Almost everyone wants a .50 caliber something. While the rifle options are ballistically superior, especially in .50 BMG, a .50-caliber pistol in the hand is worth more than the .50-caliber rifle somewhere else. There is, however, a time and place for a large, heavy projectile fired from a compact platform like a pistol. With myriad of pistol options to be had for shooters who have a .50-cal itch to scratch, those who enjoy watching friends suffer from sprained wrists, or have a legitimate need for a .50 caliber projectile, there’s no shortage of firearm designs from which to choose.
Commercially Available 50 Caliber Pistol Cartridges
Of course, the most popular .50-cal pistol chambering is the pop-culture centered .50 AE (short for “Action Express”), which was intended from the start to be paired with Magnum Research’s semi-automatic Desert Eagle pistol. This cartridge is also the parent case for many other cartridges (including another one on this list and boasts a case capacity of more than 30 grains of select powder under a 325-grain bullet (based on Hodgdon reloading data). This combination creates a velocity of between nearly 1,300 to 1,400 fps depending on barrel length. There are two companies making factory ammo for this cartridge. Buffalo Bore offerings span the gamut of bullet weights from 300 grains to 380 grains, and these loads send their projectiles down range at 1,500 fps to 1,250 fps, respectively. Underwood also makes ammo, with one target load and three hunting loads available, ranging from a 230-grain load using a monolithic bullet at 1,700 fps to a 325-grain load with a bonded hollow point moving at 1,475 fps. That’s nothing to balk at, and if a semi-auto handgun is your preferred lead-delivery system, the .50 AE is your best bet to put .50 caliber semi-auto pistol power in your hand.
I know what you’re thinking: “That’s a rifle round!” But as technology and our understanding of ballistics advanced, many cartridges excel from short barrels thanks to modern bullet technology and powders, and the AR platform is no exception. A large-format AR-pattern pistol is still technically a pistol, and when chambered in .50 Beowulf, it’s still a .50-cal pistol. So what’s the performance like? The .50 Beowulf, while it’s intended for a rifle-length barrels, doesn’t lose much when fired from shorter barrels. I chronographed a 325-grain load for testing and it only lost roughly 100 fps against a 300-grain load out of a 12-inch barrel as advertised by Alexander Arms: 1,581 fps versus 1,695 fps respectively. I was carrying 8.3 percent more weight and only lost 6.8 percent of my velocity from my 325-grain load compared to the specs provided by Alexander Arms for the 300-grain load. Comparing those figures against a 16-inch barrel with the same 300-grain bullet at 1,793 fps as advertised by Alexander Arms, my 325-grain bullet was travelling roughly 200 fps slower than the 16-inch barrel 300-grain load. This isn’t bad, considering I was carrying more bullet weight from a barrel that was 25 percent shorter. If you’re wanting a .50-cal AR-15 pistol, this could be the ideal option.
.500 S&W Magnum
Ironically, revolvers, while being one of the oldest and therefore “least modern” firearms in existence outside of black powder firearms, can be scaled up easier than many other firearm platforms. This makes the most modern cartridges capable of being fired through a revolver, as long as there is enough steel in the cylinder. Case in point: Smith & Wesson’s .500 S&W Mag., which was built to be the most powerful revolver-specific cartridge ever. The two guns available for it now are from Smith & Wesson, and both weigh in at roughly 3.5 pounds. What do you get in return for a relatively lightweight revolver that fires the largest cartridge ever built for a revolver aside from a sprained wrist? Quite a bit, actually. With 20 loads listed on on a popular online ammo retailer, selection for this caliber isn’t limited. Options include loads from Hornady, Corbon, Federal, HSM, Magtech, Grizzly, Swift, Underwood, and Buffalo Bore, with bullet weights ranging from 300 grains to – wait for it – 700 grains of flying ashtray, loaded by Underwood, with a warning about shooting this load multiple times consecutively. As it’s trucking along at a mere 1,200 fps, this monstrosity is significantly slower than any other load on this list. However, in terms of energy, it produces a literal ton of energy, hitting with 2,239 ft.-lbs. of force at the muzzle, or roughly the same muzzle energy as a modern .45-70 Gov't. load with a 300-grain bullet. As you can tell, there’s a plethora of .500 S&W Mag. options from which to choose, so if you don’t reload, this is likely your best bet.
Niche .50 Caliber Pistol Cartridges
.500 S&W Special
Much like most of the revolver cartridges with the “special” designation attached to their names, this is simply a shorter .500 S&W Mag., much like the .44 Special is the shorter brother to the .44 Magnum and the .38 Special round can be shot through .357 Mag. revolvers. Looking strictly at numbers, the Special variant is approximately .35 inch shorter than the magnum variant, so a shooter loses a bit of power compared to the .500 S&W Magnum round. Think of this one as the budget – and recoil – friendly version of the .500 S&W Magnum. Sadly, it’s essentially a reload-only cartridge at this point.
Built off S&W’s .500 Mag cartridge and splitting the difference between the .500 S&W Mag. and .500 S&W Special, .500 JRH is also known as the .500 S&W Short because the cartridge is cut down by 0.2 inches. There is also another one round loaded by Buffalo Bore which can be chambered in commercial revolvers made by Magnum Research. Four loads exist from Buffalo Bore, starting at 350 grains and topping out at a 440-grain lead hard cast bullet going just over 1,325 fps. The interesting load out of the group here is a monolithic 400-grain bullet going 1,350 fps that is specifically designated for dangerous game.
Originally shot through customized Ruger revolvers, the .500 Linebaugh was created by John Linebaugh, who took a .348 Win. cartridge, cut it down to 1.5 inches, and fit it with .50 caliber bullets. Magnum Research now makes a .500 Linebaugh revolver and guns can still be had from John Linebaugh himself. Buffalo Bore makes a few stout loads for firearms chambered in this .50 caliber pistol cartridge, ranging from a 350-grain load going over 1,500 fps to a 525-grain load at just under the speed of sound at 1,100 fps. Buffalo Bore also offers brass for those who reload, but with loads like that, you will be hard pressed to best the factory ammo available.