Early last year, a little known start-up began posting a series of YouTube videos of a yet-to-be released rifle that enabled those who’ve never even picked up a gun to hit faraway targets with sniper-like precision.
By June, the company announced that their initial production run was sold out and U.S. Army officials at Program Executive Soldier, the branch tasked with arming soldiers with state-of-the-art equipment, were impressed enough with what they’ve seen of the can’t-miss technology that they ordered six models for testing. Besides substantially reducing the need for training, the specialized rifles can also cut down on the amount of wasted bullets, potentially translating to lower ammunition costs.
Since then, Austin-based TrackingPoint has unveiled a second-generation version of their precision-guided firearm system that better compensates for its tendency to lose accuracy in extreme temperatures while also being more affordable, with the introduction of a $10,000 base hunting model. They’ve also added a semi-automatic option.
And in a new display of the rifle’s pinpoint prowess, uploaded last week, the team showcased how the technology can be used to score a clean hit on objects as small as a smartphone from distances as far off as a kilometer. The video demonstrated that, even with the painted target area narrowed to a radius of only a few inches, the device, an HTC One, never really stood a chance.
“Most experienced shooters have much better accuracy after their initial shot. But the problem, especially with hunting, is that they often don’t get a second shot,” explained Oren Schauble, the company’s director of marketing. “With our rifles, the chance of hitting your target no matter how small and at extremely long range the first time around is as high as 80 percent.”
“It’s not impossible to miss,” he added, “but it’s close.”
To grasp how the system works, it’s important to note that there’s nothing particularly special about the rifles themselves. In fact, the .300 Winchester Magnum rifles are manufactured by Surgeon Rifles in Prague, Okla. All the company did, essentially, was to modify them with a tracking system that allows shooter to easily “tag” both stationary as well as moving targets (up to 10 mph) with a laser rangefinder that’s visible via a mounted LCD display, much like the lock-and-launch missile systems fighter jet pilots use to take down enemy planes.
Compared to conventional scopes, which rely on enhanced optics, TrackingPoint’s technology is designed to ensure near flawless accuracy by taking into account a wide range of variables that can throw off the shooters aim. Doing so involves an array of sophisticated components that include gyroscopes and accelerometers to determine the rifle’s incline and elevation, pressure and temperature sensors to detect climate conditions, such as humidity, while also taking into consideration other important factors such as wind speed and the shooter’s own jitteriness.
So as the shooter aligns the on-screen laser pointer directly onto the red dot or “tag,” which designates the intended hit area of the target, and squeezes the trigger, a Linux-based ballistic computer crunches the available data to calculate when, precisely, to fire.
“The system makes it easier not only for novices, but also for trained snipers because it saves time on all the calculations they’d have to make before firing,” Schauble says. “They can even use it to shoot over long distances in less than ideal shooting positions or even offhand.”
Though Schauble estimates that roughly 90 percent of purchases come from game hunters, a major concern among detractors is the distinct possibility of the rifles ending up in the wrong hands such as terrorists. “If it starts to find its way to individuals that plan to use it for other purposes, there will be a lot of time and money spent figuring out how to secure any public area if the number of possible snipers has significantly increased,” Matthew Lang, an economics professor at Xavier University, told New Scientist last year.
Schauble, however, stressed that the company has been fairly diligent in implementing ways to safeguard against these kinds of scenarios. This includes adding a password-protection option so that only the registered owner or those who have permission can use the rifle’s advanced feature. Interested customers are also required to submit an application and undergo a vetting process that involves a thorough background check. Ultimately, only a fraction of those who attempt to buy one are actually able to, according to a report in Forbes.
“More than anything, we want this to be an educational tool,” Schauble says. “All the secondary features, like WiFi connectivity, allow owners to record and share the experience to help mentor new shooters and to create more of an interactive, family experience.”