December 24, 2013
I have Seen the Future, and It Doesn’t Miss
By David E. Petzal
Roughly a decade ago, I spoke with a ballistician who told me that the future of riflery was in shooting at longer and longer ranges, and that the way we would get there was by the use of guided munitions that could be used in a sniper rifle, and directed, in flight, to the target through wire technology.
He was right about half of it. We are now seeing shots taken, and hits made, at distances that were considered impossible a couple of decades ago. But this shooting employs a new technology that does not guide the bullet; it predicts where the bullet will go and does so with uncanny precision.
The simpler form of this technology employs hand-held devices into which you feed highly precise information (An example: most shooters, when doing ballistic calculations, take a minute of angle to three decimal places—1.047. These new hand-held computers, however, take MOA to 12 decimal places.) Not only is the information more precise, but there’s far more of it — 14 factors, more or less.
Because even the best scope adjustments are not precise enough for ranges beyond 1,000 yards, these devices are used in conjunction with new scope reticles that don’t require you to crank in clicks of windage or elevation. Instead, they employ 1/5-mil reticle “grids” that offer scores of aiming points and can compensate for any degree of wind or elevation without touching a knob. (If you’re interested in a more complete description of how all this works, see Major John Plaster’s excellent article “Ballistic Software for Long-Range Shooting” in the December, 2013 issue of The American Rifleman.)
This system of long-range shooting requires considerable practice and skill and is designed for use by military snipers. However, there’s another system that’s even more radical and is designed for hunters — TrackingPoint. Located in Austin, Texas, TrackingPoint builds a rifle, ammunition, and sighting device that is designed and programmed as a unit. The sighting device combines a video-screen scope, laser rangefinder, and an integrated computer which serves the same function as the military’s hand-held devices.
In use, the hunter puts the crosshair on whatever he wants to shoot — the system is effective out to 1,200 yards — and pushes a button which starts the computer. When it has a firing solution it adjusts the image onscreen to set the crosshairs in the proper place. All the shooter has to do then is to place the crosshairs where they were when he hit the button and pull the trigger.
A key feature of the TrackingPoint system is, the rifle will not fire unless the crosshair is where it’s supposed to be. So if you’re squeezing the trigger, but sneeze, disturbing your aim, the rifle will not fire. You have to aim correctly to make it go bang.
The TrackingPoint system is heavy, bulky, and expensive--$22,500 to $27,500. However, Remington has announced a similar system based on its standard Model 700 rifles called 2020, and it’s far cheaper, selling at $5,500. It’s simpler than the TrackingPoint, but also employs a video screen and does more or less the same thing. (And if you’d like to read more on TrackingPoint and 2020, see Bryce M. Towseley’s January, 2014 article “Early Adopter: Remington’s 2020 System” in The American Rifleman.)
What are we to think of all this? First, the development of TrackingPoint and 2020 was inevitable. If technology is available it will be used, and if it is not available it will be invented, and there’s no reason that the breakneck pace of computer development should not be applied to shooting.
Is it “sporting”? I don’t think so. An animal that’s 1,000 or more yards away has no chance to see or hear or smell you, and has no way to save its life. In sniping, where sport has no place, this is not a factor, but in hunting, where we at least pay lip service to the concept of fair chase, the idea of certain death from afar, employing little or no skill on the part of the shooter, leaves a very bad taste.
And I see another problem. When the general news media get hold of this, hunters are going to look very, very bad. We will be asked how this technology is compatible with the idea of sport, and I can’t think what our answer might be.
There will also be the usual hysterics from the usual uncomprehending legislators who will say that placing this technology on the open market can turn any unskilled pyschopath into a super sniper. When Glock pistols were introduced we were assured that they could pass through airport metal detectors.
Legislative problems aside, I have no doubt that these two systems will become smaller, lighter, and less expensive as time goes on, and that they will be joined by others.
During the Civil War, Harper’s Magazine illustrator Winslow Homer looked through a telescopic sight belonging to one of Berdan’s Sharpshooters and said that he had never seen anything so close to murder on a battlefield, and I’m sure that hunters felt the same when fixed ammunition replaced powder and ball, and when repeaters replaced single shot rifles.
But these were incremental changes, and this is something that alters the sport altogether. Probably, in time, this new technology will be standard equipment, much as the scope sight is today, and we will wonder what all the fuss was about.
With any luck, I will not be around to see it.