Category Archives: Weapons of Tomorrow

Solid Concepts Prints Exotic-metal .45

“WeaponsMan,” we can hear you thinking. “Dey already done dat.” Well, not exactly. Sure, they printed a gun before, but this time they did something pretty amazing: they printed all 34 non-spring parts in a single go (see the photo of the parts below, fresh from the laser-sintering machine with only the unused powder removed yet). And they printed it of Inconel 625, which you’ve probably never used in a gun before (but if you’ve ever flown in a jet airplane, it was probably the turbofan engine’s hot-section shaft and several other critical parts.

Worlds-2nd-3D-Printed-Metal-Gun1-1024x768

Inconel is fairly expensive and is normally not used in firearms for three reasons: (1) cost, (2) lack of necessity (steel, aluminum, and stainless steel have gotten the job done for the last century), and, (3) until now, it’s been fairly difficult to work with.

 

Indeed, one of the greatest applications for Direct Metal Laser Sintering (and SLS and other metal-sintering additive manufacturing processes) is to make things out of those materials that break or wear down subtractive-manufacturing tools, or need exotic tool bits or inserts. That includes Inconel and Titanium alloys, of course, but we also hear rumors that sintering Tungsten is possible. How recursively self-referential does it get? Imagine 3D printing the tools you need to do final milling on 3D printed parts… that tomorrow could be today very soon.

Our second iteration is composed entirely of Inconel 625, a material that is stronger than Stainless Steel (and a bit heavier) save for the springs which were not 3D Printed. The gun is once again composed of thirty-four 3D Printed components. Our second gun will be stress relieved and post processing will be by hand once again.

This is an important note, that last sentence above. The parts don’t come out of the DMLS machine ready to be snapped together — not parts for a precision machine like a firearm. But they go on to note that they’re learning as they go:

Inconel 625 is a harder, stronger alloy than 17-4 Stainless Steel. We modified the geometry for this second iteration to incorporate different tolerances in order to make hand finishing sufficiently easier. With our first prototype, we had to hand sand to perfect a few tolerances, but our tweaks to the design should remove the need for such sanding. Our first gun is now up to 700+ rounds.

 

Because it’s taken a while for us to bring you this, that 700 rounds is not up to date:

 

 

We’re thoroughly enjoying this research-development-improvement process for an internal project. The implications of its success for our customers’ future projects – from aerospace to medical – are very uplifting! Thanks to our followers for their support and enthusiasm, it has been quite the ride.

via World’s 2nd 3D Printed Metal Gun – Solid Concepts Blog.

There are still some things we’d like to know about what Solid Concepts is doing. One is whether the powder from which the products are sintered is recycled or not? Aerospace firms working with Inconel parts produce a great deal of waste: chips from milling and drilling, and dust and powder from grinding. It would be great if that waste material could be transformed readily into raw material for a new process.

We’re high on additive manufacturing here, an exploding new sector with new concepts, technologies, and even a new magazine, which we read avidly. It has applications far beyond guns, but guns are a natural application for this technology — if it’s not strangled in the crib. Who would do that? Well, the only enemies guns have, some wag has said, are rust and politicians. Neither of the SC printed guns is very prone to corrosion due to the materials used, but additive manufacturing and home prototyping are being targeted in Congress by, who else, anti-gun politicians. The two leading the charge are Chuck Schumer in the Senate and Steve Israel in the House. Both are New York Democrats of a liberal bent.

Their proposals may not impact Solid Concepts (the firm has a manufacturing FFL, which will insulate it from some of peaks and valleys of Congressional misunderstanding). But they will affect all of us indirectly. Somewhere, maybe even in the New York so poorly represented by those two gentlemen, a 20-year-old kid has the potential to be the next John Browning or Gaston Glock, or even a Steve Jobs of physical things. (Schumer and Israel were not in Congress in the 1970s to ban homebuilding of computers).

We see incredible new vistas of the imagination. (Imagine bringing Grandpa’s broken shotgun back to life by printing a new hammer, after scanning the parts of the broken old one. Imagine having that technology in your gunsmith shop). Will people misuse the technology? You bet. Will criminals print guns? Maybe. Criminals are not the masterminds you see on TV, but in 10 years you won’t need to be, unlike today’s early adopters who are paying thousands for technology that will very soon be obsolete. But we can easily imagine unethical restorers printing, say, matching parts for a mismatched Luger and aging them. (Even that is only unethical if the result is passed off as original).

