Category Archives: Optics

Is a red dot better than iron sights — for a pistol?

Here's a Glock 17 with a TRijicon RMR, The guns in the study were the slightly smaller but similar G19

Here’s a Glock 17 with a TRijicon RMR, The guns in the study were the slightly smaller but similar G19

According to what appears to be a Norwich University undergraduate study from 2011 that was recently noted by Soldier Systems Daily, the answer is in and it’s a strong “yes.” From the report’s Executive Summary:

This project examined the comparative effectiveness of traditional iron pistol sights with Trijicon, Inc.’s red dot optic sight. Twenty-seven students from Norwich University participated by undergoing a simulated training course of fire using International Defensive Pistol Association (IDPA) silhouette targets for four different stages. Thirteen students used iron sights and 14 students used the optic. The results of the project indicated that there was a statistically significant difference favoring the optic for “hits on paper” in Stage 1 (15 yard slow fire) and for accuracy (hits near the center mass of the target) for all four stages of fire. 

Summarized Summary: more hits with the Trijicon RMR in Stage 1, and better hits in all stages.

The study is credited to James Ryan, apparently a student at the university, and Robin Adler, a professor of Justice Studies and Sociology.

While the summary led the report, and the statements made in the summary are well supported by the study data, at the end, the study reached three conclusions. The interesting thing is that we can only find support for two of the three in the findings and data. The conclusions were:

  1. This comparative pistol project indicated the Trijicon Inc.’s RMR was more effective than traditional iron sights.
  2. The results suggest that trainees in military and law enforcement specialties may gain proficiency more efficiently with the RMR.
  3. In addition the RMR is useful for seasoned professionals.

We find support for the first two conclusions in the study, but didn’t see anything at all to support the third. (We would expect that the RMR would be useful for pros — we’ve found it useful –but we could find nothing in the study itself that backs that statement up).

If this study is repeatable, we’re going to see more sights like the RMR on more handguns in the coming years. The key limitations of the study are that it was of short duration (one range day for each group) and very small groups (the control and experimental group were each 15 pistol shooters,  plus three alternates. Both groups were generated by random assignment, and about evenly split betwen complete novices and people with some shooting and/or pistol experience. In the end, 27 total students participated, 13 using three-dot iron sights and 14 using the RMR).  This experimental data set is too small to generate a high degree of confidence, but the group with the RMR steadily and consistently outshot the iron-sight group.

The pistols were otherwise identical Glock 19s. The targets were modified IDPA standard targets (the head was removed as a point-advantaged target, because the shooters were instructed to engage the targets only at center mass).

The small sample size meant that a result would have to be extremely disparate between the two groups to meet measures of statistical significance. The measure used judging the variance between teh groups’ mean scores in the stages was the non-parametric Mann-Whitney U.  In each of the four stages, the RMR group had more hits than the iron-sight group, but only on Stage 1 was the difference statistically significant. The measure used for evaluating overall accuracy was the chi-square, familiar to every survivor of freshman stats. The accuracy advantage of the RMR was statistically significant.

For both the mean scores in Stage 1 and the accuracy superiority overall, the probability of these results being the consequences of random chance, rather than an actual advantage of the RMR over iron sights, was 1 in 100.

WeaponsMan Analysis — Why the RMR “wins.”

The key advantage of the RMR on a pistol is the same as the key advantage of any optic on a rifle, compared to iron sights: it eliminates the need to consciously focus on one of three focal planes (the front sight) but allows a shooter to focus on the target and have the aimpoint superimposed in the same focal plane. A secondary advantage is the red-dot’s ability to compensate to some extent for poor presentation, pistol cant, etc., in ways that iron sights cannot.

The key disadvantage of the RMR is the way it juts out from the top of the pistol slide, making the pistol more awkward. While optical sights are often considered frail and vulnerable, the RMR  is a fairly robust unit, and a blow that would dislodge or damage it might well dislodge the standard three-dot iron sights also.

The full study can be read on SSD at this link or downloaded from here: 2011_Norwich_Study_RMRvIronSights.pdf

Optics for Beginners, by Chris Hernandez

Pick one. But how? (photo of a pile of scopes found on an online forum).

Pick one. But how? (photo of a pile of scopes found on an online forum).

Here’s a small snip from a post by Chris Hernandez at The New Rifleman, a blog aimed at rifle n00bs. Hey, everybody’s a n00b once, and the variety of optics available now can be confusing, so a review of the basics hurteth not.

