I Hate Recoil!… Musings from a Gunsmith on Shooting the .50BMG

While I greatly enjoyed serving our country in the Marine Corps as a gunsmith, here at Ashbury Precision Ordnance I get to spend even more time building a wide range of precision rifles and test firing them.  When we have spare time we are also encouraged to work on concept variations of our standard APO precision rifles for specific applications like F-TR, extreme long range, and in this case .50BMG competition shooting.

Despite being a former power lifter, I must confess that I have a weakness when it comes to recoil.  Oddly enough however, some of the best groups I have ever shot where with large bore magnum calibers.  Why is this?  I think it might have something to do with the challenge.  Or maybe it has to do with the “I bet you can’t…” better known as the ultimate “Double Dog Dare”.  Whenever I am tasked with shooting sub < ½ MOA groups (which recently seems like every day), I have this on-going battle with myself on how good I will shoot that day.  Shooting the ASW50 for a test group has been my greatest shooting challenge, or so I thought!

In the APO Ordnance Shop we test fire all Asymmetric Warrior® (ASW), Tactical Competition Rifle (TCR), SuperSport precision rifles and the occasional custom job for proof of accuracy.  Our standard is < ½ MOA (Minute of Angle) or better 5 shot groups, edge to edge vertical dispersion minus the caliber.  It is understood that horizontal dispersion is tight as well, but there are times that environmental conditions (wind & mirage) and availability of reticles can affect side to side group dispersion.  The only exception is our large caliber product line where a consistent supply of match grade ammunition is needed to break in the barrels, which is very difficult to come by.  So while we test fire and safety check the large caliber rifles, the barrel break-in process is done by the customer, and will shoot <1 MOA or better.  We test outdoors, at 100 yards, shooting off a LRA Bipod with either a SABER® Monopod or a rear shooting bag for support.  Our goal is to confirm accuracy and quality assurance under “real world” conditions where our customers shoot.

APO’s ASW50 is based on the venerable McMillan 50BMG bolt action receiver, 1-in-15” twist match grade barrel, Slimline muzzle brake, 3.5lb staged-break 2 stage trigger and SABER®-FORSST® MT50 –A1 MOD-1 Carbon Fiber series chassis.  The MT50 modular rifle chassis incorporates Ashbury’s patented unitized monolithic rail design with a 40 MOA forward slant for extended long-range shooting along with our heat wicking carbon fiber forend and ergonomically adjustable push button shoulder stock.  A folding lockable hinge is standard on a MOD-1 chassis.  It’s a nice manageable 25.5lb .50BMG package!

As I said, my tasking this month was to further investigate refining the ASW50 specifically for long range competition in the Fifty Caliber Shooter Association Hunter Class matches held at 600 and 1000 yards.  So I changed the Slimline muzzle brake out for our newly engineered Arclight II muzzle brake to soften the punch of this large caliber cartridge and alter the recoil for better shot follow through.  Additionally, I installed a very crisp 2lb single stage trigger and attached one of the new alloy-carbon fiber hybrid Long Range Accuracy F-Class Competition bipods which sports a broad stable footprint.  Typically, for tactical shooting we use an Elite Iron Alpha sound suppressor which is very effective, but will push you around a bit more than using just a muzzle break.  Here’s a video of a suppressed ASW50 being fired on a steel chest plate target.

So a couple of weeks ago, I had to test a customer’s ASW308 and zero an ASW50 going out to a writer.  .308 is by far our most popular chambering, with average test group sizes hovering in the .350” MOA range.  Nothing really to write home about and quite frankly seeing a mid .3” group is quite common for APO precision rifles.  Recoil is very light with the .308 Win, especially in SABER® modular rifle chassis.  Now at least in my mind, shooting the ASW50 “well” requires much more control of body and mind.  In this case I was testing without a rear monopod, and opted for using a rear bag.  Hornady Manufacturing, Inc. was called upon for their outstanding 750gr A-Max Match ammunition.  This ammo is one of the best off the shelf, factory loads for the .50 BMG we’ve used.  Availability is scant, as it is for all ammo these days, but I was able to “acquire” some from our marketing team.  As we say in the Corps “gear adrift… is a gift!”

Out on the range it was a windy day (wind speeds about 10-15 mph gusting 3 to 9 o’clock) and unseasonably cool for early November here in Central Virginia.  After setting up the targets and laying out the gear I started mentally prepping for the expected abuse I was about to inflict on myself (we all deal with this in our own special way).  Personally I empty my mind and simply accept any/all punishment that might be dealt out.  I adjusted the LRA bipod for height and settled the rear bag.  The scope was already “close” for a zero, so I loaded five 750gr A-Max cartridges into the detachable magazine, then locked and loaded.  It’s at times like this that the mind can wander or even consider…why am I doing this again?

