Way Out There: Shooting (And Hunting With) The .50 Caliber Browning Machine Gun Cartridge

Yenason and Henry must spot the target, figure range, and calculate aim before firing.
Yenason and Henry must spot the target, figure range, and calculate aim before firing.
Photos by Timothy Devine The days when 300 yards was considered extremely long range are over. Now, thanks to better rifles, scopes, rangefinders, and bullets, 500 yards is more like it. But there is a small subculture of shooters to whom 500 yards is a piddling distance scarcely worth a round of ammunition. These are the people who have harnessed the power of the immense .50 Browning Machine Gun cartridge and transformed it into an instrument capable of shooting with eerie precision at distances that are usually associated with track meets rather than riflery. John Yenason and Wendy Henry belong to the fraternity of .50 BMG shooters, where everything is oversize, hyper-powered, and far, far away. Yenason is a wiry, dark-haired heavy-equipment contractor who took up the .50 in 1992. He shoots one in benchrest matches at 1,000 yards and hunts with it, too. Wendy Henry, his fianc¿¿e, is a tall, willowy woman who walks with the toes-out waddle of the ballerina she has been all her life. With no prior shooting experience, she took up the .50 in 1998. She competes and hunts alongside John. I had a chance to visit and shoot with th6em at their home in rural Pennsylvania, and they took me on a tour of their arcane world, where glory lies way out yonder.Field & Stream Online Editors
Yenason and Henry must spot the target, figure range, and calculate aim before firing.
Yenason and Henry must spot the target, figure range, and calculate aim before firing.
In 1919, John Moses Browning developed a heavy machine gun, which the U.S. Army adopted in 1924. Eventually designated the M2, it is very likely the most successful military weapon ever used by any armed force. Still very much in service, it has been placed on aircraft, tanks, and jeeps, and in a quadruple anti-aircraft mount. She is a heavy gal, weighing 84 pounds without any accessories, and is usually mounted on a 44-pound tripod or bolted to something that won't move. Ma Deuce fires 500 rounds per minute. What makes her so effective is not so much her absolute reliability but the cartridge for which she is chambered. The .50 BMG round is a giant version of the .30/06, sending a 750-grain bullet out of the muzzle at 2750 feet per second. For many years, a small group of riflemen have been building rifles that chamber this monster. Twenty firms, plus smaller shops, make .50 BMG rifles at present, so there's no shortage of guns to choose from. All .50s come in either bolt-action or autoloading configurations. Of the bolt actions, a few are magazine-fed repeaters, but most are single-shots, and of these, some are conventional bolts with solid receivers, while others are of the shell-holder variety. Here, you remove the bolt from the rifle, fit a cartridge into the bolt face, reinsert cartridge and bolt, turn the bolt handle down, and let 'er buck. Many shell-holder guns are made in bullpup style, where the action lies next to your face. This saves considerable length, which is important when you're dealing with barrels that go 30 inches and over. Weights range from 20 pounds for hunting rifles to over 100 pounds for unlimited-class competition rifles. Yenason and Henry hunt with an LAR Grizzly, which is a 30-pound shell-holder bullpup. How does one carry a 30-pound rifle? Wendy simply lays it across her pack frame and starts walking. No .50 BMG sporting rifle that I know of has iron sights, and every one has a muzzle brake, of which there are many weird and wonderful designs, backed by numerous claims. I know only this: A .50 BMG with no muzzle brake would be unshootable. What was left of you would go directly to the orthopedic surgeon. Only two types of scopes can take the punishment of a .50: the Leu¿¿pold Mark 4 series and the Nightforce brand. These are tactical scopes in variable power, and most shooters like 30X or more at the top end. The price for a .50 BMG can range from $2,000 at entry level to double that. When you add on the required $1,000-plus scope, you are talking a fair amount of money. According to John and Wendy, .50-caliber shooters were without form and shape until about 20 years ago, when a group of the most serious banded together to form the Fifty Caliber Shooters Association (fcsa.org). The goals of the FCSA were to recruit new shooters and help them become proficient, and to provide official benchrest competitions where the breed could be improved. Since then, the .50 BMG has been changed in ways that John M. Browning could not have dreamed. Ma Deuce, like all machine guns, is designed to spray bullets, not send them into the same hole. And so mili¿¿tary .50-caliber ammo is not made with accuracy in mind. The military stuff, in a good sporting rifle, with a good shooter, will give you 4-inch groups at 100 yards, which will enable you to hit exactly nothing at 1,000. And so manufacturers started making better .50-caliber bullets, powders, primers, and brass. The knowledge of how to load the .50 BMG spread among the brethren, and pretty soon, it began doing amazing things. John Yenason, who is among the top competitive .50 shooters, says that before showing up at a match you should be able to put five shots in a minute of angle at 1,000 yards-"a 10-inch group. If you can get five shots in 5 inches, or half a minute of angle, you will be regarded as a serious shooter. Squeeze things down to a third ofField & Stream Online Editors
Yenason and Henry must spot the target, figure range, and calculate aim before firing.
