Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Ammo Spotlight: The .50 BMG (Browning Machine Gun)

Thassa lotta boo-lits. With each cartridge weighing in at around $1.75, they're not the best thing for your savings account.

A while back, I blogged about a giant cartridge called the .458 Winchester Magnum. I'm sure some of you out there thought it was the biggest, baddest mother of a cartridge you ever saw. Well, I'm here again to do you one better. Say hello to our good friend, the .50 Browning Machine Gun cartridge. Better known as .50 BMG or 12.7x99mm NATO, this sucker's been here for a long time and will stay here until the good Lord returns.

Back in the good old days, before World War One, a request was sent to the desk of Our Patron Saint of American Firearms, His Ballistic Majesty John Moses Browning. The miserable pea-brained commanders of the United States military wanted Browning to develop a cartridge and a weapon suited for anti-aircraft purposes. John shook his head and exclaimed "Can't these yokels do anything without my help?" Having said that, he went to the drawing board to make his creations. He started with the help of a previous design, the M1919 series of machine guns, and used that as a template for his new AA gun. For the round, he turned to the .30-06 cartridge as a starting point. He had an idea to "grow" the .30-06, and basically almost doubled the size of it. He then built his super-M1919 to fit around his new round. The results were successful: in 1914, Ol' Moses trotted out his M-2 heavy machine gun, along with the new round: the .50 Browning Machine Gun. The military loved it so much, they married it. However, they waited for three years before making it official. Typical.

The Browning M2 HMG, in its original anti-aircraft role. Sweet.

From there, the .50 had a great life in the military. The M2 was taken into the air aboard the B-29s and B-52s, mounted into the wings of the P-51s and P-40s, taken to the sea aboard Navy destroyers, battleships, and PT boats, stayed on land as a crew-served emplacement, used as a coaxial gun on Shermans, and almost went into space. (Actually, that's a lie. It would be cool, though.) The most amazing part of all this? It's still here! You see them all the time, mounted on HMMWVs, M1A2 Abrams, Strykers, and set up on fire bases and posts all around the world. Some of them are in the hands of ordinary citizens who have a lot of money and time on their hands. And some of the guns in the field are actual vintage, with receivers and side plates dating to the 20s and 30s. Now that's a testament to American craftsmanship.

