The full title is UnSafe by Design: Forensic Gunsmithing and Firearms Accident Investigations, and it was published by what we believe is Belk’s own imprint, “Truth ‘n Shootin’ Books.” The homey publisher’s name is a pointer to the tone of the book, so if affected country homey-ness sets your teeth on edge, this may not be the book for you.
His primary motivation, Belk says, in writing this was to produce:
A tutorial on firearms design and function with an emphasis on safety, using past investigations of failures to better understand why some guns are safer than others, by design.
In fact, his motivation seems to be partly that, and partly a defensive response to criticism of that part of Belk’s career that has been spent as a plaintiff’s expert in lawsuits against firearms manufacturers. That criticism can get vitriolic (example). He has legitimacy as an expert because he was also gunwriter — largely at Guns & Ammo magazine — and a gunsmith who trained at Trinidad and made custom hunting rifles at a shop in Filer, Idaho. In Belk’s world, the cause of the accident often is the gun, and more especially, it’s the way the evil corporate overlords cheaped out on the gun.
Belk believes that weapons should be designed so that they are as safe as possible. (Yes, we know: “Is gun. Is not safe.” But bear with us). He says that one thing that boils down to is this (from p. 423 [Kindle ed] but this is repeated throughout the book):
[A] gun that can fire without the trigger being pulled and can fire with the manual safety ON is a defective gun.
The Remington 700 series trigger, the so-called Walker trigger, is such a gun. Most of them never do this (we can’t recall a single incident with M24s over decades of use), but some will, and if you can make it through Belk’s writing style, which isn’t for everybody, you will learn what Belk thinks the problem is.
Here’s Remington’s counter to one of the TV stories based in part on Belk’s testimony (plaintiffs’ attorneys have been able to place their arguments with at least two TV networks, and both CNBC — countered here — and CBS’s 60 Minutes have run one-sided Remington trigger stories).
Belk, conversely, turns this into a morality play. From random places in the book:
…some English major that wants to write outdoor stories to do a ‘test report’ on the latest cheap piece of miss-designed hardware that would fit right into the toy section by mistake, and suddenly he’s a ‘gun writer’…
…Guns are made for economy. It is rare to find any gun that is made to be as good as it can be, only as good as is price competitive. There have always been cheap guns just like there were iron swords and inferior stone arrow heads…
…looked like a Browning and worked like a Browning but was considerably cheapened to make it more affordable.
Cheap guns are always suspect, even in the most simple of ways.
I think we can trace, by following design changes, the decline of safety in firearms dating back to just after the war with one company and then, like a domino falling in line, the others followed. Everybody had to get cheap or go broke.
Two comments there: by every measure, the incidence of firearms accidents has dropped like a rock since World War II. (Recall our post about the Maine accidents in 1954? It wasn’t a stand-alone post, but included in one of our Mess of Accidents compilations, quoting from Sports Illustrated):
During a Maine gunning season something like 165,000 hunters take to the woods. Of this number, a normal season’s accidents will run to 70 dead and wounded. [Inland Fish & Game Dep’t Special Investigator Maynard] Marsh’s casualty report this Saturday evening could be succinctly stated as: three Mistaken Identities; two Line of Fires; two Accidental Discharges. Score? five dead, two wounded.
As accidents get rarer, it seems that the tendency to blame the gun increases. And the “cheap” argument plays into the messages in constant heavy rotation in the pop culture.
Belk needs to be taken seriously even in his grating quasi-Marxist high-dudgeon mode (“the corporations did it to save money”), because he has carefully analyzed triggers in particular, and most especially the Remington Walker trigger on the Model 700 and its ancestors and derivatives, and the Remington Common Fire Control used on shotguns.
That he has done this at the behest of plaintiff’s attorneys, and for money, is more of an indictment of the American tort system than it is of Belk.
As a “tutorial,” though, the book is weak. While it is rich in design information, that information is so embedded in folksy argument that finding facts resembles going through dog poo for something valuable that Fido ingested. A great deal of the design information in here is also found in other books, as Belk himself admits, recommending Otteson and DeHaas:
Stuart Otteson has written about bolt action rifle design and excellent books on trigger mechanisms. Frank DeHaas Senior and Junior have books that describe trigger mechanisms as well. Information is power and I highly recommend them all.
Here’s an example of what we have called “defensive tone” above, but what Belk would probably say illustrates the passion he brings to firearms safety; it begins on p. 416 [Kindle edition]:
I’ve been accused of being a firearms busybody and critical of just about everything I see. To avoid that, I don’t go to many gun shows anymore. What do you do when you see a guy reaching for wads of bills while lusting for a Vulcan .50? I’m seriously asking that question of everyone. I can’t buy every dangerous gun I see and I can’t carry around a soap box and preach, either.
At a gunshow in Denver many years before I started testifying, I saw a man and a young son looking at .22 rifles. I love to watch people watching guns and they were a study. They were looking for something really cheap. I thought the kid wanted the gun more than his dad, but his dad was going along if it was cheap enough.
They fondled every old Mossberg and Savage and beat up old Coey in the show and then seemed to settle on the one gun there that was likely to blind the kid in both eyes and it could do it on the very first shot. They had seemed to decide on a Stevens Crackshot with a $ 60 price tag on it. It was worn out and the chances of it catching the rim of a modern .22LR between the extractor and barrel was very real. On closing the lever the gun fires out of battery and the brass fragments fan out in a pattern nearly assured of blowing out one or more eyes.
I didn’t know the dealer, but at least I had sixty bucks so I went over and told the dealer I was about to screw up his sale and here’s the money up front, and then explained to the man and his kid how it was dangerous and helped them buy a Winchester Model 69-A for just a few bucks more.
Indeed, Belk’s among basic contentions are that some firearms are unsafe by design, others are unsafe by manufacture, and that many buyers and shooters give altogether too much deference to manufacturers. For that reason, we found it an interesting, if sometimes exasperating, read.
There are gems in there, like his analysis of the Ruger #1 Rifle safety (which he likes and uses an example of a well-designed tang safety), and this (p. 243 in the Kindle ed.]:
A general rule of thumb for safeties is: The closer to the primer the safety operates the more inherent safety it’s likely to have. Firing pins are hard to block, lock or intercept on any gun but bolt action rifles. In other guns, whatever is closest to the firing pin usually gets locked or blocked. In descending order of distance from the firing pin are the hammer or striker, then the sear and then the trigger. When viewed from that direction, any gun that does not block, lock or intercept the hammer or striker must, by definition be less than safe by design.
You will just have to skip a lot of folksy mock-question-answering and stuff to get to things like that. The book has insights in it, but they take some mining to find. For this reason, and because Belk’s theory of the Walker trigger malfunction is completely unproven, we’re not going to place this book in our page of recommended design books.
We do, however, urge everyone carrying a Remington 700 or anything else to be sure of the muzzle direction and backstop at all times. What if Belk is right and it just goes off? What if Remington is right and the ADs were caused by bad maintenance or an unconscious finger on the trigger? Either way, if the rifle is not pointed at anything but the most inanimate and inexpensive thing around, any bang may be followed by a curse, but not by heartbreak or ruin.
We’re now going to do what Belk recommends, and read Otteson and DeHaas!
Belk, Jack. UnSafe by Design: Forensic Gunsmithing and Firearms Accident Investigations. Truth ‘n Shootin’ Books, 2014.
Available from Amazon in Paperback and Kindle formats: