The AR-15 style rifle enjoys widespread use by both the military and law enforcement. The semi-automatic long arm is also very popular with for civilian self defense, target shooting, and hunting. There are so many manufacturers offering AR-15 rifles that it’s difficult to keep up with them all. New names are added to the growing list each year.
One of several reasons for the AR-15’s popularity is due to its modular design. A majority of parts interchange between different brands, allowing customization to be straightforward. Entire “uppers” consisting of barrels, forearms, and actions can also swap right onto most AR-15 “lowers.” These lowers include the serial numbered frame, magazine well, trigger and hammer groups, and stocks.
Many of the stand alone uppers available are in calibers considered more powerful than the 5.56mm NATO round. Cartridges such as the .204 Ruger, 7.62x39 Russian, 6.5 Grendel, and 6.8 Remington SPC are popular for AR-15s, with swaps made simple with the use of upper conversion kits. (By the way, the name Grendel and Beowulf come from the same Medieval heroic epic story—one of the first and most important in all of Anglo-Saxon literature. Beowulf is the victor, but pays the price.)
Pulling out two pins is all it takes to remove a factory upper. The reinstallation of those two pins then secures a new upper which can convert the rifle to another caliber. If your needs require the ultimate big bore conversion for the AR-15, then your search will culminate with the .50 Beowulf.
Alexander Arms’ proprietary cartridge fires the largest, heaviest, and most powerful bullet available for the AR-15 platform. The Beowulf’s rim is rebated to the size of a 7.62x39 case so that it will work within the maximum specifications of a standard AR-15’s bolt size.
Ten years ago, Bill Alexander founded Alexander Arms in Virginia. He believed in the design of the .50 Beowulf cartridge. The full 1/2-inch diameter bullet was designed to deliver devastating power at short to moderate ranges. If your law enforcement needs require the penetration of vehicles or other heavy barricades, the .50 Beowulf delivers big bore penetration power with less chance of deflection.
Alexander Arms offers the .50 Beowulf ammo with fully jacketed, softpoint and hollowpoint bullets from 240 grains to 400 grains. Bullet weights in-between include 300, 325, 335, 350 and 385 grains. That means the .50 Beowulf bullets weigh from four to seven times as much as the standard 55 grain 5.56mm NATO bullet.
The .50 Beowulf has almost two-and-a-half times the muzzle energy of the 5.56 NATO: 3123ft.-lbs for 400 grain bullet versus 1282ft-lbs for the 55 grain bullet. At distances out to 200 yards, the .50 Beowulf still has more than double the energy of the AR-15’s standard cartridge.
The .50 Beowulf ammo is available directly from Alexander Arms. The cost of twenty rounds ranges from $25 to $40 per box, depending on bullet weight and configuration. Compared to high quality law enforcement 5.56mm ammo, the Beowulf rounds are not cheap, but they are not outlandish either.
One of the biggest advantages of the Beowulf round is that it can be fired by the well-known AR-15 platform. Most police specialty unit officers are highly familiar with the AR-15’s operating system, so swapping over to the .50 caliber upper should require very little additional training. Supplementary training should only be needed to get on target and become acclimated to the greater recoil. Installation of a thicker recoil pad will certainly help manage this last matter.
“Upper” Conversion or Full Rifle
Alexander Arms offers five upper conversion kits for use on standard AR-15 lower receivers or four fully complete rifles. Both the uppers and the rifles are offered in “Entry” level versions with just the basic receiver, barrel, forearm, and Picatinny top rail or in “Advanced” levels with a Midwest Industries free float quad rail.
The .50 Beowulf upper receivers are made from forged aluminum alloy and the internal parts are honed and hard chromed. The bolts are case hardened, shot-peened, and phosphate-coated steel. The gas system is made from hard drawn, 316 stainless steel. In common speak, the Beowulf upper is made from the toughest stuff there is.
The top of the line Advanced Weapon System Complete Upper Assembly ($920) was used for this review. The Millennium muzzle brake ($97) was attached to the conversion, but Tank and Pepper Pot muzzle brakes are also available. The 16-inch, chrome-moly barrel features a 1 in 20-inch twist rate to spin the big .50 caliber bullet toward its intended target.
