I try to stick my nose into the gun museum at Union Station even if I’m only at the station to work in the archive. It’s got a lot of neat stuff, and there’s often someone interesting to talk to.
On Thursday, Oct. 12, I found William Heiter there, waiting to talk to Union Station Foundation Board President Emeritus Leon Jones. Mr. Heiter had a gun he wanted to donate, so I stuck around.
When Leon got there, Mr. Heiter opened his case and revealed a seemingly brand new single barrel shotgun, resplendent in gold decoration and engraved filigree. It was the work, he said, of his father, Harry Heiter, someone whose name is spoken of with reverence in Browning gun circles.
Harry Heiter worked in research and development at browning Arms for more than 30 years. In 1967 he was sent to Japan where Miroku, a Japanese gun maker, was trying without success to build Browning shotguns as part of a much more complex deal that is explained nicely in this article by the Browning company (click!)
The bottom line, said Bill Heiter, was that Miroku was making lousy guns and it was Harry’s job to set them straight.
Bill Heiter said the Japanese really hated his dad. He was constantly stopping the production line, pulling samples off and proclaiming then inadequate.
“He really beat them up,” Leon Jones said, “and they started making some damn fine guns, and it was all because of Harry.”
Harry, of course, could make a damn fine gun on his own, and one that he made was the one on the table in front of us. Bill said his dad made the gun in Japan, fitted the stock to him personally, but then died before he could finish it. Bill had one of Browning’s top gunsmith’s finish the work, but that’s not the full story.
“Dad and I were kind of on the outs,” he said. Disputes between fathers and sons are not unheard of. Bill was a Navy Pilot, Harry was a forceful gun maker who would gladly bring a whole factory to a halt, so this is not too surprising.
At one point, Bill said he met his dad on a layover while traveling across the country, got held up by plane trouble and ended up spending the evening with him.
It was a good visit, he said. “We bonded,” settling whatever problems they’d had, and the Bill went on his way.
“And the next day I got word he’d died,” he said.
So, yeah, that gun, “it’s more than a gun to me.”
In all, he said, he’d fired it maybe 100 times, which is why it still looks new despite being almost 50 years old. His dad even gold plated interior parts of the receiver — claimed that prevented corrosion, but you know that was just to make it look spiffier for his son. Production guns are chromium plated for the same reason and vastly lesser cost.
The gun itself is a custom copy of what is called the Browning BT 99, a trap gun, made for blowing clay pigeons apart. The gun was originated in the Miroku factory in 1969, and is still in production by Browning. You can read more about them here (click.)
Bill said he was donating his gun to the Browning Arms Museum so it could be displayed, both as a fine example of his father’s skills, and as a memorial to his dad’s part in his own life.
The Browning Arms museum is very proud to get it. I got tingles just thinking of the story behind it, and we are very grateful to Bill Heiter for sharing both.