October 13, 2020
By David M. Fortier
With an impressive “THWAK” the steel silhouette rocked on its base as a great glob of white paint was blasted off it. “This is why people love the .50 Beowulf” I thought to myself as I watched the target rocking. There is just something about slapping steel with a fat .50 caliber projectile of moderate weight. It’s, well…entertaining. Hitting a steel target, water filled jug or wild pig with a .50 Beowulf has a certain visual appeal to it. No, the .50 Beowulf is far from the most powerful rifle cartridge out there, but it’s the big dog on the block when it comes to the AR-15. I suppose what I like best about this cartridge is its fun factor.
Today though, I wasn’t shooting a run of the mill .50 Beowulf AR-15 rifle. Actually, I wasn’t shooting a rifle at all, but rather an AR pistol. In my hands was the new Highlander .50 Beowulf pistol from Alexander Arms. This is a good looking piece which is short, light and very handy. It’s easy to carry, quick into action, yet still packs a very impressive punch. I had just mounted a Burris 1-6x24mm scope onto it and was getting my first feel for it. Recoil, thanks to the visually impressive “Tank Brake” affixed to the barrel, was fairly mild. Don’t get me wrong, you know you are slinging some lead, but it’s comfortable to shoot. Not just comfortable, but fun!
Turning back the pages of I time I can remember when I first tested an Alexander Arms rifle in this interesting caliber. It was back during the dark days of the domestic assault weapons ban, in May of 2002. The 16-inch barrel had a plain crowned muzzle, with no brake. Recoil was similar to an auto-loading 12 gauge. In comparison the Highlander pistol with the Tank Brake is considerably more pleasant to fire. It’s also a better looking gun overall compared to the original model 17 years ago.
Seeing as we are flipping through the pages of yesterday, let’s consider the Beowulf cartridge. Development of this fat .50-caliber round occurred before I first met its designer Bill Alexander. I first spoke with Bill in 2002 during the very early days of Alexander Arms. The Genesis of the Beowulf though occurred prior to this, while he was still living and working in England. Prior to relocating to the United States, Alexander Arms had been a Research and Development Consultancy working predominantly on military wares for the British Ministry of Defense. In this previous life, their contracts covered everything from chain guns to tiny personal defense weapons (PDWs) and almost anything you can think of in-between.
The founder of the company, Bill Alexander, is a talented classically trained engineer. He had previously developed a couple of cartridges, such as the .224 BOZ. This was a 10mm case necked down to accept .224-inch projectiles. It was capable of pushing a 50-grain bullet at 2,500 fps from a handgun. The .50 Beowulf though is a bit unique in that it wasn’t developed for a project he had been contracted to work on. While I was interviewing him back in 2002 he commented, “The .50 Beowulf came about quite by chance when a big-bore black powder buff made the comment, ‘Too bad you can’t get that M16 to shoot a bullet you can actually see.’ ”
Bill had been working on micro caliber PDWs for two solid years, and well, was ready to do something a bit different. He had just finished a contract he had been working on, and had some down time. So, he began to “tinker about” and decided to explore the possibilities of building a big-bore AR-15. As he did he became curious to see just how big of a shell casing he could run through Stoner’s black rifle. Now keep in mind, these were the “dark ages” of the AR-15, well before the 2004 revolution (domestic assault weapons ban expiration) and the explosion of aftermarket support we take for granted today. It was a very different world back then.
After measuring this and that and scratching his head for a bit he came up with a plan. To begin he got his hands on some .50-70 Government brass. Next he began experimenting and eventually spun the rim down to .308 dimensions (.473-inch). Next he shortened the overall case length to about 1.5 inches. He modified a bolt to match and began experimenting with loads and bullets. It proved to be a real thumper when topped with a 450-grain bullet. Performance wise it was exactly what he was looking for. However, there was one small problem. It didn’t work. There were reliability issues which put a damper on things.
He also had a concern about taking so much material out of the bolt. He had to do this to accommodate the .473-inch case rim. He felt taking this much material out of the bolt weakened it more than he was comfortable with. So, he abandoned the .50-70 Government as the parent brass and began exploring other options. Next, he tried .404 Jeffrey brass, but it too proved a dead end. At this point he ran out of free time and needed to get on with paying projects. Due to this his .50-caliber AR project hit the backburner and sat for a while.
