How the 50 Cal Changed Marksmanship Forever

May 11, 2023Matt Fratus
50 BMG

Navy SEAL snipers are trained to shoot multiple different rifles, including the 300 Win Mag and the 50 cal sniper rifle. US Navy photo.

From shooting an enemy sniper through his scope to having a bounty placed on his head, Marine Corps Gunnery Sgt. Carlos Hathcock II earned quite a reputation during his two tours in Vietnam. The legendary sniper — nicknamed “White Feather” for the accessory that adorned his bush hat — had 93 confirmed kills during the Vietnam War.

But it was in February 1967 that Hathcock took a record-making shot: the longest “confirmed” sniper kill in the Vietnam War. 

While most of his confirmed kills were completed with bolt action rifles, this time Hathcock was behind a 50 BMG.

50 cal Carlos Hathcock

Carlos Hathcock in Vietnam. US Marine Corps photo.

Positioned on a mountain ridge, Hatchcock squinted through the eight-power Unertl scope on his M2 50 caliber machine gun, alongside his spotter from the 1st Marine Division’s sniper platoon. Then he spotted a blurry figure below. 

According to the Chicago Tribune, the figure on the bicycle was a boy, about 12 years old.

As the child pedaled closer, Hathcock saw four rifles with slings dangling from the handlebars. Banana clips and rifle magazines protruded through a sack attached to the bike’s frame. The boy was a Viet Cong mule, running guns and ammunition to enemy troop positions. 

50 cal BMG

Carlos Hathcock's M2 Browning machine gun was used in Vietnam. US Marine Corps photo.

Hathcock fired. The bullet ripped through the bike’s front wheel, causing the boy to tumble. Dazed but uninjured, the boy scrambled to his feet. 

Instead of running away, as Hathcock hoped he would, the boy picked up a rifle, chambered a round, and pointed the gun in the direction of the shot. 

Hathcock fired again. 

The approximately 2,460-yard shot was, at that time, the longest “sniper” kill in Marine Corps history. It would remain a world record for more than three decades, until snipers from NATO’s armed forces hit new long-range records with 50 caliber sniper rifles during the Global War on Terror. 

Related: The Marine Corps Scout Sniper With More Confirmed Kills Than Carlos Hathcock

What Is the 50 BMG?

50 cal

50 BMG back row, from left: Mk211 Raufoss Multipurpose Round, Spotter round, "Silver tip" Armor Piercing Incendiary, "Blue tip" Incendiary, "Black tip" Armor Piercing, "SLAP-T" Tracer SLAP, "SLAP," "Red tip" Tracer, Ball. From row, .223 from left: "Green tip" Ball, "Red tip" Tracer, "Blue tip" Incendiary, "Black tip" Armor Piercing, .500 S&W Magnum. Wikimedia Commons photo.

The 50 BMG is a 50-caliber 12.7x99mm cartridge developed for the M2 Browning heavy machine gun. 

In World War I, the American Expeditionary Forces lacked firepower capable of destroying ground troops, tanks, and aircraft. As a result, Gen. John J. “Blackjack” Pershing, the AEF commander at that time, contacted the US Army Ordnance Corps about solving this problem.  

Firearm designer John Browning was awarded a contract to work in collaboration with the US Army. Browning developed a new heavy machine gun using the M1917A1 as its base design. The weapon’s important features included a water-cooled barrel, a closed bolt, and Browning’s signature recoil-operated design.

50 cal

Hot steam rises from the barrel of an M2 Browning 50-caliber machine gun at Fort Chaffee, Arkansas, Aug. 2, 2015, during Operation River Assault, a bridging training exercise involving Army Engineers and other support elements to create a modular bridge on the water across the Arkansas River. US Army photo by Master Sgt. Michel Sauret.

Browning’s machine gun entered service with the US Army shortly after the war ended. While Browning focused on the gun itself — which became capable of firing armor-piercing anti-tank ammunition at 2,700 feet per second — the Army contracted Winchester to develop the 50-caliber cartridges. Eventually, Frankford Arsenal took control and produced the now-historic 50 BMG rounds.

In 1933, just seven years after Browning’s death, Colt unveiled the M2 Browning machine gun, or “Ma Deuce.” This weapon — famously used by Hathcock in Vietnam — was utilized widely by American GIs aboard navy ships, aircraft, and even tanks. 

The Ma Deuce weighs 84 pounds, has a muzzle velocity of 2,900 fps, and has a max fire rate of 850 rounds per minute.

Related: How the M2 Browning Became America’s Machine Gun

Navy SEALs Helped Bring the 50-Cal. Sniper to the Battlefield

Navy SEAL sniper .50 cal

The Navy SEAL sniper program began in the 1980s. US Navy photo.

While Hathcock proved the Ma Deuce’s long-range capabilities in Vietnam, other veterans of the conflict realized future wars would require additional 50-caliber weaponry. 

RJ Thomas, a visionary Navy SEAL who helped develop Naval Special Warfare’s sniper program, was among the proponents of 50-cal. marksmanship. Thomas was awarded the Navy Cross in Vietnam for defending a downed helicopter with only an M1911 handgun. He later became the leader of the Navy’s Rifle and Pistol Team, and was considered the best shot in the entire branch. Based on his experiences in Vietnam, Thomas was determined to teach the SEAL Teams how to shoot well, too.

