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How the Gun Industry Armed Osama bin Laden, Other Foreign and Domestic Terrorists, and Common Criminals with 50 Caliber Sniper Rifles

Section One: The Capability of the 50 Caliber Sniper Rifle

"The advantages are obvious when you consider that many of the same targets of rocket and mortar fire can be neutralized with M33 ball, API M8 or Multipurpose ammunition."

—"Heavy Firepower for Light Infantry," Barrett Firearms Manufacturing, Inc. brochure advertising its Model 82A1 50 caliber sniper rifle18

The 50 caliber sniper rifles proliferating on today's civilian market are coveted by Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda and other international terrorist organizations because the cartridge they fire offers a devastating combination of range and power. This section explains why the .50BMG round can slice through body armor like a knife through warm butter, knock down hovering helicopters, rip up armored limousines, destroy radar dishes, and ignite bulk fuel tanks—all at the length of 10 football fields.19 Here is the summary of the round's merits by an enthusiastic essayist in the authoritative journal The Small Arms Review:

The fifty caliber's ability to be deployed by one individual and give that person the capability of discretely engaging a target at ranges of over one mile away are definitely alluring from a tactical standpoint. While the .50 cal sometimes seems to be exaggerated, it is hard to imagine a round that at ranges of over a mile and a half away, has more kinetic energy than a .44 Magnum, and has unbeatable penetration as well.20

The trained operator of a 50 caliber sniper rifle like the Barrett M82A1 has the choice of accurately hitting a long range target at 1,800 meters (1,969 yards) away,21 blasting through two inches of solid concrete at the shorter range of 200 meters (219 yards),22 or destroying a spectrum of personnel and material targets at other ranges.23 These choices—the balance of extremely long-range and enormous striking power—are enhanced when specially designed "match," "armor piercing," or "armor piercing incendiary" ammunition is used.

To appreciate the threat of the 50 caliber sniper rifle, it is necessary to consider its extended accurate range, its exceptional power, and the extraordinarily destructive characteristics of special 50 caliber military ammunition widely available on the civilian market.

Extended Range and Accuracy

Apologists for the unrestricted sale of 50 caliber sniper rifles to civilians often downplay the sniper rifle's long range accuracy. But the evidence from manufacturer advertising, military manuals, expert writing, and civilian owners themselves is that the 50 caliber rifles are accurate at ranges of at least 1,000 yards, and in the hands of a patiently trained and well-practiced marksman, nearly 2,000 yards. It is sobering to think of what Al Qaeda or other terrorists who have these sniper rifles can do with them from a distance of 20 football fields, especially given the planning and training of the terrorists that attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001.

The great mass of its bullet and the large size of the case into which the bullet is loaded give the 50 caliber round its deadly reach. Taken together, these result in much higher momentum than lesser rounds, such as the 30 caliber rounds of most other military sniper rifles.d The staff columnist of Very High Power Magazine, published by the Fifty Caliber Shooter's Association—a tiny organization of competitive shooters vociferous in its defense of the unrestrained civilian sale of 50 caliber sniper rifles—summarized this point in an article comparing the 50 caliber to the 7.76 NATO (.308 Winchester) "its next, closest, US military competitor" as follows:

For military users, the .50 BMG caliber cartridge offers a significantly larger payload volume over the .30 calibers. Also, with the speed and weight of the .50 projectile, muzzle energy is outstanding for a small arms caliber. This translates into a longer range bullet that can still deliver a punch.

Fifty Caliber Sniper Rifles Are Used by Armed Forces Worldwide

This Swedish soldier takes aim with a Barrett M82A1 50 Caliber sniper rifle. According to Forbes magazine, a sale to the Swedish army in 1989 was Barrett's first government contract.

