50 Caliber Shootout
A little while back I got a phone call from Jack Huntington. He indicated that he had a new .50 caliber pistol cartridge in the works and that Magnum Research was chambering the guns based on their BFR (Biggest Finest Revolver) platform. Jack thought perhaps the readers of Handgun Hunter Magazine would be interested, and I agreed. Given that big-bore revolvers have long been an addiction to many handgun hunters I saw an opportunity to compare this new cartridge with two other fifties - the .500 Smith & Wesson Magnum and the relatively new .500 Wyoming Express.
At this point in time most everyone has heard of the .500 S&W Magnum. It’s the first mass-produced fifty-caliber handgun to have any significant popularity among the general shooting public. It has been used to take dangerous game like elephant, Cape buffalo and brown bear as proof of the power it can deliver for serious handgun hunters. The other two fifties are a little less known, partly because they are new and partly because the other two manufacturers don't produce as much marketing material as Smith &Wesson. Introduced in the fall of 2005 by Freedom Arms, the .500 W.E. (Wyoming Express) is a belted cartridge and a definite departure from what comes to mind when we think about a big-bore revolver cartridge.
As I've already mentioned the other new kid on the block is the .500 JRH.
The .500 JRH is manufactured by Magnum Research and is a single-action revolver very similar in appearance to the Ruger Super Blackhawk.
My test gun came equipped with black micarta grips and a 7-1/2 inch barrel.
Like the Ruger, the BFR has a transfer bar mechanism and it can be loaded with five rounds if you so choose. Unlike the Ruger, the BFR has a free-wheeling cylinder and a base pin held in place by a set screw. The rear of the trigger guard is also slightly rounded and a definite improvement over the sharp corner found on the Super Blackhawk. The BFR came equipped with iron sights and a Weaver-Style scope mount base. I'm not much on iron sights when trying to test a gun so I swapped out the irons with a slightly different mount than the one provided. I decided to mount a Zeiss Zpoint red-dot sight on the BFR so I selected a mount from Edge Custom. They now produce short mounts for the BFR and Freedom Arms revolvers that are made specifically for reddot sights. This would also keep it on level ground when testing against the .500 S&W, which wears an Aimpoint red-dot A call to Bob Baker at Freedom Arms about the project had a model 83 chambered for the .500 W.E. on its way to my gun dealer, Green Top Sporting Goods. I decided to go with the 7- 1/2 inch barrel on this gun as well because it more closely matched the other two test guns and because I wanted to see how that barrel length handled as compared to my 10-inch and my 4-3/4 inch .454s. The gun that arrived was a premier grade model 83 and included an action job, a SSK TSOB scope base, RCBS carbide dies and a box of new brass. The .500
W. E. is a proprietary cartridge developed by Freedom Arms, which means you'll have to get the dies from them. Loaded ammunition can be purchased from Grizzly Cartridge. The folks at Grizzly now own Cast Performance Bullets (CPB) and their cast bullet loads utilize the WFNGC bullets that many of us have used with great success in other calibers. WFNGC stands for Wide Flat Nose Gas Checked by the way. I chose to top the 83 with a Leupold 2.5x8 EER scope to round out the good looks of the Freedom Arms piece. I didn't get the rings with the gun so I used the Leupold Rifleman rings that were hanging over my gun bench to attach the scope with a three-ring setup.
One common denominator among the three guns is the potential for monstrous recoil and any of them can be loaded to make even hardened big bore aficionados wince. In revolver cartridges the .44 Magnum long ruled the roost as the most powerful handgun cartridge.
Touted by many during its heyday as the ultimate in big-bore power, capable of making grown men beg for mercy. Then along came the .454 Casull, which made the recoil of the .44 Magnum feel like a popgun. Of course the custom revolver bunch has been shooting .475 and .500 Linebaugh guns for several years and both are capable of recoil in excess of the Casull. Smith & Wesson, once at the top of the heap with the .44, wanted the title back so they came up with the .500 Smith & Wesson Magnum. I was in awe when I first laid eyes on the cartridge and wondered who would want to shoot such a beast. Apparently a lot of you did and it continues to be a gun that we've just got to have.
What many have found out though is that the .500 S&W has more recoil than can be enjoyed with loads like the factory Corbon 440 grain bullet traveling at 1600+ fps. A good friend of mine observed that when shooting the 440's, rubber from the grip was being transferred to his hand when he shot the gun. Winchester has recently introduced reduced loads for the .500 S&W which is great news because very little game, especially in North America, requires full-house 500 Magnums to bring it down. One thing you immediately notice about the S&W is its physical size. It is a huge revolver. The cylinder measures 2.3 inches, which is nearly half an inch longer than the .500 JRH cylinder.
It's also a heavy gun and a bit unwieldy for my particular tastes. However, the weight does help considerably with recoil and I personally have never found the gun uncomfortable to shoot in the Performance Center configuration.
