Beowulf is the oldest literary work in the English language. It was written in the 11th century and details the exploits of Beowulf, a 6th century Danish hero who comes to the rescue of his country and in the process battles and defeats various monsters and other villains.
Beowulf was probably the first superhero. He apparently was a historical figure, but fact and fiction melded over the years between historical events and the writing of the epic that bears Beowulf’s name.
What is not fiction, however, is that the .50 Beowulf cartridge and the AR-type rifle that fires it bring a new capability to the popular and adaptable AR and give the user unprecedented levels of close quarters battle (CQB) performance coupled with absolute reliability.
The .50 Beowulf is the brainchild of Bill Alexander, a British expatriate who now makes his home in Radford, VA, where his rifles and upper conversions are manufactured at Radford Army Arsenal in leased facilities. There have been a number of other large caliber AR conversions similar in concept to the .50 Beowulf. Most have unpleasant recoil, and the author cannot help but wonder if this cannot ultimately damage lower receivers whose recoil mechanisms were designed for recoil forces and bolt velocities associated with the much smaller 5.56mm cartridge.
To overcome the possibility of damage, Alexander dropped chamber pressures from the 50,000 plus range of the 5.56mm to about 33,000 psi for his .50 Beowulf. This gives a bolt velocity virtually identical to that of a rifle firing a 5.56mm with recoil forces that are only slightly higher. The .50 Beowulf feels about like a 20 gauge shotgun, i.e., more than a 5.56mm, but far less than some larger caliber AR conversions.
The .50 Beowulf cases are made for Alexander by Starline, which essentially stretches a .50 Action Express (.50AE) case and rebates the head a bit more to accommodate the smaller AR bolt. Head strength of the rebated case is more than enough to safely handle the pressures of the .50 Beowulf. The case tapers from 0.539 inch at the head to 0.526 inch at the mouth. Rim diameter is 0.443 inch. Overall case length is 1.655 inches. Bullet diameter is 0.501 inch.
A number of loads are available for the .50 Beowulf intended for both sporting and law enforcement / military use. Alexander Arms
also maintains dies and reloading data for those who wish to “roll their own.” From the ballistic data, it is readily apparent that the .50 Beowulf is unlike almost any other caliber currently available for the AR-type rifle.
For law enforcement use, the heavy .50 caliber bullet delivers energy levels and capabilities that far surpass those of the 5.56mm or 7.62mm. The cartridge can be used against other material targets that would defeat a 5.56mm or 7.62mm. Unlike .50 BMG rifles, the .50 Beowulf is easily carried and emplaced, plus it is far more manageable and easy to shoot.
Since the .50 Beowulf is built on a standard AR receiver, there are no training issues other than recoil management, which should not be a problem. With frangible ammunition, the .50 Beowulf can be used as an entry gun to blow hinges off doors or in areas where ricochets, backsplash, and over-penetration are an issue. The muzzle brake performs double duty to reduce recoil and as a standoff device with frangible ammunition.
For use against barricaded suspects, the .50 Beowulf will knock huge chunks out of cinder block or brick walls and literally shatters single concrete blocks. One or two well-placed .50 Beowulf rounds should persuade all but the most hardened perpetrators to surrender as their “cover” disintegrates around them.
For marine use, the .50 Beowulf can be used as a boarding carbine capable of defeating steel hulled small-to medium-sized sea craft. Indeed, the U.S. Coast Guard has been seeking such a weapon, as have several special operations units. Some of the latter are presently using small numbers of .50 Beowulf carbines.
The large, heavy .50 Beowulf bullet, with its high cross-sectional area and low ballistic coefficient, is not a long range round. By the time it has reached 300 meters, it has dropped more than 54 inches, although it still retains a velocity of 985 feet per second and 725 foot-pounds of energy. On the contrary, the .50 Beowulf’s forte is close range work at distances of 200 meters or less.
The drop at 200 meters is about 15 inches, assuming a 100 yard zero. This is easily compensated for by a well-trained individual, who should be able to place rounds onto a human target within the .50 Beowulf’s 200 meter performance envelope. At CQB distances of 100 meters or less, the .50 Beowulf completely overshadows smaller calibers, although the ballistic performance is offset to some degree by reduced magazine capacity.
While the .50 Beowulf feeds very reliably from standard M16 magazines, capacity is dramatically reduced. The 20-round M16 magazines hold only seven .50 Beowulf rounds, while 30-round magazines hold only 10 of the fat Beowulf cartridges. Ten-round 5.56mm magazines hold only four .50 Beowulf cartridges.
As such, the .50 Beowulf is definitely not a replacement for 5.56 and 7.62mm caliber rifles and carbines, but a supplementary weapon for tactical situations where penetration and knockdown power are demanded. Unlike some other alternatives, all that is necessary to convert from 5.56mm to a .50 Beowulf carbine is an upper receiver.
Alexander Arms manufactures .50 Beowulf rifles and carbines in barrel lengths ranging from 12-inch entry guns with collapsible stocks to 24-inch barrel rifles, although most rifles and conversion units are variations on the 16-inch carbine. All feature “A3” type upper receivers with MIL STD 1913 rails on the flat top upper receiver and gas block. Carry handles with A2-type sights are available as optional extras, as are scope mounts.
A muzzle brake that also serves as a standoff for entry work is also available and recommended. The felt recoil of a .50 Beowulf without muzzle brake is not so stout as to be painful, but the muzzle brake aids by reducing felt recoil, enhancing control and by speeding recovery between shots.
Other options include carrying handles, tactical sights that combine an A2-type rear sight with MIL STD 1913 rail in place of the carry handle, “scout” rail, brass catcher, scope mounts, cleaning kit and open front sights. Reloading dies are also available, as are various types of ammunition.