How long a range? According to the U.S. Army, the 50 caliber rifle more than doubles the range of the sniper over the .308 round:

The typical range for a sniper attack is 300 to 600 meters with medium-caliber rifles. Shots from 800 to 1,000 meters are the exception. However, heavy sniper rifles (.50-caliber, 12.7-mm, 14.5-mm, and 15-mm) with ranges of 1,200 to 1,500 meters are now proliferating around the world.25

Manufacturers of 50 caliber sniper rifles also claim accuracy at these and even greater ranges. "With confirmed hits out to 1800 meters, the Barrett model 82A1 is battle proven," Barrett Firearms states in its promotional brochure.26 In fact, U.S. forces using Barrett M82A1s routinely engaged Iraqi forces out to a range of 1,600 meters (1,750 yards) during the 1991 Gulf War.27 For readers familiar with Washington, DC, this is roughly the distance from the Smithsonian Institute Metro stop to the West Front of the Capitol, where inaugural ceremonies are held. Another manufacturer, Aurora Tactical, says that its Model 650 Special Light Anti-Materiel Rifle (SLAMR) "enables a skilled marksman to deliver exceptionally accurate fire on targets in excess of 1500 yards."28

These ranges, in the vicinity of one mile, are at the outer limits of what may be expected from a skilled marksman. But they should not be dismissed as beyond the reach of dedicated terrorists like Al Qaeda, especially given the civilian training available and discussed in Section Four. In fact, some expert observers consider the 1000 yard range—the equivalent of 10 football fields end to end—to be comfortably within the grasp of the serious shooter. For example, two publications reviewing the performance of a new entry into the 50 caliber market, the ArmaLite AR-50, addressed the range question. American Rifleman, the NRA's official journal, said the .50 BMG is "ideally suited for precision target shooting at distances of 1000 yds. or more."29 The Small Arms Review, dedicated to the arcana of military weaponry, said, "It turned out that hitting something at 1000 yards was not the challenge. The real challenge was finding a place to safely shoot at a target 1000 yards away."30

Finally, advances in the design of 50 caliber rifles and ammunition alike have gradually improved the performance of expert shots at the 1,000 yard range. Thus, the diameter of the group of winning rounds fired in world record competitions steadily declined from 9.3125" in 1986 to 2.6002" in 1999.31

In short, the evidence is clear that the power of the 50 caliber sniper rifle in trained hands reaches from at least 1,000 to as far as 2,000 yards.

Destructive Power

It must always be kept in mind that the 50 caliber sniper rifle's threat is not only a function of the long ranges described above, but a devil's blend of long range and massive power. The operator will balance these two depending on the nature of the target. For example, IRA terrorists who assassinated British soldiers and Irish constables fired from ranges as short as 120 yards. The rounds the IRA snipers fired easily ripped through high grade military body armor worn by the soldiers, inflicting instantly mortal wounds.32 On the other hand, the longest confirmed kill in sniper history was achieved at a distance of 1.42 miles in Vietnam, by U.S. Marine Corps Gunnery Sergeant Carlos N. Hathcock. That feat is all the more impressive given that 50 caliber sniper rifles had not even yet been invented—Hathcock was firing single shots from a 50 caliber machine gun that he jury-rigged with a telescopic sight.33 The 50 caliber sniper rifles being sold to civilians today are much more sophisticated and finely made than Hathcock's makeshift weapon.

Although the 50 caliber sniper rifle presents a dramatic assassination threat because of its extraordinarily long range, that threat must not blind us to the super gun's power to destroy material targets. This destructive power is at least as serious a terrorist threat as assassination, and is more likely to cause mass casualties and widespread disruption to commerce and civic order. Here, for example, is Barrett's description of the power of its Model M82A1:

This revolutionary .50 caliber semi-automatic rifle allows sophisticated targets to be destroyed or disabled by a single soldier. Armored personnel carriers, radar dishes, communications vehicles, aircraft and area denial submunitions are all vulnerable to the quick strike capability of the Barrett 82A1. With decisive force and without the need for the manpower and expense of mortar or rocket crews, forces can engage the opposition at distances far beyond the range of small arms fire....The 82A1's light weight makes transportation as easy as walking....With night vision equipment, the weapon is even more effective under cover of darkness. The muzzle brake reduces felt recoil to no more than that of a 12 gauge shotgun....The advantages are obvious when you consider that many of the same targets for rocket and mortar fire can be neutralized with M33 ball, API M8 or Multipurpose ammunition.34

