50 AE vs 50 BMG: Comparing Apples and Watermelons

by Travis Pike

May 5, 2023

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In the United States, you don’t see many calibers go in excess of .50 an inch. Why? Well, the NFA regulates most of them unless we use them solely for sporting purposes. This is why we can have shotguns as title 1 weapons but not 20mm bolt action rifles. Thus, the market more or less responded by never going above half an inch unless they are 100% sure they can get their firearm exempted under the NFA. 

This has led to a few different .50 caliber options. Today, we are looking at two very different rounds and comparing and contrasting the two. The first is the mighty .50 BMG, one of the OGs of the .50 cal game. The second is the .50 AE, a relative newcomer that’s proven to be quite popular in certain platforms. Let’s compare and contrast and see where the two rounds differ and what they have in common. 

.50 Action Express vs .50 Browning Machine Gun Spec Comparison

50 Action Express Cartridge

.50 Action Express

Case Type Straight Wall
Bullet Diameter 0.500”
Neck Diameter 0.531”
Base Diameter 0.543”
Case Length 1.285”
Overall Length 1.610”
Case Capacity 50 gr H20
Max Pressure (SAAMI) 36,00 psi
Projectile Weight 300-410 gr
50 Browning Machine Gun Cartridge

.50 Browning Machine Gun

Case Type Bottleneck
Bullet Diameter 0.510″
Neck Diameter 0.560”
Base Diameter 0.804”
Case Length 3.91”
Overall Length 5.45”
Case Capacity 292.8 gr H20
Max Pressure (EPVAT) 60,481 psi
Projectile Weight 647-800 gr

Why Compare .50 AE to .50 BMG?

Not all 50 calibers are the same. But I think often when people hear the term “50 Cal”, they might be lumping them into the same category. This is probably most common with new shooters or those outside of the shooting community. Hopefully we can clear up the differences.

Lets start with a history lesson then get to the comparisons.

.50 BMG History and Purpose

The BMG in .50 BMG stands for Browning Machine Gun. John Browning developed and named the .50 BMG. The .50 BMG is just one of many rounds John Browning created. They produced this specific round for the M2 Machine Gun, a weapon affectionately named Ma Deuce. The .50 BMG round is a great big gun originally designed for anti-air and anti-armor use. 

Keep in mind that armor in the 1920s was nothing like it was today. The .50 BMG round has stuck around alongside the M2 for almost a hundred years now. This mighty big round is extremely powerful and morphed from a machine gun round into a rifle round. .50 caliber anti-material sniper rifles have been a mainstay of armed forces since the 1980s. 

In the civilian world, it’s often used by shooters to hit targets at extreme distances. It’s also just a fun gun. It’s not practical for hunting, but it is a great cartridge for long-range, high-performance shooting. 

.50 AE History History and Purpose

The .50 AE, or .50 Action Express, is a large caliber handgun round designed by Evan Whildin of Action Arms in 1988. This cartridge was designed to provide a very powerful .50 caliber handgun round, designed for use in automatic pistols. Prior to the .50 AE, most high-powered rounds were designed for revolvers. Cartridges like the .44 Magnum and .454 Casull have a big rim for a revolver, and while we have adapted them to automatics, it’s not always easy. 

Designers created the .50 AE for semi-auto handguns and introduced it to the AMT Automag V, the LAR Grizzle WIN MAG, and the famous Desert Eagle. The round is very large and very powerful, and it creates substantial recoil. As such, it’s not an appropriate self-defense or duty cartridge.

Where it does succeed is in metallic silhouette shooting competitions and in hunting medium and large game. It’s quite capable of those tasks.

Huge Differences 

These two rounds have massive differences. They crafted one round for a heavy machine gun and the other for a handgun. That creates some pretty big differences between the two rounds. These very different rounds are both big bore and heavy recoiling relative to their platforms. We will explore those differences in depth and detail a thing or two they have in common. 

50 AE vs 50 BMG Comparison

Size Differences

While both cartridges use a .50 caliber projectile, their size differences are massive. The .50 BMG uses a projectile that weighs anywhere from 647 grains to 800 grains. The .50 AE utilizes projectiles that weigh anywhere from 300 grains to 410 grains. That’s a pretty massive difference in weight. 

The .50 BMG uses a 3.91 inch long bottlenecked case with a case capacity of 292.8 gr. H2O. The .50 AE uses a case that’s only 1.285 inches long and has a case capacity of right around 50 gr. H2O depending on what data sheet you use. 

The overall length of a .50 BMG round is 5.45 inches. It’s a great big bullet and cartridge. The .50 AE is small enough to fit into a magazine that squeezes into the grip of a pistol. It’s only 1.610 inches long. Admittedly, that’s big for a pistol round, but quite small compared to the .50 BMG cartridge. 