Example: for complicated reasons, when the SOPMOD I gear shipped, we got bare equipment with no instructions and no training, so we had to figure it out on our own. That was not entirely fun.

In this snip, Chris tells you what he used, and a few facts about the civilian rifleman. Some of these facts probably qualify as “Tough love.”

I’m not a sniper, nor do I have extensive experience with optics in the civilian world. What I do have, however, is a decent background in military optics from my twenty-plus years in the Marine Reserve and Army National Guard, including two combat deployments where I used an Aimpoint CCO (Close Combat Optic), Advanced Combat Optical Gunsight (ACOG), and Leupold MR/T (Medium Range Tactical scope). In the Marines my secondary MOS was 8531, Marksmanship Coach. I’m also a school-trained Army Squad Designated Marksman (SDM), meaning I’ve attended a two-week course which taught me to hit man-sized targets with an M16A4 out to 600 meters with iron sights and ACOGs. So I’ve got a decent background in medium to long range shooting, with and without optics.

So, first thing: If you’re a typical civilian shooter with limited training time and limited money for an optic and training ammo, there’s no reason to try to make yourself a sniper. It’s not going to happen. In the Army, with government ammo and decades of institutional marksmanship knowledge, the average soldier only shoots to 300 meters. And some of them struggle with that. So it’s not really feasible for the average civilian shooter, with extremely limited training resources, to expect to shoot like a sniper.

Second thing: For most modern combat, 300 meters is plenty far. I carried an M14EBR (Enhanced Battle Rifle) in Afghanistan, and I could consistently hit a torso-sized rock at 900 meters – at the range, with perfect weather conditions, a good firing position, on a stationary target at a known distance. In combat, with extreme heat or cold, unknown distances, hasty firing positions, adrenaline and moving targets, plus little annoyances like incoming fire, I would have been ecstatic to smoke a mofo at 200 meters.

Third: 300 meters is about the practical limit for civilians in any foreseeable domestic combat situation. If you’re preparing to defend your family from rampaging gangsters, it’s not likely you’ll find yourself sniping them from 500 meters. Urban combat is a close-in affair. In Iraq, enemy snipers sometimes engaged from within 100 meters. Unless you’re defending a farm in the middle of acres of cleared land, you probably won’t do any long range shooting

There’s a ton more good info on the site, so get thee hence and Read The Whole Thing™.

We’d add a few bullet points:

  • Almost nobody is as good a shot as he thinks he is.
  • If he hasn’t been practicing, he’s not the shot he used to be, either.
  • And he’s definitely not the shot he thinks he was. 
  • ACOGs are the heat. They have something many scopes don’t: durability. In our opinion, they lose sales because they’ve got so many variations and models that it confuses people. Just get one with the right BDC for your barrel length and caliber.
  • But for a home defense or truck gun, a high quality red dot is probably your best choice.
  • In optics, you get what you pay for except at the very high tail of the cost bell curve, where most people can’t exploit the marginal differences in performance.
  • The flipside of that? You’re better off buying a cheaper rifle and a more expensive scope than you originally planned.
  • Lots of phony optics out there. Protect yourself (we wrote about this back in 2012, a couple of times).
  • Scopes put the target and the aiming point in the same focal plane, so they’re extremely beneficial to novice shooters, and also to shooters who wear glasses or have some eye problems.
  • Night vision compatibility is cool. Shooting with night vision is also a perishable skill that needs to be practiced. If you don’t already have a night vision monocular or goggles, and don’t have a need or a way to practice with them, don’t pay extra for this capability; all you get is bragging rights, nothing practical for you.
  • Chris’s post is a great place for a beginner to, well, begin. Read The Whole Thing™ (you knew we were gonna say that, right?)

Finally, don’t be too eager to step in to complicated and advanced techniques like shooting at moving targets, shooting on the move, clearing structures, obstructed areas, or linear targets, or engaging targets that are higher up or lower than your position. Work on accuracy, accuracy, accuracy. Speed will come in due course, once you’re consistent enough to be accurate.

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.

A good day at the range

This M&P 15 Sport resembles the gun we had, but ours had an M4-cut barrel -- on a civilian gun that will never mount an M203, a styling affectation.

This M&P 15 Sport resembles the gun we we were sighting in, but ours had an M4-cut barrel — on a civilian gun that will never mount an M203, a styling affectation.

Spent a good day at the range yesterday. Well, the range was part of the day. It wasn’t a usual range or a familiar gun, and gettiing there was half the pleasure.

