June 27, 2023
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Let’s cut to the chase, is there a viable use for a .50 BMG rifle in a realistic survival situation? Probably not. The vast majority of situations you are likely to encounter can be solved with a rather mundane Glock 19 and a bit of backbone. By their very nature, rifles chambered for the .50 Browning Machine Gun cartridge are big, very heavy and typically not as accurate as TV and the movies would have you believe. Plus the ammunition is expensive. All that being said, having an anti-materiel rifle available in certain apocalyptic scenarios could be useful. It all comes down to how likely you think such an event might actually be.
If you already have food, water, supplies, good pistol, a rifle or two, night vision and sound suppressors in inventory and desire a .50 BMG rifle, who am I to stop you. So with that in mind, I decided to take a look at a reasonably priced 5-shot repeater from Safety Harbor Firearms. While exotic semi-automatic .50 BMG rifles are the things of dreams, the SHTF .50 is a simple bolt-action design most can actually afford. Safety Harbor Firearms actually offers not only complete rifles but .50 BMG upper receiver assemblies which will drop onto a standard AR-15 lower. Two types are offered, a bolt-action single-shot and a bolt-action magazine fed repeater. Three barrel lengths are offered for each version, 18, 22 and 29 inches. The repeater feeds from a robust steel side-mounted five-round magazine. Due to the nature of .50 BMG primers, a special hammer and spring is required for reliable and trouble-free service. So both come with a replacement hammer and hammer spring along with a manual. Base price for the single-shot upper is $1,450 while the repeater starts at $1,850. The single-shot conversion is a relatively economical way for shooters to own their first .50 BMG.
While Safety Harbor Firearms initially only offered upper receivers, customer demand led to them introducing a complete .50 BMG rifle. Today they offer two versions, a bolt-action single-shot and a bolt-action repeater. Three barrel lengths are offered, 18, 22 and 29 inches. Base price on the SHTF 50 single-shot is just $1,850. However, a 5-shot mag fed repeater makes much more sense if we’re dealing with the apocalypse. Due to this, I tested a SHTF 50 repeater fitted with a short 18-inch barrel. It is surprisingly abrupt in length, considering it’s chambered for .50 BMG. The rifle itself is simple, rugged, and easy to use. The heart of the design is a beefy steel receiver machined from 4130 chrome-moly which is approximately 12 inches in length. A magazine fed repeater, it features one large ejection port machined out of the right side of the steel receiver. A magazine well and feeding port is on the left side. Inside the receiver rides a large bolt with beefy dual-opposed locking lugs. The bolt head is machined from 4340 chrome-moly while the body is machined from 4130 chrome-moly. The design features a plunger ejector and a claw extractor. Threaded into the right front of the bolt body is a large bolt handle.
This model feeds from a single-column five round magazine. This is made from heavy gauge steel with a synthetic follower. The magazine is not quite 5.7 inches long and over six inches tall. To insert the magazine you first place a round lug on the rear of the magazine into a cut-out in the mag well. Next pivot the front of the magazine forward and into the well until it locks securely in place. Two cross-pins secure the fire control/pistol grip assembly to the receiver. An AR-15 type safety is located on the left side of this just above a standard M16A2 pistol grip. Any standard AR-15 grip can be mounted. This assembly is easily removed by simply pushing out two pins. During an interview with Walter Keller of Safety Harbor Firearms, he stated the trigger pull on this model averages 3–4 pounds. More importantly, he said the bolt body is designed to prevent the hammer from contacting the firing pin unless the bolt is fully closed. This is a very big deal, especially with a cartridge this large and powerful.
Mounted to the receiver is a fairly heavy 18-inch barrel machined from 4140 chrome-moly steel. This features the standard 1-15 inch twist. To bring recoil down to sane levels, a machined steel muzzle brake is attached to the front of the barrel. This is approximately 4.7 inches long and has four ports machined on the left and right side. The bottom and top are closed and the brake is threaded onto the muzzle. My test rifle came fitted with Safety Harbor’s optional eXacto rail. This Mil-Std 1913 rail runs from the rear of the receiver to the front of the handguard, almost 24 inches in total length. It allows easy mounting of optical sights or other accessories. The slotted aluminum handguard is fitted with sling studs at 3 and 9 o’clock. At 6 o’clock is a mount for Safety Harbor’s SHF bipod. A $140 option, this robust steel bipod features folding legs 9 inches in length. A very rugged design is mandated by both the rifle’s weight and recoil, so keep that in mind. They also offer an adapter to mount an M60 bipod and a standard Mil-Std 1913 rail for popular aftermarket designs. Just choose wisely.
The review came with Safety Harbor Firearms’ standard steel buttstock. This is a robust piece sporting a very thick, yet soft recoil pad. If you prefer, they also offer a similar design with an integral rear monopod as an option. Length of pull is 15 inches. Overall length is a fairly short 44 inches and it weighs 16.5 pounds. Handling it I noted it weighed half a pound less than my NRA AR-15 Service Rifle I shot Camp Perry with in 2005. The 22-inch barrel model is listed as weighing 17.5 pounds while the 29-inch gun is listed at 20 pounds. A .50 BMG repeating rifle only 44 inches long and weighing just 16.5 pounds is a pretty impressive package.
