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 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.
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 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.
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.[PAGEBREAK]
L.A.R.'s Grizzly is a single-shot, breach-loading, bolt-action, bullpup- style .50 caliber rifle. It is 45.5 inches in length and weighs 30.4 pounds. The 36-inch 1:15 twist heavy barrel has a compensator that makes the recoil feel like less than the recoil of a 12-gauge shotgun. The receiver is made of 4140 alloy steel. The bolt is 4340 alloy steel.
The Robar Companies enjoy an international reputation as one of the world's leaders in precision rifles. Robar guarantees a rifle of uncompromising accuracy and reliability. It doesn't sell off-the-shelf, take-it-or-leave-it rifles. Each weapon is built to the customer's needs and specifications.
The Robar RC50 and RC50-F are the lightest .50 caliber rifles available today. They weigh only 25 pounds but have the lightest recoil on any rifle of comparable size. The action is machined from solid bar stock on state-of-the-art CNC machines. The company says this ensures the highest quality action available, and it backs up that statement in open shooting competitions.
Serbu Firearms makes machine guns, suppressors, short-barreled shotguns, gadget guns, even things that just look like guns, and .50 cal sniper rifles. As you may imagine, this work is done for the alphabet soup government agencies. Don't ask them about it or someone will have to kill you.
The Serbu BFG-50 is constructed using the most modern manufacturing methods. It is made from the highest quality MIL-spec alloy steels. The safety factors to which all the critical parts are designed are very high; more than double what you might find in a typical production military rifle. Yet, the BFG-50 is very competitively priced.
A Mechanical engineer designed the BFG-50 for safety and solid performance. All highly stressed parts are made from MIL-spec, certified materials and are heat treated by a certified process. To ensure safety in the field, each gun is proof tested (fired with an overpressured cartridge of 65,000 psi instead of the nominal 55,000 psi) and then Magnafluxed per an ASTM specification in order to check for defects before it is shipped.
Buying a .50
The .50 caliber BMG rifle is a highly specialized tool, and the cartridge fired is huge in comparison to what most of us are familiar with. Bullet weight varies, but a 750-grain projectile is about the norm. And when you compare that to a typical .308 police precision rifle round of 168 grains or a .223 round of 60 grains, it gives you a little perspective on just how much power the .50 BMG wields. If you or your department is entertaining the thought of acquiring a .50 BMG rifle, here are a few issues you should consider.
Caliber .50 BMG rifles take a lot of engineering and a lot of materials in order to build them properly. The cost for a good rifle of this caliber runs anywhere between $3,000 and $10,000, not including the optics. In comparison, a typical police precision rifle in .308 caliber will run in the $2,500 range, including the optics.
These are very heavy guns. They weigh between 30 and 45 pounds. This is not a weapon for every tactical deployment. You don't want your tactical operators humping one of these over fences and up into trees.
As mentioned previously, the .50 BMG is a big bullet, and it takes a great deal of powder to launch this round down range. We can never get past the physics of these weapons. However, most available .50s these days have efficient muzzle breaks or compensators. But even with muzzle breaks in place, the first time you light one of these babies off is like an IV of quadruple-shot espresso. It will stand your hairs right up on their tips.
You can't hit what you can't see, and you can only see so far. These are easily 1,000-yard guns and many mentioned in this article can reach out to 2,000 yards and beyond. The optics you put on the .50 BMG will make the difference between being able to make a well-placed shot or missing it. Remember, these bullets can travel for miles, and you don't want misses for obvious reasons.
Before scraping together the money to buy a .50 for your agency, you need to find an area where the gun operator can practice. A 100-yard range just won't do. When preparing for this article, we were shooting at a minimum distance of 450 yards and out 1,600 yards.
Plan on pulling a $5 bill out of your pocket every time you squeeze the trigger. Even OK practice ammo is going to run $3 a shot. When you figure that it will take a good thousand rounds to be truly proficient and comfortable with the gun, ammo cost becomes quite a training investment.
For More Information
Barrett Firearms Manufacturing
The Robar Companies
Sgt. Dave Douglas is a 25-year veteran of the San Diego Police Department and a Police magazine contributing editor.