Fabbrica D' Armi Pietro Beretta S.p.A. History

Via Pietro Beretta, 18
25063 Gardone Val Trompia

Telephone: 030.8341.1
Fax: 030.8341421

Wholly Owned Subsidiary of Beretta Holding, S.p.A.
Founded: 1526
Employees: 1,900
Sales: $233.1 million (1999)
NAIC: 332994 Small Arms Manufacturing

Company Perspectives:

Experience, innovation, respect for tradition--these, combined with ongoing design studies, technological advancements, and improved production methods are the fundamentals that established Beretta as the foremost firearms company in the world. Since 1526 the Beretta tradition of excellence has taken the prestigious Beretta sporting and military arms from the oldest factory in the world to the four corners of the world. Key Dates:

Key Dates:

The Beretta forge receives its earliest known contract.
The Berettas are the second largest gun barrel producer in Gardone.
Napoleon takes over Venice and outlaws the guild system.
The name Fabbrica D'Armi Pietro Beretta is adopted.
Production reaches 8,000 guns a year.
Pietro Beretta begins to guide the firm into the modern era.
Employment reaches 1,000.
Pier and Carlo Beretta become the company's new leaders.
Beretta wins a contract to supply the U.S. military with nine-millimeter pistols.
Beretta seals deals to buy three other gunmakers.

Company History:

Fabbrica D' Armi Pietro Beretta S.p.A., maker of James Bond's trusty .25 caliber Beretta pistol, is the oldest manufacturing firm in the world. Amazingly, a single family has controlled the company throughout its history, which has spanned from ancient guilds to computerized robotics. In 1985, Beretta won a hotly contested bid to replace the Colt .45 in the U.S. arsenal. However, sporting arms comprise about three-quarters of Beretta's production; most of these are exported.

16th Century Origins

The home of Fabbrica D'Armi Pietro Beretta S.p.A. is the village of Gardone, in the center of the northern Italian valley known as Val Trompia. Iron ore in the hills of northern Italy made the area an iron-working center from the Middle Ages.

Bartolomeo Beretta was born in 1490. The earliest documentary evidence of his forge is a contract from the Doges of Venice, dated October 3, 1526, for 185 'arquebus' barrels. (The harquebus was a type of musket so heavy it had to be propped up with supports. Beretta's first product was quite a contrast to the handguns for which it later became known.)

The operation may well pre-date the year 1526 from which the company counts its anniversaries. In his extensive history, The World of Beretta, R.L. Wilson cites an 1860 account of a flood in the Mella Valley, which indicated the forge 'bore the date AD 1500 carved on its lintel.' Since medieval custom dictated that only sons of master craftsmen could become masters themselves, it is also quite possible that Bartolomeo was not the first Beretta to make gun barrels.

Bartolomeo had a son, Jacomo, and a grandson, Giovannino, who became a master gun barrel maker. Another grandson, Lodovico, established a gun lock fabrication trade.

At the middle of the 16th century, Val Trompia had 50 mines, eight smelteries, and 40 smithies. It produced 25,000 guns a year, mostly for export, as well as various other types of iron and steel goods. (During the war between Venice and Turkey in 1570, production more than tripled to 300 weapons per day.)

Giovanni Antonio Beretta designed his own breech-loading cannons in 1641, but it is unclear whether they were ever built. In the late 1600s, the Beretta clan was involved in a deadly feud with the Chinellis that saw one of their members, Francesco Beretta, sentenced to four years of military service. In 1698, the Berettas were the second largest barrel producer among 33 in Gardone, making 2,883 barrels, mostly for long arms.

The Venetian senate sporadically banned the export of gun barrels throughout the 16th and 17th centuries. When it was allowed, high duties slowed sales. The artisans involved in the highly specialized business of making gun barrels were vulnerable to these downturns. During these times, the Republic of Venice went to great lengths to prevent the export of technology.

New Rules in the 19th Century

The guild system began to collapse in the 18th century under pressure from merchants. Interestingly, one of Francesco Beretta's sons, Giovanni, was a merchant. Gardonese muskets began to wane in popularity in the 1750s, putting more pressure on the guilds to accept the merchants' economic terms. When Napoleon took over Venice in 1797, the French outlawed the 'antidemocratic' guild system. For the next dozen and a half years, the Berettas made barrels to supply a new firearms factory in nearby Brescia, which produced 40,000 guns a year.

