What Is A 50 BMG?

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The 50 BMG seems to have reached a level of cult status, even among non-gun-enthusiasts, probably in part thanks to video games.  As a result, there is a generous amount of confusion surrounding the term 50-cal and, more especially, the 50 BMG (no, they’re not the same thing).  But what is a 50 BMG and is the BMG truly the round to rule them all?

In 1918, Browning developed the 50 Browning Machine Gun (or BMG) cartridge.  It was designed as a much bigger version of the 30-06 and is used primarily in machine guns and long-range sniper rifles.  With some exceptions, the 50 BMG is legal to own in most USA.

Although it isn’t the best round for every occasion, the 50 BMG has endured more than 100 years of continuous service in the armed forces.  So, there must be something special about it.

What Is A 50 BMG

50 Caliber Vs. 50 BMG – What’s The Difference?

First, we need to clarify some confusion around the difference between the terms 50 Caliber (or “50 Cal”) and 50 BMG.  Even though they are often used interchangeably in conversation, they are two very different things. 

As you may already know, “caliber” is the term that describes the bore diameter, which equals the diameter of a bullet.  In other words, “50-cal” is a blanket term that refers to all weapons with a bore diameter of 0.500 inches, or 12.7 millimeters.   

You can purchase all kinds of weapons that fire 50-cal bullets, from sniper rifles, pistols, and revolvers to muzzleloaders.  There are even assault rifles, like the Russian-made ShAk-12 that chamber 50-cal bullets. 

The 50 BMG is a 50-cal because it is a 0.500-inch-wide bullet but a specific round or cartage type.  So, the term “50 BMG” includes the bullet, case, primer, and powder

In other words, all 50 BMGs are technically 50 calibers, but not all 50 calibers are 50 BMGs. Therefore, a 50 AE weapon cannot fire a 50 BMG round and visa-versa.

The Firepower Of The 50 BMG

As we mentioned earlier, the original design of the 50 BMG was an upscaled version of the 30-06 developed some ten years earlier.  And boy, did they take the “upscale” part literally. 

A 30-06 delivers muzzle energy of up to 300 foot-pounds.  If that’s gibberish to you, think of it this way:  the 30-06 has enough muzzle energy to move a weight of 300 pounds one foot’s distance.  That’s more or less like saying it can shove an antelope for one foot.

However, its bigger brother basically leaves the muzzle swinging Thor’s Hammer!  The 50 BMG has a tremendous muzzle energy of between 15- and 30 000 foot-pounds.  That’s enough power to move two African elephants. 

You may rightly be wondering if all that power translates to increased accuracy over longer distances.  Sufficed to say, yes, it is.

50 BMGs are obviously loaded with a big and heavy bullet, but lighter grains can see muzzle velocities of around 3000 FPS and heavier bullets of about 2700 – 2800 FPS, which is enough speed to keep the bullet steady for a very long time.

As a result, the 50 BMG is a highly effective sniper rifle cartage.  In fact, the longest confirmed kill (over 2.1 miles) was made with 50 BMG in the chamber. 

Their immense power and the great variety of bullets also make them an excellent choice for punching holes through armed vehicles at a distance.

The Uses Of The 50 BMG

It should be no surprise that the 50 BMG was created for the armed forces, which is ultimately still where it finds its biggest ‘clientele.’  

50 BMGs come with a wide variety of bullet options, including armor-piercing, tracers, full metal jackets, and even incendiary bullets.  In other words, they were made with warfare in mind. 

In the arena of warfare, they serve two primary functions, the first being in machine guns such as the Browning M2, and their second use in sniper rifles such as the Barret, which is the most commonly thought of 50 BMG sniper rifle.

In the civilian world, they are primarily used for very long-range target shooting, if you can afford the ammunition, that is. 

We have read certain occasions of hunters using the round.  However, unless you are hunting dragons, we don’t fully understand why you need such firepower. 

Furthermore, even if you opt for this wholly overpowered hunting option, remember that at very long distances, a bullet tumbles.  And whatever you hit with tumbling 50 BMG bullet will look like you forced it through a cheese grater.

What Does A 50 BMG Cost?

Before you turn your excitement gauge to maximum and set your mind on owning a 50 BMG for target shooting, you need to be aware of the cost.

The cheapest option is to get a single-shot like the Serbu or Armalite, which will cost you around $2500.  However, if you are committed to buying a weapon with a magazine, you can expect to pay about $5000.  If you want a Barret, be ready for an $8000 price tag.

Or, if you really want to empty the old bank account and turn some heads at the range, you can grab an Accuracy International with a price ticket in the region of $11000

And then there’s the ammunition.  It is said that a 50 BMG makes the same sound as a cashier’s till when you pull the bold back.  At between $8 and $15 a pop for match-grade ammo, it’s no surprise.  If you opt to reload, you can reduce the cost to the $5 – $6 range. 

Either way, a day at the range will still be more expensive than a night at a French restaurant, so you should decide beforehand how badly you want to shoot 50 BMGs.

A Quick Look At Other 50 Cals

There are several other popular 50 caliber cartridges, such as the 50 AE, 50 Beowulf, and 500 Magnum.

The 50 AE, or “Action Express,” is the round chambered by what is probably the most commonly recognized 50 caliber handgun:  The Desert Eagle.  Although the bullet diameter is the same as the BMG, the complete round is considerably smaller, at around 1.6 inches vs. the 5.45 inches of the BMG.

The smaller size means less power and less muzzle energy, which is probably a good thing if you like having a wrist.  That’s not to say the 50AE is by any means a baby.  At an insane 1600 foot-pounds, it will stop Goliath in his tracks.

If you need to stop something bigger than Goliath with a handgun, you can opt to buy a Smith & Wesson revolver chambered in their 500 Magnum round.  With a 500, you can near double the energy to around 3000 foot-pounds—enough to stop Goliath riding on a Grizzly bear.

Another popular variation of the 50 Caliber is the 50 Beowulf.  Created by Alexander Arms, the concept of the 50 Beowulf was to develop a 50 Caliber round suitable for use in an assault rifle platform

At 2.1 inches in length and packing muzzle energy of around 2400 foot-pounds, the cartridge resembles the 500 Magnum.  The benefit of the Beowulf is that you can purchase the tried-trusted AR-15 platform chambered in 50 Beowulf. 

You are likely to pay considerably less for the Beowulf than for a BMG.  The rifle will cost you around $1200 and ammunition around $1.5 per round.  So if you absolutely want a semi-auto 50-cal, then the Beowulf is a worthy alternative to the BMG.


The 50 BMG is an excellent cartridge that continues to serve the armed forces worldwide.  In all likelihood will continue to be used on the front lines for several years to come.  It is a high-energy round capable of making extremely long-distance shots accurately. 

Although legal to own (except in California with some exceptions), it is usually just too much weapon and too expensive for the average enthusiast.  If you ever get the opportunity to shoot one, take it!  Few guns will put a smile on your face like the first time you pull the trigger on the might 50 BMG.

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