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The .50 BMG cartridge is most well-known for its use in the M2 Browning Machine Gun, which has seen combat for almost 90 years.
The big .50 BMG has captured shooters' imaginations since its invention almost a hundred years ago. Through most of those years, the M2 "Ma Deuce" machine gun was its primary platform. The last thirty 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 .50 BMG.

My first-hand experience with the .50 BMG came at the 2004 Rocky Mountain Fifty Caliber Shooting Association's (RMFCSA) annual machine gun and .50 caliber shoot held in Cheyenne Wells Colorado as a fund-raiser for the local volunteer fire department. At the time, several of my shooting buddies had fifties. Once I saw the arc from a tracer launched at a target vehicle at 2000 yards, I was hooked. There's nothing 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 thirty-inch barrel will produce velocities between 2500 and 2850 fps depending on bullet and load. Standard FMJ "ball" ammunition is usually between 640 and 665 grains, while

Barrett's M33 ball smoked through these two tie plates with ease; the .50 BMG round is a formidable anti-materiel caliber.
specialized long-range "match" ammunition uses heavier bullets at 700 grains or heavier, to yield ballistic coefficient (bc) values just over 1.0. To really understand the long-range power of the .50 BMG, consider that the military "match" loading of .308 Winchester M118LR, goes subsonic around 1200 yards, while standard .50 BMG ball ammunition slows to the same speed at 1850 yards. At that distance, the 647-grain projectile still carries two and a half times the momentum of full-house .44 Magnum 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 2200 to 2600 yards. Wind drift values at 1000 yards are just about a third of the amount required for .308 shooting M118LR; every 10 mph cross drifts the bullet about three inches instead of almost ten.

Here are three big .50 BMG rifles, from top to bottom: Watsons Weapons "The Boss"; Safety Harbor SHF/R50; Ligamec Ultralite 50.
The Fifty Caliber Shooter Association was formed in 1985 to promote and protect the sporting uses of the .50 BMG. It holds a series of 1000-yard bench rest 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 to shoot the smallest group at 1000 yards with the big 50. The current world-record for five-shot groups is 2.600 inches, which Skip Talbot shot in 1999. Put in perspective, that's less than one-fourth of a minute of angle (moa)!

The appeal of the .50 BMG goes beyond just military and bench rest shooters. Many shoot a big 50 "just once" to try it. It's a common misconception that .50 BMG has terrible recoil. Modern fifties usually weigh between 25 and 40 pounds and have very efficient and effective muzzle brakes. 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 muzzle brakes work well, but they produce an extremely loud muzzle report and an area of overpressure blast. Once a shooter has had a visceral taste of what it's like to send a

While many shooters fear the recoil of .50 BMG, these big muzzle brakes tame the recoil to about the push of a 12 gauge shotgun; however, they enhance the muzzle blast.
650-grain bullet hundreds or thousands od yards down range and see it smash into a target, his appetite has been whet 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 $5000. In the last ten years, there has been an explosion in the numbers of .50 BMG options under $3500. 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 an AR-15 "upper", meaning that they use the serial-numbered AR-15 lower receiver, fire control group, grip, and stock, 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 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

Watsons Weapons "The Boss" uses a high-rise AR-15 receiver and mates with any AR-15 lower; however, the action must be broken open to reload.
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 1000 or even 2000 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 over 50 moa elevation at 1500 yards, and between 70 and 80 at 1800 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. For a full discussion of long-range scope wants and needs, see "Don't Skimp on the Scope!", Shotgun News 6 August 2007.

Scopes in use on .50 BMG rifles generally fall into three categories: entry, mid-range, 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 under about $350.

To load Watson's "The Boss", insert a cartridge into the bolt head and screw the bolt into the receiver.
In the mid range, 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 (over 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 U.S. Optics. S&B is known for its German precision and optical clarity and recently its 3-12x50 model became the new USMC sniper scope. U.S. 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 $2300 to 3100 for a 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 Watsons Weapons Inc; the Ligamec Ultralite 50; and the SHF/R50 from Safety Harbor Firearms. These range in price from $1349 to $2450 and present a variety of choices in features.

The Burris XTR 3-12x50 mm scope has about 90 total moa of elevation, 15 moa per turn in one-fourth moa clicks.
Barrett generously donated their M33 ammunition so we could get some rounds down-range 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 2750 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 fifty is unmatched for putting lead on target.

Larry Watson was one of the first to offer a .50 BMG AR-15 "upper" which dropped 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 take-down pin pushed back into position, and the rifle is ready to fire. This is somewhat cumbersome, but

The Ligamec Ultralite 50 is a single-shot bolt-action upper which fits on a dedicated AR-15 lower receiver.
represents the industry's first effort at building a .50 BMG upper compatible with a standard AR-15 lower. Watson includes an auxiliary hammer spring to aid ignition of the big 50 primers and an extended rear take-down pin to make it easier to break the action open.

The Watsons Weapons upper came with a 32-inch barrel, of a thick 1.75-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 hard cases so it would fit inside. I added the extra-power hammer spring and extended rear take-down 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 2-stage, with the additional spring added. For a scope, I used the Burris XTR 3-12x50 mm which provides about 90 moa of total elevation in 0.25 moa clicks. Because the high-rise receiver rail does not reach any further forward than the receiver itself, I used the UBR stock because it can be extended longer than an A2 stock; this was required due to the rearward scope position. It's definitely important to make sure you have enough eye relief shooting the fifties. The Watsons Lothar-Walther barrel is free-floated and a swivel bipod is attached to its front end.

