Vic Harker tells the tale of the Olympic Games’ most successful target shotgun maker
The shotgun was developed principally for hunting game birds. Advances made in ammunition, as with other firearms, drove its evolution. Beginning with the matchlock followed by the flintlock and the percussion cap, up until the middle of the 19th century, the means of ignition were made separate from the propellant and the shot-charge. The invention of the centrefire cartridge, with a percussion cap, powder, wadding and shot all in one convenient package revolutionised the design of firearms, including the shotgun.
Even before this revolution, shotguns for competition shooting had already begun to evolve. Shooting over live pigeons released from traps had influenced other developments. Longer barrels were considered desirable for sighting at long distance and, just as a pigeon – at least initially – always rose in its flight, a stock to raise the point of impact was considered desirable.
These changes and others were gradually introduced until, by the last decades of the 1800s, the Trap gun as an entity was recognised, designed and built as a distinct generic type. A number of British and European gunmakers made Trap guns as part of their business but few, if any, specialised in it – certainly not in the way that Daniele Perazzi, the man central to this story, did.
For cultural and historical reasons, Italians have always set great store by those who demonstrate a skill with arms. In northern Italy, where the Alpine snows melt and run into streams down to the valleys, metals could be mined in abundance – the making of steel was for centuries central to the local economy as was the production of armaments. The Beretta clan, by the 15th century, were famous as makers of cannon and were one of many families who, due to the circumstances of their birth, learned to fashion metal and eventually create several dynasties of gunmakers.
As to the centrefire shotgun, if there is any design feature that truly typifies the northern Italians so far as the over-and-under is concerned it is the cross-bolted form of locking that secures the gun above the bottom barrel, versions of which were once seen on countless Italian shotguns. Beretta’s great designer and inventor, Tullio Marengoni, would, after a number of experiments, extol the virtues of this arrangement and incorporate it into his first over-and-under, but as to the origins of the cross-bolted principle itself WW Greener of Birmingham may be able to lay some claim.
By contrast, Daniele Perazzi never claimed originality for the design of his over-and-under, but he possessed an aesthetic combined with a sound judgement as to what was best in terms of gunmaking. He would, however, endure some years of hardship and perseverance before he would have the opportunity to apply these qualities to his best advantage. Perazzi was not a scion of a gunmaking dynasty. As he grew up in the Gardone region trying to make his way in any form of gunmaking, and was, as a young man, obliged to accept any kind of work the industry had to offer. He did, however, enjoy the advantage of being an original thinker and at 20 years of age he made his first real money by selling a design for a single trigger mechanism, which he had patented.
In 1957 Armi Perazzi was established and now its founder’s energies went into ensuring his company was a success. Daniele Perazzi made guns during the weekdays and at weekends found customers for them at the local Trap shooting ranges. In 1960 Perazzi took a partner, Ivo Fabbri, a toolmaker from Turin, who brought with him a knowledge of new computerised manufacturing techniques that were beginning to revolutionise the automotive industry. Perazzi recognised the potential this new technology held for the firearms industry, and which he was to utilise in the future. But after three years he and Fabbri went their separate ways, each to eventually achieve his own success.
In 1964 Daniele Perazzi received a visit from a man from Bologna: Ennio Mattarelli, a Trap shooter with a reputation for success having won the Olympic Trap World Championship in 1961. Already in 1964 Mattarelli had won the Grande Italia together with the European Championship and now his ambitions were focused on the Olympics to be held in Tokyo that October.
At this time Mattarelli was using a Browning gun but he had heard of the very special over-and-under Daniele Perazzi was making to order. It was a sidelock, which took many of its design cues from English guns as made by James Woodward and Boss and Co. A sidelock, with its elegant low profile action body, was created by way of a bifurcated locking bolt coming forward on each side of the breech face and engaging with bearing surfaces machined in the monobloc above the bottom barrel. Further security and strength was added by jointing that took the form of slots machined at the side of the monobloc that closed over wedges integral to the walls of the action body. All these bearing surfaces were dimensionally larger than similar arrangements to be found in the English game guns, but as a Trap gun the Perazzi was significantly more robust.