Since the upper is not a serial numbered firearm, it can be shipped directly to an individual officer. For this test, the .50 Beowulf upper was mounted on a Ruger SR-556 lower receiver. The Ruger rifle utilizes a gas piston action. This emphasizes the fact that the Alexander Arms upper works on virtually any AR-15 lower, including standard impingement or gas piston systems.
Shooting the Beowulf
Alexander Arms offers 4, 7, and 10-round magazines from the factory. They are basically AR-15 magazines with modified feed lips. While the cartridges will load in standard magazines, the feed lips must be modified for reliable function. A standard 30-round .223 Rem/5.56 NATO magazine will hold 10 rounds of .50 Beowulf ammo. The 10-round magazines provided with the upper conversion performed without fail.
If you don’t like drawing attention to yourself, don’t shoot the .50 Beowulf at a crowded shooting range— the .50 Beowulf is definitely an attention-getter. Appearing to be just another black AR-15, the carbine is low profile when removed from its case. But that changes fast once the trigger is pulled.
When the .50 Beowulf lets loose, the ground shakes, the roof shakes, in fact, everything in the area shakes. People stop what they are doing and stare. Nothing else sounds like the .50 Beowulf when it goes off.
The Millennium muzzle brake performs its job well by directing gas both upward and outward to help control muzzle climb. However, the blast pushes a gust of air rushing back at the shooter with a considerable amount of force. It takes a few rounds downrange to get used to the air turbulence blowing into your face. The short barrel and muzzle brake add to the loud report of the powerful .50 caliber rifle. Foam ear plugs are inadequate when practicing with this firearm. Proper ear muffs are required, and plugs are a good idea in addition to the muffs.
The felt recoil is a lot more than the light (or non) recoil from the 5.56mm. The best way to describe shooting the .50 Beowulf is to say that it felt similar to firing rifled slugs from a pump shotgun! A quality recoil pad on the stock is recommended instead of the hard plastic that usually comes standard on M4 collapsible stocks. The Ruger SR-556 lower was equipped with an aftermarket grip and collapsible stock which included a quality rubber recoil pad.
Iron back-up battle sights from Troy Industries worked well out to 50 yards. A Burris PEPR mount was used to secure a Burris tactical scope, along with a Burris Fastfire II electronic red dot mounted up top. This setup worked well at 100 and 200 yards. The 335 grain Rainer full metal jacket bullets used for testing consistently hit on target at 50-, 100- and 200 yards.
The physics of gravity pulling the heavy bullets downward, combined with the flat point bullet’s non-aerodynamic profile, caused the rounds to drop considerably as they traveled over greater distance. They were right on at 50 yards with a minimal drop at 100 yards. However, at 200 yards the drop was around one foot and required scope adjustment.
A Heavy Caliber Choice
Alexander Arms’ upper conversion in caliber .50 Beowulf mounted readily to a standard AR-15 lower receiver. The large caliber rifle accepted all of the accoutrements available to the platform. The platform utilized iron sights, a magnified scope, and an electronic red dot sight and performed equally well with all three.
The manual of arms for the AR-15 is well known and requires almost no additional training for officers already familiar with this common style of rifle. The upper conversion allows for the use of a .50 caliber round that delivers a staggeringly powerful knock down force. Its muzzle brake aids recoil control and, combined with a quality rubber butt pad, reduces punishing shoulder force while firing the large caliber rifle.
SWAT entry teams, arrest and warrant service officers, and even checkpoint guards could make good use of such a powerful cartridge with such heavy object, penetration ability. If law enforcement feels the need for an extremely powerful, large caliber rifle to be used at short to medium ranges, the .50 Beowulf is ready to satisfy that need. It is the biggest, baddest bullet around.
Steve Tracy is a 22-year police veteran with 20 years of experience as a firearms instructor. He is also an instructor for tactical rifles, use of force, less-than-lethal force and scenario-based training. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.