50 Caliber Rifles

Myth: .50-calibers are the favorite weapon of terrorists

Fact:  Most terrorist attacks are in the form of bombings (90%).  Other acts, such as kidnapping (6%), armed attack (2%), arson (1%), firebombing (1%), and other methods (2%), are far less common. 1 Of the “armed attacks,” the most common weapons used are fully-automatic AK-47 rifles.

Fact:  A single .50 caliber rifle costs upwards of $10,000, yet terrorists can buy the favored AK-47 in Pakistan for less than $200.  History shows they opt for the AK-47.

Fact:  .50-caliber rifles are heavy (20-35 pounds), expensive (from $3,000 to $10,000 each, with ammunition costing $2-$5 for each round), impossible to conceal (typically four feet long), usually single shot (slow to reload), and impractical for terrorists.

Fact:  .50-caliber rifles have only been used in 18 crimes in the history of the United States. 2

Myth: American gun makers sold .50-calibers to terrorists

Fact:  This “study” by the anti-gun Violence Policy Center was inaccurate.  The rifles in question were sold to the United States government.  Years later, the U.S. government gave the rifles to Afghan freedom fighters to defeat the former Soviet Union.  There is no direct connection between gun makers and terrorists, and none of the rifles have been used in terrorist actions. 3

Myth: .50-caliber shooters are terrorists in training

Fact:  The average .50-caliber enthusiast is a successful businessman with an annual income of $50,000 or more – hardly a terrorist profile. 4

Myth: The Founding Fathers would have had no use for a .50-caliber rifle

Fact:  Common guns of the early American republic were larger than .50-caliber, many measuring up to .812 caliber.  The famous Kentucky Rifle (a name eventually given to most rifles made by German immigrants) was usually between .60 to .75-caliber.

Myth: .50-calibers are capable of piercing airline fuel tanks from a mile away

Fact:  Most expert long-distance shooters cannot hit a stationary target under perfect, windless conditions at such distances (one notable exception in Vietnam 5).  Ill-trained terrorists shooting a high-recoil .50-caliber rifle at fast moving targets – a 280 mph airplane – have no chance.

Fact: The only known uses of .50-caliber weapons in downing aircraft have been military aircraft using fully-automatic machine guns spraying fire while in combat against other aircraft, and as sniper fire on stationary aircraft (i.e., on the ground) on enemy airfields. Not even the military’s best sharp shooters are going to ignite a jet’s fuel tank when the jet is flying between 200-300 miles per hour.

Myth: .50-caliber bullets can penetrate concrete bunkers

Fact:  “It takes 300 rounds to penetrate 2 meters of reinforced concrete at 100 meters.” 6 At $5 per round, it would cost a terrorist $1,500 in ammunition to shoot into one bunker.

Myth: .50-caliber bullets can pierce light armor at 4 miles 7

Fact:  “At 35 meters distance [0.5% of the mythical “four mile” distance], a .50-caliber round will go through one inch armor plate.” 8 Piercing any armor at four miles is highly improbable.

Fact:  “It is exceedingly difficult to hit a target, even a large one … at anything over 1200 to 1500 yards by even highly trained individuals … The ammo is designed for a machine gun, and is generally only good for 2-3 minute of angle [fraction of a degree] of accuracy. That equates to a 30-45 inch circle at 1500 yards with a perfect rifle, no wind or other conditions and a trained shooter.” 9

Myth: .50-caliber rifles can knock a helicopter from the sky

Fact:  The terminal energy of a .50-caliber (6,000 ft-lbs) is not enough to knock a modern military aircraft from the sky unless it hits a critical component like a fuel line.  Records exist showing this has been done with common, smaller caliber assault rifles such as AK-47s.

Myth: .50-caliber guns are for snipers

Fact:  Americans have been long-distance target shooters since revolutionary times.  According to period writings, Americans were shooting small targets at upwards of 150 yards using simple Kentucky long rifles and muskets. 10

Fact:  “The use of [.50-caliber] by the IRA in Northern Ireland to shoot both soldiers and police officers at very short range (never more than 275 yards) also gave the weapon a worldwide notoriety when the world’s media slapped a ‘sniper’ label on the terrorists taking the shots.  They obviously were not and soon ran scared when professional snipers were deployed to stop them.” 11


Notes:

  1. Facts and Figures About Terrorism, Dexter Ingram, Heritage Foundation, September 14, 2001 (some attacks had multiple methods which accounts for a total in excess of 100%).
  2. Weaponry: .50 Caliber Rifle Crime, General Accounting Office Report number OSI-99-15R, revised Oct. 21, 2001.
  3. Barret Manufacturing letter on their web site available January 12, 2001.  This was confirmed during a visit by the BATF according to Dave Kopel in a National Review article “Guns and (Character) Assassination”, December 21, 2001.
  4. John Burtt, Fifty Caliber Shooters Policy Institute, Congressional testimony
  5. One Shot, One Kill: American Combat Snipers in World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Beirut, C. Sasser and C. Roberts, Pocket Books , referring to Marine sniper Carlos Hathcock.
  6. An Infantryman’s Guide to Combat in Built-up Area, field manual 90-10-1, US Army, May 1993.
  7. Senator Dianne Feinstein, Senate testimony, March 9, 2001.
  8. An Infantryman’s Guide to Combat in Built-up Area, field manual 90-10-1, US Army, May 1993.
  9. An Infantryman’s Guide to Combat in Built-up Area, field manual 90-10-1, US Army, May 1993.
  10. Firearms Ownership & Manufacturing in Early America, Clayton Cramer, unpublished.
  11. Sniper, Mark Spicer, Salamander Books, 2001.