Budget Battle: Shooting .50-caliber Rifle Alternatives
December 27, 2017
The big .50 BMG has captured shooters' imaginations since its invention almost 100 years ago. Through most of those years the M2 Browning machine gun was its primary platform. However, the last 30 years have seen the potential of the .50 BMG round wrung out by both civilian and military long-range precision shooters. And it's fair to say we're in the golden age for the big .50 BMG.
My first experience with the .50 BMG came at the 2004 Rocky Mountain Fifty Caliber Shooting Association's (RMFCSA) annual machine-gun and .50-cal. shoot held in Cheyenne Wells, CO, as a fundraiser for a local volunteer fire department. At the time, several of my shooting buddies had .50s. Once I saw the arc from a tracer launched at a target vehicle 2,000 yards away, I was hooked. There's nothing else like shooting a .50 BMG.
Getting right to the numbers, standard .50 BMG bullets range from about 640 grains up to about 800 grains, and a 30-inch barrel will produce velocities between 2,500 and 2,850 fps depending on bullet and load. Standard FMJ ball ammunition is usually between 640 and 665 grains, while specialized long-range match ammunition uses heavier bullets at 700 grains or heavier, to yield ballistic coefficient (BC) values just over 1.0.
To understand the long-range power of the .50 BMG, consider that the military match loading of .308 Win. M118LR goes subsonic around 1,200 yards, while standard .50 BMG ball ammunition slows to the same speed at 1,850 yards. At that distance the 647-grain projectile still carries 2½ times the energy of full-house .44 Mag. at the muzzle, and that's using standard ball ammunition.
Long-range .50 BMG shooters use specialized bullets like the 750-grain Hornady A-Max or the solid monolithic bullets from Barnes and AAA-Ammo, with stratospheric BC values. Use of these bullets stretches the supersonic flight regime to 2,200 to 2,600 yards. Wind-drift values at 1,000 yards are just about a third of the amount required for .308 shooting M118LR; every 10mph crosswind drifts the bullet about three inches instead of almost 10.
The Fifty Caliber Shooters' Association (FCSA) was formed in 1985 to promote and protect the sporting uses of the .50 BMG. It holds a series of 1,000-yard benchrest matches around the country, which culminate in the .50 BMG Nationals every July at the NRA Whittington Center in Raton, NM. Shooters come from all over the country to try and shoot the smallest group at 1,000 yards with the big .50.
The appeal of the .50 BMG goes beyond just military and benchrest shooters. Many shoot the .50 "just once" to try it. It's a common misconception that .50 BMG has terrible recoil. Modern .50s usually weigh between 25 and 40 pounds and have very effective muzzlebrakes. These two factors together reduce the recoil to something more akin to the push from a 12-gauge shotgun than the hard recoil you might expect from a .300 Winchester Magnum in a light hunting rifle.
The big muzzlebrakes work well, but they produce an extremely loud report and an area of overpressure blast. Once a shooter has had a visceral taste of what it's like to send a 650-grain bullet hundreds or thousands of yards downrange and see it smash into a target, his appetite has been whetted and he must own one. If you find yourself in this position, what are your options?
It used to be that the price of admission to the .50 BMG club was a rifle starting at about $5,000. In the last 10 years there has been an explosion in the numbers of .50 BMG options under $3,500. Many of these rifles have simplified frame construction or are built like tube guns, and many are single-shot bolt actions.
In addition, many are designed as AR uppers, meaning that they use the serial-numbered lower receiver, fire-control group, grip and stock of an AR and provide a .50 BMG top end, usually in single-shot format. These have the advantage that they are not considered firearms themselves — the lower is — and thus they are easier to obtain.
Regardless of the rifle's cost, ammunition is a major expense. Reloads made of all-surplus pull-down components will run just under a dollar per shot, assuming your brass doesn't wear out. Match-grade reloads using new components and commercial powder are closer to $3.50, while factory match ammunition costs $5 to $6 per round. Your best bet is to find a local .50 BMG club, such as the RMFCSA here in Colorado, and get in on one of their bulk component orders.
Of course, a rifle capable of hitting targets at 1,000 or even 2,000 yards needs a serious scope. The most important factors are repeatability and total elevation travel available. Using a 100-yard zero, common .50 BMG loads need more than 50 MOA elevation at 1,500 yards and between 70 and 80 at 1,800 yards.