An excerpt from the U.S. Army's manual on urban combat indicates that it agrees with Barrett's assessment of the 50 caliber sniper rifle's ability to destroy materiel targets:

These heavy sniper rifles were originally intended as anti materiel weapons for stand-off attack against high-value targets, such as radar control vans, missiles, parked aircraft, and bulk fuel and ammunition storage sites. Because of this, they are only marginally accurate enough for long-range shots against individual personnel. It is their ability to shoot through all but the heaviest shielding material, and their devastating effects, that make them valuable psychological weapons.35

How destructive can the 50 caliber sniper rifle be in the hands of an Al Qaeda terrorist? That depends on the ammunition—and the target.

Overview of 50 Caliber Ammunition

The U.S. military uses at least eight different types of .50BMG ammunition, each type designed for a specific use.36 There are also various brands of civilian ammunition, much of it designed and manufactured for long-range competitive shooting, and 50 caliber ammunition can be reloaded at home. Worldwide, at least 100 variants of 50 caliber ammunition are produced in more than 30 countries.37 All of these types of 50 caliber ammunition have one thing in common: they are extremely powerful. Even so, some varieties are much more destructive than others.

The ammunition that 50 caliber sniper rifles fire today was originally developed during the First World War as both an anti-tank and machine gun round.38 Developments in tank armor soon made tanks generally impervious to 50 caliber rounds,39 but according to the Marine Corps and other authorities, the 50 caliber can still blast through more lightly armored vehicles, such as armored personnel carriers, and thus clearly through armored limousines.

"Size Matters"

Relative size of 30 caliber and 50 caliber rounds. Most military and police sniper rifles are in 30 caliber.

In fact, one of the reasons that the FBI requested that tanks be brought into the notorious and ultimately tragic siege of the Branch Davidian compound at Waco, Texas Size matters was that the Davidians were armed with two Barrett 50 caliber sniper rifles.40 An Army general told officials that even the U.S. "Bradley fighting vehicles would be vulnerable to .50 caliber weapons."41 It is clear that the presence of these super guns in civilian hands contributed to the escalation of force in the encounter. The implications for the security of high-profile dignitaries and others traveling in civilian armored cars, equally clear, are discussed in Section Three.

50 Caliber Ammunition Available on U.S. Civilian Market

The following review of four types of 50 caliber ammunition that are available to civilians in the United States—and thus easily available to foreign and domestic terrorists—describes the destruction the 50 caliber sniper rifle can inflict.

The availability of this ammunition in U.S. civilian markets is wholly aside from the fact that military ammunition stocks also can be procured from underground sources. Arms and ammunition—including such destructive items as M-16 assault rifles, machine guns, TNT, dynamite, plastic explosives, land mines, and hand grenades—are regularly stolen from U.S. military armories.42 Fifty caliber sniper rifles have proliferated in military forces around the world, and 50 caliber ammunition is made in more than 30 countries. Those foreign forces, including some that are less than friendly to the United States, have stocks of military ammunition that are available to any terrorist with the right connections. Arms and ammunition are also stolen from these foreign forces, friend and foe alike, sometimes on a staggering scale.43 Fifty caliber sniper rifles are also now finding their way into the arsenals of civilian police,44 opening another potential channel for acquisition of the more exotic 50 caliber ammunition through theft45 or other leakage.46 As Jane's Intelligence Review noted recently, "the hardest category of military exports to control is dual-use technology—technology that has both civilian or military applications."47 This description snugly fits the 50 caliber military sniper rifles sold by Barrett and other manufacturers to armies and civilians alike.