Many things that were out of reach once are not now. Also, the economics of manufacturing may be changing, to favor small runs of valuable items.

Imagine a commemorative gun for your Army unit or Navy ship. “The USS Miami plankowner .45″. The decoration could be designed right in — it would cost no more to make a highly customized gun than a slabsided standard one. (Guns are a tiny market for this technology. Think of what Bridezillas will do with the ability to have something shiny, of stainless steel, and personalized for every member of the wedding party and guest. Imagine hot-rodders printing different-length fuel-injector runners to accommodate a reprogrammed timing chip).

The upside of this technology is scarcely imaginable. This could be as big as the 1970s computer revolution, and all of us can be part of it. We just need to keep those with fascist tendencies (we’re heil-ing you, Schumer and Israel) from strangling it in its crib. And that’s where we are as 2013 closes: at an inflection point between revolutionary science, and reactionary politics.

History tells us how this ends: science wins. But not without our help.

Snipers: feeling obsolete yet?

Young girl (she’s 12, and obviously a good sport). Four ranges (250, 500, 750, 1000). Four rounds. Four hits.

Note that, because of the way TrackingPoint automates range-finding and atmospherics, this is without putting dope on the gun.

Then, she takes a 500-yard target with a single shot — it’s a 3″ plate. Dingg.

The TrackingPoint "Tag" button locks the gun on target.

The TrackingPoint “Tag” button locks the gun on target.

One suspects the video is edited to remove some fiddly creating and erasing of tags. (The way TrackingPoint works is that you “tag” the target with the laser, and the weapon fires when the target and the trajectory are aligned. If your tag is not on target, you don’t have to fire; stay off the trigger, and you can erase it and place a new one as necessary).

Still, if you’re not impressed with this, you haven’t spent time trying to train hard-headed guys to hit targets at these ranges.

There are still things that only an experienced and trained sniper can do. Any SF or Marine sniper will tell you destroying targets with precision rifle fire is only one small part of a very big job. But TrackingPoint does take a lot of the art, and all the voodoo, out of making a long-range shot in real-world conditions.

We’d like to see how it works in the next thousand meters. The first thousand is the milieu of the mountain hunter and the conventional military sniper. Let’s go out where SOF snipers sometimes shoot, out beyond the first mile. That is, of course, of limited utility to hunters (I can’t imagine many in the Western US/Canada, Alaska, or Africa that would want to take 2000-m shots) but it would really be a sweet spot for military sniping.

Understanding Army Manual Numbers

"Ze same vay a Cherman officer learns everytzing! From ze manual!"

“Ze same vay a Cherman officer learns everytzing! From ze manual!”

OK, many of you collect US Army weapons, or have Army weapons or their civilianized counterparts (like AR-15s or M1As) in your collections. As you probably know, the Army publishes fairly good manuals about these guns, Field Manuals and Technical Manuals. Now, you can’t learn everything, unlike the German officers in Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines, “from ze manual!” but you can learn quite a lot, especially with the higher-suffix technical manuals.

Say what? Yes, there’s a code to these numbers but it’s a code you can break. Understanding these numbers will be a great benefit to you — even most soldiers, even armorers and maintenance experts, don’t understand this system.

To understand the manuals, you need to understand just a little about the Army maintenance system. The Army divides maintenance tasks by level or “echelon,” with the operator (or crew, for a crew-served weapon like a .50 MG or an M4 Sherman tank) at the bottom end and Depot Maintenance at the high end. Each higher level is authorized and required to do more. On an M16, for example, an operator can only clean and field-strip the rifle, although his unit armorer may let him replace broken handguards. The operator usually isn’t allowed do anything that would require him to apply a tool to the gun, or to remove a part that isn’t removed for normal cleaning. The Depot, conversely, can replace the barrel or any other part and completely overhaul and zero-time the rifle, preparing it for reissue as meeting new rifle specs.

