Compared: The .480 Ruger and .50 Action Express

By Chuck Hawks

The .50 Action Express was developed by Evan Whildin of Action Arms in conjunction with Israeli Military Industries. This rebated rim cartridge was designed around the rim diameter of the .44 Magnum revolver cartridge so that it could be made to function in the huge Desert Eagle autoloading pistol, which was already chambered for the .44 Mag. Production Desert Eagle pistols in .50 AE use .500" diameter bullets.

The .480 Ruger revolver cartridge derives its power more from bullet weight and diameter than high velocity. Inspired by the proprietary .475 Linebaugh cartridge, the .480 Ruger was a joint development project that teamed the Ruger firearms company and the Hornady ammunition company. Despite its nomenclature, the .480 Ruger actually uses the same .475" diameter bullets as the older Linebaugh cartridge. The .480 was introduced in the Ruger Super Redhawk double action revolver.

Both of these behemoth handgun cartridges are intended for big game hunting. At handgun ranges these two calibers are capable of taking all North American big game. They are not the most powerful standard handgun cartridges on the market, but they are close. Both generate excessive recoil and should be avoided by all but the most experienced handgun hunters.

Factory loads for the .50 AE are supplied by Speer and offer a choice of 300 or 325 grain bullets. The 325 grain bullet, which has a sectional density (SD) of .186, has an advertised MV of 1400 fps and ME of 1414 ft. lbs. The 50 yard figures are 1232 fps and 1095 ft. lbs., and the 100 yard figures are 1106 fps and 883 ft. lbs. Reloaders can duplicate these ballistics with maximum loads, but not exceed them by much.

Factory loads for the .480 Ruger are available from Hornady and Speer using jacketed bullets weighing 325 grains (SD .206). Speer also offers a 275 grain factory load. With 325 grain bullets, both advertise a muzzle velocity (MV) of 1350 fps and muzzle energy (ME) of 1315 ft. lbs. with 325 grain bullets. The Speer figures at 50 yards (which are slightly higher than the Hornady figures) are 1224 fps and1082 ft. lbs., and the 100 yard numbers are 1124 fps and 912 ft. lbs.

Reloaders can duplicate .480 factory load ballistics, and in some cases substantially exceed them. Hodgdon Powder data shows maximum loads with 325 grain bullets at MV's over 1500 fps from a 7.5" barrel. And 400 grain bullets can be driven to MV's around 1250 fps with ME of 1388 ft. lbs.

The ballistic coefficient (BC) of the Speer 325 grain .500" bullet is .149, and the BC of the 325 grain .475" bullet is .191. Ballistic coefficient indicates how efficiently a bullet flies through the air, and is an important factor influencing trajectory. In the case of the .50 AE and the .480 Ruger factory loads, the somewhat higher MV of the .50 AE is pretty much cancelled out by the somewhat higher BC of the .480 Ruger. The result is that the trajectory of the two cartridges over handgun hunting ranges is similar. Either can reasonably be zeroed at 100 yards without fear of overshooting game animals at shorter distances.

More important in terms of killing power are the kinetic energy, sectional density, and bullet frontal area of the two cartridges. Kinetic energy is an important factor in killing power, as it is energy that indicates the bullet's potential to penetrate, expand, and create a devastating wound channel. Comparing Speer factory loads with 325 grain bullets, the .50 AE has a 99 ft. lb. advantage at the muzzle. At 50 yards the .50's advantage is down to 13 ft. lbs., and at 100 yards the .480 has an advantage of 29 ft. lbs. and climbing. These numbers show that the two are essentially equal in energy delivered on target, with the .50 AE holding a small advantage at short range and the .480 Ruger holding a small advantage at long range. This is due to the superior BC of the 325 grain .475" bullet. .480 reloaders shooting maximum loads behind 325 grain bullets can exceed the MV of the .50 AE and therefore exceed the kinetic energy of the .50 AE at all ranges.

Sectional density is an important factor in bullet penetration, and if all other factors are equal the bullet with the higher SD will penetrate better, causing a deeper wound channel. The SD of a 325 grain .500" bullet is .186. The SD of a 325 grain .475" bullet is .206, a significant difference. This should give the .480 Ruger a potential advantage in penetration. .480 reloaders using 400 grain bullets, which have a SD of .253, can further increase this advantage.

The frontal area of the bullet should also be considered. The greater the frontal area, the wider the wound channel, other factors being equal. The .500" bullet obviously has a moderate advantage over the .475" bullet in frontal area.

Recoil is another important factor, as the greater the recoil the harder it becomes to place a bullet accurately for a killing shot. Any gun is useless if the hunter cannot reliably put a bullet into a vital spot, or wounds an animal because he or she flinched. Unfortunately, both the .500 AE and .480 Ruger are hard kickers, and will degrade the marksmanship of all but the most experienced shooters.

According to my "Handgun Recoil Table," the .50 AE generates free recoil energy of 25.5 and 29.3 ft. lbs., depending on the specific load and gun weight. The .480 Ruger generates free recoil energy of 23.1 and 33.3 ft. lbs., depending on the individual load. These figures are all in excess of the heaviest .44 Magnum load listed. There doesn't appear to be much significant difference in recoil between the two calibers, both should be given a wide berth by most shooters.

To summarize this comparison, in terms of performance the results are mixed. Both are big bore cartridges. The energy and trajectory of the 325 grain factory loads are similar. The .50 AE has the advantage in bullet frontal area, and the .480 has the advantage in sectional density. The recoil of both cartridges is substantial, with neither cartridge having any particular advantage.

The .480 is the better cartridge for the handloader. It is more flexible, has more potential, and a better selection of hunting bullets. Reloaders using the .50 AE in the Desert Eagle semi-automatic pistol have the additional disadvantage of having to find their scattered brass after it has been ejected by the gun.

Ultimately, the choice between the .480 Ruger and .50 AE will probably come down to the type of pistol the buyer prefers. For semi-auto fans, the Desert Eagle and .50 AE are the obvious choice. For revolvers or single shot pistols, the .480 Ruger is probably the superior cartridge. In the hands of a good pistolero, either can be used to bag all North American big game animals.

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Copyright 2003, 2012 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.