He eventually started tinkering again after obtaining a batch of unfinished .50 Action Express brass. What caught his eye was they had neither an extractor groove cut into them nor had been trimmed to length yet. After a bit of measuring he decided to take a different approach. Rather than using a .473-inch rim diameter he instead rebated the case head all the way down to .447-inch. Why? It allowed him to utilize a 7.62x39mm Colt type bolt. He felt these would offer a substantial increase in strength, longevity and safety over a bolt face which had been opened up to accept a larger diameter case.
Next the case was trimmed down to a suitable length, 1.65-inches. He began experimenting by loading a 325-grain Speer HP. The result showed promise, but was not quite there. So, he refined the angles of the cartridge base for increased reliability. When he had finished, the .50 Beowulf as we know it was born. His creation is a fat, straight-walled case with a noticeably rebated case head. Bullet diameter is that magical .500-inch.
I have always found the old .50-70 Government to be an interesting cartridge. I mean, it is after all a .50-caliber rifle cartridge which drives fat and heavy bullets. The .50 Beowulf has a similar appeal. It propels large diameter projectiles which are fairly heavy at moderate velocities. It is by no means a magnum, but it’s not intended to be. Velocities are on the sedate side. But, as with the .50-70 Government, it doesn’t need magnum velocities for its intended roll. Its large bullet diameter and deep penetration allows it to perform well on North American big game at the relatively short ranges its intended for. Pigs, whitetail, elk, moose and brown bear have all been taken cleanly with the .50 Beowulf.
On the flip-side, the .50 Beowulf is a modern cartridge specifically designed to function reliably in an auto-loading AR-15 rifle. It’s a modern rebated rim smokeless cartridge. It was designed around feeding, extracting and ejecting from an AR-15. With good magazines it runs very well. Almost 20 years down the road it’s easy to take the .50 Beowulf for granted. Looking back though, you can see how it paved the way for other cartridges, such as the .458 SOCOM and .450 Bushmaster which came after it. I suppose the most important thing it did was to create interest in the possibilities of a big bore AR-15 among blue collar hunters and shooters. In doing so it created a new market for the AR-15 to compete in. In simplest terms, it appealed to hunters and shooters who liked the concept of classic big-bore lever gun cartridges, like the .45-70 Government and .444 Marlin, but who preferred a modern auto-loading design.
Performance wise his new cartridge proved capable of pushing a 334-grain .50-caliber projectile at 1,900+ fps. Combined with a lightweight magazine fed AR-15 carbine and you have a formidable short range hunting rifle. It is very well suited for hunting in heavy cover, such as you find back East. It’s also a shoe-in for states which require straight-wall cartridges for hunting, such as Ohio.
Finally, there is the name of the cartridge, Beowulf. Bill is very much a European engineer. In so many ways he is a product of the old British MOD. Many people find him rather dry. His forte is not public speaking because he will beat you with numbers and dry facts until your eyes roll into the back of your head. I suppose I’m a bit immune to it as I love talking to European engineers, or perhaps I’m just equally boring. So, it’s a bit interesting that all of his cartridges have such colorful names. You have the .50 Beowulf, his short-lived .21 Genghis, which was a 5.45x39mm chambered AR a bit too far ahead of the curve, and of course his famous 6.5mm Grendel.
The name Beowulf obviously comes from the Old English epic poem Beowulf. This was written sometime prior to the 10th Century and is the oldest surviving epic poem in British literature. The story chronicles the adventures of a great Scandinavian warrior and monster slayer named Beowulf. My favorite Beowulf quote is perhaps, “But Beowulf was resolute, by no means slow in valor, still thinking of daring deeds.” When I asked him about how he came to name his cartridge he simply stated he had read Beowulf as a boy in school, and never forgot it. As his new .50-caliber cartridge was indeed a “monster slayer” he felt the name was appropriate. I’d have to agree.
As the great warrior Beowulf was no more at the end of the famous epic, so Bill Alexander now fades from our story as well. Alexander Arms started as a small company and Bill was always cash strapped. It was difficult for him to bring new products to market, and to compete against the big dogs in the industry. It’s amazing he was able to accomplish what he did. While a truly gifted engineer, he found business much more difficult. Eventually he sold out his controlling interest in his company and ultimately moved on.
Today, Alexander Arms is under new ownership and management and introducing interesting new products like the Highlander pistol seen on these pages. I have handled, shot, and competed with a wide variety of Alexander Arms firearms since 2002. That said, the Highlander really impressed me the moment I unpacked it. It is an impressive looking piece. The Tank Brake at the muzzle is huge, and it sets the tone for the entire package. You can just tell by looking at the Highlander that it is going to be very fun on the range.