In all there are five levels of maintenance, with the first two taking place at the unit level, and the top three going to increasingly remote, and increasingly well-equipped, maintenance organizations. These echelons existed in the same way in World War II as today, even though hardly anything issued then is still in the field. (The M2HB machine gun is an exception).

  1. Operator/Crew Maintenance (also known by code letter C)
  2. Organizational Maintenance (code letter O)
  3. Direct Support Maintenance (formerly “Field” maintenance, code F)
  4. General Support Maintenance (formerly “Heavy” maintenance, H)
  5. Depot Maintenance (code letter D).

Screen shot 2013-05-05 at 9.50.24 AMThe most common Army manuals are Field Manuals, which describe Army doctrine, and Technical Manuals, which describe equipment. So while an FM covers marksmanship training, when you want to maintain or repair weapons, you’ll be playing in the TM garden. Here’s a typical Army TM number: TM9-1005-317-10. Every single digit of that carries meaning!

To decode the manual, break it down into parts. “TM” obviously tells us it’s a Technical Manual and not an FM, Training Circular (TC), Graphic Training Aid (GTA) or some other kind of publication. The 9 tells us who’s responsible for the TM.

  • 1 — Aviation
  • 3 — Chemical
  • 5 — Engineer
  • 7 — Infantry
  • 9 — Ordnance (now called the Tank & Automotive Command, it’s also responsible for small arms)

“1005″ is a code for the Federal Supply Class of the manual’s subject. One of these numbers appears in the National Stock Number/NATO Stock Number of any item in the supply system. The numbers you’ll be most interested in with respect to weapons are:

  • 1000 — small arms, general
  • 1005 — Small Arms up to and including 30mm
  • 1010 — Small Arms above 30mm
  • 1340 — Anti-Tank Weapons
  • 6920 — Training Aids and Devices

It’s obvious that 1005 is the sweet spot for gun collectors, including as it does every shoulder fired weapon between .22 and 30mm, and a TM-9-1005-anything is going to be useful to us. Crossing the next hyphen brings us to a three-digit number, in the case of our example 317. Now this is the identifier of the particular end item, and you have to know these numbers, or be able to look them up. We happen to know that “317″ happens to be “Pistol, Semi-automatic, 9mm, M9,” the standard GI version of the Beretta 92FS. (OK, the manual’s sitting in front of us. So, for that matter, is the pistol). The pistol’s NSN, by the way, is

1005-01-118-2640

But decoding NSNs is a question for another day, perhaps. You do recognize the FSC of 1005 is the leading segment of the NSN. All firearms will lead with 1005, unless they’re big enough to be 1010 (common examples of the latter are the M79, M203, M320 and Mk19 grenade launchers).

There’s one area left of the manual number, and that’s -10. And that’s depressing news, because it’s only the basic operator’s manual. Remember the five levels of maintenance? Yep, a dash-ten is user (operator) maintenance only. Dash-twenty’s organizational, Dash-fifty’s the depot manual.

Here’s the manual in .pdf form for download: Berreta M9 9mm TM_9-1005-317-10 The Army’s been trending away from paper pubs for 25 years, but older small arms manuals, at least, still come both ways.

Some manuals don’t end in “0″. The last digraph might be -12 (pretty common), -23, -45 or even a trigraph like -25P or even this strange arrangement: -25&P. What this means (taking the examples in order):

  • -12: Echelons 1 and 2, so, operator or crew and unit maintenance;
  • -23: Echelons 2 and 3, so, unit and direct support (WWII-era “field”) maintenance;
  • -45: Echelons 4 and 5, so, heavy and depot maintenance;
  • -25P: Echelon 2 through 5 Parts manual. This contains none of the maintenance procedures, but all of the parts (this is usually found with parts and tool lists. Special tool listings for higher echelon maintenance look promising, but the tools are listed by NSN — it’s usually a challenge to find them that way at Brownells’s or wherever).
  • -25&P: the ampersand indicates that this manual contains the parts & tool list and the maintenance procedures for the item in question. This is a good manual to have, if it’s published for your weapon!

Not all manuals are made for all echelons. For some small arms items, the government has negotiated extended warrantees and sometimes just sends a gun or weapon sight back to the manufacturer and lets them sort it out or exchange a new one.

