One cool but sunny afternoon in January, I drove an hour outside of Las Vegas to try out a magical new gun. The system was explained to me in detail, with the conclusion being that anyone could hit the bulls-eye. I was skeptical, but excited to try it out anyway.
I arrived at a massive shooting range compound where a security guard promptly introduced himself as a retired police officer and not a friend of the media. I had to follow his self-proclaimed “diesel-guzzling pig” of a Dodge through the facility’s maze of shooting ranges to the edge of a canyon. It was a location that was straight out of the opening scene of Iron Man. Sitting there was an AR-15 overlooking the endless desert expanse.
The targets sat 300 and 500 yards away and I was supposed to be able to hit them with the TrackingPoint Precision-guided Semi-Auto 5.56.
The company’s spokesperson, Anson Gordon, gave me the run-down, highlighting the basics of the system. It seemed easy enough. Designate the target with the red button, pull the trigger and find that dot again to fire the gun.
It was that easy. I hit my mark on the first try. The system works as advertised.
Gordon explained the system that consists of four parts. Housed inside the scoop are the brains of the operation. It features a laser rangefinder, gyroscopes, an accelerometer, and a magnetometer. The shooter targets on an LCD screen. This system is linked to a custom trigger system, which also consists of the target designation button and zoom buttons housed on the trigger guard. Everything is powered from batteries housed in the stock and TrackingPoint encourages its shooters to use ammo loaded specifically for their guns.
The technology works like this: A shooter designates a target using a small button on the rifle’s trigger guide. This target can be moving up to 30 mph. Once the target is mapped, a Linux-based system housed in the optics casing calculates all the variables needed to hit that mark. When the shooter is ready to fire, they pull the trigger all the way back, yet the gun fires only when they line the crosshairs up with designated mark one more time. The system assesses the effects of gravity and Coriolis force. When the bullet leaves the barrel it always hits its mark. The shooter cannot miss.
Everything seen by the optics can be streamed live to a smartphone, tablet or even online. Either for coaching or sharing the hunting experience, TrackingPoint built a social shooting system.
TrackingPoint was started in 2011 by John McHale after returning home from an African safari where he was unable to make a particular long shot. The young company immediately set out to enable to build a rifle that will allow any shooter, regardless of training or experience, to make any shot possible. What they built is nothing short of science fiction.
The most important thing to know about TrackingPoint’s products is it’s not simply a smart scope. It’s a complete firing system. There’s a targeting system and fire control similar to something found in fighter jets. This isn’t something you can throw onto your grandfather’s old hunting rifle.
Honestly, the shooting experience was underwhelming. There’s no drama. I wasn’t given a lecture on proper breathing or trigger techniques. Instead I was told to hit the red button and pull the trigger.
Shots come slowly with TrackingPoint’s system. This isn’t something that can fire off a hundred rounds in a minute. The hunter and shooting enthusiast is the target customer. As Gordon would later explain, with this system, a hunter can make a more ethical kill shot. There isn’t a chance of simply wounding an animal.
Onlookers can be part of the action. The system has built-in WiFi, allowing it to transmit what’s viewed from the optical system. But this isn’t just for kicks. I observers Gordon guide an inexperienced shooter through the process of targeting and firing. He was looking through the scope too but using an iPad mini. It was immediately clear that this system can help with education as well.
Founder John McHale sold his first company to Compaq in 1995 for $372 million. The deal netted McHale $24 million. In the following years McHale went on to found and sell companies to Cisco and 3Com. TrackingPoint is familiar ground for the serial entrepreneur.
Backed by $33 million in financing in part from McHale himself, the young Texas-based company released its first product in 2013. It cost $22,000 to $27,000. This model didn’t hit its mark. Early testers reported inconstant performance, yet videos demonstrating the smart gun went viral. While not perfect, this first model put the company on the board.
McHale recruited impressive talent to build the products. He stole engineers and executives from Remington, Amazon and enlisted the help of a design firm that had built software for Siemens and Motorola. Yet after the early unreliable reports, the CEO, Jason Schauble, previously a Remington vice president, was replaced by John Lupher who had led the development of the first gun.
The first product was clearly priced too high for average hunter or gun enthusiast. The company demonstrated the system to the US Military and later the Canadian military. Gordon told me that the U.S. Military has ordered six units and the Canadians five.
Yet the company kept developing the system and driving down the price. The system I tried, a modified AR-15, only cost $7500. This model has a range of a third of a mile and can track an object moving up to 10 miles an hour. Spend more money to net additional range, stopping power and the ability to hit faster moving targets.
TrackingPoint is about to introduce a .338TP called the Mile Maker, and as the name suggests, it can hit a target a mile away. Think about that. A person, with very little skill or training, will soon be able to accurately hit a target a mile away.
So does this remove some of the sport from hunting or shooting? Gordon doesn’t think so. He notes that with the TrackingPoint system, hunters will be able to take shots that are as clean as possible by removing the most inconsistent variable from the shooting experience: the hunter.
TrackingPoint is quick to point out that this system actually improves the safety of guns. The gun cannot be fired unless a target is designated. Pulling back the trigger will not fire a bullet unless the proper steps have been taken including inputting the proper password.
Innovation cannot be stopped. TrackingPoint is clearly the next step in the evolution of firearms. It makes guns smart while at the same time, hopefully making the gun user safer as well.
Perhaps TrackingPoint’s most important innovation is not the ability to hit any target any way, but instead the ability to record and stream the shot fired. This allows the user to share their experience live with anyone, anywhere.
But TrackingPoint took this live streaming ability to the next logical conclusion and enlisted Recon Instruments to build heads-up display glasses. When using this product (which is still in development), shooters can fire without looking down the barrel. The scoop’s view is streamed to the glasses. TrackingPoint calls this ShotGlass.
From what I can tell there isn’t anything else on the market like TrackingPoint. At $7500 the company’s least expensive option is priced similarly to other gun and optical systems.
It’s unlikely that TrackingPoint’s view of firearms will completely replace traditional guns. Certainly not everyone wants a gun that doesn’t require skill. But guns will get smarter and to some, scarier. That’s inevitable.