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The .50 Caliber Controversy

A .50 caliber rifle. Note that it is 6 feet long and weighs 35 pounds. Superweapon my ass.

If you're Arnold Schwarzenegger, you get to do some things that the rest of us don’t. For instance, I have long held the stance that he’s the only civilian on the face of the earth that has earned the right to drive a Hummer. Win the Mr. Universe contest a couple of times in a row, and you get the right to drive around in a ridiculously giant automobile with terrible fuel efficiency. Soccer moms, beware. However, one right that I do not accord the good Governor is the right to give in to media hype and create ridiculous laws in the face of all reasons.

But he’s the governor, and who am I? A bitter little nobody, that’s who. And that’s why he signed a state law making .50 caliber rifles illegal. I know you usually expect articles from me about space aliens and monsters haunting the night, but the banning of these rifles is just as much a case of people not thinking clearly and logically as any tale of the paranormal.

A .50 caliber bullet is the largest bullet that still fits into a ‘rifle’ as opposed to, say, ‘artillery.’ It’s roughly the size of a golf ball, which I am sure we can all agree would ruin your day were you to be hit by one. It’s mostly because of the bullet’s enormous size that it been met with such fear by the easily panicked.

Now banned in California, you can still buy weapons that fire .50 caliber ammunition in the other 49 states. It has a home in the arsenals of at least 35 countries. However, don’t make your plans to go out and buy one quite yet. They cost more than I will earn in the next three months, and a box of ammo to go with the rifle will cost you, quite literally, an arm and a leg.
But how did the gun get banned in California? Well, basically, people are terrified of the size. It’s an enormous bullet that can cause a tremendous amount of damage. I’m not arguing with that. If gun-control advocates were against the weapon simply because it could stop an elephant, that’s one thing. But they’re not. They claim that the .50 caliber rifle is, and I quote, “a terrorist superweapon.”

On the internet, you can find an entire spectrum of ridiculous claims related to the .50. I don’t have the time or, to be honest, the inclination, to argue about the extremes that people believe in, so here are some of the middle-of-the-road claims made by gun-control groups. As an added bonus, I’ve also included weapons for each scenario that would be more effective than a .50 caliber rifle.

First, they claim that a .50 caliber rifle is a weapon with which one can shoot down an airplane. That’s right: they’d have you believe that one bullet from a .50 caliber rifle will send a 747 down in a shower of flaming debris. I’m in a generous mood: let’s assume that there is some marksman amazing enough to hit a target moving several hundred miles an hour. The only time the aircraft would be in danger would be upon takeoff or landing, since I refuse to believe that a person could fire a rifle and hit an airplane at cruising altitude.

So let’s assume that a .50 caliber bullet were to hit an airplane while it was landing or taking off. Honestly, not really a whole hell of a lot would happen. There’d be a golf-ball sized hole in your aircraft. That would be a problem at cruising altitude, where the airplane would depressurize, but not so much at normal atmospheric pressure. Sure, there’s a chance that you could hit a vital fuel line or a pilot or something, but it would be a million to one shot. The most a terrorist could hope for, shooting at an airplane with a .50 caliber rifle would be that the bullet penetrates the aircraft and kills one passenger. A more effective weapon in this scenario would be an umbrella, with which you could attempt to scare geese into flight and hope they get sucked into one of the engines. It should be noted that the guy who invented the rifle makes a good point: if .50 caliber rifles would actually be able to shoot down aircraft, why doesn’t a single army in the entire world have a squad of men trained to do just that? I suspect it’s because the army looked into it, realized the idea is ludicrous, and decided to spend the money on something less insane, like mine-detecting dolphins.

Swedish Special Forces soldier with .50 caliber rifle. Note: he does not use it for shooting at airplanes, and with good reason.

Another claim is that the .50 caliber rifle would be the perfect weapon for criminals, since a mugger with that much firepower would be, shall we say, difficult to deal with. I think this claim is made by people that have never seen a .50 caliber rifle: the things are enormous. Five and a half feet long (that is to say, probably taller than you are,) they weigh upwards of 35 pounds. Most .50 caliber rifles are bolt-action and have to be manually reloaded after each shot. Let me be more blunt: I’m not afraid of anything that fires one bullet a minute, weighs 35 pounds, and is almost six feet long. If a mugger pulled one of these one me, I would laugh. I’d be more afraid of pretty much anything else: a different type of gun, a knife, hell, even a crowbar would scare me more.

A lot of people make the point that a .50 caliber bullet is ten times heavier than the .223 bullet fired from an M16 assault rifle, the workhorse rifle of the US Army. At first this sounds pretty impressive, until you ask yourself: if the .50 is so much better, why isn’t it the standard caliber for our armed forces? The only logical answer is that it’s not, for the purposes of the average soldier, better. Need proof? Go to a field and get a .50 caliber and a .223 caliber rifle. Bring along two jugs of milk. When you shoot the jug of milk with the .50 caliber bullet, the round will go straight through and milk will leak from two big holes, one in the front and one in the back. When you shoot the milk jug with the .223 bullet, it explodes. Why is this? The heavier bullet has more inertia and goes straight through a target; the lighter bullet gets inside and bounces around. I hope that I continue my streak of having never been shot, but if I absolutely have to take a bullet, I hope it’s a .50 and not a .223. I might lose one organ from the .50, but that’s better (well, relatively speaking) than being exploded. The point is that numbers may be impressive, but when someone tells you something is 10 times heavier than something else, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s 10 times more lethal.

After September 11th, something strange happened to our nation. For some reason, TV news anchors became incredibly enthusiastic and imaginative. Every day, you could turn on your TV and see three or four fat white men in suits describing how a terrorist could make deadly weapons out of bleach, cotton T-shirts, and nail polish remover. What disturbed me the most was not that they gave anyone who was watching a step-by-step blueprint of exactly how to build a weapon, and where and when to attack with it, but that their tiny, porcine eyes glimmered in their sweaty pink faces with sheer ecstasy as they did so. Following in this tradition, various people have speculated that, because a .50 caliber bullet will go through up to a half-inch of steel, a terrorist or lone nutcase armed with such a weapon could sit next to the highway, shooting holes in those big chemical tractor-trailers.

While this is, technically, true, a nutcase would be equally able to destroy a gas-tanker by driving his car into it at full speed. Yet last I checked, the ownership of automobiles was not illegal. In fact, it would probably be more cost-effective for the nutcase interested in blowing up tractor trailers to just drive up along side a moving tanker and shoot the driver. The people that argue that .50 caliber weapons should be banned because they could be tools of terrorism are using one of the simplest and most juvenile of debate techniques; playing with your emotions. I don’t want there to be terrorism any more than the next guy does, but just because you use some buzzwords in your argument, don’t think that my desires in this field are going to blind me to the cause of logic and reason.

A lot of people say “So what? No one really needs a .50 caliber rifle. You can shoot targets or hunt moose or whatever just as easily with a less powerful weapon.” Next time you’re out on the highway, look around. There are people that spend tens of thousands of dollars to soup up their cars so that they can go 200 miles an hour. Why do some people own nice cars and other people drive 20-year old station wagons? You can get someplace in a old, crappy car just as easily as in any of the cherry-red muscle cars parked out front of the fraternities. Some people enjoy owning really fancy cars, and some people enjoy owning really fancy guns. Considering that .50 caliber rifles have an incredibly clean track record, being only rarely used in crimes or terroristic attacks, despite all the theorizing of what they could be used for, the government should be swayed more by logic and reason when divining how to deal with them, and less by the hysterical media hype that has sprouted up around the issue.

Be seeing you.

Image of rifle from
Image of Swede with rifle from