Iranian .50 Cal: The AM-50 Sayyad and Its Use in the Middle East
The AM-50 Sayyad- meaning Hunter- is commonly seen across the Middle East, particularly where Iran has maintained allies or has supplied arms. However, it does not always appear in the hands of the Islamic Republic of Iran's friends, and is often seen in the hands of groups such as Hayat Tahir Al-Sham and ISIS as well as Iran's allies such as the Popular Mobilisation Forces in Iraq, or the Houthi forces in Yemen.
This single-shot anti-materiel rifle has a somewhat unique story. It's creation stems from the importation of 800 Steyr HS.50 rifles that the Austrian Steyr-Mannlicher company sold to the National Iranian Police Organisation, who purchased the rifles allegedly for use against well armed drug smugglers, probably in the large open mountainous areas on the Afghani/Pakistani border, in an $8 million order placed with Steyr in 2005. This purchase was completely legal and the use of the high-quality .50 BMG to disable smuggler's vehicles and neutralise threats from long ranges would be entirely expected.
However, following a by-now well known pattern (Other examples incude the KLS and S-5.56 assault rifles), these rifles were soon cloned and by the early 2000s appear to have entered series production. There is, however, key differences between the original HS.50 Rifles from Steyr and the Iranian DIO's AM-50 Sayyad, namely the Pistol Grip, tapered, non-fluted barrel design, and a slight barrel length difference.
The below images make the comparison easy- the image on the left shows a HS. 50, the right the AM-50 Sayyad. (My thanks to http://armamentresearch.com for them)
What's interesting about the differences is that they clearly show the introduced Iranian DNA of the rifle- the pistol grip is of a type that is used on the Chinese CQ Rifles- a clone of the M16A1- which were then cloned by Iran as the S-5.56. Hence, a component from a copy of a copy has ended up on another copy.
The story of the AM-50 is truly a story of arms technology copies and proliferation, which has yet more turns as I will detail later.
After the AM-50 entered series production with the Defence Industries Organisation, Iran's State-owned arms company, it was then offered for sale globally.
Whilst there isn't an abundance of evidence at present of legitimate sales to other countries- apart from Iraq- there is plenty to be seen of use both by the Iranian Armed Forces and Iran's allies in the Middle East, not to mention their enemies.
Given the utility of anti-materiel rifles in modern conflict to disable light armoured vehicles, Vehicle Borne IEDs and to pierce buildings, it is no surpise that these rifles have been supplied by Iran to a number of parties:
- Hezbollah in Lebanon & Syria, fighting both Israel and Syrian Rebels
- Other Iranian-backed groups in Syria, such as the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP)
- Hamas' Armed Groups in Gaza
- Houthi forces in Yemen
- The Syrian Arab Army (Alongside a large number of Russian OSV-96 12.8x107mm Rifles)
- Shiite-dominated Iraqi Popular Mobilisation Units
- The Iraqi Armed Forces
The powerful physiological effect (As well as body armour defeating ability) of the presence of a sniper armed with a .50 BMG Rifle is of course important, too, with this being an obvious factor in the supply of these rifles as somewhat of a force neutraliser in Gaza, giving Militants the ability to "reach out and touch" Israeli forces from long ranges. Another example of this is the use of Barrett M82 rifles by the IRA in South Armagh, Northern Ireland in the late 1990s. Whilst the users were eventually neutralised, the threat was taken extremely seriously. The inexpensive and accurate AM-50 is a perfect fit for Iran's operational need in this case. The ability of the large round to disable weakly armoured vehicles means that rifles such as the AM-50 that can be quickly brought to bear against Troop Transports or VBIEDs when Heavy Machine Guns or RPGs/ATGMs are not available, which is extremely useful for those facing such threats.
Of course, the AM-50 is only one of the many anti material rifles in current Middle Eastern conflicts, but it is a constant presence where Iran has a military hand or has supplied aid. Sometimes this supply is covert- such as to Gaza, and other times it is rather overt, such as the large amount of rifles that can be seen in the hands of the Syrian Army. The rifle appears to have sometimes been supplied with an optic that somewhat resembles the Soviet PSO-1 scope externally, and other times with more clearly domestic products, such as in Syria.
In the first image below, we can clearly see that the serial number has been removed, evidence of an attempt to obscure the supplier of the rifle.
