For a Real Kick, Try a Big Fifty: We Test a Quartet of BMGs
ArmaLite and Serbu’s .50 Browning Machine Gun cartridge–chambered rifles get our nod, but what about Barrett and Ferret?
The .50 Browning Machine Gun (.50 BMG) cartridge was developed by John Moses Browning, based on a recognized lack of firepower in available weapons during WWI. Browning’s cartridge and gun designs were adopted into U.S. military service in 1918. The Browning M2 aircraft and heavy-barrel machine guns were adopted by the U.S. Army in 1933. Nearly two million M2 machine guns were produced in several varieties during World War II, and the round is still in active use today. Modern saboted ammunition gives around 4,500 fps muzzle velocity, and the round has proved itself against lightly armored vehicles at ranges up to one mile.
Modern shooters took to the round quickly once good bolt-action (and some semi-automatic) rifles became available for something less than a king’s ransom. There’s lots of fun to be had through managing the big cartridge in the big .50.
Firearms that use the .50 BMG cartridge are the largest weapons that a U.S. citizen can own without a special federal license. Some state and local governments have restrictions on their possession and use, but most do not. However, finding a range that allows the .50 BMG can be difficult. Some ranges prohibit its use because of the excessive noise and shock waves, and/or destruction of the backstop. Nominal ballistics show a 750-grain bullet traveling about 2,700 fps, and the lighter 647-grainers can achieve 3,000 fps. Stopping all that power can be taxing for some ranges.
Most of today’s .50-shooters use the big guns for long-range target shooting, and of course just for the joy of firing them. They can and have been used for hunting, in limited circumstances. As such, there’s actually a variety of ammunition available for the .50 BMG cartridge. We used full-metal-jacket, match, and handloaded armor-piercing-incendiary bullets for our tests. Handloading for these big cases is relatively easy, but we found some specialized tools are needed.
It should be noted that that some states, local governments, and ranges have restrictions on the possession and use of armor piercing, tracer, and incendiary ammunition. The latter two can cause a fire on the range. The manufacture and importation of all fully automatic weapons for civilians was banned by the U.S. Government in 1986. Any Class III weapon legally owned prior to 1986 can still be legally transferred for a one-time $200 federal tax. Some states and local governments have additional restrictions. For more information consult the BATF and your state and local government. The full-auto M2 can be purchased from Sportsman Guns and Ammo (936-756-4867) for about $15,000 to $20,000. The current-production semiautomatic M2 can be purchased from TNW for $11,000. We decided to start our .50 BMG investigation with the more affordable single-shot bolt-action rifles that range from $1,775 to $3,100.
We gathered an ArmaLite AR-50 ($2,745), a Barrett M99 ($3,100), Serbu BFG-50 ($2195), and a Ferret 50 ($1,775) and shot them with a variety of factory and handloaded ammunition. None had iron sights, nor scopes nor rings. All included scope bases in the form of a sight rail. Here’s a look at what we discovered about the big .50s in shoulder-to-shoulder testing.
ArmaLite AR-50, $2,745
The ArmaLite is one of the most popular and well-known .50 BMG rifles. It was the heaviest rifle we tested, weighing in at 34 pounds. (The Fifty Caliber Shooters Association, [435-527-9245, www.fcsa.org] match rules state that rifles which weigh less than 32.5 pounds with all shooting accessories attached are in the Light class. If they weigh between 32.5 and 50 pounds, they’re in the Heavy class. Rifles weighing over 50 pounds are in the Unlimited class.)
The AR-50 had a unique muzzle brake. It helped to give this rifle the lowest felt recoil of the rifles tested. It felt about like shooting a 20-gauge shotgun with light loads. In terms of felt recoil, the Serbu rifle was nearly as comfortable, and it weighed 9 pounds less than the ArmaLite. But a youth or small woman could handle the recoil of the AR-50 with ease.