I mounted an IOR Valdada 6-24x50mm scope using a set of 35mm Valdada Tactical rings. This is a robust Romanian built optic with excellent optical qualities and a robust mechanism. Accuracy is always a touchy subject when it comes to .50 BMG rifles due to the quality of the ammunition. Machine gun grade ball, AP, API and APIT ammunition is not meant for, nor capable of, precision work. Much of it is only realistically capable of 2–4 MOA. However, this is more than sufficient for certain applications at reasonable distances. Match grade ammunition can improve upon this but tends to be very expensive. I used one remanufactured ball load, from Amer-I-CAN Enterprises, loaded using Lake City Arsenal cases. Plus, I used some FN manufactured ball dated 1972. I also used some 1943 dated Milwaukee Ordnance Plant ‘black tip’ armor piercing ammunition. It should be noted that AP will often outshoot ball ammunition in this caliber due to projectile design.
With scope mounted and ammunition in hand, I hit the range. My first order of business was to get a feel for the rifle. So I set a target up at 25 yards and had at it offhand. As to be expected the report is deep, the blast snaps your nose and you receive a hearty shove to the shoulder. Spotting my impact I grabbed the bolt and ran it all the way to rear ejecting the empty. Pushing it back forward fed another round smoothly into the chamber.
Another two rounds and I had my rough zero and went to 100 yards. Moving to the bench I settled in with the rifle sitting on its bipod and bag beneath the pistol grip. I then proceeded to fire three 3-shot groups with each load at 100 yards.
Recoil from the bench was healthy but not punishing. Recoil is more of a push rather than a snap. Both the guns weight and its muzzle brake helped to reduce recoil. The report and blast though is fairly harsh. Carefully guard your hearing when around any .50 caliber rifle. If you so choose, you can even consider a sound suppressor. Suppressors for .50 BMG rifles are indeed available, and surprisingly effective, but they are not inexpensive. Accuracy was pretty good considering all I shot was military ball and AP. My best group was fired with the 1943 vintage 696-grain AP load which put 3 rounds into 1.8 inches. However, the 1972 vintage 647-grain FN ball load had the best average coming in at 2 inches. Velocity of this load averaged 2,474 fps. While the AP had the tightest group it averaged a slightly larger 2.4 inches at 2,480 fps. The remanufactured Amer-I-CAN 647-grain ball averaged 2.8 inches at 2,294 fps.
At this point in the article I know some of you are looking at these groups and thinking, “My, those are rather…big.” Don’t expect a .50 caliber rifle fed ball or surplus military ammunition to be a tack-driver. It’s not going to happen. However, a 2-minute rifle capable of throwing a .50 caliber Armor Piercing or Armor Piercing Incendiary Tracer projectile weighing between 600 and 700 grains has certain particular abilities. While it may not provide match grade accuracy, it is certainly Minute of Engine Block.
Next, I tested it firing offhand, kneeling and prone. Yes, even a 50-year-old cripple like myself can easily fire the SHTF 50 offhand. Recoil is actually fairly mild from this position. I found the Safety Harbor SHTF 50 to be very easy to operate. Magazines loaded without fuss. Rounds fed very smoothly with little effort. Ejection was positive and no issues were encountered. Do you need a .50 BMG rifle? Probably not. However, if you want one, this is one to consider. The base price for this model is $2,250. I’d recommend their bipod and some spare magazines, plus enough ammo to get to know the rifle well. While you may never need to use it in an emergency, it will certainly be a fun piece to spend time on the range with.
NOTE: After the publication of this article, the ATF declared the upper receiver of the Safety Harbor to be a firearm, and it does require an FFL to transfer. More details are available at safetyharborfirearms.com
Safety Harbor Firearms SHTF .50BMG Specs
- Type: Manual turn-bolt repeater with dual opposed locking lugs
- Caliber: .50 Browning Machine Gun
- Feed: 5-shot in-line detachable box magazine
- Overall Length: 44 in.
- Barrel Length: 18 inches with 1-15 inches RH Twist
- Weight: 16.5 lbs.
- Finish: Manganese phosphated steel, hard anodized aluminum
- Length of Pull: 15 in.
- Stock: Steel with 1-inch recoil pad
- Price: $2,699 (tested), $2000 (for upper)
- Manufacturer: Safety Harbor Firearms, Inc.
About the Author
David M. Fortier has been covering firearms, ammunition and optics since 1998. He is a recipient of the Carl Zeiss Outdoor Writer of the Year award, and his writing has been recognized by the Civil Rights organization JPFO. In 2007 he covered the war in Iraq as an embedded journalist.
This article was originally published in Be Ready! magazine. You can find the original magazine on the OSG Newsstand. If you have any thoughts or comments on this article, we’d love to hear them. Email us at FirearmsNews@Outdoorsg.com.