Bullseye pistol shooters, shooting industry partners, citizens of Knoxville, Ill., family members, employees and this writer mourned the death of Gilbert Burnside Hebard on Oct. 28, 2012. Gil was 94 years old when he passed away, and he is survived by his wife, Mary Elizabeth.
Ask any serious handgunner of the 1950s-1990s if they’ve heard of Gil Hebard and you’ll invariably get a quick nod of the head and a resounding, “Oh yeah!” Many know of him through his shooting accomplishments. In fact, he was named as one of the 50 great shooters of the 20th century by the NRA’s Shooting Sports USA.
After earning master cards in Big Bore and Smallbore Rifle, Gil started shooting pistols competitively in 1952 as a tyro and worked his way through all of the pistol classes. He won his first registered tournament in 1954 and went on to win more than 100 shooting titles, including: state and regional championships in over 25 states; the Canadian National Championships; eight U.S. National Senior Championships at Camp Perry, Ohio—seven of them consecutively from 1974 to 1980; and repeated membership to the U.S. All Civilian Pistol Team, the NRA USA All Civilian Team, the Mayleigh Cup Team, the President’s 100, the 2600 Club and the National Matches 2625 Club.
He also received the Jurras Top 10 Outstanding American Handgunners Award in 1975, and the Handgunner of the Year for 1999 from the Outstanding American Handgunner Awards Foundation. But his extraordinary shooting talent is only one of the three areas in which he had a positive impact on the sport of handgunning.
Promoter of the Shooting Sports
A lot of shooters know of Gil through the glossy, high-quality Gil Hebard Guns mail-order catalog of handguns and shooting-related supplies—perhaps more people know him for this than for his shooting victories—and it is through his business that he introduced countless shooters to the joys of handgunning.
Before coming to Shooting Times, I worked for Gil for 15-plus years (1977-1992), and after he was awarded the OAHAF Handgunner of the Year Award in 1999, I interviewed him for ST. At that time he quickly pointed out that it was really his wife Mary who suggested that he do the first catalog because he was having trouble finding the products he needed to improve his shooting skills. He had mentioned to Mary that he wondered how the average guy found the equipment needed for competition shooting if he, a gun dealer, was having such a hard time locating it. She asked him, “Well, why don’t you find the products and put them in a catalog?” That’s exactly what he did. The first edition of the Gil Hebard Guns competitive shooting catalog came out in 1955.
Gil’s gun business actually started in 1945 after he had served four years as a Naval gunnery officer on a minesweeper in the north Atlantic during World War II. Upon returning home from the war, he started in the gun industry by dealing in antique and collector firearms. In the process of marketing those early collections, he took modern guns in trade, and that got him started in the modern gun business, where he stayed until his death; he did continue to deal in antique and collector guns until 1958.
In 1950, Gil and Mary established a retail store in Knoxville, Ill., and at the time of this writing, the business is still located in the original building, which was expanded several times over the years. In 1952, they added one of the first public indoor shooting ranges in the country, and the mail-order business began in 1955 with that first catalog. It was one of the first—if not the first—mail-order distributorships devoted solely to handgun competition shooters.
Gil used his business to promote the shooting sports in some unique ways over the years. For example, during the 1950s he offered a $500 Government Bond as a prize to anyone who fired his first score of 2600 in a registered NRA match using a gun purchased directly from Gil Hebard Guns. Another example was the award certificate program that he offered to gun clubs. It allowed the winners of club matches to choose award certificates instead of medals and the certificates could then be redeemed for merchandise from the Gil Hebard Guns catalog. That program ran from 1959 until the early 1970s when the NRA started up its own similar program.
Shooting Product Innovator
When it comes to being an innovator of shooting products, Gil qualified hands down. In fact, two of his innovations changed the complexion of competitive handgunning, making the sport safer and taking the level of competition to new heights.
According to friend and fellow competition shooter Jim Clark Sr., “Gil was the first to use ear protection in the form of muffs [during the late 1950s]. Gil made ear protectors using an old radio headset, and when he first used them at Camp Perry, he was almost laughed off the line.” Shooters at the time mostly just stuffed cotton or spent cartridge cases in their ears, but Gil realized that if he could close off the sound better, he would be able to shoot better. So he pursued the muff concept and discovered that the David Clark Company had been making industrial earmuffs since 1952. He convinced the company there was a market in the shooting sports, and the result was the Straightaway earmuffs, designed specifically for shooters, which became available around 1960.
