A couple months ago we posted a heads-up about a new product from AutoTargets, which was on the way for testing. Well, test it we did and the system worked as advertised. The digital, reactive, automated target lifters created their own WiFi repeating system, communicating with the Android app, raising and falling on impact, keeping track of accuracy and shooting speed, and providing all the fun of a fairground shooting gallery in the comfort of my own National Forest land . . .
A 20-minute video review means I got a bit carried away, but there’s just so much potential with this system that I still only scratched the surface. If you’re more interested in simply seeing it in action, keeping me on my toes and blasting down targets like Whac-A-Mole with a .40 S&W, I chopped it down to a 4 minute cut:
What It Does
The AutoTargets system consists of one or more automated target lift units that sync together and present targets to the shooter. They rise quickly, recognize the bullet impact in one of four target zones, and fall.
Basically any parameter imaginable — for instance, how many hits are required to drop the target, where on the target the hit needs to be, point values that must be achieved, delay between lifts, lift order, scenario duration, and more — is set through an Android (iOS coming soon) app. AutoTargets’ Quick Start Guide provides suggested settings for a bunch of different drills, scenarios, and games.
Via the app, your phone and/or tablet makes a steel target impact-like noise and/or vibrates upon bullet impact. It logs all of your hits and the duration between hits, plus calculates a total point value based on accuracy. This allows for competition between friends or for measuring one’s own improvement.
Tell it where your targets are on the field, tell it how many hits and what kind of hits are required to drop it, set up your scenario parameters, and then…GO!
Targets can be up to 250 yards from each other, acting as repeaters to communicate back to the phone or tablet running the show. Ideally the tablet is about 50 yards from the first target — although it can work up to 100 yards without using a booster — but with the four targets I’ve borrowed we’re still talking about up to 800 yards to the farthest one. Needless to say, this range potential surprised me.
Once set up, what you have is a fully programmable, reactive shooting gallery. It’s Whac-A-Mole with a gun. It’s an absurd amount of fun but it’s also extremely relevant training and practice.
How It Works
A 20oz paintball gun CO2 tank provides pneumatic power to lift the targets, achieving between 1,000 and 1,500 lifts on a single tank. Tubing is run from the tank then from target to target, daisy chaining them together. Multiple tanks can be used if targets or sets of targets are particularly far apart.
The guts of a lifter unit include a pneumatic piston, removable LiPo battery pack good for about 12 hours of run time between charges, circuit board, and WiFi transmitter/receiver all housed in a powdercoated steel chassis.
Push the power button and the unit boots up, establishes its WiFi network, and syncs with any other units within range. They each act as signal repeaters for each other. I set up these 4 lifters a few times in different areas and at varying distances out to 150 yards, and each time they booted and synced flawlessly. It was much smoother and simpler than I anticipated. Connect the mobile app to the target closest to the device or, if they’re all within 50 yards, to whichever one you please. The rest will communicate through it to the app; automatically and seamlessly.
The real wizardry comes in the bullet-sensing targets themselves. Basically, the targets amount to two sheets of foam board like what’s used for presentations and science fairs and such, with a sheet of conductive material (e.g. aluminum foil) sandwiched in-between.
This material allows the system to sense when it’s touched by a bullet, and it sends that signal back to the lifter unit for relay to the app.
Yes, this does mean that if you bore enough of a hole and bullets pass through without even slightly touching the target, it won’t recognize hits. How long each target lasts depends on how accurate you are and what caliber you’re shooting. Estimated target life before missed shots become annoying is 500+ rounds. Smaller holes with a larger spread will bump that number up. I chose to start out at rifle ranges with a .223 and then bring it in to pistol range with a .40, figuring there’s no way a .40 can go through a .223 hole without touching. After running speed drills on four targets I’m clearly not accurate enough to worry about sending bullets through the same hole anyway.
AutoTargets will be releasing a variety of target styles, but for now it’s a silhouette with four hit zones: center mass, torso outside of center mass, head, and hostage taker head (not drawn on these targets but visible in the second screen shot of the app above). Point values vary based on zone.
Electrical pickups push into the target and signal to the unit which zone is struck.
From here, the app runs the show. Development on features and functionality is ongoing, including the use of the external trigger input built into each lift unit. This will allow for a target presentation based on a physical switch such as a door opening or a foot switch activating, etc., opening up even further possibilities for training purposes. As is, the combination of per-target hit requirements — zone and number of hits — and adjustable shooting scenario parameters offers nearly limitless customization and drills ranging from quick draw contests to fast-as-you-can-hit-’em to woods walk surprise presentations (i.e. tell the system to present targets in a specific order and add a decent delay between lifts, so as the shooter walks from the line out into the distance targets leap out at him/her. Maybe some fall with one hit, maybe some require a failure drill…).
On The Range
Well, I went through more ammo than I intended to! In fact, I didn’t want to stop shooting and would have burned through even more if I hadn’t run completely out. As ammo is by far and away my biggest expense when testing guns or gear I tend to keep a close eye on it, but the AutoTargets system is just so freaking fun I couldn’t pull myself away.
As mentioned, this is also a highly useful training tool. It provides a dynamic shooting environment with instant feedback and post-action performance data. Add into the mix magazines loaded to random capacities to force surprise mag changes or dummy rounds inserted in mags to force stoppage drills, and the training potential just keeps going up. For a given drill, keep a log of total points and elapsed time to quantify improvement over time.
If I could change any one thing about the way this system works, it would be getting the targets to drop faster. It seems like they drop via gravity after venting CO2 pressure, and that drop doesn’t happen nearly as rapidly as the targets rise. Maybe if the valve dumped the CO2 faster or maybe it could actually power the target down with pressure in the other direction. Regardless, it’s a minor criticism and it’s the only one I can come up with (aside from, yeah, this system is expensive).
Actually, with a phone in the pocket giving the shooter vibration feedback upon hits, a connection to electronic muffs providing audio, or maybe just a bluetooth external speaker to allow the cues to be heard with ear pro on — and all of these options are available in the app right now — the utility of a target that instantly drops upon impact goes way down.
If it’s possible to have “too much fun,” playing ballistic Whac-A-Mole with an AutoTargets system is likely to get you there. For our more serious, Operational readers, it can also provide full-on defensive, offensive, and otherwise tactical training. Not that fun and training have to be mutually exclusive.
Everything worked as advertised — better than I expected, actually. If the packaging is any indication, AutoTargets has good engineers with extreme attention to detail and maybe a dash of OCD. I literally filmed over 4 minutes of me blabbering on about the packaging and excitedly showing how everything fit flawlessly inside of the compartmentalized shipping box. I cut this footage from the review video for obvious reasons — is “Are you weirdly excited about incredible product packaging?” a question on the 4473? — but wanted to mention it here because I think it’s indicative of a high level of care that went into every aspect of this system, including the exceptional user manual, and that all translated into great experiences out on the range.
AutoTargets products are currently available for purchase through Action Target.
Rating (out of five stars):
Overall * * * *
Take price out of the equation and AutoTargets nails 5 stars all day long without question. It’s just…you know…expensive. Not price-gouging expensive, just complicated systems with lots of materials and R&D costs expensive. That said, it’s still within reach and it sets up and takes down easily enough that I’d happily bring them out to the woods with me even if I’m just going shooting for a couple hours. It certainly makes that shooting a lot more fun, even if I have a harder time rationing ammo usage.