50BMG Ammo

A chat with the expert 50BMG ammo maker, Randy Powell – President Thunder Ammo

Today we have the pleasure to discuss one of the most known cartridges but probably also the least understood of all competition cartridges, the Fifty Cal specifically the 50BMG. Mention 50cal and almost every person out there with some general knowledge has heard of the cartridge whether he is into firearms or not, pro or anti gun. The advent of better known brands like Barrett in the US has made the cartridge even more popular, featuring in films, pop culture, movies and everything in between, the round is better known for its role in the heavy M2 machinegun. A brief look at any world news feature and you will probably spot one mounted on some pickup somewhere around the world.

Rifletalks.com is interested in precision cartridges. Today we catchup with the man that everyone kept pointing me to when I asked about 50cal match ammo experience. Meet Randy Powell, owner of Thunder Ammo, these guys make some of the best handloaded 50bmg ammo in the business loading for the 50cal world championships. Randy Powell also shoots for Team Accuracy International USA and Leupold. This gives the man even wider perspective and knowledge but nothing beats personal interest and passion so Randy ticks all the boxes and he does this also for a living which goes a full circle.

Randy also makes his lathe turned brass bullets for 50cal, 416 and 460. Jay Dvorsky spoke to me in great detail about this when we met in France at KO2M. Jay is one of the few Americans I know that also has experience on the 460 Steyr, a round that is derived from the parent 50BMG brass and he brought this rifle with him to France so there you have it, small world, people with similar interests instantly clicks in place.  Eduardo, founder of Ko1m/2M also pointed me towards Randy when I asked more technical questions about the 50, 416 and 460Steyr cartridges. Below you can see the 460Steyr doing what it does best, printing big holes past 2000meters with Alex Marr.

Eduardo seen below running that awesome ELR setup there on the heavy caliber class. These are setups used to engage targets out to and past 3700yards!

Bumping into the 50BMG.

I was introduced to this round in 2008 when I lived in the alpine country of Switzerland. At the time, Pete Reynolds, a British Expat living in Swiss and FCSA Swiss president had introduced me to the club he had going there and thanks to him, I started learning more of this round as chambered for heavy precision rifles. A few Swiss guys gave me the opportunity to shoot with them during my stay there and over that year, I had the opportunity to learn more about it from knowledgeable people. Below was my first impact with 50BMG on the 1100m target at Yverdon shooting some Ruag ammo from the Steyr HS50 Rifle which Thomas, an FCSA Swiss member onboarded me on. Thomas switched to flying these days but i’m still hooked on the these bigger rounds.

Below: Thomas running me (rifletalks.com editor) through his Steyr HS50 BMG rifle at the Swiss alps Military Range. Baptism of 50BMG fire!

As you can see, shooting in Swiss was plentiful. This was great formation for me. I will never forget that big fifty cal hitting that popper target and the splash it made behind it.

50bmg bullet impact
50BMG rifle bullet impact @1100m

I had seen them shoot out to 1800m and that had ignited a permanent interest in ELR as well as big bore cartridges. Pete Reynolds got me on to the ticket when he invited me to shoot his AMSD Nemesis bolt action rifle, at the time it was still owned by AMSD but later exchanged hands to Swiss Arms known as SAN 511 rifle 50BMG. I loved this rifle and Pete fueled my interest by igniting the wick on 230grains at a time! This guy and Vince Bottomley, both very well known British shooters were the guys who helped me start out and thanks to their part, I am on to what we are up to now creating ELR competitions in Italy, this side of the Atlantic. Extreme Shot Italia IV will see some 76 International teams heading to Sicily in October 2024 to shoot 500m-2000m!

sako trg 42
Sako trg 42 in 338Lapua near SAN511 50BMG

Thanks for accepting our invite to help write an article about the 50bmg match reloading. Many have told me you’re one of the most experienced people on the subject including Jay Dvorsky which I met during Ko2M in France.  I know Thunder Ammo makes some of the best 50BMG ammo out there as we also attested from the recent results from 50bmg world champs. I’m aware some of the Brits if not all of them were shooting your Thunder Ammo right?

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Thunder Ammo – 50BMG Ammo That Seals Records!

