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DryFire Version 4.10 is now available.

DryFire - Our Story

Written by DryFire’s Inventor, Mike Lake

In the 1970s I co-founded Wordcraft International Limited which, at that time, produced a word processing program called, surprise, surprise, "Wordcraft". In the mid/late 1980s the company moved on to produce facsimile software and has now become the leading supplier of software for the new generation of MFPs (Multi-Functional Peripherals) - gadgets which can print, scan, copy AND send faxes. The company is extremely successful in this area and we supply our software under OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) terms to most of the world's leading office equipment companies.

By the time I reached the age of impending senility (i.e. I was over 50!) I decided to take a back seat and hand over the running of the company to the team which had been doing most of the work anyway. I remain as Chairman of the company.

A new adventure

Faced with some free time on my hands (after 25 years of working all the hours necessary and thinking about the company 100% of the time) I decided to try a few things I had not done before.

Having been born and bred on a dairy farm I had been a shooter since the age of about 8 (BSA air rifle, circa 1940s and with the barrel held to the forestock with a jubilee clip!) and I had tried everything from .410 to Boffers guns (Sea Cadet Corp) - with small-bore and full-bore rifle and pistol thrown in.

So the next step was obvious - clay shooting. A trip to Doveridge Shooting Ground (an excellent and well equipped ground near Uttoxeter in England) made it clear that Clay Shooting was FUN! The second trip was to order a Berreta 682 Gold Sporting and the third trip was to pick it up and to have a couple more rounds of skeet.

Driving home from the third trip it came to me that Clay Shooting is not the same as rifle and pistol shooting (quick as a flash - see what I mean about impending senility?) You have to "move" for a start! I was used to lying on a shooting mat, raising my Anschutz .22LR off the deck, supporting it in my sling, adjusting my body position, breathing out, watching my heart beat raise and lower the foresight, and then gently touching the trigger to fire. So, having to stand up, acquire a fast-moving target, mount, swing, fire and follow through was all a new, and highly energetic, experience.

There has to be a way to practise this at home

All this moving about required practise so instead of going straight home I went to B&Q (American readers: a sort of Home Depot) and bought a small Maglite torch - I had read the propaganda and though it had a beam which could be tightly focussed. My idea was to get my long suffering wife to swing the beam of light across a wall so that I could try all the good stuff associated with clay shooting.

I had failed to anticipate two problems:

  • The beam was not tightly focussed - it was the usual fuzzy, and large, torch beam.
  • If you can't guess the second problem you have not been married as long as I have!

I decided to tackle the second problem first.

Fortunately, from time to time, when the mood takes me, I am an aero-modeller - i.e. I build and crash radio controlled model aircraft. So, my workshop was full of balsa wood, radio receivers and servo motors. An hour with the scalpel and I had a mount for the Maglite and a couple of servos which could move it about under radio control. This, of course, created two more problems:

  • The "moving about" was a little haphazard
  • Someone was needed to operate the radio transmitter!

Starting to get serious

Even though this set-up did not work sufficiently to be useful, I recognised that it had possibilities - though anyone looking at my lash-up would have given me a serious argument about that!

Description: vearly
Very early (rejected) version using servo motors to control a mirror to reflect the laser target.

I have been "in computers" since 1968 (three IBM 360/165s linked together under HASP at Rolls Royce Aero Engine Division) so I left the workshop, retreated to the study and started to dig about on the net. I needed something that produced a sharply focused beam of light and I had read something about laser pointers. It took a few minutes to find a manufacturer in Taiwan and to order a dozen "samples" to be sent via UPS.

How could I move the light source without using radio control? Answer: design a control system. Having been a software person for over 30 years I had always fancied inventing some hardware because you can touch and feel hardware - unlike software. Besides which, I like factories and seeing things being made. So, a bit more hunting around the net led me to the Microchips web site and I spent some happy hours looking at the technical specifications of microcontroller chips (the nerd in me was taking over!)

The Microchips web site also pointed me to some consultants specialising in microcontroller design and I sent out some emails. Of the ones that got back to me within a few hours, Mike Harrison, of White Wing Logic in Essex, really seemed to know his stuff. He felt that for my particular application I should also look at the Atmel family of RISC microprocessors and I spend yet more hours reading through technical specs of these very sexy chips - yes, chips can be "sexy" to us nerds! Mike also confirmed that driving servo motors directly from the microprocessor was the way to go - they are driven by digital pulses (and that's what computers are good at!), they are reliable and they are readily available world-wide.