Even scopes that come with a lot of internal elevation should be mounted on an inclined scope base to take advantage of the erector's full range of movement.
Scopes in use on .50 BMG rifles generally fall into three categories: entry, midrange and high end. The most common entry-level scope is the Bushnell Elite 3200, which comes with some Barrett rifle kits. Another is the Tasco Super Sniper. These entry-level scopes sell for less than $350.
In the midrange, the most popular by far is the Nightforce NXS series. These scopes became popular with the long-range .50 BMG crowd because they offer a lot of elevation adjustment (more than 100 MOA in some models) and are rugged. Some Leupold LR/T models also fall in this category. At the high end, the two choices are Schmidt & Bender and US Optics. S&B is known for its German precision and optical clarity, and recently its 3-12x50mm model became a USMC sniper scope. US Optics is known for producing custom high-end rifle scopes, and many serious long-range shooters use the SN3 model. You can expect to pay $2,300 to $3,100 for an S&B or USO.
I got a chance to wring out three different entry-level .50 BMG rifles: The Boss AR-15 upper assembly from Watson's Weapons Inc., the Ligamec Ultralite 50 and the SHF/R50 from Safety Harbor Firearms. These range in price from $1,349 to $2,450 and present a variety of choices in features.
Barrett generously donated its M33 ammunition so we could get some rounds downrange with each of these rifles.
M33 ball is newly manufactured, full-power .50 BMG ammunition using a 661-grain FMJ bullet with a muzzle velocity of 2,750 fps from a 29-inch barrel. Barrett's ammunition is readily available and relatively affordable, a good choice for non-reloaders who want blasting ammunition. The big .50 is unmatched for putting lead on target.
Larry Watson was one of the first to offer a .50 BMG AR upper, which drops right onto any lower. His design uses an actual AR-15 upper receiver to contain the bolt, which screws into position. To load the rifle, you must break it open, unscrew the bolt, place a new round in the bolt head and screw the bolt back into battery.
Finally, the action is closed, the rear takedown pin is pushed back into position and the rifle is ready to fire. This is somewhat cumbersome, but it represents the industry's first effort at building a .50 BMG upper compatible with a standard AR lower.
Watson includes an auxiliary hammer spring to aid ignition of the big .50 primers and an extended rear takedown pin to make it easier to break open the action.
The Watson's Weapons upper came with a 32-inch barrel, of a thick 1¾-inch profile, which weighed 33 pounds with the lower and scope mounted. Because of its length, I had to cut a hole in the end of one of my hardcases so it would fit inside. I added the extra-power hammer spring and extended rear takedown pin to a spare lower I had in the safe and fitted it with a Magpul UBR stock and MIAD grip.
The trigger was a Rock River two-stage, with the additional spring added. For a scope, I used the Burris XTR 3-12x50mm, which provides about 90 MOA of total elevation in quarter-MOA clicks. Because the high-rise receiver rail does not reach any farther forward than the receiver itself, I used the UBR stock because it can be extended longer than an A2 stock, which was required due to the fairly rearward scope position. It's definitely important to make sure you have enough eye relief shooting the .50s. The Watson's Lothar-Walther barrel is free-floated, and a swivel bipod is attached to its front end.
Shooting the Watson's upper was a pleasure, thanks to the heavy mass of the barrel and the large, effective muzzlebrake. The long barrel also reduced the muzzle pressure and moved the blast farther away from the shooter's head, which means less concussive blast. Accuracy was two to three MOA with the Barrett M33 ammunition.
I expect that match-grade ammunition using bullets such as the 750-grain Hornady A-Max would group well in this heavy barrel. I give Larry credit for using a swivel bipod. It's a must when shooting from anything other than a level concrete pad. The Boss AR-15 upper from Watson's can be swapped onto a regular AR lower in a matter of minutes, turning your .223 rifle into a match-grade .50 BMG.
While The Boss is an older design with an inconvenient bolt arrangement, Watson's Weapons also sells custom and Tactical-model single-shot .50 BMG rifles using the same high-quality barrels but mated to a more modern action and stock design. Its Tactical model with a 30-inch bull barrel starts at $2,250.