On July 2nd 2021, at the Fifty Caliber Shooters Association World Championships a new World Record was set in Hunter Class with Thunder Ammo & Arms ammunition. We loaded our 802 grain multiband, the TA802XLRB, in RUAG brass with Reloder 50 powder and RWS primers.
The 5 shot 1000 yard group, shot by Frank Shinault of Frontsight Firearms Training Institute measured 2.782″! 
The rifle was built by Axisworks in Tempe, AZ using a Lilja barrel chambered with my Thunder Ammo Match reamer. The stock they chose is a McRees Precision Big Bore ELR Competition chassis system, a perfect fit for the McMillan single shot Big 50 action. All supported by our custom low-pro Protector Model bag, and an Accu-Tac HD50 bipod with McRee feet and cant’ lever extension.
Frank had run short on ammo, his shooting buddy had the bulk of it in the truck in the pits, and was not going to be able to finish the relay.
The shooter next to Frank gave him enough ammo for his 2nd string, leaving Frank with 5 rounds of Thunder Ammo, and no sighters rounds before his final 5 shot string of the day. With those 5 rounds Frank broke the current record of 2.992″ set in 2008.
The SD (standard deviation) measured during practice was 1.9, with an AV velocity of 2800 fps. Accuracy begins with consistency, eliminating variables is key, and ending the process by straightening the bullet to case concentricity, or runout, to less than .001 of an inch.
Great shooting Frank!
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We have loaded for many shooters from around the world for the FCSA World Championships, and some from the USA including Barrett, Armalite, and Steyr USA.

  • How long have you been involved with loading for the 50bmg?

I started loading 50BMG back in 2004 due to the lack of ‘match grade’ 50 cal ammo available. What started as a hobby quickly became more, in 2005 I got my ammunition loading licence. As I searched for information about the 50, I came across the Fifty Caliber Shooters Association, this was a turning point as the FCSA members freely shared valuable advice.

Below you can see some of Randy’s magic on his loading and testing bench with impressive 50BMG results!

  • What has changed since when you started loading 50BMG ammo? Components, choice, laws?

Many developments in 50 BMG ammo loading components have come out of the civilian use of the cartridge. The choices of powders, primers, bullets, brass prep and loading equipment has grown from our search of maximizing the performance of the caliber.

  • Are we better placed today to load for the 50BMG than in the past years?

The available match grade bullets and a wider variety of 50BMG powders as well as loading equipment improvements has put us in a better place.

Many of our readers are very well read and experienced handloaders some come from Fclass, some from PRS, others from long range tactical shooting and some hunters in the mix., but all are learning students ultimately, especially about the 50BMG…

  • What is so different about loading for the 50bmg?

I am aware the US is the largest 50BMG market out there with ample supply of 50bmg delinked ammo, powders, brass and bullets, a large mix of quality as well as bulk components from machinegun shoots.

The greatest difference for us is the load-consistency by the rejection of surplus and second-grade components. Large bore cartridges have a similar loading process to small bore cartridges, the larger rounds require larger equipment and are more labor intensive. The process itself is very much the same, consistency is the key to accuracy.

This means that some maybe reloading pulled ammo with those components for plinking with their M82s or else loading 50BMG match ammo with the best components around for competition in BR like rifles.

  • In your experience, what do most 50BMG handloaders load, plinking or match ammo, both?

You get both, some people might not use the best components but will load with consistency, while others might buy the best components but lack consistency in their loading. If you sort your bullets by weight and diameter, sort your case buy weight, or better yet internal volume, sort the primers by weight. Then accurately weight your powder charge, and seat your bullets concentric with the case, you can achieve good accuracy with even less expensive surplus components.

  • What are the main differences between these two types of 50BMG ammunition?

The main difference I would say is the components you choose. A match grade machined monolithic bullet in inherently more accurate for example than a lead core ‘ball’ bullet with a copper jacket. Mainly due to is consistency in dimensions and profile bullet to bullet, also the very low drag design with it’s higher Ballistic Coefficient will give you greater stability at longer ranges.

Featured

For the purposes of this interview, let’s speak about MATCH 50BMG ammo, this is the hardest and most expensive to find and if we’re shooting such a round, we want to get the maximum potential. I remember Walter Wilkinson’s performance with his 50steyr at the Ko2M, his performance showed the round isn’t dead for match purposes. Mark and Sam also did some interesting videos with their 50BMG in Australia.

Making 460 Steyr is a lot less work than 416, much more neck work required on the 416B Randy informs me.

50BMG ammo

  • What brass do you recommend for the 50BMG for Match ammo?

