The movie Wanted showed us what it would be like if Angelina Jolie could curve the trajectory of bullets using a combination of martial arts-like moves and a pouting lower lip, but despite Jolie demonstrating her skills by shooting people around slight corners or standing in a perfect circle around her, the movie failed to demonstrate the real value to be had in changing a bullet’s trajectory once it had already left the barrel: hitting a moving target.

Distance shooting at live targets can be compared to playing football in some ways.  One of the first things taught to young quarterbacks is to throw the ball where your receiver will be, rather than where they are, and it’s no different when attempting to hit a moving target at a distance with a rifle.  In order to hit a moving target, the shooter must track the target and predict where it will be when the round reaches its destination, then fire at that point rather than directly at the target.  This adds a number of variables that can remain outside the control of the shooter, increasing the likelihood of missing.

Aside from the usual things a distance shooter must account for, such as wind direction and elevation, living targets add a level of unpredictability, as they may suddenly move, or if they’re already moving, they could change direction or rate of speed as the shooter is firing a round.  The greater the distance, the longer the round is in the air, and the better chance that the target could move, or the conditions could change, just enough to cause a miss – which can have dangerous ramifications for a sniper, whose every round could potentially give away his position.

“For military snipers, acquiring moving targets in unfavorable conditions, such as high winds and dusty terrain commonly found in Afghanistan, is extremely challenging with current technology,” DARPA said in a press statement. “It is critical that snipers be able to engage targets faster, and with better accuracy, since any shot that doesn’t hit a target also risks the safety of troops by indicating their presence and potentially exposing their location.”

With these concerns in mind, DARPA decided to take a page out of the comic book that inspired Jolie’s Wanted, and design a new kind of bullet that can correct its trajectory mid-flight, and impact the target regardless of those potential changes.  The EXACTO, or EXtreme ACcuracy Tasked Ordnance, is a round that’ll curve for the shooter, without the need for a warehouse karate montage with Morgan Freeman narration.  Although DARPA remains fairly tight lipped about just how their self-guided bullets work, they do state that the .50 caliber rounds use a “real-time optical guidance system” that tracks the trajectory of the round and makes changes to guide it to the target.

“The EXACTO 50- caliber round and optical sighting technology was developed to greatly extend the day and nighttime range over current state-of-the-art sniper systems. The system combined a maneuverable bullet and a real-time guidance system to track and deliver the projectile to the target, allowing the bullet to change path during flight to compensate for any unexpected factors that may drive it off course.”  The DARPA website explains.

The bullet uses the information gathered by the optical sensors to adjust a series of small fins to correct the trajectory of the round as it flies through the air.  Although DARPA’s website doesn’t say so, it seems likely the shooter would need to keep their sights trained on the target after firing, effectively “painting” it with a laser just as one would do for a laser guided missile strike.  Like the Army’s new BOSS sight system, the EXACTO round can make even amateur shooters far more accurate – reducing the learning curve that separates your average rifleman from elite snipers.  As these systems become more cost-effective, they could see wider deployment, making all door kickers more deadly at a distance.

“True to DARPA’s mission, EXACTO has demonstrated what was once thought impossible: the continuous guidance of a small-caliber bullet to target,” Jerome Dunn, a DARPA program manager, told reporters. “This live-fire demonstration from a standard rifle showed that EXACTO is able to hit moving and evading targets with extreme accuracy at sniper ranges unachievable with traditional rounds. Fitting EXACTO’s guidance capabilities into a small .50-caliber size is a major breakthrough and opens the door to what could be possible in future guided projectiles across all calibers.”