And of course, not every NSN has a manual, only major end items (a replacement M9 locking block — a very popular service part — has an NSN but it’s covered in the maintenance manuals). And some NSNs, especially way-complex systems from the era of paper manuals only (the old Shillelagh missile system springs to mind) have multi-volume manuals, with the volumes distinguished by a slash and number at the end of the TM number, /1 for example.

This article draws on personal experience, but was based solidly on Chuck Ruggiero’s Armorer’s Manual, a 1998 document used in armorer training in the National Guard and elsewhere. Highly recommended, and almost mandatory for an Army armorer (even though there’s no specific training course for unit armorers, there should be, and an updated version of this should be the textbook).

One last comment: the longest-running and most bitterly-fought war the USA has ever seen has been the battle between the Army and Navy, which has raged unchecked since 1775. Thanks to that kind of interservice squabble, every service has its own manual numbering system, but because most services use the same weapons, they have for many years used same manuals, with the sole inter-service concession of up to five manual numbers stamped on each cover (see the M9 operator manual in this post for an example). Therefore, you only need to learn one system to find almost all manuals in US service.

Breaking: 3D printed pistol works, files downloadable

It’s done. And tested. The first publicly available 3D-printed firearm. The two parts not printed are the firing pin (a roofing nail) and the grip screw. (A standard AR part. You can also substitute an AR grip for the printable grip). Here are the pieces:

liberator_1

 

And here is the video of a successful test-firing with a single .380 ACP round.

Note the following:

  1. There is risk here. ABS plastic in its various permutations is not an optimal gun barrel material. While the .380 version fired successfully in both tethered and human-fired (in the video) tests, there have been several breakages, and a 5.7×28 FN version blew itself up, with no injury reported. Build this, lanyard-test it. And we’d recommend lanyard-testing Job One to destruction, so that you can set a retire-by round count. 
  2. There is another kind of risk here, too. Cody Wilson’s prototype at Defense Distributed was made by a licensed manufacturer, and incorporated a metallic block for compliance with the Undetectable Firearms Act. As a smoothbore weapon in pistol size, this design risks classification as an Any Other Weapon (a legal term of art) under the National Firearms Act. Every NFA violation is a 10-year felony, and the BATFE prefers to pursue backyard tinkerers than organized criminal syndicates… when they’re not actually arming the criminals.
  3. The process of 3D printing (just like any other kind of manufacturing) has a learning curve. You can expect to have teething problems, issues, and yes, print failures.
  4. Expect the usual suspects to panic (they were already panicking over youth rifles; this should send them right over the top). But it’s pure information they’re trying to fight here. They can’t stop the signal. They’ll still try, but it’s a forlorn hope.

Here’s the DEFCAD release on “the Liberator.”

Here’s the download link (it will redirect to MEGA formerly MEGAupload — another thumb in the establishment’s eye).

Here’s the link that will let you download the whole collection of DEFCAD data. (Important note: at this writing, the current version, 4.2 “Saito,” has everything but the Liberator pistol files). It will go to MEGA and may only work with Chrome browser.

We recommend you take this freely available data and distribute it widely.

CWCID: Ars Technica.

You do realize we have just seen history made, right?

Update 1920R: here’s a story at geek.com with some more details.

Tracking Point — new videos

Late last week, in anticipation of the NRA Annual Convention, Tracking Point released new video. This one shows two features: the way the precision-guided firearm can compensate for motion of target or shooter, and the precision cold-bore first shot capability.

Right now, precision guided firearms are very expensive, and are only the province of extreme shooters and early adopters. We predict that that will change, and this kind of precision technology will be increasingly common — and much less expensive, as economies of scale kick in — going forward.

XM25 kaBOOM!

 

XM25

XM25 in a posed beauty shot. Army photo.

We’ve heard that two separate XM25 Counter Defilade systems (25mm semiauto “smart” grenade launcher have blow’d theyselfs up lately in live fires, one in the USA and one in Afghanistan in February, and that the weapon’s been taken out of service while engineers try to walk back the failure tree. Ishikawa diagram, ho.

