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Icons Innovators: Beretta

Jack Kelly

Leaving Their Mark
Look closely and you will see a hunter, dressed in skins, working a ramrod down the muzzle of his flintlock. At his feet is a bird dog, and behind him are mountains and trees. This scene, with all its detail, is engraved on the underside of a shotgun trigger guard that is only a half-inch wide. It is an example of the intricate engravings that adorn the best of Beretta’s firearms.

Beretta’s best guns are masterworks of engraving, featuring scenes of nature, animals, and other intricate figures.

To watch a master engraver at work is to observe a series of elegant gestures. Each movement must be sure, without a slip. The work requires absolute concentration and experience that is counted in decades. “It takes 20 years to become really competent,” Giulio Timpini, Beretta’s chief engraver, has said, “but it takes at least 30 years to be perfect.” Timpini began his apprenticeship at age 11 and has headed the company’s studio for more than a quarter century. Beretta also assigns jobs to top freelance engravers, each of whom has a unique style. Some customers are willing to wait as long as three years for their services.

To preserve the practice of hand engraving in an age when lasers and computer-controlled instruments can reproduce decorative patterns with cookie-cutter accuracy, Beretta, in 1997, established a school dedicated to the craft. Under the guidance of the masters, the apprentices, who must be ambidextrous and possess impeccable drafting skills, learn to cut metal with the burin and to inlay their work with precious metals.
 
Beretta’s engravers can decorate all of the metal parts of a gun. Some engravings they render in the English style, with floral patterns and intricate arabesques. They also may create scenes of wildlife, nature, or mythical figures with almost photographic detail. This type of engraving, known as bulino, is a specialty of Italian craftsmen.
 
Only the customer’s imagination limits the options for decorating a Beretta gun. Racecar driver Jackie Stewart had an image of his Tyrell Formula One car engraved on a trap gun, and astronaut Michael Collins’ over-and-under commemorates the 20th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing by featuring his own portrait set against a depiction of the lunar surface.
Such engravings take time: A master engraver might spend 500 hours or more working on a single shotgun, but when he is finished, he will have produced a work of art that will endure for centuries.

Battle Tested
when beretta won the contract to supply the U.S. Armed Forces with their standard sidearm in 1985, it represented a startling break with tradition. American military personnel had carried the powerful .45-caliber Colt semiautomatic, designated the M1911, throughout both world wars and the Korean and Vietnam conflicts. But in 1978, Congress decided to adopt a pistol that fired the same 9-millimeter ammunition as did the guns of America’s NATO allies. The decision led to one of the fiercest competitions ever for a military contract.

Beretta was in a good position to compete for the business: The company had been making semiautomatics since 1915, and shooters considered its Model 92 one of the world’s best. During a series of tests that Army ballistics experts conducted, the Beretta M92 outperformed all of its rivals, but American gun makers, by filing lawsuits and applying political pressure, stalled the issuing of a contract to the Italian firm. The military held more tests in 1984 and in 1988, and each time the Beretta gun proved superior to the others. Never, an Army report noted, had “an armament item been so extensively tested.” When the U.S. government finally ordered 495,000 Beretta pistols, designated the M9, for U.S. forces, the firm expanded its Beretta USA subsidiary and soon was manufacturing all of those weapons in its Accokeek, Md., plant—a condition of the contract.

The prestige attached to this commission was so significant that more than 2,000 law enforcement agencies around the world also have adopted Beretta’s M9 as their sidearm. Among them are the Italian Carabinieri, the French Gendarmerie, and the Texas Rangers. The contract also has affected the collectibles market, driving up prices of rare 1930s Berettas in particular. “Berettas are the Cadillac of firearms,” says Brad Taylor, a Texan whose Beretta collection is second in volume only to that of the company’s museum. “A lot of interest comes from shooters who purchase a Model 92 and, because they’re impressed with the craftsmanship, start collecting other examples of Berettas.”

Through two decades of service, the M9 apparently has met the expectations of the U.S. military: In July 2005, it ordered another 70,000 pistols from Beretta.

Family Memberships  
when the beretta family received its first large-scale commission—to produce 185 matchlock (or arquebus) gun barrels for the Arsenal of Venice—Henry VIII occupied England’s throne and Copernicus was making the audacious claim that the Earth revolves around the sun. The year was 1526. The Beretta enterprise was already 382 years old when General Motors began making cars and nearly 450 when Bill Gates established Microsoft.

In 1981, Beretta and other venerable firms formed the Henokiens, which touts itself as the “most private club in the world.” The club’s name comes from the biblical character Enoch (Henok in French), the father of Methuselah who lived on earth for 365 years and then, instead of dying, was assumed bodily into heaven. Membership does not require a similarly eternal existence, but to join the Henokiens, a company must be at least 200 years old. It also must be owned and managed by the founding family, and it has to be in good financial health.
 
The Henokiens founders’ goal was to create for the inheritors of the world’s oldest family businesses a kind of social club whose members (currently numbering 35), at their annual meetings—which take place in a different country each year—could exchange ideas related to their core philosophy of valuing the family company over the multinational corporation. Ugo Beretta, the gun-making company’s current chief, represents his family’s firm at the Henokiens meetings.
 
While Beretta may be the world’s oldest gun maker, it is hardly the senior member of the club. The house of Hoshi opened an inn near a hot springs in Komatsu, Japan, in the year 717, and now, 46 generations later, the family operates a luxury spa on the same site. The Torrinis, goldsmiths who run a shop off the Piazza del Duomo in Florence, have been in business since 1369—the same year Chaucer published his first novel, The Book of the Duchess.

The Henokiens,www.henokiens.com

Arms and A ttire
the tangy aroma of fine leather greets you as you enter the Beretta Gallery on New York’s Madison Avenue. A visit here is like taking a trip back to the days when a hunter, bound for an African safari, would first visit a New York purveyor such as the old Abercrombie & Fitch to purchase his guns and accoutrements.

The New York Beretta Gallery (other Beretta shops are located in Dallas, Milan, Paris, and Buenos Aires) carries an extensive collection of premium firearms, as well as a line of clothing that bears the Beretta label and includes fashionable blazers and camouflage hunting jackets. But the shop offers more, says Beretta vice president Peter Horn, who has overseen the New York store since it opened in 1994 and who regularly leads hunting expeditions to Hungary and Romania. “Service is what drives this business,” he says. “If a customer in Los Angeles is interested in a particular firearm, we’ll be on a plane. If a shooter needs his guns serviced before a hunt, we’ll send a master gunsmith into the field. As a result, our customers are incredibly loyal.”

Beretta Gallery (New York), 212.319.3235, www.berettausa.com

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Courtesy of Shakespeare and Company - Paul Foster Books - the NY Antiquarian Book Fair
Photo courtesy of Klein Sun Gallery, New York; Li Hongbo