Next up is the Ultralite 50 from Ligamec Corporation. Ligamec was established in 1998 in Clearwater, FL, to produce machine parts and started .50 BMG upper production in 2004. The Ultralite is a single-shot bolt action that fits on AR lowers. The bolt retracts into the receiver extension tube (buffer tube), and rounds can be single-loaded straight into the action's port.
The barrel on the Ultralite 50 is approximately 1¼ inches in diameter at the muzzle. It is fitted with an effective muzzlebrake. The barrel length on the test rifle was 18 inches. The Ultralite 50 does not have a free-floated barrel. A retaining nut in front of the handguard snugs it back against the upper receiver using threads cut on the barrel. The fixed-height, non-swivel bipod was attached to the bottom of the fore-end tube.
The Ultralite 50 uses two large bolt lugs to engage the receiver and lock the action closed for firing. Its upper receiver sports an elevated 1913 rail. Although the Ultralite 50 is available as an upper only and not considered a firearm on its own, the test rifle came with a DPMS single-shot lower with an ACE stock and thick recoil pad.
I fitted the 18-inch Ultralite 50 with a Leupold 3.5-10x40 mm Mark 4 M3 scope in Leupold rings. The M3 model provides about 58 MOA elevation from the zero stop in one turn using one-MOA clicks. Living up to its name, the Ultralite weighed in at 16.3 pounds including the bipod and Leupold scope. This is lighter than many .308 precision rifles and really light enough to carry.
Although the recoil was mild with the highly effective brake and recoil pad, the concussive blast from the short, 18-inch barrel can only be described as punishing. Accuracy of the Ultralite test rifle was disappointing, with 100-yard groups larger than four MOA. However, Ligamec owner Marcos Ruiz told me that this particular rifle was one of his older demonstration units and had many rounds through the barrel already. The Ultralite 50 upper alone is priced at $1,450.
Last but not least is the SHF/R50 from Safety Harbor Firearms. Initially a type 1 FFL, Safety Harbor got involved with production of the UltraMag 50 (UM50) .50 BMG upper conversion in 2003. The SHF/R50 started production in 2005 and has many of the same characteristics of the UM50. However, the SHF/R50 has its own dedicated fire-control group and includes the serial-numbered receiver.
The SHF/R50 is a magazine-fed bolt-action repeater with an interesting twist: The three- or five-round magazines connect to the receiver on the left-hand side, at the nine o'clock position viewed from the rear. This arrangement does not interfere with the fire-control group mounted under the bolt and allows a low prone position without a long magazine getting in the way.
The R50 does not use an AR lower, and it is considered a firearm on its own, unlike the uppers from Ligamec and Watson's Weapons. However, the vestigial lower module provides AR-15-like ergonomics and trigger pull. The test rifle came with a 22-inch barrel and weighed in at 21.6 pounds with the scope mounted. The R50 came with a fixed-height non-swivel bipod mounted to the handguard.
I mounted a Nightforce 5.5-22x56mm NXS scope to the R50. The Nightforce is a favorite for long-range and .50 BMG shooters because of the elevation travel and stout construction. It provides 100 MOA of total elevation in quarter-MOA clicks. Shooting and operating the R50 were more similar to other .50 BMG rifles than the other two rifles under test.
Accuracy with the Barrett M33 was just over two MOA. Recoil was mild, and the blast was not terrible due to the 22-inch barrel. The magazine fed reliably, and trigger pull was similar to a military M16 trigger. Tagging an armor-steel full-size IPSC plate at 870 yards time after time was easy, even for new shooters.
The only criticism I have of the R50 is that the metal finish in the action required a good coat of lube or it would seize up and the bolt would be extremely difficult to move. The Safety Harbor R50 is priced at $2,450. However, it should be noted that the company also produces a true AR-15 upper named the UltraMag 50, which is a single-shot very similar to the Ligamec Ultralite 50. The UltraMag 50 sells for $1,850.
The future of the .50 BMG rests in our hands. Anti-gun politicians have been trying to get it banned for years. Be sure to support the various .50 BMG clubs around the country and stay politically active so future ban proposals are defeated. The big .50 has a special place in American shooters' hearts and needs to always have a place on our firing lines.
There has never been a better time to buy a .50 BMG. Although ammunition and components are going up in price, there are more affordable rifles and conversion kits today than ever before. If you've been thinking about buying one, now is a great time to pull the trigger.
