Vic Harker recounts Beretta’s long and illustrious history, culminating in the Italian gunmaker’s Olympics victory at Rio back in 2016
Beretta is a historic gunmaking dynasty with origins that go back centuries. To the clay shooters, however, the company’s over-and-under shotguns are of the greatest interest as they continue to figure in their sport at every level of competition – and their constant development is a fascinating story.
The clay revolution
Long before clay shooting was devised, Beretta was making shotguns. But by the 1930s, the family was looking across the Atlantic and considering how best to match the success that Browning was enjoying with its new over-and-under. In terms of design for Beretta, as with many other gunmakers, it presented a problem, largely in the matter of how to lock the Superposed barrels to the action.
John Browning had taken a shotgun and fitted the form of under-bolting, designed for side-by-side guns, to the underside of the bottom barrel. In terms of durability, barrels pivoting on a full-width hinge pin, with a locking bolt moving forward under the breech face, was more than strong enough, and Browning had looked no further than that. The extensions to the underside of the bottom barrel, which gunmakers call ‘lumps‘, were also machined and fitted right through the floor of the action body. A bolt-and-braces design indeed, but to Italian eyes it created an action they perceived as rather ugly.
Beretta looked for something more svelte and elegant, but at the same time it did not wish to copy the British Boss or Woodward guns. Always looking to keep costs within bounds, the company wanted something easier to manufacture than an expensive-to-make combination of draws and wedges that most of the London makers had adopted.
Meanwhile, Beretta’s best designer, the great Tullio Marengoni, was carrying out some experiments that, to begin with, terrified his employers. He was experimenting with guns without any form of bolting and was simply tying the barrels and action together with rope to stop them being blown apart when loaded with powerful charges. He finally concluded that the forces generated in these explosions actually drove the barrels and action together, and a type of locking system that reinforced this phenomenon was required.
Marengoni finally devised a cross-bolt located above the bottom barrel that closed over locking lugs integral to the barrel’s monobloc. Replaceable shoulders, also integral to the monobloc, met with reciprocating shoulders each side of the action’s breech face in order to reinforce this arrangement.
The SO series
Beretta’s Sovroposto SO Sidelock was launched in the mid 1930s and the firm’s catalogue emphasised the great strength of its action, uncompromised by having to machine slots in the action’s bottom plate to accommodate barrel lumps locking through them, as in the case of the Browning.
As a gun for hunting and clay shooting, the Beretta SO5 was a great success. Its sidelock action exuded a certain glamour that drew customers from many countries to Beretta’s gates for the custom fitting and special engraving that could be provided at extra cost.
The SO’s heyday as a clay gun lasted from the 1950s until the beginning of the 1980s. In 1956, Liano Rosini, an Italian Trap shooter who had already won two medals in world championships, captured the gold medal at the Olympics in Melbourne. In 1972, Angelo Scalzone, a colourful and flamboyant shooter from Naples, claimed the Olympic gold medal with a record score of 199ex-200.
Carlo Beretta spoke of his shooters as his Formula One team, and its many successes brought medals and created sales for the SO sidelock. But while the SO had been successful and added to Beretta’s prestige as a gunmaker, it never represented the volume sales John Browning’s much-lower priced gun achieved.
By the 1950s, manufacturing costs in Europe were rising steeply and some gunmakers turned to manufacturers in other parts of the world with more favourable currencies. Browning’s alliance with Miroku, beginning in the 1960s, was one solution. Beretta, however, was determined to maintain its industry in its own country. This meant devising a less expensive model – and Beretta’s solution was revolutionary.
Traditional gunmaking, even up to the present day, involves making all the component parts first, including the barrels, to the point where they can all be fitted together in an unfinished state. The gun is then disassembled and the parts finished. The action is engraved and hardened, along with the internal parts, the barrels are blacked and finally the gun is reassembled.
From the best artisan gunmakers results can be outstanding, but their high prices reflect this. Beretta, instead, created a process described as ”making in the black.” Each of the gun’s components would be made, finished and assembled just once.