We’re far away from home precincts, and don’t have our own guns. But friends are here to help, and to beg help — particularly with an M&P 15 (a Smith and Wesson AR clone) that had resisted taking a zero on its optics. We’d handled, but never shot, the Smith AR before, and this gun’s optics were new to us.

This is the Burris AR-332. Secret to sighting it in? Mounting it tight.

This is the Burris AR-332. Secret to sighting it in? Mounting it tight. The Fastfire was attached to the top rail.

The main scope on the gun was a Burris Tactical AR-332 and the sight, too was new to us, as was the backup red-dot Fastfire (also a Burris product). The night before, we did our homework on the glass and tried to do the same on the Fastfire, but the Burris website only has product information on the newer Fastfire II and III, and no user manuals even for those. We didn’t care about what Burris marketing had to say about the silly thing, we wanted instructions for adjusting it. Was that too much to ask? Evidently. The Fastfire was mounted to the Picatinny rail that’s integral to the AR-332.

We also had a few other guns to shoot. Now, as a rule of thumb, you get more done at the range, and you get it done more elegantly, if you’re only trying to do one thing. This is time to be the hedgehog, not the fox.

The AR-332s reticle (ours was black). The ring gives you a CQB sight, but you still have the eye-relief-sight-time issue with any scope.

The AR-332s reticle (ours was black). The dots give you holdover. The ring gives you a CQB sight, but you still have the eye-relief-sight-time issue with any scope.

The problem sighting in the AR-332 was simple. It wasn’t firmly locked on the rail. The S&W AR turned out to be a real tack-driver, and we soon had groups adjusted right where we wanted them for a battlesight zero with 55-grain M193-equivalent ammo.

We didn’t like the AR-332′s reticle. It has a bullet drop compensator, but this particular one was black, apparently unlighted, and was easily lost against a black bull’s eye; it’s also not obvious from looking at the scope whether the compensator is for 62 or 55 grain ammo (they have different part numbers). We’re sure with more experience, we’d get better at using the scope, but the premium price of an ACOG is worth the money in our book.

This is actually a newer FastFire II. For some reason, it couldn't adjust below about 8-9 feet above point of aim at 25 yards.

This is actually a newer FastFire II. For some reason, it couldn’t adjust below about 8-9 feet above point of aim at 25 yards.

We never did get the Fastfire dot sorted out. It is boresighted about eight feet above the target and there isn’t enough adjustment to bring it on. Anybody have a manual for a first-generation Burris FastFire?

We did like the Smith AR. It’s a simple, DI AR with no forward assist (a dead weight, in our opinion). It worked fine, accepted PMAGs, and handled well. Even the Okeechobee range staff, who see lots of guns, liked it.

There was plenty of ammunition available for range members and guests, at (post-crisis) reasonable prices. We do think they gave us a military and police discount, but we paid $12.49 for 5.56 ammo.

The Seminole Inn, 1946. Only the cars have changed!

The Seminole Inn, 1946. Only the cars have changed!

Lunch stop enroute was the Seminole Inn, about the only interesting thing in Indiantown, FL. It was owned by the father of Wallis Simpson, later Duchess of Windsor, and contains one room where the Duke and Duchess once stayed (Palm Beach was more their style). It is quite venerable by Florida standards, built in 1926, and architecturally fascinating. The lunch was a dreadful, listless buffet, but the uniqueness of the setting made it enjoyable.

(This is a hastily published report, we hope to add some images later, although we shot no pictures at the range Done! -Ed.).

Auction Action

Every once in a while we like to call out an auction with some cool stuff in it. How is this for some cool stuff?

MGs ar Auction April 2013

This was the collection — well, part of the collection — of the late Richard Wray. His collection includes some 200 weapons, 90 of them Class 3 weapons comprising a history of the development and deployment of the 20th Century machine gun. His other weapons include such rarities as a Mexican Mondragon semi-auto rifle, a weapon so rare we’ve only seen it in pictures. Jack Lewis of Cowan’s Auctions teases the auction, coming in April, with some great photographs and scanty description.

It’s remarkable what range and quality of weapons there are here, including a llot of large crew-served guns: Water-cooled Browning, a bunch of Maxims including distinctive Russian (1905 and 1920) and German (MG08 and 08/15) models and their British Vickers cousins, a Lewis gun with an unusual AA sight; and a Danish Madsen, once a huge worldwide commercial success, with bipod and rare tripod. Tripod mounted, magazine fed guns of any kind or nationality are rare.

