It was the kind of challenge that engineers live for and dread all at once. The top-selling product at the Remington Arms Co., the Model 700 rifle, was successful — practically beloved. But there were also complaints — even lawsuits — about the guns going off without the trigger being pulled. The engineers set out to design a new version, better than the original. But first, they had to get it past the legal department.
So on a chilly March day at Remington's main plant in Ilion, New York, the engineers met with the lawyers. Topping the agenda, according to notes by engineer James Hutton: coming up with a new firing mechanism that would allow the company to continue defending the old one. It would need new safety features, the notes say, including a design that keeps debris from getting inside, and a way to keep customers from making dangerous, do-it-yourself adjustments.
The meeting took place in 1989. It would be another 17 years, thousands more complaints and about 100 more lawsuits before Remington would finally put a new fire control for the Model 700 on the market. Many of those lawsuits blamed Remington for serious injuries, as well as multiple deaths.
Secret documents from inside the nation's oldest gun manufacturer show corporate attorneys heavily involved in multiple attempts by Remington engineers to develop a safer rifle. The apparent fear: changing the design would be seen as an admission of guilt.
The documents, obtained exclusively by CNBC, come to light as the company and plaintiffs' attorneys seek final court approval of a landmark class-action settlement in which Remington has agreed to replace the triggers in as many as 7.5 million guns. A hearing had been scheduled for Monday, but within hours after this report was first published, the judge postponed it indefinitely.
U.S. District Judge Ortrie Smith cited a "quite low" initial response to the settlement offer. As of mid-August, only 2,327 claims had been filed since the tentative agreement was first publicized in May. The judge ordered both sides to come up with a better plan to notify the public.
"The Court cannot conceive that an owner of an allegedly defective firearm would not seek the remedy being provided," Smith wrote.
But even now, the company insists the Model 700 — the most popular bolt-action rifle in the world — is safe.