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An Investigation of Fifty Caliber Rifle Capabilities

This report is in its final form and is ready for distribution to policy makers and other interested parties. Ideally, every senator and congressman should receive several copies of it, mailed in paper form, from several people in his constituency.

This document is currently available in eight forms:

Full report, 14 pages, covering federal and state legislation in detail:

Abbreviated report, 7 pages, covering in detail only S.505 (the federal legislation):

The bitmapped plot versions are available for people with printers or printer drivers that do not properly render the five patterned trajectory curves in Appendix A. If the non-bitmapped version prints correctly, use it, since the quality is better (the bitmap version has subtle jaggies and other deterioration).

Find contact information:

See also this Statement Regarding Fifty Caliber Ban Legislation in New York, by John Burtt, Chairman, Fifty Caliber Shooters Policy Institute.

Opening text of the report, not for redistribution - use the above PDF/Postscript versions for redistribution:

An Investigation of Fifty Caliber Rifle Capabilities

Prepared: by Daniel Pouzzner (email douzzer@mega.nu), 2001-Mar-31


The ``Military Sniper Weapon Regulation Act of 2001'' was recently (2001-Mar-9) reintroduced as Senate Bill S.505 (full text included below as Appendix B).

The sponsors of S.505 (Diane Feinstein D-CA, Charles Schumer D-NY, and Edward Kennedy D-MA) seek to impose special regulations on .50 caliber rifles, effectively criminalizing possession by common citizens.

Bills that have been introduced at the provincial level with similar intent are A1534 and S742 in the New York State legislature (see Appendix C), HB2359 in the Illinois General Assembly (see Appendix D), and SB1405 in the General Assembly of Connecticut (see Appendix E).

As this report explains in detail, no valid state interest would be served by these regulations, and there exists no rational basis for the qualitative differentiation of .50 caliber rifles from other rifles not subject to present or proposed special regulation.

S.505's Apparent Motivation

An astute observer must wonder what sort of paranoia has Feinstein and her cosponsors in its grip. They appear to fear citizens launching paramilitary assaults on armored vehicles and radar facilities, but this is nonsense. Presently there are no armored vehicles extant for the citizenry (whom she apparently fears and distrusts) to fire on, even if they were inclined to - and they are presently rather strongly disinclined, of course. Does Feinstein envision a future in which state agents patrol our communities in armored personnel carriers - and regularly come under attack by formerly upstanding citizenry? It seems unlikely that her constituency in California is aware of her frightening vision, and even less likely that they (or any constituency) would support it.

Correcting False Premises

The allegations of Feinstein et al., articulated in the text of S.505 and elsewhere, are factually inaccurate. The .50 BMG cartridge (by far the most common .50 caliber rifle cartridge in the United States) is ballistically similar to common hunting calibers, and has almost never been used in the United States (or indeed anywhere) in the commission of crimes of violence. Due to the price and unwieldy size and weight of the equipment, .50 BMG will likely never play a significant role in criminality. It has no exceptional abilities in terms of range and accuracy that are significant from a policy perspective. .50 is not the largest caliber openly available to consumers: the ``Nitro-Express'' safari hunting cartridges in .577, .600, and .700 are all larger, and the latter two actually have heavier projectiles than any .50 BMG projectile. A .500 Nitro-Express safari cartridge also exists, and would be effectively criminalized by S.505. A common 12 gauge shotgun (for which rifled slugs weighing as much as .50 BMG projectiles are widely available) has a much larger bore than the rifles affected by S.505 - .729 - and a 10 gauge shotgun is fully .775.

.50 BMG rifles are built and used extensively by a large and diverse community of specialty manufacturers and sportsmen in formal organized competitions across the country and in other countries. In fact, the technical innovations of this community have directly benefited the United States military, enhancing national defense readiness. On the other hand, the military origins of the .50 BMG cartridge have no possible significance from a policy perspective: two of the most common deer hunting calibers, .308 Winchester and 30-06 Springfield, also have strictly military origins. Of course, all firearms have a military origin, historically.

.50 BMG rifles are subject to the same stringent commerce regulations as other firearms: they cannot be shipped interstate except to a national license holder (18 USC § 922(a)(2)), they cannot be manufactured for sale or transfer except by national license holders (18 USC § 922(a)(1)), they are subject to significant national excise taxes (26 USC § 4181), and they cannot be possessed by a felon or adjudicated mental incompetent (or by those with various other disqualifications, under 18 USC § 922(g), and as further articulated by provincial laws), etc. The provisions of 26 USC § 5801 et seq. as interpreted by the Department of the Treasury, which S.505 seeks to impose on .50 BMG rifles, in fact constitute an effective criminalization because of the Certified Law Enforcement Officer certification requirement. The Department has repeatedly and explicitly encouraged these certifiers to refuse, on a blanket and causeless basis, to certify applicants. In any case, gun criminalization - effective or explicit - is no more effective at keeping illicit weapons out of criminal hands, than are the current drug laws at keeping illicit drugs out of criminal hands.

