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America's oldest gun manufacturer, Remington, has agreed to replace millions of triggers in its most popular product—the Model 700 rifle. The company has been riddled for years with claims the gun can fire without the trigger being pulled, often with deadly results.
A 2010 CNBC documentary, "Remington Under Fire: A CNBC Investigation," explored allegations that for decades the company covered up a design defect, which Remington continues to deny. But now, under a nationwide settlement filed Friday in a federal court in Missouri, the company is agreeing to replace the triggers in about 7.85 million rifles.
While insisting its action is not a recall of the iconic gun, Remington says in a statement that it is agreeing to make the changes "to avoid the uncertainties and expense of protracted litigation."
The settlement involves a class action suit brought in 2013 by Ian Pollard of Concordia, Missouri, who claimed his Remington 700 rifle fired on multiple occasions without the trigger being pulled. The agreement also settles a similar class action case in Washington state. The Pollard suit accused Remington and its owners of negligence, breach of warranty, unfair and deceptive trade practices, and fraudulent concealment—some of it involving the company's formal response to the 2010 CNBC documentary.
At least two dozen deaths and more than 100 serious injuries have been linked to inadvertent discharges of Remington 700 series rifles.
In court filings, Remington denied the allegations, calling them "inaccurate, misleading, (and) taken out of context." And last year, a judge dismissed several of the claims, including negligence and fraudulent concealment. But by this July, the parties announced they were working out details of a "nationwide class settlement" involving the controversial gun.
Under the settlement, which still must be approved by a judge, Remington has agreed to retrofit the rifles in question at no cost to the owner. Many users had new trigger mechanisms installed on their own, and Remington will reimburse them as part of the settlement. For guns that cannot be retrofitted, the company plans to offer vouchers for Remington products.
The settlement covers more than a dozen models, specifically the Model 700, Seven, Sportsman 78, 673, 710, 715, 770, 600, 660, XP-100, 721, 722 and 725.
Remington's 700 series, which began with the Model 721 shortly after World War II, has been wildly popular not only with hunters and target shooters, but also with law enforcement and the U.S. military. The gun is prized for its accuracy and smooth operation, thanks to a unique trigger mechanism patented in the 1940s by Remington engineer Merle "Mike" Walker.
But the CNBC investigation revealed that even before the gun went on the market, Walker himself had discovered a potential problem with the trigger he designed. In a 1946 memo, he warned of a "theoretical unsafe condition" involving the gun's safety—the mechanism that's supposed to keep the rifle from firing accidentally.
Subsequent memos during the testing process noted guns could be made to fire simply by switching off the safety or operating the bolt. "This situation can be very dangerous from a safety and functional point of view," said a 1947 inspection report.
See the full CNBC documentary, "Remington Under Fire: A CNBC Investigation"
While Walker contended the issue had to do with the manufacturing process and not his design, critics including firearms experts and plaintiffs' attorneys have argued that the same aspects of the design that allow the gun to fire so smoothly also make it possible for internal parts of the trigger to become misaligned, rendering the gun unsafe. Specifically, they cite a tiny part called a "trigger connector," which they say can become clogged with rust or debris. Under the settlement, Remington plans to replace the triggers with "connectorless" mechanisms—a similar fix to one Walker himself proposed in 1948.
Walker died in 2013 at age 101. But he told CNBC in 2010 that he believed Remington's rejection of his proposal back then "had something to do with cost." A 1948 internal analysis obtained by CNBC estimated the cost of the change to be 5 ½ cents per gun.
Remington has always maintained the guns are safe, and that the documents obtained by CNBC are merely evidence of the company's attention to quality. The company claimed every accident was the result of user error.
"The Model 700, including its trigger mechanism, has been free of any defect since it was first produced," Remington told CNBC in 2010. "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 CNBC uncovered thousands of customer complaints and more than 75 lawsuits alleging the gun is prone to firing without the trigger being pulled, sometimes with deadly results. Many of the lawsuits were settled out of court, typically with a provision that the terms be kept confidential.
Among the deaths was nine-year-old Gus Barber of Montana, killed during a family hunting trip in 2000 when his mother switched off the safety on her Remington 700 rifle and the gun went off.
Since then, Gus' father, Rich Barber, has been on what he calls a "crusade" to learn the truth about the rifle.
"I went to the funeral home and looked Gus right square in the eye and said, 'Son, it ends here and now,' " Barber told CNBC in 2010. "I promised him I'd never be bought off and I'd never quit until I've effected change."
Since then, Barber has compiled a huge trove of evidence, including thousands of Remington internal documents.
He sued Remington, and in a settlement the company agreed to make design changes in the popular rifle, and to offer to modify—for a fee—older versions of the gun that required the user to switch off the safety in order to unload the gun. But the company refused to launch a full-blown recall, and in what Barber contends is a violation of the agreement, continued to sell some models with the controversial Walker trigger.
Under the proposed settlement, Remington will offer to replace the Walker triggers with the replacement mechanism developed following the settlement with Barber. That trigger is known as the X-Mark Pro, but it has had issues of its own. Earlier this year, Remington recalled thousands of X-Mark Pro models manufactured since 2006, after determining that "excess bonding agent used in the assembly process" could cause the guns to unintentionally discharge. That voluntary recall will continue as part of the class action settlement.
Barber is not a party in the latest class action cases, but has served as a paid consultant to the plaintiffs' attorneys.
"I never wanted there to be more Gus Barbers," he told CNBC Friday.
"I'm humbled by the whole thing," he said regarding the latest developments. "For all the people who have come and gone in my life, I'm jealous. They got their lives back. It was my intent to save people's lives. I can't walk away as long as someone's life hangs in the balance."
Barber noted Remington's corporate structure has changed repeatedly over the years, and he is pleased the company has finally agreed to fix the guns.
"I'm going to commend them for that. It's not in my nature to attack my adversary when they do the right thing. I commend them. People hear Remington and they automatically think 'oldest gun manufacturer,' but people don't know the company has changed many, many times. I feel more sympathy to this new company."
This is not the first time Remington has considered recalling the popular rifle. CNBC found that at least twice—in 1970 and 1994—company officials discussed the idea but ultimately rejected it. Again, the decisions had to do with the cost, which had risen dramatically from Mike Walker's original 5 ½ cents a gun, and continues to go up today.
In a report to investors last month, Remington's privately-held parent company, Remington Outdoors, previously known as The Freedom Group, revealed it had set aside $29.7 million in what the company called a "Model 700 settlement reserve."
The company's owner, Cerberus Capital Management, announced plans to exit the gun business in 2012 following the deadly school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, but has yet to find a buyer.
Read MoreRemington under fire