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Marksmanship is going obsolete.
Key Point: Computer guidance might make marksmanship irrelevant.
During the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show, firearms-manufacturer TrackingPoint announced an AR-15 version of its computer-controlled precision rifles. The company claims that the new weapon can hit moving targets “out to five football fields away.” And anyone can use it.
Described by the company as a “precision-guided firearm,” the 500-Series rifle could revolutionize how armies all over the world prepare for war. The technology promises a world where expert riflemen can be trained with very little effort—blurring the distinction between infantry and sharpshooters.
TrackingPoint rifles include what are known as a ballistic computers. Used for decades on tanks, a ballistic computer takes into account a number of factors—wind speed, barrel and ambient temperature, range to target and ballistic performance of the cannon round—and computes what it would take to hit a target.
The computer then compensates for those factors and makes corrections when the shot is fired. It makes tank guns extraordinarily accurate and is the reason why an M-1 Abrams has a 90-percent hit rate on a moving target 2,000 yards away.
The size and complexity of the ballistic computer, as well as the sensors it needs—weather sensors, thermometers and laser rangefinders—are why these computers have, until now, stayed on tanks. However, miniaturization has finally made both processors and sensors small enough to mount on individual rifles.
The TrackingPoint ballistic computer runs off Linux and is about the size of a pint glass. It has the same set of built-in sensors as a tank. The shooter acquires the target in the built-in heads-up display and places a red ‘X’ over it. This locks the rifle on the target. The shooter pulls the trigger, but the rifle doesn’t fire—yet.
The computer takes into account known bullet performance, sensor data and even barrel wear. It crunches this data, determines when the rifle is on target and then fires.
Breaking down the rifle
TrackingPoint’s Series-500 rifle looks very similar to a standard, direct impingement AR-15. Many of the parts—including the grip, muzzle brake and upper receiver—appear no different from those on any other AR-15 or M-4 carbine.
The barrel seems to be a standard, government-profile 18 inches long—a little longer than the average 16-inch AR-15 barrel. The two inches of extra barrel length probably impart an extra 50- to 100-feet-per-second velocity to a 5.56-millimeter bullet, which would be useful if you’re regularly shooting out to 500 yards. The rifle’s hand guard appears to be unattached to the barrel … to improve accuracy.
The ballistic computer’s batteries are in the stock, which looks broader than most AR stocks. Curiously, the Series-500 rifle retains a triangular front sight, which is only useful if a rifle has a backup rear sight—which this rifle does not. This could be a cosmetic detail to remind people of the rifle’s AR-15/M-16 lineage. In other words, it’s just for show.
An important detail that TrackingPoint has not mentioned is how much the weapon weighs. AR-15 enthusiasts usually prefer rifles weighing just six or seven pounds. This new weapon, without the computer and batteries, probably weighs in at seven pounds. How much the ballistic computer and batteries add to that is unclear.
Of course, if you’re able to reliably pick off moving targets at 500 yards, mobility is less important—and some extra weight is probably not a big deal.
What does it all mean?
The effective range of the 500-Series is 500 yards. Among AR-15 rifles, that’s decent, but not great. All U.S. Marine Corps recruits must shoot to 500 yards using the M-16A4 rifle’s built-in sights. With a lot of practice, a skilled AR-15 owner can push out to 1,000 yards.
But the Smart AR is different. For one, the system removes the need for actual marksmanship skill and makes all-but-impossible shots—such as a man-sized target moving at 10 miles an hour at 500 yards—routine.
That will bother some shooters. “Part of me sees all of this and is mildly irritated at all the time spent learning how to properly range a rifle and make the right calculations,” War is Boring contributor and long-range shooter Bryan William Jones noted in 2012, after shooting a TrackingPoint rifle.
Ballistic computers will eventually be standard issue in Western armies. The ability to easily hit a target at 500 yards, even while standing or lying beneath a car, is a rifleman’s dream come true—especially if he didn’t have to train for years in order to do it.
This article first appeared in 2019. It is being republished due to reader interest.