The firearms industry of the past has had a hard time catching up with the tech revolution of the future. But with the recent launch of a radical new line of sporting arms, the future is now.
At two new product expos this year, an Austin-based start-up company unveiled high-tech sporting arms that enable hunters and recreational shooters to make accurate shots at more than 1,000 yards -- more than a half mile. It even takes photos or video of the shot that can be shared via social media.
Welcome, hunters, to the 21st century. TrackingPoint's smartguns put jet fighter weapons technology in a sporting arm. It's extremely expensive, revolutionary in concept and design, on the cusp of the U.S. gun rights debate and begs philosophical questions regarding sport hunting ethics.
"We're allowing [shooters] to increase their confidence at long ranges," said TrackingPoint CEO Jason Schauble, a former Marine captain who was wounded in Iraq. "It allows you to make ethical shot placement at longer distances. If I can sell you a rifle capable of shooting accurately at 1,000 yards, then at 200 yards it can double or triple your accuracy at that range."
Available so far only from the manufacturer, the smartguns cost $27,500, including ammunition and accessories. They started shipping in May. Schauble says he has at least one customer in Pennsylvania.
The company recently inked a deal to market less expensive versions of the smartguns through Remington, where they'll sell for about $5,000. TrackingPoint is expected to bring in about $10 million this year.
Neither the gun itself nor its ammunition are groundbreaking. It's a .300 or .338 caliber bolt action rifle with a five-round magazine. What's different is that the firing mechanism is hard-wired to the scope -- an optics system that includes a range finder, GPS and camera linked through an embedded Wi-Fi Internet connection to an Ipad.
Like a jet fighter pilot, the shooter views a color display and optically selects, or "paints" and "locks onto," the target. The computer automatically calculates for range, muzzle velocity, drop, cant, spin drift, rotation of the Earth, inclination, pressure, temperature, relative humidity, ballistic and drag coefficients and other variables including tracking moving targets and determining how much to lead.
"The shooter remains in control and manually inputs the windage," said Schauble. "We left windage out [of computer calculations] because this is a sporting arm. We're not guaranteeing the shot -- we're increasing your ability to make it."
When the trigger is pulled, the firing pin is not released until the muzzle is precisely where it needs to be to make the shot.
Schauble says because the smartguns are more accurate at long ranges, they are safer in hunting situations and greatly increase the chances of an ethical clean kill.
"We're using technology to make the mathematical calculations that a marksman would make, enhancing human capabilities so that just about anyone could make an accurate shot at 1,000 yards," said Schauble.
In an interview on Fox News, correspondent Stewart Varney questioned Schauble about the smartgun's role in the national gun safety debate.
"This would put in the hands of a nut the ability to knock someone off at a half mile," said Varney. "...You could turn the population into a population of snipers."
Schauble said he believes most hunters are law abiding, and TrackingPoint customers go through the same vetting process as buyers of other rifles. A computer passcode locks out the shooting system's enhanced functions, permitting their use only with the consent of the gun's owner.
In 2012, the U.S. government requested and was given a demonstration of TrackingPoint smartguns at Marine Corps Base Quantico in Virginia. Schauble said the Department of Homeland Security has expressed no concerns that his products present a greater threat than traditional firearms.
Schauble said TrackingPoint shooting systems are legal for hunting in 47 states. That determination has not been made in Pennsylvania. Game Commission spokesman Travis Lau said there's a general prohibition against any electronic device or contrivance used in the direct taking of an animal. While the agency permitted the use of electronic range finders, lighted arrow knocks and an ignition system for trigger mechanisms, it banned a motion detector hunter alert perimeter system.
To win a thumbs-up, electronic hunting products must be submitted to the Bureau of Wildlife Protection for product evaluation.
"The bureau will recommend to authorize or not authorize the device based upon several factors, but primarily if the product negatively affects the principle of fair chase, humane taking, etc.," said Lau.
If TrackingPoint safely enables a hunter to make a clean, quick kill, it's OK by Jim Tantillo, newly installed as executive director of Orion: The Hunter's Institute. Tantillo is a lecturer in environmental history and ethics for Cornell University; Orion is a non-profit organization that provides viewpoints on ethical and philosophical issues related to fair chase and responsible hunting.
"You could say telescopic sights take out some of the guesswork of open iron sights. Compound bows take less draw than recurve bows. Range finders use electronics to give hunters more information. But all of those things are considered ethical," he said. "On the far end of the spectrum, if we called in drone strikes on animals, that would be unethical."
Tantillo said in most cases when new technology meets hunting, it's a judgement call.
"At Orion we stress the democracy of hunting," he said. "What's better, a switch that prevents wounding an animal or a clean, quick kill? As long as there's fair chase and a humane treatment of the animal, we think individual hunters should decide what's right for them."
Recreational shooting presents a different set of ethical standards, but Keith Savage of Braverman Arms in Wilkinsburg said reducing the skill reduces the thrill.
"I don't see anything ethically wrong with [the TrackingPoint shooting system], but once I made a couple of shots at 1,000 yards I'd probably put it away," he said. "I mean, what's the challenge?"