Another bonus is the shooter doesn’t feel the shock wave generated from the muzzle blast, because the brake vents the gases at a 45-degree angle. The blast, though, will usually cause the shooters on both sides of your spot on the shooting bench to take a few steps backward. The muzzle flash was quite spectacular, as was the volume of each shot. We found that all of the .50s were exceptionally loud, and we recommend the wearing of both ear plugs and ear muffs anytime you mess with .50 BMGs. We estimated them to be about twice as loud as a .30-06, but the noise was acceptable with the proper protection. The only unusual affect of shooting any of the big .50s was the sensation of our teeth vibrating, and small particles of dirt falling on us that had been shaken off of the tin roof over our shooting position. Although ArmaLite supplies Tylenol with the rifle, we did not experience any headaches after shooting any of the rifles.
The steel of the AR-50 was manganese-phosphated (Parkerized), and the aluminum stock and small parts were anodized. Overall, the ArmaLite had very good fit and finish, we thought. The bolt fit was snug enough that you’d want to avoid getting sand blown into it, but it worked very well throughout our testing.
The ArmaLite was the longest of our test rifles at 59.5 inches. Most protective rifle cases are too short. We obtained a serviceable soft case ($165) from the ArmaLite web site, but it lacked the desirable protection that a hard case would give to so bulky and heavy a rifle. No hard case was offered on the web site — a substantial oversight, in our estimation. The buttpad and cheek-piece assembly (buttstock) were easily removable by taking out two Allen-head bolts. That shortened the length of the rifle by 9 inches; thus, the rifle could be packed into a standard hard case, and would then fit into the common storage vault.
The AR-50 had a few features not found on the other rifles tested, one of which was an adjustable cheekpiece that was comfortable and easy to use. We mounted a 4X-16X Pentax Lightseeker scope on the rifle. Our first concern was well met by this scope; it gave more than adequate eye relief. At no time did we feel that our eye came too close to the scope during recoil. The ArmaLite scope mount was easily adjusted, and held its zero after being removed and reinstalled numerous times. The scope had a basic crosshair reticle that worked well for our purposes. The 16X scope was adequate for shooting at 300 yards, but we felt that our 22X Nightforce would have been better for 1,000-yard shooting. The trigger broke cleanly, and we felt it was the best trigger of the rifles tested.
The AR-50 and the Ferret 50 are available in left-hand versions (for no extra cost), but the AR-50 was the only one that has a flat-bottom stock with a groove that allowed the optional Prince bipod ($200) to be easily slid back and forth. The legs of the bipod were not adjustable for length, and we found they raised the front end of the barrel a little too high for some of our shooters, about 10 inches. Because of that flat-bottom stock, the rifle was the most stable when rested on sandbags.
The AR-50 had no malfunctions, except that we found the bolt was hard to close on some of the military-surplus ammunition. The rifle’s accuracy was impressive with all the ammunition fired except the IK-head-stamped surplus, which in fact did poorly in all the rifles. The ArmaLite got its best accuracy, a 2.8-inch group at 300 yards, with the Arizona Ammunition match load.
Barrett M99 .50 BMG, $3,100
Barrett Manufacturing makes the Model 82A1 semiautomatic box-magazine-fed .50 BMG rifle ($7,300) that is in current use by the U.S. armed forces. In 1999 Barrett started producing the more affordable and more accurate Model 99 in the same caliber. The Barrett Co. also produces a variation on the M99 known as the M99-1, with a fluted barrel that is 4 inches shorter and weighs 4 pounds less than the model we tested. That variant also costs $200 more than the standard version.
The Model 99 Barrett weighed 25 pounds as tested, which put it into the Light rifle class. Although it weighed 9 pounds less than the AR-50, the Model 99’s recoil was only moderately greater. Barrett claims that the felt recoil is equivalent to a .300 Winchester Magnum (about 55 foot-pounds), but it felt very manageable, more like a .308 Winchester to us. The muzzle blast was substantial, but less than that of the AR-50. All the parts of the Barrett were evenly matte-black finished, and we thought it was of generally excellent quality throughout.
