Piper was largely self-educated; he obtained his knowledge of science and history “without subjecting myself to the ridiculous misery of four years in the uncomfortable confines of a raccoon coat.” He went to work at age 18 as a laborer at the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Altoona yards in Altoona, Pennsylvania. He also worked as a night watchman for the railroad.
Piper published his first short story, “Time and Time Again”, in 1947 in Astounding Science Fiction; it was adapted for the radio program Dimension X and first broadcast in 1951, and was re-produced for X Minus One in 1956. He was primarily a short story author until 1961, when he made a productive, if short-lived, foray into novels. He collected guns and wrote one mystery, Murder in the Gunroom.
In 1964, his career apparently on the skids, and prevented by reticence and his Libertarian principles from asking anyone to assist him with his financial difficulties, Piper committed suicide. The exact date of his death is unknown; the last entry in his diary was dated November 5 (“Rain 0930”), and the date his body was found is reported as November 9 or November 11 by various sources. According to Jerry Pournelle’s introduction to Little Fuzzy, Piper shut off all the utilities to his apartment, put painter’s drop-cloths over the walls and floor, and took his own life with a handgun from his collection. In his suicide note, he gave an explanation that “I don’t like to leave messes when I go away, but if I could have cleaned up any of this mess, I wouldn’t be going away. H. Beam Piper.”
Some biographers attribute his act to financial problems, others to family problems; Pournelle wrote that Piper felt burdened by financial hardships in the wake of a divorce, and the mistaken perception that his career was foundering (his agent had died without notifying him of multiple sales). Editor George H. Scithers, who knew Piper socially, has stated that Piper wanted to spite the ex-wife he despised: by killing himself, Piper voided his life insurance policy, and prevented her from collecting.