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Every soldier a sniper? Rifle may give the greenest shots deadly accuracy at ridiculous range

Sep. 27, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
The XactSystem combines a rifle with a networked tracking scope, guided trigger, tag button and precision ammunition in a closed-loop system.
The XactSystem combines a rifle with a networked tracking scope, guided trigger, tag button and precision ammunition in a closed-loop system. (TrackingPoint)
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How the system works

The shooter using the XactSystem looks at a small display screen rather than directly at the target through the optic.
The digital networked tracking scope has a 110mm telephoto lens and a 14-megapixel image sensor streaming at 54 frames per second. It ranges from 6x to 35x. Unlike most scopes, the capture begins at the longer length to keep the picture clear no matter the distance.
The shooter lases the target with the push of a button located at his trigger finger. He doesn’t have to dial in all the dope. A computer calculates 16 variables to include spin drift of the bullet, barometric pressure, temperature and Magnus effect. It immediately generates a ballistic solution and places a targeting dot on the screen.
The scope is hard-wired into a semi-electronic trigger. The shooter squeezes that trigger as he aligns the aiming dot with the targeting dot. A solenoid keeps the weapon from firing until the aiming dot hits the designated target point. But once they touch … BAM! Shout out.
This takes human-induced errors such as trigger jerk and jitters out of the equation.
After shooting a few rounds for familiarity, the whole cycle can be done in a matter of two seconds.
Windage is the one thing the scope doesn’t calculate. Predominate wind speed and direction are shown on the display and adjustments are easily made with the push of a button. For example, if the wind is 5 mph moving left to right, you push the right side of the button 10 times — once for every 0.5 mph.
“As long as we make a halfway decent call on wind, first-round hit probability is eight or nine out of 10,” said Tim Davis, who heads business development at TrackingPoint. “If you are inside of 800 meters, where the wind is not as much of a factor, first-round hit probability goes up to 95 to 98 percent. A 500-yard shot is real easy, and 300 yards is a point-blank shot for us.”
And those shots are not confined to point targets.
A processor inside the scope can track moving targets up to 10 mph. The computer calculates offset and lead and, like the point target, the shooter simply places the aiming dot on the targeting dot and squeezes the trigger.
Army Times put this to the test. Balloons mounted on a robotic vehicle ran along a ridge about 350 meters from our perch. The vehicle maintained a forward motion in one test, then took a random “running” pattern in the next. The results were the same: Bullets and balloons don’t mix very well.
But what if the shooter is moving in a vehicle or helicopter?
“We’ve shot pigs from helicopters moving better than 20 knots and with a lot of up-and-down movement,” Davis said. “The shot itself is not a problem. The biggest challenge is making the tag. The system actually makes the shot easier because, as you are moving, you have more of a chance of getting those two points to align.”

GERRARDSTOWN, W.VA. — First it was the XM-25 Punisher that changed the battlefield. Now it is the XactSystem precision-guided firearm — a fire control system built by TrackingPoint that turns an average shooter into a competent sniper with the push of a button.

We’re not talking about picking off concealed targets at 350 meters. We’re talking about first-round hit probability in excess of 80 percent at distances of 1,200 meters.

An overstatement, you say? Army Times put that claim to the test.

Three 18-inch targets were placed at 850, 1,050 and 1,100 meters. Winds were a manageable 3 to 5 mph, but a canyon between the perch and the targets caused significant updraft. We were given three .300 Win Mag rounds. The result? Three rounds, three hits.

Those of us trying out the system Sept. 6 were experienced shooters. So we enlisted the help of a woman at the range who had little experience shooting a rifle, and no experience at these distances. After brief instruction, she carefully grasped the weapon and took aim at the 850-meter target. The crack of the round was followed by the shout of “hit!” by the spotter. A moment later, the “ding” of the metal target confirmed the kill.

Incidentally, Army and Marine officials this summer held a fire control industry day in which they asked manufactures to build such revolutionary technology — by the year 2020.

“When they say 2020, my point is that could be 2014 or 2015,” said TrackingPoint President Jason Schauble. “It all just depends on how fast people want to move because the basic infrastructure is already built. It’s just a matter of what specific requirements we need to cater to.”

Schauble is no newcomer to this game. The former force reconnaissance Marine is a wounded warrior with the Silver Star and Bronze Star. He previously ran Remington Defense’s global operations and served as a senior civilian operations officer for Marine Special Operations Command.

What he and his team have done is to put the fighter jet “lock and launch” technology into a revolutionary rifle system.

The closed-loop system includes four components:

■ A custom Surgeon rifle, though the company also had the system on a .338 Lapua Magnum during our visit.

■ Precision conventional ammunition loaded by Barnes Bullets. The 220-grain rounds provided +/-10 feet/second deviation, compared with military match grade, which is loaded at +/-50 feet/second deviation.

■ Networked tracking scope.

■ Semi-electronic guided trigger.

That is not to say a cash-strapped Pentagon would have to purchase that rifle or those rounds.

The weapon’s computer can be calibrated to the performance standard of any round, and the scope and trigger can be placed on other weapons ranging from the M4 to existing sniper rifles.

In fact, Col. Scott Armstrong, program manager of Soldier Weapons was among a small group of Army experts who in August shot the system using an XM-2010 sniper rifle. Witnesses said every team member had first-round hits at targets beyond 1,000 meters.

Program Executive Office Soldier, as is policy, remained neutral and noncommitted when asked about testing the TrackingPoint technology and the possibility of obtaining it for soldiers.

“PEO Soldier works very closely with our partners in the Army’s Centers of Excellence in the constant pursuit of new technologies and capabilities that enhance our soldier’s survivability, lethality and the ability to dominate in any environment,” said PEO spokeswoman Debi Dawson. “This was the purpose of our recent visit to TrackingPoint. We plan to continue to explore all existing technologies that further assist us in informing future requirements.”

Multifunction scope

The scope “networks the battlefield” with hard-line secure communications. Encrypted Wi-Fi video servers provide the ability to send and receive streaming video. It can tie in to integrated dismounted soldier situational awareness systems such as Nett Warrior. Shooters can use it to designate or identify blue and red forces.

The scope can conduct target handoff from a drone. Imbedded GPS can provide a 10-digit grid of a target, or the scope can be used as a laser designator. Designers are now looking at remote-controlled operation.

While the state-of-the-art system sounds like something out of a video game, the first-generation XactSystem caters to big-game hunters — and they are snatching them up. If you visit TrackingPoint’s website, you will see photos of big kills at ridiculous ranges.

The civilian weapon is capped at 1,200 meters. TrackingPoint officials said they would take off all of the stops for the military, which would extend the range “easily” to 1,500 meters. In fact, the company is building a weapon to take a 3,000-yard shot, but such distance requires significant trade-offs such as larger and heavier laser apertures.

The civilian XactSystem costs between $22,500 to $27,000, depending on the version purchased. A bulk order for the military would likely bring that cost down by thousands, and significantly more if only the scope and trigger assembly were purchased for existing weaponry.

“Though we are coming to this market commercially, we do understand that there is immense potential here to change the nature of warfare,” Schauble said.

“When you look at the value proposition for digital for your average soldier, you think about the democratization of accuracy. I am not so worried about trying to make every sniper better because they are already very well trained and they already do a lot of sustainment and have a lot of practice,” he said. “But if you were able to put a smaller version of what you see today on every rifle, every soldier, Marine and airman would have the capability to be instantly more capable with less training time and less ammunition consumption.”

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