As I went to pick up the AR-50 from its owner, my friend Marty, I was a bit uneasy about actually lifting the thing into my truck. I’d read other reviews and had watched videos about this beast of a gun. As I walked into his store and saw the rifle leaning against a file cabinet, I immediately knew my instincts had been correct. This WAS a beast – it was huge. It was just almost as tall as I am and weighed almost 35 pounds. I was, to put it in a word, trepidatious…
I picked it up – very slowly – and right then began to wonder just exactly how I was going to get this thing to fit on my shooting bench. I thought I might have to extend it a bit with 2x4s or something similar in order to get the rifle on it. Anyway, the shooting bench issue was a non-starter…we used a lightweight folding-leg table (whose rear legs folded up when we shot the rifle the first time…fixed that and was good to go).
The way it’s built, you don’t just pick it up under the receiver like you would most rifles and tote it around. The older I get, the more weights bother me – rather, it’s the lifting of those weights that bothers me. This is a weight. I have heard that no crime has ever been committed that utilized a .50BMG rifle – they’re just too darn big and heavy. Don’t know if that’s true, but I could believe it… Lifting the barrel alone seems to feel about like lifting the front end of my brother’s 1973 VW Bug – OK, I jest but a thirty-inch barrel 1 5/8” around is heavy, especially with that monster of a muzzle brake attached.
Anyway, let’s look at this rifle and the company that builds it. We’ll examine the company (ArmaLite) in some detail, look at the rifle, and then look at a short video of us shooting it as we talk about that. We’ll end with a look at the much-respected .50 caliber cartridge.
Here’s a quick guide:
- The Company
- The Rifle
- Shooting The Beast and the .50BMG Round
The Company – ArmaLite
The ArmaLite company was founded in the 1950s in Hollywood , California. Its first product in 1952 was the AR-1 (Armalite Rifle 1), which was one of the first rifles to use a foam-filled fiberglass stock and an aluminum barrel with a steel liner. It was called the “Parasniper.” The company then became part of Fairchild Engine and Airplane Corporation. It also, at that time, submitted a survival rifle design that was adopted by the U.S. Air Force. It was short, light and chambered in .22 Hornet. That rifle, the AR-5, was designated the MA-1.
In 1956, former Marine and Army Ordnance Technician Eugene Stoner guided the development of the AR-10 in answer to a request from the military for a rifle to replace the M1 Garand. He came up with this rifle in 7.62×51 (.308), but the military powers-that-were requested it in a smaller caliber. Hence the birth of the 5.56×45 (.223) AR15. It is interesting to note that the AR-7 (a civilian version of the Air Forces’ survival rifle) was offered to consumers at this time – ArmaLite’s first civilian rifle.
Around 1960, the full-auto AR-18 was created with an eye for receiving a government contract for its procurement. Civilian sales were climbing, so a semi-auto version of the gun, the AR-180, was introduced.
In 1967, the Howa Machinery Company of Nagoya, Japan started production of the AR-18. It placed the stipulation that the rifle could only be sold to non-combatant nations (this was during the Vietnam War, remember), and none to Asian countries. So, the rifle couldn’t be exported to the U.S. ArmaLite set up a factory in Costa Mesa in mid-1968 to build them over here. The Japanese finally eased restrictions and allowed the semi-auto version to be brought over. So, by the late 1970s, U.S. production was ended.
The Philipine Connection
Around 1980, the company was sold to the Elisco Tool Manufacturing Company which was located in the Philippines. Long story short…the political climate and other factors caused the company to fold, with no AR-18s produced. Another blow to ArmaLite was that, since Eugene Stoner’s original patents had expired, Karl Lewis and Jim Glazier formed a company called Eagle Arms in Illinois in 1986. They were legally able to make AR-15/M-16 parts. In 1986, they started producing completed rifles, the EA-15.
The AR-50 And A Pistol…
In the years between the 1980s and late 1990s, the ArmaLite company introduced the M-15, in direct competition to Colt’s trademarked AR-15. They also worked more on the .308 AR-10. In 1998, the company introduced a .50BMG bolt-action rifle, the AR-20. They later changed the 20 to 50 to designate the caliber.
