Army, private sales buoy handgun firm


August 10, 1993|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,Staff Writer

ACCOKEEK -- The 16-shot, semiautomatic 9 mm handgun lying on Robert Bonaventure's desk has a lot to do with his sense of security.

Mr. Bonaventure is head of Beretta U.S.A. Corp., and the gun he picked up and waved about is almost identical to those the company makes for the U.S. military.

Beretta has used its military contract to establish such a strong position in the domestic firearms market that even when its Army order is filled next spring, the company expects no slowdown in production.

With sales rising, Beretta's Maryland operation -- U.S. headquarters of the Italian-based company -- is in an enviable position for a defense contractor, especially during these times of sharp Pentagon budget cuts.

Beretta's employment has been growing while Westinghouse Electric Corp., Martin Marietta Corp. and AAI Corp. have eliminated about 10,000 jobs in Maryland in recent years.

Beretta is talking about an expansion of its Pocomoke City factory that could more than double its employment.

And while the Defense Department is ordering fewer tanks, fighter planes and missiles, it's looking at buying even more Beretta handguns than the 377,000 originally ordered. To date, the company has shipped about 340,000 handguns.

The company's favorable position is no fluke, Mr. Bonaventure said. It's part of a carefully planned strategy dating back to 1980 when the Defense Department decided it wanted a 9 mm replacement for the vintage Colt .45, which had been the primary sidearm since before World War I.

The plan was to win the military contract and use it to make Beretta a household name in the United States in hopes of tapping into the larger law enforcement and commercial

markets. That's why, Mr. Bonaventure said, the company has been selling handguns to the military for about $225 each -- close to production cost.

By comparison, Beretta charges police departments between $385 and $450 for basically the same weapon, depending on quantity and whether it is fitted with night-vision sights. For civilians, the suggested retail price is $625, but Mr. Bonaventure said most dealers discount that price.

The strategy appears to have worked. Berettas began showing up on the silver screen. Bruce Willis brandished one in the "Die Hard" movies. Mel Gibson tucked a 16-shot Beretta in his belt for the "Lethal Weapon" series.

The publicity, together with the company's reputation for quality, has turned the Accokeek division into a $100 million-a-year operation, with the bulk of sales going to police departments and private citizens, Mr. Bonaventure said. He declined to discuss earnings, but said, "it's a profitable business."

Beretta, which has been making firearms for nearly 500 years, opened its first plant near this Prince George's County town in 1977. Early on, it employed between 15 and 20 people, who assembled handguns from parts shipped from Italy. Today, it employs about 500 workers, most of them hired since the mid-1980s, when the plant began work on its military contract. Its second and smaller plant in Pocomoke City, which has about 40 employees, makes parts for .22- and .25-caliber pistols.

Today, officers from more than 2,000 law enforcement agencies, including the Maryland State Police and departments in Anne Arundel, Prince George's, Howard and Montgomery counties carry Berettas. Mr. Bonaventure said that sales to this market totaled about $15 million last year, about the same as its military business.

But the biggest market -- about twice the size of the police and military business combined -- is the commercial market, and women are becoming a big factor in these sales.

"My guess is that 10 times more women are buying handguns now than five years ago," Mr. Bonaventure said. "Boyfriends and husbands are giving them to their girlfriends and wives as gifts."

The commercial market posted sales of about $60 million last year, including .22- and .25-caliber pistols as well as the larger 9 mm and .40-caliber models.

The increase in commercial sales has led the company to plan an expansion at the company's Eastern Shore factory, Mr. Bonaventure said. But the scheduling will be determined by the possibility that the Army would order between 40,000 and 50,000 more handguns, officially designated the 92F.

If the Army -- acting as purchasing agent for all branches of the armed forces -- orders the additional weapons, he said, military production at the Accokeek plant would be extended for two more years and the expansion at the 2-year-old Pocomoke City factory would be delayed.

Shirley Wammerpain, a spokeswoman for the Army's Armament, Munitions and Chemical Command at Rock Island, Ill., said the Pentagon wants to place the order but is not certain of funding.

"If we don't get it, we will expand immediately," Mr. Bonaventure said, noting that expansion plans call for between 40 and 50 new jobs.

The company plans to produce a premium semiautomatic shotgun at Pocomoke City that would carry a suggested retail price tag of about $775. He envisions a production run of about 50,000 shotguns a year.

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