun comes with a package of Tylenol, which made me chuckle but then made me think. Was this some kind of warning? Armalite has gone to great lengths to make this rifle comfortable to shoot. As my wife, Lu, and I found out, one of the recoil reducers makes the rifle very loud. I didn’t notice as much behind the gun, but Lu was taking pictures while I shot and said she could feel the concussion, even though she was behind me and to the side. We were wearing double ear protection.
The AR-50 is a solid, well-built rifle. The massive receiver is octagonal and houses a huge bolt with a triple-locking lug. It’s equipped with a Sako-style extractor and Schillen standard single-stage trigger. The massive, tapered barrel is 31 inches long. Inside the pipe are eight grooves with an right-hand 1-15 twist. The muzzle is fitted with a cylindrical multi-flute brake (thus the Tylenol). I have never been a fan of brakes on rifles such as .338 or .300magnums, but I believe it’s necessary on this caliber.
The adjustable buttplate and stock brings the rifle to 59.5 inches long, and the AR-style hand grip really gives the gun a familiar feel. It’s attached to an aluminum stock, and the barrel is floated from the receiver out. There’s a lot of space between the barrel and forend of the stock. The buttplate is fitted with a robust recoil pad that’s adjustable, making it easier to repeat a solid shouldering.
Armalite recommends shooting high-quality ammo in the AR-50, so I went to The Hunting Shack and got some match-grade ammo. The Hunting Shack is one of the largest ammo manufacturers in the country, and it loads .50-caliber ammo one cartridge at a time. Its quality ammo matches the rifle’s capability for accuracy. The Hunting Shack sent me some 750-grain bullets that leave the muzzle at about 2,650 feet per second.
The bullet has an aluminum V-max-type tip that causes massive fragmentation when it hits the backstop. That was right where I wanted that bullet to terminate. I collected some of the fragments from the backstop, and the bullet terminated as it was designed to.
There are many loads for the long-range .50, and trajectories will vary with each. In general, the .50 sends a big pill very fast, flat and accurately at long range.
At the (Long) Range
I shot the rifle with two scopes: a Shepherd V1 6-18X, which has drop compensator for the BMG round, and a Leupold Vari-X 2-10X. I sighted in a 500-yard zero. The scopes held up to the big .50’s recoil without a hitch. We only shot the rifle at about 500 yards, but at longer ranges, the 18X Shepherd would be an asset. With the expense of ammo for these guns, the one-shot zero of the Shepherd was also appreciated. After the gun was sighted in, it made softball-sized rocks on the 500-yard hillside disappear.
The weight and massive muzzle brake do their jobs, reducing recoil to a pleasant push. I shot a couple of boxes of ammo comfortably, with no black shoulder. I didn’t shoot the rifle in the prone position, but even though the prone transfers a bit more recoil to the shooter, I don’t believe it will be a concern. It didn’t beat me up. Armalite’s manual said it’s best for onlookers to be directly behind the rifle when it’s fired, and I agree. The bark is truly worse than the bite.
Before going afield with the gun, I checked the trigger so I had no surprises in live fire. The Schillen single-stage was crisp and clean with no creep. It weighed just less than 5 pounds with my scale. The trigger is very precise, as you’d expect with a rifle capable of such long-range accuracy. It felt lighter than 5 pounds, which usually indicates a well-tuned trigger.
This rifle must be shot from a rest — not because of recoil but because of weight. I could not shoulder the rifle long enough for Lu to snap a picture. Armalite offers a Prince bipod option, which is a strong, well-made support designed for the rifle. Not having one, I used a Harris Bipod I borrowed from my .300 Win. Mag. The one I used with the .50 had a tilt feature, and it kept the 34-pound rifle on target.
Since my experience as a SWAT sniper, I’ve been addicted to precision long-range shooting. The .50 BMG opens up a new experience with long-range shooting. Just because the rifle can send a projectile past 1,000 yards doesn’t mean anyone can make it fulfill its potential. However, I think it’s possible to develop the skills to make one-mile hits with the Armalite AR-50, and I think that’s a much better addiction than the tobacco habit I recently kicked.
— Dave Morelli is an all-around gun nut from Idaho.