It was a rifle its inventor said would change long-distance shooting forever.
With an incredibly sophisticated computerized sight tied to the gun’s firing mechanism, the rifle was capable of shooting a moving target with lethal accuracy at nearly a mile.
But while the so-called “Precision-Guided Firearm” made by Texas-based TrackingPoint wowed shooting enthusiasts and promised a shift in the hunting and target shooting world on what was the art of the possible, the technology ignited a furious debate within the firearms world, with many wondering if TrackingPoint made long-distance shooting too easy and gave too much control to a silicon brain.
And that wasn’t the half of it. The TrackingPoint guns were pricey — with some models costing as much as a compact car — and they were heavy. Not to mention the power consumption and delicate electronics! The Precision-Guided Firearms were seen as an envelope-pushing technology that would appeal to only a few shooters with extraordinary means.
“Your Precision-Guided Firearm will enable you to shoot better than the best shooter that ever lived,” company founder John Lupher has said. “Once you have your Precision-Guided Firearm in your hands, you’ll be able to do things that were once considered beyond human capability.”
So TrackingPoint kept pushing the envelope, and by 2014 — just a few years since its founding — the company had developed smaller, less expensive versions of its Precision-Guided Firearm for AR platforms, and had even designed wearable optics that could display what the targeting computer saw without the shooter having to look through the scope.
With all this awe-inspiring technology and excitement within the tech-savvy shooting set, TrackingPoint seemed poised to take the shooting world to new levels. But a raft of layoffs and three CEOs in as many years forecasted a company in dire straits, leading finally to TrackingPoint suspending operations in May.
TrackingPoint Hits The Skids
From the outside looking in, TrackingPoint seemed to be rocking and rolling. According to published reports, the media buzz prompted significant interest in the company’s rifle technology and sales were steady. Reports indicate the company sold out of its first run of PGF platforms and orders were streaming in.
In the beginning, TrackingPoint only sold its rifles direct from the factory. But former company officials said they’d expanded to a select group of dealers in Texas.
Despite claims of increased interest from the consumer and dealer market and a major media splash, the company had some significant setbacks early on.
In November 2013, the company fired its then-CEO, former Recon Marine and Remington VP Jason Schauble, who had only been at the helm for a few months. Later that month, the company fired 30 more employees and reportedly put company expansion on hold.
At the same time, anti-gunners and other media pundits started taking notice of the company’s technology, with some wondering whether a rifle that shoots for the shooter was taking killing too far.
“I have nothing but disdain for the TrackingPoint, which exemplifies everything I hate about a gun culture that is quick to put firearms in the hands of people who neither respect nor know how to use them, and that treats proficiency as a product to be purchased instead of a skill to be earned,” Slate writer Justin Peters said in 2013. “Any self-respecting hunter ought to be disgusted by something that promises to turn every hunt into a canned hunt.”
In fact, the New Hampshire Department of Fish and Wildlife decided to ban what it calls “smart rifles” like TrackingPoint because state game officials believe using the technology is “not appropriate or ethical.”
Eyeing The Military
But that didn’t stop TrackingPoint from keeping the PR and product innovation press on.
In a pivot toward potential military sales, the company entered into discussions with the Pentagon about how the Precision-Guided Firearm could help troops in the field.
In an interview with Shooting Sports Retailer, a senior company official declined to elaborate on TrackingPoint’s military business, but in a Feb. 23 press release, the company said soldiers dig it.
“TrackingPoint is now seeing growing demand and interest in its Precision-Guided Firearms from the defense sector,” the company said. “Testing performed at the U.S. Department of Defense’s Yuma, Arizona, proving grounds has shown that a typical Soldier performed significantly better than the military’s elite marksmen when using TrackingPoint’s Precision Guided Firearms.”
At around the same time, the company posted two slick product videos, one showing troops using the PGF in a combat situation, and another, clearly aimed at the consumer market, showing how the battle at the Alamo would have turned out differently if TrackingPoint’s technology was available at the time.
“Now the state of Texas can rest easy, boys,” the character playing Jim Bowie says. “Thanks to our soldiers and the fine folks at TrackingPoint.”
The PR blitz must have worked, because the company’s business exploded in 2014, according to former senior TrackingPoint sources. The rifle maker’s profit grew 281 percent over 2013, and orders went up 107 percent.
“Against the gun industry as a whole, we’re growing rapidly, we’re doing well,” said then-CEO Frank Bruno in a February interview. “We’re predicting double digit growth for this year as well.”
Though Bruno declined to provide specifics on how many guns the company had sold, a source at the company who preferred to remain anonymous told Shooting Sports Retailer the company moved about 300 guns by the third quarter of 2014.
“We take orders every day, we ship orders every day, and we’re actively moving through our backlog,” Bruno had said.
But then the bottom seemed to drop out.
At the same time TrackingPoint announced its meteoric growth, the company fired 45 employees in what it called an “internal restructuring.”
Bruno declined to disclose precisely how many employees were let go, but he did confirm that the layoffs focused “principally in research and development.”
“If you consider the last four years and the amount of money that was invested, the heavy lifting is done,” Bruno said, adding that the company has spent nearly $40 million developing its PGF.
A source with direct knowledge of the layoffs said the cuts represented about 50 percent of the company’s workforce.
That’s the second major workforce cut in 16 months and the third CEO in two years (company founder Lupher served as “interim CEO” after Schauble’s departure), and to outside observers, that kind of turmoil didn’t look good for a company with an expensive, niche product.
But Bruno said the ups and downs were all part of growing up.
“The history of the company is probably similar to a lot of companies,” Bruno said. “As the company matures the way TrackingPoint is, we’re transitioning from strictly R&D to actually an operating company.”
But a TrackingPoint source told SSR at the time that sales had dropped to a trickle and that the company was in deep financial trouble.
Is It Right?
And it’s still unclear whether shooters have embraced TrackingPoint’s technology, or the ethics of using it for hunting. TrackingPoint argues the PGF makes hunting game more ethical by ensuring a clean kill.
“This technology is also more ethical, resulting in cleaner kills, responsible harvesting and far less wounding of animals,” the company said.
But many hunters feel using a computerized gun to fire a shot at extreme ranges takes the “man versus beast” advantage too far. Many hunters might gasp at founder Lupher’s claim that “elk hunters can take that trophy from across a valley” at 1,200 yards.
“A simple rule of thumb should be that if you have to take the spin of the Earth (the coriolis effect) into your calculations, then you are much too far away for an ethical shot,” well-respected gun writer Bob Owens explained.
And though costs have come down on some of TrackingPoint’s guns, the Precision-Guided Firearm system is still brutally expensive — with a .300 Winchester Magnum bolt-gun costing nearly $13,000 and an AR version costing over $7,000.
Just days after this year’s layoffs, a TrackingPoint source told SSR he predicted the company would be bankrupt by the end of the year. Just two months later, his prediction seemed on the money.
On May 18 the company posted a nondescript note on its website saying it was closing up shop.
“Due to financial difficulty TrackingPoint will no longer be accepting orders,” the company said. “Thank you to our customers and loyal followers for sharing in our vision.”
Representatives for TrackingPoint couldn’t provide details on the company’s future and so far there has been no indication the company has filed for bankruptcy.
But what is clear is that TrackingPoint pushed the envelope on consumer firearms technology that promised a new path to precision shooting. Yet with all the turmoil and tepid sales, it could be the company pushed it too far too soon.