In position and properly squared up behind the rifle, as the trigger broke clean on the first round, it reminded me why we limit 50BMG grouping to only three-shot sub < 1 MOA accuracy group after a lengthy barrel break in process .  The blast erupted at the bottom of my natural respiratory pause.  The rush of disrupted air swept over me, but with the new Arclight-II muzzle brake the shock is substantially less than with a standard .50BMG muzzle brake.  The recoil was more of a mental hang up than physical issue, as I was really quite pleased that it was nowhere near as punishing as other 50BMG’s I’ve shot.  The only real problem with shooting the .50 BMG repeatedly is the concussion of the round itself.  If you are a “mouth-breather” type of shooter you are definitely going to want to shut your mouth during firing as the shock blast will resonate inside your brain housing group via your “pie hole”!

As I continued to concentrate and follow my routine I adjusted the Leupold Mark 8 3.5-25x56mm M5B2 scope to get my impacts centered up.  Fortunately I was able to do this within a couple rounds, then confirm with the last three.  At this point I was feeling pretty good for having launched five well aimed 750gr projectiles downrange.  My three shot group was pretty tight about .5 inches, but on a target with previous holes from zeroing the ASW308.  The boss is always needling me about my shooting, the fact that I have a recurrent habit of pulling the fourth or fifth shot during an impressive grouping exercise.  So I thought what an opportunity to show him what’s what.  Yes I really thought that….and this is what happened, really I kid you not!

I snuggled up to the ASW50 and started my shot release process on the next clean test target.  The scope was clear, the trigger smooth and all I had to do was calm down and forget about the recoil.  And that’s exactly what happened for FOUR shots!  The mind was clear, the gun was true and for about 3 minutes everything was in harmony and life…well good actually.  Then human nature crept in.  I was in my fifth shot process and something wasn’t right, I started thinking (problem #1), I told myself that this was going to be a bad shot (problem #2), I seconded guessed my point of aim and muscled the crosshairs (problem #3) just as the shot broke.  Sure enough, there it was a high, right hand flyer.  I was extremely disappointed with myself.  I just knew I should have stopped and then started over with a fresh state of mind.  I mentally kicked myself the entire 100 yard walk down to the target.  When I got to the target board, it dawned on me that the damage wasn’t as bad as what I thought I saw in the scope.  The first four shots measured out to an exceptional 0.261 inches!  Then when you INCLUDE the pulled shot, the group measures to 0.489 inches!  Not bad, just not very pretty.

So the lesson here is simple.  Stop thinking and just do it.  The ASW50 is an accurate 50BMG platform with very manageable recoil thanks to a solid engineered design, custom Limbsaver recoil pad and a new very efficient muzzle brake.  I should have trusted my shooting instincts, letting muscle memory as well as good shooting habits drive home that final shot.  Either way, I learn what to do and what not to do again!  Lord willing I can improve and deliver an even better, more consistent performance in the future.   Did I mention I really hate recoil?

Background

I have plenty of experience with the infamous .50 BMG.  My first introduction was during my time in the US Marines while I was on pre-deployment work-up’s for Iraq.  It was the summer of 2005 and I was a young, MOS 2111 armorer for 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines, 2nd Marine Division stationed on Camp Lejuene.  I had already been to Afghanistan during the summer of 2004 with the same unit and now we were getting ready to head into Iraq for the first time as a unit.  Our BN Commander needed an escort service know as a Personal Security Detachment.  Marines from H&S Company were chosen for specific skills/experience to be a part of a 22 man team that would go where ever Lt. Col Julian D. Alfred need to go during our time in the Al Anbar province of Iraq.  Because every Marine is a rifleman, we need to only brush up on our infantry skills taught during the beginning of our time in the USMC.

Needless to say, we rolled heavily armed.  I was assigned to the “Ma Duce” because of my experience and technical knowledge of the weapon.  We operated as CAAT team with the BN Commander and conducted several operations including Operation Iron Fist and Steel Curtain.  I wish I could say that our time was uneventful however, we returned minus two Marines from my PSD platoon who were killed due to a VBIED on February 14th 2006.  Cpl Rusty Washam and LCpl Matthew R. Barnes paid the ultimate price of freedom.  3/6 lost ten Marines during that deployment, gone but not forgotten.