Both operators were lightly injured; both weapons were destroyed. The design of the weapon is pretty fail-safe in the way it directs energy away from the gunner (which is good, because as a bullpup its breech is just about under his cheekbone, as you can see from these file photos).

 

XM25 at a technology display. Note size of weapon, and location of breech.

XM25 at a technology display. Note size of weapon, and location of breech.

A second round field test with a batch of improved prototypes only just started in January. The new batch have not fired a shot in combat yet (the one that blow’d up in Afghanistan did it on the range).

ATK, the manufacturer, is trying to figure out what went wrong. There were no such kinetic malfunctions with the first batch of prototypes, which had a generally successful combat deployment. (The problem was not the weapons themselves it was the lack of just-right targets to show off its unique capabilities. Instead, they were mostly used for suppressive fire).

We’re trying to get our hands on the safety-of-use message and of any incident photographs.

 

 

Cuomo’s gun ban prevents all crimes

Meat_cleaverLike this one, in Manhattan’s Chinatown. The victim was saved by fast-thinking and -acting firefighters from FDNY Engine Company 9:

Ming Guang Haung, 28, was arrested on Sunday after he allegedly used a meat cleaver to hack and slash at his wife.

“He pulls a cleaver out of his waistband and starts hacking at this woman. I rush him, I try to grab the cleaver, but he’s swinging six, eight, maybe ten times,” firefighter Jose Ortiz said.

Ortiz, ran outside and grabbed the man, sending his weapon flying.

“We finally get him down on the ground. The lady that was hurt, she bolts. (Fellow firefighter) Shane (Clark) follows her, because I told him, ‘You’ve got to follow the lady, because she’s hurt,’” Ortiz said.

Firefighter Shane Clarke chased the woman to a restaurant nearby on East Broadway.

“I ran up to the commotion, and I could see that she was bleeding heavily all over her body, and so I ran back, I grabbed a trauma bag, and at that point, she was sprinting down the block,” Clarke said. “I think she was panicked, more than anything else.”

The 23-year-old woman was taken to Bellevue Hospital. She was initially reported in critical, but stable condition, and later in serious condition, with lacerations to her face, back and hip.

via Police: Man Attacked, Critically Injured Wife With Meat Cleaver « CBS New York.

What do people like Cuomo think? When guns are outlawed, or just not handy in the moment, criminals will magically transform into blithe, lotus-eating spirits? The evidence of our experience is that the individual who opts for crime will use any weapon available to him that meets his threshold of lethality.

You know, like a meat cleaver.

TrackingPoint: Reliability Testing

As gadget-minded gun guys, we’ve followed the development of TrackingPoint’s precision-guided firearms with great interest. We received an email from TP today with some of their latest, including a video with a little bit about their testing procedures, and a slight tease about their development process. They don’t appear to use published or ammo-manufacturer ballistic data, but develop their own experimentally by measuring actual achieved trajectories with pulse-doppler radar. Good stuff, but one implication is that their computer will be optimized for a particular load or a finite set of loads in each gun.

One expects that a well-trained and experienced long-distance shot, using a weapon and load data he’s personally worked up, would outperform the Tracking Point  system in most circumstances. Where TrackingPoint offers real advantages, it’s in the case where the shooter does not have that level of experience and familiarity with the weapon and load; in climactic extremes; and in non-level shots, where the computer can compensate for an angled trajectory in ways that a human cannot, at least not in real time.

And, let’s face it, it’s really cool.

In addition, Tracking Point tells us:

  • They’re going on the road in February and March. Purpose of this road show? To get prospective customers behind the gun, ideally in hunting situations, to show them in real applications what’s much harder to tell them convincingly at a trade show or in an indoor presentation. 
  • They are not sold out yet for 2013, but they would like to be. Here’s what they say:

We are still on track to ship our first PGFs this Spring. Our final refinement and testing of ballistic lead for engaging moving targets, our testing of the auto-zeroing capability over time, and an extensive field stress test are all necessary to ensure field proven reliability of the first Precision Guided Firearms prior to shipment.

If you are still deciding on which PGF is right for you, understand that if you purchase right now, we will be shipping your PGF in the Summer. We will have a limited supply in the hundreds of units for 2013 and operate on a first come, first served basis.