Yenason and Henry must spot the target, figure range, and calculate aim before firing.
Working up a .50 BMG load for top accuracy requires the same amount of time and care that is necessary to produce ammo for a standard benchrest rifle. John, in effect, remanufactures his brass cases, putting each one of them through 13 steps to ensure their uniformity. And the .50 BMG can be as fussy about components as any other cartridge. As little as half a grain of powder (in a total charge of 230 grains) can make the difference between a group and an assembly. Then there is the human element. As with any kind of long-range shooting, wind and exact distance are crucial. If you don't know how far it is to the target, you're sunk. On an African hunt, John had 27 misses at 1,000-plus yards and no hits. The laser rangefinder he and Wendy were using would not reflect off an animal at those extreme distances. The only absolutely reliable rangefinder for these kinds of yardages is the Swiss ¿¿Army-"surplus optical coincidence rangefinder that was designed for artillery use. It gives accurate readings out to 20,000 meters. Wind is an extreme problem. "At 600 yards," says Wendy, "your bullet can be blown off the target by inches. At 1,000 yards or more, it's a matter of feet. There are tables for wind drift, but really the only way to learn how to dope it is to study the wind. You watch the grass and the trees, and after a while you get a feel for it." Before I met John and Wendy, there was no doubt in my mind that hunting at 800 yards and way, way over was not hunting, but simply using animals for targets, or something worse. I no longer believe this. As practiced by John and Wendy, hunting is a three-person operation. One person gets the range and spots. One person does the necessary calculations. One person shoots. No animal is shot at until it is in the clear-"nothing within 15 meters on either side and nothing at all in front or rear. They don't shoot on land that is not access-controlled to eliminate any danger of someone wandering into the impact area. And even so, at all times all three partners look for things that don't belong. What does a .50-caliber impact do to a game animal? At close range, the results are horrific. But at long range, Wendy says, "They go rigid when the bullet hits, and then they simply drop. We've never lost an animal and we've never had to track one." John let me shoot his heavy match rifle, a Kenny ¿¿Johnson-"made single-shot bolt action that weighs 50 pounds and has a huge clamshell-style muzzle brake. I wore shooting glasses, ear¿¿plugs, and earmuffs. The gun had virtually no perceptible recoil. But what it did have was gas. A .30/06 produces about 50 grains of propellant gas when you pull the trigger. The .50 BMG cooks up 245 grains. When it hits the muzzle brake, it comes straight back at you, and you are whapped in the face, hard. It's like sticking your head out of an alley into a 300-mph wind. There can be mishaps as well. Some years ago, John was hunting elk on a day when the thermometer registered 10 below zero. This was a cows-only hunt, and he found a monster lady elk at over 1,000 yards. But he had to shoot that same LAR Grizzly from an unsteady rest, and the scope whacked him so hard that his right eyebrow fell down over his eye. The shot missed, and so he held his detached eyebrow in place with his hand and got back on the gun. Once again the shot missed, and the scope smote him in precisely the same place. To make matters worse, the elk moved, and John had to wait, his cheek on the steel stock, forehead gushing, until he got a third shot. This one was good, but by now his cheek had frozen to the rifle. You can still see the stain on the steel where he had to tear himself away.Field & Stream Online Editors
John ¿¿Yenason prepares to fire the .50-caliber LAR Grizzly Big Boar, which weighs more than 30 pounds.