Shooting the Watsons upper was a pleasure due to the heavy mass of the barrel and the large, effective muzzle brake. The long barrel length also reduced the muzzle pressure and moved the blast further 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. Watsons'

I used a Leupold 3.5-10x40 mm Mark 4 M3 scope on the Ligamec; the M3 provides about 58 moa of elevation from the zero-stop in one moa clicks.
"The Boss" AR-15 upper can be swapped onto a regular AR-15 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, Watsons 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. Their Tactical model with a 30-inch bull barrel starts at $2250.

Next up is the Ultralite 50 from Ligamec Corporation. Ligamec was established in 1998 in Clearwater Florida to produce machine parts, and started .50 BMG upper production in 2004. The Ultralite is a single-shot bolt-action which fits on AR-15 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 1.25 inches in diameter at the muzzle; it is fitted with an effective muzzle brake. 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 hand-guard snugs it back against the upper receiver using threads cut on the barrel. The fixed-height non-swivel bipod was attached to

The Ultralite 50 was the only rifle of the three which could be shot off-hand; for fun, this shooter engages a target at about 30 yards.
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 Picatinny rail. Although the Ultralite 50 is available as an upper only and is not considered a firearm on its own, the test rifle came with a DPMS single-shot lower with an ACE stock and a 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 1 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 $1450.

Last but not least, 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 poor accuracy of the sample Ultralite 50 made making hits on even large steel targets at 870 yards difficult. yards
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 the way. The R50 does not use an AR-15 lower and it is considered a firearm on its own, unlike the uppers from Ligamec and Watsons 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 hand-guard.

I mounted a Nightforce 5.5-22x56 mm 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 0.25 moa clicks. Shooting and operating the R50 was 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 AR-15 trigger. Tagging an

BOOM! I used the Ultralite 50 as a "pick up gun" at a local three-gun match; here a shooter gets pummelled by its extreme muzzle blast.
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 $2450; however, it should be noted that they also produce a true AR-15 upper named the UltraMag 50 which is a single-shot very similar to the Ligamec Ultralite50. The UltraMag 50 sells for $1850.

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 fifty has a special place in American shooters' hearts and needs to always have a place on our firing lines.

The Safety Harbor SHF/R50 is a magazine-fed bolt-action repeater on a dedicated lower receiver.
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."

"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 4-14x50 mm Ultra Long Range Rifle scope is built in Romania using Schott glass from Germany. The scope body has a 40 mm main tube and has about 125 moa total elevation. The elevation knob is a big "many click" elevation turret with 25 moa per turn in one-fourth moa clicks for 100 clicks per turn. The entire travel range is realized in about five turns of the knob; however from

The SHF/R50 held consistent two to three moa at long range shooting the Barrett M33 ball ammunition, and did slightly better with my reloads.
a 100-yard zero, typical .50 BMG loads will make it to 1000 yards in less than one full turn (20 to 25 moa). Even with a common .308 Winchester 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 15.25 inches long and weighs 36 ounces.

The Nightforce 5.5-22x56 mm NXS scope is a favorite of .50 BMG shooters; it provides about 100 moa of total elevation, 10 moa per turn in one-fourth moa clics.
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. Like American scopes, the elevation knob turns counter-clockwise to go "up." The physical size and shape of the knobs was well suited to easy manipulation. Eye relief is 3.5 inches, and the scope was easy to look through due to its large exit pupil diameter, 3.6 mm at 14x. Doing an informal and unscientific comparison of its optics to U.S. 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 criticisms 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.

Sometimes you have to "go big." The US Optics SN3 (left) and IOR Valdada Ultra Long Range (right) use 35 mm or larger main tubes for durability and elevation travel, and both provide a large, many-click, elevation knob for ease of dialing dope.
Another of the "big scopes" is the U.S. Optics SN3, manufactured in Brea California. Each SN3 is made to order and there are many options available. The SN3 I have is a 3.8-22x44 mm model, with a 35 mm 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 ninety 0.1-mil clicks per turn. With about 2.5 turns available up from its zero stop, the scope has about 22.5 mils up elevation (77 moa) available for use. Compared to the IOR, the SN3 provides 9.0 mils (31 moa) in a single turn, which is more than sufficient to get to 1000 yards with most long-range calibers including .308 Winchester.

The big elevation knob on the IOR Ultra Long Range scope has about 125 moa total elevation in 25 moa per turn in one-fourth MOA clicks.
The reticle in my SN3 is a GAP mil-scale reticle, which has fine lines and hash marks every one-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 3.8-22x44 mm SN3 weighs 44 ounces and is 18 inches long.

I have shot several SN3 scopes for a few years and have concluded the following. First, the USO SN3 is currently the cream of the crop for US-made high-end long-range rifle scopes. Second, 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. Third, their 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 fifty 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.


Watson's Weapons
555 Apple Garden Rd.
Mound, MN 55364

Safety Harbor Firearms
P.O. Box 563
Safety Harbor, FL 34695

Ligamec Corp.
11419 Challenger Ave.
Odessa, FL 33556

Barrett Firearms
8211 Manchester Hwy
Murfreesboro, TN 37133

IOR Valdada
P.O. BOX 270095
Littleton, CO 80127

1040 Hazen Lane
Orofino, ID 83544

Burris Optics
331 East 8th Street
Greeley, CO 80631

US Optics
150 Arovista Circle
Brea, CA 92821