The 50 Cal Boys Anti-tank rifle in Australia

Posted by on January 21, 2012

This story is based entirely on memory.   I have no records that I can find.   It is based on articles I read several years ago, but didn’t keep.  But the basic story is accurate if some of the detail might not be perfect.   

Australia is a very big and lightly populated island.  When the Japanese were on the rampage in 1941, Australia was very vulnerable to invasion, and if memory serves, some Japanese forces landed in the Darwin area.  It was recognised that the army was not big enough to police the whole territory, and that in remote areas, civilians would have to provide intel as well as what resistance might be practical against a much bigger force.

The most obvious was sniping, in this case not so much picking off officers, more focussed on knocking out vehicles by shots through radiators and the like.  Consequently, large  quantities of Boys 55 cal anti tank rifles were distributed, with no records being kept, presumably so that a conquering Japanese army would not find records of who had the rifles.

At the end of the war, when the Australian Army asked for its rifles back, no-0ne had heard of them.  What surprises me is that there was such wall-to-wall conspiracy of silence, and determination to keep the rifles, between so many people who had never met and did not know each other, except for small numbers who might have known each other.   What motivated them ?  After all, what can you do in civilian life with a very big and heavy weapon for which ammo is impossible to get, except for the few enthusiasts and collectors who would like to have one for the hell of it ? 

Many years later, in the nineteen sixties I think, the Australian Army sold off a batch of 50 BMG barrels.   In those days there was no restriction on the purchase of rifle barrels in much of Australia.   The surprise was how quickly they sold, almost instantly.   Who’d need a 50 BMG barrel ?   In those days no actions existed except the 50BMG itself.   The answer was, to adapt them  to the 55 Boys.   55 Boys ammo was totally unavailable even then.   50BMG ammo was not readily available either, but more easily organised than 55 Boys for resourceful people.

Then, several years later, a substantial quantity of empty brass became available, probably also from the army, because commercial brass was not then available.  The writer of the article that told this story, took a chance and bought all of it.   He cleaned them, packed them  in lots of 50, and advertised them for sale.   To his amazement he sold it all pretty much overnight.   Where did it all go ?   Obviously to feed the Boys rifles that had been converted to 50 BMG.

So there are thousands of Boys rifles converted to 50BMG.   How do their owners keep them secret in this intrusive world ?    Where do they shoot them without some nosy person reporting them ?   Even more interesting, the barrel conversion must be quite complex, so how have so many been done secretly, and how have so many gunsmiths done the work without at least some being noticed ?

To make it even more interesting, I read about an interesting 50BMG cartridge conversion to 30 cal.   The 50BMG case is necked down to take a very heavy (and thus high ballistic coefficient) 30 cal bullet at very high MV.   250 grain at 4000FPS was mentioned.   Apparently they are used for taking kangaroo and wild camels at very long range.

How do gunsmiths do the barrel conversions secretly, working on rifles that could probably get them jailed if they are caught ?   In the dead of night with blacked out workshop windows and lookouts posted ?   The wildcat calibre also needs custom loading dies.   Maybe Simplex made them and saw no reason to tell.

I think it is a very interesting story.   If anyone can shed more light on it, or refer me to the old articles that described it, I’d like to know.   

Finally, for added interest, a few of the rifles are legally owned in the original 55 calibre, and I heard of at least one guy who shoots cast bullets from his.   900 grain if memory serves.    Don’t know how he gets brass, it wasn’t mentioned.   If he is reloading the original berdan primed cases, either he has a lot of them, or more likely doesn’t shoot it much.  If he is getting brass by case conversion, I’d love to know how.  

A few years ago, there was a guy in Zimbabwe reloading some old Kynoch 505 Gibbs or 500 Jeffery cases.   That was before that brass became available from Bertram and others.   The cases had very big primers, possibly the old British quarter inch, but I’m not sure exactly which.   As I recall, he converted them to boxer, and tapped the primer pockets for a machined brass insert that accepted a smaller primer.   Amazing what can be done when there’s no choice.

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