I spent one of the coldest days of my life last week down in the desert. It was 18 degrees F when we arrived in the morning which is not too bad, but the constant wind all day just sapped any energy you could muster and drove wind chill down to below 0 F. Not the ideal conditions for why I was down there…
I was there for a larger photographic gig where I photographed Shot Show for The Firearm Blog. This day started before sunrise and ended about 7:30pm, making for a long day in the cold. But the day had a new product that was truly interesting, namely a rifle and electro-optical combination from a company called Tracking Point. They also have a blog here. This rifle… is… a game changer. It fundamentally alters the landscape of long range shooting in a way that has been a Holy Grail for companies and individuals since humans started using stones, spears and boomerangs as the first ballistics.
In a way, firearms are still remarkably primitive weapons. When I was a kid, you looked towards the year 2000 with a sense of a Star Trek future. By the time 2000 came around, I would have thought we’d have laser guns, but here we are in 2013, still using propellants in sealed cartridges to launch metallic projectiles towards targets. That said, technologies evolve and just like the latest generation of high end cameras are likely the ultimate expression of an SLR moving mirror camera before the world transitions to mirrorless cameras, this rifle system is the ultimate expression in traditional cartridge fired ballistics before the world moves to… I dunno, perhaps finally laser guns or phasers from Star Trek or something. Tracking Point is, that much of a revolution and simply amazing.
This rifle system or Precision Guided Firearm (PGF) as Tracking Point likes to refer to it, is a combined unit of the Surgeon built rifle and the optical sight that creates a complete closed loop system along with precision crafted rounds made by Barnes Bullets that is networked with a tracking scope that calculates range, bullet drop, cant, inclination, bullet drag, spin, drift, coriolis, direction, inclination, wind, pressure and temperature as well as a built in Wi-Fi server so you can broadcast the imagery to a spotter next to you with an iPhone or an iPad who can watch your shot in real time through the scope with you.
Most of the “guts” of the system comprise the scope, targeting switch and trigger. Though it really must be considered to be a complete system with the rifle as everything is calibrated and designed to work together.
Most of the magic happens in the Linux powered scope and computer system, but there are some electronics obviously around the trigger assembly that allow you to “mark” your target and then pull the trigger. The optics themselves are a 6-30x or 6-35x zoom lens depending upon which rifle system you use (XS1, XS2 or XS3).
The included tablet (iPad or iPad mini) lets a spotter see precisely what the shooter is seeing through the scope including all relevant data (mode, range, wind speed, magnification, cant, direction, incline, temperature, etc… not to mention the targeting point and crosshairs signifying point of impact.
This image and the two that follow will give you some idea for just how far long range shooting distances can be. What you are seeing is the Boulder City shooting range outside of Las Vegas, Nevada with a target underneath that red arrow, 962 yds away from our shooting position and the precise location I’d be aiming for. That is almost 10 football fields away… I’ve shot extensively at this distance before with .308 and .300wm and accurately placing rounds on target at this distance can be a challenge, particularly in wind and with smaller caliber rifle rounds like the .308 which at 1000 yds is dropping at a fairly substantial rate anyway.
Here is a little bit of a zoom at 70mm on the camera where you can start to see the large targets on either side of the target in the middle that I would be aiming for.
And a 200mm zoom revealing the two large targets with the smaller, 17in wide target in the middle. My first shot was made on this 962 yd shot where I hit the 17in wide target, center of mass on the first try… In 5.5 MPH relatively steady wind with occasional gusts to 20MPH. This was a reasonably difficult shot, particularly given the cold (24 degrees F for my first shot) which had me shivering occasionally and almost unable to feel my fingers after having started early that morning. I would have been very pleased indeed to have made this shot with my current GAP rifle in .300wm with Zeiss rifle scope which is no slouch in the rifle world. But the shot on this day with the Tracking Point rifle just rocked my world in good ways, but also with the uncomfortable knowledge that all the long range shooting skills I’ve developed over the years are now much less impressive than they used to be… Perhaps to the point of being irrelevant.
This shot with the Tracking Point rifle was the easiest, essentially 1000 yd shot I’ve ever made in my life and as previously stated, I’ve done that range more than a few times with .308 and .300 wm rifles. Previous 1000 yd shots have taken considerable set up time, ranging, looking at the terrain and figuring where the point of impact will be prior to ever pulling the trigger. This first 962 yd shot on this day was made within 30 seconds of sitting down at the Tracking Point rifle, ranging with the built in laser rangefinder, moving the electronic crosshairs over the target and pulling the trigger. It turns out that trigger is weighted and feels excellent, and while even the best shots have some muscle tremor, breathing artifact, etc… it matters less with the Tracking Point rifle as the trigger does not let the round fire until *just the right moment* when it will be delivered optimally downrange to impact precisely where you want it to.
Essentially, what one does is look through the scope to identify your target and then “mark” the target with a button by the trigger. Once the target is marked, the computer in the scope starts calculating all of the environmental parameters, even taking into account barrel wear and determines the best point of impact. The shooter then aligns the reticle with the mark, moving the crosshairs to try and superimpose them on the mark, then like any other rifle, pulls the trigger. Only when the rifle position is absolutely ideal will the rifle decrease backpressure on the trigger allowing the round to be fired. Talking with the companies founder John McHale, it turns out this is the ideal way based on testing to increase accuracy. Minor movements of the rifle at these distances can have big effects on the ability to deliver rounds on target. Even the best shooters will have some fine movements that they train to reduce. Breathing is controlled, Valsalva maneuvers can be employed to reduce heart rate and contraction and concentration to reduce fine muscle tremors are all methods used to get rounds on target. It turns out though that with or without these efforts, humans are pretty good at getting the target crosshairs to get on target. Its the staying on target long enough to pull the trigger that is the problem. Tracking Point’s solution is to let all that movement happen, but electronically “allow” the trigger pressure to drop at the precise moment that will put the round on target.
Part of me sees all of this and is mildly irritated at all the time spent learning how to properly range a rifle and make the right calculations, not to mention the not insignificant investment in many, many a day and lots of ammunition just learning how to shoot at long distances. This technology seems to make all of that moot, which… somewhere deep down inside seems *wrong*. On the other hand, it is sooooo, *cool*. Anyone who knows just how hard a shot like this can routinely be will appreciate just what has gone into this technology.
Shooter and spotter working side by side with the spotter easily able to see just what the shooter is seeing through the rifle scope on the tablet. The different rifles (XS1, XS2 or XS3) vary in caliber from .300wm to .338 Laupua and have slightly different optical power as noted above, though all of their rifles can easily reach 1000yds. Speaking of the image through the scope, it is not an optical image per se, but a video broadcast from the scope to a video display, both in the scope and on the associated tablet.
Jon Stokes and I had some time with the rifle system and came away mightily impressed. (Update 01/24/13: Jon Stokes has written an entry with my photographs on The Firearm Blog, here.) John McHale tells me that this rifle system cost approximately $40 million US to develop which seems like quite a bit of money until you figure out how much money gets spent on developing weapon systems for the US Military. Tracking Point’s main market is the high end hunting market, though military and police applications are obvious.
Were I a high end hunter looking for the best possible way to optimize my chances of getting my shot, this would be the rifle system to get. Price of entry is not cheap from $17,500 to $22,500 which makes it roughly 3-4 times more expensive than a high end precision rifle. But I will guarantee that there is no better solution out there than a Tracking Point rifle to ensure your success in getting rounds on target. I say that having trigger time with some pretty exotic rifle systems that have claimed to be some of the most accurate rifles out there, but nothing has ever equalled this experience.