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Documents Reveal Remington Wrestled with Potential Gun Safety Problems for Decades

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.

Remington Model 700.
Source: Wikipedia
Remington Model 700.

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.

Cost Overruns, Quality Concerns, Recall Questions

Executives at Remington’s parent company at the time, DuPont, had already been sending memos about the new rifle being over budget, including a 1947 memo detailing $4,000 in “cost overruns,” and Mike Walker’s design change was more costly than the original. DuPont, which sold Remington in 1993, declined to speak with CNBC, referring inquiries instead to Remington.

While executives acknowledged in a 1948 memo that Walker’s change “is the best design,” they concluded, “its disadvantages lay in the high expenditure required to make the conversion.”

The same memo tallied the additional cost. It came to 5 ½ cents per gun.

On August 31, 1948, Remington patent attorney A. J. Greene laid out the choice in a memo entitled “Model 721 Safety.”

“Our usual potential liability for the safety of our product is augmented somewhat by our knowledge that some Model 721 safeties have misfunctioned (sic),” Greene wrote. “However, our liability does not seem out of proportion to the advantage of retaining the present…construction, pending receipt of further complaints from the field.”

According to Rich Barber, the decision was pivotal. "They identified a dangerous condition and they still went ahead with production." Barber said.

Since then, Remington has produced more than five million rifles with Mike Walker’s original design. But company officials repeatedly considered making changes, according to the documents, in the face of the customer complaints and other reported incidents.

A Remington 700 even malfunctioned during an evaluation by Consumer Reports in 1968, firing when the safety was released. The publication noted that “the malfunction persisted for more than 100 firings,” and warned, “An inexperienced user might have caused a serious accident.” The article, published in March 1968, set off a flurry of activity at Remington, according to the documents.

“Let’s see if we can’t figure a way to build a little more into our guns in this area,” wrote Philip H. Burdett in an April 17, 1968 memo entitled “Model 700 BDL Quality” that discussed possible manufacturing improvements in the wake of the Consumer Reports article.

Another memo by C.B. Workman on July 7, 1970noted management’s “extreme displeasure” over the article, and said Burdett had “requested that we find a way to evaluate our future designs in order to eliminate similar incidents from further embarrassing our Company.”

By 1981, Remington gave the secret program an infusion of funds and a code name: “NBAR,” for New Bolt Action Rifle. Among the project’s top goals, according to one document: an “improved Firecontrol (sic)” with “No Connector.” The priorities included a blocking mechanism, just as Mike Walker had proposed in 1948. But the company would not even disclose existence of the program until the Texas Supreme Court orderedit to do so in 1992.

While Remington engineers quietly worked on the new trigger project, officials considered what to tell the public:

In 1979, following a jury verdict that led to the recall of a similar Remington rifle—the Mohawk 600—officials considered whether to recall the more popular 700 series, but decided against it. The minutes of a Remington Product Safety Subcommittee meeting on January 2, 1979 listed two reasons for the decision. First, the minutes say, a Remington analysis had found “only 1%” of the guns could be “tricked” into firing. “That would mean the recall would have to gather 2,000,000 guns just to find 20,000 that are susceptible to this condition,” the minutes say.

In addition, officials concluded, “An attempt to recall all bolt action rifles would undercut the message we plan to communicate to the public concerning proper gun handling.”

Rather than launch a recall, Remington worked with the giant public relations firm Hill and Knowlton to update an old set of safety rules known as “The Ten Commandments of Firearm Safety.” The new version, which Remington includes with every gun it sells, has become an industry standard. It includes rules that appear to address the customer complaints, such as:

  • Always keep the muzzle pointed in a safe direction
  • Firearms should be unloaded when not actually in use
  • Don’t rely on your gun’s safety

While critics claim the commandments allow Remington to blame the user for every inadvertent discharge and don’t address the 700’s alleged design flaws, Remington says in its statementthat “if proper firearms safety rules are followed, no accidental injuries would ever occur.”

But some at Remington were unwilling to rely on safety rules alone.

New Trigger System and a Military Issue

In 1994, after a jury ordered Remington to pay $17 million to a Texas oilfield supervisor who lost his foot to a Remington 700, the company again considered a nationwide campaign to replace the controversial trigger on existing guns.

