Beretta - A 500 Year Old Firearms Dynasty

Beretta - A 500 Year Old Firearms Dynasty

When we hear the word historic referring to a firearms company, we will often think of names that fit with our own perspective of what it means to be historic. Perhaps it’s the manufacturers that brought us flintlock rifles, six shooters, or classic lever-action cowboy guns. We may associate the word historic with the makers of the guns that we have watched over and over in the Old Western movies, or maybe even the companies that were developing firearms during the Civil War era. But most of the companies that pop into our heads are going to be adolescents compared to the Italian gun maker that holds claim to being the oldest gun company in the world. Beretta is by far the most historic gun manufacturer, and one of the few family-owned gun companies still in existence. Although our perception of Beretta today is of a company that builds some of the highest quality shotguns and pistols on the market, they have gone through a lot in their 500 years to get there. So we are going to try and touch on some key points that kept this firearm giant around for so long.

Their lineage is well documented all the way back through fifteen generations of the Beretta family, beginning in 1526 when their oldest sale of Arquebus Barrels was recorded. For those who do not know what Arquebus were; they were long guns that functioned with a matchlock mechanism and were often situated upon a hook shaped shaft. They were typically used to defend cities and towns from the top of barrier walls. Later they would evolve into shoulder fired weapons, and it has been said that their development into a personal firearm was directly inspired by ancient crossbow designs. 

Anyway, before we veer too far off topic, let’s get back to Beretta.

Through the centuries Beretta has continued to evolve with the industry, and has utilized the most current advancements in technology. Today their main manufacturing facility is one of the largest in the world with over one-million square feet of production space. Beretta is currently pumping out an estimated 1,500 firearms a day, and that is without taking into account any of their remote facilities. Among the guns being produced are some of the very finest shotguns on the market and their ever-popular 92 series of semi-auto pistols.

However, long before they achieved this level of success Beretta was a modest maker of gun barrels. They were associated with early guilds that had thrived in Europe for centuries. These guilds were dedicated to protecting the rights of tradesmen within specific industries. It was the guilds that truly enabled Beretta to begin their lineage, by allowing the first few generations of the Beretta family to hand down their knowledge and skill as barrel makers under their protection. We can think about the guilds as a sort of union that would work towards preventing encroachment of trade secrets, and protecting market share for family owned businesses. However, that era came to an abrupt end with Napoleon’s invasion of Italy in 1797. He would immediately abolish all use of the guilds. Nevertheless, this didn’t prevent Beretta from pushing forward. They had grown to be one of the largest producers of barrels in Gardone, and they weren’t about to let a little war, or even a change of government rule deter them from continued success. 

By 1815 Pietro Antonio Beretta had come of age and was working diligently to sell Beretta’s barrels all over Italy, as well as the newly available market territories in Austria. His determination would help the company flourish in a post guild society, and by 1832 they would be doing so well under Pietro’s guidance that he would name the family business Fabbrica d’Armi Pietro Beretta.

After Pietro’s death in 1850, his son Giuseppe would step in as his successor, and he would make changes that directed the company towards the firearms giant it has become today. It was Giuseppe’s idea for Beretta to expand their roots of barrel making into a full-fledged firearm manufacturer. By 1860, the company was producing approximately 300 complete firearms a year. That number is really much better than it seems given the time period, and the lack of experience producing whole guns.

In 1880 the Beretta factory would make a major update by adding its own hydroelectric plant. An accomplishment that truly showed their dedication to the ever-changing technologies around the world.  Hydroelectricity was brand new at that time, it was literally just invented in 1878, and the first large-scale use of it wouldn’t happen until the completion of a power plant built along the Fox River in Appleton, Wisconsin, in 1882. Nonetheless, Beretta would jump at this major opportunity to become self-sufficient, which helped launch them to the forefront of the firearm manufacturing. Upon its completion, Beretta was able to reach a production of an astounding 8,000 firearms a year.

Giuseppe can also be credited with initially growing Beretta’s international market by establishing new export business, which provided them an outlet for the surplus of guns created by this rapid growth of production. 

In the early 20th century, Giuseppe’s son, who was also named Pietro after his grandfather, would lead the company into the modern era. He secured contracts with the Italian Military, which would prove to be very lucrative with the onset of two World Wars.

The year 1915 would mark a major milestone for Pietro and Beretta with the introduction of the company’s first semi-automatic pistol. The Model 1915, which was chambered in 9mm Glisenti was adopted by the Royal Italian Army. The 1915 saw a production of more than 15,000 pistols over its first 3 years of manufacture.

Then in 1918, Beretta would supply the Italian troops with their first soldier issued sub-machine gun. The Beretta M1918 was a blowback action, automatic-only submachine gun that was capable of firing 900 rounds per minute. It was made in both 9mm and .22LR ammunition configurations, and just like the 1915 pistol, it was used by Italian forces in both major conflicts.

During the end of WWII, the Beretta factory was seized by the invading German troops. It would continue to operate through this time, but weapons built during the German occupation were notably inferior in quality and finish. 

After the war, the Beretta factory was thankfully able to quickly return to normal production. It had avoided the destructive fate that many manufacturers during the war had succumbed to at the hands of invading troops. They first began work on the repair and modification of the M1 Garand rifles, which had been supplied to Italy by the United States. The modified version of the American battle rifle would become known as the Beretta BM59.

