The thing that scares most first-time .50 BMG shooters is the anticipation of recoil. The .50 BMG is a huge cartridge, much larger than any common hunting rifle cartridge. It's a scary proposition to lie down behind the rifle for the first time, not knowing what to expect. Even with a gun approaching 50 pounds, like the Lee Houghton Custom, and with a muzzle brake hanging on the 43.5-inch barrel that looks like something off a Star Wars battle cruiser, the concept of putting that huge cartridge in a rifle, putting the rifle on your shoulder and pulling the trigger has some scary psychological aspects.
During our first range session Houghton's son Kurt took the first shot while we stood back, clamping our ear muffs down with our hands, our eyes scrunched up behind heavy duty shooting glasses and our mouths open to lesson the blast effects. The result was actually a bit of a disappointment. Don't get me wrong, this cartridge leaves no doubt when it goes off. Grass and dirt filled the air and the sonic wave pounded our chests like the bass line in the front row of a Hip-Hop concert. The distinctive boom rolled across the valley and echoed back off the mountains, but the gun barely moved. Kurt described the recoil as being similar to a .270 Win.
When I asked Kurt about the muzzle blast, however, he used far more descriptive language. While the recoil may disappoint, the blast must be experienced to be properly appreciated.
The Barrett Model 99 is about 20 pounds lighter than the Houghton Custom, but it still takes a full-grown man to pack it around. With a Leupold Mark IV 4.5-14x50 mm LR/T M1 scope and the Barrett Optical Ranging System, it weighs almost 30 pounds. Due to this weight and the muzzle brake, the recoil is not all that bad; far less than any of my dangerous-game rifles. I would say that the recoil is about on par with most 12-gauge slug guns.
But, the muzzle blast is something different and demands respect. The big, arrowhead shaped muzzle brake lays down a blast zone that never disappoints. When shooting from prone, you learn to keep your mouth shut or risk having to stop shooting so you can swab the grass and dirt out of your teeth.
Shooting off the bench the first time was new a elevation in shooting experience. I had the gun on sandbags with the muzzle brake a few inches above the top of the bench. The first time I tried shooting in this setup Armageddon ensued.
The first shot cleared the bench with the muzzle blast. Chronograph, ammo, tools, soda cans were all gone—the chronograph in pieces. Most of the debris ended up in the hedge 5 feet behind me. I had a box of crackers on the bench that ended up shredded, with little pieces flying through the air like a swarm of wind-blown leaves. The blast hit me so hard I could feel internal organs shifting position. Needless to say, I made some adjustments for the next shot.
Once I had the brake well out and over the front of the bench so the ground, not the bench top, was below it and the gun higher above the bench on the bipod, shooting was a tamer experience. I managed one of those high round-count days while shooting chronograph information with little damage to show at the end. The moral of the story is simply that the .50 BMG is a much different critter than other rifles and there is a learning curve. To be honest, the recoil and blast are part of the .50-caliber experience and without them it would all somehow be diminished. But, rest assured they are both very manageable and will cause no shooter any real or lasting discomfort.