  • Finally, they’re looking for people as they’re planning to grow. TrackingPoint is based in Austin, Texas (so it’s a good fit both for Texans and for out-of-staters).

In our view this is a historic, even radical development that right now gives the shooter an advantage, and one day will be an NRA Museum level heirloom, as significant as an early AR10 or a 1905 Colt .45 ACP. We believe this because we think that one day, “smart” scopes will be extremely common, even standard.

Scopes themselves have been a slow, hard sell over the last 50 years, but now the superiority of optical to iron sights is universally accepted. We think a computing scope will be a revolution on a similar scale, although as technical revolutions tend to do, it will likely take place faster than its predecessor. We might be wrong — as Yogi Berra said, “prediction is hard, especially about the future” — but we’re pretty confident about this. It provides a capability that was lacking before.

The future of guns? Definitely, one future.

We love weapons of all vintages, their technology, their rich history, the stories they could tell if they could talk. While we certainly share the love that Ian and his gang at Forgotten Weapons have for the orphans and ugly ducklings of days gone by, we also have one beady eye on the weapons of days yet to come. Of course, while some of these technological developments might be the next Stokes mortar or MP44, and revolutionize the battlefield, others are certainly going to be the orphans. We’re going to talk a little bit about a new technology about to be shown at the SHOT Show, and about its evolutionary niche. First, a video (which may have an annoying ad. If so, sorry ’bout that).

TrackingPoint

What did you just see? Tracking Point (teaser website — the actual website goes live at midnight EDT tonight) is a combination of technologies that, taken together, make longer-range shots more likely to succeed. This technology has been bruited about for some time, but it involves a combination of laser sensors, target sensors, accelerometers, and environmental sensors communicating with a central computer, to take as much human error as possible out of the system.

The system was originally developed under the code name Project Gazelle. This is an early prototype on a Remington XM2010 popping grapefruit and similar size targets at 225 and 232M, and a hog at 330m. Note that the field range calculation of the laser rangefinder might be one of the most useful capabilities of the system. This video’s early version has a much cruder data display, and different crosshairs, from those on the production weapon.

“Essentially, what we’ve done is put a jet fighter’s ‘lock-and-launch’ technology into a firing system,” Tracking Point President Jason Schauvel (phon.) says.

Tracking Point ProductsThe Tracking Point weapon — it is only delivered as a complete weapon with integrated scope, the parts of the technology are inseparable — is presently a bolt-action magazine-fed complete system with a bulky scope with what looks like three objective lenses on it. The sensors include video-optical, laser, acceleration, and environmental. Tracking Point refers to the components of its system as the Heads-Up Display, Networked Tracking Scope, Tag Button, Integral Laser Rangefinder, Ballistic Calculator, Tracking Engine, and Guided Trigger. Tactical versions will be available in .300 Win Mag and .338 Lapua Mag calibers, and a hunting model in .300.

Screen shot 2013-01-13 at 12.19.32 PMIn a display modeled on a pilot’s heads-up or integrated data display, the shooter sees, superimposed on his optically and digitally magnified view of the target, two vertical “tape” displays which apparently can show incline (relative to the x-axis), range and ballistic information, an arc that provides a digital inclinometer (z-axis), and a horizontal tape display of compass heading flanked by climactic information (temperature and ambient air pressure) . With Tracking Point, though, the shooter does not need to integrate that information in his skull. The computer does it.

Tag ButtonThe shooter places the crosshair on the target point and presses the Tag Button, a small red button resembling a cross-bolt safety in the front of the trigger guard, to lock on to the target. Then he presses the rifle trigger to commit the shot, but the Tracking Point weapon does not fire the shot mechanically. Instead, it monitors the micro-motions of the rifle and the macro-motions of the target, adjusting as necessary, and then fires the weapon when the shot is sure to be made. This can happen instantaneously if the shooter is solidly locked on to the target and using good marksmanship basics, or there can be a delay until the gun and target are in proper alignment. (We’d guess the system times out the shot at some point if the target is lost, even if the shooter holds the trigger back). Tracking Point’s term for this is a “Guided Trigger.”