Parabellum M1913And those are just the guns in your face in this photo. Right behind them is a rarity! An Austrian Schwarzlose, a blowback-operated, tripod-mounted machine gun of the Great War. But that’s as common as a 10/22 compared to some of the other vintage pieces, like this M1913 Parabellum machine gun. This air-cooled weapon was used by the air forces of the German Empire, primarily as a flexible gun by observers and gunners on two-seaters, large bombers, and Zeppelins (yes, we’re aware that technically the Zeps were operated by the Navy). This rare bird is complete with the much rarer optical sight, gun mount and belt spool, and is in stunning condition (click to embiggen the picture).

Benet Mercie Machine RifleBut we haven’t hit the real rarities yet. Sure, there are strange Japanese and Italian light and medium machine guns, which are rarer by far than the collection’s standard SMGs like a Sten and an MP 38 or 40. But they can’t compare to this baby: the Benet-Mercié Machine Rifle of 1909, complete with the rare Warner & Swasey “Telescopic Musket Sight” of 1908 (the sniper variation of which we discussed in this blog last month) and the even rarer tripod adapter. This Hotchkiss derivative replaced the superior M1904 Maxim whose introduction we also previously discussed, citing an article written by an officer involved, Parker K. Hitt (is it just us, or is Hitt a great name for an infantry ofifcer?).

At the time of the Mexican Punitive Expedition (1916) and the US entry into World War I (1917) this forgotten gadget was the standard US Army and Marine machine gun, and because nothing was too good for the troops, they got next to nothing: both services could inventory mere dozens as we declared war on a nation that had put a machine gun every few yards along its battle front for three plus years. (According to an article from the American Rifleman, 670 were made, by Springfield Armory and Colt. The auction gun in the photo is a Springfield piece).

They were used in the Philippines and Haiti as well as in Mexico. In Europe, our doughboys would be equipped, mostly, with weapons bummed from Britain and especially France. (It wasn’t that much of an imposition on our hosts: the French were running out of living Frenchmen to issue guns to, and by 1917 the bedraggled remnants of what had been Europe’s largest and strongest army were mutinous). The Benet-Mercié is fundamentally a Hotchkiss, which might have come from the pen of Rube Goldberg. The troops generally disliked it, although the Warner & Swasey prismatic telescopic “musket sight” got mixed reviews. The American Rifleman article explains how the gun turned off infantrymen:

The Chauchat notwithstanding, it is fortunate that our troops did not have to go into combat against the Germans with the “daylight gun.” A well-known small arms authority of the day, Edward C. Crossman, noted the following: “I remember one cold day how a government inspector and I lugged one of the government Benet-Mercie machine guns out of the great Colt factory where they were made and set it up in a testing yard. Although the gun was in the hands of a most skilled man, a man there on purpose to inspect machine guns—that gun broke six parts in the first 20 shots. It broke extractors and firing pins as fast as we could put them in—because the weather was cold, and the chilled parts were brittle. Imagine tumbling out in the chill dawn of a winter’s day with the Huns coming over No Man’s Land, and having your machine gun break apart the first rattle of shots!”

The “Daylight gun” nickname came from the difficulty of reassembling a dismantled Benet-Mercié. Even the feed strips could be put in a right way or a wrong way, and inserted the wrong way, they wouldn’t work. Later Hotchkiss models would resolve some of those problems. The Empire of Japan’s troops used Hotchkiss-based machine guns very effectively — by day or night. But they had the luxury of more years of development; the USA had new Browning designs waiting in the wings, and the Hotchkiss action and its brass feed strips were an evolutionary dead end.

Iron Sights and their Limits

AK-47_sight_pictureIron sights are not dead yet, but this 18th-century technology needs to expire. It has hung on as long as it has due to the innate conservatism (technical, not political) of the gun culture, and due to the persistence of myths about optical sights — and low-cost, ultra-low-quality optical sights that reinforce the myths.

What’s good about iron sights

Well, to start with, they’re iron. That means there’s no glass to break. A tumble or explosion that breaks a sight would be enough, for instance, to bend a barrel, and there’s no securing against that. They’ve been around for a long time, and so everyone knows how to use them, or thinks he does, at least. They’re small and low-profile, in most cases, important when dealing with handguns particularly. And they often come “free” with the gun — don’t underestimate the effects of that “bundling” on iron sights’ market penetration.

