Technology

'Smart Rifle' Could Shake Up Gun Control Debate


A watermelon after being targeted and shot by Tracking Point's precision-guided firearms

Courtesy Tracking Point

A watermelon after being targeted and shot by Tracking Point's precision-guided firearms

The future of firearms is here. It looks a lot like a video game.

TrackingPoint, a startup tech company in Austin, Tex., has just started selling the most advanced long-distance rifle available on the civilian market. The weapon incorporates laser and computer technology, as well as a three-dimensional color graphics display, to allow even a novice shooter to hit moving targets at 500 yards (five football fields) or farther. Its Wi-Fi transmitter permits the user to stream live video and audio to an iPad (AAPL) and post impressive kill shots on Facebook (FB) or YouTube (GOOG).

“This is a weapon that will get the Call of Duty generation into the real shooting sports,” says TrackingPoint’s chief executive, Jason Schauble, a 38-year-old decorated special-ops officer who formerly served in the Marines. A genial, smooth-talking ballistics pro who retired from the military after being seriously wounded in Iraq, he is making the rounds in New York and elsewhere to promote TrackingPoint. Schauble readily acknowledges that to make the transition from pretend shooter games to the real-life range or hunting grounds will require serious money. TrackingPoint’s customized rifles sell for $22,000 to $27,000 apiece, depending on just how tricked-out consumers want their weapons.

The gun part of the TrackingPoint system resembles a modern military-style bolt-action rifle. The science-fiction part looks like a three-headed long-range scope. Shooter tracks targets on the graphics display. By pushing a small button near the trigger, they lock a red laser dot on their quarry—a deer or bear, for example. The red laser tag remains on the target, even if it moves. Shooters then align the red dot with a blue cross-hair, or reticle, which also appears on the screen. They depress the trigger. The gun “decides” exactly when to fire. That happens only when the cross-hair aligns perfectly with the red dot, taking into account the distance, barometric pressure, temperature, the curvature of the earth, and other variables.
The wateremelon in the sightsCourtesy Tracking PointThe wateremelon in the sights
“It delivers five times the first-shot success rate of traditional systems, at up to 1,200 yards, regardless of skill level,” says Schauble. Until now, hunters, snipers, and other long-distance shooters would have to train for years, if not a lifetime, to master all of the variables.

TrackingPoint sprang from the brain of John McHale, a serial tech-startup mogul who also happens to hunt big game in Africa. During a safari in Tanzania in 2009, McHale had trouble calculating range, ballistics, stability, and other factors as he tried to line up a 350-yard shot at a Thompson’s Gazelle. He decided that with newly emerging sensor technology, he would build and sell a rifle scope that could make the shot possible. Four years later, TrackingPoint employs more than 70 people full-time, two-thirds of them engineers. Schauble says the company has more civilian orders than it can handle for 2013 and is beginning to market its products to military and law-enforcement buyers. For the moment, TrackingPoint has no competitors that are in production.

Apart from whether it can deliver on its ambitious technological promises, TrackingPoint is going to run into several types of resistance. Some traditional hunters and target shooters will object that the new-fangled invention takes the challenge out of their sports. The thrill of the chase will become the dull inevitability of the laser dot.

“It’s called progress,” Schauble responds. He says that when he has demonstrated TrackingPoint to long-time hunters, they quickly warm to its capabilities. “The strongest appeal is to younger shooters who have grown up in the video-game and social-networking culture,” he says. “They can share their best shots on Facebook. They’ll ‘get it’ right away.”

Another objection will come from gun-control advocates. They’ll worry about TrackingPoint weapons ending up in the hands of criminals, especially terrorists or assassins.

Schauble counters that TrackingPoint vets each purchaser individually. Customers have to contact the company in Austin, where a TrackingPoint employee reviews the consumer’s background. The finished product is then shipped to a federally licensed gun dealer in the buyer’s home state. The local dealer has to perform an independent background check, using the FBI’s computerized data base. On top of those precautions, TrackingPoint rifles come with the option of a password-protected lock on the scope. Users that employ this device can block the tracking technology the same way an iPhone can be password-protected. The rifle then functions as a “dumb” weapon, without the special long-distance aiming capacity.

A third point of resistance will come from some gun-rights advocates. The National Rifle Association has long opposed “smart gun” technology that makes it impossible for anyone except for an authorized user to use a firearm. In the past, such proposed products have used biometric screening techniques such as fingerprint recognition to secure guns. Smart guns have never taken off commercially, however, partly because of NRA opposition and in part because past versions of the technology haven’t worked reliably. There hasn’t been much consumer demand for smart guns, either.

Schauble says TrackingPoint will navigate the potential obstacles because its technology does work and because it will respect the NRA’s concerns. The company decided, for example, not to include GPS technology in its weapons. Such a feature would have allowed owners to locate stolen or misplaced firearms, but it might have offended libertarians who fear the government might track their weapons.

“We want to represent responsible gun owners and draw new people to the shooting sports,” says Schauble. “We also want to be an alternative to some of the more extreme voices that tend to show up in the media, shouting about gun rights. I own a lot of guns, and I’m not a crazy. There’s room in this discussion for reasonable positions and innovation.”

Barrett, an assistant managing editor and senior writer at Bloomberg Businessweek, is author, most recently, of GLOCK: The Rise of America’s Gun.

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