To hit a target at 1,000 yards a lot of calculations need to be made, and good fundamentals of shooting need to be observed. Things have been getting progressively easier, but the guys behind TrackingPoint wanted something better. They wanted a gun that did all that math for you, gave you an aiming point, and triggered the gun FOR YOU automatically when you were exactly on target. They wanted to make long range shooting idiot proof. And that’s exactly what they built, and showed off to me and Tyler this past weekend.
Long range shooting has traditionally been the domain of the seasoned veteran. Hitting anything past 250 yards requires a good understanding of the fundamentals of shooting, combined with the knowledge of how their bullets react in flight and the ability to predict where they will hit at a given distance.
The math part has been getting easier over time, with laser rangefinders and ballistic calculators coming onto the market that take most of the math out of the equation, but even then the various drag models and ballistics programs don’t always match up exactly with what your specific loads are doing in your specific gun.
That’s where TrackingPoint started. They took a single rifle and a single precision load of ammunition manufactured by Barnes Bullets and studied the ever-loving crap out of it. They tested it in hot weather, cold weather, different altitudes and different wind conditions and created the most comprehensive database they possibly could for how their load and their rifle behaves. They even tested the lifecycle of the gun, seeing how the gun changed in terms of the ballistic profile between round #1 and round #2,000.
With the detailed understanding of the firearm and ammunition under their belt, they could accurately predict the bullet’s path. But the one part of the equation that had yet to be tackled, and the biggest reason why people miss their target, is the human factor. Is that a 1.5 MiL hold or a 1.6 MiL hold you have? Did you squeeze the trigger too hard and pull a shot? Was your breathing too heavy and cause you to miss? All of these factors could still lead a round off target.
So they gave the computer control of the trigger instead.
The system, in its first generation setup, will come as an integrated rifle and scope. The scope contains all of the computational power, with some minor additions to the stock and trigger system to get everything to work properly.
When you start to line up your shot, you simply “tag” your intended target with the scope. There’s a small red button molded into the stock right where your trigger finger rests that tells the computer that whatever the corsshairs are on is the intended point of impact.
The second you release the button, a number of things happen automatically. First, the scope takes a reading of the temperature, barometric pressure, distance to the target, and the cant of the scope, and figures out a solution for that intended target. It then adjusts the scope so that the crosshairs are precisely calibrated to hit the target, and waits for the human to mash the trigger. All you’re responsible for is entering in the wind speed and direction.
If you don’t release the button immediately, though, you get another nifty feature of the scope. The scope will stabilize the image and allow you to drag that aiming dot exactly to where you want it, so even if you didn’t get the precise position when you first hit the button you can drag the dot to the right spot.
The thing is, though, once the target has been tagged the trigger is controlled by the computer. The only time it will release the firing pin is when the crosshairs are exactly on the target. So once you’ve made the decision to fire, all you have to do is squeeze the trigger and wave the crosshairs over the tag, and when the conditions are exactly right the computer will release the firing pin and send the round downrange.
What’s really awesome (from a nerdy perspective) is that the computer uses a predictive model to figure out when to release the firing pin. It calculates the path that the gun is swinging and predicts when the gun will be exactly in place to put the round on target, using that to determine when to fire. Due to the predictive nature, it means that the gun will actually fire faster if you’re swinging quickly from left to right than trying to get the dot to line up exactly with the crosshairs.
Also awesome is that the thing streams live video of the scope’s view to compatible Apple devices. For the video we were watching everyone’s shot on an iPad, but there’s no reason this couldn’t be an iPad mini or an iPhone. A spotting scope is still a must for watching the impact of the rounds, but for a spotter it gives them something that they’ve never had before — the ability to double check the target that the shooter has in their sights. It may not be essential on a flat range, but as the TrackingPoint guy said it makes hunting a heck of a lot better when your guide can walk you onto the target and even let you know if the animal you’re about to take is the one they had in mind.
What’s nice about the app is that it has some auto-recording capabilities built-in. It automatically takes a picture when the shot goes off so you can see exactly where your gun was aimed, and records video from the moment you tag your target to 10 seconds after the shot. For those who like posting videos of how awesome they are on YouTube (sup?) its a great feature.
TrackingPoint has taken something that once required great skill and understanding of ballistics and turned it into a video game that’s accessible to anyone at any level of shooting ability. In fact, if you’ve ever played Sniper Elite V2 the mechanics will feel extremely similar. Its something that anyone under 30 will immediately understand and be able to use almost instantly.
