by ROBERT BECKHUSEN
TrackingPoint, a Texas-based firearms manufacturer, released what the company calls the world’s first precision-guided rifle for sale in the United States last month — a futuristic weapon that uses a combination of ballistic calculators and a laser-targeting system to make highly accurate shots at extreme distances. But the company’s dreams of selling the weapon to the U.S. military may be too little, too late.
The rifle is called the precision-guided firearm, or PGF. Its laser designator, environmental sensors and electronics systems are not by themselves new for a handheld weapon system, but TrackingPoint has combined multiple different sensors into a single weapon — and automated much of the actual firing. The result is a rifle that requires very little human input to hit precise targets at long range. It even has a wifi server that lets shooters stream video from the scope to a smartphone and tablet app, or even post video to Facebook.
“We’re just able to put this into somebody’s hand, and within minutes, they can lock onto a target, they can launch a round downrange like they’re using a fighter jet, and they don’t have to have any training at all,” TrackingPoint CEO Jason Schauble said. “There are a lot of implications for hunters having increased confidence level, shooters being able to go and do multiple targets at range, and even trained military members have a lot of capability with very little training time and ammo consumption.”
To show how the rifle works, TrackingPoint held a live-fire demonstration at a 16-square kilometer ranch about a two-hour drive west of Austin, Texas. At the ranch, the company set up two bipod-mounted PGFs inside a barn. One wall had been removed, and the rifles faced out towards a firing range. Company representatives stood beside the rifles carrying iPads connected to the rifles’ scopes. Rick Perry, the never gun-shy governor of Texas, made an appearance.
I sat down behind one of the rifles, which had just been loaded with a single .338 Lapua Magnum round. I gripped the rifle and looked through the scope, which displayed temperature and barometric pressure readings, wind speed, a compass and the angle of incline. Now this is the point when the rifle more or less takes over.
It works like this. Once you’ve chosen a target — in my case a metal plate at a distance of several hundred meters — you disengage the rifle’s safety and push a small button near the trigger. A laser rangefinder then marks the target with a red dot, which stays on the target even if you move the scope’s reticle away. I shifted the rifle, and then pulled the trigger, which ordered the rifle’s firing computer to automatically launch a round when the reticle is moved back over the red dot. Once the two are aligned, the reticle turns a bright red and, then, bang.
“Did you hear the ping?” the company rep asked. “No,” I said, still taken aback by the blast and recoil, which I didn’t anticipate. There was a ping, he said, from the bullet hitting the metal target. He congratulated me: “That means you hit it.”
The reason is because from the time I marked the target, to when the rifle launched a round, the rifle’s ballistic computer and environmental sensors were making tiny adjustments so the shooter knows exactly — and doesn’t have to think about — where to aim. The automatic firing also eliminates flinching, or the habit of anticipating the shot while pulling the trigger, which can throw off even experienced snipers. And that’s more or less what TrackingPoint promises: for a price of more than $27,000, you can let a computer make highly accurate shots for you.
The future of military rifles?
Whether this becomes a military weapon is another matter. The rifle uses a .338 round developed for the armed forces — and used today by many U.S. snipers. (Another version sold by TrackPoint is built for the .300 Winchester Magnum round.) “You have created a piece of equipment that is going to save American lives on the battlefield,” Perry told TrackingPoint employees during the May 15 event. But the company’s CEO doesn’t say whether the rifle was designed for military use in mind.
“As far as work with the Defense Department goes, we’ve been in conversations with multiple elements within the U.S. government about the feasibility of this technology, about adopting on it existing platforms and applications,” Schauble said.
But as to why the Pentagon hasn’t bought in, Schauble pointed towards a tight defense budget.
“Look, this is a sequestration-reset-refit environment,” he added. “[The Pentagon] is not investing in a lot of new projects. We are a business and we are going to put this capability in the hands of hunters and shooters who can appreciate it and use it for different applications. We’re obviously open to any government organization that is out there.”
Aside from U.S. military sniper rifles like the Barret M107 rifle, there are already several existing weapons used for striking targets beyond the effective point range — 500 meters for the M4 carbine — of the U.S. military’s standard service weapons. For hitting targets at longer distances, soldiers use (among others) the M240 machine gun and the FGM-148 Javelin anti-tank missile launcher; and call support from fixed-winged aircraft armed with precision laser-guided bombs, or rotary-winged aircraft such as attack helicopters and the dreaded AC-130 gunship.
When loaded, the PGF weighs nearly as much as an M249 light machine gun. The $27,000 price tag is also exorbitant for most civilian hunters and shooters, meaning it will likely remain a luxury item in the civilian market.
TrackingPoint’s rifle also has a few shortcomings for military use. The power supply lasts for about three hours before the battery needs to be swapped out or recharged. The tracking system is also ineffective at keeping up with targets moving faster (laterally) than 16 kilometers per hour, which means it will be unable to fire on many moving vehicles.
It’s still a unique and highly accurate weapon. Essentially, no training is required to make a precise shot. But TrackingPoint may have missed its target.