What’s not so good about iron sights

ar-10_porto_rear_sight_from_behindThey’re aligned slightly differently for every user, to one degree or another. While you often can pick up and shoot somebody else’s sighted-in scoped rifle to point of aim, you’ll have more difficulty doing that with an iron-sighted rifle.

The sights are difficult to align, and require explicit training in the somewhat unnatural learned behavior of sight alignment. Furthermore, an error caused by improper sight alignment is much more serious than an error caused by, for example, improper sight picture or improper breath control.

Most importantly of all, ocular biology means that our inborn sighting tackle has a relatively narrow depth of field. Meaning that, if you focus on something a certain distance in front of you, your focus on things that are nearer and farther is degraded. That is the reason that you are instructed to focus on the front sight blade in basic marksmanship instruction — you can’t focus on that, and the rear sight, and the target; you have to pick one. That is the reason that, among iron sights, ceteris paribus, a peep sight is a much more accurate sight than a notch rear sight (it is more readily aligned when out of focus).

Iron sights vanish in conditions of low light. So do normal telescope reticles, but illuminated scopes make up a higher percentage of that kind of combat sights than illuminated iron sights. (We’re big fans of tritium illumination — with all its failings — for both kinds of sights). It’s a sad fact that most civilian (including police) engagements happen in low light conditions, as do a large number of military engagements. While being able to see in the dark (like soldiers do with their NV goggles or monoculars) is the gold standard, at least being able to see your sights in the dark is a great advantage over individuals equipped with standard factory sights.

The advantages of an optical sight

An optical sight can provide: passive light gathering, a single focal plane, and magnification. Each provides a different kind of advantage; together, they add up to huge superiority for optical sights.

“Light gathering” is the term used in the rifle optic world, but the unfortunate fact is that it is a lie; optical sights have no gain (or actually, negative gain). There is no way an optical (non-electronic) scope can put out its ocular lens (the end near your eye) any more than it takes in at the objective lens end (the end near your target). So what “light gathering” really is, is a high percentage of light transmission (which must be less than 1, so a superior scope is in the 0.98 light transmision area, an fair one 0.93, and airsoft crap and Walmart specials about 0.8 and 0.9 respectively. What you want is the largest possible “exit pupil” and objective lens you can get. (Rule of thumb for exit pupil in mm: Objective lens size in mm, times divided by the magnification. Therefore, as the day’s light dims, you can see more through a variable-power scope by dialing the magnification down).

These Japanese warship glasses have a 120mm objective lens.

These Japanese warship glasses have a 120mm objective lens.

The benefit of a really big exit pupil (and therfore a really big objective lens) is frequently underestimated, but hunters have known about it for years. It’s especially advantageous in morning or evening twilight, when game tends to be highly active.  They’re not the only ones, of course. In World War II, Japanese warships had a significant advantage over Allied ships in night engagements, because the IJN had equipped its vessels with binoculars, optical rangefinders, and weapons sights that had superior optics in general and superior “light gathering” in particular. One way the Japanese did this was by making stuff with monster sized objective lenses. (They were also wprld-class at lens grinding. Nikon didn’t spring fully-formed from Zeus’s brow after the war, you know). With a large objective lens and a large exit pupil, you can feed more light into your own pupil, which is probably somewhere between four and eight millimeters in low light, depending on your own age and anatomy.

Of course, the larger an objective lens is the more difficult its manufacture is, and — you knew there was a tradeoff, didn’t you? — the more it costs.

You might have thought we covered focal plane enough above, in our discussion of sight picture. But the focal plane advantage isn’t just about sight picture. Seeing your point of aim superimposed directly upon the target lets you see how your breathing and position influence the motion of your aim point on the target, and therefore increases your probability of hitting and killing the target.

Finally, optical sights can provide magnification of the target, which has aiming benefits and also tactical benefits (it’s a reconnaissance tool, amplifying human senses). You may not carry a binocular, given all the other crap you have to haul,

Why the military resisted optical sights for so long

Military shooters first used telescopic sights in the mid-19th Century. Civil War snipers had scopes, based on target-shooters’ scopes of the day. But the Army here, and other Armies worldwide, resisted them for general issue. There were two objections to optical sights, one technical and one cultural.

In war, the cultural is to the technical as three is to one, to disrupt an epigram of Napoleon’s. So the cultural objection — that using an optical sight is somehow cheating — has been the dominant one. (Some units still resist using issued optical sights for marksmanship refresher training, and then expect troops to use them effectively in combat).