Ball ammunition. The simplest and most common round of firearm ammunition is called "ball." The U.S. Army says 50 caliber ball is used for training and against personnel and light materiel targets.48 Ball has less penetrating power than the specialized rounds discussed below. But the bullet's power against material objects is nonetheless awesome, varying as in all cases with distance. Thus, the Army says that at the long range of 1,500 meters (1,640 yards), ball ammunition can penetrate one inch of concrete, six inches of sand, and 21 inches of clay.49 At the lesser range of 35 meters (38 yards), ball ammunition can penetrate an inch of armor plate and 16 inches of log wall.50

Of course, a bullet that can penetrate an inch of concrete from the distance of 16 football fields can do massive damage to any softer target (such as human beings or unarmored public utility fixtures) from that and lesser ranges. Moreover, Army tables cited in the paragraph above show that the effects of ball can be enhanced by repeated firing at the same target, a capability of the semi-automatic 50 caliber sniper rifles like the Barrett M82A1 and others.g This thought is captured in the following quote from a noted expert author on sniping:

It's the .50's tremendous ability to penetrate bunkers and building that makes it so deadly....This means you can pulverize enemy positions and induce casualties without necessarily seeing an enemy soldier. When firing at positions, don't be thrifty; riddle them with enough bullets to ensure damage.51

In lieu of such brute force, the 50 caliber sniper rifle's performance can be substantially enhanced by the use of ammunition specially designed to destroy hard targets—ammunition that makes the rifles what expert Mark V. Lonsdale calls "a cost effective way to engage the enemy's high-tech equipment, light skinned vehicles and aircraft, especially when compared to the cost of hitting the same targets with rocket or mortar fire."52

Armor-piercing and incendiary ammunition. The Army says that the basic 50 caliber armor-piercing round is designed for use "against armored aircraft and lightly armored vehicles, concrete shelters, and other bullet-resisting targets."53 The armor-piercing effect is achieved by the bullet's design, which wraps a hardened core of a substance like manganese-molybdenum steel with a softer metal jacket.54 Incendiary ammunition is self-descriptive, used for "incendiary effect, especially against aircraft."55 In other words, it sets things like airplanes, fuel, and other combustible materials on fire.h Tracer ammunition, familiar to the public from scenes of night combat, leaves a visible trail of incendiary light. Variant rounds combine armor-piercing, incendiary, and tracer effects.56

As the following table demonstrates, the capabilities of the 50 caliber sniper rifle is substantially enhanced by the use of basic armor-piercing ammunition.

50 Caliber Armor-Piercing Bullet Penetration

Material 200 Meters

(219 Yards)

600 Meters

(656 Yards)

1,500 Meters

(1,640 Yards)

Homogeneous Armor Plate 1.0" 0.7" 0.3"
Face-Hardened Armor Plate 0.9" 0.5" 0.2"
Clay 28" 27" 21"

According to expert John Plaster, armor-piercing rounds at the shorter range of 100 yards (one football field) can penetrate nine inches of concrete, 1.8 inches of unarmored steel, 3.5 inches of aluminum, and 96 inches of timber.57

Saboted Light Armor Penetrator (SLAP) Ammunition. Designers of anti-armor ammunition have long used the idea of replacing a given caliber gun's projectile with a projectile of smaller diameter but more dense material. In order to seat the smaller projectile in the larger ammunition case, and to gain the necessary spin from the gun's rifled barrel, the projectile is wrapped in a "sabot" or "shoe." The shoe rides the length of the gun's barrel, then drops away from the projectile when it exits the barrel. The much higher velocity of a "saboted" round enhances its armor-piercing performance.

The U.S. Marine Corps developed 50 caliber SLAP ammunition in the 1980s, and it was used in 1990 during the Gulf War's Operation Desert Storm. It uses a .30 inch heavy metal (tungsten) penetrator in a plastic shoe, which is .50 inch in diameter. "Since the mass of the saboted penetrator is much lighter in weight than normal ball .50 caliber ammunition, SLAP's velocity can be significantly and safely increased," according to the Marine Corps. "This produces a very fast round with a very flat trajectory which enhances hit probability...and extends the light armor capability...significantly."58

According to Winchester, the civilian contractor that developed the 50 caliber SLAP round, it delivers "superior and proven performance against lightly armored vehicles and armoured attack helicopters at ranges up to 1500 meters."59

Components of "saboted light armor piercing" (SLAP) round

The 30 caliber bullet fits into 50 caliber case with plastic "sabot." Sabot falls away after round exits the barrel of the gun.