If you can name more than one option it may enable other 50bmg shooters in UK and Europe also to source that brass.

Randy: RWS is the best 50 BMG brass I have found; it is very consistent in weight and dimensions and is heavier they others making it a better choice for the higher pressure ELR match loading we are doing.

Lapua, IMI, Hornady, Fiocchi, ADI and a few others have proved to be good choices also.

  • Do you anneal and if so do you prefer flame or induction?

I anneal my match brass after every firing. I have used two opposing flames for years and get very nice results with the Bench Source Vortex annealing machine. I would say that induction is easier to achieve repeatable consistency. Either method you choose, proper annealing extends the life of your brass by keeping from work hardening, and slitting after a few firings.

  • Do you find any specific primers better than others? I’m aware there’s Ruag, CCI and some Murom primers, maybe you have tried others as well. What works?

RWS and CCI are what I use, RWS has proven to be a bit more consistent, but both yield great result when sorted by weight. CCI are a bit ‘hotter’ than RWS, typically around 2 grains less powder with the CCI give you the same velocity as you get with RWS.

Powders – In Europe we mainly get access to Vihtavuori with their 20N29 and 24N41 described as the perfect one by VV themselves. I’m aware H50BMG, US 869, R50 are also widespread in the US.

  • What have you learned about these 50BMG powders, what do you use?

I have used a wide variety of powders to load the 50, in fact all you have listed here, and a couple more. The main go to powders for me are Reloder50 for longer barrels, and H50BMG for barrels under 30”. Reloder50 is slower burning than H50BMG, so is tends to be more efficient in longer barrel than the faster H50BMG, which is more efficient in shorter barrels.

  • What sort of barrel length should our readers look for if they want to have the optimum performance for their 50bmg?

I’ve read anywhere between 27-45” barrels.

The optimum barrel length for any caliber depends on its intended use. Also things to consider to optimize barrel length are the case capacity, burn rate of available powders, and bore diameter. There is a point of diminishing returns, for example if a barrel is too long and the powder is burnt up far before the bullet exits the muzzle, or the barrel is too short and unburnt powder is getting spit out the muzzle. Dwell time of the bullet in the barrel needs to be considered, 45” is too long to have good muzzle control in a shoulder fired 50. For 1000 yard 50 cal bench rest rifle I like 32”-36”, for a prone Hunter Class rifle I like 27”-34”. Also consider that shorter barrels are stiffer, reducing barrel ‘whip’. For an Extreme Long Range 50BMG I would recommend 36”-38”, and to speed the twist rate up to 1:13 for long range stability, and to stabilize the longer VLD bullets.

Bullets– For many years the 750Amax was like a gold standard. When I was introduced to the 50BMG in Switzerland with FCSA thanks to Pete and a few others, they had started using solids, this was 2008. Since then, solids have kept increasing in popularity.  I know Thunder Ammo makes its own 50bmg solid brass projectiles.

  • What 50BMG bullet weights are you making at Thunder Ammo and what twist rates do they require? For many years 1.15 seemed to be a popular twist. Is this changing?

As we strived to shoot farther, with accuracy, many new developments were born from the necessity to maintain stability. An 800+ grain brass, or copper .510 bullet is marginally stable in a 1:15 twist barrel at low altitude, at 3000 ft it is stable but not enough for ELR. In Raton NM, at 6500 ft an 800gr out of a 1:15 twist would remain stable to transonic, however a 1:13 would add the gyroscopic stability to remain stable through transonic, and you are still aiming well into subsonic distances.   At some point in the path of a bullet you will run out of trajectory or stability, past that point you are exceeding the aiming, accuracy capable distance.

Many of rifletalks.com readers already have well equipped reloading rooms.

  • What would a handloader be prepared to upgrade for the 50BMG?

A large enough press, capable of using 1.5” dies. 50 BMG…well bigger everything.

  • Do we have to change all our reloading equipment? Besides the 50BMG dies, what else would we need?

I’m thinking the following:

  • 50BMG press mounted primer seater
  • 50bmg neck tension mandrels
  • 50BMG bushings
  • 50bmg trimmer
  • 50bmg primer decapping tool
  • 50BMG bullet puller
  • 50bmg powder funnel
  • 50bmg pilot for the Annealer plus shell holder for AMP
  • 50BMG press.
  • Any other special Dies required?