The overall length was 50.4 inches, so it would fit into a standard hard case. The Barrett also fit into our gun safe without a problem. With the bipod at its lowest setting, it raised the Barrett’s barrel approximately 9 inches off of the shooting bench. We found that to be slightly high, but workable. The bipod could be quickly removed by pulling out the takedown pin, and that let us put the rifle onto sand bags. The Model 99 can be taken apart for cleaning more quickly and easily than any of the other rifles tested. The process involved pulling out three takedown pins.
The rifle came with a Swarovski 10 x 42 Habicht scope that also had the Barrett name on it. We found it to be a good-quality scope. The magnification was adequate for 300-yard shooting, but we did not care for the Christmas-tree reticle. The top line was for 500 yards and the bottom line was for 2,000-yard shooting, and there were several lines in between. We thought this reticle might be useful for shooting at targets of varying distances from the same firing point, but for the majority of target shooters, this will not be the case. In practice, we were restricted to the top quarter of the viewing area for all our 300-yard shooting.
The trigger on the Barrett was the heaviest of the rifles tested (6.5 pounds), but it broke cleanly and didn’t really cause any shooting problems. Barrett claims that the Model 99 should give accuracy results between 1 and 1.5 minutes of angle, and we found that to be true for our rifle. The Talon remanufactured ammo produced groups of 4.1 inches at 300 yards, and the Arizona Ammunition match load had groups of 2.9 inches on average.
Serbu BFG-50 .50 BMG, $2,195
Although Tampa-based Serbu has been manufacturing the BFG-50 for well over two years, it is one of the lesser-known manufacturers. We think that will quickly change. We can only guess what designation BFG stands for, because it is not stated on the website, but we don’t think it’s Big Fancy Gun. There is nothing fancy about the BFG-50, and it gets the job done for a great price.
The BFG-50 was the lightest rifle in our test, but we feel it had the least felt recoil for its weight (about like a 12-gauge shotgun with standard loads). Clearly, its brake worked well. Not only was the muzzle brake effective, it also produced less shock wave for bystanders than that of the AR-50, in our estimation. It was the smallest-diameter brake of all four rifles tested. The overall length of the BFG measured 51.5 inches. The scope we mounted onto the Serbu turned out to be the best of the bunch, in our opinion. It was a Nightforce 5.5X to 22X Varminter with 56mm objective, and an illuminated reticle. There were conventional crosshairs, and also convenient range-finding circles below the crosshairs that gave distances of from 300 to 800 yards. This scope had the largest objective lens and definitely transmitted the most light of the scopes tested. The trigger was the lightest of the rifles tested. It broke at 3.5 pounds with a bit of creep, but not enough to be bothersome. There is currently not a left-hand version available, but the company is considering one. The optional bipod ($120) raised the barrel approximately 9 inches above the bench, and it was fairly comfortable. With handloaded Hornady A-Max bullets, this rifle outshot all the others in the test. Smallest group was 1.3 inches at 300 yards. The rifle also did well with the Talon surplus ammo, getting one group of 3.2 inches.
The steel parts of the Serbu were Parkerized evenly and well. It had a slightly looser bolt than the ArmaLite, but it was by no means sloppy. We thought the Serbu had very good to excellent overall fit and finish. It also had the best extraction of the test group, strong and very positive.
Serbu also makes a carbine version of the .50 with a 22-inch barrel, and an overall length of 41.5 inches. The carbine version weighs 17 pounds.
Ferret 50, $1,775 (upper only). About $2,000 complete
Spider Firearms manufactures the Ferret 50. This is not a complete rifle, but instead is a complete AR-15 upper receiver, including barrel, bolt, scope rail, and bipod. Attach a good lower AR-15 receiver made by DPMS, Rock River, or several other companies, and then you have a complete rifle. There is no gunsmithing needed. Just remove the bolt stop, buffer and buffer spring from your AR-15 lower unit, position the Ferret 50 on top, and slide in the two pins that join the upper and lower receivers together. We found the most difficult part of assembling the Ferret 50 to be knocking out the pin that held the bolt stop in place.