In 2006, ArmaLite contracted with the large Turkish company Sarsilmaz to import a series of four CZ-75-type 9mm pistols. These were fairly successful, and sold pretty well. It was the first ArmaLite-branded handgun.
In 2013, the company was purchased by Strategic Armory Corps and celebrated 60 years of company history. The product line was expanded to meet consumers’ demand. The Eagle brand was also revived with the introduction of an entry-level M-15 rifle. By 2016, ArmaLite was seeing some of its greatest growth and record sales. This was spurred, at least partially, by the election cycle of that year. And, in 2017, Strategic Armory Corps (ArmaLite) was purchased again by a new owner and moved to Phoenix, Arizona from its Geneseo, Illinois location. It is positioned to this day to be a successful arms maker, which says a lot after all the growing pains it went through.
Let’s look at the AR-50, now that we know where it came from and its technological “lineage.” The rifle is a fairly simple affair – a single-shot bolt-action behemoth that weighs almost 35 pounds. We’ll talk about shooting it later. Here are some photos…
This thing really works! It is, in a word, massive. It vents gases to the rear and side, thereby pulling the rifle forward when you shoot it. This lessens felt recoil but creates a large area of “blast”…more on this later.
Muzzle brake ports, from behind off to one side. Look how big the blast deflector is – that is necessary with this rifle.
You can move the butt pad up or down, along with the cheek piece. I had no trouble shooting it left-handed. The safety tab is behind the bolt handle. Up for Safe, down for Fire.
This photo doesn’t even show the whole AR-50 bolt – the three locking lugs are hidden. These lugs are very large and thick, as they need to be.
The blast folded the table legs the first shot – we fixed them.
Let’s look at some specs before going on…
Specs (from ArmaLite’s website and my notes)
|Caliber:||.50BMG (Browning Machine Gun)|
|Barrel:||30 inches, chrome moly, 1:15 twist. I measured it at 1 5/8 inches diameter. This is a heavy-barreled rifle for sure. It uses a V-shaped receiver bottom-bedded firmly when the action screws are tightened, and is free-floated in front of an octagonal receiver (see photo above)|
|Muzzle Device:||Multi-flute recoil device|
|Stock:||3-Section - Extruded Fore End, Machined Grip with Vertical Grip, Removable Buttstock (not adjustable, just removable)|
|Finish:||Hard Anodized Aluminum, Manganese Phosphated Steel (a form of parkerizing)|
|Weight:||34.1 pounds (the one I shot had a scope which brought the weight up to 34.8 pounds)|
|Overall Length:||49.8", Butt Stock Removed / 58.5" Extended|
|Front Sight:||Modified Octagonal Form, Grilled, and Slotted for MIL-STD 1913 Scope Rail With Boss to Engage Cross-Slot on Receiver|
|Bolt:||Triple-locking lug, “floating”– the piece that holds the locking lugs “floats” within the bolt body itself, helping with recoil|
|Ejector:||Spring Loaded Plunger, Auto-Ejection|
|Trigger:||Shilen Standard Single Stage, Approximately 5lb|
|Included:||15-Minute Sight Base, Ear Plugs, Owner's Manual|
|Options:||front bipod, rear monopod|
|MSRP:||$3359 (out of stock as of this writing from ArmaLite)|
|Real-World Price:||between $3000-$3500|
This rifle is big, as you would expect a .50BMG bolt gun to be. It has to be. The AR-50 is positioned about in the middle of the .50 cal bolt offerings, with guns like the Noreen ULR, Serbu BFG-50 and a few others coming in at a lower cost and the Barretts going for more. You can spend anywhere from about $1800 up to over $6000 for a bolt-action .50. The AR-50 seems to fill the midpoint niche very well.
It is a single shot, so there is no magazine to contend with. If you want more than one shot available in less time than it takes to slide another .50 cartridge into the chamber, you may want to do a mental “check” about why you need that…rogue elephants stampeding? The one-at-a-time works well for informal shooting or competition. I can understand why military SpecOps might need five or more rounds handy, but believe me, for us civilians once you uncross your eyes and pat your hair back down after the trigger pull, you probably won’t be in that great of hurry to do it very fast again. (You might notice on the video below a slight “jump” when the gun goes off on some shots by the other shooters – that’s me holding the camera and trying to keep it steady…worked well right up until the trigger was pulled).
