For me, the most fascinating news reports out of Iraq and Afghanistan are stories about the successful extreme long-range shots by our boys in camo. I read today about a Canadian team in Afghanistan making a confirmed kill at 2,670 yards. That's a mile and a half, give or take 30 yards. I can't even see a bus at a mile and a half, let alone a man-size target.
All of these reports have one thing in common: The sniper reached out and touched the enemy with a .50 caliber sniper rifle.
I shoot precision tactical rifle matches with a .308 tactical rifle out to ranges of 1,000 yards. Sometimes I hit the 1,000-yard target, sometimes I miss. So I can appreciate what kind of skill it takes to make a 2,600-yard shot.
I love rifles. So when the editors of POLICE called me and offered me an assignment covering .50 cal rifles for law enforcement, I jumped all over it. But then I started to think about it. What use is there for a .50 caliber precision rifle in law enforcement? After all, most of the precision rifle shots taken by law enforcement tactical teams in the United States are at a range of 60 yards or less. Why on earth would we need a rifle that's accurate out to 45 times that distance? On top of that, the trend in precision rifles over the last few years is going smaller and lighter. Hence the upsurge in "light tacticals" being purchased and deployed by departments nationwide.
In pursuit of the answers to these questions, I called a friend. Robbie Barrkman owns The Robar Companies in Phoenix. He is a former South African military sniper who has seen the elephant both literally and figuratively, and he builds some of the finest and most accurate tactical rifles available anywhere in the world. Being skeptical, I asked him if there really is a use for a .50 cal in a law enforcement tactical team's arsenal?
With his clipped South African accent, Barrkman answered, "You idiot, haven't I taught you anything over the years? Of course there is. As I recall you do have an airport there in your town. You have a huge bay with all kinds of ships and boats coming in, don't you? You've got freeways with trucks, buses, and cars on them. Why would you ask a question like that?"
Barrkman makes a convincing argument. When you have a target such as an aircraft on the ground that you need to disable, the simple fact is many times you cannot get close enough to it to accomplish your mission with typical law enforcement calibers. The greater the distance, the more energy is used up by the bullet crossing that distance. So, for example, when a .308 gets to a distant target-say, an aircraft, a half mile down the tarmac-it doesn't have the power to disable an engine. The .50 has the power to cover that distance and hit hard. It's a highly specialized law enforcement tool. Surely you wouldn't use it on every deployment, but when you need a .50 caliber rifle, you really need one.
Law enforcement's posture has drastically changed over the last two years. We still are charged with performing the traditional tasks we have been charged with since inception. But now Homeland Security issues are making us rethink our needs, procedures, and equipment. If we have to stop a bus that doesn't want to stop; or a boat on our bays and rivers; or keep that Cessna from taking off, we don't have the luxury of waiting for the military to respond with special weapons anymore. More and more, it's up to us to act.
The people we serve expect it, and rightfully so.
The following is a guide to some popular .50 caliber sniper rifles marketed to law enforcement:
Armalite’s AR-50 can fire the .50 BMG cartridge and, with modification, the even more powerful Russian 12.7mm cartridge.
Armalite's AR-50 is chambered for the .50 caliber Browning Machine Gun (BMG) cartridge, but it can be built to accept the more powerful Russian 12.7mm cartridge. The AR-50 features a unique stock made largely of aluminum, and the forend is extruded with a V cross section that mates with an octagonal receiver. Its buttstock includes a vertically adjustable butt pad and adjustable cheek rest to reduce wear and tear on the shooter. Another comfort issue with the AR-50 is its weight. At 41 pounds the AR-50's sheer mass absorbs much of the recoil of the powerful .50 BMG cartridge. Shorter and lighter versions are in development.
The Barrett 82A1 is one of the most popular .50 cal sniper rifles.
For many people, Barrett and .50 BMG precision rifle are synonymous. With good reason. The Barrett Model 82A1 is the grandfather of modern .50 caliber sniper rifles. Also, Barrett tends to be the .50 cal sniper rifle that you see in combat footage of recent wars. Recently, the U.S. Army selected a Barrett design as the new heavy sniper rifle, and the company has ongoing R&D contracts for the development of product improvements to enhance the capability of fielded equipment with the U.S. Army and U.S. Marine Corps.
Barrett makes four .50 caliber rifles, including the semi-automatic Model 82A1, and bolt-action models 95, 99, and 99-1.
The Model 82A1 rifle gained worldwide popularity after pioneering the return of shoulder-fired, big-bore rifles for shooting enthusiasts. As a result of its unique operating cycle, the M82A1 easily fires the largest commercially available cartridge in the world, with comparatively little recoil.
Barrett's Model 95 is a great rifle for shooting enthusiasts or law enforcement applications requiring a smaller, lightweight .50 caliber rifle. The 95's bullpup design results in a compact rifle with no sacrifice on accuracy or velocity thanks to its cryogenically treated 29-inch barrel. Recoil is reduced by the dual-chamber muzzle brake and specially designed recoil pad.
The Barrett Model 99 Big Shot Rifle is the latest addition to the Barrett family, and it has captured the attention of long-range .50 caliber shooters worldwide. What makes the Big Shot unique is its aluminum alloy receiver with cantilevered barrel and multi-lug bolt design. Also, the exterior of the barrel is unfluted to maximize the rigidity and accuracy of the system.
Another variant of the Model 99 is the Model 99-1. The Model 99-1 is 4 pounds lighter than the standard Model 99 Big Shot due to a shorter, fluted barrel.
The author kicks up some dust with an EDM Arms Windrunner. All Windrunner rifles are available in .50 BMG and .408 Chey-Tac.
The Windrunner M98 Tactical Takedown is a bolt-action, magazine-fed rifle chambered for the .50 BMG cartridge. This 32-inch long rifle can be taken down into five pieces or assembled, without any tools, in less than one minute. EDM Arms guarantees one Minute of Angle (M.O.A.) at 1,000 yards with match grade or RAUFOSS ammunition. The gun weighs 34 pounds and collapses into a very small and inconspicuous package.
EDM's Windrunner SA99 Takedown is a bolt-action, single-shot rifle chambered for the .50 BMG. This rifle also breaks down into five pieces and shares many of the features of the Windrunner Model 98, without the magazine well and the magazine.
All Windrunner rifles are also available in the .408 Chey-Tac cartridge. The .408 Chey-Tac is accurate and effective to 2,000 yards and beyond. It is still supersonic at 2,000 yards. Additionally, EDM makes a Windrunner in .338 Lapua Magnum.
The Hecate II is all business, with its aircraft aluminum receiver, three-lug bolt, overpressure vent holes, and match grade barrel.
FN's Hecate II is appropriately named after the benefactor of malevolent sorceresses and the queen of restless ghosts and other nasty creatures of the night. It's an all-business precision .50 caliber rifle.
The Hecate II is structured around a very rigid central metallic girder. Its high- quality 7075 aircraft-grade aluminum receiver holds a three-lug bolt and overpressure vent holes, and the match grade barrel is full floating and fitted with a high-efficiency muzzle break.
One interesting feature of the Hecate II is its modular design. Many tactical rifles are comprised of a barreled action "bedded" in a stock. Any change to the barrel, action, stock, or trigger group requires separating the action from the stock. Upon reassembly, this can have an adverse effect on point of impact. The Hecate II and FN's Nemesis components or "modules" are interchangeable within their FN family. This means a shooter can change calibers by purchasing a new barrel, bolt, and magazine.