Abbott & Costello. Laurel & Hardy. .223 & .50 Beowulf. The skinny, the fat... This is one way to introduce two opposite-end-of-the-spectrum AR rifle cartridges. I mean, look at them above… looks like a composite of me from my high school years to now. Skinny to fat.
This pair can let you hunt everything from mouse to moose, and all critters in between. Let’s look at each one in a little detail then go from there. I admit that I have not had as much experience with the Beowulf as I’ve had with the .223 but both are accurate and fun to shoot… one sure kicks a lot more than the other! See below for specs…
OK, I know… the .223 is not the same as the 5.56mm. There are differences, even though they look pretty much identical. . What are the differences? There are two main ones:
The 5.56 is loaded to higher pressures than the .223, 58K vs. 55K.
The 5.56’s chamber has a throat (or leade) that is .125” longer than that of the .223 and the chamber is slightly larger in certain areas.
This means that you should not fire 5.56 ammo in your .223-chambered rifle. With the smaller, shorter-throated chamber of the .223, you could be looking at a pressure spike due to the bullet being in contact with the rifling. Conversely, you may not get the accuracy that your .223 ammo gives you in .223-chambered rifles when fired in the slightly larger 5.56mm chamber.
Since the chamber is a bit oversize in some areas, you may not get the full 55K pressure. This could affect the accuracy and maybe function. Remember that the 5.56mm was designed for military weapons where a bit of extra pressure is a good thing (over that of the .223) so function in full-auto weapons is enhanced.
[.223 Wylde was designed as a hybrid chambering to fix these issues. Read more about .223 Wylde here!]
The .223 cartridge was developed in 1957 by Remington and Fairchild Industries at the request of the U.S. Continental Command of the U.S. Army. This is truly an instance where one of the most popular civilian rounds for hunting, target shooting, etc. came from a military cartridge. Without re-writing the history of the .223, here’s a very short version.
In September 1963, the .223 Remington was officially adopted as the "Cartridge, 5.56 mm ball, M193". Armalite’s AR rifle was developed in conjunction with the cartridge in the early ‘60s which paid off, as a year later Eugene Stoner’s AR was adopted as well.
It’s also interesting to note that in 1962 Remington’s .223 cartridge was adopted by SAAMI as the “.223 Remington”. That company introduced a bolt-action rifle in that chambering not long after. The original 5.56 was designed and loaded to pressures that would allow it to be able to engage targets out to 500 yards. In 1980, the cartridge was named the “5.56x45 NATO” (SS109 or M855). As they say, the rest is history…
A popular sporting use for the .223 seems to be as a varmint round. Basically in the same class as the .222 (but not the .22-250), the .223 is a great groundhog round to way out there. With an accurate rifle and good scope, you can make hits out to 300 yards or more. I remember that, before the advent of the AR-style rifle, many makers made some serious bolt-action varmint rifles chambered in .223 (and they still do).
This round is a good choice in terms of power, recoil, cost, and noise when compared to other varmint rounds like the .22-250. Nowadays, you can still hunt your ‘hogs but use a black rifle – they are accurate beyond what you need, for the most part.
Many AR owners keep one handy for home defense, or in the trunk of their car. The short, handy nature of these guns enable them to be brought into action quickly, and the small nature of the .223 cartridge allows you to carry several 30-round magazines. I added a light to one of my ARs to aid in the protection of our chicken coop. Home defense doesn’t just mean our home… our chickens have a home, too!
The .223 was, as I said above, designed to be accurate to 500 yards. That’s a fur piece for a .22, but it works. Some shooters regularly ring steel out to that range and maybe a touch beyond. The heavier bullets tend to work better here, with their greater sectional density and ballistic coefficient. I do a lot of .223 shooting, and it’s fairly inexpensive to buy, even though I handload.
One of my Bear Creek Arsenal ARs sitting on the Ransom Multi-Cal Steady Rest. This aerospace-grade aluminum rest (plus the great leather bag at the rear) steadies the rifle for shots way out there. Quality stuff, above and below!
Here is a quick list of 5.56mm variants:
M855 NATO Ball
For more details about these, go here.
First, what the heck is a Beowulf? Why name a rifle cartridge that? Well… if you are a student of Old English poems, you’ll know all about it. Beowulf, without putting you to sleep, is the hero of a poem written between 925 and 1025 A.D. by an anonymous Anglo-Saxon poet. It’s basically a good-vs-evil theme.
Again, you ask, what has this got to do with a rifle round? My only guess about that is that its designer, Bill Alexander (Alexander Arms) came up with it as a unique name for a unique cartridge. (Evidently, he really liked that poem as another of its main characters is Grendel… he also is the designer of the 6.5 Grendel). The .50 Beowulf is a thumper and has been compared to early .45-70 cartridges in terms of ballistics and effect on targets.
[50 Beowulf's cartridge size is 12.7x42, and due to copyright constraints from Alexander Arms, many manufacturers (including Bear Creek Arsenal) will refer to their uppers and barrels as 12.7x42. 50 Beowulf and 12.7x42 refer to the same thing, however.]
.50 Beowulf History
Released in 2001 by Bill Alexander, the .50 Beowulf utilizes a bullet between 300 and 400 grains depending on the load. The case is based on the .50 AE (Action Express) case. The purpose behind it had to do with wanting a cartridge that would show increased stopping power over the .223/5.56mm at close to medium ranges.It has been used for several purposes… see some of those below.
Its rim is rebated and is the same size as the rim on the 6.5 Grendel and 7.65x39, so the same bolt face for those rounds will work with it. I have an AR in 7.62x39 and I can say that it sure works as intended… feeding and extraction are not issues at all.
