Now you're a sharpshooter: The smart rifle arrives

Hit a target at 1,000 yards? No problem. Tracking Point's computer-enabled rifles let novices shoot moving targets at extreme distances with near 100 percent accuracy. The new era of firearms is upon us.

Tracking Point rifle
Novice shooter Dara Kerr sights in with of one of Tracking Point's precision-guided rifles. August Crocker

AUSTIN, Texas -- As Hillman Bailey studied the flat, white target through his rifle's magnified scope, he spotted a brown, six-legged stinkbug, about the size of a dime, crawling across the target. He leaned into the rifle, hot from the sweltering Texas sun, and said to himself, "Let's see what happens." The target was 98 yards away. He steadied the gun, lined the crosshairs over the insect, and pulled the trigger.

The stinkbug was no more.

A photo of Hillman Bailey's stinkbug shot is tacked on the wall at Tracking Point's offices. Dara Kerr/CNET
Bailey isn't a marksman, but he certainly knows his way around a high-powered firearm. He's an engineer for Tracking Point, the manufacturer of the tech-heavy gun responsible for the stinkbug's demise. For the last three-and-a-half years, Tracking Point's team has labored in a nondescript office park in the flats of north Austin, Texas, with one mission in mind: create a "smart rifle" that lets almost anyone hit targets up to 1,000 yards away with near 100 percent accuracy. That's right: Ten football fields.

Want one? You need to wait. Tracking Point, which started shipping these rifles in May, plans to make 400 to 500 this year. But it's already sold out, and the company is telling new customers the back order is six months. The price: around $25,000 apiece.

While Bailey knows how to use a massive firearm, I have only picked up a gun twice in my life -- and those were modest 20-gauge shotguns to shoot clay pigeons. Curious to see what it was like for a novice to fire a Tracking Point rifle, I got a guide from the company to drive me out to a firing range near Austin.

As I scanned the dusty shooting range, I could barely make out my intended target 250 yards away. But through the gun's scope, I could clearly see the square piece of white steel and the red bull's-eye. I gripped the gun, heavy enough that it requires a bipod, aimed, fired and -- bam! -- bull's-eye. Next, I upped the challenge, going for a target 750 yards -- nearly half a mile -- away. Same thing. First try. A regular Annie Oakley.

Tracking Point's rifles are the first type of gun like this on the market, but that's about to change. Already a few companies are working on other types of smart firearms, gun-centric apps, and tech-infused scopes. Just as gunpowder sparked the onset of firearms, technology is now igniting a new era of weaponry.

Long-range shooting isn't easy
Tracking Point's technology was born of frustration. The company's founder, John McHale, came up with the idea for a smart rifle after returning from a 21-day hunting trip in Tanzania, where he failed to bag the elusive Thompson's gazelle.

At one point, McHale had closed within 300 yards of the animal. But when he released the round, thinking he was on target, the gazelle didn't budge. He had missed completely. He tried -- and missed -- again, but this time scared off his prey. McHale said he couldn't stay steady enough to hit the 4-inch kill zone of the gazelle at 300 yards. He simply lacked the skill.

On his way back home to Texas, McHale thought about how technology could help make long-distance shots possible -- even at 1,000 yards -- for average shooters. Considering that the telescopic sight was invented in 1835, clearly, there was room for accuracy improvement.

This impala was shot and killed with a Tracking Point rifle at 980 yards. Tracking Point
Combining firearms and technology was a natural for the 56-year-old McHale. A Texas native, he worked for decades in tech. He founded and ran several startups, including NetWorth and NetSpeed, which developed products that brought high-speed Internet to businesses and homes. Using technology to help people deal with the variables of long-range shooting -- like shaky hands, wind, and bullet drop -- fit with his approach to problem-solving.

Long-range shooting involves a lot of math. As soon as a bullet blasts out of a gun's barrel, it's falling. Other factors also shape how a bullet behaves in flight, such as elevation, cant, distance to target, and inclination.

Most experienced long-range hunters keep a "dope book," or log of every variable for every shot made with a specific rifle. They then pore over this ballistics data trying to perfect future shots. With Tracking Point rifles, all of this information is gathered in real time by the gun itself and then fed to the shooter via the display in the firearm's scope. This means people who don't even know what a dope book is can hit a long-range target with the same acumen as a pro.

Giving it a shot
As I gazed through my rifle's scope, zoomed in on the red-and-white bull's-eye, I thought about Bailey detonating that stinkbug from nearly 100 yards away. The idea of shooting a dime-sized insect at the distance of a football field seemed ludicrous. The notion of me hitting a target a couple feet long at eight times that distance was even more unbelievable

I was firing the weapon at the Best of the West shooting range with the help of my Tracking Point tour guide for the day, firearms specialist August Crocker, a tall, heavy-set man with a broad face and a penchant for patience. He was decked out in army green safari-wear.