The gun ships with a 15-MOA sight base rail. That means that the base is tilted up 15-MOA to help in long-distance shooting. Some guys want a 30- or even 50-MOA…you can get one, from what I could find out. After all, with a round that’s good to a mile or more, you want all the help you can get built into the gun in terms of sighting. The gun I shot had a large scope on it. To be honest, I didn’t pay much attention to the scope as it was set up for someone else and was WAY off when we shot it. I can see, though, with the right optic properly sighted in, the gun easily hitting paper plates at 500 yards or more.
As you can see in the photos above, the bolt is massive. Compare it to my Savage .243 bolt – looks like a toy next to it. I had a tough time getting the bolt “home” when getting ready to fire. I just got used to hitting it with the palm of my hand, sliding it forward. Another sticky point – lowering the bolt handle into battery. Again, force was needed to do that but it was no big deal. After the shot, you just get used to whacking the handle upwards to free up the locking lugs so you can retract the bolt.
“Benchresting” The Rifle
Hmmm…how to shoot this thing… Obviously we needed to shoot from a bench, since I couldn’t hold a 35-pound rifle that’s taller than a 7th grader in the offhand position and crank one off… if I could do that, I wouldn’t need a jack to change a tire-I’d just pick the car up. So, I improvised a bench of sorts by using a folding-leg table (photos above). The fore end was suitably flat, so it sat on my improvised front rest (wooden blocks screwed together – I use this setup for all kinds of shooting. It works for both long guns and handguns). The rifle was slid forward until the bipod mounting lug hit the front edge of the wooden block, then it was good to go. To round it out, another wooden block was placed, along with a bag, under the butt stock/trigger area. This system worked well for the rifle at the angle we needed. I shot the gun, along with all four of my sons.
The Adjustable Butt Stock
If you look at the photos above, you’ll notice a prominent cheek piece sticking up on the left side of the butt stock. This is adjustable, but not enough for me – I need it on the right side of the gun, being left-handed. I thought it might be a problem or maybe even painful as the edge of the cheekpiece hit my jaw on recoil but I was wrong. I noticed no discomfort at all with my cheek against its edge. Also, the height of the cheekpiece and the butt pad are both adjustable so you can set it up however you want. The only thing you can’t adjust is length of pull. The butt stock is removable for transportation but always goes in the same place when mounted on the gun. I want to encourage you lefties out there to try one if you’re in the market…it was very friendly to me. The rifle fit well and was a joy to shoot. Speaking of shooting…
Shooting The Beast
Here’s where writing articles like this gets interesting. We’ve gotten past the company history, the specs, the features of the rifle…now for the shootin’ part!
A Kinder, Gentler .50
…to paraphrase our former President. This gun was literally a joy to shoot. I will talk a bit about the history of the famous .50BMG cartridge later, but suffice it to say that anytime you move a 700-plus-or-minus-grain bullet out of a 30-inch barrel at around 2700 f.p.s, there’s gonna be a price to pay…so says no less of an authority than Isaac Newton, whose Third Law of Motion states that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. I know this isn’t news to you shooters out there – you experience this every time you pull whatever trigger you’re behind at that time – but it is mitigated somewhat by the weight of the gun and its muzzle brake.
Minimizing The Recoil
The weight of the gun really helps cut the recoil (recoil comparison vs. the .338 Lapua Mag), but the muzzle brake (pictured again)…
…is the real hero here. Notice the two forward “ports” that direct the gases out and back. This serves to “pull” the rifle forward upon firing, yielding the result of less felt recoil. The large “wings” behind the ports are blast deflectors. This ensures that the escaping gases and any blast effects are kept away from the shooter. Put simply: it works.
OK, So How Much DOES It Kick?
