By Chuck Nottingham
Last month, this column disagreed with front-page stories in state newspapers attributing the death of 9-year-old Gus Barber to a certain make and model rifle. News articles alleged a history of unintentional firings with Remington Model 700s specifically that a significant number of M-700s tend to fire when their safeties are switched off.
This column asserted that "safeties," on types of hunting rifles having them, are nothing more than mechanical devices that can fail.
Indeed, the National Rifle Association has taught that lesson in the 40 years I've instructed under NRA certification.
Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks' "Hunter Education" states, "The main thing to remember about safeties is that they are not 100-percent reliable. A gun may possibly fire even though its safety is on."
The first rule in Remington's "Hunter Pocket Guide" is "1. Don't rely on your gun's safety. Treat every gun as if it were loaded and ready to fire."
However, Gus's father asked me, "Would it be acceptable to you owning a rifle that has been known ... to discharge upon bolt opening, bolt closing, being jarred or even firing upon moving the safety to the fire position?"
The question is important, and Mr. Barber offers considerable evidence.
Particularly impressive were verifiable copies of 16 unsolicited written accounts by Model 700 owners in Montana and Idaho attesting each had experienced at least one inadvertent discharge similar to the one that killed Gus. Barber says he has about 30 more. My own contact with shooters across the U.S. shows additional accidental-discharge incidents involving M-700s.
Most persuasive was expert opinions of two practicing gunsmiths and trigger engineers, one in Texas and the other in Idaho. Both charge the "Mike Walker fire-control system" standard on all M-700 Remingtons, brought out in '62 and still manufactured as America's best-selling hunting rifle is prone to involuntary firing.
Both gunsmiths have been expert witnesses in proceedings against Remington brought by victims of accidental shootings. They assert the manufacturer had knowledge of what both characterize a dangerous defect decades ago when another model having the same Walker trigger system, the discontinued M-600, was recalled as a result of complaints of discharges and a successful lawsuit.
Local gun smiths who verify the safe condition of guns used regularly in Havre area hunter education and junior NRA programs in which my children are active verify opinions the Walker trigger system is not the best available. They say essentially it's a complicated bench-rest trigger put on a hunting firearm, very prone to problems due to wear, dirt, temperature extremes, tinkering, and damage.
Barber echos the theory of an attorney with experience in scores of actions against Remington that the company is choosing a financially advantageous path of denial and litigation rather than to recall another dangerous product.
On the other side of the issue, some evidence Barber terms "fact," is not. It is opinion and interpretation of intention and culpability.
Contrary indications and opinion emerge.
For instance, I'm unable to produce a single misfire involving release of safeties in a dozen M-700s inspected following Remington's own quality-control routine of "tricking" guns to malfunction by manipulation, although a Remington document Barber supplied me shows several hundred "trickings" in a single month. Even the Texas and Idaho gunsmiths admit inadvertent firings in the very rifles involved often can't be duplicated.
Gunsmiths I consult say any firearm's "safety" can fail and strongly discourage using a safety for chamber-loaded carry for any gun, as several makes and models they've worked on have failed not just Remingtons. They were quick to question whether uses of safeties were employed in guns they certified for local state hunter education live fire and junior NRA qualification. I was equally quick to assure them safeties were definitely not relied upon in those programs.
To produce this column, I not only study at least five monthly firearm technical journals and rely on 40 years' experience as a hunter, shooter, competitor, military and civilian instructor performing thousands of safety checks and maintenance on firearms, but nearly on a daily basis I confer with safety and shooting experts.
In my opinion, the Walker trigger is better than some in the industry, but not as good as others. Also not fact, but opinion, is that Remington's response to customer complaints was and is less than optimum. Another gun maker was faced with unintentional firings of a certain revolver in the '70s. Immediately the company pointed out chamber-under-the-hammer loading was against a century of safe practice and increased public education, as Remington has similarly done. But the revolver maker went a step further, improving reliability of its trigger design and offering free retrofit to the new system. In my opinion, that's a higher level of customer regard.
A dwindling minority of safety experts continue to subscribe to the idea that a safety may be relied upon for full-time chamber-loaded carry, but even those strongly advise constant and close muzzle control and avoidance of the trigger except upon immediate intention to fire.
I'm solidly in the growing ranks of safety instructors agreeing with NRA, Montana FWP, and most arms manufacturers' directions. Don't hunt chamber loaded in the field unless the shot is imminent. That means never chamber-loaded in vehicles, slung rifles, shoulder carries, trail carries any method other than two-hand ready.
In my considered opinion, the "conventional practice" of hunting chamber-loaded is the culprit in nearly every case of unintentional shots which kills or injures a hunting participant.
However, Gus's father tells me hindsight is always 20/20. He believes foremost the gun is a potential killer and is pursuing the issue of safety and culpability in the memory of his dead son so other families might be spared their tragedy. In mid-January, CNN will air what Barber contends is mounting evidence against the gun and its maker. "60 Minutes" has also contacted him. If his contentions are correct and the M-700 proves another public menace like the Chevrolet Corvair, then I wish him God speed.
But as always, this column is interested in conditions endangering people in Montana's outdoors, not in assigning personal blame. No amount of blame will restore Gus to his grieving family.
Both Richard Barber and I agree that increased awareness of events that took Gus's life can serve to protect others.