Big Scopes for Big Rifles
"Go Large" might as well be America's motto, and the .50 BMG fits right in with this crowd. If you've picked up one of the big rifles, it feels kind of wrong to mount a dinky scope. Here are a couple choices for big scopes, built with larger-than-normal-diameter tubes to extend the elevation travel range and increase strength due to mechanics. And let's face it: They look manly.
The IOR Valdada 4-14x50mm Ultra Long Range Rifle scope is built in Romania using Schott glass from Germany. The scope body has a 40mm main tube and about 125 MOA total elevation. The elevation knob is a big "many click" elevation turret with 25 MOA per turn in quarter-MOA clicks, for 100 clicks per turn.
The entire travel range is realized in about five turns of the knob. However, from a 100-yard zero typical .50 BMG loads will make it to 1,000 yards in less than one full turn (20 to 25 MOA). Even with a common .308 Win. load, staying within one turn may provide enough elevation for 950 yards. With a 30-MOA inclined base, the scope will have about 90 MOA elevation available for use.
The reticle in the scope I received had a second-focal-plane MP-8 reticle, which has a floating center dot and mil hash marks, with enough for up to 10 mils of elevation holdover. Due to the second-focal-plane setup, the reticle only subtends accurately at 10X magnification. The reticle center is illuminated by a rheostat for adjustable brightness, much like the Leupold design. The scope is 15¼ inches long and weighs 36 ounces.
I didn't get a chance to shoot the 4-14x50 mm Ultra Long Range scope, so my feedback is limited. The scope feels substantial and well built. The knob clicks are well defined and firm. As with American scopes, the elevation knob turns counterclockwise to go up. The physical size and shape of the knobs were well suited to easy manipulation.
Eye relief is 3½ inches, and the scope was easy to look through, thanks to its large exit pupil diameter, 3.6mm at 14X. Doing an informal and unscientific comparison of its optics to US Optics and S&B scopes, the big IOR was at least in the same ballpark, though I thought not quite as clear as the S&B.
The only criticism of the features of the scope I can offer is that it ought to be in a first-focal-plane configuration, the angular units of the reticle should match the knob clicks (mils vs. mils or MOA vs. MOA) and it would be convenient for the elevation knob to have a physical zero-stop mechanism.
Another of the big scopes is the US Optics SN3, manufactured in Buena Park, CA. Each SN3 is made to order, and there are many options available. The SN3 I have is a 3.8-22x44mm model with a 35mm-diameter main tube. The reticle and click units are both based on mils instead of being mixed MOA and mils.
The scope has USO's many-click EREK elevation knob, which provides 90 .1-mil clicks per turn. With about 2½ turns available up from its zero stop, the scope has about 22½ mils up elevation (77 MOA) available for use. Compared to the IOR, the SN3 provides nine mils (31 MOA) in a single turn, which is more than sufficient to get to 1,000 yards with most long-range calibers, including .308 Win.
The reticle in my SN3 is a GAP mil-scale reticle, which has fine lines and hash marks every half-mil. Under the reticle center, 10 mils below center are marked for using reticle holdover. The reticle is configured in the first focal plane, which means it correctly demarcates the mil units at any magnification setting.
With matching mil knobs, the shooter can easily dial corrections spotted in the scope and freely interchange dialing elevation and using the reticle for elevation and windage correction. The entire reticle is lit by an adjustable-brightness dial on the left-hand side of the scope. The 3.8-22x44mm SN3 weighs 44 ounces and is 18 inches long.
I have shot several SN3 scopes for a few years and come to the following conclusions. First, the USO SN3 is currently the cream of the crop for U.S.-made high-end long-range riflescopes. They are built like tanks, and you can request exactly what knob units, reticle, objective lens diameter and even what scope tube size you want.
The optical clarity is excellent, neck-and-neck with the German Schmidt & Bender. The most common complaint about the SN3 on large-caliber long-range rifles is that the eye relief is a little shorter and the exit pupil a little smaller than some of its competitors.
Each shot with the big .50 costs a few dollars. For the shooter who wants to make hits at long range, spending money on a scope worthy of the task is a smart investment. Take a look at these big beefy scopes for a good match to your big rifle.