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.