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Sitting Ducks

The Threat to the Chemical and Refinery Industry From 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 rifle15

The .50 BMG roundb fired by 50 caliber sniper rifles can knock down hovering helicopters, penetrate armored limousines, and ignite bulk fuel tanks from a distance of 10 football fields.16 The round's merits were summarized 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.17

Extended Range and Accuracy

Advertising, military manuals, expert writing, and civilian owner comments all demonstrate that 50 caliber sniper rifles are accurate at ranges of at least 1,000 yards, and in the hands of a trained marksman, nearly 2,000 yards. "With confirmed hits out to 1800 meters, the Barrett model 82A1 is battle proven," Barrett Firearms states in its promotional brochure.18 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.19 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."20

Destructive Power

The 50 caliber sniper rifle's threat is a blend of long range and massive power. Here is Barrett's description of the power of its Model M82A1, widely available on the civilian market:

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.21

An excerpt from the U.S. Army's manual on urban combat emphasizes 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....It is their ability to shoot through all but the heaviest shielding material, and their devastating effects, that make them valuable psychological weapons.22

50 Caliber Ammunition Available on U.S. Civilian Market

Although originally designed for heavy military use, all types of 50 caliber ammunition are readily available to civilians in the United States—and thus easily available to foreign and domestic terrorists. This, of course, 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.23 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.24

The 50 caliber sniper rifle's performance is 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."25 This ammunition includes armor-piercing, incendiary, and explosive rounds specifically designed to attack targets similar to the bulk tanks, pipes, and other materiel in and around the typical refinery or other chemical industrial site.

Armor-piercing and incendiary ammunition. The U.S. 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."26 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.27 Incendiary ammunition is self-descriptive, used for "incendiary effect, especially against aircraft."28 In other words, it sets things like airplanes, fuel, and other combustible materials on fire.c 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.29

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 1991 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."30

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."31

A round that has "proven performance" against an armored attack helicopter at 1,600 yards is a clear threat to American industrial sites in the hands of any terrorist group that, like al Qaeda, has acquired the means to deliver it in the form of the 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,32 it was used to devastating effect by U.S. forces in the 1991 Gulf War.

Designated the MK211 by the U.S. military, 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."33 According to its developer, Nordic Ammunition Company (NAMMO), the round can be used in "sniper rifles similar to [the] 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.34

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."35 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."36 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.


Fifty caliber sniper rifles are in essence ammunition-delivery systems. Armor-piercing, incendiary, and explosive ammunition is readily available on the U.S. domestic civilian market. The first illustration below shows construction of one type of 50 caliber round. The second figure below illustrates how another, the RAUFOSS round, first penetrates armor, then explodes inside its target. The VPC has documented apparent domestic civilian sales of RAUFOSS over the Internet.

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 Violence Policy Center has documented public offerings and apparent sales in the civilian market of all the varieties discussed above.

b).50 BMG, the technical designation of the caliber, stands for Browning machine gun, one of the earliest weapons designed for this heavy round.

c) Fifty caliber sniper rifles have been banned from some public shooting ranges because of fires set by enthusiasts firing various types of incendiary rounds.

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 All contents © 2002 Violence Policy Center


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.