50 Beowulf vs 50 AE: Extreme Semi-Auto Stopping Power
The 50 Action Express (50 AE) and 50 Beowulf are two centerfire rounds that are known for their massive size, bone crushing kinetic energy, and extremely high recoil.
Although the 50 AE is the parent case for the 50 Beowulf, each round was designed with different goals in mind. The 50 Beowulf (or 50 Beo for short) was developed as a rifle cartridge to enhance the stopping power of the AR-15 carbine while the 50 AE is the classic chambering for the Desert Eagle handgun.
Although these two cartridges are extremely similar, there are some key differences to consider when deciding on purchasing one of these heavy hitting self-defense rounds.
In this article, we will evaluate the 50 Beowulf vs 50 AE to help you understand the differences between the two and give you a clearer idea of which cartridge is best for your shooting needs.
The difference between 50 Beowulf and 50 AE is that the 50 Beowulf has a slightly longer case length than the 50 AE. Furthermore, the 50 Beowulf was designed to be used in a standard AR-15 and is considered a rifle cartridge while the 50 AE was designed for use as a handgun cartridge.
When evaluating centerfire cartridges, it’s a good idea to analyze the cartridge specs to gain more knowledge of each.
The 50 Action Express (50 AE) was developed in 1988 by Evan Whildin, then vice president of Action Arms, Ltd. The goal of the cartridge was to dramatically increase the power level of semi-auto handguns and serves as the primary chambering for the IMI Magnum Research Desert Eagle.
The 50 AE is a unique design without any parent case.
In contrast, the 50 Beowulf round was developed to increase the ballistics of the standard AR-15. Designed in 2001 by Alexander Arms, not much is known about the genesis of the 50 Beowulf as Bill Alexander is known for keeping company matters a closely guarded secret.
The Alexander Arms .50 Beowulf was developed using an elongated 50 AE as the parent case.
The 50 Beo was the first cartridge known as a “thumper round”, designed to take down big game with a single shot per specs laid out by American shooting legend, Lt. Col. Jeff Cooper.
To read more about big bore AR thumper rounds, check out this article: 450 Bushmaster vs 458 SOCOM vs 50 Beowulf.
One major similarity between the two cartridges is that they fire the same 0.50” bullet diameter. This means that both rounds are capable of firing extremely heavy bullets.
The 50 Beowulf cartridge typically fires bullet weights between 200 and 600 grains, though 335, 350, and 400 gr bullet weights being the most common. In contrast the 50 AE can fire loads between 230 and 380 grains, with the 300 and 325 grain bullets being the most popular.
Both rounds utilize a straight-wall case design with a slight taper to increase feeding reliability. A straight-walled case is necessary for deer hunting in Midwest states like Ohio, Iowa, Indiana, and Michigan.
Both rounds have a rebated rim design, meaning their rim is narrower than their cartridge base. The Beowulf has a 0.447” diameter rim which is the same as another round made by Alexander Arms, the 6.5 Grendel. In contrast, the 50 AE has the same rim diameter as the 44 Remington Magnum at 0.514”.
One major difference between these rounds is their case length and overall length. During development of the 50 Beo, Bill Alexander elongated the 50 AE case to meet his ballistic specifications. As such the 50 Beowulf measures nearly half an inch longer than the 50 AE at 1.65” and 1.285”, respectively. Overall length follows the same trend with the 50 Beowulf being longer at 2.25” compared to 1.61” for 50 AE.
The longer case length of the 50 Beowulf allows it to hold a considerable advantage over the 50 AE in terms of case capacity. The Beowulf can pack in nearly 65.8 gr compared to 47.2 gr for the Action Express.
The final difference between these cartridges is their maximum chamber pressures. The 50 AE is rated to handle 36,000 psi per SAAMI specs, however the 50 Beowulf is not a certified cartridge. As the “50 Beowulf” name is trademarked by Alexander Arms, SAAMI will not certify the cartridge to avoid any potential trademark litigation.
To squirm around this potential legal issue, some ammo manufacturers will brand their 50 Beowulf ammo by its metric designation, 12.7x42mm.
Recoil is an important consideration when purchasing a new rifle as a round with heavy recoil will be more difficult to control and will slow your rate of follow up shots.
Free Recoil is affected primarily by muzzle velocity (FPS), powder charge, bullet weight, and firearm weight.
It will be impossible to provide a pure “apples to apples” comparison of both rounds, as the 50 AE is fired from a handgun while the 50 Beo is fired from an AR-15 carbine. For this comparison we will consider the test firearm for the Alexander Arms .50 Beowulf Tactical AR-15 weighing 9 pounds while the 50 AE firearm will be a Magnum Research Desert Eagle weight 4.8 pounds.
The rounds to be compared will be the Underwood Ammo 350 gr Hornady XTP load for 50 Beowulf with a muzzle velocity of 1,775 fps and the 50 AE Underwood Ammo 325 gr Speer bonded jacketed hollow point (JHP) leaving the muzzle at 1,475 fps.