A round that has "proven performance" against an armored attack helicopter at 1,600 yards is a clear threat to America in the hands of any terrorist group that, like Al Qaeda, has acquired the means to deliver it in the form of the Barrett 50 caliber sniper rifle.

Raufoss Multipurpose (Armor-piercing, explosive, incendiary) Ammunition. The crown jewel of 50 caliber sniper rifle ammunition is the Raufoss multi-purpose round, developed by a Norwegian company and manufactured under license by several companies, including Winchester. Said by experts to be the most popular round with U.S. military snipers,60 it was used to devastating effect by U.S. forces in the 1991 Gulf War.

Designated the MK211 by the U.S. military, the Raufoss round was described by Jane's International Defense Review in 1994 as "the most influential development of the past decade" in 50 caliber ammunition.61 The round combines armor-piercing, explosive, and incendiary effects and uses a "highly effective pyrotechnically initiated fuze...[that] delays detonation of the main projectile charge until after initial target penetration—moving projectile fragmentation and damage effect inside the target for maximum anti-personnel and fire start effect."62 According to its developer, Nordic Ammunition Company (NAMMO), the round can be used in "sniper rifles similar to Barrett M82A1," has "the equivalent firing power of a 20 mm projectile to include such targets as helicopters, aircrafts (sic), light armour vehicles, ships and light fortifications," and can ignite JP4 and JP8 military jet fuel.63 (The typical 20mm projectile to which NAMMO equates its 50 caliber Raufoss round is approximately .8 inch in diameter, thus more than half again as wide as the 50 caliber. It is used in anti-armor and anti-aircraft cannons, often with an explosive charge.64 The Vulcan 20mm cannon has been the standard internal gun armament of most U.S. combat aircraft—currently including F-14, F-16, and F/A-18—since the 1950s.65)

According to the Marine Corps, the Barrett "M82A1A...fires the .50-caliber RAUFOSS ammunition, which contains a tungsten penetrator and a more powerful explosive charge than the API has penetrated an inch of steel at 2000 yards."66 Jane's International Defense Review estimates that the round is "probably capable of disabling a man wearing body armor who is standing behind the wall of a house at 2,000m.... (and) can perforate the foundation of a high-rise building (20cm reinforced concrete) at 400m."67 Reasonable persons probably would agree that blasting through 20 centimeters (7.87 inches) of reinforced concrete from four football field's distance is an impressive performance.

The antipersonnel sniping potential of the Raufoss round—touted by both NAMMO and Winchester in their advertising material—inspired an unsuccessful attempt in 1998 by the International Committee of the Red Cross to have the round Raufoss Round declared an "exploding bullet" banned under international law.68

The Raufoss Round—The Crown Jewel of 50 Caliber Ammunition

How the Raufoss 50 caliber multi-purpose round works. The armor-piercing bullet penetrates the armor. Then a delayed action fuze sets off the explosive part of round, producing fragmentation and incendiary (fire-starting) effects.

Availability of Specialized 50 Caliber Ammunition on U.S. Civilian Market

The implications of the potential uses to which a terrorist might put 50 caliber armor-piercing, incendiary, SLAP, or Raufoss ammunition can only be described as frightening. Yet all of these types of ammunition are available on the U.S. civilian market. SLAP is less frequently offered than ball, armor-piercing, and incendiary variants, and Raufoss is rarely offered publicly. Yet the VPC has documented public offerings and apparent sales of all the varieties discussed above in the civilian market (again, aside from leakage from military stocks worldwide).

