Friday, December 02, 2005

AP article on .50 cal rifle debunked but still making the rounds

I first saw this AP article in a newspaper in Alliance, OH over the Thanksgiving weekend. It's a piece on a .50 caliber rifle made by a company called Barrett. Let's get the disclaimer out of the way right now: I've never fired one of these rifles, don't own one, and I'm not employed by Barrett or any other part of the firearms industry. There. Now, let's proceed.

The article is basically a hysterical regurgitation of anti-gun propaganda and you need look no further than the 1st line to know that this is true.

::::::::When U.S. Soldiers need to penetrate a tank's armor from a mile away, they count on a weapon that evolved from the garage tinkering of a former wedding photographer.::::::::

I knew this article was going to be pure trash the second I got done with that. Why? Because there hasn't been a tank made since the middle of World War II whose armor could be penetrated by a .50 cal at any range, even as close as 5 feet let alone a mile. Every single tank in use today, from the 50's-era Soviet T-34 right up to the big kahuna herself, the M1A2 Abrams, will shurg off a .50 round fired at it with barely a scratch on the finish and anyone who has done even the smallest amount of research knows that. Oh, but it gets better.

The article goes on to very authoritatively warn that this kind of weapon is the terrorist's choice because it will also drill holes in railroad tanker cars filled with chemicals and - get this - will also bring down commercial jets with ease. And these weapons are as common as wallflowers since, according to the article, you can buy one of these with a lot less regulation and hassle than a handgun.

The latter comment is just completely bogus. The background check requirements are exactly the same for a Barrett as it is for a handgun, to the last form that needs to be filled out. It is no easier to do, period. Again, anyone who simply asks will know this. The former comment about the railroad cars suffers the same issue as the "tank buster" piece of fantasy. Over at The Fifty Caliber Institute, Micheal Marks posts a rebuttal (PDF format) where you can read all about what a railroad industry expert has to say on the matter:

::::::::French goes on to include the obligatory assertion that a .50 cal. rifle can shoot through a chemical railcar – a toned down version of the nearhysterical claim of VPC mouthpiece and Virginia politician Jim Moran, who stated that the rifle could knock a railcar off its tracks. French chooses to attribute this to “critics of the rifle” (translation – “I have no idea who said it”) when instead he might have spoken with someone like Tom Darymple, Senior Vice President of Engineering for the prestigious Trinity Rail Group, which designs and manufactures many of the chemical railcars running today.

When asked about the alleged threat of .50cal. rifles to his railcars, Mr. Darymple said that they have long tested their cars against almost every form of firearms, to include .50 BMG and larger. When asked what happens when a .50 hits one of his tanks, he said with a shrug, “It bounces off.” He went on to point out that railcars are designed to survive the force of derailing, and collision with other railcars at travel speeds. By comparison, the impact of a bullet – any bullet – is like a mosquito bite.

As for the commercial jet comment, I don't need to rely on anyone's expertise, here. I worked in the airline industry myself and I'm well familiar with the passenger aircraft in service today. The physics involved in shooting down a commercial jet with a rifle hit are simply too involved to be a credible threat. At the range suggested (a mile) being off-aim by a mere 2° results in a miss by about 180 feet. While that could still impact a jet the size of a 747 or so, the average mid-range jet like a 737 isn't even 180 feet long. If you were trying to hit the cockpit and missed by that margin even along the long axis of the aircraft you'd still shoot the air almost 50 feet behind the aircraft's tail. And that all assumes you've lead the plane properly in the shot in the first place.

Aside from hitting the pilot with the shot, there's actually very few places you could strike the aircraft to make it tumble out of the sky. Even a direct shot to the engine would, at best, cause the engine to cease operation. It's so extremely unlikely that you'd hit anything capable of even causing a fire, let alone an explosion. The fuel tanks are all self-sealing and jet fuel is surprisingly difficult to get to explode. Hitting one of the hydraulic systems might make controlling the aircraft difficult, but every passenger aircraft flying in the US today has backup systems. Ditto for the electrical systems. Ditto for the pressure systems. The most likely event - once you get past the near impossibility of even hitting the plane with the shot to begin with - is that you'd likely punch a hole through the passenger compartment. Now before anyone screams, "explosive decompression!", let me remind everyone that the maximum effective range we're talking about is a mile. That's 5280 feet. Even assuming you're shooting at a plane flying at that altitude (directly over your head, no less) it's well under the altitude required for an explosive decomp event. An aircraft needs to be over 15,000 feet for that to happen. I've personally been in a small plane at 14,000 and while I was on an air mask to avoid hypoxia and my ears popped a lot, the pressure at that altitude wasn't dangerous to me. A plane popping a leak at 5000 feet wouldn't even notice a pressure drop.

The article makes it sound as though every Al Qaeda team has one or two of these rifles with them at all times. The FBI, CIA, DIA, TSA, Homeland Security Department and Centcom have come up with precisely zero incidents where a terror group used one of these rifles. It weighs 38 pounds, for God's sake, and absolutely requires a bipod mount for the shooter to even hold up the barrel. It's not a snub nose or a sawed-off, either. This sucker's a long gun and that means it's not easily concealed. This is clearly not the weapon of choice for crime and terrorism and it never has been.

The real bitch about articles like this is that even when the article contains so many factual errors that even the AP has to issue a correction, and even though the author of the article had to lie through her teeth to the company in question, it still gets distribution. As I said, I saw this article this past Sunday in a newspaper and it was carried by newpapers across the country. How many of those papers will carry the AP's correction? How many will provide the necessary rebuttal information to allow the readers of the first article to make a well-informed decision about the topic? Did you notice where I linked the actual article from? It's over at These guys ran the article and sent out e-mail notifications to their subscribers today, almost a week after it 1st ran in print. And they didn't include the corrections. How many other web sites will do the same?