Towsley On Target: The Big (.50 BMG) Guns


A home-built .50 Caliber produces recoil lighter than a .270 Winchester.

While a lot of gun writers specialize, that’s not me. If it shoots, I like it. Handguns, rifles, shotgun, muzzle loaders you name it. But there was one area I had not fully explored and now, thanks to a friend, I am moving into that vacant territory.

Towsley having fun shooting the big .50 BMG, and thankful for the freedom to shoot these impressive cartridges.

My entire experience with a .50 BMG was a few shots with the big machine gun deep in the bowels of the FN factory in Belgium eight years ago. They were a bit stingy with the ammo and the gun firing full-auto is not really the definition of ammo conservation, so my introduction was brief. But, the experience left an indelible mark on my soul.

Fast forward seven years when I stopped in to see my dad’s long-time best friend. Lee Houghton is retired now and has rediscovered shooting and guns in a big way. Lee is one of those clever guys who can do anything. He built an airboat in Vermont years ago when nobody outside of the everglades had likely seen one. He built his own airplane in the 1970s and the level of craftsmanship he shows with wood or metal has always amazed me.

I stopped in to show Lee a new rifle I had bought and he was working on a blueprint drawing. “I am building a .50 BMG rifle” he said with a big grin. Well now, a year or so later, it’s nearing completion. He bought an action and picked up a used machine gun barrel someplace or other and bought a muzzle brake. The rest he built from scratch, including one of the best bipod systems I have ever seen.

He didn’t copy anybody, but just did his own design without ever really looking at any of the others, which is genius if you ask me. The result is a huge, heavy, stretched out T-Rex of a rifle that is as cool as it gets.

This home-built custom .50 BMG handles the big cartridge well.
.50 BMG ammo isn’t cheap, but the goal is well-placed shots at great distances with a heavy bullet.

But the bigger issue, as far as I am concerned, is that his enthusiasm is contagious. Every time I stepped into his shop he had something new to show me and it wasn’t long before I decided that I needed to look into this .50 BMG thing myself. Having neither Lee’s time nor talent, I ordered a Barrett single-shot rifle.

Of course, I decided to do this right in the middle of the “Obama Firearms and Ammunition Sales Stimulus Program” so finding ammo was like a quest for the Holy Grail. The gun languished in my vault for a couple of weeks before Cabela’s came to the rescue. I managed to get 40 rounds of Brazilian-made full-metal-jacket ammo from them and last weekend we made some noise.

Lee’s rifle is still not complete, but it was done enough to shoot. He still needs a cheek piece on the stock, which I suspect will be finished by next weekend, and to put the finish of DuraCoat on the gun. But neither would deny a trial run. We took his rifle and mine out to the cold, muddy, March field near his house.

For those of you who don’t know, the .50 BMG is a huge cartridge. It’s a scary proposition to lie down behind the rifle for the first time, not knowing what to expect. Even with a gun approaching 50 pounds and a muzzle brake that looks like something off a Star Wars fighter ship hanging on the 44-inch barrel, the concept of putting that huge cartridge in a rifle, putting the rifle on your shoulder and pulling the trigger has some psychological aspects that are a bit scary to explore.

Lee’s son Kurt took the first shot while we stood back, stiff with anticipation.

The result was actually a bit of a disappointment. Don’t get me wrong, this cartridge leaves no doubt when it goes off. Grass and mud filled the air and the sonic wave pounded our chest like the bass line in the front row of a Hendrix concert. The distinctive boom rolled across the valley and echoed back off the mountains, but the gun barely moved. Kurt described the recoil as being like that of a .270 Winchester.

When asked about the muzzle blast, however, he used far more descriptive language. While the recoil may disappoint, the blast must be experienced to be properly appreciated.

Then it was time for me and the Barrett. This gun is about 20 pounds lighter than Lee’s rifle, but it still takes a full-grown man to pack it around. The recoil is not all that bad; far less than any of my dangerous game rifles and probably even less than a lot of the guns I’ve used to hunt deer. But the big arrowhead muzzle brake laid down a blast zone that didn’t disappoint.

Once we had the guns zeroed we moved the targets out to 350 yards, which was all we could get at this location. It was child’s play and both guns were shooting groups small enough to make me happy at half the distance.

The percussion from the .50 BMG blast is one of the funnest aspects of shooting these big guns
The percussion from the .50 BMG blast is one of the funnest aspects of shooting these big guns

Within days I ordered a reactive target from R&R Racing (www.randrracingonline.com) which is designed for the 50 BMG and we are scouting locations with longer distances so we can challenge these rifles. I ordered more ammo, as well as reloading equipment and components. The Barrett is just on loan, but Lee has talked me into building my own rifle. And, well, I guess I am hooked.

There is something almost mystical about controlling this much power. Shooting these big rifles is not like anything else I have experienced. For a true gun guy this is another pinnacle of shooting. I would not say it replaces any of the other shooting interests in my life, but rather enhances them.

At seven or eight dollars a pop for good ammo it’s not something you shoot in the volume of an AR-15. But that’s not what it’s about. It’s about being able to reach across vast distances and deliver a big, heavy bullet with precision. But, it’s more than that. It’s about unleashing the raw power of this big cartridge. Like one spectator said, “that was as much fun as I have ever had shooting and I didn’t even pull the trigger.”

It gives me an understanding why so many anti-gun people want to ban these rifles. Shooting them is raw fun, and no good liberal ever wants anybody to have fun. But, I’ll tell you something else, these guns are freedom. When you pull that trigger for the first time and experience a .50 BMG up close and personal, your life will change. You will finally understand the importance of freedom. We are living in one of the few places in the world that Joe Average can have this experience. Let’s keep it that way.

COMMENT