Ball, armor-piercing, and armor-piercing incendiary are routinely sold through a variety of Internet web sites and mail order catalogs, and at least one site has also offered SLAP.69 In addition to these commercial outlets, armor-piercing and SLAP rounds have been offered for sale through at least one Internet gun auction site.70

Finally, SLAP and Raufoss have been offered for sale through postings on a popular 50 caliber Internet bulletin board.71 One correspondent on the board claimed to have "acquired some Winchester manufactured (real) SLAP ammo which was acquired from a Winchester rep for free." If this is true, that incident marked a source of leakage that cut out the military middle man.

In sum, the most destructive types of ammunition for the 50 caliber sniper rifles are freely available in the U.S. domestic market—wholly aside from whatever leakage may exist from military sources, not only within the United States, but abroad, including from the armed forces of hostile, terrorist-supporting countries.

In the next section, we report on the hands into which 50 caliber sniper rifles have fallen, including Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda and other terrorists and criminals.  


c) .50BMG is the technical designation of the round. The BMG stands for Browning machine gun, one of the earliest weapons using the round.

d) Generally speaking, modern ammunition consists of four parts, assembled into a unit called a "round" or "cartridge." The components of the round are (1) the bullet, i.e., the actual projectile that the gun shoots; (2) the propellant charge, or gunpowder, which when ignited rapidly expands into a high pressure gas that expels the bullet out the barrel of the gun, (3) a "primer" which ignites when struck by a firing pin and in turn sets off the main charge of powder, and (4) a case or "shell" in which the powder, primer and bullet are assembled. Ammunition size is commonly expressed in terms of the approximate diameter of the bullet, measured either in inches (e.g., .50 BMG is roughly half an inch in diameter) or millimeters (e.g., 12.7 mm). Although the dimensions of 50 caliber rounds vary depending on the type (i.e. "ball," "match," "armor-piercing," etc.), the typical 50 caliber bullet is .510" in diameter by 2.27" in length, the case is 3.9" in length, and the overall length of the assembled round is 5.425". (The overall length is somewhat shorter than the sum of the case and bullet because the bullet is "seated" within the case.) Dimensions from: Dean Michaelis, The Complete .50-Caliber Sniper Course: Hard-Target Interdiction (Paladin Press, Boulder, Colorado, 2000), p. 391; Ian V. Hogg, The World's Sniping Rifles (Greenhill Books, London,1998), p. 123; Ian V. Hogg, The Greenhill Military Small Arms Data Book (Greenhill Books, London, 1999), p. 280.

e) Last February the FCSA's president reported that it was "rapidly approaching 2600 members." "From The President's Bench," downloaded from The Fifty Caliber Shooter's Association Internet web site, on February 13, 2001.

f) It is not true, nor has the VPC ever claimed, that a 50 caliber round can penetrate the armor of a modern tank, despite occasional erroneous reports to that effect. What is true is that the 50 caliber can force tank crews to "button up," and well-placed shots could destroy or degrade certain external equipment and vision blocks on some tanks. See, e.g., undated article "How to ‘Tickle a Tank,'" Soldier of Fortune, posted on Barrett Firearms Internet web site, downloaded from on September 29, 2001. These, however, are generally military matters beyond the range of this report and the VPC's interest.

g) Semi-automatic firearms typically have an ammunition magazine, popularly called a "clip." They fire one round every time the trigger is pulled until the magazine is empty. The trigger of a semi-automatic firearm may be pulled rapidly, but it must be released between each round. This differs from the fully automatic weapon, or machine gun, which continues firing as long as the trigger is held down until the magazine is exhausted.

h) Fifty caliber sniper rifles have been banned from some public shooting ranges because of fires set by enthusiasts firing various types of incendiary rounds. See discussion in Section Four.

i) Source: John L. Plaster, The Ultimate Sniper: An Advanced Training Manual for Military & Police Snipers (Paladin Press, Boulder, Colorado, 1993), p. 221.

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The Violence Policy Center is a national non-profit educational foundation that conducts research on violence in America and works to develop violence-reduction policies and proposals. The Center examines the role of firearms in America, conducts research on firearms violence, and explores new ways to decrease firearm-related death and injury.