The technical objection — the fragility of scopes — was overcome by events sometime in the 1960s. The M16A2 style rear sight is more readily disrupted than a well-built modern service scope, like an ACOG. But before we had anvil-tough ACOGs, our guys had to work their way through the zero-losing Warner & Swasey of WWI, the fog-prone-if-not-coddled Lyman Alaskan and Weaver scopes of mid-century, and the brilliant but fiddly Leatherwood ART II that made the M-21 deadly — when it worked. Each was an improvement over its predecessors, as were the Unertl and Leopold Ultra M3A used on more recent sniper weapons (The Ultra M3A was better than the Mark IV that replaced it in Leupold’s line; it was only replaced because it cost a fortune to manufacture). But it took the example of our British cousins to move us to optics for everybody, not just sharpshooters.

The British Army, which is often accused of having centuries of tradition untrammelled by progress, and might still be selling commissions if that hadn’t gotten their asses handed to them in the Crimean War, went to an optical sight early — a fixed 1.5x power, Tritium-equipped unit called the Sight Unit Infantry Trilux — and never looked back. Three decades of British success with the Trilux let the US military, special-operations-forces first, dip its toes into the optical water. Once the Joes started using scopes — ACOGs — the inherent advantages of modern optics made sure that the scopes were here to stay.

It didn’t happen all at once. After the success of the ACOG on the carbines of Spacial Special Operations Forces, first the Marines, who are always a bit more forward-thinking than the Army, and finally the Army went to ACOG optics as well (these slightly different versions all are good choices). In addition, the Army issues the Canadian-made Elcan M145 optic for light machine guns. SOF has a later Elcan, the one sold on the civilian market as the SpectreDR, and it has received mixed reviews — it is beautiful glass with an interesting 1x and 4x dual-magnification capability, but it doesn’t match the ACOGs for durability. And if you’re buying it yourself, its extremely expensive.

In addition to these sights, the military uses Aimpoint red-dots and EoTech holographic sights. We’ve shot ‘em all and for everything but close-range use, we come back to ACOGs.

Picking the right optical sight

The aphorism that applies here is horses for courses. The right sight for an under-bed home-defense AR is not the right sight for popping jackrabbits (or people) at 300 yards. So you begin with a major division between red-dot and holographic sights for close range, and scopes for medium and long ranges. For general purpose use (i.e., not for a dedicated CQB gun) we strongly recommend a scope over a red -dot, and for CQB we almost always recommend a red-dot over a holo — which is another post, but one reason is battery life, which is ridiculous: ridiculously short for EoTech, ridiculously long for Aimpoint. (The EoTech has some specific advantages but as we said, that’s another post).

Field of view needs to fit the mission. If most of your shots will be under 200m, and your targets are motile, a Leupold Mark IV is not only overkill, it also is much too narrow a picture. You’ll constantly be transitioning from head up, scanning, to head down, sighting. This is, to steal a line from the President, “not optimal.” And in general, field of view and power are inversely related. If you’re popping steel targets at 1600m with a .50 BMG rifle from a bench rest, 28 power is probably useful to you. If you are hunting deer, elk, or the Independent Wealth Redistribution Technician™ in your family room, it probably isn’t.

The world’s militaries seem to think a 1 to 4 power scope is best for hunting homo sapiens. What good is one power? All the good in the world. It puts the target and the aiming point in the same focal plane and gets you on target fast.

While SF went to the very expensive Elcan, we’re huge fans of the much more rugged Trijicon ACOG. The ACOG TA01NSN is the one from the SOPMOD I kit and is an excellent product. It is as nearly indestructible as any scope ever made. (That said, we’ve recently heard a litany of broken-ACOG stories, and the guys still serving say the newer ones are even more durable. And we’ve seen a lot of insults delivered to an ACOG that kept zero and kept on rocking).

Do you need night vision compatibility?

This adds to the capability, but it also adds cost and complexity, and very few of you will ever use it. Do not spend hundreds of dollars for this “in case.” If you do not currently use night vision devices, have access to them and practice with them, are you really going to use that capability? Humans are creatures of habit, and you will almost certainly keep doing what you’re doing now, even if you spend a lot of money on a new gadget. If NODS compatibility becomes important to you down the range, trade your non-compatible sight in.

