My photographer, Steve, squints through a computerized scope squatting atop a big hunting rifle. We're outdoors at a range just north of Austin, Texas, and the wind is blowing like crazy—enough so that we're having to dial in more and more wind adjustment on the rifle's computer. The spotter and I monitor Steve's sight through an iPad linked to the rifle via Wi-Fi, and we can see exactly what he's seeing through the scope. Steve lines up on his target downrange—a gently swinging metal plate with a fluorescent orange circle painted at its center—and depresses a button to illuminate it with the rifle's laser.
"Good tag?" he asks, softly.
"Good tag," replies the spotter, watching on the iPad. He leaves the device in my hands and looks through a conventional high-powered spotting scope at the target Steve has selected. The wind stops momentarily. "Send it," he calls out.
Steve pulls the trigger, but nothing immediately happens. On the iPad's screen, his reticle shifts from blue to red and drifts toward the marked target. Even though I'm expecting it, the rifle's report is startling when it fires.
A second later, the spotter calls out, "That's a hit!"
Steve has just delivered a .338 Lapua Magnum round directly onto a target about the size of a big dinner plate at a range of 1,008 yards—that's ten football fields, or a tick over 0.91 kilometers. It's his very first try. He has never fired a rifle before today.
Through the shooting glass
Of course, Steve isn't some kind of super mutant marksman—he had a bit of help. We were plinking targets with $17,000+ Linux-powered hunting rifles, made by a small Austin company calledTrackingPoint. Earlier this year, Ars reported on TrackingPoint's "Precision Guided Firearm" at CES, where the 59-employee company was giving the press a sneak-peak at their product before its official introduction at the Shot Show convention a week later.
The Precision Guided Firearm is a "whole widget" type of thing—it's not just a fancy scope on top of a fancy gun, but rather a tightly integrated system coupling a rifle, an ARM-powered scope running a modified version of Angström Linux (with some custom BitBake recipes and kernel modules to support the rifle's proprietary hardware), and a linked trigger mechanism whose weighting is controlled by the scope.
TrackingPoint actually makes three different Precision Guided Firearms, two of which fire .300 Winchester Magnum rounds and one of which fires a larger .338 Lapua Magnum cartridge. The weapons themselves are crafted by Surgeon Rifles, and TrackingPoint adds the scope and trigger mechanism to the rifle and then sells it as a package. Since launch, TrackingPoint's sales have been very brisk: the company has nearly sold out of their entire allotment of PGFs for all of 2013.
You might be led to think that the lighter XS3 is the most popular of the three rifles, but TrackingPoint VP Bret Boyd actually says that they've sold more of the .338 LM XS1 than any of the other models. This makes sense: the XS1 has the longest effective range of the three PGFs, up to 1200 yards, and the type of customer able to purchase TrackingPoint's high-dollar products is also the type of customer who likely does a whole lot of hunting, at home and abroad. The XS1's versatility is likely worth more to that kind of buyer than its price difference (about $22,000, compared to the XS3's $17,000).
What's it like to shoot?
I've fired a small number of bolt-action rifles before, but nothing as big as the .338 LM-chambered XS1, on which we spent most of our range time. The oddest thing about firing TrackingPoint's rifles, the thing wildly different from a standard hunting rifle, is the trigger mechanism. The rifle's "Tag-Track-Xact" technology means that there is a delay between when you pull the trigger and when the rifle fires—sometimes several seconds of delay, depending on how steady your aim is. This disconnect between trigger pull and firing can be weirdly disconcerting.
All of the interaction with the rifle's computer is done through the computerized tracking scope, which displays an image of the world in front of the rifle, overlaid with data. It's reminiscent of a fighter jet heads-up display.
Through the tracking scope, you locate the thing you want to shoot, whether it's a metal plate like we were hitting on the range, a game animal, a tree, or whatever. You place the center reticle over the target and depress the red tagging button just forward of the trigger, which causes the tracking scope's range finder to briefly illuminate the target. The range finder is a powerful laser, rated at 75W and pulsed for an average power of 1mW, which measures the distance to the target in yards (1 yard is 0.9 meters, for metric readers) and displays that number in the upper left side of the scope's field of view. Once "tagged," the target gains a red pip. The scope image also reorients itself in a move that can be confusing the first few times it happens.
