Since late March Hamas, in Gaza, has been organizing large demonstrations near the Israeli security fence in an effort to create enough chaos to get people, especially Hamas fighters, into Israel. While that effort has failed, and over 130 Palestinians have died (often while throwing rocks or firebombs at Israeli troops) it wasn’t until July 20th that an Israeli soldier was killed at the fence, while trying to persuade a large group of Palestinians to get away from the fence. A Hamas sniper, apparently using an Iranian AM-50 12.7mm Iranian sniper rifle, killed the Israeli soldier who was on the Israeli side of the fence. Since this was the first Israeli fatality since Hamas began its current campaign of weekly violent demonstrations Israel retaliated so swiftly and on such a massive scale that Hamas agreed to a ceasefire to avoid what they believed would be an Israeli invasion. That ceasefire did not last, but the impact of the swift and massive Israeli retaliation did.
Israel knew there were 12.7mm sniper rifles in Gaza and Hamas had boasted of having some Steyr HS50 12.7mm rifles as far back as late 2013. But none of these were ever seen in action. Iran has been supplying Hamas with weapons for over a decade and Israel was more concerned with longer range Iranian rockets that had reached Gaza.
It was common knowledge that Iran had imported 800 Austrian Steyr-Mannlicher 800 HS50 12.7mm (.50 caliber) sniper rifles to Iran in 2006. Actually, these had been ordered in 2004, right after they were put on sale, and Steyr insisted the sale was legal (despite weapons sanctions on Iran) because they for use by Iranian border patrol forces against Afghan and Pakistani drug smugglers. The United States saw the weapons as eventually being used against U.S. troops and that’s what happened by 2007 when American soldiers were killed by these weapons and raids on Iran backed militias found more than a hundred of them.
The HS50 is a 12.4 kg (28.5), bolt action rifle with an 833mm (33 inch) barrel and overall length of 137cm (54 inches). There is no magazine and each round much be manually loaded. Effective range is 1,500 meters. By 2013 Iran had produced a copy of the HS50 called the AM50. There were some differences from the HS50. The barrel used a different design (which Steyr had improved on for the HS50) and was longer (933mm). The overall length of the AM50 was greater as well (148cm) but the AM50 was lighter (12.2 kg). The first version of the AM50 was single shot but a few years later an improved version appeared that had a three round magazine. The later HS50 M1 had a five round magazine as well as several other improvements. Iranian sales brochures cited a maximum effective range of the AM50 as 1,200 meters.
The AM50 is seen as a somewhat crude, but effective copy of the HS50 and when equipped with high-end electronic sights and quality ammo is as effective as the HS50. Many AM50s exported to places like Gaza and Lebanon often do not have the high-end sights or quality ammo. Even so in the hands of an experienced sniper, the AM50 is useful.
Iran made a good case for getting these weapons for purely police use. Iranian troops have been fighting an increasingly bloody war with drug smugglers along their border with Afghanistan and Pakistan. This fighting gets particularly nasty because the drug smugglers are from Sunni tribes (usually Pushtun or Baluchi), that often believe the Shia Moslem Iranians are heretics. That makes the fighting about religion, as well as money. The fighting picked up after the Taliban were taken down in late 2001. After that, the drug business grew larger, and the smugglers saw Iran as a prime access route to European and Persian Gulf customers, as well as a good market in itself. With so many Iranians rapidly becoming drug addicts, the government sent thousands of troops and police to the Afghan and Pakistani borders, to try and stop the smugglers. This soon turned into a fierce battle, as the smugglers would often try and fight their way past Iranian patrols, or even ambush Iranian forces. The smugglers also tended to have better weapons than the Iranians, as well as night vision devices and satellite telephones.
Iran makes a lot of its own small arms but does not have the technical expertise to produce high tech things like .50 caliber sniper rifles, electronic sights for rifles, and other military electronics (ground radars and other sensors). Thus Iran has turned to anyone who will supply it with the high tech weapons it wants. Because of the Iranian nuclear weapons program, illegal, and legal, imports into Iran are closely watched by many intelligence organizations. Because of the HS50 rifles exported to Iran, the United States included Steyr-Mannlicher among nine companies it imposed sanctions on because they were caught supplying weapons to Iran. Six of the sanctioned firms were Chinese. But the Austrian firm was providing equipment most likely to end up in the hands of terrorists attacking American troops. Steyr-Mannlicher insisted that the deal was legit and had a difficult time getting out from under the sanctions, which limited its ability to sell goods inside the United States. Steyr-Mannlicher promptly supplied the United States with the serial numbers of the HS50 rifles delivered to Iran and was helpful in other ways. Some of these HS50s showed up in Lebanon, Syria, Yemen and other conflict areas. Not all of them were from the batch sold to Iran. This was not unusual as arms smugglers obtain their weapons from many sources and sell them at a big profit to users who cannot legally obtain them. The HS50s sold to Iran cost over $6,000 each but can bring more than twice that on the black market.