January 1, 2013

Repairing Remington 788 Bolt-Action Rifles

The Model 788 rifle Remington built to compete with cheaper items remains one of its most popular years later. Repairing it gets complicated

The Remington Model 788 is a unique rifle from its bolt to its trigger assembly. It was designed to be an economy rifle that would be able to compete in the low end market with other, cheaper guns. Remington did not want to lose a share of this inexpensive but lucrative market. The manufacturer was also reluctant to lower the price on its ADL. Those two factors combined to bring about the 788.

Simple, well-designed parts that were easily manufactured and assembled helped Remington rapidly establish the 788 in the market—maybe too well. It took on the cheaper rifles and grabbed the lion’s share of that market. It also grabbed a healthy share of the mid-to-high priced rifle markets, including Remington’s other rifles. Not only was the 788 inexpensive, it could take on its big brothers and match them shot per shot. Simple lines and cheap stock aside, the 788 more than proved itself on the range and, more importantly, in the field. That’s why this light and reliable magazine-fed piece is still one of the most highly sought-after used rifles anywhere.

Hunters prowl gun shows, gun shops, pawn shops, newspapers and anywhere else they might find a used 788. It is not uncommon at gun shows to see entire tables full of good used BDLs be virtually ignored while several people try to buy the single 788 at the end of the table. I can generally sell a used 788 for as much as a used BDL and move it faster. I personally believe Remington discontinued the 788 because it got too popular and cut into the 700 line’s sales.

Courtesy, American Gunsmith Book of the Rifle

Courtesy, American Gunsmith Book of the Rifle

The popularity of these rifles brings their owners into gun shops with much the same attitude that parents have when taking their 2-year-old to the doctor for a shot: “I know it needs to be here. But don’t you hurt it.” Bearing this in mind, you can bring a big smile to the customer by saying something along the lines of “What a great little 788” or “Good 788s are hard to come by.” This lets him know you will take good care of his precious 788.

You’ll find the 788 a simple rifle to work on although many of its parts are hard to get. Overall take down is essentially the same on all of them but there will be variations from caliber-to-caliber. For example, the bolt head assembly is often of a completely different design. Many of the rifle’s parts will interchange between some calibers but not others, so be sure the replacement part is for the same caliber rifle you are working on.

We are going to look at the .30-30 type first, which is basically the same as the .44 Magnum but usually not as problematic. Where the .30-30 seldom has feeding problems, the .44 can give you fits. A new magazine for the .44 often solves the problem; the hard part is finding a .44 magazine. Getting a new one to fit tightly can also be trying.

Let’s address the problems one at a time. If your .44 Magnum rifle’s magazine is loose-fitting, it might be corrected by simply tightening the guide bar screw. We will cover this later. If the magazine is tight, remove the bolt and see if it fits as securely at the front of the receiver as at the rear. Push down on the front of the magazine rim—not the magazine follower—to see if it is springy or easily moves downward. If so, this is causing your feeding problem and we will fix it shortly. If it is tight and looks good, remove the magazine and check the feed lips for evidence of their being bent in and out. Damaged feed lips ruin magazines but because replacements are hard to get, repair might be necessary. Start by getting the lips as smooth and even as possible and bend them up or down just a little bit at a time until you get them to where they work correctly. Do not go back and forth hoping to “hit” the right spot.

Does the rim of the .44 cartridge slide into and out of the magazine without trying to stick? Does its rim try to hang at the back of the magazine when pushed forward? Where the cartridge hangs while feeding will tell you what you need to know to adjust the magazine. If the cartridge has to move down before it can start forward, the back of the lips must be closed enough to correct this. The .44 cartridge should slide out of the lips in a smooth, fluid movement with its nose riding high enough to fit the chamber without drag. A cartridge cannot enter the barrel at too great an angle. The larger rim must be high enough to let the cartridge release and enter the chamber. If the lips are too open, the cartridge nose will try to enter too high and jam the action. If you are spreading the lips, try the magazine often in the rifle to make sure the bolt does not drag on the top of the lips while closing and opening.

The same basics apply to other cartridges fired from the 788 but none give as many problems as the .44 Magnum. The .222 and .223 magazines often need work on the front part of their lips and require a tighter fit than the larger cartridge case sizes. The overall condition of the magazine is also very important. Sides that are bent or dented can keep the magazine from working right. Push the cartridge follower up and down several times to make sure it moves freely and that the magazine latch is locking it in place. We’ve spent enough time talking about magazines. Let’s move on.

Remove the bolt and check out the three locking lugs at the rear next to the bolt handle. From the outset of this rifle’s production, these rear locking lugs were eyed with suspicion by many and denounced as downright unsafe by some. The 788’s track record suggests otherwise but clean the lugs thoroughly and check for wear. If there is damage, you will find the internal lugs in the rear of the receiver in worse shape than those on the bolt. Excessive damage here means the rifle is unsafe and must be discarded accordingly as there are no new receivers available.

