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Mullins: TrackingPoint introduces a rifle with nearly foolproof accuracy

Published:   |   Updated: November 3, 2013 at 04:36 PM

More than a few times lately, I’ve written articles about guns and gun culture, but as this is Florida, it’s a big topic for a consumer trend reporter like me.

This column, however, is one that people will find either exciting or profoundly creepy. It’s about a new breed of high-end “smart rifles” that use digital aiming technology that makes it nearly impossible to miss a target. Even novice hunters can walk out in the woods, scope out their targets and pop them off as accurately as in any video game. I did basically that during a test at an outdoor shooting range this week, and though I’m no expert distance shooter, I hit a target the size of a cantaloupe — twice — on my first two tries at a distance of three football fields.

The system is so foolproof that whether anyone could consider this “hunting” is a question that I’ll delve into later, but first, let me note that these rifles come with their own iPad minis with WiFi links to watch in real time what the shooter is seeing — so you can upload your shots to YouTube. As I said, opinions on this topic will diverge markedly, I presume.

But for shooting enthusiasts, this smart rifle tackles the hardest parts of long-distance targeting. No matter how steady the shooter, anyone will wobble somewhat when looking through a scope at something half a mile away, and shooters must compensate for distance, elevation and wind so a bullet traveling that far will actually hit the target.

Austin-based TrackingPoint founder John McHale ran into that problem several years ago on safari in Africa when he missed a gazelle. Being a tech entrepreneur, he saw an opportunity. If fighter pilots could “lock” onto targets, why not hunters?

The result looks like this:

A shooter looks through a scope a bit smaller than a loaf of bread that’s mounted atop the rifle and sees a video screen. Pushing a red button on the rifle “Tags” the target. Then, an onboard computer uses a laser range finder, gyroscope and accelerometer to perfectly track a target. A set of blue crosshairs then appears on the screen, and the shooter holds down the gun trigger. If the target moves — like a deer walking forward — the system tracks it in real time. When the shooter slightly moves around to make blue and red crosshairs overlap, the gun electronically fires.

The gun won’t even go off until precisely aimed to hit. If this sounds like a video game, guys who grew up playing Grand Theft Auto and Halo apparently are the fastest to learn the new system.

How much more accurate is this? TrackingPoint officials point to a U.S. Army study that found moderately well-trained snipers will hit a target 1,000 yards out only one time in 10, while shooters using a TrackingPoint rifle will hit five times in 10.

Last week, TrackingPoint officials came through town on a sales tour to let prospective hunting customers and law enforcement officials try them out.

“Wow, that was cool,” said Ron Floto of Tampa after hitting a target dead-on at 300 yards. “The hardest part wasn’t the shooting, it was acquiring the target.” His friend, Gilmore Dominguez, hit the same target on his first try and blurted out something I’ll paraphrase as “Holy cow.”

That accuracy comes at a price. TrackingPoint sells a system made to shoot 850 yards for $22,500, while a system built to shoot 1,200 yards costs $27,500. About $6,000 of that cost is the modified rifle itself. Still, TrackingPoint has sold several hundred systems, and there’s a six-month waiting list.

But is this kind of shooting even “hunting” if you can’t even miss? What skill is a hunter even testing? Why not just send out some kind of aerial drone to pick off deer and watch remotely on your HDTV sitting on the couch?

“There has been some resistance from a small segment of the hunting community,” said TrackingPoint CEO Jason Schauble. “There always is resistance to new technology from people who spent their whole life getting good at something. You see this with bow-and-arrow hunters who say using a gun is ‘cheating.’” He offers a few other points: Older hunters using his scope system can remain in the game if their physical abilities lapse, and more accurate shooting means more clean kills rather than debilitating wounds, and it’s been a century since old-time hunters bolted telescopes on rifles.

Also, some of the company’s first customers are Western ranchers who face risks from predators like coyotes. Point taken. Leaving aside the issue of “tradition” in American hunting, is “hunting” ever “fair” when a deer can’t shoot back? If you lived in a rural area and a wild boar was chasing your kids around, would you want to miss that shot?