“My experiences in Vietnam [...] led me to develop all of the sniper schools or marksmanship courses, [and] set up the CQB programs on the West Coast,” Thomas told Coffee or Die by phone. “Ultimately, they started duplicating some of the situations I’d set up [on] the East Coast [and for] SEAL Team 6. Teaching the SEALs how to shoot was my mission.”

Cpl. Bradley Cash, an antitank missileman serving with Delta Company, 1st Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, reloads his M107 Special Application Scoped Rifle during a SASR training course here, July 10, 2013. Photo by Lance Cpl. Christopher J. Moore.

That mission entailed preventing SEALs from attending schools in the other military branches. They used to attend the Marine Corps sniper program at Camp Pendleton, but in the 1980s, Thomas created a new shooting range for the SEALs at Camp Pendleton called Range 116. 

“I wanted a range to go to 1,200 yards because the Marines’ range only went to 600 yards,” Thomas said. “We set up our sniper courses for our .300 Win Mags and our 50-caliber sniper rifles.”

Thomas was instrumental in the development of the Special Application Sniper Rifle (or SASR) 50-caliber sniper rifle and the MK13 .300 Win Mag sniper rifle.

50 cal

A Navy SEAL snipers in the field. US Navy photo.

“The rest of the military, i.e., the Marine Corps and the Army, said they were happy with the .308 [because] they wanted to stay with a 7.62,” Thomas said. “We wanted something bigger, and by the time we developed the 50-caliber sniper rifle and .300 Win Mag sniper rifle, the Army finally got on board.” 

Thomas retired from the Navy in 1995, but he remains active in the sniper community. His pioneering efforts elevated the training of the SEAL Teams and helped prepare them for the Global War on Terror. 

“I was the grandfather of that whole program,” Thomas said, “and I’m pretty proud of them.” 

Related: Hunter, Frogman, Sniper, Spy: Retired SEAL Terry Houin Is Just Getting Started

How Far Can a 50-Cal Shoot?

50 cal sniper rifle

A Canadian soldier from the 2nd Battalion, Royal Canadian Army Regiment trains a Spanish soldier from Lyon Company on the McMillan TAC-50 long-range sniper rifle for precision fire training during exercise Saber Strike 18 at Adazi Base, Latvia, June 8, 2018. Photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Dominique J. Shelton.

In March 2002, Master Cpl. Arron Perry of the Canadian Army was part of a six-man sniper team supporting Operation Anaconda — a major coalition effort targeting al Qaeda fighters and their Taliban allies — in the Shah-i-Kot Valley of Afghanistan. 

During this operation, Perry’s team was responsible for more than 20 confirmed kills. The longest shot came from Perry’s McMillan Tac-50 rifle at 2,526 yards. 

While Perry was the first to break Hathcock’s record, it was broken again shortly after by another Canadian sniper team member on the same operation. Army Cpl. Robert Furlong engaged an enemy fighter with his McMillan Tac-50 at 2,657 yards. 

The current record holder is former Canadian special missions unit operator Dallas Alexander — a pseudonym used to protect his real identity — who engaged an ISIS fighter in Mosul, Iraq, in May 2017. His 3,871-yard, or roughly 2.2 miles, shot was also captured on video and released for the first time on the Shawn Ryan Show in March 2023.

Read Next: 5 Longest Confirmed Sniper Kills in History

Matt Fratus
Matt Fratus

Matt Fratus is a history staff writer for Coffee or Die. He prides himself on uncovering the most fascinating tales of history by sharing them through any means of engaging storytelling. He writes for his micro-blog @LateNightHistory on Instagram, where he shares the story behind the image. He is also the host of the Late Night History podcast. When not writing about history, Matt enjoys volunteering for One More Wave and rooting for Boston sports teams.

More from Coffee or Die Magazine
Coffee Or Die Photo
From the Team Room to Team Room Design: An Operator’s Creative Journey

BRCC partners with Team Room Design for an exclusive T-shirt release!

Coffee Or Die Photo
Get Your Viking On: The Exclusive 30 Sec Out BRCC Shirt Club Design

Thirty Seconds Out has partnered with BRCC for an exclusive shirt design invoking the God of Winter.

Grizzly Forge BRCC shirt
Limited Edition: Grizzly Forge Blades on an Awesome BRCC Shirt

Lucas O'Hara of Grizzly Forge has teamed up with BRCC for a badass, exclusive Shirt Club T-shirt design featuring his most popular knife and tiomahawk.

BRCC Limited Edition Josh Raulerson Blackbeard Skull Shirt
From Naval Service to Creative Canvas: BRCC Veteran Artist Josh Raulerson

Coffee or Die sits down with one of the graphic designers behind Black Rifle Coffee's signature look and vibe.

Medal of Honor is held up.
Biden Will Award Medal of Honor to Army Helicopter Pilot Who Rescued Soldiers in Vietnam Firefight

Biden will award the Medal of Honor to a Vietnam War Army helicopter pilot who risked his life to save a reconnaissance team from almost certain death.

dear jack mandaville
Dear Jack: Which Historic Battle Would You Want To Witness?

Ever wonder how much Jack Mandaville would f*ck sh*t up if he went back in time? The American Revolution didn't even see him coming.

west point time capsule
West Point Time Capsule Yields Centuries-Old Coins

A nearly 200-year-old West Point time capsule that at first appeared to yield little more than dust contains hidden treasure, the US Military Academy said.

  • About Us
  • Privacy Policy
  • Careers
Contact Us
Contact Us
© 2024 Coffee or Die Magazine. All Rights Reserved