Wrapping it up:

So that leaves us with an understanding that almost any scope beats no scope, and with an optical sight checkist that looks like this:

  1. _________________________ is my intended use
  2. a wide/narrow field of view works best for that (pick one)
  3. My minimum and maximum power requirements are (if you don’t know, 4-power is a good all-round scope)
  4. I do or don’t need: variable power (default, no)
  5. …Night vision compatibility (default, no)
  6. Name brand and warranty. (You will probably never need the warranty for your scope. If you do need it, though, you will need it very badly. A company that stands behind its products is also an indicator that the products weren’t just slapped together in the first place. And yes, you pay for that).

It’s good to buy the best scope you can afford, within reason, as long as you are planning to keep the weapon. If you think you might resell it later, bear in mind that used scopes depreciate more than used guns do, and when you sell, you’ll probably do better separating the weapon and scope and selling them separately.

And finally, before you buy it, try it. If the eye relief suitable for your application? (We can walk into any large gun shop and find used guns that have scopes set up with bad eye relief. Eye relief is also inversely related to magnification, in general terms).

Israeli smart small arms sight

The Israelis tend to play their cards close to the vest. Why? Well, imagine yourself being surrounded by tens of millions of people who are crushed by oppressive rulers and inhumane shamans… people who have been miserable since birth, and taught systematically that all of their problems are your fault.

You might have some security problems.

So do the Israelis, and consequently information about their weapons tends to be either fanboy propaganda, misleading (sometimes because sources are deliberately poisoned), or simply hard to come by.

So when we got flagged by a longtime reader to this photopost, and asked (more politely, to be sure) “WTF were the optics in images X and Y (which you see here) attached to Israelis’ 21st-Century Tavor bullpup rifle?”, our first reaction was whaaa?

We figured it had to be some kind of target-designation rig, and to some degree that is true. It is an interesting multipurpose optronic device called the Viper, and it is an ambitious attempt to provide some of the capabilities of the ill-fated OICW that we’ve been discussing here for a while, and even those of the much more experimental Land Warrior project, as a retrofit attachable to extant small arms.

We said it was ambitious.

The project came from one called REFAIM, presumably a Hebrew acronym for something (but wait, we have a vague recollection that vowels are not written in that ancient script, so isn’t everything an acronym? Or are we wrong?) that is described in part in this 2006 article at Military Update. Essentially, it’s an attempt to use the smart-ammo concept of the XM29 20mm component, XM25 grenade launcher, or Daewoo K-11 into an ordinary 40mm grenade, and provide the sensors and programmabilty as a modular add-on for any M1913-std rail-equipped firearm.

By the time that article was written, Israeli defense exporters were already promoting an early version of the Viper. As well as providing the interface for REFAIM and similar smart munitions, which have included a short-range imagery ISR grenade and a non-lethal CS grenade as well as lethal variable-time-fuzed airburst options, the Viper provides a built-in laser rangefinder, an integrated digital inclinometer,  and a ballistic-compensating reticle. It can provide digital overlays on the sight (for example, a Land Warrior-like image of where other Viper-equipped networked friendlies are).

ITL Viper on M4 from the 2005 Israeli optronics brochure.

The VIper is made by ITL (International Technologies Lasers) Optronics, an Israeli optics and laser device defense contractor. It is probably still being developed and extended, as photos show it has evolved a great deal. For example, the posed Tavor photos are more recent (2009 or newer, we’d estimate) but the posed picture with the M16 carbine or M4 shows the Viper as of 2005. One of several online Viper writeups says:

Viper is a versatile low-weight electro-optical Fire Control System Sight.The Viper Fire Control System enables accurate firing of standard small-arms rounds and smart munitions, e.g., high trajectory, low-velocity munitions, explosive projectiles and munitions that VIPER programs for delayed detonation on target. Whether mounted on light or medium weapons, this Viper greatly improves the first-hit probability.

The sight is a bit awkward. Without the optional laser pointer, RF Interfaces, or eyepiece display, it weighs 1 kg (2.2 lb).  Further, it may be a bit delicate. If anyone understands the importance of ruggedized equipment, it’s a nation with near-universal conscription (Arabs and some ultra-Orthodox Jews are excepted) that has to operate in de facto combat conditions around the clock.

The manufacturer’s brochure and specifications are interesting and may answer some of your questions. The system definitely seems to be more developmental than mature at this time.

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).


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:

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

Eye Protection: it’s not all equal

Oakleys, it turns out, are not all that.

Oakleys, it turns out, are not all that. Who knew?

