The New York Police Department may soon be swooping down over the five boroughs in helicopters armed with super-powerful sniper rifles that can disable trucks, explode concrete barriers, and blast through the glass of airplane windshields.
Mayor Bloomberg said yesterday that the Police Department purchased Barrett .50-caliber semiautomatic rifles, to mount the weapons on police helicopters and help protect the city from terrorist attacks.
Confirming a report aired Wednesday on CBS 2, the mayor said the guns are the latest addition to the city's antiterrorism arsenal.
"We have bought a lot of equipment since 9/11 that we would never have thought about buying before 9/11," Mr. Bloomberg said. "We live in a different world."
Far more powerful than the Police Department's lower-caliber sniper weapons, the Barrett .50-caliber rifle is called an anti-materiel gun, meant for firing at large moving objects, not at people. It spits out bullets that rip through steel and concrete with the intensity of a bazooka.
The department could deploy the .50-caliber rifle to combat a variety of terrorist threats. Police snipers flying overhead could use the weapon to pierce the glass of an airliner during a hostage situation. They could destroy a concrete barrier standing in the way of a target. They could puncture the engine of a barreling 18-wheeler loaded with chemical weapons, at a distance of more than a mile.
An article in Forbes magazine in October 2001 told the story of the destruction that a .50-caliber bullet caused when it slammed into an Iraqi armored vehicle during the Gulf War.
"Clambering out of their vehicles, Iraqi soldiers thought they had been struck by a missile and surrendered, lying facedown in the sand," the article said. "It wasn't a rocket. They were on the wrong end of a Barrett M82A1 .50 caliber semiautomatic rifle fired by a single U.S. Marine nearly a mile away."
While the CBS 2 report said the department was mounting the weapons on three of its Bell 412 helicopters, Mr. Bloomberg said the rifles have yet to be installed on the crafts.
The .50-caliber rifles are "not being mounted on helicopters," the mayor said, "but if we needed them in an emergency, they could be."
He added: "Anybody that's thinking about striking the city should know we have at our disposal a lot of equipment."
Officials of the Police Department yesterday refused to comment further on the city's new firepower. The number of .50-caliber rifles purchased by the department was not disclosed.
The owner of Barrett Firearms, Ronnie Barrett, said yesterday he wasn't aware of the New York department's purchase but said the product that probably was chosen was the M82A1, widely used by the American military and revered by gun enthusiasts. Gun control activists in recent years have clamored for lawmakers to ban purchases by civilians of the weapon, which costs $7,500.
In the past five years, the .50-caliber sniper rifle has entered the arsenals of many police departments across the country, as cities seek to equip themselves for greater threats. New York, however, may be the first municipality with plans to install the guns on helicopters.
The M82 weighs 33.8 pounds, has a barrel length of 29 inches, and has an overall length of 57 inches. It fires bullets more than four times as heavy as typical sniper ammunition, at a speed of more than half a mile a second.
The Web site of Barrett Firearms encourages potential customers to "experience the power" of its .50-caliber rifle.
In developing the Barrett .50-caliber rifle, Mr. Barrett was able to increase the power of a sniper rifle without sacrificing long-range accuracy, while minimizing the harsh recoil of guns of its weight, according to American Rifleman magazine. In Desert Storm, the magazine said in its April 2004 issue, American troops used the weapon to take out radar sites, bunkers, and light-armored vehicles. In the American war in Afghanistan a decade later, soldiers would use the Barrett to protect themselves from suicide trucks and other vehicles, which could be stopped using the rifle with a low risk of collateral damage.
"You're looking at something really bad to bring out a .50 cal," a SWAT sniper in the Florence, Ala., police department, Hal Howard, told The New York Sun. "It's a gigantic bullet."