You have named most of the required and some optional equipment. Two of the companies I like for most of the hand tools are K&M Precision Shooting, and LE Wilson.

As for dies, just about any manufacture’s dies will work, but for a competition match die it is worth having a custom full length size die made using some fired cases from your rifle. I highly recommend using a FLS neck bushing die that will size your necks to the desired tension, instead of the ‘standard’ of under sizing the neck then pulling and expander ball through the neck as it comes out of the die. This can overwork the brass and shorten its life. My competition 50 cal die has the neck machined to size the necks to the desired ID, or neck tension, thus eliminating the need for an expander ball. If I am sizing brass with a thinner neck, I simply follow up with a neck bushing dies to reduce it to the desired ID. For less neck tension you can use an expander mandrel to open up the ID. The ultimate choice is a full length size die, with neck bushings to control the neck tension.

When we do ladder tests for smaller cartridges, some go 0.3grain increments.

  • What load increments would you go for the 50BMG, 0.5 or 1.0 grain?

Depending on the project, but I usually do a ladder load with 2.0 grain increments to start, then sometimes narrow it down to 1.0 grain increments to finalize it. Remember to start 5%-10% below maximum and never exceed the powder company’s maximum recommended load.

Checkout More of Randy’s Magic at the loading bench.

  • Do you do any 50BMG bullet seating tests with these big solids for competition?

Yes, unless you are running bore-rider bullets, designed to be touching the lands. I have found that backing these big bullets off the lands by .060-.080 reduces the pressure spike and will give you more consistent velocities. When my son Mason won the FCSA World Championships (at 20 years old) he was shooting my 770 gr Match Multi Band bullet .180” off the lands, we had tried it from touching to .240” jump.

Mason 50BMG record

Mason shot that 50-5x last year at the 1000 yard FCSA World Championships, Mason was the Top Gun of the match. Yes with the TA770MMB bullet

If they don’t want all this hassle, They may call Thunder Ammo and just purchase ready made rounds for competition but if they want to buy any of your bullets, can do so too? Jay told me you make .460 as well. Anything else we should know about?

Yes, I can be reached at Randy@ThunderAmmo.com

I specialize in the 50BMG, 460 Steyr, 416 Barrett, 375 CT, 338 Lapua, 308 Win, custom loading.

Randy Running his Accuracy International AXSR 338LM Rifle with a customised setup ready for ELR season at White Oak Creek.

Thunder ammo 338Lapua

See this AXSR rifle in action here

We have seen some record groups in recent years being shot with 50BMG.

  • What is the best standing group you have seen to date and what do you expect from the match ammo you load Randy?

In 2021 Frank Shinault set a new FCSA 5 shot Hunter class record with our ammunition of 2.782”. Frank was shooting our TA802XLRB, a solid brass 802gr multi band I designed in 2016 with the ELR game in mind. The rifle was built with a Lilja 1:13 barrel and the Thunder Ammo 50BMG Match chamber, designed around my bullet profile.

I expect sub moa from our match loads, in factory rifle that will hold that standard. Many sub ½ moa groups have been shot at 1000 yards over the years, out of Barrett, Steyr, Armalite, McMillan, Bluegrass, Ferret,…and of course custom rifles. When we load for FCSA competitors, we rarely have their rifles in hand, I have a couple of ‘pet’ loads I call generic match loads that have won many awards.

  • What sort of velocity extreme spreads do you see?

I like to see single digit standard deviations, of course there are things we can not always control, primer flash, % of larger to smaller powder kernels… You need an SD of 7 or less to stay on an average height steel plate at 2000 yards. Checkout this course of fire below for Spring Canyon.

  • Is there any 50BMG barrel life limit for a competition gun Randy?

The Heavy Bench rifle McMillan built for me years ago has over 2000 rounds through it and still shoots sub moa, in fact the last time it went to a match we loaded for it and loaned it to James Fedor who won Unlimited Group with it.

If you are not shooting ‘hot’ loads a barrel will last much longer than one that is pushed hard. Fire erosion of the throat is the main killer of barrels. Some people kill their barrels with a cleaning rod and stiff brush, yes you can clean the life right out of a barrel.

We hope this 50BMG article has provided some helpful educational indicators to 50BMG reloading by the best in the business for the serious and aspiring 50BMG owners out there. For any other information contact us or Randy at thunder ammo.

     

 

 

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