After having bored you with perhaps too much history, let’s delve into the pistol itself. The first thing you’ll notice is the two-baffle design rectangular muzzle brake. This resembles something you’d find on a World War II era Soviet anti-tank rifle. You either love or hate it, there is no in-between. Personally, I like the looks, but more importantly I love the recoil reduction. It performs its mission well. If you don’t like the Tank Brake, Alexander Arms has a number of different options available.
The brake is threaded onto a short chrome-moly 12-inch barrel. This features a 1 turn in 20 inches barrel twist. The barrel extension is made specifically for the .50 Beowulf and features a different angle on the feed ramp. At the muzzle you’ll find 49/64-20 right hand threads. A robust low profile gas block machined from 4140 chrome-moly is fitted. One nice touch is it being held securely in place by two steel cross-pins rather than a set screw or two. Locking it in place with cross-pins ensures it will not move on you down the road.
The gas block tucks neatly beneath a free-floating aluminum handguard. The handguard itself is a nine-inch Manticore Arms Transformer. The name Transformer comes from its ability to change from M-LOK to KeyMod by simply swapping inserts. So, no matter which attaching system you prefer, or if your preference changes down the road, the Transformer can meet your needs. The design is quite slim, feels very good in the hand and is very nicely made.
The barrel is fitted to a 7075 T6 forged aluminum flattop upper receiver. This features a MIL STD 1913 rail along its top for easy mounting of optics or a rear iron sight. A forward assist and case deflector are standard. What is missing though is an ejection port cover. Due to the sheer size of the .50 Beowulf case the ejection port needs to be opened up a significant amount for reliable ejection. Due to this the ejection port cover is deleted. Examining it I noted the upper is marked “Alex-A 50 Beo” on its left side.
Riding inside the upper receiver is a standard charging handle and conventional bolt carrier assembly. The gas key screws were properly staked in place to prevent them from backing out. At the front of the bolt carrier assembly is Alexander Arms’ high endurance Beowulf bolt. Rather than utilizing a standard 7.62x39mm type bolt, a higher strength bolt was developed for the Beowulf. This later became standard in Alexander Arms’ 6.5mm Grendel rifles.
The upper receiver fit snugly onto the lower receiver, but was not too tight. I loathe AR’s with super tight take-down pins that you have to beat to get out. The Highlander exhibited a tight enough fit to exude quality without being so tight as to be annoying. This I liked. The lower receiver is conventional in layout with standard controls. It is nicely marked and features an Alexander Arms logo and Highlander emblem with sword on the right side of the magazine well. The left side is marked with the Alexander Arms logo and .50 Beowulf for caliber. I think it’s a nice touch both the upper and lower receivers sport .50 Beowulf markings rather than the common “Multi”.
The upper is dropped onto a high quality 7075 T6 forged aluminum lower receiver. This is a standard piece with all Mil Spec parts. Looking inside the lower receiver I found an H2 buffer. Alexander Arms offers the Highlander with a standard trigger, but they do offer a match trigger as an upgrade. As this is a pistol it does not come with a stock. In its place you’ll find a SB Tactical SBA3 brace. This has multiple adjustment points to provide an optimized fit. An Ergo Grip is also standard. Along with the pistol you get a single 7-round E-Lander magazine. Alexander Arms offers a number of upgrades including various color Cerakote finishes. Colors you can choose from consist of Black, Olive Green, Flat Dark Earth, Titanium, Burnt Bronze and Cobalt. The rifle seen on these pages has the optional Burnt Bronze Cerakote finish.
Out of the box the Highlander looked very good. I really liked the Burnt Bronze finish which sets it apart from the Black Gun crowd. Now, it’s very true that ARs can get monotonously boring. I dig it. The Highlander though is really an interesting piece though which stands out from the AR pistol crowd. Part of that is simply the caliber it’s chambered for. Plus, there’s that ludicrously wonderful brake on the muzzle. Once you handle it though you notice the fit and finish is very nice and there are a number of small details which sets it apart from the bargain basement masses. Examining it I noted the magazine ejected cleanly, the controls operated smoothly and the bolt retracted easily.