In the mid-1960s, Gil was the first shooter to turn up at Camp Perry using scopes on all of his .22, .38 and .45 competition pistols. He was the first to break 2600 using all scoped pistols. Back then, there weren’t any scopes designed specifically for handgun competition use, but Gil was able to adapt long-eye-relief Bushnell scopes with small 0.75-inch tubes for his purposes, even to the point of adjusting them for parallax. After a year’s struggle learning to shoot with his scopes, his scores were better than ever, and shooters began to really take notice. Today, optical-sighted pistols dominate competitive handgun shooting, and Gil was instrumental in starting it all.
Speaking of .38-caliber competition pistols, Gil, in association with Jim Clark Sr., strongly promoted the use of 1911 semi-automatic pistols chambered in .38 Special and set up to shoot wadcutter bullets for the Centerfire category of NRA Bullseye matches. Together, they used special “.38 Kit” slide-and-barrel units that were made by Colt to build and market custom pistols. In addition, according to Blue Book of Gun Values, Colt built about 400 of these .38 Special Kit guns between 1964 and 1970; this model is sometimes referred to as the “Gil Hebard Model.”
Another great product that Gil came up with—one that has helped numerous handgunners become better shooters—is his Pistol Shooter’s Treasury, a compilation of articles on how to be a better handgun shooter that he solicited from world-class handgunners such as Bill Blankenship, Jim Clark Sr., Bill Joyner, Bill Toney, Harry Reeves, Joe White, Dave Cartes, Paul Weston, Bill McMillan, Lew Weinstein and Gil himself. This little book, which is in its second edition and 15th printing, has served to instruct and inspire thousands of budding pistol shooters.
Other innovative shooting products designed by Gil include: a unique adjustable scope holder for attaching your spotting scope to your gun box; two-, four- and five-gun competition handgun boxes; sideview blinders; go/no-go cartridge gauges; a Colt-type bushing wrench; a pistol tournament score book that has spaces to record all information for 26 2700-point aggregates; and, with the assistance of the folks at Burris, a 1X handgun scope with dot reticle specifically for NRA Bullseye and practical pistol competition.
Gil was always mindful of those who helped him in the early and formative years of both his shooting and business careers. According to Gil, Jim Clark Sr., John Amber—Gil wrote several articles for the Gun Digest while Amber was the editor—Bob Brownell, Bill Donovan, Bill Ruger, Fred Miller, Del Shorb, Fred Moulton, Fred Hunnington, Steve Herrett, Joe White and Bill Blankenship taught him, coached him and encouraged him. Without them, he wouldn’t have been the success that he was. Some of those names will be familiar to readers as top shooters or shooting industry executives. Gil also credited his wife, the thousands of loyal customers that have supported his business, and the NRA with being keys to his success.
When you put all of his positive contributions to the sport of handgunning together—his shooting skills, his success as a national firearms and accessories distributor, and his innovative use of earmuffs and pistol scopes in competition—they make him a real legend. Coincidentally, about three weeks before Gil passed away, the Scarborough (Maine) Fish and Game Association held its first annual Gil Hebard Open shooting match in his honor, and they plan on holding it annually every year from now on. I can’t think of a better tribute to him.
To those of us who knew Gil personally, he was not just a giant in the shooting world—he was a true Renaissance man. He was highly educated, and an accomplished artist and musician—he played trumpet, formed the Gil Hebard Orchestra in 1939 and toured throughout western Illinois. He had a real appreciation for wildlife paintings and sculptures, was a record-setting track athlete in his youth and he thoroughly enjoyed the outdoors—hunting, shooting and bird watching. He was a philanthropist and civic leader in his hometown of Knoxville, and along with his wife Mary, one of his last efforts was to donate the parcel of land, the funds to construct, and the time and energy to oversee the building of the brand new Knox County Historical Museum. He was my former boss and mentor, and he was also my friend. I will miss him.