For those out there who’ve never shot a .50BMG round, I’ll just say that the blast and noise are TRULY impressive. With this gun, blast effects depend on where you are in relationship to the gun. If you are on the trigger, you feel very little blast. If you are off to the side or behind the shooter, your hair will get parted. The concussion is amazing. Having never been in the military (something I regret), I was exposed to very few guns when I was growing up – mom didn’t like ‘em – and it was only when I was an adult that I started my shooting/reloading hobbies. So, I had never experienced anything more than a centerfire rifle’s/shotgun’s recoil and concussion. This gun really got my attention when someone else was shooting it. I’m sure those of you out there who’ve shot a .50 before know what I mean and may even be a bit amused at my naivete concerning how much blast this round generates, but to me it was something I won’t soon forget. One small example – we’d placed the turret’s reticle adjustment caps inside a wooden box that we were using for a rear rest. One shot brought them up and out of that box, through the air into the grass. They were stored nowhere near the muzzle, and were inches deep in a box. Needless to say, anything on the table that was our “bench” was gone with the shot, swept off as cleanly as if we’d taken a broom to it. The grass, garden and other areas around the gun for about 30 yards were laid low with the shot before bouncing back. The recoil… The recoil is less than that of my son’s Savage .308. Yup, you read it right – less than a .308! I had read that before about other .50 BMG bolt guns but found it hard to believe. Between the gun’s weight, the VERY thick butt pad and that huge, welder’s-nightmare-of-a-muzzle brake up front, the recoil was downright pleasant.
I Can(‘t) See Clearly Now
The gun’s owner, my friend Marty, told me to adjust the scope, as he had really never shot the gun and knew the scope was set up for the previous owner. Long story short, we would’ve used up our ammo just sighting it in (hard to bore-sight this thing), so we just moved the steel plates we were shooting at in closer, from 100 yards to about 25. (I don’t have access to a 1000-yard range that would really suit this rifle). Even so, we had to hold at a low 5 o’clock in order to hit at a low 12 o’clock…about a foot each, down and right. We were just busting steel, so no points or paper targets were involved but it was still a guessing game of Kentucky windage (and elevation) in order to get the rounds into steel.
Inch-thick steel (bottom), half-inch (white), both with front side towards camera…all rounds went through the white plate, and most through the inch piece…notice the holes above, the way the steel is curled outwards. Truly impressive. There WERE a few that didn’t make it through the inch piece, and even left parts of the bullet. The armor-piercers had no trouble with this. When a round generates between 10,000 and 15,000 foot pounds of energy like the .50BMG does, there’s not much it can’t do within its limits.
Now is as good a place as any to insert the video compilation I made – it’s less than a minute but will give you an idea of what happens when you pull the trigger…
That last shot was by one of my sons. What caused the sparks, etc.? An armor-piercing incendiary round. A word or two about the .50BMG round is in order…
Here is the assortment of ammo that we shot:
…now, here is a screenshot of the various .50BMG rounds out there…
So, you can see we had an assortment of rounds to shoot. None of it was commercial – this was all military stuff, except for two match reloads. As you can see by comparing our ammo to the above, we had plain ball, armor-piercing incendiary tracer, and armor-piercing incendiary. There was even one tracer round in the middle of the linked ammo – couldn’t get it out to shoot it. (If you are looking for new factory ammo, here’s a good place to start).
It’s no wonder that we created sparks and more…the incendiary rounds are designed to set fire to whatever they go through…like a gas tank on an armored vehicle or airplane. Armor-piercing rounds can cut through three-quarters of an inch or so of regular steel at over 500 yards (according to specs), and then kill whatever’s behind it. I’ve seen videos of Taliban hiding behind a substantial concrete block wall that were hit with this type of round and were…neutralized, to put it politely. I’m sure many of you former or active military readers out there can vouch for the .50’s effectiveness, much more so than I can…if so, thank you for your service! So…where did this wonder round come from?
In the late 1910s, legendary gun designer John Browning was experimenting with a larger, upscaled round based on the .30-06. He was looking for an improved anti-aircraft weapon during WWI and for later conflicts. (He was also responsible for the venerable M1911 pistol and its .45 ACP cartridge. Both the 1911 pistol and the .50BMG are still used, after 108 and 98 years respectively. He knew what he was doing).
