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Icons & Innovators: Beretta: Show Guns

Douglas M. Wicklund

When you lift a really fine firearm, it seems to float in your hands; the equilibrium is so perfect that the gun mounts to your shoulder almost of its own accord. I have handled literally thousands of guns in my career, yet I am always amazed when I pick up one of the Beretta Rinascimento (Renaissance) Set of Five shotguns. The combination of technical perfection, detailed handwork, and superb decoration places these pieces on a level with the finest firearms ever made. They are a credit not only to Beretta, but to the gunmaking art itself.

In the late 1980s, looking ahead to his firm’s 500th anniversary, then company president Pier Giuseppe Beretta decided to make a set of guns that would embody the quality and craftsmanship that have characterized the firm’s products for what is now 14 generations. Beretta artisans spent more than two years working on the Rinascimento Set of Five, completing it in 1989. The company set the price at $600,000 and sold it to American businessman Robert Jepson, a friend and hunting partner of Ugo Beretta, Pier Giuseppe’s nephew and the current head of the firm. For an exhibit five years ago, Mr. Jepson was kind enough to lend this set to the National Firearms Museum, as well as the companion Rinascimento Set of Four rifles, which Beretta had made for him several years earlier.
 
Gun makers often produce firearms in sets because competition shooters require various gauges, and hunters need different weapons depending on their quarry. The Set of Five consists of two 12-gauges and two 20-gauges that serve as bookends of a sort for a single 28-gauge. There is a wonderful symmetry between the guns and also a dissonance that makes the set a balanced unit.

The excellence of these guns begins with the materials. The steel is a chrome-molybdenum alloy that combines strength and elasticity with high corrosion resistance. It also provides a microstructure that allows for a highly polished surface that is ideal for engraving. The wood for the stocks, a richly grained walnut briar, came from a single, centuries-old tree. Beretta stored the blanks for many years, seasoning the wood while waiting for a project worthy of this unique material. The stocks show a remarkable marbling effect, with many layers and nuances—almost a symphony in wood.
 
Just as a Stradivarius violin has a tone that modern instruments cannot replicate, a Beretta gun possesses its own unique features: the balance, the way the wood of the stock works with the metal to absorb stress, the manner in which all of the parts work together. These elements create an instrument with qualities that are difficult to define but are apparent to an experienced shooter.

Other attributes are more readily apparent. The .600-caliber rifle that is part of the Set of Four has a herd of elephants engraved on the sideplate, and as you shift your gaze from angle to angle you actually can see different contours on the elephants’ ears—like a trompe l’oeil effect. Other individual guns in the Rinascimento sets depict the pinfeathers on a pheasant and the tufts of hair on a lion’s mane. With a magnifying glass you can examine the minute details in the scenes, but you also can appreciate them from several feet away, where you will have an entirely different perspective on the guns’ beauty and craftsmanship.
 
It is impossible to say how much the Rinascimento Set of Five or the Set of Four would fetch at auction, but certainly many collectors are looking for one-of-a-kind firearms such as these. While it might be possible to order guns comparable to the Rinascimento sets, bear in mind that these guns were made entirely by hand, and that many of the most talented artisans are aging and their productivity is limited. One might tell you that his services are bespoken for the next 15 years, and the doctor gives him only 12.

 

Douglas M. Wicklund
is the senior curator for the National Firearms Museum in Fairfax, Va., where he tends to the National Rifle Association’s collection of more than 4,500 firearms.

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