John
In a time when a 6-ounce bottle of mouthwash is considered a threat to commercial aviation, the big .50 has an image problem. People are willing to believe any outlandish tale about it, and the most gullible, most ignorant, and dumbest are apparently in state legislatures. (Currently, it is illegal only in California.) Possibly the most popular myth is "a terrorist with a .50 could shoot down a plane.-¿ That is hardly likely. The anti-aircraft gun that shot this round was called the Quad Fifty because it employed four M2s on a single carriage. That's 2,000 rounds per minute, with sights specially designed for shooting down planes. And what happened? The Army phased out the Quad Fifty years ago because it wasn't up to the job. But people are willing to believe that a single man, with a single rifle, firing a single bullet, can do what the Quaf Fifty couldn't. The other .50 problems is a lack of places to shoot. There's no sense competing at less than 1,000 yards, and the country is not full of rifle ranges affording that kind of distance. And there is the noise, which is fierce, and the impact the huge bullets have on backstops. But there are enough places, and that's why the number of .50-calibur shooter is growing. If you're willing to spend the money, and the time, and the effort, it's like no other sport involving gunpowder. You might even say - forgive me - that you'll get a blast out of it.Field & Stream Online Editors
A Guide to the Big Guns
A Guide to the Big Guns
If you want to build a rifle for the .50 BMG, you are free to do just about anything you please, except that it has to stand up to the recoil of the beast. Most .50 BMG rifles weigh 30 pounds or a lot more and have barrels of 30 inches or a lot more. There are exceptions. A firm called VM Hy-Tech (602-944-3956) builds minimalist all-metal .50s that weigh 22 pounds and are available with barrels as short as 18 inches. All .50 BMG rifles, however, have heavy-duty muzzle brakes. Of the guns below, John Yenasonユs benchrest rifle (middle) is the most conventional. Itユs simply a synthetic-stocked single-shot bolt action built on a gigantic scale. The EDM gun (bottom) is a modular takedown rifle that disassembles into an amazingly small package. The LAR Grizzly (top) is whatユs known as a bullpup rifle. Bullpups are designed that way to save length, and this is achieved by placing the action at the rear of the gun (you can see the bolt knob a couple of inches in front of the recoil pad) so that the shooterユs face rests alongside it. For all its weight and power, the Grizzly is about the length of a standard rifle. 1. Lar Grizzly Big Boar
This all-steel, single shot, 30.4-pound bolt action is designated for match-grade ammo only; it won't eat military surplus. The extra-heavy barrel is 36 inches long, but the overall length is only 45 1/2 inches. A fold-down bipod, leather cheekpiece, and scope mounts are standard. You can choose from a variety of metal finishes. The rifle is $2,350. 801-280-3505; >largrizzly.com 2. Custom Benchrest Rifle
This is a strictly custom gun that Yenason put together for Heavyweight class benchrest competition. It scales 47 pounds with scope and is built on a McMillan single-shot bolt action and fiberglass stock, Jewell trigger, and K&P; barrel. The front rest is designed by Bald Eagle Precision, the rear one by Action Gun Works (the rests are almost as important as the rifle itself). Exclusive of scope, it cost around $4,000. 3. EDM Arms Windrunner M96
Another all-steel rifle, this five shot-shot bolt action is modular and can be disassembled into five pieces in a minute. The K&P; barrel is 30 inches long, and the total weight of the rifle is 34 pounds. The price for the .50-caliber Windrunner is $7,500. For an additional $2,000 each, you can buy conversion kits that enable the rifle to shoot .3087 Lapua or .408 ammo. 909-798-2889; edmarms.com
Field & Stream Online Editors