It didn’t begin in a California garage, like the first Apple computer did, but its origins are no less auspicious.
The year was 1982, Ronald Reagan was president, the top 100 song list was led by Olivia Newton-John’s Physical, and the St. Louis Cardinals would win the World Series.
Ronnie Barrett was a professional photographer, taking photos of a military patrol boat similar to the type used by American forces during the Vietnam war on a Tennessee river, near Nashville.
He noticed that the patrol boat was armed with two M2 Browning .50-caliber machine guns.
For some reason, he got the notion … or, maybe it was an inspiration. Could a rifle be designed to fire a .50 BMG bullet?
According to a report by Kyle Mizokami in The National Interest, Barrett had no firearms design experience, or training.
He never studied science or engineering in college — in fact, he didn’t go to college at all. He went to Murfreesboro High School before going out and starting a photography studio.
Nevertheless, on his kitchen table he hand drew a design for a .50 caliber rifle in three dimensions, to show how it should function, and then took his design to local machinists.
Alas, nobody was interested in helping him.
The wall he ran up against, was the belief that … if a .50 caliber rifle was useful someone would have developed one by now.
With a bit of luck, Barrett finally found a sympathetic machinist, Bob Mitchell, and the two set to work on a gravel floor garage from hand-machined parts. Less than four months later, they had a prototype rifle.
The Barrett .50 BMG was a shoulder fired, semi-automatic rifle designed around the .50 BMG cartridge. Unique among firearms, Barrett rifle’s barrel recoiled backward after firing, National Interest reported.
A rotating-lock breech block equipped with an accelerator arm used part of the recoil energy to push back the block on firing. This cycled the action, cocked the firing pin, and loaded a new round from a ten-round steel magazine.
The result — the M82A1 — was a weapon that should generate sufficient recoil to make repeated firings uncomfortable, but the use of recoil energy to cycle the action and the weapon’s weight reduced felt recoil.
A double baffle muzzle brake that vented exhaust gasses to the left and right was added later and further reduced recoil, National Interest reported.
About fifty-seven inches long with a twenty-nine-inch barrel, it weighed just 28 pounds — easily carried and of sturdy construction.
They didn’t know it at the time, but they had just created one of the greatest large-caliber military sniper rifles in history.
Barrett built thirty initial production rifles and wisely placed an ad in The Shotgun News. The initial order quickly sold out and Barrett increased production.
Then came the big break — someone in the Central Intelligence agency saw the ad. Next came an order for rifles to equip Mujahideen guerrillas that were fighting the Soviet Army in Afghanistan.
The CIA saw the Barrett rifle as the ideal weapon for engaging the Soviets from long range, National Interest reported.
The Barrett’s ability to destroy enemy war material such as communications equipment, vehicles, weapons and other items with the heavy .50 BMG round created a new category of weapon — the anti-material rifle.
When used against unexploded ordnance, or targets such as soft or lightly-armored vehicles or large static targets, the M82’s lack of accuracy becomes a non-issue.
The Barrett round was so powerful it still retained 1,300 foot pounds of energy after traveling 2,000 yards downrange. At a distance of 1.4 miles the M33 round still packs 1,000 foot pounds of energy — more than three times the power of a 9mm pistol bullet.
The Barrett M82A1/M33 round combination could also hit at very long ranges.
While the M16 series of rifles had a maximum effective range of approximately 600 yards, the Barrett can reach out to 1,500 yards or more, and the company warns new owners that stray bullets can travel up to five miles, National Interest reported.
Highly trained shooters can push the round out to 2,000 yards or more but must contend with a considerable amount of bullet drop due to the effect of gravity, and other factors.
According to Special Ops Magazine, the longest recorded confirmed kill with a Barrett M82A1 Light Fifty (Barrett M107) was at 3,079 yards (2,815 meters).
It was made by an unidentified member of the 2nd Commando Regiment of the Australian army.
The confirmed kill occurred on April 2, 2012, in Afghanistan.
Eventually, Barrett received orders from the Swedish Army, the US Marine Corps, the US Army and US Special Operations Forces, National Interest reported.
Unfortunately, the Provisional IRA smuggled a number of M82s into Ireland from the United States in the 1980s, apparently made and sold by a gunsmith and former Barrett Firearms employee in Texas.
The IRA equipped two sniper teams with the light-fifties, later reinforced with a couple of M90s bought in the US from an arms dealer in 1995. The IRA snipers killed five soldiers and a constable with .50 rifles from 1992 to 1997.
The utility of the heavy caliber sniper rifle, which as Ronnie Barrett once pointed out can disable a multi-million dollar jet on the ground with a two dollar bullet, has been repeatedly proven over numerous conflicts.
Today the Barrett M82A1 is used by more than sixty countries, mostly NATO countries and US allies in Asia and the Middle East.
All the major military powers field their own 12.7mm/.50 caliber-class sniper rifles, with Russia’s OSV-96 rifle serving with the Russian Ground Forces and China’s Zijiang M99 serving with the People’s Liberation Army.
But it was the Barrett M82A1, the rifle nobody wanted to build, that ended up starting a revolution.
Sources: National Interest, RealClearDefense, WeAreTheMighty, Special Ops Magazine, Wikipedia