The Story of a Gun: A Family Harrington and Richardson Topper 58

Outdoor Life recently published an article by Durrell Smith about an old .410 shotgun being brought back to life. The title, “Granddaddy’s Gun,” is one that should rouse any traditional hunter or gun enthusiast’s curiosity. Many of our stories at camp or over a couple of drinks with hunting buddies start with, “I remember when my dad and grandpa took me out for (insert story here).”

Smith’s piece centers around an old, rusted Iver-Johnson Excel single-shot restored into a reliable hunting and training gun. It was one of those stories I couldn’t put down, as, around that time, I had just procured an old, rusty shotgun of my own: a Harrington & Richardson Topper 58 12-gauge.

Yet, Smith knew the story of that Excel; I didn’t know the story behind the Topper 58. Smith, a Black man, touches on the history of Black Americans and their struggle with systematic racism in his piece, weaving in the story of the Excel expertly. I, a white man, may not have known the story but knew it didn’t have the same gravity as his. 

As I set my phone down once finishing the article, I couldn’t stop thinking about the Topper 58. When did we get it? I remember seeing it in the mix of my dad’s guns when I was younger. I remembered when, as a teenager, I was allowed to take it clay shooting with my friend Andrew at his farm, and I remember the barrel and front grip flying off the receiver on the third or fourth shot of the day. Most of all, I remember his reaction to the news that his family 12-gauge was, likely, broken for good. 

But he wasn’t mad. Maybe more concerned if I had all ten fingers and working left hand. There may have been a twinge of disappointment in his voice over the phone as I loaded the broken gun into my old car and began the short drive back home, but the expected anger was nonexistent. 

I think my dad understood the life of the gun more than I did – knowing it was going to break at some point. Though, seven years after the day it broke, he couldn’t recount the gun’s story when I pulled it out of his gun safe in three pieces. When I asked if he had considered fixing it, he told me he consulted some folks but was unsuccessful in finding someone he trusted to get it done. He worried that a weld hotter than brazing would damage the old H&R and render it unusable.  

But I knew someone who I thought could get it done. I had gained connections near Frederick, Md., in the first year of my and Lindsay’s relationship. 

“If I get it fixed, can I have it?” I asked my dad. “I don’t like it just sitting here. I’d like to get it back in the woods.” 

My dad agreed, noting any payment into the old shotgun was probably more than it was worth. But I didn’t mind. I knew it was a family shotgun, and, although I didn’t know the full story, it was still special. 

On my drive back to Morgantown that evening, I gave my connection, a gunsmith, a call. He was concerned another braze would quickly fail, so he pointed me in the direction of his friend who dabbled in delicate welding projects. I thanked him and hung up. In the last hour of the drive, I heavily weighed my options. 

Do I risk ruining the gun by having the front grip threads welded back on, or do I go against the gunsmith’s suggestion and have him braze it back on, risk it failing again and start over at square one? Or, do I braze it back on and turn it into a nice wall hanger? It didn’t take me long to decide. Why would I not take the chance to have it fixed if I could bring it back to its former glory?

So I dropped it off with the guy, said a prayer the TIG weld would go well and waited. 

There I was, sitting in my recliner after reading Smith’s story, thinking obsessively over this shotgun. It seemed like a sign of good things to come. There were many similarities in our stories, but I still didn’t know the story of my gun.

The logical step was asking my grandparents – if my dad didn’t know, maybe his mom and dad would. Turns out, my grandpa didn’t know where it came from but said my grandmother should. So I thanked him, hung up the phone and gave her a call. 

Unfortunately, she didn’t entirely know either, but she did have more information than my grandfather. She knew the original owner was likely her dad, Bob, but knew two of her brothers would have more information. She said she’d reach out to them and get back to me. 

Weeks passed since that initial call. A few days after, the guy fixing it gave me a call and, once picking it up from him and doing an initial inspection, things looked great. I had the other pieces at home, so I gave him $20, thanked him profusely and hit the road. Everything seemed good once I reassembled the shotgun – everything lined up and the TIG weld felt sturdy. 

I sure as hell wasn’t going to shoulder fire it until I knew it was safe, though. So I made plans to visit my parents and whipped up a game plan with my dad to remotely fire it. After showing up at our property outside of my hometown, dad and I got to working on the test-fire platform. We set the Topper 58 in a lead sled, secured it with bar clamps and threaded a long rope through the trigger guard. After rolling the rope out to a safe distance, we loaded it with No. 7 lead shot, set the hammer and got into position. My nerves were through the roof, expecting everything to go wrong at the last minute. 

Then, bang!

Andrew and Jodyn Spellman mounted the Harrington & Richardson Topper 58 to a lead sled with hand clamps to test fire it. (Andrew Spellman/The Appalachian Hunting Journal)

The shot ripped into the ground and filled the surrounding hollow with the sound of a once-again working gun. A closer inspection showed the gun was, indeed, in working order, but we weren’t satisfied. We loaded another shell, fired and inspected things. Then, again. And again. And finally, one more time. It was shooting perfect, but the real test was coming up: we had to shoulder and shoot it. 

Once again, my nerves began to rise, but after pulling the trigger like I had seven years prior and seeing it was still intact, that all left me. It was finally fixed. I didn’t wait long to take it out for squirrels, knocking the first three I put it on. 

Fast forward a few weeks to late November, and I was picking up the last few products to condition the wood stock and grip, as well as take off the little patches of rust the gun had accumulated over years of sitting in closets when my phone started buzzing. It was my grandmother. 

After catching up, she wanted to fill me in on what she found out from her brothers. She had finally pieced together the last bits of the story. 

Knowing Harrington & Richardson manufactured the Topper 58 model between 1974-81, I knew what she was telling me was accurate. She informed me that her dad had taken her brothers Lee and Robert out to buy shotguns to a store up north – my family is originally from Connecticut, but my grandparents and dad moved to West Virginia in the early 70s. Bob bought my uncle Lee a side-by-side and uncle Robert the Topper 58.

Eventually, as things go in families, Robert gave my grandparents the Topper 58. From there, the details get fuzzy as it likely stood in a closet and was used for utility purposes. My dad doesn’t remember if he used it; he was more into his Savage Model 24, a .410-.22 combo with tons of history itself. So there it sat in the Doddridge County farmhouse, being slowly weathered by time and moisture. It then found its way to my dad, where it, too, sat in a closet until the fateful day it blew apart in my hands. 

Andrew Spellman looks over the Oklahoma panhandle sandhills after a day of hunting bobwhite quail near Beaver, Okla. (David Schlake for The Appalachian Hunting Journal)

Following our call, I cleaned up the shotgun and hit the woods in search of more squirrels. I’ve taken it out frequently since that day, added a leather shell holder to the stock and tried to dampen the kick by adding padding – though that didn’t last long. So far, it’s seen the woods of northern West Virginia and western Maryland, as well as the sandhills of western Oklahoma. It didn’t get its first bobwhite quail on that Oklahoma trip, but none of us got a bird there. 

It now sits next to me in the corner of my home office. I like having it there; I like looking at it. It reminds me of those hunts and spurs me to plan the ones to come. Most importantly, when I look at it, I’m reminded of the story behind my family’s shotgun. 

This is a new, monthly series that looks at different firearms and the stories behind them. Whether family shotguns, a high-end centerfire rifle, or a versatile .22 caliber, every gun has a story that needs to be told.

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