How hard would it be to hit the 750-yard target? "I've been a competitive shooter all of my life," he said. "I could do it with a conventional rifle. But with Tracking Point, I could have you doing that in half an hour."

Tracking Point's firearms specialist August Crocker at the Best of the West shooting range outside of Austin, Texas. Dara Kerr/CNET
Crocker set up the gun on a cement-slab shooting table and propped its 2-foot-long barrel on a bipod. He explained that I had to use one hand to pull the trigger and one hand to steady the butt of the rifle against my shoulder -- to ensure the kickback didn't knock me out of whack.

Tracking Point's rifles are big machines designed to kill large animals. The guns weigh up to 20 pounds and are up to 4 feet llong. They are also deafeningly loud; even with earmuffs, each bang made me flinch. Looking through my scope, I saw a head-up display overlaid on my field of view. HUDs are typically used in military fighter jet shooting systems; they display all of the information a shooter needs to make an accurate shot. My rifle's HUD showed my distance to target, shot angle, battery life, zoom setting, and several environmental variables. It was like looking at a video game.

"I've been a competitive shooter all of my life, I could do it with a conventional rifle. But with Tracking Point, I could have you doing that in half an hour." <br />--Tracking Point firearms specialist August Crocker
As I got ready, I saw a digital white dot in the center of my field of view. That was my tag. Crocker told me to line the dot up with my target and then push a little red button next to my trigger. Once that was done, the tag stayed on my target. Next, crosshairs appeared through my scope and Crocker told me to pull the trigger and keep it depressed as I lined the crosshairs up with my tag. As soon as those crosshairs landed on my tag, the trigger released on its own and the gun fired its round. Just as a gas pump nozzle releases when a car's tank is full, the trigger releases when the crosshairs match the tag.

"Before you tag, the computer inside has already profiled the variables," Crocker said. "As soon as you tag, it quantifies all of those variables and the gun tells you where to put the crosshairs."

The system works the same way for moving targets -- once tagged, the tag stays on the target. "First shot is a tenfold improvement over what most trained shooters can do," Crocker said. "I've shot with the best. I've shot with Olympians in Finland, and nothing comes close to the capabilities we have. There are so many things that Mr. McHale conceptualized. That's how I personally became so wowed, how many innovations he brought into the system."

Under the hood
One major difference between Tracking Point's rifles and conventional rifles is the optical scope. The majority of long-range scopes are manual, like binoculars. But Tracking Point came up a digital scope with a 35-power lens that minimizes shaking and heat refraction, letting users zoom in at extreme distances without losing focus. With these optics, shooters can hit objects the naked eye can barely see.

Also within the scope, which Tracking Point dubbed the "Networked Tracking Scope," is a small computer wired to both the optics and the rifle's "guided trigger." This computer has its own Wi-Fi signal, which allows the gun to gather ballistics data in real time. Then, an antenna within the scope beams that information to an iPad, so a friend or scout can help with the shot. The scope also records everything seen through the optics for up to two hours. These videos can then be shared on Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, or e-mail.

Tracking Point makes everything in house. "We celebrate the word 'nerd' here," Crocker said. After building the scopes, the company puts them through demanding tests such as 1,000 cycles of simulated recoil hammering and subjecting them to temperatures as low as minus 5 degrees and up to 120 degrees.

Tracking Point's Networked Tracking Scope comes wired with a small computer. Dara Kerr/CNET
There are three different kinds of Tracking Point "XactSystem" rifles -- XS1, XS2, and XS3. The XS1 is the top-of-the-line model, can hit targets at 1,200 yards, and costs $27,500. The XS2 has a range of 1,000 yards and costs $25,000, and the XS3 has a range of 750 yards and costs $22,500. For comparison, an exceptional conventional rifle costs roughly $10,000 to $15,000. All of Tracking Point's rifles are made by elite gun maker Surgeon, which Crocker called the "Ferrari of rifles," and come with a case of precision ammunition and an Apple iPad.

Who are the buyers? Tracking Point caters to hunters who want to go on an African safari or a bear hunt in Alaska, but don't have the time to learn and practice long-range shooting. Customers have to pass a background check to get the rifle, just as with any other firearm. And despite the price, Crocker said it hasn't been difficult to sell the guns. "Many people wanted to be on as early adopters," he said. Next year, the company expects to sell thousands.

Tracking Point isn't stopping with its XS line of rifles. It's going after the world-record long-distance shot. Currently, British soldier Craig Harrison holds the record; he killed two Taliban insurgents at 2,707 yards, or 1.54 miles, in 2009. The bullets took nearly three seconds to reach their targets, according to Guinness World Records. Now Tracking Point is developing a new weapon called the "Super Gun" that should be able to hit a target 1.75 miles away, more than the span of San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge.

The gun world debate
In 1966, a former Marine named Charles Whitman lugged a cache of high-powered rifles to the 28th floor observation deck of the University of Texas at Austin campus tower. From that perch, he killed three people on the deck, and picked off 11 passersby down below, while injuring 32 others. Whitman shot some of his victims at 500 yards. If Whitman had been able to use a Tracking Point rifle, the body count could have been a lot higher.