Austria provided a market for military guns after Napoleon was defeated in 1815. The same year, Pietro Antonio Beretta toured Italy, making connections with gun dealers. In 1832, he gave the firm the name it has carried for more than a century and a half: Fabbrica d'Armi Pietro Beretta. After his death, Pietro's son Giuseppe toured abroad in search of business connections and helped the family operation to produce complete firearms for the first time.

Whereas the previous century had been dominated by military production, in the 1850s Giuseppe Beretta focused the factory on producing fine sporting guns. The company was making at most 300 guns a year through 1860. Twenty years later, annual production had increased to as many as 8,000 guns a year. Beretta was also marketing, via catalog, guns made by other manufacturers, including Colt, Remington, Smith & Wesson, and Winchester.

Beretta again began making military firearms after the unification of Italy in 1861. In 1899, Giuseppe saw to the construction of the Beretta Hotel in Gardone to accommodate the many foreign visitors the world-renowned factory was receiving.

20th Century Expansion

The second Pietro Beretta has been credited with guiding the firm into the modern era. The 20th century was a time of incredible growth. At the time of Giuseppe Beretta's death in 1903, the company had 130 employees and a single 10,000-square-foot factory. By 2000, it would occupy 75,000 square feet of space in Gardone and another 50,000 square feet on other sites in Italy, Spain, and the United States (Maryland).

This Pietro Beretta, who succeeded Giuseppe, soon established a hydroelectric plant on the Mella River to supply the factory with its own source of power. During World War I, it developed new arms to use with existing ammunition, designed largely by the firm's intrepid inventor, Tullio Marengoni. By the end of the war, Beretta was making more than 4,000 units of Marengoni's Model 1915 automatic pistol a month for the Italian Army. Marengoni is also said to have designed the world's first true submachine gun. Employment at Beretta had more than doubled during World War I, to 1,000 workers.

Beretta bought out the Fabbrica d'Armi Lario near Como in the late 1920s, bringing its machinery to Gardone. Wilson's extensive company history reported that the fascism of the 1930s did not take root in Val Trompia due to Beretta's close relations with employees.

The company made military arms for the Italian government during World War II until the Germans occupied the plant in 1943. As the war ended, the Nazis held Pietro Beretta hostage until he was freed by partisans. After the war, Beretta was associated with the Beretta-Benelli-Castelbarco automobile. For some years the company also owned MI-VAL, a motorcycle manufacturer.

In the early 1950s, Beretta registered the distinctive three-arrow device that appears on its guns. In much the same way that Enzo Ferrari had adopted the prancing horse of the Italian aviator Baracca for his cars, the Berettas used the personal trademark of the flamboyant Italian poet Gabriele d'Annunzio as their corporate trademark.

Pietro Beretta died on May 1, 1957, leaving control of the company in the hands of his sons Pier Giuseppe, who became board chairman, and Carlo. The company was heading to new levels of international fame. In the 1960s, Ian Fleming's famous fictional spy James Bond clutched a .25 caliber Beretta pistol in novels and films. 'How could one have such ties with an inanimate object?' he asked in Dr. No.

Pier and Carlo directed the internationalization of the company's marketing and production. Beretta distributorships were established in Greece, Great Britain, and France between 1961 and 1971 to open up new markets in sporting arms. The company's Brazilian affiliate began building revolvers in 1971; Beretta sold this unit to Forjas Taurus S.A. in 1980 after shifting its focus to the United States.

Entering the United States in 1977

Beretta U.S.A. was founded in 1977, when Beretta acquired a bankrupt gun factory near Washington, D.C., that had previously had a contract to service its products. Beretta's Model 92 nine-millimeter pistol, one of the most widely produced firearms in history, had been introduced two years earlier; this was the gun that would soon land Beretta a massive military contract and thousands of smaller deals to supply law enforcement agencies.

Beretta won a hard-fought contract to replace the Colt .45 in 1985. The U.S. military had decided to reduce the number of different types of weapons in its arsenal and wanted a new handgun that could fire standard NATO nine-millimeter rounds.

The deal raised Beretta's profile considerably in the United States. Its pistols continued to appear in Hollywood movies such as Lethal Weapon. Law enforcement agencies around the country began ordering the commercial version (92-F) of the Beretta Model 92 nine-millimeter handgun, appreciating its ability to fire 15 shots before reloading, versus the eight-round capacity of most large caliber pistols. Civilians also bought them; the pistol retailed for about $600. Smaller .22 caliber pistols sold for $200.