Besides, as they say, technology always marches onward. “Every person under 30 wants to upload video of everything they do on Facebook,” Schauble said, and a smart scope lets them do that.

Along those lines, I’ve spotted the SpyPoint video cameras in hunting stores that you can bolt on your bow to record shots, so we’re already seeing the advent of the “smart bow and arrow.”

Still, I suspect TrackingPoint will face a long list of questions in the future. People will ask, can the rifles be hacked? Can TrackingPoint remotely disable them if one is stolen, like I can with my iPhone? Would they consider running their own background checks to make sure they’re not selling one to a Lee Harvey Oswald wanna-be?

All this debate matters very little to law enforcement and military officials who are scouting the system for their snipers. “Very impressive,” Greg Pauley, a captain in the Temple Terrace Police Department, said after he tried one at the range just before I did. He’s considering one for the SWAT team. He sees a big benefit to retaining a video of just what a sniper was seeing through the scope when he pulled the trigger. Was the bad guy really pointing a gun at the hostage when he shot, or wasn’t he? Let’s go to the instant replay.

The U.S. military is a big potential customer, and the Army already bought six rifles for testing. I’d be shocked if the Navy SEALs don’t already have a few to try. One TrackingPoint board member is retired Adm. Eric Olson, who led U.S. Special Operations Command at MacDill Air Force Base here in Tampa.

Until larger U.S. government contracts come through, TrackingPoint is targeting (har, har) the hunting community. Ron Floto said he’s really, really interested, but he would find the purchase hard to justify with his wife. Then he added, “My birthday is coming up.” This would be one heck of a way to blow out the candles — at 1,000 yards.

Meanwhile, here’s other retail, restaurant and trend news around town:

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The Oxford Exchange restaurant is about to open a walk-up café where fans can grab their sandwiches, salads and handmade juices. The posh downtown restaurant/coffee and tea shop/bookstore has already become the hot place in Tampa to see and be seen, and owners recently bought a nearly-next-door former bodega at Grand Central and South Hyde Park avenues. Now, that space is transformed into an extra kitchen for the indoor restaurant, and there’s a counter for walk-in customers to grab breakfasts and gourmet bag lunches. Some things are still in flux, but hours should be 8:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday through Wednesday. For more info, see Oxford Exchange.com.

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The deal by Winn-Dixie to acquire Sweetbay may not be officially closed yet, but at least some of the big Sweetbay signs will soon switch over to Winn-Dixie. Contractors working for Jacksonville-based Winn-Dixie have filed for building permits with the city of Tampa to change signs at the Sweetbay location at 2525 N. Dale Mabry Highway. Look for the rest to switch over in the next few months.

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Every week seems to bring an announcement from Netflix, Amazon, Hulu or others about spending major bucks to produce their own original content. If you remember way, way back, HBO took that route to grow from just a movie rerun channel into a gold-standard network that produced “The Sopranos.” This week, Amazon Studios (yes, the online shopping company) green-lighted two hourlong pilots of “Bosch,” based on Tampa’s own Michael Connelly’s bestselling Harry Bosch book series, with the writer of “The Wire” and “Treme” taking the lead on scripts. Bosch will be played by Titus Welliver, whom I know from his role as an FBI agent in “The Town.” Chris Carter of “X-Files” fame will have a new show called “The After.” Thus continues the torrid arms race between Netflix (“House of Cards,” “Orange is the New Black”) and Amazon, which already has scores of shows and the rights to “DowntonAbbey.” So, I say, Roku, Boxie, Apple TV, it’s your move. The game’s afoot.

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Who’s the biggest private solar power producer in Florida? Well, it ain’t who you might think. The Swedish retailer Ikea has been covering the roofs of its stores with gigantic solar panels and this week turned on one in its Sunrise store — it will produce 1.5 million kilowatts annually. Add that to solar panels in Orlando, Tampa and other sites, and Ikea is producing enough power to eliminate the equivalent of 644 cars. That’s enough to bake a whole lot of their cinnamon rolls. rmullins@tampatrib.com

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