By Trampas Swanson

All too often firearms get way too glamorized by Hollywood with unrealistic performance such as endless magazine capacity, “one shot kill” and cars exploding after one shot from the hero’s Glock. In reality, if you want that amount of sheer force and effectiveness, you have to step up your game from small arms and “go big or go home,” as the members of the Fifty Caliber Shooters Association would say with their beloved .50 BMG round.

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What started out as a military cartridge in 1921 known as the 12.70×99 NATO, American soldiers fell in love with the caliber by way of John Browning’s M2 Browning Machine Gun also known as the Ma Deuce .50 BMG during World War II. Over the years the cartridge has become a favorite of the civilian and law enforcement shooters alike. For those who have never shot a .50 BMG caliber rifle, it is an experience like no other. To feel the ground shake and the concussion vibrate in your chest as you send a 660 grain round up to 2500 yards towards its intended target is a thing of beauty. This week’s article focuses on the “meat and potatoes” of the .50 BMG experience in the form of the AR-50 from Armalite as well as Vortex Optics‘ new long range scope, the Vortex Golden Eagle.

Why A 50 BMG?

In January of 2011, I took early retirement from my local Sheriff’s office where I served a number of roles from patrol supervisor to sniper unit on the department’s Special Response Team (SRT), or what’s normally referred to as a SWAT team. In my departure, I agreed to stay on as a reserve under a Special Deputy status to aid the SRT team in training and specialized call outs for service. At the time, I had in my arsenal for duty as a sniper unit a highly customized Remington 700 chambered in .308, a Benelli M4 semi-auto shotgun and a Glock handgun chambered in .45 ACP. I decided it was time to upgrade my options by purchasing a rifle chambered in .50 BMG as a heavy duty, long range force option and here’s why.

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With the times we live in constantly changing and becoming more violent, criminals are becoming better armed, equipped and trained. While some may scoff at the idea of a heavy duty .50 cal rifle being used by their local police, let’s take a quick look at the situation at hand. Body armor and true tactical fighting skills are being used more and more these days with armed robbery suspects and terrorists. Each are developing better arsenals with longer ranges and deadlier results.

Through my career, our agency had been deployed to several extremely rural counties. Stand offs with armed suspects could often range from the traditional 50 – 100 yards all the way to out to several hundred yards away through heavily fortified walls and doors. With an average of 10,000 to 13,000-foot pounds of energy at the muzzle and after traveling 1000 yards, the impact of a .44 magnum at point blank range, this is the power needed to even the odds in a crisis situation. Whether there is a need to overcome ballistic glass or other hard barriers during a hostage standoff or to incapacitate a getaway vehicle, this rifle is the only clear choice.

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Meet the Beast

With my departure from full time service, my new career afforded me the opportunity, finances and time for specialized training in order to purchase a heavy hitting .50 BMG rifle. While far from independently rich, I wanted to make sure the choice I made would be affordable and provide the performance needed to save lives. After receiving the approval of the Sheriff and the department’s training division, the hunt was on for the best rifle I could afford. Having shot a wide array of .50 BMG rifles through attending sniper training and tactical schools around the country, I already knew I would prefer to find an Armalite AR-50. It would just so happen this would happen on the way back from a weekend mountain getaway with my wife, Candace. We decided to take a break from the long drive and stop in on a gun shop we often saw while traveling. Needless to say, it was love at first sight and we returned home plus one Armalite.

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If you are new to the world of .50 BMG, one of the first things you will notice is the rifle is heavy. It is NOT and never will be your lightweight 5.56mm AR-15. In reality, the 660-grain round is literally twelve times that of your 55-grain round. The Armalite AR-50 is a single shot, bolt action rifle sporting a very intimidating 30” chrome moly barrel and massive muzzle break. With an overall length of almost 60” and weighing in just over 33lbs before adding a scope and scope mount, this is a truly a special purpose firearm rather than a daily carry tool.