This will sound familiar to anyone who’s been trained on the Javelin ATGM; the advance of this technology from bulky missiles for killing T-72s to a bulky rifle for killing antelope or elk (or such people as need killing) was an inevitable result of miniaturization and research.

Think of it as like the Constantinesco or Fokker mechanical interrupter gear of World War I, which wouldn’t let a machine gun discharge when an airplane’s vulnerable wooden propeller was in front of the muzzle (or, technically, going to be where the bullet was going to be at that point in space and time). The Guided Trigger won’t let the rifle discharge unless the gun-target line is correct for the round, range and conditions.

This has particular applications where the gun and/or target are in motion. Tracking Point has demonstrated busting feral hogs from an R44 helicopter.

The weapon most seen in early Tracking Point video was a .338 Lapua Magnum and they claim an inexperienced shooter with a few minutes’ training has what that call a Tag, Track, Xact range of up to 1,200 yards.

The Tracking Point weapon can also stream its video output so that another person can watch the heads-up display in real time. They demonstrate this on iPhone and iPad. The video can also be recorded — staff judge advocates will love that.

Intelligent weapons

We’ve focused a little on intelligent weapons here before, but earlier military weapons have been problematical and have never achieved truly widespread fielding. Intelligent weapons factor in range, elevation, exterior ballistic, and atmospheric conditions to increase hit probability. The first such weapon was the SPIW, or the first attempt at such a weapon, and the analog solid-state technology of the time (early 1960s) was pathetically insufficient to the needs of the users. The technology continued maturing, and led to the fielding of the XM25 in Afghanistan. Parallel developments in Korea and Israel have tried to do something similar.

The Korean and American weapons have been subject to combat testing, and testing of both has been fairly inconclusive. Both systems are predictably complex and difficult to employ within their envelope, and the Korean weapon is reported to have been very unreliable. These weapons and the Israeli equivalent have also borne many of the markers of immature technology: bulk, weight, complexity, unreliability, and poor human user interface, although the American XM25 gunners have expressed great satisfaction with their weapon.

What DARPA hath wrought

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has been working for some years on improved fire control for sniper systems. PEO Soldier, which is waiting for the handoff of these technologies, sees them presently in transition from Research phase to Developmental phase.

Fire control systems allow snipers to quickly and accurately acquire targets and calculate a near-instantaneous ballistic solution, allowing the sniper to place the system using an electronically displaced reticle on target and confidently send the round.

Two such systems include the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) “One Shot” and “EXACTO” systems. The One Shot program will provide snipers with a technically advanced spotting scope capable of calculating cumulative wind effects to target and providing an accurate, adjusted ballistic aimpoint to the shooter. The EXACTO program is focused on developing a spotting scope-based target acquisition and guidance system that would steer maneuverable .50 caliber sniper bullets directly to a target. These DARPA programs seek to push cutting-edge technologies to increase operational range and hit probability of sniper systems. Maturity of these technologies and transition to the field is scheduled to occur over the next several years.

Note that the DARPA programs seem to focus on a sniper-spotter team, not the singleton operation that Tracking Point makes possible. (Of course, TP also enhances the power of a sniper-spotter pair).

A similar, sophisticated computerized sight made an appearance in a bestselling fiction work within the last couple of years, also. In his 2010 novel I, Sniper, Stephen Hunter had his fictional snipers go up against a bad guy armed with a system that had some commonalities with Tracking Point. While Hunter is a shooter and has a keen understanding of gun technology, his knowledge of military operations, including scout/sniper operations, is weak. But his books are fun to read, and you can’t argue with his success in that field.  His conclusion — that at the state of the art a smart, experienced sniper with a “dumb” rifle can beat a hack with a “smart” rifle, is true at this time.

It might not be true in five more years of development. The bottle’s open, and the genie’s still materializing.

Why the technology?