You probably had a pretty good idea that the eye protection you buy for $5.98 at Walmart is not as good as the $200 Oakleys that “certain elements” issue — or seem to issue (a lot of times, what looks like “issue” is something between fashion and groupthink, coming out of the operators’ own pockets). You probably had a pretty good idea that neither one was as good as the blast goggles that have saved more eyes than we’d care to count in Afghanistan, Iraq and other places where the guys are getting blow’d up.

But how do you know? There’s no Consumer Reports for range and combat gear. Wait one. There’s LuckyGunner Labs!

Andrew Tuohy of the Vuurwapen Blog has now brought his high-functioning, detail-oriented and evidence-based approach to reviewing stuff to LuckyGunner Labs. He not only did a better “5.56 vs. .223″ analysis than ours (which wasn’t all that bad, in retrospect, but an important link is missing from it as published), but he has a thoroughly comprehensive look at eye pro. It originally went up in July, but it’s one of those perennial things and you ought to make note of it and come back to it every time you replace your eye pro — which should be every two years, less if you go downrange.

It’s long, it’s dense, and there’s a video synopsis for those who are unwilling to Read The Whole Thing™, but we’ll warn you that those who don’t RTWT™ will forever be dumber than those who do on this subject.

If this dude were not styrofoam, his whole life would have just taken a turn for the worse.

If this dude were not styrofoam, his whole life would have just taken a turn for the worse.

As a Navy Corpsman, I had the opportunity to see the results of a number of injuries, including those involving the face and eyes. I was astounded to see how crucial eye protection, sometimes referred to as “eye pro,” was and how effective it could be. I saw a number of potentially vision-threatening fragments of metal and other debris stopped by good eye protection. In one case, a large chunk of metal hit a Marine in the face, partially penetrating the lens of his glasses and causing him to lose vision in that eye. Without that eye protection, he most likely would have been killed.

Not all eye pro is created equal, though. In order to understand how one type of eye protection might be “better” than another, we need to first look at what standards various types of eyewear may meet – and then shoot at them to see which eyewear provides the best protection.

via Eye Protection and Shooting Glasses Review – Labs.

He’s absolutely right — eye injuries are really bad, but with good gear, lots of them are preventable. Takeaways from his article:

  1. Any eye pro beats none. Even an ejected case can do serious eye damage, and even the Wally Mart specials forestalls that.
  2. You’re constrained by the laws of physics: nothing you can apply to your face will stop a square-on hit from a military rifle or pistol round, or a high-velocity fragment (shrapnel comes off an artillery or mortar shell at over 50,000 fps, although it slows quickly in air).
  3. The relationship between protection and price is far from linear. Sometimes you pay more without getting more. (For instance, we like  $50 Wiley-Xs that are superior to the $200 Oakleys in everything but snob appeal).
  4. Really cheap stuff, though, is really cheap both ways.
  5. Ceteris paribus, you want one-piece, not two-lens, eye pro. Seriously.
  6. Military standard (MIL-PRF-31013) beats ANSI standard (ANSI Z87), which beats no standard. The Army Protective Eyewear List is a good place to start.
  7. Eye protecton needs to be kept out of the sun, and periodically replaced. It gets old fast under UV rays.

But you really need to Read The Whole Thing™ and see what happens to a styrofoam head, given Andrew, a range, and a shotgun.

Customer Service Honor Story: Crimson Trace

If you read that too fast, you saw “horror story” — which this definitely wasn’t.

An SF friend bought a Crimson Trace laser  grip and used it for a very long time before needing to adjust it. Thing is, it needed a special wrench (that it came with) for that. But in the six years since he’d bought the grips, the adjusting tool had gone walkabout. We’ll let Bill tell you what happened next:

Looks like my laser grip might be off a smidgen. I couldn’t find the wrenches that came with the grip when I bought it almost 6 yrs ago so I called Crimson Trace.

What great customer service!!!

They are sending me some for free and a replacement battery. He told me to call once a year and I’ll get a new battery for life. Great service with an American voice talking to me.

With service like that, Bill’s never going to need to replace his laser grips. How can they do it? Well, probably because people like us will buy their products, knowing that a dependable firm stands proudly behind them.

Bill had one more comment about his customer service experience:

P.S. I don’t think I had to press one for English.

Heh. Reminds us of another friend who put on his answering machine, “For English, press one. Para hablar con la migra, toque numero dos.” The funniest bit: he was born in San Salvador!

In any event, how many companies stand behind a product like Crimson Trace does?  Not to get all joint and everything, but Bravo Zulu to them.