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Author of Gunpowder and Lead and Twitterati extraordinaire Diana Wueger was bringing it with some great tweets this week including one on these great Small Arms ID playing cards (PDF).  On a similar theme, Wueger turned her followers onto DAVA Consulting’s small arms and light weapons encyclopedia app, Modern Weapons: Small Arms, for the iPod Touch, iPhone, and iPad (available via iTunes for $0.99). I do love me some militant Apps, so I thought I would give this one a whirl.

If you have visited the English and Russian-language Modern Weapons web site, the layout of the app will be familiar. When you open the app, weapons are first listed according to general categories including handguns, assault rifles, sniper rifles, machine guns, and so on. Aside from what the title suggests, the app also includes a variety of light weapons including Rocket & Grenade Launders and MANPADS.  Right from the get go, the feel of that app is a little too ‘video gamey.’ For example, developers could swap the term “sniper rifles” for “precision rifles.”

Within each of these categories, individual weapons are listed. The user can organize according to name, caliber, or country of origin. Resorting the list is quick and easy–a welcome feature. Naming conventions, however, are inconsistent. Some weapons are listed according to manufacture then model name; others give the US or another country’s military designation alone.

Individual entries were more pedestrian offering basic specs (weight, dimensions, magazine capacities, etc.). Here, there were some missing pieces.  In the technical specifications, listing the action/mode of operation and the barrel’s rate-of-twist would be would be even more useful than the token muzzle velocity entry, which is variable with ammunition. The manufacturers are absent unless listed in the title of each entry. This would be good to reference particularly in the cases where multiple manufacturers produced the weapon.

The AK-47 family is particularly thin in this regard. Anyone can identify an AK-47. I want to be able to differentiate between a Tobuk and Zastava! Where are the proof marks, stampings, and other identifying markings?  Random images are great for the amateurs ogling guns; professionals want to be able to identify weapons.

There is also a “favorites” feature, which allows users to ‘bookmark’ a short list of frequently referenced weapons.

The app also offers an internal browser that takes you to each weapon’s Wikipedia page, which is helpful given some missing information in the descriptions. However, the browser has no back or forward buttons, which can be a hassle if you click one or two successive links on the Wiki page.  Plus, resorting to Wikipedia is a real inconvenience without access to an internet connection. The YouTube and gun store/shooting range locator are puff features for the hobbyist–a waste of resources in my opinion.

A “pro” version of the app might include manuals for each of the weapons. At the very least, I would like to see instructions on clearing and field stripping.  This would be would be worth a good bit more than its extant $0.99 price tag.

There is some real promise here. I love that this app does not stop at small arms but also includes many light weapons including MANPADS.  (Even with some recent additions with version 1.4.9, the developers could greatly expand on this feature.) However, it lacks some vital features to aid small weapons and light weapons identification. All things considered, DAVA Consulting has made a very handy SALW ID app with some room for growth–particularly in terms of a professionalism upgrade.

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For C. Reed Knight, Jr., the founder and CEO of Knight’s Armament Corporation, the future of small arms is not in “bullets and gunpowder.”

“The improvement in small arms has been in target acquisition and the interface between the human and the weapon itself,” said Mr. Knight. The company’s latest product takes this notion a step further—with a touch interface.

Knight’s Armament has developed a new program for the iPod Touch and iPhone called BulletFlight, which hopes to transform Apple’s ubiquitous music player into the must-have accessory for snipers who engage targets at extreme distances where variables such as muzzle velocity, angle of the shot, distance, altitude, and air temperature determine the bullet’s trajectory and eventual point of impact.

Traditionally, these expert marksmen use hardcopy ballistics tables to account for these factors and make the appropriate adjustments to their optics in each situation. The slightest miscalculation could mean failure and put the sniper’s life and possibly others’ lives in jeopardy. Computers have eased these calculations, but until recently their use in the field has been limited.

BulletFlight, available from the Apple App Store for $11.99, takes many of the features and flexibility of a full-fledged ballistic program and places it in the form factor of an iPod Touch.

“There’s over 40 million iPhone or iPod devices already in circulation, and it has excellent performance characteristics,” says Rob Silvers, the MIT-educated developer of BulletFlight. “It’s very small. It has a fast compute time. It has a large screen, and it has a good touch screen interface. It makes it a good platform to develop on and good one for users. Obviously, people like the device because so many of them sold and for the same reason soldiers will want to have one and use it for this purpose.”

The challenge for Silvers was to create a program that simplified the sniper’s task.

“Most ballistic computer programs give a tabular output and that might be fine for printing a card and taping it onto your rifle and bringing it to the range, because when you have a piece of paper and not computer you need a table and all your answers there,” says Mr. Silvers. “If you can bring a computer along with you, you don’t want to overload the operator with information that’s not relevant so what we did was give a specific solution.”

The program comes preloaded with data for several weapons including KAC’s M110 7.62x51mm semiautomatic sniper rifle in use with the U. S. Army. However, the user can input data for additional weapons, optics, and ammunition via the touch display. For any weapon system, an operator can specify parameters such as muzzle velocity, zero range, sight height above the bore, how many MOA one click of the scope changes the impact (both horizontal and vertical), bullet weight, and up to five ballistic coefficients according to the Sierra model of exterior ballistics.