He designed the round and then scaled up a machine gun (the 1917/1919) to shoot it. The military was interested (especially in armor-piercing and armor-piercing incendiary rounds). It wasn’t until November 11, 1918 that the machine gun, with Colt onboard to help in development, was tested and completed. Ironically, that was the day WWI ended officially, so the gun was worked on and perfected. It was eventually named the M1921 Browning Machine Gun. That gun was developed further and was named the M2HB (heavy barrel). This gun has been with us since 1921 in one form or other and is affectionately referred to as the “Ma Deuce.“ During WWII, a lighter, shorter-barreled version was developed for aircraft use. This is truly a flexible platform, one that is still in use today to great effect.
We shot a few armor-piercing incendiary rounds – note the sparks in the video- and a few armor-piercing incendiary tracers, along with one or two “plain ol’ ordinary” ball rounds. The ammo was given to me, which is a good thing since (to the best of my knowledge) you can’t buy such rounds over the counter. I may be wrong… I’ve just never seen them for sale.
Seventy-Six And Still Going Strong
Another aspect of our shooting “donated” rounds was that of age. (Age of the rounds, not of me). As you can hopefully see in the photo below, head stamps from the fired rounds reveal where the round was made, and in what year. Some of these rounds date back to 1943 – made during WWII. That says something. No deterioration, no squib loads, no problems at all – just a heck of a big “boom!” when the trigger was pulled. This, and similar, ammo is sealed and is pretty impervious to humidity, heat, cold, etc … it still works.
We see in the headstamps above that these rounds were made in the following ammunition factories, in the given years:
- SL (St. Louis, Missouri, 1945)
- LC (Lake City-Independence, Missouri, 1945)
- DM (Des Moines, Iowa, 1943 & 1945)
- TW (Twin Cities, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 1953)
- (For a good reference about headstamps of cartridges made during WWII, go here).
So…what can we take from all this? Well, first of all, if you’ve not had the pleasure of shooting a .50BMG rifle, you need to try to do so. There is at least one organization dedicated to shooting the big fifty – one of them is the Fifty Caliber Shooters Association. They can get you started if you don’t know much about shooting such a gun. They sponsor competitions, as well. There’s a thought – shooting out to a mile…
To be honest, I’d always wanted to shoot a .50, but had not had the pleasure of that experience until a couple of days ago. Thanks to my friend Marty, my sons got to shoot it – for one of them, it’s off his “bucket list” now. We had fun, punching through some steel and watching the sparks go high. I’m sure my neighbors (one, no closer than a half mile and used to loud sounds coming from my direction) probably wondered what in the world I’d gotten hold of, to make that much noise. The hills that surround us just magnified the blast – it was great! Add in the lack of recoil, the minor “explosion” when the bullet hits and just the sheer huge scale of the whole thing – you could have a wonderful (if expensive) new hobby. Just make sure that, if you are backyard shooter like I am, that you have a suitable backstop. It takes a lot to stop this round, obviously. I live at the bottom of several ridges so we are surrounded by nothing but hills and trees, so I felt safe in shooting here.
I love to watch WWII movies and documentaries, and have always had an interest in warplanes of that era…the fifty-or-so plastic scale WWII airplane models I’d built and painted when I was a kid would testify to that. I am, to this day, in awe as I watch actual wing camera footage (no Hollywood special effects or C.G.I. there) on You Tube of Mustangs, Thunderbolts and Lightnings chewing up a train, enemy fighter or bomber or column of trucks with their six-or-more .50s. I can’t imagine the terror of those in those trucks or trains as they see our planes come in, guns blazing… Now I have a tiny bit of first-hand experience with this “King of the Cartridges”, the .50BMG…something I will never forget, nor will my sons. You have to try it! Share with us your experiences with the big .50 below in the comments section. Thanks for reading this!
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Mike has been a shooter, bullet caster and reloader for over 40 years. Never one to be satisfied with the status quo, he is often found at his reloading bench concocting yet another load. With a target range in his backyard and after 40 years of shooting, his knowledge of firearms and reloading is fairly extensive. He is married, with four sons and daughters-law and 8-and-counting grandkids.