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.50 Beowulf – What’s it good for anyway?

Who would find a .50 Beowulf useful? Just about everyone. Here’s why:

Beowulf Ballistics

.50 Beowulf is an incredibly versatile big-bore cartridge. With lighter bullets it offers superior performance to the old .50 Express cartridges of the buffalo hunting days, and with heavier bullets exceeds the ballistics of cartridges like the .50-90 or .50-110 Sharps that were used to drop bison at very long ranges in the 1880s. 

The ballistics of the .50 Beowulf put it squarely in the same performance range as modern hot-loaded .45-70 dangerous game cartridges, and land the Beowulf not far below the ballistics of the brutally powerful .50 Alaskan.

A big difference is that the .50 Beowulf has very mild recoil compared to those cartridges, and performs in very short barrels.

This means that the usefulness of the .50 Beowulf is very broad. It’s equally at home in an east-coast white-tail tree stand as it is in the hands of a Kodiak Island guide. In any role appropriate for a modern .45-70 capable of firing the hottest modern loads, or a .50 Alaskan, you will be comfortable with a .50 Beowulf.

Semi-Auto Action

Most rifles chambered for big-bore cartridges are single-shots, double barrels, bolt actions, or lever actions. Barrels tend to be long and rifles heavy. Recoil is punishing. They are usually carried slung in a way that prevents fast presentation.

The .50 Beowulf is an exception. It is chambered in a fast-handling, short, light, AR-15. Low recoil makes it easy to shoot, and combined with the semi-auto action, allows lightning followup shots. Detachable magazines allow higher capacity than most big bore rifles are capable of, and switching ammunition is as simple as switching mags.

An AR-15 is easily slung with a tactical sling in a way that allows instant use. A fisherman with a .45-70 has it slung behind his back or leaning against a tree out of reach when that bear unexpectedly intrudes. 

An Alexander Arms .50 Beowulf AR-15 can hang on the chest with a tactical sling while both hands are engaged in fishing, and deploy faster than a holstered pistol.

Beowulf Maximum Range

Current ballistic mythology tends to hold that the .50 Beowulf is a 50 or 100 yard cartridge. Nothing could be further from the truth. 

Simply zeroing for a maximum point-blank range (maximum range at which a dead center hold will result in a hit to the kill zone) gives you a dead-on range of around 260 yards for moose, or around 205 yards for deer with a 16” barrel. A ballistic reticle scope zeroed for a max point-blank range (MPBR) would then allow easy holdovers for longer ranges. 

Because the Beowulf is a big-bore cartridge, it is an effective penetrator and killer at moderate velocities, extending its effective hunting range.

Beowulf Barrel Lengths

Because .50 Beowulf is so efficient in short barrels, it is impractical to go above 16” in barrel length. Above 16”, weight and length of the rifle increase quickly with negligible gain in velocity. A 16” barrel provides all necessary performance from this cartridge.

For ease of carry and mobility, a 12” barrel is ideal. Long enough for reliable function and ideal short-barrel ballistics, yet short enough to be handy and lightweight, it gives up very little performance from 16”. It is the right balance of performance and compactness. For comparison, a 400 gr. Hawk bullet leaving a 16” barrel at 1630 fps has a MPB range on moose of 240 yds. From a 12” barrel, it is only 105 fps slower at 1525 fps for a MPBR of 230 yards, giving up only 10 yards of range with a center-mass hold.

Beowulf Roles

.50 Beowulf resting on a moose quarter in a skiff after a successful hunt.


.50 Beowulf is an outstanding hunting cartridge. Because of the large diameter and lower velocities, it will put deer-sized game down with authority, without excessive damage to meat. Since the Beowulf starts out at a diameter that a lot of hunting rifle bullets are aspiring to reach with expansion, expansion is somewhat superfluous. It is not necessary for effectiveness.

However, expansion is usually an advantage for hunting with any cartridge, and the Beowulf’s heavy bullets with good sectional density provide plenty of penetration even with expanding bullets.

For hunting large, tough game, the .50 Beowulf, especially with well-constructed flat points or solids, will penetrate tough hide and smash heavy bone, while retaining its ability to penetrate deeply. There are few animals on the planet that would make me feel really undergunned with a .50 Beowulf. It is certainly up to the task of taking bison, musk oxen, or the largest bears.

Dangerous Game Defense

When it comes to large, dangerous, aggressive animals, the key is penetration. Penetration trumps almost everything else. I want a bullet that will smash heavy bones and keep on going. When defending against bears, breaking down the skeletal structure to take away mobility or punching through armored skulls is sometimes the fastest way to incapacitate the animal.

When hunting, the goal is to kill the animal as quickly as possible. In a defensive situation, the aim is to stop the animal as quickly as possible. You can worry about killing it afterwards, if need be.

With the right bullets, the Beowulf will shoot end to end through a bear’s body, breaking any intervening bones on the way. I have shot .50 Beowulf brass solids through about 4 feet of solid bone to exit with enough velocity to bury themselves deeply in gravel on the other side.

Because the .50 Beowulf is fired from an AR-15 rifle, the dangerous game defense rifle can be short, light, and well balanced. It is lightning fast to get into action. It is familiar and instinctive to anyone who has trained with M4s or M16s. With a tactical sling, it can stay on the body, ready for use, even when performing primary tasks.

AR-15s in .50 Beowulf combine all the traits that make a good dangerous game defense rifle. They are short, light, and well balanced. Designed for the mounting of appropriate optics (red dots) combined with backup iron sights, ARs can alternately use irons as a rugged primary system. They can be carried easily at the ready hands-free. They have a good magazine capacity, and are semi-auto for fast followup shots. Light recoil keeps the sights on target to ensure followup shots are accurate. If you have trained with an M4 or M16, the AR-15 will be instinctive. The AR is easily adjusted to fit smaller shooters and children.

Because I use mine for bear defense, I use only Alexander Arms .50 Beowulf rifles and uppers. I would never trust a budget gun for this role. In fact, budget ARs in this caliber (and other calibers) have very dismal records for reliability.

Barrier Penetration

.50 Beowulf is an outstanding choice for LE agencies who require barrier penetration capabilities. There is little the Beowulf does better than penetrate. Because of the design of the bullets, they are more likely to fly straight after penetrating a barrier than smaller diameter projectiles.

Road Block/Vehicle Interdiction

Stopping vehicles was one of the main roles considered in the development of the .50 Beowulf. Heavy solids or even FMJs will penetrate and break the engine block of a vehicle. Punching holes in radiators stops vehicles . . . . eventually. Punching holes in engine blocks stops vehicles right now. If you have ever been in a vehicle when coolant entered a cylinder, you know that it’s like locking the brakes, and usually the engine further self-destructs.

The Beowulf will also punch holes not only through tires, but through the rim, which deflates the tire instantly.


Quality .50 Beowulf ammunition from Alexander Arms is less expensive than comparable loads for other big-bore cartridges. It is not unusual to pay $85 to $120 per box for .45-70, .500 S&W, or .50 Alaskan  cartridges. .50 Beowulf is far less expensive to shoot.

Personally, I prefer the Beowulf . . .

The advantages and versatility of Alexander Arms .50 Beowulf rifles often cause me to choose them over my big bore lever actions when heading into bear country.

Comment below and tell us how you use your .50 Beowulf.

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