Proponents of .50 caliber criminalization hope to enlist the knee-jerk support of the public by relentlessly repeating the sensational epithet ``sniper rifle'', even including the term in bill titles. This is simply a bold-faced ruse, since there is no difference between a quality deer rifle and a ``sniper rifle''. The Remington 700 is among the most popular deer rifles of the twentieth century, and is the heart of the US Army's M24 and the US Marine Corps' M40A1, the standard high power sniper weapon systems of the respective service branches.

Proponents of .50 caliber criminalization make much of the .50 BMG cartridge's armor-defeating capabilities. .50 BMG has somewhat more energy on impact than do other common rifle cartridges (see detailed results below, in Appendix A), but this is of little practical import. All rifle cartridges commonly in use for hunting deer and larger game, or for competitive shooting at ranges of 600 yards or greater, are capable of defeating any flexible body armor currently available to soldiers and law enforcement agents - even if simple unjacketed cast lead bullets are used. If one maintains that this capability is sufficient to justify effective criminalization of .50 caliber rifles, then consistency demands that one support effective criminalization of nearly all rifles (only .22 rimfire and a few similar lightweight cartridges would be spared). In practice, of course, this vulnerability has no rational policy consequences, since the laws of this country are not applicable to this country's prospective battlefield opponents, and since criminals seldom carry rifles (since they do not lend themselves to concealment) and in any case by definition do not obey the law.

In seeking to effectively criminalize .50 BMG rifles, the supporters of S.505 and similar bills purport to rely on the ``sporting purpose'' standard pursued ardently by the Department of the Treasury and referenced variously in relevant portions of Title 18 and 26 of the US Code. This standard has no domestic origin, but rather, is imported from Europe (specifically, from Germany). In fact, it is completely unsupported by the US constitution. Where the first amendment of the constitution recognizes ``the right of the people peaceably to assemble'', where the second amendment recognizes ``the right of the people to keep and bear arms'', and where the fourth amendment recognizes ``The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects'', the same ``people'' are at issue - and the rights recognized are individual (because otherwise meaningless, a legally untenable conclusion). Moreover, the arms at issue in the second amendment, the ones specifically contemplated by the Framers of the constitution (as they articulated with great specificity in their contemporary writings), are technologically current military arms. The Framers recognized that national security (continuity of government) is powerfully and unavoidably dependent on the continued possession by the common citizenry of current military weapons. On the other hand, the Framers were relatively unconcerned (at least in terms of policy) with the sports of hunting and competitive shooting, as these have relatively little political significance.

Local Criminalization Initiatives

As of this writing, at least three states - New York, Illinois, and Connecticut - have bills pending in their legislatures that explicitly or effectively criminalize some or all .50 caliber rifles.

In the New York legislature, A1534 and S742 open with a declaration ``that 50-caliber weapons having the capacity for rapidly discharging ammunition have no acceptable purpose'' - an allegation which the bill text makes no attempt to support and which is, in any case, not rationally supportable. It then proceeds to criminalize possession of any center fire .50 caliber weapon, without regard for any actual or alleged capacity for rapid discharge.

In HB2359, introduced in the Illinois General Assembly, the sensational epithet ``sniper'' recurs. Reflecting the technical vacuity of the term, the bill opens with the following definition: ```50 caliber sniper weapon' means a rifle capable of firing a center-fire cartridge in 50 caliber, .50 BMG caliber, any other variant of 50 caliber, or any metric equivalent of that caliber.'' Thus, when the bill criminalizes possession of ``a 50 caliber sniper weapon'', it criminalizes all center fire .50 caliber rifles.

In SB1405, pending in the General Assembly of Connecticut, the term ``assault rifle'' - another vacuous epithet favored by the firearm criminalization lobby - is revisited with renewed zeal. SB1405 asserts, without actual or possible support, that the Springfield M1A - a commercial version of the M14 battle rifle - is an ``assault rifle''. It is criminalized on that basis. Inclusion of this firearm is a particularly remarkable affront, since it is one of three self-loading service rifles permitted in the formal competitions administered by the Civilian Marksmanship Program (CMP) headquartered at Camp Perry (an installation jointly administered by the US Army and the Ohio National Guard). CMP sells parts and ammunition for this rifle, often at a significant discount relative to the open market, to its thousands of affiliates.

More outrageous by far is SB1405's classification of all self-loading .50 caliber rifles as ``assault rifles''. The alleged rationale for the California (Roberti-Roos) ``assault rifle'' criminalization (the inspiration for all subsequent such criminalizations, including the national one introduced in 1994 by Diane Feinstein) was their compactness and suitability to employment by gang members, bank robbers, drug dealers, and other featured public enemies. The TNW M2 HB self-loading .50 caliber rifle (for example) weighs over 100 pounds and retails for approximately $6,500. SB1405 seeks to classify this behemoth as an ``assault rifle'', effectively criminalizing it.

