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Bernie Revering column: Beretta -- A firearms empire

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Beretta is the oldest manufacturer -- of anything -- in the world. There is no other industrial enterprise that has been in continuous operation for over five centuries. The beginnings of Beretta were in 1565, when the maker of cannon barrels started in business, with an order from the Republic of Venice. Fifteen generations of Beretta sons have been at the management of the factories which followed. Beretta has always been controlled by families of the same name.

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It all began, and continues today, in the valley Triompia, at Gardone, in north central Italy. The region has vast resources of rich iron ore, coal and roads that connect the area to the large cities of Europe. It was the ideal location for an armory, with all of the warring nations surrounding it. Barrel making was an early craft development, with the completed unit being sent to locksmiths and stock makers for the completion into finished muskets or sporting guns.

Beretta emerges

The cottage industry, with individual families making small parts that were assembled by guilds, finally coming together for final assembly. The most successful of these were Beretta families, and by 1570, the largest group, with the best reputation for quality parts. Finally, the group of families produced guns.

By 1630, Europe was razed by bubonic plague and there was a turbulent period. There were wars between empires and nations, and these hastened the need for weapons, usually from the guilds of the Val Triompia area.

Venice fell to the armies of Napoleon at the end of the 17th century, and the French ruled northern Italy. The arms factories of Val Trompia and Gardone began the development of Damascus or twist steel barrels. These became popular and continued until after the Civil War in the U.S.A.

Percussion replaces flintlock

After the U.S. Civil War, there were important developments in the manufacture of ammunition. Fixed ammunition was new, with cartridges reaching new efficiency. Among these was percussion replacement flintlock. Corrosive priming too, was on the way out, with Remington and Western Cartridge Company -- both American concerns -- being credited with the improvement. Fine shotguns were developments of Beretta in Italy but there was a burgeoning line of good quality side-by-side guns in America. It was really a golden age of gunning, beginning perhaps in 1880 and running up until World War II. Beretta continued to be in the thick of things sporting and military. There began the line of good semi-automatic pistols, following the inventions of John M. Browning.

Beretta in the 20th century

World War I came and went. Followed by the rise of Benito Mussolini and the fascist regime of Italy. The dictator achieved some amount of popularity, but never greatness. Beretta, it appeared, would take no position one way or the other. The arms-maker did supply products to the Italian government, and made some for Nazi Germany, including machine guns.

World War II had German workers and technicians at the Gardone factory, and at other plants scattered in northern Italy. The Beretta factory was bombed by the Eighth Air Force in the spring of 1944. I was a combat engineer in the 34th division, and when our troops were breaking out from the winter stalemate, I was at the plant. I stepped down from a low brick wall, stumbled across the smoking rubble, and I was at an assembly room with mangled machinery damaged beyond repair. This was a source that would no longer supply any armament to the Nazi cause. The Marshall plan rebuilt the factory in 1948, restoring it to a status that it had never before achieved.

Beretta sees the U.S.A. as a market

Some of Beretta's hunting and target shotguns were finding their way to the United States, as the J. F. Galef Company was importing several models. The practice was interrupted by one of the partners of the New York City concern. The market was quickly filled by imports and by the domestic manufacturers. There was a ready market for sporting arms when the GI's returned and wanted to hunt. There was money in the pockets of American sportsmen and upstart Sturn, Ruger & Company, along with Remington, Winchester, Marlin and Savage making and selling quality firearms in the U.S.A. The Beretta name had all but disappeared.

New acquisitions by Beretta

But the arms maker in Italy wasn't asleep. Continuing to be flush with cash, Beretta acquired two smaller shotgun makers, Benelli and Franchi. These companies had a good line of guns, and Beretta didn't interfere with their operations. A fine sporting rifle was being produced in Sweden by a company called Sako. In order to fill out its line, this quality bolt action came into the Beretta stable, and continues.

America discovers the over-under shotgun

This type of twin-barreled shotgun had long been made by Beretta. Its models appealed to American shooters, and importing was started by the Ithaca Gun Company, before a group of American investors founded a new import company, naming it Beretta, U.S.A., in Accokeek, Maryland.

General Norman Schwartzkopf, leader of U.S. forces in the Desert Storm wars of the middle east, was presented with a high grade Model S06 and was invited to hunt upland game and waterfowl in the Beretta area of Italy. Beretta became well established in the U.S.A., and its sporting arms and clay target shotguns sold well here.

The M9 service pistol

The U.S. Army's service pistol was designed by Browning, and made in many domestic plants, not all of them armories. The Colt Model 1911 chambered the 45 Colt cartridge. It was big, heavy, and short-ranged. The nations which made up the NATO forces all had the 9mm Luger Parabellum cartridge in their arsenals.

The U.S. Ordnance Department thought it prudent to have our own armed forces similarly equipped, and the search for a pistol, in 9mm caliber began.

Beretta already had a light-weight 9mm, and its design was submitted. After several years of testing, the choice was brought down to three guns. The Beretta Model 92SB out-performed the others. Legal challenges were brought by Smith & Wesson, but the final decision awarded a small contract to Beretta. The services were pleased with the gun, and it finally did become the arm of the Navy, Army, Coast Guard, U.S. Marshals, FBI, Treasury and the Border Patrol. The old Model 1911 45 Colt has been packed away. Over half a million Beretta pistols are in the arsenals of our military.

Beretta in the 21st century

This company's shotguns, rifles, and pistols enjoy wide acceptance in America. Beretta bought out the Swedish arms maker SAKO and the Italian firms of Benelli and Franchi, which make guns of their own design but are marketed by Beretta, through an American importing concern based in the town of Accokeek, Maryland. Beretta appears to be the leader worldwide, but is particularly successful here in the United States.

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