As we examine the bolt head assembly on the .30-30 and .44, the ejector should move smartly in and out. A sticky, slow response will cause poor ejection or a jam. The bar-type extractor is very stiff and should not move without a strong push to make it travel straight away from the bolt assembly. The bolt head assembly used on the other calibers looks like that found on the 700 rifles. The extractor is an extractor ring that fits inside the bolt face. The ejector is a spring-loaded pin that forces the cartridge body away from the bolt face as soon as the mouth of the cartridge leaves the receiver. To check the extractor, push a fired cartridge in the appropriate caliber into the face of the bolt head assembly and see if it grabs it tightly. It should not come out until you let the ejector push the cartridge to the side in the ejection mode before it releases. The ejector can be tested in the same manner.

Feeding difficulties, most of which are caused by the magazine, are the most common problems with the 788 but extraction runs second. The extractors always get the blame but rough, dirty or rusted chambers contribute. A bad chamber often causes extractors to fail by increasing the pressure on them many times. Before removing an extractor or ejector, always take out the firing pin and spring. Unscrewing the bolt plug from the base of the bolt allows the firing pin assembly to come out. You can remove the bolt face from the bolt body by driving out the retaining pin that holds the two together. Part of this rifle’s simplicity is that most parts are held by pins that are easily removed and installed. This made it cheaper to build and easier to work on but the down side is that many of the pins get loose as they are driven in and out over the years. They also get bent, deformed, and replaced with nails, wire or even a piece of a match. Your selection of gunsmith’s roll pins can be a real help to put this little rifle back together again. After the bolt head is off the body, the bar extractor can be easily removed. Driving out the ejector retaining pin will allow the ejector to escape easily. Rust may destroy some 788 ejector springs but clean ones can occasionally go bad as well. This happens when these rifles have been left loaded and the ejector spring has compressed over a period of years. It shouldn’t happen but it does. The ejector spring will go bad before the firing pin spring does.

Replacing extractors on those calibers that have ring extractors is just like that on the Model 700s. These high-grade steel spring pieces are shaped like a new moon and fit into a groove cut into the inside of the bolt face. A rivet that goes through one end of the extractor and a hole drilled through the bottom of the extractor groove in the bolt face holds the extractor in place. The two ends are the springs that allow the extractors to move in and out of their groove. A lip on the center of the extractor reaches out and slides over the cartridge rim as it is pushed into the bolt face. Remington and many gunsmithing supply companies make a special tool for installing these rivets. When this extractor bends, breaks or comes loose, the rivet is most often left in the hole. These are extremely hard to drive out when both ends are bent outward, as often happens with rivets. Then they have to be drilled out with very small bits. Dental “burrs” work perfectly for this job. Make sure you are only drilling out the body of the old rivet and not cutting into the side of the bolt head. If the hole is oversized, in the wrong location, or drilled at the wrong angle, the new extractor will NOT stay in place. Since it is doubtful you’ll be able to find a new bolt head, the rifle will be useless. With an installation tool, it is not hard to reinstall a new extractor and rivet.

The firing pin assembly is held together by one take down pin located in the firing pin head. It will come apart like a shot when this pin is removed. When Remington introduced this rifle, many of us thought the firing pin would require frequent replacement. We were wrong. It seldom ever needs to be replaced.

Now it is time for us to take the stock off the rifle and look at the magazine latch and trigger assembly. The stock is secured by two screws. A rear trigger guard screw goes through the butt of the stamped steel trigger guard while the front guard screw goes through the front of the stamped steel floor plate. When the rear screw is removed, the trigger guard swing downs and falls off the rifle as it only hooks into the floor plate in the front. After you have removed the front guard screw, the floor plate is still held in place by a small wood screw. It is not necessary to remove the floor plate except for checking for rust and cleaning.

With the receiver out of the stock, the magazine guide bar and screw are plainly visible in front of the trigger assembly. If the guide bar screw is loose, you may have found the cause of your feeding problems. Well-meaning people often bend these in an attempt to make the magazine fit tighter. A slight forward bend can in fact help the magazine fit tighter but it must be done right. Take the bar off the rifle and place the entire latch portion in a vise until nothing sticks out the top but the head with the screw hole showing. This head area can then be pried up a little, just enough to change the amount of bend in the locking bar. If it is bent from where it starts down to accept the magazine, the bar must be replaced or straightened. Slip the magazine over it, making sure it slides on and off easily but tightly. Be certain the floorplate is properly positioned; if it isn’t, the magazine will not fit correctly and may be the cause of your problem.