AR-50 Specs

  • Caliber: .50 Browning Machine Gun (BMG)
  • Barrel: 30″ Chrome Moly, 8 grooves, 1:15″ twist
  • Size: 59.5″ overall length
  • Weight: 33.2 lbs. without scope
  • Operation: Single shot bolt action
  • Finish: Hard Anodized Aluminum, Manganese Phosphated Steel
  • Capacity: One round
  • MSRP: $3,359.00

Long Range Glass

When shooting a rifle with this much torque and pressure, a careful and well researched scope choice plays an important factor. With a range of 2500 yards or more, high magnification helps in being able to see what you wish to take down. The AR50 comes from the factory with a 15 MOA picatinny scope rail to give the shooter a further range of sight. If you have a need for shooting close ranges such as 100 and 200 yards, you need to find a scope with a wide range of adjustment in its turrets. With a rifle such as the AR-50, shooting at 100 yards with a .50 BMG is like having a brand-new Ferrari you only drive to the grocery store and back once a week. You can do it but it’s not what the intended purpose is for.

To start off, I decided to go with the best option available at the time, the Vortex Optics Razor HD Gen II 5-20×50 with a 35 mm tube and EBR-1 (MRAD) illuminated reticle mounted in a heavy duty quick release from American Defense. With the super clear glass, easy to use features such as large turrets and focal knob, this is certainly an impressive scope! Retailing for around $2,500 US, it is not cost effective for the average hunting rifle, but it does match perfectly with Armalite’s AR50 for 1000 yard engagements. As time went on and I relocated to sunny Florida to start training civilian shooters, my needs for the AR-50 changed. I decided to search for a high-quality optics with a bit more magnification.

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The search for a new long-range scope took me through several big names in the optics world over a track that would last almost 3 years. It was only recently that I found the perfect true long-range scope for my .50 BMG in the form of the Vortex Golden Eagle HD along with a one-piece Vortex brand scope mount made by American Defense. By switching to the Golden Eagle HD, the magnification range jumped from 5-20X to 15-60X. That’s three times the range spectrum of the original Razor HD!

While I don’t like to get caught up in numbers and scope variable power, I do like to see my target and in the exclusive long range purpose I use the AR-50 for, the Golden Eagle offers the best possible option for the price. Much like the rifle itself, the Golden Eagle’s MSRP of 1899.99 is a good investment by itself. In its defense, the clarity and range you get with this scope, for the price, beats most optics in its category hands down in value. With a massive 52 mm objective lens and target style turrets, this scope is easy to adjust within its 1/8 MOA graduation and very clear to focus through. Weighing in at 29.7 oz. and having an overall length of 16.1” without the included sunshade, this scope looked right at home mounted to the AR-50.

Vortex Golden Eagle HD Specs

  • Magnification: 15-60 x
  • Objective Lens Diameter: 52 mm
  • Eye Relief: 3.9”
  • Field of View: 6.3-1.7 feet/100 yards
  • Tube Size: 30 mm
  • Turret Style: Target
  • Adjustment Graduation: 1/8 MOA
  • Travel per Rotation: 10 MOA
  • Max Elevation Adjustment: 55 MOA
  • Max Windage Adjustment: 45 MOA
  • Parallax Setting: 20’ to Infinity
  • Length: 16.1 inches
  • Weight : 29.7 oz.
  • MSRP: $1899.99

Range Time

When shooting a rifle that essentially could be a crew-served weapon, it takes planning and organization to deploy it and be on target quickly. To help sight in the new scope and test out how the rifle / scope combo worked together, I called up esteemed NRA Training Counselor, Jeff Nolan and private protection expert, Clint Steel. Both these gentlemen are not only trusted friends of mine, but they are also former Marines. Jeff has been teaching a wide range of NRA certified classes for well over 20 years as both and instructor and current Training Counselor. Clint s not only a Devil Dog, but he served out the rest of his retirement as a member of the US Army before taking a job as the Director of Operations with a large private security firm here in Florida.

Jeff invited us to do our field testing of the Armalite AR-50 at his beautiful private shooting facility, the Ranch Road Range in sunny Ponte Vedra, FL. Once we got set up, I laid out my favorite shooting mat of all time to use, the NORM from OffHand Gear. Due to its comfort and design, it would take the worry of flying debris due to the massive blast from the brake out of the equation when shooting. Despite the heavy concussive blast, the brake combined with the overall weight of the rifle and one-inch thick rubber butt pad, does a great job in deadening the recoil. Felt recoil is tuned down from that of a shoulder breaking kick to a mild push of a 20-guage shotgun.