In the United States, Beretta was forced to defend its centuries-old brand name. It sued General Motors after GM appropriated the name for the Chevrolet Beretta car in 1987. Eventually, the two worked out a settlement; GM agreed to give $500,000 to the Beretta Foundation for Cancer Research and Treatment and was allowed to keep using the name on its automobile.

The brand name was extended with permission to the Beretta Sport line of high-end clothing and accessories introduced in 1988. However, the company sued five Japanese firms for manufacturing toy guns displaying its name and trademark without permission. (Beretta had licensed these to only one Japanese toy gun maker, Western Arms.) The company also faced the problem of bootleg production, such as that which had begun in the Philippines.

Ugo Gussalli Beretta became president of the company in 1993 after the death of his uncle Giuseppe. He had been managing director since 1981. In spite of the large and prestigious U.S. military handgun contract, the commercial market in America (which included law enforcement agencies) gave Beretta its fastest area of growth, rising about 30 percent a year. In 1998, Beretta added a retail outlet in Buenos Aires to its galleries in New York City and Dallas.

As the Financial Times noted, the very lethality of guns made them unique in the legal environment. Their very potential for harm was what made them useful. Beretta was thus the target of a few high profile lawsuits, though not on grounds of defective manufacture.

The family of a 15-year-old California boy killed while playing with a semiautomatic Beretta pistol unsuccessfully sued the company in 1998, alleging a design flaw contributed to the death (since a round remained in the chamber after the clip was removed). Moreover, three companies, including Beretta USA, were ordered to pay more than $500,000 in damages to a New York shooting victim in 1999. At the same time, 20 major cities in the United States were considering a tobacco industry-style lawsuit to hold gun manufacturers liable for the medical costs of people injured in gun-related crimes. Some suits accused the industry of negligent distribution. They alleged gun makers sold arms to 'straw purchasers' whose only intention in buying them was to resell them to criminals.

Expanding in 2000

In early 2000, Beretta bought the remaining shares in Benelli Arms S.p.A., another venerable Italian gunmaker. In March of that year, it bought an 86 percent share in Aldo Uberti & Co., s.r.l., a $15 million a year replica gunmaking business founded in 1959. With a corporate umbrella company in place to oversee its subsidiaries, Beretta Holding next acquired Sako Ltd., a Finnish maker of hunting and sports rifles, from Metso Corporation in January 2001. Sako had net sales of about FIM 150 million a year.

The best opportunities for future sporting arms sales seemed to lie in the former Soviet Republics. China and Turkey were two other emerging markets being courted. Beretta was also supplying U.S. armed forces with a combat shotgun. Beretta had survived for five centuries by exploiting the advantages of each successive technological shift. Craftsmen in the old world style still customized and engraved Beretta's finest firearms by hand. Mastering information technology was Beretta's adaptive challenge at the beginning of the Millennium.

Principal Subsidiaries: Meccanica Del Sarca, S.r.l.; Beretta USA Corporation--Cougar Corp.; Benelli Armi S.p.A.; Benelli USA Corporation; Franchi S.p.A.

Principal Competitors: Browning Arms; Colt's Manufacturing Company, Inc.; Sturm, Ruger & Company, Inc.

Further Reading:

  • 'The Arsenals of Progress,' Economist, March 5, 1994, p. 5.
  • Edgecliffe-Johnson, Andrew, and Patti Waldmeir, 'Handgun Industry Faces Legal Onslaught,' Financial Times, June 8, 1999, p. 5.
  • Lent, Ron, 'Gun Maker Wins Product-Liability Case,' Journal of Commerce, November 19, 1998, p. 12A.
  • Morin, Marco, and Robin Held, Beretta: la dinastia industriale più antica al mondo, Chiasso, Switzerland: Acquafresca editrice, 1980.
  • Morozzi, Justin, 'Rest, Work and Play by the Gun,' Financial Times, April 19, 1997, p. 4.
  • Shelsby, Ted, 'Beretta Targets Booming Commercial Firearm Market,' Los Angeles Times, July 10, 1990, p. D7.
  • Wilson, R.L., The World of Beretta: An International Legend, New York: Random House, 2000.

Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol. 39. St. James Press, 2001.