Looking at the case, it resembles that of the .500 S&W Magnum but shows slightly more taper to feed better in semi-auto rifles. As just mentioned above, its ballistics come very close to those of the early .45-70 cartridge… around 1800-1900 f.p.s. with a 300- or a 400-grain bullet. The round is loaded to pressures around 33,000 p.s.i. in order to function in AR-pattern rifles.
Speaking of ballistics, here’s a published table for the .50 Beowulf:
|300 gr Speer Gold Dot JHP Alexander Arms||1,870 ft/s||2,330 ft⋅lb|
|325 gr Speer JHP Alexander Arms||1,800 ft/s||2,338 ft⋅lb|
|335 gr Rainer Plated FP Alexander Arms||1,771 ft/s||2,333 ft⋅lb|
|335 gr Rainier Plated HP Alexander Arms||1,900 ft/s||2,678 ft⋅lb|
|400 gr Hawk JFP Alexander Arms||1,800 ft/s||2,878 ft⋅lb|
Over a ton of energy. Wow! The recoil is enough to get your attention and possibly rattle your molars… the .223 generates about 4.5 ft./lbs. of recoil while the .50 Beowulf hits right at 30. That ain’t hay! Having hunted whitetails for decades, I could see a tough Beowulf JHP or FP bullet going through a deer standing sideways at ranges under 100 yards. This round could do that, for sure. Heck, it might even head for parts unknown after going through a deer north-south. I’ve seen that happen, depending on where the deer was hit and the power of the cartridge. These ballistics are impressive!
.50 Beowulf Uses
Here are a few purposes that the Beowulf is used for. There are others, but this is a start…
I would love to try this on deer. That’s as big an animal that I hunt, but I have no doubt that it would do a bang-up job (pun intended) on deer. I suspect that larger game would be on the ticket, as well. After all, you’re basically putting .45-70 ballistics out there with each press of the trigger.
With its relatively low velocity and large bullet, the Beowulf should be a good home defense tool. The problem with using some high-speed cartridges for home defense is overpenetration. Some rounds will go through the target and a few more walls before coming to rest. That isn’t acceptable in a situation where your family members may be on the other side of those walls. With its lower velocity and wider bullet, the Beowulf would be less likely to over-penetrate. The best scenario for its home defense use would be in a situation like where I live, where our house is surrounded by woods. Post-target safety is pretty much guaranteed in that scenario.
Security Checkpoints/Law Enforcement
OK, so this one’s a bit out of left field but I wanted to at least mention it. The Beowulf and similar cartridges are useful where there’s an auto that must be stopped because the big bullets tend to go through glass and fragile engine parts without bouncing off. Smaller calibers may not do this, as they tend to ricochet off hard surfaces or blow up on impact. This round works for this usage just as it does for hunting big critters.
I’m not familiar with the latter two uses, but I have put many deer down over the years. They are not armor-plated but still require some convincing to go down and this round would do just that. Another plus is that, In my experience, big ol’ bullets like the .50 Beowulf spits are not deflected by small branches easily… just aim at the boiler room and let fly. Small branches won’t deflect these bullets much, if at all.
The Beowulf and the .223 can both share the same AR lower, a definite bonus for those of us who like to experiment with different calibers. Buy an upper and you’re pretty much in business since the same magazine works for both the .223 and the .50 Beowulf [although we recommend dedicated 12.7x42 magazines for optimal reliability].
The kicker is that your 30-round .223 mag will only hold 10 .50 Beowulf cartridges; your 20-rounder will hold 7. The mags essentially become single-stack. But, at least you .223/5.56mm AR shooters won’t have to buy new mags for your latest .50 B. AR build. (Please note that if you spring for actual .50 B. mags, you can’t use them with your .223 - it’s not reciprocal).
Other things that would be in common between these two calibers and their prospective ARs are really obvious so I won’t go into details. The same sights, slings, etc. work for both of these. Suffice it to say that the AR platform is easily accessorized. I’m sure you know the drill.
Let’s do a basic peek at a comparison between these two calibers.
Ammo is light and easy to carry many rounds
Magazines are double-stack
Recoil is negligible
The cost of ammo is fairly low; availability is high
Not designed for hunting deer-sized game
Not the best for penetrating car windows or body
Energy tends to drop with range
.50 Beowulf Pros
At home in the deer (or other critter) woods
Big bullet punches through glass and metal
Bullets retain energy at close-to-mid ranges
.50 Beowulf Cons
Ammo is heavy
Mags are single-stack
Recoil is heavy
Ammo cost is high and availability is spotty
There are other factors that could go in any of the four columns but you get the idea. These two different cartridges do different things well, which is the point.
So, which of these AR calibers should you buy? Short answer: both of them. Many shooters tend to engage in more than one shooting activity. Some shoot competition with one caliber and then hunt with another. I tend to combine shooting pursuits, but my activities usually involve a rifle and a revolver of some caliber. I could definitely see someone hunting varmints or shooting targets with a .223 and then turning around and heading to the deer woods with the Beowulf. That makes sense.
These two are far enough apart in intended usage that it makes sense to own both of them. Buy one lower and two uppers, and you’re in business for (as I said above) everything from mouse to moose. (Or you could buy a complete rifle in one caliber and add an upper, if you’re just starting out in the AR game). An added bonus if you add the .50 to your collection is that the protection offered by the “bulldozer bullets” out of the Beowulf would tend to make you feel pretty safe from most any danger you might find yourself in. Two-legged, four-legged, vehicular predators… you’re in pretty good company with a .50 Beowulf.