Performance Differences 

With substantial size differences come significant performance differences. Holy crap, are these two cartridges different in practical application. The .50 BMG is this great, big, heavy, and hard-hitting round with a number of different projectile types for different purposes. What the .50 BMG does well is carry a lot of energy in a very big bullet for a very long time. 

The current world record holder of a confirmed kill with a sniper rifle is an unnamed JTF-2 Sniper who killed an insurgent at 3,871 yards with a round fired from a McMillan TAC-50. That’s a .50 BMG rifle. The .50 BMG cartridges reach out well beyond a mile and still pack a punch. Seven out of the top ten sniper shots ever taken were with a .50 BMG round. 

A 750-grain .50 BMG projectile is moving at 2,820 feet per second and delivering 13,241 foot-pounds of energy on target. This destructive power is often used to shut down enemy equipment, be it a light armored vehicle, a generator, or even an IED planted in the road. It’s a multi-use caliber that makes use of the long-range and power of the round to do a number of tasks. 

The .50 AE round is quite powerful…for a handgun round. Like the .50 BMG rifle, it does a great job of carrying a big heavy bullet and retaining a lot of energy over a fair amount of ground. Handguns will never be rifles, and for a handgun, the .50 AE offers excellent ballistics. Metallic silhouette shooting often forces shooters to fire their handguns out to 200 meters, which is quite far for a handgun. 

The 50 AE offers shooters a semi-auto action that makes it easy to reach out and touch a target. It’s powerful enough that shooters could use a low-powered fixed optic to make the most of the cartridge and gun. 

In terms of power, the .50 AE can launch a 325-grain round at 1,450 feet per second, and it strikes the target with 1,517 foot-pounds of energy. That’s a lot of power, nearly five times that of a standard 9mm cartridge. While powerful, as you can see, the numbers are so far away from the 50 BMG that it’s like comparing a large lake to an ocean. 

Purpose Differences

The difference between the .50 AE and .50 BMG can be easily seen in the weight and size of the platforms that fire them. The .50 AE Desert Eagle is big for a handgun but still plenty easy to carry and shoot. The big handgun weighs 4.5 pounds, but it can still be holstered and carried like a handgun. As long as you don’t have to conceal it, you’ll be good to go. 

The .50 BMG fires out of rifles like the aforementioned McMillan TAC-50. This gun weighs 26 pounds and is 57 inches in overall length. That’s pretty standard for a .50 BMG rifle. Weapons like the M2 reach weights of 84 pounds. 

The .50 BMG is too powerful to hunt any animal that walks this earth. Maybe if we Jurassic Park the world and need to fight a T-Rex, then the .50 BMG will do it. Other than that, it’s a gun designed to hit things at long ranges. For the average joe, it’s not exactly a great option for any kind of defensive shooting or anything beyond hitting steel really far away. 

People can employ the .50 AE from a handgun for target shooting and competitive shooting sports. It’s also very capable of taking hogs, deer, and similar animals. It’s incredibly powerful and acceptable for hunting. However, the round is much too powerful and heavy recoiling for home defense, and the guns that chamber it are too larger for concealed carry. 

The One Thing They Have in Common

What could these two rounds have in common outside of their projectile diameter? Not much, but hear me out. They are both a ton of fun to shoot. They aren’t for everyone, but if you don’t mind a little excessive recoil, then you’ll love shooting these guns. Under the supervision of a very experienced shooter, I was able to take a mile shot and hit a rather large piece of steel quite quickly. That was an incredibly satisfying feeling. 

Shooting a magnum-powered handgun is always a thrill. There is some trepidation before you pull the trigger, but you learn how to deal with the recoil quickly and efficiently. Being able to put rounds on target quickly and being efficient with the gun is quite satisfying as well. 

Both of these calibers are big bore blasters that are a ton of fun to shoot. They also have a nice high price associated with their ammunition and weapons. They aren’t cheap, and you’re unlikely to find something cheap when the projectile is a half-inch in diameter. 

Getting your .50 On

These are two very different rounds, and they don’t necessarily compete with one another. They both excel at sending big bullets downrange that pack a major punch. Picking one or the other is plenty easy, and you’ll need to figure out what you want to shoot and how far away your target plans to be sitting. They are so different that it’s pretty easy to determine which one of the big .50s you need. 

Speaking of, what are your experiences with these two .50 caliber rounds? Or any .50 caliber round. Let us know below if you enjoy shooting the half-inch bullets now and then. 

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    About Travis Pike

    Travis is a former United States Marine Corps Infantryman and currently a firearms writer, instructor, and works in Emergency Management.

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