The best illustration is a video the incoming CEO has of his 10 year old daughter singing a steel plate at 1,006 yards using the system. She’s probably the youngest person to “qualify” at the range (hitting 5 rounds in a row at each steel plate — 250, 500, 750 and 1,000).
The real question, though, is how well the system works. To answer that question we met up with some of the guys from TP at the Best in the West range just outside Austin, TX and gave it a spin.
For both myself and Tyler, it took some time to get used to the controls. But for a generation that has grown up with video games and touch screens, it wasn’t anything particularly difficult. With about five minutes of instruction we were using the system like pros.
The tagging system works pretty well, for the most part. We ran into some situations where we tagged a target and the computer moved the dot to a different location, but re-tagging the target usually fixed that problem. With the way the image moves once the target is identified it seems like its better to be zoomed a little bit out (so the target doesn’t move off screen) than zoomed all the way in, but if you lose the target a helpful arrow points you to the way back.
As for the rest of the claims, we can 100% say that they’re verified. The gun works exactly as advertised. The tagging system has some bugs to be worked out, but it hits the tag first round every time.
For those interested in buying their very own, they’re already taking pre-orders (and dozens have already been reserved) with the base system running about $15,000 (FYI, LEOs skip to the front of the line). For that, you not only get a precision tuned Surgeon rifle and bad-ass scope, but you get a Pelican case, 200 rounds of ammunition, and an iPad mini for your spotter and to watch your videos. There are other models coming online soon, including a lighter version for hunting that has already been field tested on some delicious animals.
These guys aren’t just resting on their laurels, though. They’ve already got a number of improvements coming down the line.
The first thing that they’re working on is wind and moving targets for the existing rifle setup. Getting the ballistics right for the drop is good, but having something that is completely idiot proof for even wind calls is high on their list. As for moving targets, they have had some incredible interest from the military and law enforcement for these systems but they need to be able to hit moving targets before those customers are willing to drop the coin on some of these rifles.
One of the things that might come before then, though, is an expanded range of projectiles capable of being used in the guns. At the moment the only thing that these rifles can reliably use are the Barnes manufactured rounds that are specifically designed for the guns. Barnes loads these rounds to within 10 feet per second, an incredible feat especially considering that 18 fps difference is the best I could find with my ammo testing. They’re working with Barnes to try and get an expanded line of projectiles, to include hunting loads as well as the MatchKing projectiles that they’re using at the moment. As you can imagine that involves a tremendous amount of time and effort, so to speed things up they’re building their very own indoor 500 yard range in Austin. As far as we can tell, it will be the longest indoor range in the United States. With it they’ll be able to more accurately control all of the environmental variables and get their ballistic data much quicker.
Also coming soon is an improvement to the housing of the scope. At the moment its not exactly what anyone would call “waterproof,” which limits its outdoor use. But they’re working on it, and until then if you can afford one of these you can probably pay someone to hold an umbrella over you while you hunt.
A little further down the line is a scope for the AR-15 platform. They don’t just want the ability to hit one target, they want to be able to leverage the AR-15 platform’s semi-auto abilities and be able to tag multiple targets, then have the gun fire as they swing through each one. More of a law enforcement or military application, but they’re also starting to think about the competition shooting and 3-gun markets as well.
As for silencers, well, that’s on the back burner.
Their eventual goal is to make a standalone scope that works on a set of rifles. They’ve been working with rifle manufacturers trying to find a suitable platform, but apparently not very many rifle makers can keep the consistency they need for their project to work. Since even slight differences between firearms will lead to their predictive model being off target they’re hesitant to start down that path until a suitable manufacturer has been found. Given that this company is already buddy-buddy with the Freedom Group ring of companies I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw a TrackingPoint compatible flavor of Remington 700 sometime in the near future.
The best thing is that they’re constantly improving the software. Every rifle they ship benefits from all of the rifles before it, and once new features come online they plan to release updates to all of the existing scopes. This isn’t just something that seems to be designed to screw over early adopters, but instead a system that is engineered from day one to be able to update and change as the software is improved.
I wouldn’t be surprised if this system becomes the gold standard going forward. With computers taking most of the workload off the human, we’re able to do more of what we’re good at — specifically finding the targets in the first place and deciding when to fire. But until the price drops significantly I think I’ll stick to my mil dot reticle and trusty Ti-83+.