To achieve this, each part would have to be machined more accurately than before, as only the absolute minimum of final fitting was possible. This could only be achieved with the most accurate and, therefore, most sophisticated machinery. The capital investment would be huge, but Beretta calculated that the cost savings in manufacture would be such as to provide an exceptionally well-made and finished gun at a competitive price. These courageous and resourceful Italians were proved correct, and clay shooters were soon using competitively priced guns boasting excellent mechanical function, reliability and handling.
Facing the competition
Competition improves the breed, and this is as true of shotguns as it is of racehorses. Daniele Perazzi’s MX8 Trap gun, with a detachable mechanism, raised the bar considerably. From the moment clay shooters first saw the MX8 they knew it was the future, and so did Beretta. Ennio Mattarelli did not win the 1968 Olympic Games with Perazzi’s MX8, for which it was built, but he won the World Championship in 1969 with this new drop-lock gun. To the serious competitive shooter its appeal was obvious, the detachable trigger with flat springs providing the best trigger pulls possible. And it was easily repaired or, even more quickly, replaced with a spare. It is not only mechanically efficient, it also represents an insurance policy. Being first in the market with this type of gun gave Perazzi an advantage, and without any patents to circumnavigate it had a clear field to produce the best design possible.
Beretta persisted for a while to equip its sponsored shooters with the SO Sidelock, but it was increasingly expensive and lacked the Perazzi’s obvious advantages. In 1992, Beretta finally capitulated, and the ASE90, its first drop-lock gun, was launched. Much of the gun was produced in Beretta’s custom shop and while they were well made and adopted by Beretta’s sponsored shooters, it lacked the popular appeal of the Perazzi.
An Olympic feat of gunmaking
This gun was followed by the DT10, much more of a volume-production gun. Tougher, less expensive and more reliable, it was successful but still didn’t dent the MX8’s appeal. That it had failed to do so was demonstrated at the 2008 Beijing Olympics where 14 out of the 15 first-placed shooters in the Trap event used a Perazzi.
If the history of Beretta demonstrates anything, it is the company’s resilience and tenacity, together with its capacity to react positively to setbacks.
The response to the 2008 wipeout in the Trap event in Beijing was the DT11. I was at its European launch in Cyprus in November 2011 and a senior company manager, Carlo Ferlito, made no bones about the Tokyo debacle. He said: “We have lost a lot of business in the premium-grade target gun market to a company whose names begins with ‘P’ and ends with ‘I’.”
As I remarked in a report I wrote for Clay Shooting in January 2012, Beretta didn’t launch the DT11 project with a clean sheet of paper, but it is undoubtedly the company’s most fully developed purpose-built target gun to date. While the iconic cross-bolted locking system was still in place, the action body was 3mm wider and 39 grams heavier. I shot a 76cm-barrelled Trap gun at some OT targets, and for me it was the best handling Beretta ever. The 2012 London Olympics was only months away but, nevertheless, DT11 shooters still picked up a gold, silver and bronze medal. It was the beginning of the great comeback.
In Rio this year the results were more emphatic. In the Trap event, DT11 shooters Josip Glasnovic and Giovanni Pellielo captured gold and silver medals. The Ladies event saw Catherine Skinner and Natalie Rooney also secure the first two medal placings. In Double Trap, another silver medal went to Marco Innocenti. In the Ladies Skeet, DT11 shooters Chiara Cainero and the legendary Kimberly Rhode won silver and bronze. In the Men’s Skeet event there was another gold medal for Gabriele Rossetti and a bronze claimed by Ahmed Al Rashidi.
It could be said that this was merely a big company with huge resources getting its act together after a serious blip. Even if this was the case, it has been to the benefit of the clay-target shooting fraternity. Rivalry between companies is important – it stimulates inventiveness that can result in excellence. This has been the case for the DT11 and already its greatest competitor has responded with a new gun. And guess what? The action body is 3mm wider and 40 grams heavier.