The reorientation is to take into account the "drop" of the shot. As demonstrated by MythBusters, a bullet is affected by gravity as it flies, losing height at the same rate as it would if dropped directly out of your hand. At 1000 yards, the bullet loses about 20 feet (6 meters) of height, and so when you tag a target with the tracking scope, the field of view immediately shifts down, by an amount proportional to the target's distance. This is so that the center of the scope accurately shows you where the round will go, rather than some point far above it. Someone firing a long-range shot with a traditional scope must make the same adjustment manually, but here the ballistic computer takes care of it.
Once the target is tagged, the laser ceases illuminating and the embedded system's image recognition routines take over. If the target is a game animal, the scope will track the animal's movement in the field of view, and the red pip will remain stuck to the point on the target where it was originally tagged. This level of precision obviously helps out at the range, but it also enables a hunter to more ethically harvest animals by precisely targeting specific areas—the tagging mechanism greatly simplifies the process of killing the game animal with a single shot, rather than wounding it and inflicting unnecessary suffering.
After the target has been tagged, the scope's reticle changes to a large blue "X," and the weapon can be fired. To actually send a round downrange to the target, you depress the weapon's trigger. This doesn't cause the weapon to immediately fire, though—the reticle turns red, and while keeping the trigger held down, you must align the reticle with the tagged pip. Once the pip and the reticle coincide, the weapon fires.
Yeah, but how does it feel?
The hefty Surgeon rifle feels like a quality firearm should—it's solid and its bolt operates with a reassuring ka-chunk-ka-chunk. Like most firearms, it works best when operated authoritatively—you firmly seat the magazine and firmly close the bolt to put the weapon in battery. We spent less time on the .300 Winchester Magnum-chambered XS2 and XS3 rifles, but the operational feelings were similar. The XS2 and XS1 are very close in appearance, with the main visual difference being the barrel length. The XS3 is smaller, with a more traditional rifle stock grip instead of a pistol-style grip. All of the rifles come with forward bipods attached so that they can be fired from a supported position without requiring sandbags or any other kind of brace.
Just about everyone who fires a pistol or rifle goes through an adjustment period where they anticipate and overcompensate for the recoil the weapon produces when fired. The overcompensation is an almost unconscious adaptation that the body makes. Overcoming it is part of learning to shoot. Firearms are loud, and when they are fired they jump back in your grip. So, less-experienced shooters cope with the recoil by bringing the weapon's barrel downward against the anticipated force—often before they've even fired the weapon.
The only way to learn to cope effectively with a weapon's recoil is to practice, and the adjustment period lasts a different length of time for every person. There are things you can do to help (I've had instructors in the past recommended balancing a penny on your weapon's front sight and dry-firing until the penny doesn't move as a way to teach a steady trigger pull), but one way or another it's something everyone has to deal with.
TrackingPoint's rifles, though, remove overcompensation from the equation by totally segregating the act of pulling the trigger from the weapon's firing. Also no longer necessary is holding your breath to avoid disturbing your sight picture or timing your shot to your heartbeat or other long-range tricks—the rifle's computer picks the most optimal time to fire. You pull and hold your trigger, and then carefully align the reticle with the floating red pip.
There is a side effect, though. Rather than overcompensating for trigger pull, I found myself shying back from the rifle after I'd pulled the trigger. One issue with the preproduction PGFs we were shooting was that there was no eyepiece on the scope, and so you needed to manually judge how far back to position your eye so that the scope didn't bash you in the face when the rifle was fired (something that TrackingPoint repeatedly told us will be remedied on the production PGFs). But more than just not wanting a black eye, the removal of the instant feedback between trigger pull and firing gets rid of one type of anticipatory cringing and introduces another. At long-range, you need to hold the reticle over the pip for a moment before the computer fires, because the tiny perturbations in the rifle's aim introduced by your muscles' attempts at not moving translate into very large deviations at the end of a thousand yards. That means that there's sometimes a multi-second period where you're squeezing the trigger and braced for the rifle's kick.