Throughout history, weaponry has undergone rare major evolutions, and the arrival of smart guns might be one of these periodic, groundbreaking advancements. But the onset of these types of futuristic firearms, not surprisingly, has raised concerns among gun control groups about making it too easy for novices, let alone future Charles Whitmans, to commit mass murder.

"Right now, there's a $25,000 entry barrier. But if you're hell bent on mayhem, that's a low barrier to entry." <br />--Josh Horwitz, executive director of Coalition to Stop Gun Violence
"Right now, there's a $25,000 entry barrier," Josh Horwitz, executive director of Coalition to Stop Gun Violence said. "But if you're hellbent on mayhem, that's a low barrier to entry."

"They've accomplished something no one else has, that's to their credit," Horwitz added. "What's not to their credit is all of the advancements of this company are innovations for lethality. This will allow anybody, any Tom, Dick or Harry, who wants to take a long-distance shot against a political leader or anyone else to do that with no skill and complete anonymity."

Instead of creating more deadly weapons, Horwitz said gun companies with technological know-how should focus on making firearms safer. For example, he suggested, they could develop systems that digitally lock guns so only the weapon's owners can fire them, which some startups have already begun working on.

Tracking Point's Networked Tracking Scope is password-protected. This means every time the scope boots up, the user has to enter a PIN code to use it, much like a smartphone. And, unlike with smartphones, this feature cannot be disabled. If the scope isn't turned on, all of the optical sights, variable input, and tag and track features don't work. But the gun can still fire. Locking the scope is a step in the right direction, Horwitz said, but it would be better if the entire gun were password-protected.

See also: Behold the new world of digitized guns

However, it's exactly this digital locking technology that pro-gun groups are against. The National Shooting Sports Foundation, which is the firearms industry trade association, says it's not against what it calls "authorized user recognition technology" per se, but that the tech isn't yet advanced enough to be properly used in guns.

"Currently there are no products that are at the stage where they are reliable enough to be put on the market for consumers," NSSF's senior vice president and general counsel Lawrence Keane said. "If the firearm fails into a mode where it cannot operate in a self-defense situation, that's a bad outcome."

Keane is fine with a password-protected scope, but argues that digitally locking the entire gun would overstep safety bounds.

Tracking Point's scope beams all of the data gleaned by the rifle to an Apple iPad. Tracking Point
While pro-gun groups don't like the idea of authorized user recognition technology, many hunters and professional shooters also still have issues with Tracking Point's rifles. For them, smart guns take away from the sport.

"You'll hear, 'this is cheating,' 'this is too easy,'" Crocker said. "But you don't hear that from people coming off the gun. As much as the transition from a bow-and-arrow to a rifle, we are pushing that comfort level way far out."

Keane agrees that using a precision-guided rifle doesn't necessarily mean cheating. He likened the technology used in the Networked Tracking Scope to the advent of conventional optical scopes. "There were similar arguments when rifle scopes came onto the market and were started to be used by hunters," Keane said. "It's commonplace now. It's hard to think of anyone who goes deer hunting now and doesn't use a scope."

Just the beginning
Other high-tech weapons and related gadgets are popping up ( see related story ). There's a gun that can shoot around corners called the Corner Shot; and iPhone apps, like the Inteliscope Tactical Rifle Adapter, that create digital zooms and gather ballistics data. Other computerized tracking scopes have also come onto the scene, such as the Burris Eliminator III, which has a laser rangefinder that adjusts a rifle's sights to compensate for bullet drop and other variables.

The much-publicized "Liberator" 3D-printed handgun made by Defense Distributed debuted in May. The Liberator can be instantly downloaded from the Internet and anonymously printed; it fires standard handgun rounds and is made almost entirely of plastic. However, printing requires an expensive high-end 3D-printer, and once printed, the guns are said to rarely work.

For its part, Tracking Point is also working on new smart rifle prototypes. Besides developing the "Super Gun," it recently partnered with gunmaker Remington to create a computer-enabled semiautomatic rifle that shoots up to 500 yards.

When I toured Tracking Point's manufacturing facility in Austin, Crocker showed me the company's armory. It's a small windowless room lined wall to wall with various rifles -- long-barreled, wood, camouflage-colored, semiautomatic, and more. In this burgeoning landscape of digitized weapons, invariably, these guns will become relics or get upgraded with computer power.

"I don't say it lightly when I say that I think this company can change everything," Crocker told me. "I'm going to see history made in the firearms industry." A history, of course, that could turn out any number of ways, depending on how people end up using these weapons.

About the author

Dara Kerr, a freelance journalist based in the Bay Area, is fascinated by robots, supercomputers and Internet memes. When not writing about technology and modernity, she likes to travel to far-off countries.

 

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