Given these rounds, the 50 Beowulf has a free recoil of around 28 ft-lbs while the 50 AE will have a felt recoil of 27 ft-lbs.
Now, it might be tempting to think that those numbers are almost the same so the recoil would be similar. However, it’s important to remember that felt recoil and free recoil are two very different things. Free recoil can be calculated, while felt recoil will differ from shooter to shooter based on grip, stance, body composition, and the firearm being used.
Although the 50 AE technically has less free recoil, it’s important to remember that a handgun only has two points of contact while a carbine has three. The shoulder stock will do quite a lot for increasing control of the firearm as well as dissipating recoil throughout the shooters torso as opposed to the wrists like a handgun will.
Furthermore, many 50 Beowulf upper receivers will come from the factory with a muzzle brake installed. A muzzle brake helps reduce muzzle rise and felt recoil by redirecting gasses escaping the muzzle when a bullet is fired.
Although the 50 Beowulf has slightly more free recoil, most shooters would agree that the 50 AE has more felt recoil due to it being fired from a handgun.
For this comparison, we will look at two popular factory loads for each cartridge. For the 50 Action Express we will compare the Hornady 300 XTP hollow point and the Underwood Ammo 325 Speer jacketed hollow point (JHP) factory load. For the 50 Beowulf, we will analyze two popular self-defense rounds from Underwood Ammo, the 350 gr Hornaday XTP hollow point as well as the 420 gr Lehigh Xtreme Penetrator.
As you can see, the 50 Beowulf cartridges selected surpass the 50 AE in all ballistic categories.
Thanks to its higher case capacity, the 50 Beowulf has about 300 fps higher muzzle velocity than the 50 AE. The Beowulf loads left the muzzle at 1,775 fps for the 350 gr XTP and 1,650 fps for the Lehigh Penetrator rounds while both 50 AE loads had a muzzle velocity of 1,475 fps.
The difference in muzzle velocity should not be surprising, as the 50 Beowulf not only has higher case capacity, but it is also fired from a rifle with a longer barrel length. A longer barrel length allows the gunpowder to completely burn, while a shorter barrel length can allow for unburnt powder.
A typical Beowulf AR-15 will have a 16” barrel compared to 6” for a standard Desert Eagle or 10” with a custom Magnum Research barrel.
The higher muzzle velocity of the 50 Beo also means that its bullets will reach the target faster and translates to a flatter trajectory. At 200 yards, the two 50 AE loads experienced -27.4” and -23.6” of bullet drop compared to -17.7” and -16.3” for the Beowulf.
In terms of kinetic energy, the 50 Beowulf dominates the 50 AE by a wide margin. The 300 and 325 grain bullets for the 50 AE leave the barrel with 1,475 and 1,570 foot-pounds, respectively. In contrast, the 50 Beowulf 350 gr XTP and 420 gr Lehigh Penetrator leave the muzzle with 2,448 and 2,539 foot-pounds of energy, respectively.
Ballistic coefficient (BC) is a measure of how aerodynamic a bullet is and how well it will resist wind drift. Sectional density (SD) is a way to evaluate the penetration ability of a bullet based on its external dimensions, design, and weight.
For 50 Beo, the 420 gr Lehigh Penetrator has a BC of 0.25 and the 350 gr XTP measures in with a BC at 0.15. The ballistic coefficient numbers for the 50 Action Express are also not impressive, as the 300 gr XTP has a BC of 0.12 while the 325 gr JHP has a BC of 0.169.
Admittedly, these ballistic coefficient numbers are not impressive as another well-known 50-caliber round, the 50 BMG, has a BC over 1.0. The reason for the lower BC numbers resides primarily in their bullet design. The bullets used by the 50 Beowulf and 50 AE are short, thick, and not aerodynamic.
This makes them less effective for long range shooting but great at relative close-range engagements.
Although these 50-cal bullets are not designed to be sleek, long-range shooters, they hit hard and penetrate deep which is reflected in their sectional density measurements. For the Beowulf bullets, the Lehigh Penetrator 420 gr bullet has the highest SD of the four at 0.24 while the 350 gr XTP has a SD of 0.20. In contrast, the 300 gr XTP has a SD of 0.171 while the 325 gr JHP has a SD of 0.186 for 50 AE.
Both 50 Beowulf and 50 AE are more than sufficient for self-defense.
When it comes to stopping power, you cannot go wrong with either round. To put this in perspective, both the Beowulf and Action Express have more kinetic energy at 200 yards than a 45 ACP has at the muzzle.
Although expanding ammo is available for both rounds, overpenetration is of serious concern. Both rounds are extremely powerful to the point it is like they would over penetrate when used at engagement distances typical for home defense situations.
Many shooters might view the Beowulf cartridge a bit much for home defense, as the massive amount of kinetic energy it delivers can be a liability due to over penetration. There’s no reason you couldn’t employ the Beowulf for self-defense, but you need to be absolutely sure of what lies behind your target per the safety rules of shooting.
Therefore, of the two rounds, the 50 AE would be the better choice for self-defense.
