The various .50 caliber rifle and machine gun cartridges are not trifles. One 18B of our acquaintance earned the nickname Nine Fingers in a moment’s carelessness with a loose round. (He’s not the only one. Here’s a gruesome weapons safety-of-use message from a couple of years later – via ENDO). You might expect that from a round that has 200 to nearly 300 grains of powder. With the .50 everything happens in greater volume and under greater pressure, which makes the quality of gun very, very important.
We’re about to see what happens when a .50 is not well engineered or constructed, and we’ll also cover ammunition as a possible contributing factor.
In recent years there has been a flowering of new .50 designs… 30 years ago it was Barrett or lump it. (That isn’t necessarily bad. The Barrett is a safe, sturdy, and reliable weapon). Now there are many kinds of .50s on the market. Along with the semis, there are bolt action mag-fed guns and a variety of single shots with nearly as many action designs as there are manufacturers. Some of the singles use a Mauser-like bolt with extractor and ejector, but others use a “shell holder” bolt, where a machined slot in the bolt holds the cartridge rim in place before, during and after firing, dispensing with the cost and complexity of an extractor or ejector. The price of this simplicity comes in the complexity of, and time to execute, the normal manual of arms. In a throwback to 1870s breechloader convenience, you remove the bolt from the weapon, slide any spent cartridge out of the shell holder, slide the cartridge into the shell holder in the bolt, and then ram the bolt/cartridge assembly home, turn it to lock, and fire.
That’s an inelegant design, but it’s perfectly safe, if the designers and manufacturers do their job of engineering, substantiation, and manufacture — and if users use good ammo.
Good ammo is hard to come by for .50s. Surplus blasting ammo is reliable and safe but generally falls short of the guns’ accuracy potential. It’s built for machine guns and meant to be fired at planes, vehicles, or groups of troops in a “to whom it may concern” manner. Match ammo, on the other hand, is usually reloaded, either by end users or small shops or companies. So one risk you take is with reloads, which even in a factory production setting do not get the statistical quality control that, say, ATK applies to their military contract rounds.
And then there’s the quality of gun. This gun is a Vulcan. Vulcan was formerly known as Hesse. Hesse made a series of very low-quality receivers for guns built on surplus parts kits — everything from FALs to ARs to 1919A4s. And every one of these was prone to failures, and the firm’s customer service — under whatever name — was dreadful. So then, Hesse (and later, Vulcan) got into .50 BMG rifles. Their guns sell for a low price point. Unfortunately, that encourages people who can’t operate Google or Bing to buy them. With the results you see here, and some results you don’t.
The Vulcan, also, has a chamber that, while it varies from gun to gun, is tighter than the military specification for machine-gun chambers. What this means is not all surplus ammo will chamber; max-milspec-length rounds may fail to chamber, like a no-go gage.
The bolt in this particular gun is at least the fourth design of the the Vulcan/Hesse .50 bolt. The first one had two lugs, oriented at 90 and 270 to the side you slide the cartridge in the shell holder. The second had the same 2-lug bolt head and an improved rear area. The third, which was in early Vulcans, used an interrupted thread, but the fine thread doesn’t seem to have been sufficient for safety. The fourth and current bolt head has three lugs much like the ones from the early Hesse bolt, but arranged equidistant from one another (120 apart) around the bolt head. Vulcan says the bolt is machined from 4140 rod stock, but the surface finish of one we examined looked like a casting.
But the bolt itself didn’t let go. What appears to have happened in the latest case is that the gun fired out of battery. The firing pin free-floats in the bolt, and when the shooter rammed the bolt home, the pin’s own inertia was enough to fire the cartridge in the chamber, before the luckless shooter could turn the bolt and lock it. We haven’t seen even a picture of the inside of the mishap gun’s chamber, but we’ve seen other Hesses/Vulcans, and there’s a lot of tool marks and roughness in there.
In the current accident, the bolt firing out of battery exposed another limitation of the Hesse/Vulcan design (and all shell holders that we know of, really): there’s no secondary bolt retention. If the gun fires out of battery, the bolt is coming back with half the energy that propels the .50′s usual ~700-grain widow makers, and that’s exactly what happened here. The bolt struck and seriously injured the shooter. The blast, flash and burn from the uncontained powder and fragmented cartridge case also injured him; he was left blind and missing several fingers, although his blindness seems to be easing and they are cautiously optimistic he will recover his sight. Several fingers from his left hand were a different matter, as they couldn’t be found. (It is possible, but not known for a fact, that he was resting his left hand on top of the Vulcan’s stock, and the fast-moving bolt tore his fingers off on its way to breaking his shoulder).
Why did the gun fire out of battery in the first place? What none of the four bolt designs did include was one simple, five-cent component that would have prevented this accident: a firing-pin return spring. This spring is especially important if you’re going to fire ammunition that’s loaded with more-sensitive commercial primers than if you only plan to shoot surplus ammunition. Without one, it’s possible for the firing pin to jam in the forward position, like the fixed firing pin on an open-bolt submachine gun. Well, open-bolt subguns can be set up like that, because (1) they’re chambered for low-powered pistol cartridges, and (2) many of them are designed to use advanced primer ignition, where the gun fires as the bolt is closing. Again, no harm done in a gun that’s designed to be “locked” by the weight and inertia of the bolt. In a gun that absolutely, positively must be locked to fire, it’s a mortal error.
In the mishap Vulcan, the base of the .50 casing remains in the shell holder of the bolt. The rest of the casing became shrapnel, and the bolt itself became a deadly projectile. This man is extremely lucky to be alive, and he’s luckier yet if he recovers his vision.
Yes, a Barrett is four times or more what one of these things goes for, and even other single-shots like the McMillan cost much more money. What are your eyes worth? Your life? This guy very nearly answered that question, inadvertently.
Other Vulcan/Hesse .50s have blown up before, apparently. So have other makes of .50, but none of the top-name guns, as far as we know. This one at ENDO also looks like an out of battery fire, and seriously injured its shooter. It’s interesting because it was an AR-style single-shot bolt gun, that was not a shell holder design. On the other hand, it was made by an outfit we haven’t otherwise heard of, called “BOHICA Arms.” (BOHICA is an ancient military acronym for “bend over, here it comes again.” Not exactly a confidence-building company name. But hey, they’re not Vulcan/Hesse/Blackthorne).
ARFCOM thread (as usual, a thin layer of genius floating on a lake of retardation).
Vulcan Armaments. The same Bubba the Gunsmiths that comprise Vulcan also appear to have operated as Hesse, Blackthorne, Frozen North, and probably other names. Name changes for the same reason that Chevy’s small shitbox car has a new name every few years: the public gets wise. Vulcan claims to be a supplier of guns to Special Forces. It is not. And you have to love their warranty policy: KMAGYOYO. (“Based on the Magnuson-Moss Warranty act, Vulcan Group Inc. offers no warranty on its product line.”)
Armslist ad with this rifle for sale in 2010.