Mattarelli was convinced that this was the gun he needed to win the Olympics and he and Perazzi agreed on a specification. The barrel length would be 29in, chokes ¾ and Full, and would incorporate a hollowed top rib to create light barrels weighing only 3lb. The action would be a sidelock and the stock would have a straight-hand grip. The gun was made in two months and the engraver was Italian master Galeazzi.
The shooting events at the Tokyo Olympics were held at an army camp not far from the capital city. The 200-target championship was competed for over two days and at the end of the first four stages Mattarelli led the field with 98 points with Pavel Senichev, of USSR, second on 97 followed by three other competitors, including Lliano Rossini of Italy, equal third with 95. After the course of 200 clays had been shot on the second day Mattarelli remained on top having not missed a single target, finishing with a score of 198. Senichev was on 194 tied with Bill Morris, of USA, and Rossini. The shoot-off for silver and bronze positions resulted in Senichev firing another 25-straight for a total of 219 and the silver medal. Morris shot 24 (218), to take the bronze with Rossini’s 23 (217) only good enough for fourth spot. As Mattarelli stood proudly on the podium to receive the gold medal for Italy the Perazzi company stepped out onto the world stage.
Mattarelli’s Olympic success had far reaching benefits for Perazzi and other Italian gunmakers. The United States, in particular, now turned its attention towards Italy as a source of high grade shotguns after the public demonstration of the Perazzi gun’s qualities in Tokyo. As for Daniele Perazzi the great interest in his gun only stirred his restless ambition and inventive mind to seek further ways to enhance his growing reputation.
Perazzi had long noted the steadily increasing participation in clay shooting in Italy and elsewhere. He also appreciated that this sport in all its forms would require guns with different qualities and specifications from those he had previously made.
His sidelock guns were beautiful and in great demand, but they could only be produced in limited numbers and were expensive. Daniele Perazzi now began to envisage a gun that was a little more workmanlike: tough, rugged and which could withstand the ferocious pounding that thousands of cartridges a year used for clay target shooting would afford it. He gradually began working towards what he determined would be the ultimate competition gun: immensely strong, totally reliable, easy to repair while at the same time retaining much of the beauty, elegance and balance of his sidelock guns.
Meanwhile, Ennio Mattarelli was now focusing on the 1968 Olympic Games, and he and Daniele Perazzi agreed that the manufacturer’s new competition gun now reaching its prototype stage would be the one the Italian champion would take with him to Mexico to defend his Olympic title.
The MX8, as the new gun was designated, closely resembled the English Boss system so far as the bolting and jointing, such as the sidelocks, was concerned, and had all the strength and durability required. A major innovation was the introduction of a detachable trigger group, which offered a number of advantages to the target shooter. Retaining leaf springs, that provided trigger pulls of the same quality as the sidelock, could be replaced in minutes or a spare group substituted.
The gun he would take to Mexico would, however, differ in a number of ways from his first Perazzi. Heavier in the barrels, the bottom one incorporated an interchangeable choke system and the top was bored Extra Full. Staying with his preferred barrel length of 74cm (29 ¼in), the rib would again be concave and tapered 11mm to 8mm but this time would have a 4mm step. Mattarelli had found this type of high rib discouraged head lifting, improved lateral vision on angled birds and in hot climates contributed to heat dissipation.
The English style straight-hand stock was replaced with a full pistol grip design.
Mattarelli did not win in Mexico, unfortunately. The Olympic title was won by Britain’s Bob Braithwaite who, like Mattarelli in 1964, seized the moment and did not let it go. Mattarelli did, however, claim the World Championship crown for a second time in San Sebastian the following year. By the time Mattarelli retired from competitive shooting to pursue his many business interests, the MX8 was used by champions around the world.
All this was ultimately reflected in the results at the Beijing Olympics in 2008 where in the trap event 15 of the first 16 shooters, including all the medal winners, used a Perazzi. That Daniele Perazzi understood the requirements of good gun design and modern manufacture can be in no doubt. He also perceived what clay target shooters really needed and personally saw to it they got it, so ensuring the success of his business. It continues to thrive under the direction of his son, Mauro, who, with his development of the High Tech, has opened up a whole new chapter of the Perazzi story.