Beretta USA Corp. regained its status as a defense contractor when the Accokeek company received an $18.5 million order for 45,000 of its 9 mm handguns for the Navy.
The new order is the second largest in the southern Prince Georges County company's history. It will activate Beretta's military assembly operation for the first time in more than a year.
In August 1994, the company shipped the last of 392,000 handguns, valued at $110 million, to the Army, the purchasing agent for all branches of the military.
But the end of Beretta's biggest contract did not result in hard times for the company. Strong demand for its pistols from police departments and private citizens nationwide kept the 9 mm handgun assembly line busy, Robert Bonaventure, the head of the company, said this week. The company posted record sales of $120 million last year.
Mr. Bonaventure said the company had anticipated Tuesday's order from the Navy. The only question, he said, was whether funding would be available. The same can be said for an option on the new contract valued at $11.8 million for another 27,000 pistols.
The military is expected to decide sometime within the next two years if it is going to exercise the option and order the additional weapons.
Mr. Bonaventure said the new contract is not expected to result in any new hires. The Accokeek plant and a smaller parts production factory in Pocomoke City employ 430 workers.
Mr. Bonaventure said the Navy order came as the company is in the final phases of obtaining the permits for a 20,000-square-foot addition to its Accokeek plant. The $3.5 million expansion will house the company's first shotgun production facility in the United States.
He said ground will be broken for the new addition -- a 30 percent increase in its factory space -- next spring. When it is completed later in the year, the company expects to hire an additional 40 to 50 workers.
Mr. Bonaventure said the Navy order would likely boost the Accokeek's plant output to 10,000 handguns a month from its current monthly rate of 8,000.
After overcoming fierce competition, Beretta won the contract to replace the military's vintage Colt .45 with its 9 mm handgun in 1980. It has used that high-profile order to make a name for itself in the U.S. market, and to tap into the law enforcement sector and what it calls the commercial market -- private citizens.
More than 1,800 law enforcement agencies, including most of the police departments in Maryland, have armed their officers with Berettas.
Mr. Bonaventure said the company ran at maximum production last year to meet the demand for handguns, including .22-caliber and .25-caliber models, from private citizens.
He said the strong demand was generated "by proposed handgun control legislation that had people worried that they might not be able to purchase a handgun later."