(According to some data, ballistic coefficient changes at different velocity thresholds. With BulletFlight, the user can specify different velocities and what the ballistic coefficient is at those velocities and that gives a much more accurate result than programs that only allow for a single ballistic coefficient.)

When it comes time to shoot, the operator chooses a weapon profile and has one of two options: “Calculate Ballistics” and “Calculate Simple.” The first option gives the user the flexibility to change distance, temperature, pressure, shot angle, wind speed and angle, and altitude. The angle of the shot is easily determined via the iPod Touch’s accelerometer. BulletFlight allows both metric and imperial input without having to change an option or flip through multiple screens. Both fields are available at the same time, and changing one field updates the other. The second option gives the user a simple range wheel to specify the distance to target alone for quick adjustments.  In either case, BulletFlight tells the operator not only the holdover but also the exact MOA adjustments for the sniper’s scope as well as time in flight and energy at impact. The rest is left to the marksman.

Calculate Ballistics

Calculate Ballistics

Calculate Simple

Calculate Simple

“[BulletFlight] has been compared to some ballistic programs that the military uses,” Mr. Silvers said. “There’s an excellent one called QuickLoad, which is a program for the PC, and the output at 2,000 meters was within a half an inch of that full-fledged program, so it’s been verified in that sense.”

One alternative to the BulletFlight-iPod tandem is the Barrett Optical Ranging System (BORS). Not only does this system detect angle like the iPod Touch, it also senses temperature and atmospheric pressure. The device is rugged, but it requires a PC to add custom loads and proprietary rings, which are not compatible with many scopes. More importantly, the device carries a much heftier price tag, retailing for $1500 by itself or $2700 with a compatible Leupold scope.

Are these additional features of the BORS worth the additional expense? This decision is best left to the snipers themselves, but Knight’s does not believe the iPod is at a significant disadvantage.

“It turns out that atmospheric conditions like temperature don’t affect the result by very large amounts, so it is acceptable to approximate those. If it feels like 100 degrees, you don’t have to worry that it is 104 degrees,” said Mr. Silvers.

Knight’s has developed a prototype mount for the iPod Touch, which it unveiled at SHOT Show. The mount uses a rugged Otterbox case and attaches to any military-spec rail system, but it is not necessary for the system. Testing is ongoing, and it remains to be seen whether the iPod Touch will withstand the recoil of prolonged firing and the harsh conditions of the battlefield.

Prototype Mount

KAC's Prototype Mount

What has been surprising is the reaction from the blogosphere. While receiving a warm reception from civilian and military marksmen, others have struggled to understand its intended purpose.  Andy Dawson of Bitter Wallet had this to say:

Once downloaded, BulletFlight will operate after you attach your iPhone or Touch to the side of your sniper rifle. Then, simply input details about wind conditions, type of ammunition, distance from target etc, and the program will then… will then… well, what exactly?

The same goes for CNET blogger Chris Matyszczyk who quipped, “Perhaps you’ll also be able to tell me whether there is a way to attach my iPod touch to a golf club. I need to make my 5-iron just a little more accurate.”

Comments such as these can be dismissed as ignorance of long-range marksmanship and the role of the sniper, but more interesting is the almost irrational response that the conjunction of sniping and the iPod elicits.

David Flynn of APC claimed, “So as an aspiring iPhone developer, what’s a good way to cash in on all this [inauguration] hoopla? Of course — it’s to release your uber-realistic sniper app on the day of Obama’s inauguration. Poor taste, indeed.” However, Lynch’s hysterics are unwarranted. The application was released on the Apple App Store on December 22 and in development for much longer. More to the point, it is Flynn himself who “cashes in” on the hoopla for some cheap hits on his blog.

Gizmag was marginally more measured in its response. The blogger writes, “You can also download different weapon and ammunition profiles (it comes with three) and even subscribe to highly detailed weather and forecast information, not to mention listen to music whilst you await your quarry. BTW – this scares us to death!”  One can debate the merits of civilian firearms ownership, but the fact that the weaponized iPod  frightens people is a fascinating cultural response.  Given that there is no such outcry with the BORS system, it must be the repurposing of the iPod that disturbs people. Here, people are reacting not to technology but its context.

Even noteworthy foreign policy expert and author Thomas E. Ricks offered a cynical take on the device.  He remarks, “I am not sure what to make of this. Except, what a country.”  Certainly, Ricks must not be condemning the sniper or the trigonometry that underlies any ballistic calculator.  Is the chart a soldier tapes to his rifle so much less threatening?  Does the novel use of an iPod as a cost effective alternative to other military systems warrant the condemnation of America?  One can infer from Ricks’ comments that it is the blurring of consumer and military technologies more than anything else that triggers this negative response. However, this is by no means a new or unfamiliar phenomenon.

Ultimately, Knight’s Armament Company’s BulletFlight software provides snipers a useful and cost-effective tool at a time when changing attitudes within the Pentagon and the downturn in the economy have curtailed defense spending.  Meanwhile, this clever repurposing of the iPod will go on challenging our perceptions of technology–not to mention redefining the phrase “user-friendly.”

Knight’s Armament anticipates a major upgrade to the program soon.  For more information, check the BulletFlight product site.

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