Gun Review: ArmaLite AR-50 50 BMG Rifle

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: there’s beauty in functionality. If something fulfills a specific purpose and works flawlessly then it’s a work of art. Some might say the ArmaLite AR-50 .50 BMG Rifle is an ugly duckling because of its industrial appearance. To me, it’s a beautiful swan . . .

The AR-50 is a single shot bolt action rifle chambered for the .50 Browning Machine Gun round, also known as 12.7x99mm NATO, which is basically a scaled-up .30-06 Springfield cartridge. While a .30-06 or even a .308 has sufficient ballistic properties to be effective at 1,000 yards, the fact that a .50 BMG projectile is about six times as heavy as either one means that it maintains its velocity better over large distances.

To fire that heavier round, everything about this gun has been super-sized. The rifle (when fully assembled) tips the scales at 33.2 pounds. With a 30″ barrel, the ArmaLite AR50’s almost 60 inches long. In an attempt to make this rifle fit in the trunk of a car, you can partially remove the stock—making the gun only about 50 inches long. Rifle cases? I’ve got a few. But then again, too short to mention. The ArmaLite AR50 made the trip from my apartment to my trunk wrapped in a green wool blanket as I nodded nonchalantly to my neighbors.

The rifle’s massive weight and recoil present a number of problems, such as finding a strong enough bipod to hold the thing up and keeping the rifle on target. ArmaLite included a couple bells and whistles to mitigate these issues: a massively strong bipod (to hold it up), a gigantic muzzle brake (to lessen the recoil), and an adjustable rear monopod (to keep the rifle on target). The muzzle brake is standard equipment, but the front bipod and rear monopod are options ArmaLite offers.

The sighting system can be adjusted to suit the shape of the shooter’s face. ArmaLite placed the scope mount (with built-in 15 MoA tilt for longer distance shooting) in a fixed position on the top of the receiver. They also installed an adjustable cheek piece. Just loosen a couple of bolts and that sucker can accommodate any size face, from Laurel to Hardy. Even the buttplate (complete with an inch or so of recoil absorbing rubber) is adjustable depending on the shooter’s preference.

While it may not be obvious (or very easy to use), there is in fact a safety on this gun. The firing pin extends beyond the end of the bolt. It has a metal flag protruding from it which can be shifted onto a cutout in the bolt that prevents the firing pin from striking the primer of a chambered round, much like the safety on a Mosin Nagant. Also like the the Nagant, the ArmaLite’s safety’s very stiff and somewhat difficult to use. But it’s reassuring to have something mechanical to help prevent a negligent discharge from occurring while sighting in on a target—other than my wonderful trigger discipline.

The bolt, just like everything else on this rifle, is massive. The shiny bolt in the picture is from an aforementioned Mosin Nagant (1928), which until now has been the largest gun in my collection.

The AmraLite AR50’s action is butter smooth. There’s no magazine on the gun and therefore no follower to get in the way. Cycling the bolt is effortless. Even after 60 rounds of dirty machine gun grade ammo the bolt moved back and forth with ease. Closing the bolt is a little stiff, but not much worse than a standard Mosin action.

Ejecting the spent round is easier than putting it in. The extreme taper on the .50 BMG case means that it slides right out of the chamber. The AR-50’s extractor and ejector work together to dump the brass in a nice pile next to the shooter.

When you’re behind this rifle and getting ready to fire, everything just feels right. The massive bipod keeps the rifle rock steady when it’s shouldered, the rear monopod keeps it on target, and the rubber grip feels like it was molded just for me. And then you put your finger on the trigger.

At first, the trigger feels awful. The actual piece of metal you put your finger on is boxy and rough on the sides, nothing like the pleasant rounded and smooth feeling of ArmaLite’s National Match AR-15 A2‘s two-stage trigger. The AR50’s go-switch is also very tough; the company says it’s 5 lbs but it feels a touch heavier.

The break, however, is crisp and sharp. It’s a single stage trigger; there’s no creep whatsoever. It only moves after it releases the firing pin. Ignoring the weight and texture of the trigger I’d rank it right up there with the “world’s best” Timney trigger I reviewed last week, if not better.

You’d expect the recoil from this monster to be horrendous. In reality it’s quite pleasant. The kick feels more like a firm shove, heavier than a Mosin but less painful (thanks to the rubber recoil reducing buttplate, as opposed to the steel buttplate on a Mosin). After 60 rounds, my shoulder wasn’t the least bit sore from firing it.

Despite the negligible recoil, my shoulder was in fact killing me by the end of the day. The pain wasn’t caused by the recoil. It came from lugging this massive chunk of metal around all day. The 33-pound ArmaLite AR50 is closer to a deck gun or field artillery than a man portable rifle; it should have wheels and a horse. It’s not so heavy as to be impossible to move, just difficult. Most of that weight is due to an extra thick barrel, specially designed to not deform when firing (much unlike this PSL).

The only other issue I had with the AR50 was the caliber. 50 BMG is a superb long distance round, but choosing to fire something that big has consequences. Quantico is the only range within 100 miles that will let me shoot it, and even there Range 4 is the only range with an SDZ (Surface Danger Zone) large enough to handle it (which is only open a couple days each year to fiddy cal for civvies). That severely limits the number of days I can take this thing to the firing line. The price of ammunition (which starts around $4/round for the cheap stuff) limits my ability to send rounds downrange even further.

The AR-50 was designed to do one thing and do it well: hit targets at extreme ranges. According to their 1999 press release, the rifle is an ” . . . economical, accurate rifle for shooters interested in the challenges of long range shooting.” And that’s all it does. It’s a highly specialized piece of equipment with limited use. But where it’s useful, it’s perfect. It’s precisely the right tool for the job: punching precision holes in far away targets.

ArmaLite AR-50 Rifle

Caliber: .50 Browning Machine Gun (BMG)
Barrel: 30″ Chrome Moly, 8 grooves, 1:15″ twist
Size: 59.5″ overall length (49.33″ without rear assembly)
Weight: 33.2 lbs.
Operation: Single shot bolt action
Finish: Hard Anodized Aluminum, Manganese Phosphated Steel
Capacity: Single shot (one round)
MSRP: $3,359.00

Ratings (Out of Five Stars)

Accuracy: * * * * *
ArmaLite claims somewhere between .7 and .8 MoA accuracy, and the results back them up. Even using machine gun grade ammunition this thing was putting rounds into a dinner plate sized target at 1,000 yards.

Ergonomics: *
OH DEAR GOD this thing is heavy. Lugging it around a range is a great way to work out. If you’re doing something that requires a hike to get to the firing point, hire a Sherpa.

Ergonomics Firing: * * * * *
Almost everything that the shooter touches can be adjusted to fit their body, and the recoil isn’t nearly as bad as people think.

Reliability: * * * * *
There aren’t many things to go wrong with a single shot bolt action.

Customization: * * * * *
There’s no aftermarket doodads to add on, but the rifle will adjust to fit you no matter what size you are.

Rate of Fire: *
I’m adding this category because I just know that someone is going to mention a how a single shot bolt action is horrible for “tactical sniping” or something like that. All I have to say to you is “one shot, one kill.”

Overall Rating: * * * * *
Without a doubt the most accurate and furthest reaching rifle I have ever fired. Despite only being able to use it a couple times a year, those few rare moments of bliss on the 1,000 yard line make it all worth it.

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Pictures by Michael Dobbs and Nick Leghorn for The Truth about Guns.