Do you know what’s fun to shoot? The belt-fed, M2 .50 caliber machine gun. Ole Ma Deuce takes care of her boys. As a machine gunner, I got a fair amount of time on the old .50 BMG M2, more than most Marines. If you’re not a machine gunner or in some rare role, it’s unlikely you’ll ever touch an M2. It might be surprising, but use and training on the platform aren’t universal. I bring this up because the M2 and .50 caliber round are subject to a couple of interesting myths.
John Browning designed the M2 machine gun for the .50 BMG round, created by Winchester. His initial design responded to the need for modern anti-aircraft and anti-armored vehicle weaponry. The BMG in .50 BMG stands for Browning Machine Gun. World War I saw the birth of numerous concepts, and one was the anti-material rifle. French and German forces used these massive, powerful rounds in anti-tank rifles.
The U.S. wanted a similar round, but they wanted it in a machine gun, so it adopted a very Texan attitude when it developed the concept. The M2 arrived too late for WWI but has stuck around ever since. Ma Deuce, as the gun is affectionately named, remains one of the best heavy machine guns of all time. Its old design, ridiculous power, and a lack of education among the public spurred two myths about the gun and the round we intend to debunk today.
1) .50 Cal Myths – Its shockwave can kill you
I first heard this first myth in boot camp. Our senior drill instructor talked about the M2 and the .50 caliber round for one reason or another and declared that the gun didn’t even need to hit you to hurt you. The bullet is so fast and big that the shockwave from the bullet can rip your arm off!
That sounded pretty metal to Recruit Pike. I continued to hear this story and realized it seemed to always come from guys who had never shot the .50 cal or, at the most, had only fired it once or twice. I remember asking my combat instructor at the Infantry Training Battalion, and he looked at me in disgust and said, “Why are you stupid?”
The .50 BMG creates a localized sonic boom, which isn’t uncommon for modern rifle projectiles or even handgun projectiles. However, that sonic boom doesn’t result in any damage done: It can’t break your neck, cut your arm off, or lacerate you just by passing close to you.
Don’t just take my word for it. In a 2009 episode of MythBusters, the team used an AR-50 to fire a .50 caliber round between two rows of glass objects, including windows, wine glasses, and a lightbulb. Not a single item broke or even cracked, regardless of how close the bullet was to the glass.
Also, the Youtube channel DemolitionRanch shot a round through a house of cards and it didn’t even knock the cards down. If you need to eliminate an enemy of America, plan on actually hitting them, don’t rely on a shockwave to kill them.
2) .50 Cal Myths – It’s illegal to shoot personnel with a .50 BMG
I heard this .50 cal myth before I had even signed my Marines’ contract when a Boot on recruiters assistance told us that the Geneva Convention banned you from shooting someone with a .50 caliber weapon, be it the M2 or a sniper rifle. Why I believed a guy who’d been in the Marine Corps for three months is beyond me. Although, I continued to hear this myth for quite some time.
I had already asked my combat instructor about one of the .50 cal myths, and I didn’t want him to get the same look of disappointment and questioning of my intelligence, so I kept it to myself.
A rogue-like smile would come across the face of someone who’d tell us this myth because, inevitably, they’d give you a workaround. You’d hear something like this, “It’s an ant-material rifle, so you can only destroy equipment, so say you are aiming at their belt or canteens.”
While they might’ve thought they were letting in on some real-life cheat code, they were just wrong. As I read a biography of Marine legend Carlos Hathcock, it dawned on me that this couldn’t be true. He openly talks about killing an enemy soldier with an M2 rigged with a rifle scope and wasn’t tried for war crimes.
Nothing in the Geneva Convention or any other law of warfare document bans the use of .50 caliber rounds. These myths are downright silly considering we drop Massive Ordnance Air Bombs (MOABs) and Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAMs) on people.
These are the two big .50 cal myths I heard while I served. They are admittedly still kicking around these days and will continue to do so for some time.
I’m constantly fascinated by military myths, especially when they focus on weaponry. These are two of my favorites. Are there any others I should debunk? Let me know below in the comments section.