Now, anybody (with $17,000) can be a sniper

Warning: this post is about a new type of gun. I’ll explain what it is and how it works before discussing the moral questions it poses.

Firing a rifle accurately, even over relatively short ranges, isn’t easy. Firing a rifle accurately over long ranges takes a certain amount of talent and a great deal of practice.

Even when one has mastered the basic skill of getting the shot to travel on the initial trajectory you want it to go, over long ranges that’s not enough. Bullets do not travel like a laser beam; they follow a parabola due to gravity and aerodynamic drag, drag that varies according to atmospheric conditions. They are affected by the wind, too. All of this requires you to adjust your aim point. And, particularly if you’re like me in my few attempts at firing a rifle, your aim will wobble around a certain amount.

Not, apparently, with the Tracking Point rifle, (corporate site here) that uses a computer to compensate for all these things automatically.

The idea is pretty simple. Replacing the conventional scope with a camera-driven LCD display and a laser rangefinder, you use a button on the side of their bolt-action rifle to “paint” a point that you’re aiming at. In their marketing materials, that’s either a paper target or the head or heart of an animal. If you’re not happy with where you’ve painted, you release the button and try again. Apparently, the system will cope even if the target starts moving.

Once you’re happy with where you’ve painted, you hold the trigger down and attempt to aim. However, the system increases the trigger pressure required to fire the rifle to the point where it’s practically impossible to fire the weapon, until you’ve moved it into position – even for an instant. Once that happens, the trigger pressure required to fire is reduced and, if you’ve been squeezing the trigger, the rifle fires, and the shot goes precisely where you “painted”.

The only thing that the system can’t deal with automatically is wind – you have to enter wind speed manually. Apparently, the makers intend to add real-time wind measurement to the system, making it truly, well, point-and-shoot.

This video shows the system in action (on paper targets):

As you can see, it’s very much version 1.0 technology: while the bullets go pretty much exactly where the shooter “paints” the target, painting a target 750 yards away precisely purely by conventional aiming is slow and difficult. Still, you don’t fire a bullet, thus making a noise, until you’re satisfied with where you’re aiming. You’d virtually never miss.

So, that’s what the system does at the fairly exorbitant cost of $17,000 a pop – it’s a scaled down, simplified version of firing computers that aircraft and ships have been using for decades. But what could it be used for?

If you’ve got the stomach for it, you can watch what the makers propose for it to be used for: this video of the rifle being used in South African savannah to shoot various large herbivores at extremely long ranges – up to nearly a kilometre away.

For what it’s worth, I found this pretty offputting. Not that they were killing animals – as a regular meat eater, I have no moral justification for looking down on this activity, assuming for the moment that it’s not putting an endangered species at risk. And, frankly, the use of a gun like this means that animals are likely to die very quickly and with minimal suffering, so in that respect I’d argue it’s actually morally superior to hunting with a conventional weapon. Instead, what I personally found offputting is the notion that anybody could gt any particular enjoyment out of hunting in this manner. There’s no skill involved, so what does that leave – the “pleasure” of watching an animal die?

That said, there are certain circumstances where we have, as a society, decided that shooting animals is not only acceptable but of net benefit to society and the environment. If we are to shoot feral animals, to me it’s imperative that they be killed in such a manner as to die as quickly and painlessly as possible, with as little risk to other living creatures as possible. If this technology, or improved versions thereof, becomes available to those conducting such shooting, that seems like a good thing.

But, of course, with any new weapon technology the bigger question is how humanity might use it to inflict violence on itself. In the context of the US and Australian gun debates, such a weapon (to my best understanding) would be legal to a properly registered shooter even in Australia. As weapons for a shooting spree, the current models are very much less than ideal; hard to conceal, a slow-to-operate bolt action, and a maximum magazine capacity of five shots. While the Beltway sniper received a lot of publicity, very few murders are actually committed this way. Overwhelmingly, American gun deaths are the result of handguns, and shooting sprees are the work of handguns and the AR-15 rifle, a weapon designed to fire a large number of bullets in a short space of time.

In situations of armed conflict, however, it’s not hard to see the application of an idiot-proof sniper rifle. Snipers require specialized training and a great deal of practice to be effective at their jobs, and presumably not all of them are equally good shots at long range. With this technology, the individual shooting skill of the sniper is largely taken out of the equation. This might make it easier for regular armies to deploy more, and more effective, snipers; but, equally, it might make it easier for irregular armies without the benefit of marksmanship schools to snipe a hell of a lot more accurately. It might also render body armor less effective, as snipers might well be able to reliably take head shots rather than aim at the body.

It’s also not hard to see how the technology could be improved. At the moment, target “painting” is completely manual and almost as difficult as firing accurately. But there’s no technical reason why it couldn’t be made easier – for instance, by “nudge” buttons on the gun to move it slowly and smoothly in the desired direction. Or any number of methods could be used to automatically or semi-automatically identify targets and specific aim points.

Don’t get me wrong, some of these enhancements might have any number of nasty additional consequences. Adapting some variant of this technology to handguns (perhaps with an eyeglass-mounted target designator) or assault rifles like the AR-15 might do all kinds of bad things.

But, at least for military purposes, somebody will almost certainly do it, and we’ll have to deal with the consequences of a world where far fewer bullets miss.

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