Deaths, Injuries and Lawsuits Raise Questions about Popular Gun's Safety

At least two dozen deaths and more than 100 injuries have been linked to accidental discharges involving the 700’s trigger mechanismRemington attributes all the incidents to improper maintenance, unsafe gun handling or other actions by the user such as unauthorized adjustments of the trigger

The manufacturer of the world’s most popular hunting rifle has been wrestling for decades with a critical safety issue, and at least twice considered a nationwide recall of the gun, according to corporate insiders and internal documents revealed in a ten-month CNBC investigation.

Remington Model 700 rifle
Remington Model 700 rifle

But the Remington Arms Company has never alerted the public to the internal concerns, and insists the gun is free of defects, despite thousands of customer complaints.

The controversy over the 700 is explored in a CNBC Original documentary, “Remington Under Fire: A CNBC Investigation,”premiering Wednesday, October 20 at 9pm ET/PT.

The Remington Model 700-series rifle—with more than five million sold—is famous for its accuracy and smooth trigger. In addition to being popular with hunters and target shooters, a version of the 700 is also widely used by law enforcement and military snipers.

“The Model 700 is the most popular, reliable, accurate and trusted bolt-action rifle in the world, with over five million rifles produced and billions of rounds fired over nearly five decades,” Remington says in a statement to CNBC.

But the customer complaints, and more than 75 lawsuits, have alleged the 700 is susceptible to firing without the trigger being pulled. At least two dozen deaths and more than 100 injuries have been linked to accidental discharges involving the 700’s trigger mechanism.

They include the death in 2000 of nine-year-old Gus Barber of Manhattan, Montana, who was killed on a family hunting trip when his mother’s Remington 700 went off as she was unloading it. Barbara Barber has said she is certain her hand was nowhere near the trigger. Her husband Rich Barber, who witnessed the accident, learned within days about similar reported incidents involving the 700.

“I went to the funeral home and looked Gus right square in the eye and I said, ‘Son, it ends here and now’,” Barber said. He would devote the next ten years to finding answers about what caused his son’s death, and is sharing much of his findings for the first time.

Trigger Trouble

The 700 series of rifles dates back to the 1940s, when Remington—which had been purchased a decade earlier by the giant chemical company DuPont—was transitioning from a major supplier of the war effort to a more consumer-oriented company. DuPont, which sold Remington in 1993, declined to be interviewed, referring inquiries to Remington.

The rifle series—which debuted with the Remington 721—featured a unique trigger system patented by a young Remington engineer named Merle “Mike” Walker. Walker has called his design “a perfect trigger,” with a smooth pull favored by expert shooters.

According to Walker’s patent, the secret was a tiny piece of metal called a “trigger connector,” which is mounted loosely inside the firing mechanism. But critics, including ballistics experts who have been hired to testify against the company, say small amounts of rust, debris, or even a small jolt can cause the trigger connector to become misaligned, forcing the trigger itself to lose contact with the rest of the firing mechanism.

Then, the gun can be fired when other parts are operated, such as the safety or the bolt. Barbara Barber says her Remington 700 discharged as she moved the safety to the off position to unload the gun. Others have reported their rifles discharging when they opened, closed or even touched the bolt.

Remington attributes all the incidents to improper maintenance, unsafe gun handling or other actions by the user such as unauthorized adjustments of the trigger.

“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,” Remington’s statement says, “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 Model 700, including its trigger mechanism, has been free of any defect since it was first produced,” the company adds.

But internal documents obtained by CNBC show that in 1948—before the gun went on the market—Mike Walker himself proposed a design change to prevent the trigger’s internal parts from falling out of alignment.

Other documents show the added cost for Walker’s “trigger block” came to pennies per gun, but with the rifle already over budget, officials decided against making a change.

Recall Debate and Design Changes

Documents show that in later years, Remington decided at least twice—in 1979 and 1994—to abandon the idea of a nationwide recall of the 700 series, in part because officials feared it would undercut their message to the public about firearm safety, including making certain the gun is pointed in a safe direction and not becoming overly reliant on the gun’s safety mechanism.

“If proper firearms safety rules are followed, no accidental injuries would ever occur,” Remington says in its statement.

But former employees interviewed by CNBC and testifying in court cases have claimed that Remington also was careful not to disclose to customers that others had complained about inadvertent discharges. Instead, these employees say, they were instructed to say that every instance was unique.

Remington has made some changes in the rifle. In 1982, it eliminated a feature called a “bolt lock,” which required the user to switch off the safety in order to unload the gun—a common source of inadvertent discharges.

But Remington did not publicize the change until 2002. That year, Remington came closest to a recall. The company offered—for a $20 fee—to retrofit existing rifles, removing the bolt lock so they could be unloaded with the safety on. The so-called “Safety Modification Program” was part of a settlement with the Barber family, whose rifle was among millions produced before 1982 with a bolt lock.

“The Barber family knows it has our deepest sympathies,” Remington said in a press release at the time.

But the overall design of the trigger remained the same, and complaints and lawsuits over inadvertent discharges persisted.

In 2007, partly in response to the lawsuits, Remington introduced a new trigger system for the 700 called the X-Mark Pro. The controversial trigger connector is gone, and the safety includes a trigger block, just as Mike Walker proposed in 1948.

But the Walker trigger is still used in Remington’s 770 rifle, as well as older models of the 700 still on sale at retailers worldwide. The trigger is also in Remington sniper rifles supplied to the military, which recently awarded Remington a $28 million contract.

And Remington never instituted a recall of the five million Remington 700s already sold.

“Despite any careless reporting to the contrary,” Remington says in its statement, “the gun’s use by millions of Americans has proven it to be a safe, trusted and reliable rifle.”

Watch "Remington Under Fire: A CNBC Investigation," reported by Scott Cohn, Wednesday, October 20 at 9pm ET/PT.