To check its accuracy I fired four 5-shot groups off a rest at 100 yards. This was done using a 1-6x24mm Burris RT-6 scope mounted in a one-piece Warne mount. Velocity readings were recorded at the muzzle using a LabRadar Doppler chronograph at an ambient temperature of 60 degrees F. Two different factory loads from Alexander Arms were used during testing. These consisted of their 300-grain FTX and 350-grain RS. I was very interested to see how the short 12-inch barrel would affect the Beowulf’s velocity.
Once I started testing I immediately noticed this is the most comfortable .50 Beowulf I have ever tested. Recoil, even from the bench and prone, is not bad at all thanks to the brake. It does indeed bark, it does jump and effect on target is impressive, but recoil is not uncomfortable.
Getting down to business I noted the best accuracy was obtained using the 300-grain FTX load. This averaged 1.7-inch five-shot groups at 1,678 fps. The 350-grain RS load averaged 2-inches. Velocity of this load was a bit lower at 1,449 fps. So accuracy from the bench was quite acceptable for a big-bore AR pistol.
Next I decided to have some fun and run the .50 Beowulf through a couple drills at 50 yards. These consisted of firing multiple shots at a rapid rate on multiple targets. I did this using the 350-grain RS load. While the gun does have some muzzle rise, I was impressed by how relatively easy it was to make fast multiple hits with. The pistol proved very quick handling and easy to maneuver. Most of all though, it proved very fun. The visual impact of those 350-grain .50-caliber slugs on steel plates was impressive. On several occasions multiple hits from the heavy rounds sent my LaRue Chainbanger targets into rocking convulsions to the point where they collapsed. This is the only cartridge I have ever seen do that. I have to say I really enjoyed my time on the range with the Highlander and simply wished I had more ammunition on hand.
Reliability? Out of three magazines included for the review I had issues with one. It had issues feeding reliably. This is the first time I have ever experienced an issue with a Beowulf and the problem disappeared as soon as I culled that magazine out. Otherwise it fed, extracted and ejected without issue.
How does the .50 Beowulf perform on game animals? During a pig hunt in Florida a friend of mine used a 16-inch Beowulf carbine while I hunted with a 6.5mm Grendel. I watched him take a shot just over 100-yards on a decent size pig and the sound of the impact was impressive. It dropped at the shot and never moved. A number of pigs where taken with .50 Beowulfs on that hunt and all dropped with a single shot. Terminal performance was excellent with consistent expansion and complete penetration. Bigger game? A frontal head shot on a bison delivered some three feet of penetration. A broadside shot on another gave complete penetration. Pick the right bullet for the job, place it well and the .50 Beowulf can take anything in North America. Just remember though, this is a short-range number, keep your shots inside 150 yards or so. Past that it drops like the proverbial rock.
Is there a downside to the .50 Beowulf? You bet! The cost of ammunition is the chief one. This isn’t a cartridge you plink for hours with, unless your wallet is very fat. Currently, Alexander Arms offers five loads in this caliber running from 200 to 400 grains. Cost runs from $27 to $46 dollars for a twenty-round box. Another issue can be simply finding ammunition. If you only purchase ammunition locally, you may have a hard time finding it. Don’t expect to run across it at every Mom and Pop gun shop. Your best bet is to order it online. Another option is reloading to help defray ammunition costs. It’s not a hard cartridge to reload, components are readily available and you can substantially cut your ammunition costs.
Other than the price of ammunition there’s not a whole lot to complain about. It’s a mature design which has been produced for 17+ years. Alexander Arms’ Highlander proved great fun on the range and everyone who handled it was impressed. It would certainly make a heck of a brush gun. MSRP starts at $1,695 so it’s not a cheap date. However, if you desire to have the coolest AR-15 pistol on the block, Alexander Arms .50 Beowulf Highlander will make that happen.
Alexander Arms Highlander Pistol Specs
- Caliber: .50 Beowulf
- Action Type: Rotating bolt via direct gas impingement
- Capacity: 7-round detachable box magazine
- Barrel: 12-inches 1-20 inch RH Twist
- Overall Length: 29.2 to 31.5 inches
- Weight: 6.3 pounds w/out magazine
- Brace: SB Tactical SBA3
- Furniture: Free-floating Transformer handguard, Ergo Grip
- Finish: Cerakote Burnt Bronze
- Trigger: Geissele SSA Two-stage
- Sights: None, 1913 rail
- Safety: Two-position
- Price: $1,695 Base MSRP
- Manufacturer: Alexander Arms; 540-443-9250; AlexanderArms.com
Alexander Arms Highlander Pistol Accuracy & Velocity