Both the 50 AE and 50 Beowulf are excellent choices for hunting big game like whitetail or feral hogs.
Hunters enjoy the massive amount of kinetic energy both rounds bring to the table, as they are both capable of taking down whitetail. Range is a serious consideration, however, as neither round is well suited for long range shots.
For whitetail hunters who operate in heavily wooded areas, the 50 Beowulf makes an excellent option as it offers fast follow up shots and an effective range around 150-200 yards depending on your load of choice.
The 50 AE can also be used for deer hunting and is a fun option if you state allows for handgun hunting. There’s something different about taking aim at a deer with a semi-auto handgun, and the newer Mark XIX Desert Eagles come with a top rail for optics mounting directly from the factory.
However, the 50 AE is limited in its hunting range to around 50-100 yards for whitetail.
For feral hogs, both rounds have enjoyed success when it comes putting hogzilla in his place. A big bore AR-15 makes a potent hog-killing machine thanks to fast follow-up shots and plenty of kinetic energy. Feral hogs are a real issue for farmers in the southern United Sates in particular, as a herd of hogs can destroy an entire field in a single night.
The 50 AE is also an excellent choice for hogs if you prefer handgun hunting or want the added challenge of having to be closer to your prey.
If hunting with an AR-15 carbine is permitted in your state or province, the 50 Beowulf will make a better choice for big game thanks to its longer effective range. However, if you cannot hunt with an AR-15 or are restricted to handguns, then the 50 AE will get the job done so long as you understand its range limitations.
There’s no denying the power level of either cartridge and sadly power comes with a price tag.
Inexpensive FMJ target ammo for both calibers typically runs close to $2/round with premium hunting or self-defense ammo fetching close to $3/round or more.
Ammo availability is also a major issue, as there are only a few manufactures who currently produce factory loads for both calibers.
Alexander Arms is the primary supplier of most 50 Beowulf ammo, however Underwood Ammo and Black Butterfly also have several varieties of Beowulf available under it’s metric designation of 12.7x42mm.
On the other hand, the 50 AE has several companies who manufacture ammo for it. Underwood Ammo is still a major supplier, but Magnum Research, Buffalo Bore, Hornady, and Federal also have loads tailored specifically for the 50 AE.
The 50 Beowulf is clearly the winner in terms of firearm availability, as any standard AR-15 chambered in 5.56 NATO can be converted to fire the Beowulf cartridge by changing the bolt, barrel, and adding single stack magazine followers to your mags.
Factory produced 50 Beowulf AR-15 rifles are predominantly available from Alexander Arms due to their copywrite. Alexander Arms is also the primary supplier of all parts and upper receivers for the 50 Beowulf as well, though Bear Creek Arsenal (BCA) is another option at a lower price point.
However, the 50 Beowulf is only available for the AR-15 at the time of writing.
The 50 AE is predominantly chambered in the Magnum Research Desert Eagle, however there are several other firearms that can handle the cartridge. Magnum Research also manufactures the BFR, which is a revolver chambered in 50 AE. The LAR Grizzly Win Mag, AMT AutoMag V, and Freedom Arms Model 555 are three other handguns also chambered in 50 AE.
In terms of cost, a 50 Beowulf upper receiver from Alexander Arms runs close to $1,000 circa summer 2022. However, if you want a Desert Eagle expect to drop no less than $2,000 or more depending on the model and cosmetic features.
Reloading is one method shooters use to reduce their overall cost per round and increase the consistency of their ammo. Furthermore, handloads can be tailored to your specific handgun or rifle to meet your shooting criteria.
Although both rounds have a straight-wall case, case lubricant will need to be used for resizing as carbide dies are not available for either cartridge.
Reloading dies are readily available for both calibers, as Lee, RCBS, and Hornady manufacture dies for the 50 AE while Lee, Lyman, and Hornady have offerings for 50 Beowulf.
Factory new brass is primarily available from Starline for both cartridges, though Alexander Arms offers factory head stamped 50 Beowulf brass. For bullets, manufacturers like Hornady, Speer, Barnes, and Sierra all have 50-cal options ready for reloading.
The Alexander Arms .50 Beowulf and the 50 Action Express are two centerfire rounds that share the same caliber bullet but were designed for drastically different firearms.
The 50 Beowulf is a big bore AR-15 cartridge that was designed to be a viable one-shot whitetail cartridge as well as increase the overall stopping power of the rifle.
The 50 Action Express was designed to increase the power level of semi-auto handguns that can be used for hunting as well as self-defense purposes.
Picking between these two cartridges really depends on what you want to do with them. If you want a high kinetic energy rifle, then go with the 50 Beowulf, or if you want a massive hand cannon then go with the 50 AE. Both cartridges work well for large game hunting though a Beowulf AR-15 gives you added range and faster follow up shots.
The truth is that there is something inherently awesome about shooting a 50-caliber bullet that cannot be measured on any ballistic chart. Therefore, you cannot go wrong with either round!
No matter which cartridge you choose, make sure you stock up on ammunition here at Ammo.com and I’ll see you on the range!
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