But enough about the M2. Let's get back to the round. The .50 BMG earned its stripes in more ways than one, and here is a list of some of the variations that were cooked up by the U.S. military.
  • Cartridge, Caliber .50, Tracer, M1
Tracer for observing fire, signaling, target designation, and incendiary purposes. The M1 has a red tip.
  • Cartridge, Caliber .50, Incendiary, M1
This cartridge is used against unarmored, flammable targets. The incendiary bullet has a light blue tip.
  • Cartridge, Caliber .50, Ball, M2
This cartridge is used against personnel and unarmored targets.
  • Cartridge, Caliber .50, Armor-Piercing, M2
This cartridge is used against lightly armored vehicles, protective shelters, and personnel, and can be identified by its black tip.
  • Cartridge, Caliber .50, Armor-Piercing-Incendiary, M8
This cartridge is used, in place of the armor piercing round, against armored, flammable targets. The bullet is colored with silver tip.
  • Cartridge, Caliber .50, Tracer, M10
Tracer for observing fire, signaling, target designation, and incendiary purposes. Designed to be less intense than the M1, the M10 has an orange tip.
  • Cartridge, Caliber .50, Tracer, M17
Tracer for observing fire, signaling, target designation, and incendiary purposes. Can be fired from the M82/M107 series of rifles.
  • Cartridge, Caliber .50, Armor-Piercing-Incendiary-Tracer, M20
This cartridge is used in place of the armor piercing round against armored, flammable targets, with a tracer element for observation purposes. The tip of the bullet is colored red with a ring of aluminum paint. This cartridge is effectively a variant of the M8 Armor-Piercing Incendiary with the added tracer element. Can be fired from the M82/M107 series of rifles.
  • Cartridge, Caliber .50, Tracer, Headlight, M21
Tracer for use in observing fire during air-to-air combat. Designed to be more visible, the M21 is 3 times more brilliant than the M1 tracer.
  • Cartridge, Caliber .50, Incendiary, M23
This cartridge is used against unarmored, flammable targets. The tip of the bullet is painted blue with a light blue ring.
  • Cartridge, Caliber .50, Ball, M33
This cartridge is used against personnel and unarmored targets. Can be fired from the M82/M107 series of rifles.
  • Cartridge, Caliber .50, Saboted Light Armor Penetrator, M903
This is a Saboted Light Armor Penetrator (SLAP) round, which uses a smaller 355-360 grain bullet fitted in an amber colored plastic sabot. For use only in the M2 series of machine guns.
  • Cartridge, Caliber .50, Saboted Light Armor Penetrator-Tracer, M962
Like the M903, this is a Saboted Light Armor Penetrator (SLAP) round, with the only difference being that the M962 also has a tracer element for observing fire, target designation, and incendiary purposes. Uses a red colored plastic sabot for indentification. For use only in the M2 series of machine guns.
  • Cartridge, Caliber .50, Ball, XM1022
A long-range match cartridge specifically designed for long range work using the M107 rifle.
  • Cartridge, Caliber .50, Armor-Piercing-Incendiary, Mk 211 Mod 0
A so-called "combined effects" cartridge, the Mk 211 Mod 0 High-Explosive-Incendiary-Armor-Piercing (HEIAP) cartridge contains a .30 caliber tungsten penetrator, zirconium powder, and Composition A explosive. Cartridge is identified by a green tip with a grey ring, and can be used in any .50 caliber weapon in US inventory with the exception of the M85 machine gun.
  • Cartridge, Caliber .50, Armor-Piercing-Incendiary-Tracer, Mk 300 Mod 0
As with the Mk 211 Mod 0, but with a tracer component. Cartridge is identified by an unknown coloring, and likely can be used in any .50 caliber weapon in US inventory with the exception of the M85 machine gun, as with the Mk 211 Mod 0.
Whew, that was a whole lotta nomenclature. For the three of you still reading this, the .50 has many more applications than just military use. It has also traveled off the battlefield and into the hands of civilian shooters and enthusiasts. Barnes and Hornady have developed .510-caliber bullets, most notably the A-MAX, with the highest ballistic coefficient that I have ever seen. Hodgdon developed its own powder specifically for the round, H50BMG. As far as I know, surplus is the only known source of brass, but a skilled operator can buy some ordnance-grade brass and turn some cases out on a lathe. Wildcatters have been busy making new rounds from the original specs, and are still making even newer ones. If you don't reload, a couple of manufacturers make .50 BMG ammo, but expect to pay up the ass for them. Rifles range from the mundane to the bizzare; a Barrett M82 or McMillan TAC-50 will set you back $7,000 while a Cobb or Serbu is only $3,500 or so. With the right loads and rifle, and the will to use them, you too can score top marks in one of the several .50 matches held nationwide each year.

A .50 BMG round next to a standard 12-gauge, 2¾" shotshell for comparison. Dang that's big!

Unfortunately, some people on God's green earth don't think you can be trusted with this simple cartridge. My conservative audience will tell me "Mah state ain't got no silly restrictions on no .50 BMG, an' I ain't never heard of no laws about 'em, neither." Ask the gun owners of California, like me. We've heard of a law. It's called AB50, and was passed with a saddening lack of opposition in 2004. Some California Assemblymember was watching too much CNN (Communist News Network) and saw something about .50-caliber rifles, and got his panties in a bunch (Assemblyman Paul Koretz) and wrote up some nonsense legislation to submit to Congress. Sadly, his crap got through all the checks and balances with nary a scratch.

Here's the skinny of AB 50 that the bubbling dunderheads over at Sacramento made law to further their agenda of Nanny-State Re-Stalinization.

-Any and all .50 BMG rifles within the SHPDSRKA* are classified as "assault weapons" pursuant to the Penal Code.
-The .50 BMG cartridge itself is banned form ever entering or leaving the state. The law spells out the exact measurements for the cartridge as well.
-Anybody in possession of a .50 BMG rifle had two years to register it with the CA Department of Justice in order for them to hang on to it. Illegal confiscation of same rifles on the list to be named at a later date.
-No .50 BMG rifle may be imported into the state at any time.

This is what happens when you elect Commies to positions of power. They take their inch that you've given them and create so much boiler-plate language that stretches that inch into 100 leagues. Right now, all the California pro-gun groups are working their butts off to get these laws repealed, and I am proud to say I'm in the fight as well. I will not retreat like a coward when it's obvious that we can win this fight.

But enough of the sob story. In closing, the .50 BMG cartridge is a wholly American design, it has been with us almost 100 years, and it will stay with us forever more. It is a true legend, and that's why it's so great.

*Shiny Happy People's Democratic Socialist Republic of Kaliforniastan. The State of California no longer exists.

I'd like to give a big thanks to:

for help with the bullet weights and some history,

for a little more history and some load numbers,

for the list of cartridge nomenclature and some more history,

-The Fifty Caliber Institute
for a LOT of history and info on AB50.

Thanks guys!

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