Screen shot 2013-01-13 at 12.30.33 PMThis is happening because it’s technologically possible right now, and because the part of the sniper system that is most responsible for misses, and which most urgently needs upgrading, is the sniper himself. Most of us miss shots our weapons systems could have made. Using technology, intelligent-weapons designers are trying to take the human and his many causes of error out of the system, to the extent possible. Humans flinch, jerk the trigger, continue breathing while firing, misjudge range, miscalculate hold-over (-under) or lead, and misjudge their hold-over or lead. It takes discipline, training, and thousands of rounds of experience for a human sniper to drill these deficiencies out of his performance — and even then, he’s not 100% on 100 out of 100 days. A machine can be, which is why we’re going to see things like TrackingPoint and others that take some of the human potential for error out of the engagement loop.

It’s not just weapons that have this human-interface problem. Airline pilots will tell you that the basic difference between the philosophy designed into Airbus and Boeing cockpits is that the Airbus nannies the pilot more. It had more input by engineers, wanting to take away as much of the pilot’s ability to crash the plane as possible. Conversely, the Boeing had more input by pilots, and gives the pilot absolute authority, including to do things that in most circumstances would be somewhere between bad piloting and suicide, because in some situation it might be what a pilot needs to save his posterior. You might think that pilots like the Boeing more, but actually each craft has its partisans, and the pilots flying any particular piece of equipment tend to like it. You might think that one philosophy or the other had proven safer in line service, but that’s not the case (airline accidents are so rare that it’s hard finding significant statistical power in any comparison. Every one’s an outlier).

Limits of Tracking Point

Screen shot 2013-01-13 at 12.18.22 PMIt’s going to have several limitations, some of which inhere to all similar technologies and some of which are going to be unique to Tracking Point. Some of those limitations include:

  • It’s not fail-safe, and it’s irreducibly complex. If the whole system doesn’t work, the rifle doesn’t work. (There may be a “limp mode” that hasn’t yet been briefed).
  • Every component is a single point of failure.
  • Every component has only a single source.
  • It appears to be slower than a skilled shooter.
  • It’s the first generation, and so is likely to be quickly overcome by more new developments.
  • It’s a very likely target for the bansters.
  • The company is new (it’s an Austin, Texas startup) and an unknown quantity.

These limits noted, we’re going to see more of this.

So what’s going to happen next?

Going forward, we expect to see many more such technologies. Systems evolution has been converging in this direction for a while, considering the DARPA work quoted above and the PDAs used in Special Forces Sniper School and the iPod app Knight’s Armament Company developed some years ago. (But even in 2013, these technologies are still for early adopters).

Tracking Point videos

As we wrote this up on Sunday the 13th, Tracking Point was uploading more videos to their YouTube channel:

http://www.youtube.com/user/trackingpoint

The “Innovations” videos are particularly good at clarifying the new technology.

Wednesday Weapons Website of the Week: PEO Soldier

Typical page from the PEO Soldier Portfolio, this one featuring the M320 grenade launcher.

Typical page from the PEO Soldier Portfolio, this one featuring the M320 grenade launcher.

The dog’s breakfast that is US Army procurement is divided into various Program Executive Offices, each of which is commanded by a senior officer. PEO Soldier is responsible for equipment that is worn, carried or operated by the individual soldier, including small arms improvements, sights, armor, carrying tackle, and so forth.

PEO Soldier’s official mission is:

Develop, acquire, field and sustain affordable integrated state of the art equipment to improve Soldier dominance in Army operations today and in the future.

via PEO Soldier | Mission.

Translating that from the Army-bushwah into the Queen’s English, or at least the colonial variant spoken here, these are the guys (and gals) who are developing the next generation (and the one after that) of individual and organizational (but used by individuals) kit. They have fielded everything from the good (M4A1 upgrade, finally ditching the crappy burst device), the bad (the dreadful Army Combat Uniform and its non-concealing Universal Camouflage Pattern), and the ugly (but we’ve already mentioned the ACU and UCP, which are not only ineffective camouflage but look like a bag of barf).

The major areas of PEO Soldier are Soldier Protection and Individual Equipment, Soldier Sensors and Lasers, Solcier Warrior (which produces high-tech integrated systems), and Soldier Weapons (our direct interest).

Things of particular interest on the website, all of which are linked from the main PEO Soldier page, include featured equipment at the main page, the PDF of the 2012 Rapid Fielding Initiative equipment, and the PEO Soldier Portfolio. Right now, the link still goes to the 2012 Portfolio.