Some say the 788 was taken off the market because of its trigger assembly. The safety, when misused or abused, can get to the point where it doesn’t work correctly but is anything foolproof after it has been misused, abused, altered, etc? Lawsuits have claimed Model 788s have discharged without the trigger being pulled. Given what I have seen people do to them, I am not surprised. This is normally the point where old gunsmiths are overcome with the urge to tell what they have seen done to these trigger assemblies, safeties and such. I know plenty of horror stories but I will resist. Suffice it to say that for every way Remington tried to design safety into a product, man has thought up at least 100 ways to circumvent it.

As manufactured, the 788’s trigger is simple but good. Could the safety be stronger? Yes. And bumpers could cover the whole car. What I am saying here is very important. When working on the 788’s trigger or safety, you must use good common sense and make sure all parts are tight-fitting, without internal wobble that was not there when it left the factory. A loose-fitting safety can allow a rifle that has had its trigger adjusted to a soft pull to discharge by itself. This can happen when a trigger has been adjusted to below 3 pounds and the safety’s pivot pin and retaining screw is loose. When all three of these things happen and the rifle is on safe while the trigger is pulled with more than 20 pounds of pressure, the safety is moved and the rifle can fire.

When you work on this trigger and safety, put it back together right and tight. Make sure the trigger assembly fits tightly in the receiver before removing it. It should have no play but if it does, tighten it before attempting other work on the trigger assembly. Driving out the retaining pin releases the trigger assembly. Notice how the safety blocks the sear. I have seen several of these rounded off “so the safety works easily, without all that drag it came from the factory with.” Better to have no safety at all than one that might make the rifle fire when moved. Tight and with no modifications is the only safe safety on a 788.

Check for the bolt stop’s smooth movement and make sure it is not trying to stick. If either condition occurs, it will be necessary to remove the retaining pin and clean the bolt stop and bolt stop spring. It is very common for residue to build up inside the trigger housing bolt stop hole. Unless someone has been messing with the bolt stop spring you will not have to replace it. Wiggle the sear while it is in the trigger housing before removing its retaining pin. It should move up and down easily without sticking but should not have any side-to-side movement whatsoever. If the sear pin does not fit tightly, replace it with one tight enough to hold it without side-to-side movement but not so tight as to restrict its up and down movement. After removing the sear, check its top edge to make sure there are no chips missing or signs of its having been ground or filed. It can be polished as long as it retains a sharp top edge that does not differ from the factory’s angle of engagement. The same thing must be true of its locking part on the firing pin. Hold the two together in the way they would be when cocked and ready for firing and check out how they fit. This will often show if someone has been doing a trigger job on the rifle you are working on. Check the bottom portion of the sear where it releases from the trigger the same way.

The most common, yet dangerous, “trigger work” seen on the 788 is the shortening of its trigger spring. If there is any sign of grinding or cutting on the trigger spring, I recommend its replacement. Yes, this spring can be cut back a very small amount and still have a safe trigger. However, if it has been ground on you do not know how much the last guy did to it or what else he did, such as stretching it out to make up too much grinding. If you are going to work on a trigger spring, work on a new one and not one someone else has taken a stab at. This is a good factory trigger, but modifying it will take all liability off Remington and put it on you. There have been lawsuits over this rifle “firing when it should not have.”

One of my customers told me several years ago that he wanted me to fix his trigger so it would fire at about 2 ounces and have zero creep. He also wanted to make sure it would not go off accidentally even if he dropped it out of his deer stand. I never could convince him that what he wanted was impossible. Even though I will make many shooters mad at me, I have to say that light triggers are dangerous triggers. I know all the arguments, but you as a gunsmith must protect yourself. This is not an adjustable trigger and adjustments can only be made through modification. Be careful, not only for your own sake but because you don’t know how the owner is going to treat that rifle regardless of what he may tell you. Work the sear edge of the trigger the same way you did the sear edge of the sear. Polishing is good but leave them sharp and flat.

The one-piece front sight on the 788 is held in place with only one screw while the rear sight has multiple parts. These were designed to be very cheap to manufacture, which does not leave you with “quality” sights. They work well enough but most owners usually want something better. The easiest approach is to install a scope but there are aftermarket sights available to replace the original ones. Given the front sight’s single screw and the fact that it sticks up very high, it is common for it to get lost or broken. While the rear sight base is held down with two screws, the eyepiece is held on by one adjustable set screw. This is also true of the rear sight leaf, giving us two weak links on the rear sight. Both screws not only secure their parts on the rifle but are also loosened to make sight adjustments. As a result, many rear sight parts are also lost. Replacements are cheap and easily found but always tell the owner that the screws must be well-tightened or more parts will be lost. You must also inform him that, while they must be kept tight, the threads on each of the screws are easily stripped. It does make it interesting.

Disassembly and reassembly of this rifle is easy, which is one of its problems. Many of the front and rear trigger guard screws get cross-threaded. Take down pins are put back just anywhere and in any way. Always keep an eye out for what someone else has done to the rifle before it came into your shop. What the last guy did might get you in trouble.