Since the upper receiver of an AR-15 rifle is not considered to be a complete firearm, according to the BATF, it can be sold directly to the public without having to fill out any forms. So if you already own an AR-15 and don’t mind swapping out parts, this is a low-cost way to get started shooting .50 BMG. But we think it would be easier and perhaps more convenient to dedicate an AR-15 lower to the Ferret 50. It also would be a good idea, in our opinion, to install a lead weight into the butt stock and add a thick recoil pad. We put a 2.5-pound weight into our test rifle, which brought the total weight up to 24.5 pounds. That still kept the Ferret in the Light rifle category. If you need to purchase a lower receiver, it must be done through a FFL dealer, who will conduct a background check and require you to fill in the federal form, but you do not need to indicate the caliber on the form because the lower does not have a caliber.
Some people are apprehensive about putting a .50-BMG upper receiver onto a lower unit that was designed for the .223 cartridge, and we admit that we had some doubts. But we tried both a DPMS California-legal lower (it would not accept a magazine) and a standard Bushmaster lower. Both held up to the punishment of the big cartridge without showing any signs of wear. This upper receiver had a looser bolt fit than the ArmaLite, but not too loose. The finish was overall matte black, and of very good quality.
The Ferret had the greatest felt recoil of any of the rifles we tested. We judged it to be similar to that of a .30-’06, but it was certainly manageable. The muzzle brake was of a different design than the others tested, but it produced a similar shock wave for the bystanders. Our rifle had the 29-inch barrel, which gave the rifle an overall length of 53 inches. The system easily disassembles into two pieces for a more compact package.
We topped our rifle with a Tasco SS 16x42 scope. The Tasco was the lowest-cost scope tested, at $300, but it is also the only one that lost its zero between shooting sessions. Although this happened only once (the Tasco kept its zero after it was reset), it was enough to make us doubt the scope. The eye relief and light transmission were adequate. The trigger weighed in at 4.1 pounds and broke cleanly. There is a left-hand version of this rifle currently available.
We felt this rifle had the best bipod of the rifles tested. Its legs were adjustable to a length that was short enough to permit shooting in a very comfortable seated position. We did experience some failures to fire from light strikes on the primers, but most of these cartridges fired at the second attempt. Unlike the other rifles tested, the Ferret did not have an extractor. Therefore, when we encountered a round with a dead primer we had to remove three screws from the rear of the receiver and remove the entire bolt in order to get the round out. We were not impressed by this design feature.
Gun Tests Recommends
ArmaLite AR-50, $2,745. Buy It. If you want the lightest-recoiling .50 BMG rifle and don’t mind the 34-pound weight, the ArmaLite may be the one for you. We found it to be a dependable, well-built rifle at a reasonable price.
Barrett M99, $3,100. Conditional Buy. The rifle was well made and accurate, but all the other rifles tested cost significantly less money. Some even had slightly better accuracy. Perhaps the M99’s main advantage was that it was the most quickly disassembled, and if that’s important to you, consider the Barrett.
Ferret 50, $1,775 (upper). Don’t Buy. We do not recommend this AR-15 .50 BMG conversion because of the very slow reload time when a dead primer is experienced. That may not happen every time you shoot it, but you can generally count on things like that happening at the worst possible time, and then the limits of the design make themselves known. The rifle had acceptable accuracy, but for a little more money you can get the most accurate rifle in the test. If you like the idea of being able to acquire a .50-BMG upper directly from the manufacturer without a lot of hassle and paperwork, the Ferret might be worth a look, but we didn’t much like it.
Serbu BFG-50, $2,195. Best Buy. This rifle, we felt, was clearly the best value for your money. It was the most accurate and had the lightest recoil for its weight, and offered all the glamour of the big .50 for the least output. In short, it was the best (and loudest) bang for your buck.
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