Two weeks after the verdict, on June 1, 1994, Remington executive Kenneth Green wrote a memo entitled “M/700 Trigger Replacement Campaign,” detailing a proposal to “call back” three million Remington 700s produced since 1960. The memo, sent to Remington General Counsel Robert Haskin, even listed publications used to advertise previous recalls.

But by 1994, the cost to fix the rifle had risen substantially, according to the memo. No longer 5 ½ cents per gun; the memo put the cost of a recall at nearly $22.7 million. The “call back” quietly died.

Remington came closest to launching a recall in 2002, as part of a settlement with the family of Gus Barber, the nine-year-old Montana boy killed when his mother’s Remington 700 went off.

Twenty years earlier, in 1982, Remington had done away with the feature that required the user to switch off the safety in order to unload the gun—a common source of inadvertent discharges, including the one that killed Gus Barber. But Remington had not publicized the change, so customers like Barbara Barber were unaware that an alternative mechanism was available.

Under the settlement, Remington agreed to launch a “safety modification program”—the company stopped short of calling it a recall—allowing owners of pre-1982 Remingtons to have their rifles modified, for a $20 fee, so the gun could be unloaded with the safety on.

“The Barber family knows it has our deepest sympathy,” Remington said in its press release.

The company would not actually change the firing mechanism until 2007, and even then, it did not institute a recall of the Walker trigger models it had been selling for nearly 60 years.

Remington calls the new trigger system the X-Mark Pro. Plaintiffs’ experts who have examined it say the system includes the blocking mechanism originally proposed by Mike Walker in 1948. The X-Mark Pro also does away with the controversial trigger connector. A source close to Remington confirms the trigger connector was removed because it had become the focus of so many lawsuits.

But because Remington still contends the old Walker trigger is safe, it continues to use it in rifles including the current version of the Remington 770, as well as earlier 700 series models still sold by retailers worldwide.

The older trigger is also used in the military version of the Remington 700, the primary sniper rifle for the Armed Forces. Indeed, the Army recently awarded Remington a new contract worth up to $28 million for as many as 3,600 rifles, and Remington says in its statement that its military contracts “specifically require the ‘Walker’ trigger mechanism.”

That is not entirely true, however. The contractonly requires a trigger that cannot be adjusted by the operator. Remington’s X-Mark Pro can be adjusted by turning an external screw, meaning it does not meet the contract’s specifications. The Walker trigger does not have such a feature.

Documents obtained by CNBC under the Freedom of Information Act indicate that some of the problems in the civilian version of the Remington 700 have also been encountered in the military. The U.S. Marine Corps furnished reports from the elite sniper training school at Camp Lejeune, NC in 2003, where officials found multiple rifles to be “deficient.” According to one report, some rifles were “slam firing”—firing without a trigger pull—“once every 20 rounds.”

“This has become a safety issue for the school,” the report notes.

Nonetheless, Remington says in its statement, “The Model 700 is the firearm of choice for elite shooters from America’s military and law enforcement communities.”

And, the statement continues, “The men and women who build, own and shoot the Remington Model 700 take great pride in a product that, over the last half century, has set the bar for safety, reliability and performance.”

Since 2007, Remington has been owned by the private equity firm Cerberus. Beginning in 2006, Cerberus began buying a number of gun manufacturers, to create a new company called Freedom Group. In October 2009, Freedom Group filed for an initial public offering, to create a standalone company built around Remington.

In its prospectusfiled with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Freedom Group acknowledges that as of August 31, 2009, it faced 16 individual bodily injury cases or claims involving Remington firearms—though it did not specify how many of those cases involve the 700—and that because of the nature of product liability cases “our resources may not be adequate to cover” the claims.

Cerberus—and Freedom Group—declined to speak to CNBC about the Remington 700, citing an SEC-mandated “quiet period” ahead of the public stock offering. But the company has not yet announced when the IPO will occur.

Contact Remington Under Fire

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  • Scott Cohn develops in-depth features, special reports and documentaries for CNBC and CNBC.com.