And shoot it does, my testing has been thorough enough that I wouldn't hesitate to say 150 yard shots are very possible with a proper rest. Recoil and physical size notwithstanding, S&W created a wonderful gun capable of handling anything a handgunner could ask of it Shooting Factory Ammo The S&W affords the widest selection of useable bullets of the three guns. With a cylinder that measures nearly a half-inch longer than the BFR, the 500 Smith can utilize bullet designs that just don't work in the other revolvers because of the distance between the cannelure and the bullet tip. A good example of this is the Corbon loaded with the 325 grain Barnes XPB Spitzer (center).
All of the factory ammo I tested in the .500 Smith shot quite well and average velocities were consistently between 1550 and 1700 fps.
I was using the performance center (PC) version of the Smith, which is considerably heavier than the standard version. This helps a great deal with recoil and I found the most accurate loads were the Corbon 440 grain hard cast loads grouping around one inch at 50 yards.
The factory ammo choices are somewhat limited for the .500 JRH. Only two Buffalo Bore loads are available, the 425 grain LFN and the 440 grain LFN - both are hard cast bullets.
The 425 grain load is simply beyond my capability of enjoyment. Even with a glove, the knuckle on my middle finger took a beating. A Bisley-style grip frame would no doubt help as would a Magnaport job. Do everything you can to tame this beast. One thing I found particularly annoying was the length of the trigger. It is just short enough to allow the seam of my leather shooting glove to get under and behind the trigger on nearly every shot. There is plenty of room to lengthen the trigger on this model but it is consistent with other current single action trigger designs.
The factory choices for the .500 W.E. are pretty decent as long as you don't want to shoot a jacketed hollow point. Grizzly Cartridge manufactures five different bullets ranging from a 370 grain WFNGC to a 440 grain WFNGC. They also produce a jacketed 400 grain Bonded Core Flat Point (BCFP) bullet that looks very promising for large game and a 420 grain PUNCH bullet. The latter is very pricy.
From their website, www.grizzlycartridge.com, you can order twenty rounds of your favorite for about fifty-five bucks - the PUNCH bullets are more than double that amount.
The best shooting load in the Model 83 was the 400 grain WFNGC that produced an average velocity of 1294 fps and printed a 2.5 inch group at 50 yards. The groups opened up only slightly with the 440 grain WFNGC and the 400 grain BCFP.
That may be good enough considering those bullets are meant for big mean critters which should probably be shot inside of 100 yards anyway. With the exception of one or two animals, I can't imagine what you would shoot with the 440 that the 400 grain bullet wouldn't penetrate just as effectively. For the non-handloader go with the 400 WFNGC and don't worry. At 1300 fps, the recoil from 400 WFNGC is very manageable Handloading Handloading for these three cartridges is fairly straightforward. The .500 W.E. does come with a spacer for adjusting the sizing die so the belt doesn't get inadvertently modified during the sizing process - be sure and read the directions that come with the die set before using them.
As with any heavy recoiling cartridge care must be taken during the crimp stage so that you get a good heavy crimp. Seat the bullet and apply the crimp in separate steps for best results. The .500 W.E. has the shortest cylinder of the three guns. Keep a close watch on bullets that tend to jump the crimp, especially with the 350 Sierra because it's long already.
Even a slight jump can make the bullets too long to function. The 350 Sierra actually exceeds the cartridge length recommended by Freedom Arms but it will work as long as you seat the bullet to the very top of the cannelure and then crimp.
Powder choices for loading any of these cartridges is a round up of the normal choices for straight-walled pistol cartridges including: WW-296, H110 and H4227. The Sierra 350 grain JHP is an outstanding choice in any of the 500's for hunting medium sized game. It is a little long for the Freedom Arms but will still work with careful reloading and a proper crimp to keep the bullet from jumping forward and locking up the gun. The bullet shown above exited the muzzle of the Model 83 at about 1475 fps and struck the spine of an average sized whitetail.
I was able to recover the bullet and was very impressed with it's performance and also with just how much lead a spine can soak up.
Between the Sierra 350 and the Cast Performance Bullet (CPB) 400 there isn't much need to look further for bullets - these two will take care of business anywhere on the planet Which is Best?
The .500 S&W reigns supreme in terms of sheer power and versatility due to a multitude of factory bullets available, however it is very heavy for a revolver; the BFR and Freedom Arms (FA) are more portable and perhaps easier to shoot unsupported. Due to its weight the Smith is less punishing to the shooter but you really only feel that at the range, when shooting game you'll never notice the recoil from any of them. All of the guns have significant recoil but the FA does benefit from a better grip design over the BFR and the S&W is already braked. Both the BFR and FA need to either be Mag-na-ported or have a brake installed to tame some of the recoil with full-house loads.
In the fit & finish category the Freedom Arms wins although the S&W is a close second. You can easily get another 150-200 fps from the S&W but I don't think 95% of the game most of us shoot would ever notice the velocity difference.
When choosing any handgun, all else being about equal, pick the one that stirs your soul.