Navy veteran Kelli McAllister, 53, was hunting deer in North Florida in February 2021 when her Savage Arms Axis II rifle went off unexpectedly. The gun had snagged on a camouflage tarp as she climbed a ladder into a treehouse lookout, and when she tried to jostle the weapon free, it fired.

The bullet sliced through McAllister’s calf and blew out her shin. “I looked downward and saw that I wasn’t standing on my leg anymore,” she said.

By the time McAllister made the hourlong journey from the remote strip of swampy wilderness to the hospital, she had lost so much blood her leg needed to be amputated below the knee.

McAllister at her home in Maine. Michael G. Seamans for The Trace

McAllister claimed in a lawsuit against Savage Arms that a defect in her Axis II had allowed it to unexpectedly fire, even though the safety was engaged. A Pensacola jury sided with Savage Arms in March, deciding that the company had not been negligent in the design or manufacture of its rifles and was not responsible for her injury. 

But a Trace review of company records and testimony, as well as interviews with multiple firearms quality and consumer product safety experts, raises serious questions about the reliability of a gun trusted by thousands of hunters around the country. 

Internal records introduced during McAllister’s trial indicate that Savage Arms discovered a possible defect that repeatedly arose during testing of the Axis II as early as 2013. 

The company devised a fix for the problem in 2018, but continued selling the previous version for more than a year to offload existing stock, a Savage Arms senior product manager testified. 

Tracy Van Flatern, who spent 13 years as a quality director at the gunmaker Colt, said that no company should continue selling a product that exhibits persistent problems in testing. “Any business making that kind of a decision would be doing so based on economics, not customer safety,” he said.

A similar lawsuit is pending against Savage Arms in Oklahoma, where a hunter alleges that his Axis rifle shot him through his abdomen after he tripped and fell in 2019. The Axis and the Axis II have similar safety mechanisms, and the Oklahoma hunter claims that his safety was also engaged when he was shot. 

Savage Arms did not respond to multiple requests for comment. During McAllister’s lawsuit, the company said that it devised a change to the Axis II to improve factory efficiency and consolidate parts, not because there was a problem with the rifle’s safety. Every Axis II is inspected three times before leaving the factory to ensure it functions correctly, company representatives testified.

“It is … undisputed that this rifle can be used safely,” Savage Arms wrote in a motion to the court, adding that it was under no legal obligation to make an accident- or fail-proof product.

As The Trace has previously reported, guns are one of the only products exempt from federal consumer product safety regulations. No federal agency can investigate reports of defects, set mandatory manufacturing or design standards, or recall models found to be defective. When a gun malfunctions, it is up to the weapon’s maker to investigate the problem and notify the public. 

Several gun manufacturers have been accused of ignoring potentially lethal safety issues, only taking action after intense public scrutiny and costly litigation. 

Remington has battled claims that an issue with the trigger on its signature rifle led to the deaths of more than 20 people. The company has faced at least 150 lawsuits over six decades and issued a partial recall, but has vehemently denied allegations of a defect.

Taurus stopped selling a popular series of pistols after years of legal complaints that the guns could fire when dropped. The company never issued a recall and has rejected claims that the weapons are defective. 

More recently, an investigation by The Trace and The Washington Post revealed that more than 100 people had alleged that their SIG Sauer P320 pistols fired without the trigger being pulled. At least 80 people were wounded in those shootings. 

Samantha Piatt, a SIG Sauer spokesperson, said in a statement that there had never been a final judgment against the company in any case involving a claimed unintentional discharge of a P320. “Contrary to prior reporting, claims that the P320 is capable of firing without a trigger pull are without merit and have been soundly rejected as a matter of law by thirteen separate courts, including a unanimous jury verdict in SIG SAUER’s favor,” Piatt wrote. “SIG SAUER is extremely proud of our outstanding safety record and quality firearms.”  

Richard Ruggieri, an attorney who won a landmark judgment against the gunmaker Bryco Arms over a product defect in 2003, said that preexisting attitudes about gun safety make product liability cases against gunmakers especially challenging to win.

