Same aim, for nearly 500 years

Business: For most, the name `Beretta' means guns. For the family who bears the name, it means a beautifully crafted product.

March 30, 2001|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

In an age of fly-by-night infomercial businesses and dying dot-coms, the Beretta family is a throwback - to the 16th century.

Fifteen generations, beginning with Bartolomeo Beretta, have made firearms in a narrow, pine-covered valley in the Alps foothills. The company's first invoice, for 185 gun barrels, was signed on Oct. 3, 1526.

By the time the Pilgrims set foot on Plymouth rock, Fabbrica d'Armi Pietro Beretta was already in its second 100 years.

Perhaps more than any gun maker, the Beretta name has a mystique that Madison Avenue and even liberal Hollywood have embraced. But the name also serves as a convenient target for anti-gun sentiment here and abroad; many lawsuits name Beretta, whose U.S. headquarters are in Maryland, as an accomplice to mayhem.

The family makes no apologies for what it does. A new exhibit at the National Firearms Museum in Fairfax, Va., which opens Sunday, asks the public to judge Beretta on centuries of creative work, not the criminal ways of others.

"I grew up with this problem. It is not just the United States that has this problem," says Franco Beretta, at 36 the youngest of the Beretta executives. "It is not just a question that we produce a product that can kill somebody. A lot of products kill somebody.

"The World of Beretta," the new exhibit, includes more than 100 Beretta guns and accessories, the first time any portion of the family's collection has left the ivy-covered brick complex in the tiny town of Gardone Val Trompia.

"My father and his uncle are pretty conservative in this kind of thing. It's not really something they want to sell or push," says Beretta. "But it is part of our work, our heritage."

A rare showing

The exhibit includes a reproduction of the first parchment invoice, a pistol from 1650, a long gun from 1680 and a shotgun Ernest Hemingway bought in Venice for a duck hunt. Open through the end of the year, the Beretta display is expected to attract historians and collectors from around the world, said Doug Wicklund, the museum's senior curator.

"Where else can you see from 1526 to the present time a flowing time line of guns?" he asked, sweeping his arm to embrace the glass cases.

The museum, a part of the National Rifle Association, approached the Berettas to ask if they would assist in an exhibit this year to mark the company's 475th anniversary. Museum staff came armed with a "wish list," Wicklund says.

"We basically had carte blanche," he says. "We knew what we wanted. We hoped we would get it, but we didn't know until it arrived."

The collection was sent by air in more than a dozen custom-built cases. The paperwork for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms took almost six months to complete because many of the guns were so old they had no serial numbers and no way to document them.

The exhibit was constructed in the NRA's vault and then carried to the museum.

"We wear white gloves when we work, so you can't see our sweaty palms," Wicklund jokes.

For the non-shooter, the concept of guns as art may seem foreign. Yet many of the Berettas in the museum are just that, the work of artists.

Master craftsmen

In a large studio with views of the Alps, 20 men, all with the title maestro incisore (master engraver) work on orders that may require 500 hours to complete. With hammer and chisels, they cut intricate landscapes or animals into a shotgun's barrel and lockplate.

The walnut for the stock is selected by Beretta carvers, who custom cut it to buyers' specifications. All the work is done by hand.

A collector may pay up to $40,000 for a premium Beretta, with antiques costing two to three times that price.

It is that beauty and precision that attracted Hemingway and seduced Hollywood. Beretta is Mel Gibson's "Lethal Weapon" of choice. James Bond used one until he switched to a Walther PPK. And the no-nonsense Texas Rangers ("One riot, one Ranger") long ago gave up their six-shooters for 9mm Berettas.

Not everyone is a fan. More than 32 governments around the country have sued Beretta and other gun makers, claiming their products are a public menace. Six lawsuits have been dismissed; a like number have cleared early legal challenges by the manufacturers.

Members of the family who run the company don't see themselves as merchants of destruction, but rather as the overseers of an industrial artists' colony.

"It's not just a firearm. It's a lot of mechanics, a lot of engineering, a lot of engraving, a lot of woodworking," says Franco Beretta, who with his brother, Pietro, is responsible for much of the daily management of the company. "The wood is alive. It moves. You have to know how to touch it."

Still, there are subtle differences among Berettas.

Ugo Gussalli Beretta, 64, the 14th generation to run the company, is an accomplished marksman and big-game hunter who sees his product as "a thing of beauty to enjoy with safety."

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