When two Canadian snipers in Afghanistan using heavy .50-calibre rifles set international records for a long-distance kill in 2002, it made headlines. But many more Canadians own .50s as private citizens than the military has in its arsenals. And as non-restricted firearms – the same status as mainstream rifles and shotguns held by hunters and farmers – the registration information disappeared with the rest of the long gun registry.
For the most part, .50-calibre rifles are defined as non-restricted weapons, meaning that they need no special licence to buy, and that, outside Quebec, ownership records were deleted last fall along with the rest of the long gun registry. (Several .50-calibre rifles were banned by name in 1998, but none since then. They are not functionally different from the .50-calibre rifles available without restriction now.)
.50-calibre rifles made by Arizona-based McMillan Bros. were bought by the Canadian military starting in 2000 “for its piercing capabilities to penetrate the casings of unexploded ordnance by military engineers,” explains retired Lt.-Col. Rémi Landry, who now teaches at the University of Sherbrooke.
|Two .50-calibre rifles changed Northern Ireland conflict|
On an August day in 1992, as the Northern Ireland conflict dragged painfully toward its end, a British patrol was searching a truck in the town square in Crossmaglen, County Armagh.
Rural South Armagh was a centre of IRA activity during the conflict, with a long record of attacks on soldiers and police, and the infantrymen were wary: eighteen-year-old Private Paul Turner was kneeling on the pavement, the solid wall of a bank at his back, as other soldiers searched the vehicle.
The silence was broken by a high crack as as a heavy .50-calibre bullet, fired from a sniper position not far away, sliced through Turner’s body armour, which could not protect him against such a powerful round, half an inch wide. He had no chance of survival, and died instantly.
It was the IRA’s first use of the heavy rifle in the conflict – over the next several years, Barrett .50s, which the IRA had bought commercially in Texas, would be used to kill four other soldiers and a police officer.
“The bullet can just walk through a flak jacket,” said an IRA volunteer quoted by journalist Toby Harnden in a 1999 book. “(British troops) came to dread it, and that was part of its effectiveness.”
“Its main power was the devastating effect on morale, and on the ability to operate,” Harnden told Global News. “The British tried very hard to capture the sniper team – the SAS were out there the whole time.”
The British, shaken, eventually were forced to issue body armour that offered protection against the .50, but at a price, in more than one sense: the boron carbide plates weighed 32 pounds, making them too hot and exhausting to wear on patrol.
Soldiers at checkpoints were limited to wearing them for two hours at a time. Also, they cost £4,000 a set.
The eventual discovery of one of the IRA’s .50s, in a secret compartment under the floor of a farm trailer, was “the most significant success by the security forces in South Armagh during nearly 30 years of the Troubles,” Harnden writes.
The heavy round was designed for a military application against aircraft and lightly armoured vehicles, but after the Afghan conflict began, Canadian troops found that they had a niche as long-range sniper rifles for use against human targets – in March 2002, two Canadian snipers armed with McMillan rifles broke distance records for sniping by killing Taliban fighters at 2,310 metres and then at 2,430 metres.
A Canadian military spokesperson said that the army now has “fewer than 150” in its inventory – the exact number is secret – but that number is dwarfed by the 464 .50-calibre rifles owned privately by Canadians.
The data comes from a redacted copy of the gun registry released to Global News last year under access-to-information laws – before it was largely deleted.
Before the long gun registry was destroyed, the Canadian Association of Police Boards called for .50-calibre rifles to be restricted.
“The (Calgary) police had brought forward a list of the more serious weapons that could be used in a shooting incident that could compromise public safety, could compromise police officer safety, that should not be as freely available and should be restricted,” explains Brian Edy, a lawyer who sits on the Calgary Police Commission, where the resolution originated.
Over half of Canada’s privately owned .50s are examples of one model, the Austrian-made Steyr-Mannlicher HS50M1. There are also Accuracy International AW50s, described in the sales literature as an “anti-materiel rifle,” meaning that it is designed to destroy vehicles and equipment.
A veteran OPP officer warns that the powerful weapons have caught the attention of organized crime.
“We did have information about one guy in (northwestern Ontario) who was putting together parts for a .50-cal allegedly for the use of organized crime. If you think that biker gang members aren’t interested in a .50-cal. – of course they are. What’s going to stop a .50 bullet? Nothing. And that’s the scary part. There’s no vest that a police officer can possibly wear for something like that,” says Doug Carlson, a retired OPP staff sergeant who worked as a regional firearms officer in Ontario for six years.
Ottawa-based firearms lawyer Solomon Friedman disagrees. “Currently, there is no problem with the criminal misuse of .50-calibre rifles,” he says. “They’re very expensive, their ammunition is exorbitantly expensive, it is not the kind of firearm that any criminal would have any interest in. ‘Why should you be allowed to own a .50-calibre?’ Why should you be allowed to own a Lamborgini?”
“The assertion that .50-calibre rifles in particular present some sort of danger to public safety or the fact that they might be attractive to criminals or terrorists is actually kind of bizarre,” says Blair Hagen of the National Firearms Association.
- In 2006, police found a .50-calibre rifle in a facility north of Winnipeg where a 67-year-old man was, among other things, manufacturing automatic weapons. He was sentenced to six years in prison last October, the Winnipeg Free Press reported.
- In 2007, members of a Vancouver-area police anti-gang task force displayed a Steyr-Mannlicher .50 they had seized in Surrey.
- In February of last year, RCMP in Alberta found a .50-calibre rifle in a truck belonging to a man accused of shooting and wounding two officers, and murdering his uncle. “We’re very thankful that the rifle has been seized,” the Edmonton Journal quoted an RCMP spokesman as saying, adding that it would be “a high threat” in an open area.
“You don’t hunt with something like that,” Carlson says. “It’s not a comfortable firearm to be shooting for target practice. You’ve really got to be on the fine edge of being a fanatic to have something like that. And in this country, they allow it.”
California banned .50-calibre rifles in 2004. Barrett, calling the move a violation of the Second Amendment, retaliated by refusing to deal with California government agencies.
“It saddened me to have to tell members of the LAPD SWAT team that they would have to send someone for their rifle (which had been sent for servicing), because I refused to assist anyone or any organization that is in violation of the United States Constitution,” owner/CEO Ronnie Barrett wrote in an open letter. He quoted the revolutionary Patrick Henry: “Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God!”