It’s not often that we get to discuss a modern innovative gun designer that has achieved groundbreaking advancements within our lifetime. Don’t take that the wrong way, we know that there are some great gun builders out there, but most of the firearm inventors that we typically get to write about here had accomplished their greatest milestones a long time ago. So, when we do get to tackle an impressive firearms designer that is relevant to our modern conditions, it brings about an element of excitement. This is definitely the case with Ronnie Barrett, the creator of the now famous Barrett M82 sniper rifle and founder of Barrett Firearms Manufacturing.
Launching a career in the manufacturing of firearms was a far cry from what Mr. Barrett had set out to do early on in life. He was a professional photographer. One day, while taking pictures of a military river patrol boat that was running drills on the Stones River near Percy Priest Lake in his native Tennessee, he just happened to have a gun building epiphany. Mr. Barrett often talks about growing up around firearms, and how much he loves to get out and shoot. So it comes as no surprise that it occurred to him, how incredible it would be if the guns that were mounted on that boat could actually be shoulder fired.
M82 Sniper Rifle
The guns that he observed were secured in the heavy machine gun mounts on the boat’s bow. They were large .50 caliber M2 Browning machine guns or Ma Deuce for short. At first, Ronnie’s idea probably seemed a little too extreme to some people, after all who in their right mind would want to shoulder the recoil of a .50 caliber machine gun? Someone who knows the rush and enjoyment that real firepower can provide - that’s who!
Well, the initial response that Ronnie Barrett received was less than enthusiastic. Most viewed him as a kid with a daydream, and told him that if the idea was viable, someone would have already built that gun. As he went around to his local machine shops and gun makers trying to find support for his firearm idea, the negative response became repetitive, but he didn’t allow that to deter him from working on the design for his shoulder fired .50 caliber rifle anyway.
Ronnie had sketched out his plans for this new rifle while sitting at his dining room table. He presented these drawings and his gun concept to anyone that he thought could help turn it into a reality. Again, he struggled to gain traction, but his persistence would pay off and he would eventually find the help he needed from a friend of his father-in-law, a machinist named Bob Mitchell. Mr. Mitchell agreed that there was some true potential in Barrett’s idea, and both Mitchell and his son Rick agreed to help Ronnie build the very first prototype for his .50 caliber rifle.
The trio would meet in the evenings and worked out of a primitive gravel floor garage. They slowly began fabricating and developing the parts required to make Barrett’s rifle function. In just four months, they had successfully built the prototype for what would become the Barrett .50 caliber rifle. According to Ronnie, the crude prototype weighed somewhere around 55 lbs. He first test-fired the rifle by securing it to a swing set behind his parents' home and activating the trigger with a piece of string. Subsequently, he was quoted saying that the rifle “was big and it was heavy, and it didn’t work good at all”, but it was the starting point for what he envisioned.
However, despite having an actual prototype, Ronnie still didn’t have a manufacturer willing to produce his rifle. So he did the next best thing, he pretended that he did. Placing the cart in front of the horse, Ronnie made a sketch of what he thought the next prototype would look like when it was complete, and he took out an ad in the Shotgun News to introduce his rifle to other gun enthusiasts. He called it the “Barrett Light Fifty” Model 82. He then got back to work refining his rifle. He made some necessary corrections to the way it functioned, reduced its size, and added some style to its overall appearance.
To Ronnie’s surprise, the ad had worked, and orders began to come in. He then showed up at the Houston Gun Show and put his rifle on display, even though it was only about ninety percent complete. The bolt was yet to be finished on the new design, but again, the Barrett Model 82 found a few takers.
This meant that Ronnie now had the task of producing the guns that he had taken deposits on. Luckily he was able to find some shop space in a local business to work out of. However, he quickly learned that building a single gun was much easier than recreating it in a manufacturing setting. Over several months and with some help from his local bank, Ronnie managed to fill those orders. He admittedly took a loss on each and every one of those first rifles, but it was the start he needed, and Barrett Firearms continued to grow from there. He would get his own manufacturing space and continue to make improvements to his rifle based on feedback and experience.