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As I set the heavy rifle up on to the massive bi-pod, the weight alone does a great job in “loading” the tension for the shooter to press into the gun. To the rear under the stock, there is a screw adjusted mono-pod for leveling the rifle to the desired plane of view and maintaining the weight for the shooter to get a rock-solid hold on the rifle. Unlike most traditional rifles, the AR-50 does not have a cross bolt or push button safety, instead, there is a switch-like safety that behind the bolt to prevent trigger and bolt movement.

One of the obvious draw backs of shooting such a large rifle is the cost of ammo. With an average range of $4 to $7, it can be a pricey hobby to enjoy. For testing, I chose the Federal American Eagle 660 grain ball ammo. Over the years, I have had very good results shooting out to 800 yards with this round. Anything further, I prefer going with the Hornady A-Max round with the polymer tip. While this is indeed a superior round, it drives the price up considerably for a day at the range.

 

Once Clint and I set the 15” AR500 steel gong up at 200 yards, it was time to send some rounds down range. I cycled the massive bolt rearward, loaded the magic marker sized American Eagle 660-grain round into the chamber and ran the bolt forward. Sighting onto target was clear and simple with the crisp view through the Vortex Golden Eagle scope. Once I had the AR500 steel gong in my crosshairs, I took a deep breath and addressed the trigger. The Schillen single-stage was crisp and clean with no creep. It weighed just over 5 pounds with my digital trigger scale (5.1 – 5.4 range through 10 dry fires). Halfway through my thought process on the trigger, the earth shook as the steel gong in my sights violently flew rearward on its two heavy steel logging chains suspending it as the resounding “DING” of a round striking target made its way back up range. A quick glance through the scope would show a high right hit. Two follow up shots would confirm these results of the scope needing a quick adjustment.

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The large, easy to use turrets of the Vortex Golden Eagle glided through the adjustments before sending two additional rounds down range by Clint and Jeff. Once our shots were noted in my data book and striking closer to where I wanted the optic doped at. Round after round sent down range made the 45lb AR500 steel gong danced back and forth twisting in the wind due to the shear violence of impact as small adjustments to windage and elevation walked the Golden Eagle to its final sighted-in position.

Over a period of a few weeks, the .50 would see action again, but this time starting with a 3 shot grouping at 200 yards before moving back to ranges of 300 and 400 yards. With only a small change in elevation, the rifle and optic held true through another dozen massive rounds down range. With the extreme magnification range of the Vortex Golden Eagle, the gong appeared as large as the moon looking through the scope of the distance I shot. As range increased, the grouping did too but none failing to strike the AR500 steel gong. As I mentioned previously, I have owned the rifle for several years now, but it never fails to put a smile on my face when shooting it. Being able to share this amazing experience has brought new satisfaction my training and writing career.

Final Thoughts

Retailing at approximately $3,400 (before factoring in the cost of scope and mount), I can assure you this was not a spur of the moment purchase, but it is one well worth it. As previously mentioned, I researched this rifle for over two years prior to purchasing one, studying the average accuracy, long term performance reviews, and compared the results versus price to other rifles in its class that I have shot. Adding another $2000 for a scope and scope mount, this is not a cheap rifle for civilian or law enforcement to purchase just for a special purpose firearm. What it is however is a reliable and extremely efficient rifle that does one job and does it so well it could easily save lives.

Perhaps the best recommendation I can offer for the Armalite AR-50 is the fact I bought it over the rest of my choices. The AR50 comes from a trusted name in the industry, has fewer moving parts to maintenance and simply out performed all others tested, including the darling of Hollywood film, the Barrett .50 BMG rifle. Combined with the Golden Eagle from Vortex, this is a hard to beat combination for superior long-range accuracy. To some who have never shot an AR-50, it’s outward appearance is uglier than a pair of homemade shoes but for those who have had the pleasure of pressing the trigger on one, it’s a beautiful piece of specialized instrumentation. This rifle is a bucket list item to shoot and I encourage everyone to try one at some point in life.