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Trigger Trials: What Makes Guns Discharge?

It’s hard to pinpoint what makes guns discharge, but my dad’s experience has left an impression on my family.

Many years ago while out hunting elk in the Bitterroot Mountains, my father was plodding along with his much-beloved Remington 700 chambered for the 8mm Remington Magnum.

For some reason, he stopped on the top of a ridge and couldn’t recall if he had chambered a round when he’d left the tent that morning. Pointing the muzzle of the gun up into the air he flicked the gun’s safety off to open the bolt and the rifle discharged.

Since he kept his muzzle pointed in a safe direction, the only trouble caused by this incident was a bullet whipping off into the sky and a fair-sized bump on Dad’s pinky finger from the trigger guard recoiling back onto his knuckle.

After this incident we took the rifle down and discovered that there was a tremendous amount of crud packed around the parts of the trigger assembly. We gave everything a thorough cleaning, reassembled the gun and put it back into service.

Now, at the end of every season, special attention is paid to the cleaning of trigger assemblies and a repeat of the incident has not occurred since.

Since that day my father’s gun went off, quite a few other people have complained about the safeties on Remington 700 rifles, and some have even sued. Now, the interesting thing about Dad’s gun discharging is that neither I nor anyone else can say that flicking the safety off actually caused it to fire.

Normally, Dad is pretty careful when it comes to handling firearms, and he’s certainly been around the block a few times with guns; it’s fair to say he has a healthy respect for them. That having been said, it was a real cold day, he was wearing heavy gloves and his hand was in the neighborhood of the trigger. It had to be for the gun to leave a welt on his pinky.

We went through all the steps of cleaning the trigger assembly afterwards as one of the local gunsmiths suggested, but the incident could have just as easily been user error instead of equipment failure. Dad still uses the gun to this day, and has never made use of the free updates Remington offers that allow the user to open the bolt without taking the safety off.

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The main reason that my father didn’t jump to get his rifle retrofitted or switch to another type of gun is very simple: my dad doesn’t really care if the safety on his rifle functions flawlessly because he never trusts a safety on a gun and never will.

Granted, he would prefer that his gun didn’t go off when the safety is released, but to his way of thinking that’s a one in a million problem that will never cause trouble again. In the unlikely case that if it does, it will only cause a scary noise and nothing more.

My father observes the first rule of gun safety, which is to always keep the muzzle of your weapon pointed in a safe direction. Dad has been beating this rule into his sons for about thirty years now, and has begun drumming it into the grandkids for good reason. If this rule is followed and adhered to religiously, you might suffer some embarrassment from an accidental discharge, but while you can live with embarrassment, there are some things with which you can’t.

The cold hard truth of the matter is that any safety, whether it blocks the trigger assembly or the firing pin, can fail given enough wear. Safeties like transfer bars or half-cock notches on revolvers can become filthy or worn, causing unintended discharges.

Even if your particular brand of firearm is in excellent condition, with everything as clean as a whistle, you still run the risk of a slam-fire, which is often caused by a protruding primer being struck by the gun’s bolt face. So far in my gun tinkering career I’ve seen mechanical wear problems that could cause an accidental discharge in just about every brand of bolt action rifle, running the gamut from the Ruger 77 to ancient old Mausers.

No bolt-action design is free from this danger. When it comes to handguns, I’ve seen everything from striker-fired pistols with their firing pins stuck forward to 1911s that can go fully automatic. Revolvers suffer from the same set of problems, and are also capable of fully automatic fire if the right set of conditions exists.

Naturally, anything with an exposed hammer from the venerable Winchester 1897 shotgun to the Marlin lever guns can fall from their half-cocked perches. I’ve even encountered one single shot rifle that liked to drop its firing pin the instant the breech was closed. No gun design is immune to the ravages of time and use.

The point of all this is to drive home the lesson that our first rule, always keep the muzzle pointed in a safe direction, is the cornerstone of all that is gun safety.

Following this one very simple rule can make all the difference between an incident that is a bit of a shock and an incident that is the worst moment of your life.

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A bullet fired from a gun is something that can never be taken back, and wishing that it was possible is a situation none of us ever wants to be in. One of the worst things that the folks who’ve sued Remington have to deal with is the fact that regardless of whether or not their rifles discharged accidentally, the person holding the gun must shoulder the majority of the blame if anyone is injured or killed.

I don’t know about you, but I’d hate to have to try and live with something like that.

The American shooting public has the ability to lower the number of accidental shootings to zero if we work at it. This will require a constant observance of the rules of safety and serious dedication in the long term but, then again, handling guns is serious business.

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Trigger Trials: What Makes Guns Discharge?