James Marchington talks to inventor, businessman and lifelong shooter David Stewart
Imagine you’re teaching your young son’s friends to shoot, and want to explain the concept of forward allowance. What you really need is a video camera fixed to the gun barrel that will record the target and the point of aim. Then you could play it back in slow motion to show them how you lead the target in order to hit it. But this is 2008 and nothing like that exists, so what do you do?
Well if you’re David Stewart, you sit down at your workbench and build your own. That’s how the first ShotKam was invented – and David has developed his original idea to arrive at the highly sophisticated ShotKam we know today.
The basic idea is simple enough, but it’s hugely complicated to build a camera that doesn’t get shaken to pieces by recoil. Fortunately David’s background makes him uniquely qualified for the job.
He grew up in Scotland, on a farm north of Perth, where shooting was part of daily life. “Dad would hand me the shotgun and there were pigeons eating the flattened barley or whatever. I loved it,” he says. “My brother loved to fish, I loved to shoot.”
In the 1980s David was working for a Scottish company making computer hard drives, and moved to America – initially on a one-year contract. The company went bust, and David set up his own business servicing and repairing the hard drives he knew so well. His career took him to France then back to Florida and, he says, “next thing I knew I had stayed on, had a bunch of kids, and we’ve been here ever since.”
David sold his hard drive business and turned his attention to oil, developing a process for making fuel from orange peel and pulp, something that’s abundantly available in Florida.
There were grand plans to build a huge plant turning out fuel ethanol – then the financial crisis hit and it all came to nothing. “That swallowed up anything I’d made from selling the hard drive business, so it was back to square one for me,” says David.
Just as he was wondering what to do next, David was teaching his eight-year-old son to shoot. “We were doing some Skeet shooting prior to duck season,” David recalls.
“He’s naturally quite a good shot, but his two friends were struggling with the concept of hitting a moving target. I thought I could just buy some video camera that would help them, but there wasn’t one available at the time.”
He played with the idea and built a prototype. “I was thinking, you know what, I’m going to try to make a business out of this – that’s how we got started.”
That first camera was an unwieldy affair with limited capabilities, but David knew how he wanted to improve it. Since then he has patented several different aspects of the camera and its mounting system, ensuring that the ShotKam is unique.
“Even today if you want something that shows you where you’re shooting there’s nothing else quite like the ShotKam,” he says.
The ShotKam has certainly taken off. In the beginning David reckoned he was doing well if he sold one a day; last year he sold 5,000. His daughter, Emily, works in digital marketing for the business. “All of our sales are online, and that has helped grow the company considerably,” he says.
The ShotKam has seen various improvements and the current model is much more sophisticated than David’s first attempt. It’s smaller, lighter, and produces a higher resolution image.
“One of the key things was to reproduce what you see when you shoot,” he explains. “That comes down to simple things like frame rate and field of view. Humans have a wide field of view, but a lot of that is peripheral vision which is good at picking up movement, not detail.
“When you look hard at a clay target, your brain ignores a lot of the information coming from around the outside and concentrates on the picture in the middle – and that’s what we needed to replicate with the camera’s field of view.”
Playback speed is also crucial to producing a video that matches how the brain ‘sees’ the shot, David explains. “If you play back the video in real speed you think, no way, that’s much faster than I see it,” he says. “I found we needed to slow it down so it feels right when you watch it back. So a lot of the early work was on lenses, frame rates, that sort of thing.”
One of his biggest challenges was the gun’s recoil, which could play havoc with delicate electronics; “It’s a very hostile environment,” David says. There’s a clever shock absorbing system built into the camera and its mount that protect the internal parts, and minimises the number of ‘lost’ frames, when the gun’s recoil disrupts the picture. In the right lighting conditions, this means you can even follow the load on its way to the target.
Another challenge for David was to have the ShotKam sense when to start and stop recording. The camera goes into a battery-saving ‘standby’ mode when nothing is happening, but must wake up when the gun is closed, ready to record the shot.
When the gun fires, it detects the recoil and saves the video from a few seconds before and after the shot. Simple enough in principle, but making it work reliably was a huge task.
Perhaps the key feature of the ShotKam is the patented system to ‘zero’ the red dot – or other reticles if you prefer – so that it’s exactly on the gun’s point of aim. You fit the ShotKam on the barrel, connect it via wifi to a dedicated app on your mobile phone, and nudge the red dot up, down, left or right as required.
Also in the app you can select the type of gun and target, and adjust frame rates and resolution. It all helps ensure that the resulting video shows exactly what happened, hit or miss.
After a lot of development work and prototypes, David arrived at what he recalls as “the heart stopping moment” when he had to spend the money to build printed circuit boards and commit to the inventory. “We started slowly and have built up from there,” he says. “We’ve grown by 60-70 per cent a year for the last few years.”
There has always been plenty of interest from the UK, but for British shooters buying a ShotKam hasn’t always been easy. It has involving international payments, shipping, and paying VAT to the carrier on delivery.
Emily has been working hard on that, and recently a new website, uk.shotkam.com, has been launched where UK residents can order in their own currency, with shipping and VAT included in the price.
The latest version of the Shotkam is better than ever, with wifi, high quality 1080p HD video, and a gyroscope to detect the angle of the gun barrel. It’s popular with coaches and shooters trying to improve, as well as the obvious YouTubers and film-makers, such as The Shooting Show, who use the ShotKam extensively for filming driven large game shooting abroad as well as clay and game shooting with shotguns.
It’s extraordinary to think that this all began when a Scottish inventor and shooting enthusiast living in Florida decided to teach some young lads how to shoot Skeet!