The .50 Beowulf carbine is made to military standard with 7075T6 forged aluminum receivers and is finished to MIL SPEC. The overall quality of fit and finish on the example we received is very high—among the best AR-type firearms we have ever seen. Our example was sent to us with tan wood, which we prefer over black.
Nothing in nature is solid black, and nature abhors a straight line, so black firearms are becoming the exception rather than the rule in military operations. Special Forces, in particular, almost always camouflage their rifles and equipment by spray painting them.
With this particular carbine, the camouflage base is already begun from the manufacturer. There is no dust cover over the ejection port because of the fact that the standard ejection port was enlarged to accommodate the fat .50 Beowulf cases. A larger dust cover is under development.
All else on the .50 Beowulf is standard AR and should be familiar to any of the millions of American military and law enforcement personnel who have trained and qualified with the weapon. The manual of arms is unchanged. All .50 Beowulf carbines use the recently introduced “mid-length” handguard that provides an increased gripping area over the short carbine length items.
Because the .50 Beowulf came without sights or accessories other than a magazine, we chose to set it up it to suit our personal tastes. We went with EOTech’s latest version of its excellent Holographic Weapon Sight (HWS) for our primary sight. Because the Beowulf is a carbine for use at ranges of less than 200 yards, the EOTech is ideal.
The HWS is now being bought by the thousands by the U.S. military for use in Afghanistan and Iraq by Special Forces troops who mount it onto their M4A1 carbines. With its 65 MOA ring and 1 MOA central dot, the HWS is arguably the fastest optical sight in existence. We find that with the HWS all that is necessary is to look at a target with both eyes open, throw the rifle to our shoulder and the eye, sight and target almost automatically fall into alignment.
Moreover, the Model 552 HWS that we have has no less than 10 levels of night vision reticle in its optic. If this weren’t enough, the HWS will work, even with a hole in the hardened glass window. The Model 552 has also been upgraded to be waterproof to 10 meters in its standard configuration and 20 meters in optional full military configuration.
Finally, if the operator decides to go to backup iron sights, the HWS can remain in place; the glass window does not interfere with the use of open sights. Some reports from Iraq and Afghanistan indicate that Special Forces users often do not use the reticle at all at CQB distances but simply frame the target in the hardened window and shoot.
For backup iron sights, we went to DPMS for a set of its Mangonel sights. While somewhat puzzling, the name “Mangonel” is actually very fitting, as the new sights resemble the medieval siege engine after which they are named. These slights are unlike any others in that they lie almost completely flat when not in use and lock into place when erected.
Once locked into place, the only way the Mangonel sight will fold down is when the operator chooses to fold it; it isn’t going to fold or move under external pressure. Besides being extremely durable, DPMS’ Mangonel sights can be used either on rifles with a gas block front sight mount or on rifles with a full-length MIL STD 1913 rail. The front sight has two notches to accommodate differing heights between rails and gas blocks. The Mangonel sights are fully adjustable for windage and elevation.
Of course, no rifle is complete without a sling, and in this instance, we went to Brownell’s, where we ordered a green CQB Solutions Special Operations Patrol Sling. This sling allows the rifle to be carried across the body and instantly brought into action without entanglement.
When the rifle is dropped to transition to a handgun or allow the use of both hands, the CQB sling keeps the rifle out of the way, allowing quick and unobstructed use of the hands. The sling is fully ambidextrous and is easy to mount. We especially like the way it carries the rifle or carbine and the fact that it is available in green or black.
Having set up our .50 Beowulf to our satisfaction, we headed to the range to see how it shot. We’d already heard from some friends in a federal law enforcement officers who had tested it that the carbine was both reliable and accurate, so we expected the rifle to shoot well. True to form, the .50 Beowulf delivered good accuracy at 50 meters and devastated our test concrete blocks with single shots. Recoil was about equivalent to a 20 gauge shotgun and was easily manageable.
The single stage trigger broke cleanly at an average of 6 pounds with a bit of creep—in other words, typical AR. Although our test carbine was equipped with a 16-inch barrel and muzzle brake, muzzle blast was less than we expected.
Accuracy was very good, and while the .50 Beowulf is not a match rifle, it is not intended to be. It is essentially a weapon for CQB work, and as such, it excels. Our testing entailed firing more than 100 rounds, and we did not experience a single stoppage of any kind using standard M16 magazines from various sources.
The .50 Beowulf functioned perfectly with polymer, steel and aluminum mags, whether they were of the 20- or 30-round types. We had several police officers fire the .50 Beowulf, and all found it to be easy to handle and pleasant to shoot. Recoil was not an issue. The .50 Beowulf offers users of M16 rifles or M4 carbines a capability to quickly change from 5.56mm to a more powerful, larger caliber rifle or carbine that can be created by simply adding an upper receiver to an existing lower.
Based on our experience, the .50 Beowulf should prove to be reliable and will be a valuable supplement to any agency that requires a large caliber rifle capable of taking down doors, immobilizing vehicles or shooting through barriers while maintaining 5.56mm weapons for situations that do not demand the power or penetration of the heavy .50 Beowulf bullets.
We know of no other rifle that combines lightweight, excellent handling, reliability, mild recoil and terminal effects of the .50 Beowulf. About the only disadvantage to the .50 Beowulf is that the ammunition is currently available only from Alexander Arms. Once the .50 Beowulf becomes more popular and ammunition manufacturers begin producing cartridges, this situation should improve.Charlie Cutshaw is a small arms, ammunition and infantry weapons editor for Jane’s Defense Information. He served as an Army infantry, ammunition and intelligence officer before retiring in 1996. His military assignments included a tour of duty in Vietnam as an adviser. He currently lives in Alabama, where he is a full-time writer and reserve officer. He can be reached at CQCutshaw@aol.com.