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Image credit: Timothy J. Seppala, Engadget

Shooting a laser-guided rifle made me feel like a robot

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Timothy J. Seppala, Engadget

By all accounts, I shouldn't have hit the dummy target 300 yards downrange because everything was working against me. For starters, the Las Vegas desert was windy as hell. Factor in that I was shaking thanks to nerves, cold temperatures and the pressure of a camera rolling while I tried something brand-new and you have a recipe for failure. Or should have. While I can barely pull off a headshot in a video game, I nailed one on my first try with TrackingPoint's high-powered, precision-guided rifle. Once the initial wave of "Holy shit!" wore off, something else replaced my elation: I didn't feel I'd earned that bull's-eye because basically all I had to do was pull the trigger. On my way back into Sin City, I couldn't get over just how cold and emotionless that left me feeling.

Gallery: Tracking Point desert shoot | 22 Photos

My experience with guns is limited to plinking beer cans with a .22 or a BB rifle at my parents' cabin in northern Michigan. The difference between that and the shots I took with the TrackingPoint setup, however, is that I feel I've actually earned the privilege of becoming a decent marksman with the former. If I hold the stock higher than the barrel or aim down my pump-rifle's iron sights and sneeze as I pull the trigger, I won't hit the broad side of a barn, let alone an empty Bud Light can.

But I wasn't in the Mitten anymore. I was roughly an hour outside of the Las Vegas city limits at Front Sight Firearms, a gun range and training facility in the middle of the desert. The gun in front of me was a bit more powerful than my old BB rifle and it makes a precision marksman out of literally anyone.

Longshots Are Easy If You Have a Smart Rifle

TrackingPoint isn't your dad's gun manufacturer. Its technological bread and butter is Linux-based "precision-guided firearms," and the outfit's at CES to show off the latest application of the tech: a sniper rifle dubbed the Mile Maker that can hit a target that's a mile away and moving at 30MPH. But don't call it a smart-gun -- those have more to do with gun control and TrackingPoint is proud to support the Second Amendment. I couldn't shoot the Mile Maker, but got to go a few rounds with its AR-556 medium-range rifle.

Your accuracy is guaranteed.

Here, I simply placed my left arm parallel to the gun and hit a button on the trigger guard to tag my target with a laser. I didn't hold my breath when I held the trigger; all I had to do was align the reticule with the glowing dot. Boom, the gun discharged, hitting the "head" of my target some 900 feet away -- it felt automatic and impersonal. With the army of gyroscopes, accelerometers and other sensors packed into TrackingPoint's firearms, novice mistakes don't matter: Your accuracy is guaranteed. Being proficient at Call of Duty or Battlefield takes more practice and skill than firing a weapon in the real world does now. This is the future we live in.

"Every shot you take is going to land exactly where you send it," TrackingPoint's marketing lead Anson Gordon told me. "It's better for everyone involved ... If your end result is to take down whatever game you're hunting humanely, why not confidently do it?"

Maybe you'd avoid this because it feels like paying to win in real life. Spend enough money and you too can have the most powerful weapon that makes you a god on a hunt (or battlefield). All that "skill" fades when the rifle's batteries die after seven hours, though.

Obviously this has military applications, and Gordon said that it'd save the government on both the cost of training and ammunition. In fact, the outfit is already working with the Army on a few projects. This isn't DARPA technology, though -- TrackingPoint's an independent company. It can sell to anyone so long as they pony up the cash, including enemies of the state and terrorists.

Editor's Choice: Tracking Point 'Smart' Rifle

On the consumer side, who'd even buy something like this? For now, people with more cash to throw around than time to invest -- the type that wants to fly to Africa, bag their trophy game fish-in-a-barrel-style and get back to being a surgeon or stockbroker as soon as possible. The gun I fired costs $7,495 and the Mile Maker will run almost $50,000 when it ships. It's little more than an expensive toy for the rich and bored. The thing is, even though it's targeted at the extremely wealthy, the demographic that's been most comfortable with TrackingPoint's tech is younger gamers.

"We found that inexperienced shooters -- especially gamers -- pick this up immediately," said Johnny Wilson, operations manager for Front Sight Firearms. He was quick to say that this doesn't dumb down marksmanship, though. "It's not video-game crap; it makes marksmanship more user-friendly. I've got no problem with that."

I do though, because finishing a headshot bounty in Destiny feels more skill-based. This tech immediately makes anyone a world-class sniper without requiring the respect and dedication it takes to get to that skill level.

Looking Through TrackingPoint Optics

Wilson's attitude surprised me, though. I had him pegged as the type of person who, after likely spending decades plying his skill with a firearm, would've been cranky about technology making everything dramatically easier. Maybe that's just because he bore a striking resemblance to Wilford Brimley: a round, weathered face below a black baseball cap and cotton-white handlebar moustache. But from the sounds of it, the tech is almost a relief to him. He told me that compensating for barometric pressure, relative humidity, elevation and wind -- when they all can and do change at a moment's notice -- is a nightmare.

"The number of contributing factors to accuracy are mind-boggling," he said. "It almost becomes an obsession. It's why so many homes are ruined by bench resting [sighting-in a rifle]." Meaning, the quest for the perfect shot can be as addictive as meth for some.

Wilson told me that it's this dogged pursuit of precision that's the bedrock of a good hunter's credo: Anything less than a clean kill is unacceptable and cruel, and a hunter shouldn't take any shot he or she isn't 100 percent sure of. Hence, his embracing of TrackingPoint. "That time and effort for all those computations and scientific wild-ass guessing? It's gone," he said, smiling.

I can't argue with him on that logic, it's just hard to shake the feeling that in a quest to make hunting more humane, TrackingPoint's tech left me feeling disconnected and cold.

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