By 1989 Barrett Firearms would receive their first significant military order from the Swedish Government. The recoil operated M82A1 semi-auto .50 caliber rifle had come a long way since that initial prototype that was first rustically built in a garage a few years earlier, and it was becoming nearly impossible for those in the armed forces not to take notice.
The U.S. Marines would soon order the M82A1 rifle, and deploy it to troops stationed in Kuwait during Operation Desert Storm. The Barrett rifle would prove itself in the harsh desert conditions, and it soon found its way into the hands of other branches of the U.S. Military.
Barrett M107 Rifle
In 2002 it was officially adopted by the U.S. Army and given the designation of M107. This put Ronnie Barrett in some very elite company, as there have only been a few individual men that have accomplished adaptation by the Army in this way. The history books will forever list Ronnie Barrett’s name alongside the likes of John Browning, John Garand, and Eugene Stoner. Today, the Barrett rifle has been placed into service by seventy-five foreign governments, and is used by most NATO Countries and U.S. Allies.
There is no doubt that the M82 rifle is what provided Barrett Firearms with the opportunity for success, but they didn’t stop there. As the company grew, they continued their pursuit to produce innovative products.
Ronnie’s son, Chris, had grown up surrounded by his dad’s guns and witnessed the sheer determination that his father had shown in his efforts to succeed in the industry. As a kid, he would hang around the shop and learned to perform various manufacturing tasks. Then straight out of high school, Chris joined Barrett Firearms full time. It wouldn’t take long before he began modernizing the operation. He brought in software like CAD (Computer-Aided Design), which replaced the need to draw each gun design by hand.
Chris Barrett would grow into a great innovator in his own right, and has since been credited with considerably expanding the Barrett Firearms product line. Some of the guns that Chris can hold claim to include the Model 99, 98B, REC7, MRAD and the REC10. He also designed a rifle cartridge intended to improve upon the .50 BMG round, known as the .416 Barrett. Initially the more compact round was only chambered in the Barrett Model 99, but soon a random custom rifle company created and released an AR-style upper receiver for the round, and before long other companies followed suit. Barrett has since added the .416 Barrett option to its M82A1 platform.
Chris Barrett has worked his way into several titles at Barrett Firearms, which included Lead Designer and President, but perhaps his most notable accomplishment came with the invention of the MRAD rifle. MRAD stands for Multi-Roll Adaptive Design. It is a modular sniper rifle system that allows for changes in chambering with the help of a conversion kit. The MRAD can be quickly adapted to 7.62x51mm NATO, .300 Norma Magnum, and .338 Norma Magnum. In 2018 this rifle system was officially adopted by the United States Department of Defense as the U.S. Special Operations Command Advanced Sniper Rifle System. The official military designation for the MRAD is MK21. The reason this accomplishment stands out so prominently for Chris Barrett and for the Barrett Firearms Company, is that it marks the first time in history that a father and son have both had rifle designs adopted by the U.S. Military. This is an accolade that is likely to be solely owned by Barrett family for a very long time.
MRAD Sniper Rifle
Given the great success of this young company, one would think that they could rest on their laurels, but that has not been the case. They continue to strive to achieve great things and to provide the buying public with quality products. But they have gone far beyond just building guns, Ronnie Barrett is also a determined advocate for the rights of his customers and gun owners in general.
Mr. Barrett firmly opposed the state of California when they implemented, what many viewed as unconstitutional, laws prohibiting civilian ownership of the .50 caliber rifles. He made it clear that if the citizens of a state can not own a Barrett firearm, then the company will not do business with law enforcement, or any other government agency within the state either. Although, this can surely pose an economic loss for Barrett, he believes it is the right thing to do for the people of the United States of America. Mr. Barrett has also remained an active board member of the NRA for a number of years, and is still a constant voice of reason in favor of responsible gun ownership.
In closing, we would like to quickly reiterate one of our opening sentiments, because as we stated, it is exciting to see a modern gun maker achieving this level of success. The Barrett Firearms story epitomizes what we view as the American Dream. From the elder Barrett’s fierce desire to succeed, and his unwavering commitment to the preservation of our 2nd Amendment rights, to the historical accomplishments of both father and son. In time, the Barrett name will likely grow as prominent as such names as Colt, Browning, and Winchester and hopefully we will all be here to witness it first hand.