“We grow up with these platitudes about guns that say only the user can prevent gun accidents,” he said. “But as with any product, manufacturers are responsible for taking steps to make foreseeable uses of their product as safe as reasonably possible. And this idea too often gets lost when guns are part of the equation.”

Savage Arms, based in Massachusetts, rolled out its Axis series of rifles in 2010. Since then, the Axis II has become one of the most popular entry-level hunting rifles on the market, with more than 800,000 in circulation. Hunters prize the weapon for its accuracy and price point: In 2020, the National Rifle Association’s Shooting Illustrated magazine called it “the best buy in factory-produced precision rifles today.” 

The Axis II uses what’s called a tang safety — essentially a flat tab on the top of the gun that slides forward and backward. On McAllister’s weapon, the tab stops and clicks a little over halfway between fire and safe, giving the false impression that the safety has been engaged, according to her lawsuit. A slightly harder push is required to move the tab into the safe position. 

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which investigated McAllister’s shooting, recorded video showing her rifle firing with the safety in the middle position. The lead investigator, Drew Nelson, testified that he exchanged emails with Savage Arms to inquire about this “anomaly,” but the company eventually stopped responding.

McAllister, upright in her chair, showed a flicker of dejection as judge T. Kent Wetherell II read the jury’s verdict from his bench. Wetherell, who was appointed by former President Donald Trump, was more emotive after the jurors exited the courtroom. “You got lucky in my opinion,” he told the attorneys representing Savage Arms. “I think that gun had a position in it it shouldn’t have had.”

Savage Arms did not dispute that the safety on McCallister’s rifle could get stuck in the middle position, but the company maintained that any analog switch could be balanced between on and off. Several experts who testified on behalf of Savage Arms said McAllister had disregarded hunter safety guidelines, and they blamed the shooting on her lack of caution. 

However, testing records presented during the trial show that Savage Arms’ quality team viewed the middle position as a serious issue. Between late 2013 and late 2019, testers repeatedly sent finished Axis II rifles back to assembly because of  problems with the guns’ safeties. Testers initially described these issues as “MID SAFE” and “FIRES ON SAFE” defects, indicating the guns would fire with the safety in the middle position. But in 2018, testers began to refer to the problems more broadly, as “HARD/UN-MOVING/LOOSE SAFETY OR MID SAFE DEFECTS.”  

At trial, Savage Arms said its quality testers had used the incorrect terminology in referring to the Axis II’s issues as “MID SAFE” defects, noting how that description was reserved for a different type of safety. The company insisted that the problem with McAllister’s rifle was best described as a “hard moving safety.”

One engineering document submitted to the court indicates that by May 2018, the company had designed a solution to eliminate the “sensing of a ‘Mid Safe’ potential issue.” The change involved swapping out a single screw for a slightly shorter model, which cost about 16 cents apiece. But Ronald Contorno, a Savage Arms senior product manager, testified that the company had planned to use up its remaining stock of original screws before moving to the new design. Savage Arms didn’t implement the change until 2020, Contorno said.

McAllister’s rifle was manufactured during that interim period, between October and November of 2019, Contorno testified. 

That October, records from the trial show, 21 of the 50 Axis II rifles sent for function testing were returned to the manufacturing floor because of defects.

“They adjusted their manufacturing process to try to address this issue and then did not adequately notify existing gun purchasers or potential future customers,” said Adam Garber, a gun violence prevention activist and former consumer watchdog at the nonprofit U.S. Public Interest Research Group. “In traditional product safety cases, they would have to issue a recall and provide a fix or refund.”

For McAllister, who now wears a prosthetic limb, walking is an everyday struggle.  

“It prevents me from doing the things with my grandchildren that every grandmother dreams of doing,” she said.

If she could, McAllister said she would’ve done things differently on the day she lost her leg. She also believes the manufacturer should be held responsible.

McAllister said she wishes she had done things differently that day. She would have followed hunting protocol, and kept her rifle unloaded while maneuvering into position. She also would have used a pulley to carry the rifle to the treehouse platform. But she maintained that her missteps did not absolve Savage Arms of its responsibility to provide a safe product to its customers. 

“To find out that Savage knew it had such a problem with these rifles and continued to sell them anyway — there’s just such a risk for other people to be injured.”