So, I now knew what the key ingredients would be:

  • PC software to control everything
  • A laser (of some sort) to generate the target
  • A microcontroller-based hardware system (linked to a PC) to move the laser target

A warning to those in business who think they can retire!

It was obvious that this was starting to become serious. If I wanted a load of software and firmware written, hardware designed and manufactured then this was a business.

I contacted a couple of friends, also in business, explained what I had in mind and asked if they wanted to join in and help fund the development. They agreed (mad fools!)

We needed a name. Back to the net to start looking for ".COM" names that had not already been grabbed. I found "DryFire" within a few minutes, registered it and contacted one of my friends to organise company logo design, letterheads, compliment slips and all the other bits and pieces required to start a business. My accountant formally established the company and we were up and running.

All this took about two weeks from the day I came home with my Beretta.

By now the laser pointers had arrived from Taiwan and my hacksaw had taken them apart to discover the source of the laser light - a tiny laser diode. Now, this was going to be a lot easier to move around than a relatively large Maglite.

Mike Harrison then put his foot in it. Mike is not a shooter but he is very logical. "You can move the target but how do you know where you fired?"

At first I said that I was not that bothered because a moving target was sufficient to practise body movement. Besides which, with clay shooting you rarely aim at the target because you have to allow for lead.

Mike's response was immediate: "Have you got a digital camera?" I followed his logic but the idea of mounting a digital camera alongside the laser did not appeal to me! "But it's only chippery" said Mike "and there is this company in Edinburgh which designs some very nice image sensor chips." ("Image sensor" to us is "digital camera" to most normal human beings.)

I was on to their web site in minutes, got very excited about what I saw and ordered their development kit.

Problem: the camera will see everything - we only want it to see something when the shooter fires. Solution: put another sort of laser, an invisible infrared one, into the barrel of the gun and fire a short pulse of light when the shooter presses the trigger. Put a filter over the image sensor so that it only sees infrared light.

We were still having problems being able to move the target anywhere we wanted and we went through 7 different designs (all knocked up in balsa!) before we arrived at the simplest one - the one that works!

Description: early
Early version with horizontal servo motor in the vice, vertical servo on a strip of bent aluminium and early electronics.
Not a lot has changed since - note the holes for laser and camera and the two servo motors to control movement - the rest is all down to design engineering and a few thousand hours of software development - which continues to this day!.

We had the basic ideas, we knew what needed to be done, we had registered a company and we had the web site. The only thing left was to register a patent application and to do the work:

  • Hundreds of hours of hardware design - the various chips and their final layout.
  • Lots of discussions with top shooters to find out what "feels" right.
  • Hundreds of hours of firmware design and development. ("Firmware" is software inside a chip - i.e. the stuff that actually controls the microprocessors inside the simulator and camera. The firmware inside the simulator communicates with the software running on the PC.)
  • Thousands of hours of software development. This is a never-ending task - there is a rule in the software industry - "software is never finished - there is always something more that you can add or things you can do in a different way."
  • Hundreds of hours web site design and development - along with things like secure web servers and Javascripts etc.
  • Sourcing hardware components - a completely new world for me - we software people just need to "source" our brains!
  • Designing a suitable enclosure - again, a new experience discussing things with metal-bashers (sorry, "Sheet Metal Fabrication Companies"). This I really enjoyed because I could actually see and touch real things!
  • Finding companies to quote for the manufacture of our printed circuit boards.
  • Finding companies to quote for assembling the complete system.
  • Setting up production control and testing procedures - more software for testing!
  • Setting up order processing, despatch, accounting and support systems.
  • Marketing - another never-ending task.
  • Etc - there seems to be a never-ending stream of "etceteras"!

So much for "having more free time!"

What was the hardest bit?

There were two really hard bits (apart from hundreds of thousands of lines of computer code!) - one genuinely hard and one which appeared trivial to start with, got harder as we thought about it, then had a really simple solution.

The sums

I asked one of my senior software designers to solve a specific problem for me. I wanted to draw a target for skeet station 4 and I wanted it to look right from where I was standing. I also told him that I then wanted to solve a similar problem for all sorts of other specific targets.

Unlike me, he happens to be a genius so he said "No, that's not what you want." (That really cheered me up - what did he know about shooting anyway? Smart Alec!) "What you want is to be able to draw any target trajectory when the simulator is placed in any position and the shooter is standing in any other position and you want to know exactly where the shooter should have fired to hit the target at any time during its flight - with due allowance for lead etc."

You see what I mean about "smart Alec". I had started with a simple, specific problem and he had made it all complicated!

However, as always, he was right. If we could solve his general problem then we had solved all specific problems.

Trouble was - this is seriously hard. The sums involved are very complicated. To speed things up I asked the mathematics department at our local university to help. They charged me a hefty fee only to conclude that they could not do it at a realistic price! I had some brainy friends still working at Rolls Royce and they "volunteered" to help.

Between them and my senior software designer we arrived at a solution - which I think is brilliant. You can put the simulator anywhere you want (within reason) and you can stand wherever you like (within reason). As long as you tell the software where the simu lator is, and where you are relative to it, the system will figure out how to display the target.

The trigger switch

Clay shooting uses up to two shots and with O/U shotguns the recoil for the first shot sets the trigger for the second. The only way to reset the trigger is to break the gun.

We did not like the idea of putting our electronics into the breach only to have it fly through the air when you broke the gun - besides which, if it was listening for the fall of the firing pin, how would we manage the second shot?

We therefore opted for an external system with the infrared laser in the muzzle and a switch on the trigger.

At first the trigger switch seemed simple to sort out - we would put a microswitch behind the trigger to detect when you fire.

We then looked at shotguns as set up for hundreds of different shooters. Some people are so tight-fisted that they don't bother to get the length of their stock adjusted - they just move the trigger backwards or forwards within the trigger guard. In many cases the trigger is so far back that it is impossible to get a microswitch behind it.

We concluded that we had to put the microswitch onto the trigger itself but how do we do this when trigger shapes vary for manufacturer to manufacturer and from gun to gun?

We tried all sorts of solutions - including Velcro - which worked but was not exactly pretty!

One of my co-founders also has a plastic moulding company and talking to one of his colleagues one evening brought about our solution. "What about a tree-tie?" he said. I knew what he meant because I am fond of planting trees and I always use a rubber tie to hold them to a stake. A miniature version of this, that would go round any trigger and could be drawn tight, would do the job. At the same time it would be possible to mould the switch directly into the tie. This is now the solution we have adopted.

The trigger switch mounting is part of our patent application but if any other company wants trigger switches for any other application we can produce them by the million if necessary!

Where is DryFire now?

DryFire has now shipped thousands of systems world-wide.

DryFire is now developed and distributed worldwide by Wordcraft International (see photo on the contact page.)

DryFire does work and it does improve your shooting - but there is no substitute for seeing it in the flesh (well, mild steel!)

DryFire versions

There have so far been three versions of the hardware - the first used a large metal case, a plastic dome and could be battery powered. The second got rid of the dome and the batteries - everyone was connecting it to the mains anyway!

The third version, Version 3 in wonderful British Racing Green, comes with either a single or dual laser/camera head. We have always supported simultaneous doubles but the dual head version can show both targets at the same time instead of waiting for you to hit the first one before showing the remainder of the trajectory for the second - as is the case with the single head unit.

Retirement

So, what about retirement? Well, I tried once and failed!

Developing DryFire has been fantastic fun - and very profitable! There is nothing like software design and development to keep the brain running at top speed - though there are some days when it functions less well than on others!

With all the feedback we have had from users, and with the latest requirements of World Champions now being met with the dual-head version 3, I can relax a little. Sub-contracting manufacture and assembly, and some excellent distributors round the world, means that the business almost looks after itself.

The support side of things is minimal because I have a policy of fixing every tiny thing as quickly as possible and uploading a Service Pack to the web site to make sure no-one else needs to ask the same question.

Where I am really lazy is on the marketing and sales side - I have turned into one of those people I used to despise - an "order taker".

I can't get wildly enthusiastic about yet more marketing - I did that for many, many years all over the world - so I admit that I have adopted a rather passive approach to things.

This is why I have now handed over the development and worldwide distribution to Wordcraft International Ltd, the company I founded back in the early 80’s and of which I remain Chairman.