Every time the PGF fired, it was a surprise. Sometimes, my alignment would be great and it would send a round almost before I was ready (including on one instance where I was going to provide a countdown for my cameraman and managed to fire the rifle before I even got to "one"). Other times, especially at range, it would take two, three, four seconds of apparent dead-on coincidence between pip and reticle before the rifle would fire.
A lot of the delay is because what the user sees in the sight picture isn't always exactly what the rifle's computer is looking at. The rifle gets its view of the world through the computerized tracking scope, which looks out through a 35x fixed-magnification optic focused onto a digital imaging sensor with a vertical resolution of about 3600 pixels. Behind the optic assembly is an entire ARM-powered embedded system that knows everything there is to know about the characteristics of the rifle and its ammunition. The tracking scope also contains instrumentation to make it aware of ambient conditions, including temperature and humidity and atmospheric pressure, the incline and cant of the weapon, and its compass heading. The only thing you need to manually enter is the wind speed and direction, using a control on the top of the scope.
Though the actual optical assembly is fixed at 35x magnification, the image displayed on the viewfinder is downsampled to 640x480 and can be digitally zoomed out to an equivalent of 6x magnification. It gives the weapon's user a wide field of view when selecting targets.
Not quite a robo-gun
Even though you tag and track targets and the rifle picks the exact moment to release the round, TrackingPoint's Bret Boyd is quick to point out that the PGF systems don't fire "by themselves." The weapon's user is in full control of when the rifle fires and can safe the weapon at any time by releasing the trigger. An autonomously firing weapon simply isn't something that the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms would allow to be sold.
Rather than being connected mechanically to the firing pin, the "guided trigger assembly" includes a solenoid which actuates the firing mechanism. The solenoid releases only when the trigger is pulledand when the tagging pip coincides with the scope's reticle. According to TrackingPoint, the rifle's computer "dynamically inflates and deflates" the trigger weighting required to trip the solenoid and cause the weapon to fire.
This sounds a little odd and might give the impression that the trigger actually moves under your finger as its weighting is varied. But this is incorrect: the trigger does not move on its own. You pull it and hold it to signal to the rifle that you want it to fire. Prior to lining up the reticle and tagged pip, the trigger's effective pull weight is set to higher than the force you're exerting on it. When the shot is lined up and the rifle's computer calculates it's the optimal moment for the weapon to be fired, the trigger's effective weight drops below the amount of force you're exerting and the weapon fires. TrackingPoint describes it as a "blocking" function, rather than a "self-firing" function. It's a somewhat thin line to walk, but it's compliant with the law. In practice, the differentiation is moot.
Razors and razor blades
The PGF is able to function at range because the system is preprogrammed with the ballistic characteristics of not just the three types of rifles, but also of the ammunition. TrackingPoint has partnered with ammunition manufacturer Barnes Bullets to turn out ammunition with very specific characteristics, effectively selling both the razor and the razor blades. Our original coverage of TrackingPoint from CES drew lots of questions about reloading or hand loading—that is, assembling one's own ammunition from casings and powder and bullets—so I brought this up with Bret Boyd while we were at the range.
"Gun people are very passionate, and if you're into reloading and hand loading you're in the one percentile." We talked between shots, wearing identical Peltor electronic ear protectors. "The problem with hand loading is that you just have inconsistent results. Some people do it very good, and some don't. What I really want to avoid is the situation where someone says, 'Look, your gun doesn't work. I'm missing, and it's your fault.' And the real issue is, well, you're missing because you screwed up the ammunition—you have it loaded too hot and it's firing too high. But you're never going to believe me!" He laughed. "I'm really not trying to make a ton of money on ammo, but I want to control the outcome and I want people to have a good experience."
The cost of TrackingPoint's ammunition is significant, but it's not out of range for the types of rounds being fired. The typical price range for 300 grain .338 Lapua Magnum ammunition—the type of round fired by the high-end XS1 rifle—is between $5-7 dollars per cartridge. "We'll be in that band, near the top," said Boyd. "We definitely won't be like twice the band or anything." At least for now, ammunition will have to be ordered through TrackingPoint, though Boyd would like to eventually have their branded ammunition available on the shelf in sporting goods shops in the future.