In the coming decades, under the guidance of Pietro’s sons, Giuseppe and Carlo, Beretta would expand into a much broader international market. They established both commercial sales and production in several European countries, while at the same time continuing to modernize with every opportunity that current technology would offer, as their father, grandfather, and great-grandfather had done.

The brothers knew that having their guns selected for formal agency use was very important for any firearms company, especially one in the modern era. Whether it is by military or law enforcement, being selected as a service weapon always helped solidify a weapons quality. Beretta had already achieved some level of success in this area by this time and they knew what it took to accomplish it. However, it seemed that their commitment to sporting arms would become a greater focus for awhile. 

Giuseppe and Carlo were dedicated to the development of their sporting arms, and they repeatedly found a way to provide shotguns of the most impeccable quality and versatility for some of the world's top shooters. Competitors using Beretta shotguns would earn their first gold medal at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, and then again in Rome in 1960. They would then end up with an unprecedented string of Olympic victories that ran from 1972 through 2008, as well as several World Championships during that time. At the 2012 London games Beretta shooters would secure one of each medal. Beretta shotguns had achieved an elite status in shooting competitions. They have now tallied more victories in International Competition than any other firearm manufacturer.

However, perhaps one of the most significant Beretta guns to be developed under the guidance of Carlo and Giuseppe, or ever for that matter, came about in the early to mid nineteen-seventies. That is when they began developing a pistol that would be based on some of the best qualities of the company’s previous handgun efforts. They would use the open slide design of their Model 1923, and the alloy frame and locking block barrel from the Model 1951, which was coincidentally copied from the Walther P38. They would also scour through other past offerings and amass a compilation of features that worked well, in order to bring out the now famous Beretta 92.

The Model 92 would go through several stages, which accounted for a number of variations, but this pistol would end up being part of something much larger for Beretta. It would propel them into their greatest international success. Beretta would first enter a contract with the Brazilian government to produce small arms for their military. The stipulation of the contract, which began in 1974, required Beretta to build a factory in Brazil and to use only local labor. So they built a Beretta manufacturing plant in Sao Paulo, Brazil and produced the Model 92 semi-auto pistol for the Brazilian military until 1980. Upon completion of the contract they sold the factory to the Brazilian gun manufacturer Forjas Taurus. The sale included machinery, tooling, a competent workforce, as well as technical drawings and data. Taurus was now free to use it all as they wished. This move probably happened because Beretta had already planned to cease production of the Model 92 at the end of the contract, and all of their protected patents had expired. Taurus began distribution of the PT92 in 1983, which was based on the Beretta pistol. That is roughly the same time that Beretta would completely wrap up production of the original Model 92.

By this time the Beretta brothers were getting on in years and neither Carlo nor Giuseppe ever had any children, which would bring a temporary end to Beretta’s long-standing tradition of father-to-son dynasty transfers. However, Ugo Gussalli Beretta who had married into the family and had adopted the Beretta name would step in to take the helm. Ugo’s sons, Franco and Pietro, would now be in line to continue the legacy as direct descendents through their mother’s bloodline. Ugo would show great ambition and ultimately be the driving force behind Beretta’s current level of international success. 

In 1985 Beretta landed a contract with the U.S. Military by having their Model 92FS pistol selected during trials to replace some of the aging M1911 pistols.  As a term of the contract Beretta was required to manufacture the guns inside the United States. This led Beretta to build their first U.S. factory in Maryland and launch their new subsidiary Beretta USA.

The U.S. Military would designate the Beretta pistol the M9, and since its introduction the company has continued to enjoy steady international growth. The M9 went on to be named the standard sidearm for the U.S. Marine Corp and the U.S. Air Force, and as of 2012 it was awarded a contract with the U.S. Army as well. The French National Gendarmerie and the French Air Force have also established contracts for Beretta’s reliable 92 series.

Among Law Enforcement, Beretta has found favor with some American State Police agencies, and has established contracts with both the Spanish Guardia Civil and the National Turkish Police Force.

Ugo Beretta would continue to fuel this incredible growth spurt by venturing beyond the firearm industry. He oversaw the diversification of their product lines and expanded into traditional offerings of sporting arms and hunting apparel, as well as a line of high-end formal attire. Consequently Beretta would open galleries in New York, Dallas, Buenos Aires, Paris, and Milan.

Today the company is run by Ugo’s son, Franco Gussalli Beretta, who represents the 15th generation of the family to hold the title of President in what has now become the oldest industrial enterprise in the world. Beretta currently owns several other companies under the umbrella of Beretta Holdings, which include some previous competitors, such as Sako and Benelli. They have also formed an alliance company known as BDT (Beretta Defense Technologies), which taps into the expertise of four of the company’s holdings, which includes Beretta, Sako, Benelli, and optics giant, Steiner. BDT is a dedicated subsidiary that focuses primarily on the development of Military and Law Enforcement products.

It would be inconceivable to think that we could have provided every crucial detail of Beretta’s 500 years in just a few pages, but at the very least we hope that we were able to offer a glimpse into their miraculous journey. Simply stated, there is no firearm company that could be considered more historic than Beretta. So if you haven’t already tried a Beretta for yourself, we would encourage you to do so. From the rich detail of the engraving to the balance and comfort the shooter feels when they take aim, the experience and their commitment to quality will show every time.