Documents Reveal Remington Wrestled with Potential Gun Safety Problems for Decades
CNBC Senior Correspondent
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.
“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 statement that “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.