Documents Reveal Remington Wrestled with Potential Gun Safety Problems for Decades
CNBC Senior Correspondent
The manufacturer of the most popular hunting rifle in the world has been aware of potential safety problems with the gun since before it went on the market—60 years ago. This, according to newly uncovered documents.
The documents, including memos and drawings by the gun’s inventor, show company officials discussing the potential problem, as well as whether a design change is worth “the high expenditure required to make the conversion.”
The Remington 700, which is manufactured in Ilion, N.Y., by the Madison, N.C.-based Remington Arms Company, has been wildly successful among amateur hunters as well as police and the military. The company says it has sold more than five million guns in the 700 series, which debuted with the Remington 721 after World War II.
But the rifle has also been the subject of thousands of customer complaints and more than 75 lawsuits alleging it is prone to firing without the trigger being pulled. At least two dozen deaths and more than 100 serious injuries have been linked to inadvertent discharges of Remington 700s.
The questions surrounding the 700 are explored in a CNBC Original documentary, “Remington Under Fire: A CNBC Investigation,” premiering Wednesday, October 20 at 9pm Eastern and Pacific Time.
The company contends its product is safe.
“The Model 700, including its trigger mechanism, has been free of any defect since it was first produced,” Remington told CNBC in a statement. “And, despite any careless reporting to the contrary, the gun’s use by millions of Americans has proven it to be a safe, trusted and reliable rifle.”
But as early as December 3, 1946, with the gun still in the testing stage, lead engineer Merle “Mike” Walker—who would later receive a patent for the 700 series’ firing mechanism—wrote a memowarning of a “theoretical unsafe condition” involving the gun’s safety; the mechanism that is supposed to keep the gun from firing accidentally.
Four months later, in an April 9, 1947 memo entitled “M/721 Pilot Line Inspection,” Test Engineer Wayne Leek wrote, “This situation can be very dangerous from a safety and functional point of view.”
Among other things, Leek noted, it was “possible to fire the gun by pushing the safety to the ‘off’ position.”
That same malfunction, in which the gun fires when the safety is turned off, is cited in many of the customer complaints that persist to this day.
In October, 2000, nine-year-old Gus Barber was killed on a family hunting trip when his mother switched off the safety to unload her Remington 700 and the gun went off, according to the family and official accounts of the incident. Barbara Barber said her hand was away from the trigger and the rifle was pointed away from the rest of the family, into an empty horse trailer. But at the worst possible moment, Gus had run behind the trailer, directly in the path of the bullet.
Mrs. Barber still cannot bring herself to speak publicly about the accident, but her husband, Rich Barber, has spent the past ten years learning all he could about the Remington 700. He has compiled thousands of pages of documents, which he provided to CNBC.
CNBC has verified the documents through other sources that, in many cases, provided additional documents.
“Those documents clearly speak for themselves and they speak volumes about what the company knew, when they knew it, what they did, and what they did not do, and what they continue to do today,” Rich Barber told CNBC.
Remington critics, including ballistics experts hired to testify against the company, trace the problems to a basic element of Mike Walker’s original design: a tiny piece of metal called a trigger connector. The connector, which is mounted loosely inside the firing mechanism, is supposed to allow the gun to fire more smoothly, according to Walker’s patent.
But the experts claim that small amounts of rust, debris or even a small jolt can cause the trigger connector to fall out of alignment, and the trigger itself to lose contact with the firing pin. Then, they say, the gun can go off when the user operates other parts of the gun—such as the safety or the bolt—without touching the trigger.
The documents include thousands of complaints from customers about Remington 700s going off without pulling the trigger. But Remington contends that in every case, the inadvertent discharges were the result of user error.
“Both Remington and experts hired by plaintiff attorneys have conducted testing on guns returned from the field which were alleged to have fired without a trigger pull, and neither has ever been able to duplicate such an event on guns which had been properly maintained and which had not been altered after sale,” the company says in its statement.
But other documents show the company has been able to duplicate the condition. On March 18, 1975, Research Manager John Linde wrote to a Houston gunsmith that Remington “could duplicate” fire control problems on a Remington 700 that had been returned to the factory. And in a March 5, 1980 memo, a Remington employee named E. Hooton, Jr. notes that of 133 rifles returned to the factory for inadvertent firing in the second half of 1979, 44 of the complaints—one-third of the total—were “verified.”
Documents show that in 1948, Mike Walker proposed a change in his original design aimed at eliminating the problem. Walker drew up plans to insert a blocking devicethat would keep the gun’s internal mechanism from falling out of alignment while the safety is on.
“One modification of the M/721 Safety uses a trigger block in addition to the present design,” Walker wrote in an August 16, 1948 memoentitled “M/721 Modification of Safety design.”
But the change was never implemented.