All the users pictured above are the "legitimate" users of the AM-50, at least from the perspective of the Iranian government. However, the weapon has also leaked out in large quantities, via Corruption or Capture to other armed groups, many of whom are directly and bitterly opposed to Iranian and often Western interests. This includes, but is not limited to:
- ISIS in Syria and Iraq
- ISIS Wilyat Sinai (Egypt)
- Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army Rebels
- Hayat Tahir Al-Sham (HTS)
- Assorted Rebel and Salafi Groups in Syria
- Kurdish PKK Fighters, and Peshmerga
- Anti-Houthi forces in Yemen
The below images are of particular interest- they show identical AM-50 rifles, both in use by ISIS Wilyat Sinai against Egyptian Security Forces, and then captured by those forces. As Egypt has not purchased the AM-50, it is possible to say with very high confidence that this rifle (Amongst other arms, such as ATGMs) have been transferred from Hamas in Gaza to ISIS. The arms transfers were not a result of ideological alignment, but rather, it seems the practical reality of the funding of ISIS and the arms supply ability of Gazan armed groups via smuggling under (Sometimes literally) the Egypt-Gaza border.
These sales have since been stopped by an internal ISIS policy change, but arms transferred have since appeared multiple times, as well as more conventional DMR/Sniper rifles. The AM-50 in the hands of obviously trained users in the Sinai desert appears to be very effective.
The rifle can also, of course, be freely found on Arms markets in Iraq, Syria, and possibly Yemen. Thanks to some excellent resolution images we can see what the AM-50s that are supplied to the Syrian Army look like, and the scopes they are supplied with. The below images are just one high-quality example of an AM-50 for sale in Idlib Province, Syria.
This rifle is marked with the distinctive DIO dot-stamp serial of 1800069 and came with two optics. These are both marked in English- one saying "Optical Sight for 12.7mm snipe-rifle (sic)", but it is unclear what any further details on them are. Both appear to be solidly build in order to withstand the rigour of the large round that the rifle fires. However various images show a variety of scopes, so there appears to be a number of factory options- the rifles are sometimes seen with DIO RU60G and RU120G thermal scopes. They appear to be popular, unlike many Iranian-made weapons, and appear on sale for around $3,000.
As we can see, the AM-50 Sayyad is a wide reaching and popular weapon across the middle east, with it's simple and inexpensive nature meaning that it can spread far.
However, the story of the AM-50's influence does not end there. Given the proclivity of Armed Groups in the Middle East with limited funds, spare heavy machine gun barrels, and talented engineers, improvised Anti-Materiel rifles are very popular. Whilst such rifles vary enormously in quality, finish and calibre, two examples are of particular relevence to the AM-50.
The first of such is an improvised ISIS Design, seen rarely, but best noted in a recent video release from Deir Ez-Zor in Syria. This improvised rifle is not an AM-50 but clearly takes great inspiration from it's design, mostly the lower receiver and stock. It appears to also copy the Muzzle brake, but uses a HMG barrel (Probably in 14.5mm Soviet) and a PU-style Russian scope. It can be seen in action against SyAA vehicles.
The second AM-50 copy is rather closer to the original, but again utilises a 14.5mm HMG barrel. This time, it appears that the lower receivers/stocks may even be supplied directly from Iran as part of knock down kits, or otherwise have had a large amount of manufacturing guidance from Iran. This is the "Ghoul" rifle from Gaza, a rifle with such similarity to the AM-50 that it is very hard to tell the two apart.
It's somewhat unclear to what extent the Ghoul is domestic, but this up-chambered rifle has already been used against Israeli forces from extended distances. Whilst the 14.5×114mm round is faster and larger than .50 BMG/12.7x99mm, originally being for Anti-Tank and Anti-Aircraft purposes in the Soviet army, accuracy is likely to suffer.
The AM-50 Sayyad remains a fascinating example of arms proliferation from a single sale of weapons for counter-narcotics work, all the way to arming tens of armed groups across the middle east, from Yemen to Syria, and with every ideology inbetween. It's also an example of how much utility that Anti-Materiel rifles have for both state and non-state armed groups, from counter VBIED tactics against ISIS in Iraq to harassment of the Egyptian Army from long ranges in the Sinai desert by the same terrorist group. Given it's simple and accurate design, it's comparatively easy to clone, unlike the Barrett or OSV-96 line of rifles, and we will continue to see it and it's copies and derivatives for a long time.