SB1405 defines ``armor piercing'' (yet another vacuous epithet) in such a way that it can be trivially construed to describe all bullets. At sufficient velocity, a common .177 caliber BB will defeat the armor of an Abrams main battle tank - indeed, will cause a nuclear explosion. This construal, though plainly absurd, is permitted by SB1405's definition, ``a bullet with sufficient mass to penetrate steel or bullet-proof glass''. Even if velocities are constrained to those attainable with common firearms, the definition provides no guidance on the thickness of the steel ``armor'': it could be construed to include steel foil easily penetrated with a fist or accelerated subatomic particle, or steel sheet metal easily penetrated by a classic .22 caliber rimfire rifle. Of course, the definition is contradictory on its face, since ``bullet-proof glass'' could not be penetrated by a bullet were the term meaningful. It is not, but vacuous language is the staple of these legislative insults.

One can assume that the conscious intent of SB1405's sponsors in criminalizing ``armor piercing'' bullets is to sweep up in its net of criminalization all firearms with capabilities like those of a .50 caliber rifle, but by its terms it can be used as a pretext to effectively criminalize all firearms. Because there are no qualitative differences between the firearms primarily at issue, this result is inevitable. Indeed, since Webster's Dictionary defines ``bullet'' as ``a small round mass'' or ``something suggesting a bullet esp. in form or vigor of action'', the language of SB1405 can be construed to criminalize a wide variety of objects, including arrows, ball bearings, tennis and golf balls, potatos and tomatos (criminalization of entire species of plant has ample precedent, of course), the limbs of the human body (particularly when under the control of a person trained in martial arts), and in the final analysis, all collections of solid matter or accumulated kinetic energy.

SB1405 also imposes a licensing regime on manually loaded .50 caliber rifles. The bill directs that this regime be operated in compliance with Chapter 54 of the General Statutes of Connecticut (``Uniform Administrative Procedure Act''), but this would have been automatic. What SB1405 pointedly and explicitly does not provide is a standard by which license applications are to be evaluated. Thus, despite the Connecticut judicial precedent that concealed carry applicants cannot be rejected without basis, it would be very easy (and probably, very common) for the executive branch to concoct pretexts for rejection, erecting onerous procedural obstacles to lawful possession of .50 caliber rifles. Many agents of the state - as many members of the public at large - view with intense suspicion any individual who desires to possess firearms, and count this suspicion against such individuals whenever they exercise executive discretion within a licensing regime.

Such prejudice, while clearly unconstitutional (illegal), is routine. The government of New York City, among those of other municipalities, has embarked on a systematic campaign to encourage anonymous tips on illicit firearms, with the promise of a cash reward (though it's not clear how an anonymous tipster could claim it). This campaign is fascinating because it appears to directly defy the unanimous ruling of the US Supreme Court in Florida v. J.L. (No. 98-1993, decided 2000-Mar-28) that ``An anonymous tip that a person is carrying a gun is not, without more, sufficient to justify a police officer's stop and frisk of that person.'' The anonymous tip program might in theory be operated consistent with the details of the ruling (with ``moderate indicia of reliability present in [Alabama v. ] White [, 496 U. S., at 329]''), but in practice this is implausible because of the nature of the ostensible crime (concealed possession, with no commercial or other social component).

By all appearances, supporters of HB2359 in Illinois and SB1405 in Connecticut expect that any firearm they describe with the vacuous epithets ``sniper'' or ``assault'' can be criminalized or regulated out of existence without regard for its actual physical characteristics or mode of employment. This is a somewhat fantastic proposition. It resides strictly within the realm of political propaganda. By this principle, one might describe a whole category of erstwhile protected and commonplace political speech as ``incitement to overthrow the government'', then assert this essentially meaningless (but manifestly incendiary) description as a pretext for criminalization of that speech.

Evident in all these local initiatives is a continuation of the dishonesty, misrepresentation, and manipulation exhibited most encyclopedically in the text of S.505. Each of the bills, without exception, fully exempts all agents and components of the state, and all manufacturers and distributors who supply them under discretionary and capriciously revokable license, from all the prohibitions they impose on all those who are not agents of the state or suppliers to them. Each of the bills is founded on principles that, continued, progress inexorably to the prohibition of firearms possession by anyone not an agent of the state, with all the horrible mischief that has historically accompanied such a circumstance.


Now is the time for legislative heroics in Congress, or judicial heroics in the Supreme Court of the United States, to decisively preempt the political mischief detailed herein. Justice would be served immediately if either body were to recognize and declare the rank unconstitutionality of the ``National Firearms Act'' of 1934, as written and particularly as administered, of the import restrictions of the ``Gun Control Act'' of 1968, of the criminalizing portions of the ``Gun Owners Protection Act'' of 1986, of the Department of the Treasury's policy, since 1989, of capriciously rejecting properly filed import applications for firearms it disfavors, of the ``assault weapon'' criminalization provisions (the ``Feinstein amendment'') of the Crime Bill of 1994, and of all similar regimes enforced at provincial levels. The odor of unconstitutional policies progressively corrupts the whole of the state.